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Official Statistics Sociological Research Papers

Definition: Official Statistics are numerical information collected and used by the government and its agencies to make decisions about society and the economy. This post considers some of strengths and limitations of using official statistics in social research,  focusing on practical, theoretical and ethical factors.

The General Advantages of Official Statistics:

Practical advantages

Many official statistics are freely available to researchers and the general public.

They are easy to access and to navigate – by using the Office for National Statics (ONS) web site for example.

Theoretical advantages

One of the most obvious strengths of official statistics is easy comparisons over time

Official Statistics make it very easy to get an overview of social life in Britain by, for example, clicking on the ‘UK snapshot’ or ‘focus on’ links on the ONS homepage.

Official statistics enable us to make comparisons between social groups and regions. The UK National Census is a good example of this.

They enable us to make historical comparisons over time because they often go back a long way – The British Crime Survey goes back to 1982 for example, League Tables go back until 1988 and and the UK Census goes back to 1841.

Some large data sets might not exist if they were not collected by the government – because individuals and universities simply don’t have the funds to do such large-scale research as required by the Census, while large private companies would only focus on data collection which is profitable.

Official Statistics are favoured by Positivists because they allow us to spot trends, find correlations and make generalisations. They also allow the research to remain detached so there is less room for the subjective bias of the researcher to interfere with the research process.

Ethical Advantages

Official Statistics are collected in the ‘national interest’ and so avoid the biases of private research, which would only collect data which would be of interest to the particular researcher, or data which is is profitable.

Official Statistics enable us to check up on the performance of public bodies such as the police and schools, making sure tax payers’ money is spent efficiently.

Disadvantages of Official Statistics:

Practical Disadvantages

Even though these statistics are free, they are far from cheap to collect. The ONS employs 4000 people merely to collate this data. On top of this, think of the time it takes other government officials to collect data. The Census in 2011 cost hundreds of million pounds to produce.

Official Statistics are collected for administrative purposes rather than for research purposes. Thus the data which exists and the categories and indicators used might not fit a researcher’s specific research purposes.

Theoretical Disadvantages

Some Official Statistics lack validity. Crime statistics are a good example of this – certain crimes are notorious for being under-reported to the police – such as Rape and Domestic Violence for example.

Feminists argue that more than 1/1000 women are victims of sexual offences annually

The way that some social trends are measured changes over time – sometimes making historical comparisons difficult. For example, they way the Police Recorded Crimes changed twice in 2000s.

Official statistics may also lack validity because they are collected by the state and massaged to make things look better than they actually are. The UK government has changed the way unemployment is measured several times over the last decades, typically bringing the number of officially unemployed people down – for example by reclassifying anyone who is receiving unemployment benefit but on a work-related training course as not being unemployed.

Marxist and Feminist Sociologists argue that official statistics serve the interests of elite groups – Data is only collected on things which do not harm those in power. Marxists argue that Corporate Crime and Financial Crimes of elites are not focused on by the government, while Feminists argue that domestic violence is not taken seriously by the state.

Similarly, official statistics reflect the biases and prejudices of those in power – The fact that African-Caribbeans and Muslims are over represented in prison suggests people from these groups have higher levels of criminality. But according to Marxist criminologists this is not the case – such groups are over-represented in jail because of racial profiling by the police – the police spend more time actively policing the black and Muslim communities (with more stop and searches for example) and this is what leads to the higher arrest and imprisonment rates. Official Statistics thus give us a misleading impression of reality.

Ethical Disadvantages

The collection of some statistics can have harmful effects.

The introduction of school league tables and the requirement that schools publish there results has led to more teaching the test, a decline in creativity in education, and education generally being much more stressful for both pupils and teachers.

The collection of statistics might really be about surveillance and control – The collection of data on school performance for example enables control of teachers while the collection of data on pupils allows ‘problem pupils’ to be identified and managed by social services from a young age.

Related Posts 

Secondary Qualitative Data Analysis in Sociology

Positivism, Sociology and Social Research

Family Trends in the UK (2016) – outlines some official statistics on families

Is the UK really the 18th most gender equal country in the world? (looks at the problems of official statistics on gender equality)

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Sociologists frequently use statistics to support or debunk a theory. However, the use of statistics to examine social issues has its detractors and some work on the principle that there are ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’. Therefore the use of statistics in sociological research has to be done carefully and sensitively.

