Social Indicators

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Social indicators are statistical time series that are "used to monitor the social system, helping to identify changes and to guide intervention to alter the course of social change" (Ferriss 1988, p. 601). Examples are unemployment rates, crime rates, estimates of life expectancy, health status indices such as the average number of "healthy" days (or days without activity limitations) in the past month for a specific population, school enrollment rates, average achievement scores on a standardized test, rates of voting in elections, and measures of subjective well-being such as satisfaction with life as a whole.


Social Indicators in the 1960s. The term "social indicators" was given its initial meaning in an attempt by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the early 1960s to detect and anticipate the nature and magnitude of the second-order consequences of the space program for American society (Land 1983, p. 2; Noll and Zapf 1994, p. 1). Frustrated by the lack of sufficient data to detect such effects and the absence of a systematic conceptual framework and methodology for analysis, some in the project attempted to develop a system of social indicators—statistics, statistical series, and other forms of evidence—with which to detect and anticipate social change and to evaluate specific programs and determine their impact. The results of this part of the project were published in a volume (Bauer 1966) called Social Indicators.

The appearance of this volume was not an isolated event. Several other influential publications commented on the lack of a system for charting social change and advocated that the U.S. government establish a "system of social accounts" that would facilitate a cost-benefit analysis of more than the market-related aspects of society already indexed by the National Income and Product Accounts (National Commission on Technology, Automation and Economic Progress 1966; Sheldon and Moore 1968). The need for social indicators also was emphasized by the publication of Toward a Social Report on the last day of the Johnson administration in 1969. The report was conceived of as a prototypical counterpart to the annual economic reports of the president, and each of its chapters addressed major issues in an area of social concern (health and illness; social mobility; the physical environment; income and poverty; public order and safety; learning, science, and art; and participation and alienation) and provided an assessment of the current conditions. In addition, the document firmly linked social indicators to the idea of systematic reporting on social issues for the purpose of public enlightenment.

Generally speaking, the sharp interest in social indicators in the 1960s grew out of the movement toward the collection and organization of national social, economic, and demographic data that began in Western societies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and accelerated in the twentieth century (Carley 1981, pp. 14–15). The work of the sociologist William F. Ogburn and his collaborators at the University of Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s on the theory and measurement of social change is more proximate and sociologically germane (Land 1975). As chairman of President Herbert Hoover's Research Committee on Social Trends, Ogburn supervised the production of the two-volume Recent Social Trends (1933), a pathbreaking contribution to social reporting. Ogburn's ideas about the measurement of social change influenced several of his students—notably Albert D. Biderman, Otis Dudley Duncan, Albert J. Reiss, Jr., and Eleanor Bernert Sheldon—who played major roles in the emergence and development of the field of social indicators in the 1960s and 1970s.

Social Indicators in the 1970s and 1980s. At the end of the 1960s, the enthusiasm for social indicators was sufficiently strong and broad-based for Duncan (1969, p. 1) to write of the existence of a social indicators movement. In the early 1970s, this led to, among other things, the establishment in 1972, with National Science Foundation support, of the Social Science Research Council Center for Coordination of Research on Social Indicators in Washington, D.C.; the publication of several major efforts to define and develop a methodology for the measurement of indicators of subjective well-being (Campbell and Converse 1972; Andrews and Withey 1976; Campbell et al. 1976); the commencement of a federal government series of comprehensive social indicators books of charts, tables, and limited analyses (U.S. Department of Commerce 1974, 1978, 1980); the initiation of several continuing data series based on periodic sample surveys of the national population (such as the annual National Opinion Research Center's [NORC] General Social Survey and the annual National Crime Survey of the Bureau of Justice Statistics); the publication in 1974 of the first volume of the international journal Social Indicators Research; and the spread of social indicators and/or social reporting to numerous other nations and international agencies, such as the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Social indicators activities slowed in the 1980s as funding cuts and nonrenewals led to the closing of the Center for Coordination of Research on Social Indicators; the discontinuation of related work at several international agencies; the termination of government-sponsored social indicators reports in some countries, including the United States; and the reduction of statistical efforts to monitor various aspects of society. Several explanations have been cited for this slowdown (Andrews 1989; Bulmer 1989; Innes 1989; Johnston 1989; Rockwell 1987). Certainly, politics and the state of national economies in the early 1980s are among the most salient proximate causes. Administrations that came to power in the United States and elsewhere based decisions more on a "conservative ideology" and less on current social data than had been the case earlier. Also, faltering economies that produced large government budget deficits provided an incentive to make funding cuts. In addition to these immediate factors, there was a perceived lack of demonstrated usefulness of social indicators in public policymaking that was due in part to an overly simplistic view of how and under what conditions knowledge influences policy; this topic is treated more fully below in the discussion of current uses of social indicators. Before that, a more detailed discussion of types of indicators and their measurement and organization into accounting systems is necessary.


