Research methods

Cutting-edge, cross-disciplinary research


Our work explores how different social connections and behaviours are linked to health outcomes, the psychological, biological, social and behavioural mechanisms underpinning these effects, and how effects are moderated by individual and societal factors. To do this, we use a range of methods and interdisciplinary research approaches, focusing on four key areas: clinical trials and implementation science, epidemiology, behavioural science, and complexity science.

Designing, testing and rolling out social and cultural interventions to support better health outcomes

We design and test new social and cultural interventions for specific clinical outcomes, running clinical trials to test their efficacy, and then working to implement them in a sustainable and scalable way and secure health commissioning both in the UK and overseas. Our programmes to date include singing for postnatal depression, choirs for people affected by cancer, singing for lung health, dance for Parkinson’s, and magic for hemiplegia. We are also working on the roll-out of social prescribing in the UK, USA and Europe, evaluating the impact on patient outcomes and health service utilisation. Through our clinical work, we specialise in exploring psychological and physiological outcomes including through testing of heart rate, blood pressure, saliva, and blood samples as well as validated psychological and psychiatric assessments and qualitative approaches.

Examples of our clinical trials and implementation science projects include INSPYRE (Wellbeing While Waiting), SHAPER and WHO Music and Motherhood.

Using large data sets to explore the population-level long-term effects of social factors

We use advanced statistical analyses to explore associations between social factors and the prevention and management of mental and physical illness at a population level. We work with datasets including international cohort studies, patient electronic medical records, and bespoke large-scale datasets such as the COVID-19 Social Study that we recruit ourselves. Our work has identified associations between social factors including the arts, cultural engagement, volunteering, and social networks and reduced incidence of depression, childhood behavioural problems, chronic pain, frailty, cognitive decline, age-related disability and premature mortality as well as higher wellbeing, self-esteem and healthy behaviours. We’ve also shown how social deficits such as social isolation and loneliness are related to the incidence and management of chronic diseases. Notably our findings are independent of factors that could explain such associations such as wealth, education, health behaviours and other leisure activities. We’ve additionally undertaken in-depth research into the psychosocial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, identifying how and why people have been differently affected. Through all of our epidemiology work, we specialise in looking at biological and clinical outcomes, showing the relationship between the arts and neuroendocrine and immune response, the relationship between different types of social deficits and health service utilisation, and the interplay between social engagement, social connections, genetic propensity for social and health traits, and health outcomes.

Examples of our epidemiology work include EpiArts, COVID-19 Social Study, and Arts, Society and Public Health.

Understanding patterns and predictors of social behaviours

We work to understand how social behaviours are patterned according to peoples’ individual characteristics and the contexts in which they live and grow. We examine how loneliness and social isolation and peoples’ engagement with the arts, volunteering, nature, and other activities changes across the life-course and across generations. We have also looked at patterns of compliance and trust during the COVID-19 pandemic and how these varied across different demographic groups and as the pandemic itself evolved. To do this work, we use surveys, interviews, experiments, and cohort study data and apply behaviour change theories and frameworks to identify barriers and enablers of social behaviours amongst different populations. We use our findings to support governments and third sector organisations to develop more targeted and equal provision of these activities.

Examples of our behavioural science projects include the COVID-19 Social Study and WELLCOMM.

Identifying and testing ingredients, mechanisms, and moderators for social and leisure activities

We develop new theoretical models to understand how and why social and leisure activities affect us. We have completed projects mapping the ‘active ingredients’ or ‘components’ involved in arts and cultural participation to support the development and comparison of different activities. We have also identified over 600 ‘mechanisms of action’ by which leisure activities can affect health outcomes and dozens of ‘moderators’ that help determine which mechanisms are activated in different contexts. We are currently working to map the social-ecological determinants of arts and cultural engagement as a health behaviour. We use the lens of ‘complexity science’ in our work, which draws on programme theory, ecological theory, and systems theory to conceptualise these relationships and we are developing new theoretical frameworks and models.

Examples of our complexity science projects include our INNATE Framework, Multi-Level Leisure Mechanisms Framework and our Social-Ecological Determinants of Arts Engagement project.

Partnerships and networks

As well as our research studies, we build partnerships and networks to connect with researchers, policy makers and health leaders who share our interest in social factors and health, across our four programme areas.

Examples of this include our WHO Collaborating Centre for Arts and Health, the MARCH Network, COVID-MINDS and the Arts Health Early Career Research Network. Find out more about all our research projects.