 

“Official statistics are quantitative statistics published by Government agencies or other public bodies”

 

Official statistics are used to collate facts and figures which can be used to keep records of a person or persons. They are used in businesses to analyse the market (i.e. to see what is, and isn’t selling) and they can be used by Governments as a means of keeping a record on their citizens.

 

Within sociology, statistics are used to determine the factors which can affect normal life. In other words, sociologists can compare statistics to see if there is a trend between two related sets of information. For example, a sociologist studying the divorce rate in Britain might be able to cross examine that and the domestic violence rate, to see if they correlate in some way.

 

Official statistics can be used in a variety of ways in sociology. It allows us to compare the levels of ethnic minorities causing classroom disruption, and which group is causing the most. They allow us to compare the suicide rates in Britain according to someone’s economic status. The birth and death rates can also be studied.

 

What are the advantages of official statistics?

 

Because official statistics are gathered and collated by external parties (e.g. the Office of National Statistics) it can be very time saving for sociologists wishing to carry out observations as the information is all collected for them and requires very little time from the conductor of the research.

 

Official Statistics are massively available, that is to say that there are many statistics that can be accessed, they are cheap too, the Office of National Statistics is free access and available to anyone, it allows sociologists to use the data without spending too much out of their own pocket.

 

However, there are disadvantages.

 

One is known as the “Statistical Iceberg”. This is the effect that many statistic collections face in a survey. It is incredibly unlikely that every single case of, for example, knife crime is reported. If official statistics show that there has been a drop in knife crime, however, then the official response from government is that any current policy has to be working as the statistics show this. Obviously the government can only use the statistics it has at its disposal but sceptics of the use of statistics believe that the very nature of what is being researched – frequently sensitive issues – mean that people simply will not come forward or they will give incorrect information to the researcher thus devaluing the official results.

 

Operationalised statistics is the action of giving data a meaning to meet a specific conclusion. The most relevant example in recent times is that of global warming. Some scientists claim that statistics have been deliberately slanted to ‘prove’ that global warming is happening and that this is the result of the world’s failure to adopt a more green approach to living. Those who do not support the idea that global warming is a new occurrence claim that they have statistics that they could use to prove that the world is going through a cyclical weather change. They claim that they have the statistics and data to support them. Some have argued that the UK government has used a variety of selected weather statistics to justify a variety of green taxes in the hope that the public will view the green taxes as more acceptable that just a ‘normal’ tax.

 

How reliable are Official Statistics? Due to the preparation and care when being undertaken, the reliability of official statistics is fairly high as they can use the same questionnaire, survey or census for a large sample group. However, that does not mean that the results are accurate. The accuracy of the results depends entirely on the participants. It is possible or even probable that they will lie on a survey (the ‘Hawthorn Effect’, people act differently when being watched) and possibly give an answer that will reflect on them better personally, even if it is anonymous!

 

A major concern, though, is that the true number of events/occurrences are rarely fully reported (the above mentioned ‘Iceberg Effect’).

 

The validity of any Official Statistics is often very high, as any statistics will be up to date, relevant and the way the data is gathered should eliminate chances of errors. Once one set of official statistics is out of date, the researchers will as soon as possible perform another collection of data to update it, this ensures all data is fresh and appropriate. However this may not even cause any problems as sociologists looking at past data will not be affected by how old a set of statistics.

 

Because official statistics are gathered and collated by external parties (e.g. the Office of National Statistics) it can be very time saving for sociologists wishing to carry out observations as the information is all collected for them and requires very little time from the conductor of the research.

 

Great care is taken when samples and data are collected. An organisation such as the Office of National Statistics has strict guidelines on conducting surveys, censuses and data collection. They will always organise their test sample fairly, considerately and according to the survey itself (i.e. they would not survey children if investigating the justice system). It is likely that they would (if conducting a nationwide survey) use a stratified sample from every region of the country and compile the data from it to produce a very accurate estimate, which may only be off by approximately 1% either way. This eliminates (as much as possible) the chances of the sociologist making a mistake in collecting the data.

 

Official Statistics are massively available, that is to say that there are many official statistics that can be accessed. Accessing is cheap too as the Office of National Statistics has free access and they are available to anyone. Such a policy allows sociologists to use the data without spending too much out of their own pocket.

 

Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex

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