As a specific mode of production, distribution, and presentation of socially relevant knowledge, social reporting today is well established within the information systems of many nation states and within international and supranational organizations, like OECD, the European Union and the United Nations. In contrast to the United States, which failed to institutionalize regular social reporting at the national level, Canada certainly belongs to the best developed coutries in this respect. Statistics Canada for example publishes since many years the quarterly "Canadian Social Trends", which reports on various topics of living conditions and welfare in this country and also includes a sample of social indicator time series.
In Europe there are now only a few countries left, which do not conduct some sort of social reporting on the national level (figure 5). The classics among social reports - the British "Social Trends", the Dutch "Social and Cultural Report", and the French "Donnés Sociales" - are now being published regularly since about 25 years (Habich/Noll 1994).
|Title||First Edition||Latest Edition||Periodicity|
|Sozialstatistische Daten||1977||1990||4/5 years|
|Levevilkar i Danmark||1976||1996||4 years|
|Federal Republic of Germany|
1985ff mit Sfb 3; 1992, 1994m. WZB u. ZUMA
Institut Nationale de la Statistique et des Economique
|Données Sociales||1973||1996||3 years|
Central Statistical Office
|Social Trends||1970||1996||1 year|
Instituto Nationale di Statistica
|Sintesi della Vita Sociale Italiana||1990||1990||?|
Social and Cultural Planning Office
|Social and Cultural Report||1974||1994||2 years|
Leveka i Norge
Instituto Nacional de Estatistica
|Portugal Social 1985-1990||1992||1992||?|
Instituto Nacional de Estadistica
|Perspectiv pa Valfarden||1987||erratically|
But even outside Europe and North America social reporting is well established by now (figure 6). Just a few years ago in 1994 the Australian Bureau of Statistics published "Australian Social Trends" as the first of an annual series which aims to monitor changes in Australian social conditions over time. Starting in the early nineties a "Social Panorama of Latin America" has already been published several times by the United Nations Economic Commision. "Indicator South Africa: The Barometer of Social Trends" is a quarterly publication by the Center for Social and Developmental Studies of the University of Natal, monitoring the far reaching transformations of the Southafrican society. And not the least there are some interesting social reporting activities in Japan, mainly by the "Economic Planning Agency" of the Japanese government. Of course these are only some examples and by no means it is a complete list of such reporting efforts.
|Title||First Edition||Latest Edition||Periodicity|
Australian Bureau of Statistics
|Social Trends||1994||1996||1 year|
|Canadian Social Trends||1996||quarterly|
United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America
|Social Panorama||1992||1995||1 year|
Center for Social and Developmental Studies
|Indicator South Africa||1983||1996||quarterly|
If one regards the successful spread of national social reporting as a process of diffusion of an innovation within the system of societal information, certain regularities may be detected. Looking at Europe it seems that the establishment of national social reporting obviously was promoted best under the preconditions of an articulated welfare-state policy, an interventionist orientation of government, innovative statistical agencies, and geographical centrality (Rothenbacher 1993; Habich/Noll 1994).
In addition the process of European integration, but also processes of economic integration and political cooperation in other parts of the world had a more than minor impact on the further development of social reporting. And as we can see in the publication of social reports in Hungary and other former socialist countries it seems to be the case that with political liberalization and the transition to market economies, the development of social reporting has gained additonal momentum in those countries.
Supranational organizations took up social reporting early and continue today to be some of the most important actors in this area (figure 7). The "OECD Programme of Work on Social Indicators" (OECD 1982) and the "System of Social and Demographic Statistics" of the United Nations (1975) conceptualized by Nobel-Prize winner Richard Stone, have heavily influenced modern social reporting. The OECD, however, failed to convert its concepts into a regular reporting system. The OECD program was canceled in the mid-1980s after the first and final publication of the report "Living Conditions in OECD Countries". Today, the activities in social reporting of the OECD are restricted to special areas, such as education, science, health and the environment.
|EUROSTAT||Social Indicators for the European Community|
Social Portrait of Europe
|OECD||Living Conditions in OECD Countries||1986|
|The World Bank||World Development Report|
Social Indicators of Development
|United Nations Development Programme||Human Development Report||1990||annually|
At present, the diverse activities of the United Nations and its special organizations are concentrated on global observations of social or human development. Besides the World Bank Reports, the Human Development Reports of the United Nations Development Program is of particular interest. Especially the effort to use the Human-Development Index as a summary measure of societal development which integrates different dimensions of the level of living has won attention and started a new discussion about the construction of summary indices. According to the HDI Canada is the top ranking nation all over the world with respect to "Human Development". However, there is some discussion about the validity of this index as a general measure of welfare and it is well known, that the ranking is very sensitive to the dimensions included into the index.
