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

Introduction

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.

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    • 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.

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      • 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: 10.1007/978-94-007-0753-5Save Citation »Export Citation »E-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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        Reference Works

        Three general reference works on social indicators, well-being, and quality-of-life research have been published in recent years. Land, et al. 2012 is a handbook with 26 chapters that provide a broad overview of the development and evolution of research on social indicators and quality-of-life studies, ranging from its philosophical foundations to measurement issues, well-being in relationships, institutional structures such as education and religion, and well-being across the life course and in major countries and regions of the world. Michalos 2014 is a comprehensive reference work on quality-of-life and well-being indicators and research, an objective of which is to provide an overview of the density of research in different areas, where the focus has been, and where it might go next. It has 2,165 focused, encyclopedic-style essays contributed by 1,272 authors distributed across 58 countries, coordinated by 154 editorial board members from 32 countries. Glatzer 2014 is a handbook volume of 41 chapters, the objectives of which are to provide a guide to the current field of global well-being and to future research, present clues to complex problems and empirical materials, and create a more comprehensive assessment of global quality of life and well-being than previously available. It brings together theoretical insights and empirical findings; presents the main items of global quality of life and well-being research; presents discussions of demographic and health development, the spread of democracy, global economic accounting, multi-item measurement of perceived satisfaction and expert-assessed quality of life, and the well-being of children, women, and poor people; and describes research on well-being in specific regions, including North and sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, South America, and eastern and western Europe. An additional reference work is the journal Social Indicators Research, which was established in 1974; its 100-plus volumes contain thousands of articles that present empirical, philosophical, and methodological studies that cover the entire spectrum of society and are devoted to giving evidences through indicators. The topics represented in the journal cover and involve a variety of segmentations, such as social groups, spatial and temporal coordinates, population composition, and life domains.

        Foundational Works

        Beginning in the mid-1960s, numerous publications on social indicators and social reporting began to appear. Among these, four stand out as foundational works. Bauer 1966 was the first to give a definition of social indicators (see General Overviews). It was the product of an attempt, undertaken in the early 1960s by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to detect and anticipate the nature and magnitude of the second-order consequences of the space program, specifically the effort to launch a manned space flight to the moon and back, for American society. Frustrated by the lack of sufficient data to detect such effects and the absence of a systematic conceptual framework and methodology for analysis, some of those involved in the Academy project, the authors of the chapters of this volume chose to advocate the development of more, and better, social indicators. The need for social indicators was also emphasized by the publication of the 101-page Toward a Social Report (US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare 1969). Conceived of as a prototypical counterpart to the annual economic reports of the president, each of its seven chapters addressed major issues in an important 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 prevalent conditions. In addition, the document firmly established the link of social indicators to the idea of systematic reporting on social issues for the purpose of public enlightenment. A third social indicators foundational document is Duncan 1969, a pamphlet that assessed the state of social indicators and social reporting at the end of the 1960s and labeled the numerous activities pertaining thereto a “social indicators movement.” Duncan 1969 also assessed the empirical database available for the construction of social indicators and described the need for replication studies, especially replications of sample surveys that are representative of populations and that contain microdata on individuals. This document helped make the case for the establishment of numerous population sample surveys in periodic replication designs that provide the empirical data basis for the construction of social indicators, the measurement of changes therein, and social reporting thereon in many countries around the world today. Campbell and Converse 1972, the fourth foundational work on social indicators, focuses on addressing the human meaning of social change, or the “attitudes, expectations, aspirations, and values” (p. 5) of individuals and populations. The 12 chapters of this volume argued for the need for such subjective indicators. This laid the foundation for subsequent innovations and the development of subjective well-being indicators of happiness and life satisfaction.

        • Bauer, R. A., ed. 1966. Social Indicators. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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          The chapters of this volume were the first to define social indicators and to advocate the development of more and better social indicators and a systematic conceptual framework and methodology for analysis thereof.

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          • Campbell, A., and P. E. Converse, eds. 1972. The human meaning of social change. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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            The chapters of this volume argued for the need for the development of subjective social indicators, which laid the foundation for subsequent innovations and the development of subjective well-being indicators of happiness and life satisfaction.

