In my following presentation I am going to talk about 5 topics: first, the historical background and main objectives of social indicators research, second, some principles and approaches; third, social reporting as an important application, and in the two final sections I am going to look first backwards on what has been achieved so far and then ahead in order to identify some future tasks.
Of course there are several predecessors of modern social indicators research. Among the most important are the trend reports of W.F. Ogburn - in particular the well-known report on "Recent Social Trends in the United States" which was published in 1933 by President Hoovers "Committee on Social Trends". The work of Jan Drenowski and an expert commission of the United Nations in the 1950s is another source of social indicators research in so far as they tried to improve the measurement of the level of living by identifying components of welfare and by constructing respective indicators.
The innovative ideas, concepts, and early approaches of social indicators research which were first discussed in the U.S., soon spread out to other countries and international organizations. The OECD started its well known program of work on social indicators in 1970 (Bertrand 1986/87), and roughly at the same time, the Social and Economic Council of the United Nations began to develop a "System of Social and Demographic Statistics". The social indicators approach had not only an enormous impact; it also was undertaken with a strong sense of commitment and a sense of mission. That's the reason why people were also talking about the "social indicators movement".
Obviously the rise and rapid diffusion of this "movement" had something to do with the particular political climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In was this period of prosperity, when for the first time doubts were raised in the highly developed western societies about economic growth as the major goal of societal progress. The "social costs" of economic growth and "public poverty" as the other side of the coin of "private affluence" got public attention and received prominence in political discussions. There was increasing doubt whether more should ever equal better, and it became a public claim to prefer quality to quantity. The concept of "quality of life" was born as an alternative to the more and more questionable concept of the affluent society and became the new, but also much more complex and multidimensional goal of societal development. As early as in 1964 former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson stated: "the great society is concerned not with how much, but with how good - not with the quantity of goods but with the quality of their lives". From todays view, doubts must be allowed of course, whether the "great society" in this sense has ever been accomplished yet.
The optimistic idea that societal structures and processes could be comprehensively modeled and actively guided by politics used to be another characteristic of the political climate of the 1960s and early 1970s. Concepts like the "active society" and an active social policy promised a transition from a reactive politics of "muddling through" to a new and much more rational model of governing. Politics which aims at such goals needs however information which enables it to recognize problems early, to set priorities, and to monitor and control the success and the impact of its policies.
Given this background, one can interpret the rise of social indicators research above all as an answer to the increased demands for information made by an active social policy and by the challenge to operationalize and to quantify its core formula: the concept of quality of life (Figure 1).
Fundamental Improvement of the information base of societies
"The felt need was for more adequate monitoring and reporting of social conditions and processes - implying a need to develop improved measures of these phenomena, together with expanded data collection capabilities." (Johnston, 1990)
|Two Basic Functions:Monitoring of Social Change|
Social Indicators are "all data which enlighten us in some way about structures and processes, goals and achievements, values and opinioins" (Zapf, 1977)
Measurement of Welfare
A Social indicator is "a statistic of direct normative interest which facilitates concise, comprehensive and balanced judgements abou the condition of major aspects of a society. It is in all cases a direct measure of welfare and is subject to the interpretation that if it changes in the 'right' direction, while other things remain equal, things have gotten better, or people are 'better off'". (Olson, 1969)
The primary function of social indicators - from my point of view - however is the measurement of the level and distribution of welfare in a society, whereby welfare development can be understood as a specific dimension of the comprehensive process of modernization (Zapf 1993). As measures of welfare or the quality of life, social indicators are requested to show specific characteristics: social indicators should (1) be related to individuals or private households rather than to other social aggregates, they should (2) be oriented towards societal goals, and they should (3) measure the outputs not the inputs of social processes or policies. As welfare indicators social indicators always have a direct normative relationship, and one should be able to interpret changes in indicators quite clearly as improvements or deteriorations of welfare or the quality of life. It is in this sense that Mancur Olson has, in his classical definition, called a social indicator "a statistic of direct normative interest which facilitates concise, comprehensive and balanced judgments about the condition of major aspects of a society." It is in all cases a direct measure of welfare and is subject to the interpretation that if it changes in the "right" direction, while other things remain equal, things have gotten better, or people are "better off'" (Department of Health, Education and Welfare 1969:97). Accordingly, by this definition statistics on the number of doctors or policemen for example would not be perceived as social indicators, whereas figures on life expectancy or crime rates could be.
