Social Indicators

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How do we define Social Indicators?

There are a number of definitions of Social Indicators (SI) [1]. Bauer described them as forms of evidence that help assessment of present position and future directions.[2] The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stated that a SI is a “direct and valid statistical measure which monitors levels and changes over time in a fundamental social concern.”[3]  A social concern is “an identifiable and definable aspiration or concern of fundamental and direct importance to human well-being”.[4] Indicators may be material, such as numbers related to economic growth, and/or immaterial, such as values or goals.[5] Atkinson et al. saw SI as “a parsimonious set of specific indices covering a broad range of social concerns”[6]. This set includes statistics similar to economic statistics of the national accounts which are intended to provide a basis for making concise,comprehensive and balanced judgments about the conditions of major aspects of society as accurate measures of a good society.[7] The concept covers interpretation of cultural signs, simple statistical measures, and complex statistical indexes related to sets of domains.[8] These are used to assess the effectiveness of policy in addressing important social issues.[9]

What is an indicator?

There is no single, universally accepted definition of the term ‘indicator’[10]. This simply reflects the fact that purpose, scope and methodology can vary greatly from one indicator, or set of indicators, to the next. Most indicators are developed in order to describe important features of a larger system. They are “succinct measures that aim to describe as much about a system as possible in as few points as possible” and which “help us understand a system, compare it and improve it” [11].

The OECD defines an indicator as “a parameter, or a value derived from parameters, which points to, provides information about, describes the state of a phenomenon/environment/area, with a significance extending beyond that directly associated with a parameter value” [12]. The policy relevance of an indicator is one example of such extended significance; indicators of societal progress are generally developed to inform policy decision-making in some way.

Subjective and Objective Social Indicators

The kind of indicators chosen for empirical measurement depends on the purpose of the measure and the underlying conceptualisation. While objective social indicators are statistics which represent social facts independent of personal evaluations, subjective social indicators are measure of individual perceptions and evaluations of social conditions. Historically, two main and polar efforts to operationalise welfare in general and the quality of life in particular can be distinguished: the Scandinavian level of living approach and the American quality of life approach. Today, the overall consensus of opinion is to base welfare measurement on both subjective and objective indicators. This makes sens because similar living conditions can be evaluated differently by people with different backgrounds and experiences. It is however of particular interest how subjective and objective assessments of a person's living condition may differ substantially. [13]

Objective Social Indicators

Objective social indicators represent social facts independently of personal evaluations. Examples include: unemployment rate, poverty rate, working hours per week, perinatal mortality rate. The Scandinavian approach focuses almost exclusively on resources and objective living conditions as capture by objective SIs. The resources are understood as mere means that allow the individual citizen to use them in an autonomous way. Resources are defined in terms of money, property, knowledge, psychic and physical energy, social relations, security and so on. This approach is in some respect similar to the 'capabilities approach' developed by Amartya Sen. His notion of welfare and quality of life  has been elaborated within the human development approach.

The use of objective indicators needs to make the assumption that living conditions can be judged to be favourable or unfavourable from the outside which requires comparing real conditions with normative criteria like values, goals or objectives. This requires a societal and, to some extent, political consensus about three issues: first, the welfare relevant dimensions; second, what good and bad conditions are; third, the direction which society should take. For some goals these three things are generally acknowledged, like the reduction of the unemployment or poverty rate, while for example income inequality might or might not be regarded as a social progress. [14]

Subjective Social Indicators

Subjective social indicators are based on individuals'perception and evaluation of social conditions. Example include: life satisfaction, job satisfaction, etc.; relevance of different life domains, perception of distributional justice, class identification. The American quality of life research bases welfare measurement primarily on subjective indicators and emphasises the subjective valuing of individuals as a final outcome of conditions and processes. The common man is considered the best expert to evaluate his quality of life. The most important measures of subjective well-being are happiness and satisfaction.[15] The World Values Survey produces such data for many countries worldwide.

The main criticism levelled at pure subjective SI approaches is that the degree of satisfaction is partly determined by people's aspiration as seen realistic in a given society. Thus, measuring subjective satisfaction would amount to "measuring how well they are adapted to their present conditions".[16] Others have underlined that subjective indicators provide valuable complementary information for policy maker's assessment of policies outcomes and for the selection of policy goals,[17] and prioritisation of policy goals.

Functions of Social Indicators

Generally, SI perform one or more of three functions, providing a basis for information for decision-making,monitoring and evaluating policies, and/or searching for a common good and deciding how to reach it[18]. Indicators should be phrased in such a way that they can be interpreted by the general public so that members of the community can provide feedback to promote the development of the organization. Identifying community needs are counted as social indicators[19].

Indicators should also be designed so that they only show "progress" when social circumstances have really changed. They should not be easily manipulable by political initiatives that do not have a real impact on people's lives.

Framework of Social Indicators

Progress can be considered as a broad notion of a community‟s well-being that changes over time. While life satisfaction focuses on the subjective assessment of different elements that affect individual lives, well-being has been used to refer to objective living conditions. Both concepts refer to the condition of the current generation but sustainable development attempts to consider the well-being of future generations, introducing an inter-generational dimension often absent in other frameworks. Societal progress occurs when there is an improvement in the “sustainable and equitable well-being of a society…” to “…encourage communities to consider for themselves what „progress‟ means in the 21st century”[20].