In contrast to the United Nations and the OECD, the European Community has taken up social reporting from the beginning in a more pragmatic manner. The series "Social Indicators for the European Community" was replaced in 1991 by the report "Social Portrait of Europe". By now, there is clear evidence, that the authorities of the European Union are giving new priority to social indicators and social reporting not the least as a consequence of the stronger emphasis that is put on the social dimension of European integration.
The available reports demonstrate that social reporting is characterized by a variety of conceptual approaches, reporting schemes, actors, and institutional solutions. Obviously, there is not just one generally agreed-upon model, but a variety of more or less successful and convincing variants. Nevertheless, there are common characteristics, and some standards have now been established. The majority of the so-called comprehensive reports follow a system of life domains or social concerns as originally proposed by OECD. More and more often the topics include not only objective living conditions but also aspects of the subjective well-being of the population. It is now more or less agreed upon that social reporting needs a specific data base as already established in several countries in the format of so-called comprehensive welfare surveys or social surveys.
The agents of social reporting are for the most part statistical offices, but also include special planning agencies, ministries, associations (e.g., trade unions), and professional institutions. The available reports therefore differ in analytical depth, sophistication of methods, and style of presentation. The advantages of official social reporting are first of all continuity and liability. In contrast, the advantages of non-official, private social reporting, however, are greater autonomy, freedom, and flexibility. As important as institutionalization and routinization might be, equally important for ambitious social reporting is the innovative impulse of methodological and conceptual innovations, which are best guaranteed in the realm of professional reporting efforts.
Among the most important trends in the development of social reporting are tendencies toward topical specialization and regional differentiation. So on the one hand, in addition to comprehensive social reports we find more and more special reports on specific sectors of life, like health, education, or the family; on particular social problems like crime or poverty; or on selected population groups like children, senior citizens, or women. Moreover aside from topical specialization, the development of social reporting is presently also characterized by a trend towards spatial differentiation. The concept of social reporting is increasingly being applied to sub-national aggregates such as, regions, provinces, or even cities and local communities.
(1) The founding stage, which reached from the middle of the 1960s to the early 1970s was characterized by the formation of the social indicators movement, the development of programs, and the realization of significant pilot studies of social reporting.
(2) In the boom period of social indicators research, which took place during the 1970s, the then innovative ideas and concepts were taken up worldwide. The success of this period is manifested first of all in a flood of publications, the acceptance of social indicators research as a field of academic social science and the establishment of regular social reporting in many countries; but second - and almost equally important - also in the creation of a specific infrastructure of data generation for societal monitoring and social reporting like Quality-of-Life-Surveys, Level-of-Living-Surveys, or General Social Surveys and Household Panels.
(3) A third period from the end of the 1970s until the mid-1980s was characterized by stagnation and in part by decreasing interest in social indicators research: The number of publications went down, research projects ended, not the least because the financial support was cut down as - for example - in the United States. In addition international organizations, and especially the OECD, drastically reduced their commitment to this area. Among the explanations for this development are:
(4) But interstingly enough - and this is the final stage so far - since the middle of the 1980s we observe a revival of social indicators and social reporting activities, which, as already shown, has manifested itself, in a new wave of social reporting efforts on subnational, national, and supranational levels, the establishment of new institutions of social monitoring as well as largely improved data bases and infrastructures.
Refering to the basic functions of social indicators, the successes of social indicators research are to be found more in the area of general societal enlightenment than in the production of technical expert knowledge or the provision of special planning intelligence for politics. The ambitious ideas of using social indicators to contribute to a rationalization of the political process, to establish goals and priorities, to evaluate political programs, and develop an early warning system have proven to be too far from reality. In this regard, social indicators have suffered a similar fate as other scientific instruments of political decision making, e.g., cost-benefit analysis or the Planning-Programming-Budgeting System.