Criterion Indicators. On the basis of the premise that social indicators should relate directly to social policymaking considerations, an early definition by the economist Mancur Olson, the principal author of Toward a Social Report, characterized a social indicator as a "statistic of direct normative interest which facilitates concise, comprehensive and balanced judgments about the condition of major aspects of a society" (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare 1969, p. 97). Olson stated that such an indicator 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. Accordingly, by this definition, statistics on the number of doctors or police officers could not be social indicators, whereas figures on health or crime rates could be.

In the language of policy analysis (Fox 1974, pp. 120–123), social indicators are "target" or "output" or "outcome" or "end-value" variables toward changes in which a public policy (program or project) is directed. This use of social indicators requires (Land 1983, p. 4) that (1) society agree about what needs improving, (2) it be possible to decide unambiguously what "getting better" means, and (3) it be meaningful to aggregate the indicators to the level of aggregation at which the policy is defined.

In recognition of the fact that other meanings have been attached to the term "social indicators," the tendency among recent authors is to use a somewhat different terminology for the class of indicators identified by Olson. For instance, Land (1983, p. 4) termed this the class of "normative welfare indicators." Building on the Olson approach, MacRae (1985, p. 5) defined "policy indicators" as "measures of those variables that are to be included in a broadly policy-relevant system of public statistics." With a meaning similar to that of MacRae, Ferriss (1989, p. 416) used the felicitous term "criterion indicators."

Life Satisfaction and/or Happiness Indicators. Another class of social indicators has its roots in the work of Campbell and Converse in the early 1970s. In The Human Meaning of Social Change (1972), they argued that the direct monitoring of key social-psychological states (attitudes, expectations, feelings, aspirations, and values) in the population is necessary for an understanding of social change and the quality of life. In this approach, social indicators are used to measure psychological satisfaction, happiness, and life fulfillment by employing survey research instruments that ascertain the subjective reality in which people live. The result may be termed "life satisfaction," "subjective well-being," or "happiness indicators."

The Campbell-Converse approach led to two major methodological studies in the 1970s (Andrews and Withey 1976; Campbell et al. 1976) and a subsequent edited volume (Andrews 1986) exploring the utility of various survey and analytic techniques for mapping individuals' feelings of satisfaction with numerous aspects ("domains") of their experiences. These studies examine domains ranging from the highly specific (house, family, etc.) to the global (life as a whole). A large number of other studies and applications of these concepts and techniques have appeared over the past three decades (for reviews, see Diener 1994; Diener et al. Smith1999; and Veenhoven 1996) and continue to appear; one or more studies of subjective well-being indicators can be found in almost every issue of Social Indicators Research. Research on the related concept of happiness as an index of well-being was surveyed by Veenhoven (1984).

The principle that the link between objective conditions and subjective well-being (defined in terms of responses to sample survey or interview questions about happiness or satisfaction with life as a whole) is sometimes paradoxical; therefore, the idea that subjective as well objective states should be monitored is well established in the social indicators literature. However, numerous studies of the measurement and psychodynamics of subjective well-being over the last three decades have led to a better understanding of this construct (Cummins 1995, 1998). While research continues and the debates have not been settled, it appears that this construct may have both traitlike (i.e., a durable psychological condition that differs among individuals and contributes to stability over time and consistency across situations) and statelike (i.e., a condition that is reactive to situational differences) properties (Stones et al. 1995; Veenhoven 1994, 1998).