Salvaris (2000) described a rapid growth in the development of community-based planning projects using benchmarks and indicators to measure progress. For the past 30 years, these projects have occurred in many countries at different levels. Five dominant features are involved in these types of projects:

(1) the integration of the economic-social-environmental domains to respond to the „well-being‟ of people in a well-rounded manner
(2) the pronouncement of the benchmarks and indicators to monitor ongoing progress
(3) the participation of the community in the production of the benchmarks and indicators
(4) the acquisition of a lengthy period of time to proceed
(5) the realization of legitimate policy-making.
All of these produce an innovation with a sense of civil society[21].


References

  1. Societal Progress Indicators Proposal for Bann Luek Sub-district, Photaram District, Ratchaburi Province, Thailand. Co-authors; Prayong Upa-sen, Community Organization Development Institute Public Organization (CODI) Thailand & Prathurng Hongsranagon, PhD College of Public Health Sciences Chulalongkorn University, Thailand
  2. Bauer, R. A. (ed.) Social indicators. 1966. Cambridge: MIT Press</ref>.
  3. OECD. Measuring Social Well-Being: A Progress Report on the Development of Social Indicators. 1976. Paris: OECD.
  4. OECD. List of social concerns common to most OECD countries. 1973. Paris: OECD.
  5. Giovannini, E., Hall, J., Morrone, A., and Ranuzzi, G. A framework to measure the progress of societies. 2009. Draft OECD Working Paper
  6. Atkinson, T., Cantillion, B., Marlier, E., and Nolan, B. Social Indicators. 2002. The EU and Social Inclusion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  7. Armstrong, A., Francis, R., Bourne, M. and Dussuyer, I. Difficulties of Developing and Using Social Indicators to Evaluate Government Programs: A critical review. Paper presented at the 2002 Australasian Evaluation Society International Conference, Wollongong Australia, October/November 2002, retrieved October 20, 2009 from www.aes.asn.au.
  8. Frones, I. Theorizing Indicators – on Indicators, Signs and Trends. Social Indicators Research 2007; 83:5–23.
  9. OECD. Society at a Glance: OECD Social Indicators. 2001. Paris: OECD
  10. Scrivens, K. and B. Iasiello (2010), "Indicators of "Societal Progress": Lessons from International Experiences", OECD Statistics Working Papers, No. 2010/04, OECD Publishing. doi: 10.1787/5km4k7mq49jg-en
  11. Pencheon, D. (2008), The Good Indicators Guide: understanding how to use and choose indicators, UK National Health Service Institute for Innovation and Improvement website, www.institute.nhs.uk
  12. Linster, M. (2003), “OECD Environmental Indicators: Development, Measurement and Use”, OECD Reference Paper, http://www.oecd.org/LongAbstract/0,3425,en_2649_34441_24993548_1_1_1_1,00.html
  13. Noll, Heinz-Herbert (2004, “Social Indicators and Quality of Life Research: Background, Achievements and Current Trends.” In: Genov, Nicolai (ed.): Advances in Sociological Knowledge Over Half a Century. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften 2004, pp. 151-181. Available at: http://www.gesis.org/fileadmin/upload/institut/wiss_arbeitsbereiche/soz_indikatoren/Publikationen/Noll-SI-Research-in-Genov-2004.pdf?download=true
  14. Noll, Heinz-Herbert (1996),"Social Indicators and Social Reporting -The international Experience". In: Canadian Council on Social Development (ed.): Symposium on Measuring Well-being and Social Indicators. Final report. Ottawa 1996. Available at: http://www.ccsd.ca/noll1.html
  15. Noll, Heinz-Herbert (1996),"Social Indicators and Social Reporting -The international Experience". In: Canadian Council on Social Development (ed.): Symposium on Measuring Well-being and Social Indicators. Final report. Ottawa 1996. Available at: http://www.ccsd.ca/noll1.html
  16. Erikson, Robert (1993) ‘Descriptions of Inequality: The Swedish Approach to Welfare Research.’ In: M. Nussbaum and A. Sen. Eds. The Quality of Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 67-87. Available on google books: http://books.google.fr/books?hl=fr&lr=&id=pJaz1471B68C&oi=fnd&pg=PA67&ots=mNxysRuxQd&sig=QqoRg9-TvmEK5YRGWAMicP-xBAo#v=onepage&q&f=false
  17. Noll, Heinz-Herbert (2004, “Social Indicators and Quality of Life Research: Background, Achievements and Current Trends.” In: Genov, Nicolai (ed.): Advances in Sociological Knowledge Over Half a Century. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften 2004, pp. 151-181. Available at: http://www.gesis.org/fileadmin/upload/institut/wiss_arbeitsbereiche/soz_indikatoren/Publikationen/Noll-SI-Research-in-Genov-2004.pdf?download=true
  18. Franchet, Y. and Renault, M. Societal indicators of territorial well being. The 3rd OECD World Forum on “Statistics, Knowledge and Policy”. Charting Progress, Building Visions, Improving Life. Busan, Korea, 27-30 October 2009.
  19. Armstrong, A., Francis, R., Bourne, M. and Dussuyer, I. Difficulties of Developing and Using Social Indicators to Evaluate Government Programs: A critical review. Paper presented at the 2002 Australasian Evaluation Society International Conference, Wollongong Australia, October/November 2002, retrieved October 20, 2009 from www.aes.asn.au.
  20. Giovannini, E., Hall, J., Morrone, A., and Ranuzzi, G. A framework to measure the progress of societies. 2009. Draft OECD Working Paper.
  21. Salvaris, M. Community and social indicators: How citizens can measure progress - An overview of social and community indicator projects in Australia and internationally. 2000. Hawthorn: Swinburne University of Technology.


Further reading


See Also

Indicators

Progress

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