Presumably, the complexity of the political process has been underestimated, and the relevance of empirical information about the state and change of societies for political action has been judged too optimistically. In her analysis of the use of knowledge in public policy, Judith Innes came to the following conclusion: "The failure was more due to an overly simplistic view of how and under what conditions knowledge influences policy, than to, as some observers suggested, a fundamental conflict between the worlds of knowledge and public action" (Innes 1990, p. 430). But obviously, an instrumental or technocratic model which proposes a direct demand on the part of politics for scientific information in order to solve policy problems does not provide us with an appropriate view of this link. As it seems, a model of enlightenment according to which social science is connected with politics rather indirectly, is much more realistic. In this sense it is only logical that social indicators research and social reporting today is assigned a less ambitious and less direct function as provider of information: "Social reporting - according to Joachim Vogel (1990: 441), a Scandinavian researcher- belongs to the democratic infrastructure and has a special political function. To put it simply, social reporting places welfare issues on the political agenda. It supplies material to the public debate, influencing the media and, indirectly, the administration". If we are going to distinguish three ways of affecting public policy as some analysts do (MacRae 1985) - first, "problem definition"; second, "policy choice"; and third, "program monitoring" - the role of social reporting obviously focuses on that of "problem definition" so far (Land 1992).
(1) Reconsidering Concepts of Welfare and the Quality of Life: In the recent past a discussion about the goals of societal development - for exampel- in connection with the concepts of reflexive modernization (Beck 1991) and sustainable development (Pronk/Haq 1992) - has started which might also be import for social indicators research and social reporting. In view of changed social contexts and problems - as for example the crisis of the welfare state or the global ecological problems - some of the concepts used so far - like modernization, individual welfare, subjective well-being, and quality of life - need to be reconsidered in their usefulness as frames of reference for the observation of social development at the end of the twenties century.
(2) Construction of Summary Welfare Indices: The need for summary indices, synthesizing the various dimensions of welfare into one single measure, is not new. However, currently we observe a renewed discussion of this old topic, which will probably continue and become even more popular in future research. Examples for this new search for summary welfare indices are the Human Development Index or the "Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare" (Cobb 1991). The search for summary welfare indices must not necessarily contradict the "great need for simple and user-friendly statistical indicators, capable of orienting and putting on firmer grounds the policy dialogue over social issues" (Garonna 1994, p. 9), which some observers cite as a major challenge for future work.
(3) Use of Longitudinal Data and Dynamic Analysis: The availability of longitudinal data has been decisively improved by life-history surveys, but even more so by household panels as they are carried out today in several countries, for example in the United States, Great Britain, Germany and also Canada. For social indicators research this opens new perspectives for the description and explanation of social change. Longitudinal information which goes beyond time series of aggregate data offers much better opportunities for dynamic analysis. Reporting on poverty - for example - has already benefited a lot from the availability of longitudinal data, by demonstrating that there is a lot of mobility into and out of poverty, information, that is crucial for the formulation of policies and which can not be drawn from cross-sectional data such as poverty rates.
(4) Strengthening the International Perspective: Comparative information and comparative analyses gain further importance with increasing economic and political integration not only taking place in Europe, but also in other regions of the world. More and better comparative information on living conditions and the quality of life - among other reasons - is needed to establish "international best practice performance benchmarks" which can play an important role in monitoring and guiding social performance even at the national level.
(5) Revival of Social Accounting and Social Modeling: Recently, social accounting concepts, as developed by Richard Stone and others, have regained attention and are regarded as a potential future for the informational infrastructure. There are large-scale efforts already in progress for the enlargement of national accounts by satellite systems, aside from the development of accounting systems for particular life domains, such as education or the environment. What makes the social accounting approach particularly attractive is the integrated framework it offers to observe and analyze the linkages between different components and elements within a larger system.
(6) Developing Prospective Social Reporting: Finally there are good reasons for developing social reporting, which up to now is largely retrospective, into an instrument with a much stronger future orientation. Even if the inclusion of social indicators in prognostic models is perhaps, by the moment, not a realistic goal, the application of scenario techniques and projections, model accounts, and simulations on the basis of social indicators certainly could be possible. A better utilization of this potential of social indicators could provide tools for the anticipation of the future, a task that is very likely to become an increasingly important part of the enlightenment function of social reporting.