With respect to the statelike properties of subjective well-being, Davis (1984) used an accumulated sample from several years of NORC General Social Surveys to document the responsiveness of happiness with life as a whole to (1) "new money" (recent changes in the respondents' financial status compared with the current income level), (2) "an old man/lady" (being married or having an intimate living partner), and (3) "two's company" (a household size of two compared to living alone or in a family of three or more). Many other studies have found additional factors that are more or less strongly associated with variations in subjective well-being, but the relevance of intimate living conditions and/or family status almost always is replicated. The connection of subjective well-being to income levels has been an intriguing problem for social indicators researchers since Easterlin's (1973) finding that income differences between nations predict national differences in happiness but that the association of happiness with income within countries is much weaker (for a review of this research literature, see Ahuvia and Friedman 1998). However, Davis's finding of a positive relationship between "new money" or recent income changes and happiness has been replicated by Saris (1998), using data from a panel study conducted in Russia in the period 1993–1995.

Descriptive Social Indicators. Building on Ogburn's legacy of research on social trends, a third approach to social indicators focuses on social measurements and analyses designed to improve the understanding of what the main features of society are, how they interrelate, and how these features and their relationships change (Sheldon and Parke 1975, p. 696). This produces descriptive social indictors—indices of the state of society and the changes taking place within it. Although descriptive social indicators may be more or less directly (causally) related to the well-being goals of public policies or programs and thus include policy or criterion indicators, they are not limited to such uses. For instance, in the area of health, descriptive indicators may include preventive indicators such as the percentage of the population that does not smoke cigarettes as well as criterion indicators such as the number of days of activity limitations in the past month and an index of self-reported satisfaction with health. Ferriss (1990) published a compilation of descriptive indicators for the United States at the end of the 1980s; regularly published national social indicator compilations for other nations also contain numerous examples.

The various statistical forms descriptive social indicators can take are described by Land (1983, p. 6). These forms can be ordered by degree of abstraction from those which require only one or two data series and little processing (e.g., an agespecific death rate) to those which involve more complicated processing into a single summary index (e.g., years of life expectancy at a given age and years of active or disability-free life expectancy at a given age). Descriptive social indicators can be formulated at any of these levels of abstraction. Moreover, as described in Juster and Land (1981), these indicators can, at least in principle, be organized into demographic- or time-budget-based systems of social accounts.


The social indicators movement was motivated by the principle that it is important to monitor changes over time in a broad range of social phenomena that extend beyond the traditional economic indicators and include indicators of quality of life (Andrews 1989, p. 401; Noll and Zapf 1994, p. 5). Many organized actors in contemporary society—including government agencies, organizations and activists interested in social change programs, scholars, and marketing researchers interested in market development and product innovations—monitor indicators in which they have a vested interest and want to see increase or decline (Ferriss 1988, p. 603).

A second principle that has been part of the social indicators movement from the outset (Biderman 1970; Land 1996) is that a critically important role of social indicators in contemporary democratic societies is public enlightenment through social reporting. In brief, modern democracies require social reporting to describe social trends, explain why an indicator series behaves as it does and how this knowledge affects interpretation, and highlight important relationships among series (Parke and Seidman 1978, p. 15).

It also is important to document the consequences that are reasonably attributable to changes in a series. This includes the systematic use of social indicators to forecast trends in and/or turning points in social conditions (Land 1983, p. 21). The area of projection or forecasting is filled with uncertainties. Techniques range from the naive extrapolation of recent trends to future scenario construction to complicated model building with regression, time series, or stochastic process techniques. Moreover, there appear to be intrinsic limits to the accuracy of forecasts in large-scale natural and social systems (Land and Schneider 1987). However, demands for the anticipation of the future (at a minimum, a description of "what will happen if present trends continue"), foresight and forward thinking in the public and private sectors, and the assessment of critical trends (Gore 1990) appear to be an intrinsic part of contemporary postindustrial societies. Thus, it is prudent to expect that "anticipation" will become an increasingly important part of the enlightenment function of social indicators.