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            • Duncan, O. D. 1969. Toward social reporting: Next steps. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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              This pamphlet assessed the state of social indicators and social reporting at the end of the 1960s and described the need for replication studies based on replications of sample surveys that are representative of populations and that contain microdata on individuals. This helped make the case for the establishment of numerous population sample surveys in periodic replication designs that provide the empirical data basis for the construction of social indicators, the measurement of changes therein, and social reporting thereon in many countries around the world today.

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              • US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. 1969. Toward a social report. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

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                This document emphasized the need for social indicators and firmly established the link of social indicators to the idea of systematic reporting on social issues for the purpose of public enlightenment. It also served as a prototype of social reports at the national, international, and local levels that emerged in subsequent decades.

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                Subjective Well-Being Indicators

                Following up on Campbell and Converse 1972 (cited under Foundational Works), a key development in social indicators since the 1970s is the key role of the quality-of-life/well-being concept in connecting social indicators to the study of subjective well-being. In this approach, social indicators seek to measure psychological satisfaction, happiness, and life fulfillment by using survey research instruments that ascertain the subjective reality in which people live. The result is the class of subjective well-being indicators, which many researchers regard as ultimate well-being outcome indicators, since they are based on individuals’ assessments of their personal well-being. This approach led to many methodological studies exploring the utility of various survey and analytic techniques for mapping individuals’ feelings of satisfaction with various aspects of their experiences. These studies also examine domains of life ranging from the highly specific (house, family, etc.) to the global (life-as-a-whole). Subjective well-being indicators build on the methodological foundations established by Andrews and Withey 1976 and Campbell, et al. 1976. Each of these volumes reports extensive conceptual and methodological research of individuals’ perceptions of well-being, based on US national and regional sample survey data. Andrews and Withey 1976 is an extensive methodological study of domains and criteria (values that might be used in evaluating life domains) with data from multiple sample surveys. It also introduced a seven-category “Delighted-Terrible scale” of affective evaluations ranging from “Delighted (coded 7)” to “Terrible (coded 1).” Campbell, et al. 1976 is an extensive analysis of data on responses to happiness and life satisfaction questions and the relationships between the two from a single national sample survey. It introduced a composite Index of Well-Being as a nearly equally weighted sum of responses to an overall life satisfaction question, and an Index of General Affect (the mean of each individual’s responses to eight evaluative questions). In the years since the publication of these studies, research and development on subjective well-being indicators and indices has been extensive. Diener and Biswas-Diener 2008 is a review and synthesis of decades of extensive research on the psychology of happiness, especially the distinctive functions of negative and positive affect on overall happiness assessments. Cummins, et al. 2008 describe the Australian Unity Well-Being Index and trends therein from 2001 to 2007, one of several national happiness indices based on periodically repeated national sample survey data that have been developed in the early 21st century. This index combines two scales, one of which measures Personal Well-Being as the average level of satisfaction across seven life domains (health, personal relationships, safety, standard of living, achieving in life, community connectedness, and future security) and one that measures National Well-Being as average satisfaction scores across six domains of national life (the economy, the environment, social conditions, governance, business, and national security).

                • Andrews, F. M., and S. B. Withey. 1976. Social indicators of well-being: American’s perceptions of life quality. New York: Plenum.

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                  Reports extensive methodological studies of life domains and evaluations thereof, with data from multiple sample surveys. It also introduced a seven-category “Delighted-Terrible scale” of affective evaluations of life domains.

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                  • Campbell, A., P. E. Converse, and W. L. Rodgers. 1976. The quality of American life: Perceptions, evaluations, and satisfactions. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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                    This is an extensive analysis of data on responses to happiness and life satisfaction questions and the relationships between the two from a single national sample survey, including a composite Index of Well-Being that combines an individual’s responses to an overall life satisfaction question and an Index of General Affect.

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                    • Cummins, R. A., D. Mellor, M. A. Stokes, and A. L. D. Lau. 2008. Quality of life Down-Under: The Australian Unity Well-Being Index. In Barometers of quality of life around the globe: How are we doing? Edited by V. Moller, D. Huschka, and A. C. Michalos, 135–159. New York: Springer.

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                      Describes the Australian Unity Well-Being Index and changes therein in national sample survey data for the years 2001–2007. This index includes Personal Well-Being and National Well-Being Index components.

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                      • Diener, E., and R. Biswas-Diener. 2008. Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

                        DOI: 10.1002/9781444305159Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                        Reviews extensive research on the psychology of happiness and how happiness relates to several aspects of life, including health, social relationships, work, money, spirituality, culture, and human nature.

