Sociology Social Indicators
Kenneth C. Land
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0143


How are we doing with respect not only to our economic level-of-living but more generally the quality of our lives, our well-being? Improving, staying about the same, or deteriorating? Compared to our past? Compared to other countries/societies? And, if improving, are the improvements shared throughout the society or only among some of us? These are the kinds of questions that have motivated research and development on social indicators over the past fifty years. This research has resulted in a substantial number of conceptual and empirical contributions to the measurement of social conditions in general, and of quality-of-life/well-being in particular.

General Overviews

Two classic definitions of social indicators are that they are (1) “statistics, statistical series, and all other forms of evidence—that enable us to assess where we stand and are going with respect to our values and goals, and to evaluate specific programs and determine their impact” (Bauer 1966, p. 1); and (2) statistical time series “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 of objective social indicators include 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, and rates of voting in elections. Examples of subjective social indicators include measures of subjective well-being such as individuals’ self-reported health statuses, how satisfied individuals are with their life-as-a-whole, and how happy they are. In recent decades, the dominant conception of social indicators among scholars and public policy officials is that they are statistical measures that have some significance for the quality of life broadly construed for the society as a whole, or for specific subpopulations, segments, or components thereof that are useful for social reporting to the general public and for evidence-based public policy making (Land 2014). Subjective social indicators are statistics that have some significance for measuring the quality of life from the point of view of individuals’ assessments (e.g., self-reported health, satisfaction with life-as-whole), and objective social indicators are statistics that have some significance for measuring the quality of life from the point of view of any independent observer (e.g., official mortality and morbidity rates). Social indicators pertaining to specific aspects of life or domains of well-being are often combined into composite social indictors that seek to give a sense of overall quality of life or well-being in specific countries, populations, or other social units. Among the many social indicators that have been developed and studied, those that are the most influential generally try to measure or operationalize theoretically well-developed concepts such as quality of life, well-being, human development, economic prosperity, ecological sustainability, and so on.

  • Bauer, R. A. 1966. Detection and anticipation of impact: The nature of the task. In Social Indicators. By R. A. Bauer, 1–67. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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    Describes the challenges in assessing the second-order consequences of the US space program on American society as an instance of studying the ramifications of technical innovations, defines social indicators, and advocates for more systematic development thereof.

  • Ferriss, A. L. 1988. The uses of social indicators. Social Forces 66:601–617.

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    Argues that research on social indicators should include the time dimension, ecological variables (the physical environment and the social constraints of place and region), and should attempt forecasts of the future.

  • Land, K. C. 2014. History of social indicators and its evolution. In Encyclopedia of quality of life and well-being research. Edited by A. C. Michalos, 2875–2882. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-0753-5E-mail Citation »

    Describes the history of social indicators from the social indicators movement of the 1960s and 1970s through the emergence of the quality of life/well-being concept as a unifying theme in the 1990s, to composite indicators of quality of life in the 1990s and 2000s, to web-based social reports on well-being in the 2010s.

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