Social Reporting at the Turn of the Century. As the decade of the 1990s unfolded, the model of a comprehensive national social report in the tradition pioneered by Ogburn and Olson clearly faltered in the United States, at least in the sense of federal government sponsorship and/or production. However, the key ideas of monitoring, reporting, and forecasting were evident to a greater or lesser extent in the production of continuing periodic subject-matter-specific publications by various federal agencies, including Science Indicators (published by the National Science Foundation), The Condition of Education (published by the Department of Education), the Report to the Nation on Crime and Justice (published by the Department of Justice), and numerous Census Bureau publications. Special topics involving groups of federal agencies also receive attention from time to time. For instance, in 1997 the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics began the annual publication America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being. In addition, numerous private research organizations, policy institutes, and scholars continue to produce reports, monographs, and books interpreting social trends and developments in several areas of social concern.

In contrast to the situation in the United States, comprehensive social reports and social indicators compendiums continue to be published periodically in several other countries. Examples are the Social Trends series published annually since 1970 by the United Kingdom's Central Statistical Office, the Datenreport series published biennially since 1983 by the Federal Republic of Germany, the Social and Cultural Report published biennually by the Social and Cultural Planning Office of the Netherlands, and Australian Social Trends published annually by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Citations and summary reviews of these and other social indicators and social reports publications can be found in the quarterly newsletter and review of social reports SINET: Social Indicators Network News (see the World Wide Web home page:

The difference between the organization of social indicators and reporting work in the United States and that in other countries is in part attributable to the lack of a central statistical office responsible for the coordination of all government statistical activities in the United States. More generally, it is indicative of the fact that despite the invention of the ideas of social indicators and comprehensive social reporting in the United States, this nation has lagged in their institutionalization ( Johnston 1989). Whether a new round of legislative efforts (e.g., then-Senator Albert Gore, Jr.'s, proposed Critical Trends Assessment Act [Gore 1990]) will create the necessary institutional base remains to be seen. Perhaps marking a turning point and indicative of things to come is Public Law 100-297, enacted April 28, 1988, which requires an annual education indicators report to the president and Congress.

Quality of Life as a Unifying Concept. Another development became vividly apparent in the 1990s (Land 1996): the widespread political, popular, and theoretical appeal of the "quality-of-life" (QOL) concept. As was noted above, this concept emerged and became part of the social indicators movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s as doubts were raised in highly developed Western industrial societies about economic growth as the major goal of societal progress (Noll and Zapf 1994, pp. 1–2). The "social costs" of economic growth were cited, and there was increasing doubt about whether "more" should be equated with "better." The QOL concept that resulted from this discussion was posed as an alternative to the increasingly questionable concept of the affluent society and entered discussions of social policy and politics as a new but more complex multidimensional goal. As a goal of social and economic policy, QOL encompasses all (or at least many) domains of life and subsumes, in addition to individual material and immaterial well-being, collective values such as freedom, justice, and the guarantee of natural conditions of life for present and future generations. The political use of the idea of QOL is paralleled in the private sector by the widespread use and popularity of numerous rankings—based on weighted scales of multiple domains of well-being—of the "best" places to live, work, do business, play, and so on, whether they are cities, states, regions, or nations.

The theoretical appeal of the QOL concept as an integrating notion in the social sciences and related disciplines is due in part to the perceived importance of measuring individuals' subjective assessments of their satisfaction with various life domains and with life as a whole, as was reviewed above. For instance, QOL has become a concept that bridges the discipline of marketing research and strategic business policy with social indicators. Marketing is an importance social force—with farreaching direct and indirect impacts on the prevailing QOL in a society—through consumer satisfaction (Samli 1987; Sirgy and Samli 1995) and its impact on satisfaction with life as a whole. The intersection of marketing research with social indicators through the QOL concept led to the organization in the mid-1990s of the International Society for Quality-of-Life Studies (for information about the society and its activities, see its Web homepage: Sociologists who want to become more involved in the field of social indicators should participate in this international and interdisciplinary society.