According to the respective frame of reference of such evaluations, we usually distinguish socalled "objective" or "subjective" social indicators (Figure 2). Objective social indicators are statistics which represent social facts independently of personal evaluations; subjective social indicators, on the other hand, emphasize the individual perception and evaluation of social conditions (Noll 1990). Figure 2 gives some examples for objective indicators like the unemployment rate, the poverty rate, working hours per week, or the perinatal mortality rate, and also some example for subjective indicators like life satisfaction, relevance of life domains, perception of distributional justice or class identification.
|Objective Social Indicators|
represent social facts independently of personal evaluations
|Subjective Social Indicators|
are based on individual's perception and evaluation of social conditions
Actually it depends on the concept of welfare, which type of social indicators are prefered and chosen (figure 3). A concept which bases welfare measurement exclusively on objective indicators is the level of living approach of Scandinavian welfare research, which follows the tradition set by Jan Drenowski and Richard Titmus. Here, welfare is understood as the command over resources, by which a person can control and consciously direct her living conditions. "Resources are defined in terms of money, property, knowledge, psychic and physical energy, social relations, security and so on..."(Erikson/Uusitalo 1987: 189); the focus is on objective living conditions and their determinants.
|Concepts of Welfare|
|Scandinavian Level of Living Approach|
- following the research tradition of J. Drewnowski and R. Titmus
- Resources concept of welfare
Welfare is defined as: "individuals command over resources, by which a person can control and consciously direct her living conditions" (R. Erikson)
|American Quality of Life Approach|
- folowing the tradition of "mental health" research, among others influenced by W.I. Thomas: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences"
- "Subjective well-being" as the ultimate goal and measure to evaluate social conditions and social development
"Quality of life must be in the eye of the beholder" (A. Campbell)
The American quality of life research is a concept, which on the contrary, bases welfare measurement primarily on subjective indicators. In the tradition of the utilitarian philosophy and "mental health research" and influenced by social psychologists like W.I. Thomas, this approach ultimately defines welfare as subjective well-being. The most important indicators of subjective well-being used, actually are measures of satisfaction and happiness.
Using objective indicators starts from the assumption that living conditions can be judged as being favorable or unfavorable by comparing real conditions with normative criteria like values or goals. An important precondition, however, is that there is political consensus first about the dimensions that are relevant for welfare, second a consensus about good and bad conditions and third about the direction in which society should move. This is of course sometimes, but not always the case. Probably there is consensus that we would consider a reduction of unemployment or crime and an increase of the average income or educational level as an improvement and progress. We could perhaps be less sure, when it comes to indicators like the age of retirement; and it might indeed be debatable whether a reduction of income inequality should in general be regarded as social progress, given the fact that there is a trade-off between distributional justice and efficiency concerning economic growth.
Using subjective social indicators is, instead, based on the premise that welfare, in the final instance, is perceived by individual citizens and can be judged best by them: "the quality of life must be in the eye of the beholder" as Angus Campbell (1972), a prominent American quality-of-life researcher put it once. This position, too, is not undisputed and has caused a deep controversy about the principles of welfare measurement. Particularly scandinavian welfare researchers criticized this subjective quality of life approach and the use of subjective indicators. One of their concerns "with an approach based on people's own assessment of their degree of satisfaction is that it is partly determined by their level of aspiration" (Erikson 1993: 77). Looking at how satisfied people are, from this point of view is criticized as "measuring how well they are adapted to their present conditions". According to R. Erikson (Erikson 1993: 78) - one of the most prominent proponents of Scandinavian welfare research - people's opinions and preferences should go into the democratic political process through their activities as citizens, but not through survey questions and opinion polls.
However, today, the overall consensus of opinion is to base welfare measurement on both objective and subjective indicators, given the fact "that similar living conditions are evaluated quite differently, that people in bad conditions frequently are satisfied and privileged persons may be very dissatisfied". In our own German approach individual welfare or quality of life is therefore defined as "good living conditions which go together with positive subjective well-being" (figure 4) .
|Objective Living Conditions|
Within this frame of reference, the relationships between objective and subjective indicators are of particular interest, because subjective well-being is only partially determined by external conditions. By combining information about objective living conditions and subjective well-being we are able to construct a classification of welfare positions, which is not only of analytical interest, but may also be helpful for guiding social policy.
The coincidence of good living conditions and positive well-being is the preferred combination and is called here "Well-Being". "Deprivation" is the constellation in which bad living conditions covary with negative well-being. "Dissonance" is the term used to describe the inconsistent combination of good living conditions and dissatisfaction, and is sometimes also called the "dissatisfaction dilemma". And finally "Adaptation" is the combination of bad living conditions and satisfaction, and is also refered to as the "satisfaction paradox". Ceteris paribus, the larger the proportion of the population in the well-being category, the higher the welfare level of a society. Aside from the deprived, who are the traditional clients of social politics, the adapted also create a special problem group, because they represent the reality of powerlessness and social retreat. Often it is just this group, which subjectively adapts to obvious deficiencies, that is overlooked and dismissed by the established social policy programs (Zapf 1984: 26).