Summary Indices of the Quality of Life. As the twenty-first century approaches, it is evident that the field of social indicators is entering a new era of the construction of summary social indicators. Often these indices attempt to summarize indicators (objective and/or subjective) of a number of domains of life into a single index of the quality of life. They thus attempt to answer one of the original questions that motivated the social indicators movement: How are we doing overall in terms of the quality of life? With respect to our past? With respect to other comparable units (e.g., cities, states, regions, nations)? Many pioneers of the social indicators movement in the 1960s and 1970s backed away from the development of summary indices to concentrate on conducting basic research on social indicators and the measurement of the quality of life and the development of a richer social database. With the tremendous increase in the quality of social data available for many societies today compared to two or three decades in the past, a new generation of social indicators researchers has returned to the task of summary index construction. Some examples are (1) at the level of the broadest possible comparisons of nations with respect to the overall quality of life, the Human Development Index (United Nations Development Programme 1993), Diener's (1995) Value-Based Index of National Quality of Life, and Estes's (1988, 1998) Index of Social Progress and (2) at the level of comparisons at the national level over time in the United States, the American Demographics Index of Well-Being (Kacapyr 1996), The Fordham Index of Social Health (Miringoff 1996), and the Genuine Progress Indicator (Redefining Progress 1995). The field of social indicators probably will see several decades of such index construction and competition among various indices, with a corresponding need for careful assessments to determine which indices have substantive validity for which populations in the assessment of the quality of life and its changes over time and across social space.


Policy analysts distinguish various ways of guiding or affecting public policy, including problem definition, policy choice and evaluation of alternatives, and program monitoring (MacRae 1985, pp. 20–29). The social reporting–public enlightenment approach to social indicators centers on the use of social indicators in problem definition and the framing of the terms of policy discourse. Indeed, studies of the actual use of social indicators suggest that this is precisely the manner in which they have affected public action (Innes 1989).

However, policy analysts from Olson to MacRae always have hoped for more from social indicators: the shaping of public policy and planing through the policy choice process. At a minimum, this requires the identification of key variables that determine criterion indicators and changes in them (i.e., causal knowledge). More generally, it requires the construction of elaborate causal models and forecasting equations (often in the form of a "computer model") that can be used to simulate "what would happen if" under a variety of scenarios involving policies and actions. An example of this is the development of the National Cancer Institute model for the control and reduction of the incidence of cancer in the United States to the year 2000 (Greenwald and Sondik 1986). Various policy and action scenarios involving prevention, education, screening, and treatment and their implications for cancer mortality were simulated and estimated with this computer model. These simulations led to a decision to allocate funds to prevention, education, screening, and treatment, and their implications for cancer mortality were simulated and estimated with this computer model. These simulations led to a decision to allocate funds to a prevention program rather than to additional clinical treatment.

At a more discursive level, the following model for directed social change has emerged in policy uses of social indicators in areas such as health, education, and the welfare of children and youth in the United States (Ferriss 1998):

  1. Identify trends in criterion indicators, the direction or rate of change of which should be changed.
  2. Gather intelligence from experiments, field research, or theory that suggests what should be done to bring about the desired change.
  3. Launch a decentralized program to effect change in specific criterion indicators by specific amounts, to be attained by a target date.
  4. Monitor progress by periodically assessing trends on the specific indicators, modifying strategies as needed.
  5. As initial goals are reached, set new goals for continued progress.

Many more applications of social indicators to policy choice and evaluation are likely to appear in the future. In particular, such applications probably will occur in three areas. The first is the additional development of well-grounded, theoretically informed, and policy-relevant indicators and models for national and/or regional-level analyses in fields such as health, education, crime, and science (Bulmer 1989). In such applications, the phenomena to be included are definable and delimited and the limitations of the data on which the indicators are based are known. The second is the use of social indicators in the field of social impact assessment (Finsterbusch 1980; Land 1982), which has arisen as part of environmental impact assessment legislation and attempts to anticipate the social effects of large-scale public projects (e.g., dams, highways, nuclear waste disposal facilities) as well as to assess damage from both natural and human-made disasters (e.g., earthquakes, oil spills, nuclear plant accidents). This application of social indicators in impact assessments brings the field back full circle to its point of origination in the American Academy's effort of the 1960s. Finally, the many times series of indicators now available will increasingly be used by sociologists to assess theories, hypotheses, and models of social change, thus bringing social indicators data to bear on core issues in sociology.

(see also: Attitudes; Longitudinal Research; Public Opinion; Quality of Life; Social Change; Social Forecasting)


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