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                        Composite Social Indicators

                        The social indicators movement of the 1960s and 1970s (see Foundational Works) produced a tremendous increase in the richness of social data available for many countries. In addition, the key role of the quality-of-life/well-being concept in connecting social indicators to the study of subjective well-being became vividly evident (see Subjective Well-Being Indicators). One consequence is that the field of social indicators entered an era of construction and study of composite or summary social indicators in the 1990s and 2000s. Often these indices attempt to summarize (objective and/or subjective) outcome or well-being indicators of a number of domains of life into a single index of the quality-of-life for the population or society as a whole, or for some significant segment thereof (e.g., children and youth; the elderly; racial and minority groups; cities, states, or regions within the nation). Composite indicators thus attempt to answer the questions that motivated the social indicators movement: How are we doing overall in terms of quality of life? With respect to our past? With respect to our societal goals? With respect to other comparable units (e.g., cities, states, regions, nations)? And, within our societies, how are specific segments of the population (e.g., children, the elderly, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants) doing? Two illustrative examples of composite indicators follow.

                        The Human Development Index

                        At the level of the broadest possible comparisons of nations with respect to the overall quality of life, the Human Development Index (HDI) has been developed, calculated, and published annually since 1990 by the United Nations Development Programme in the Human Development Reports. The objective of the HDI is to rank countries of the world (the 2013 HDI ranked 186 countries) on a scale of human development conceptualized in terms of capabilities of humans within the countries to function. The concept of “capabilities” is based on the conceptual work of Sen 1987 and Nussbaum and Sen 1993; it refers to what human beings can do and be, instead of on what they have, and is broadly conceived of as the ability, or the power, of individuals to do certain things, to obtain what they desire, to achieve desired states of being, to utilize the resources they have in the way they desire, and to be who they want to be. Operationally, the HDI is a composite indicator based on four population-level objective social indicators/statistics for each country: life expectancy at birth, expected years and mean years of schooling (combined into a single education index), and living standards as measured by gross national income per capita. In recent years, the HDI has been supplemented with three specialized indices: (1) the Inequality-Adjusted HDI, (2) the Gender Inequality Index, and (3) the Multidimensional Poverty Index.

                        • Nussbaum, M., and A. Sen, eds. 1993. The Quality of Life. Oxford: Clarendon.

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                          Further develops the capabilities approach to the standard of living and its relationship to individuals’ quality of life (health, relationship with a partner and family and friends, quality of work (job satisfaction), physical environment, and so on).

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                          • Sen, A. 1987. The Standard of Living. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                            Provides an initial exposition of the capabilities approach (what human beings can do and be, instead of what they have) to the measurement of the standard of living as an alternative to a focus solely on monetary income.

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                            • United Nations Development Programme. Human Development Reports. New York: United Nations Development Programme.

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                              Originally, the Human Development Reports, published annually beginning in 1990(except for 2012), were published as printed volumes. More recently, with the development of the World Wide Web, the HDRs are available both in printed volumes and electronically on the UNDP website. The reports calculate the Human Development Index (HDI) and rank the countries of the world (the 2013 HDI ranked 186 countries) on a scale of human development conceptualized in terms of capabilities of humans within the countries to function.

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                              The Child Well-Being Index

                              For the study of changes over time in a specific subpopulation, the Child Well-Being Index (CWI), outlined in Land 2012 and prior publications cited therein, is an index composed from twenty-eight objective social indicators/statistics that measure various aspects of child and youth well-being in the United States. The CWI groups the indicators into seven domains of well-being that have been identified in prior research on subjective well-being: family economic well-being, safe/risky behavior, health, social relationships, community engagement, educational attainment, and emotional/spiritual well-being. The basic national CWI measures annual changes (improvements or deterioration) in well-being for America’s children aged 0 to 18 relative to values of its key indicators in a base year such as 1975. At the national level, the CWI also has been calculated by gender (males, females), race/ethnic group (white, black, Hispanic), family income, native-born/immigrant status, three age groups—infancy and early childhood (ages 0 to 5), middle childhood (ages 6 to 11), and adolescents and teenagers (ages 12 to 18)—and five quintiles of family income. While originally formulated at the national level, the CWI also has been calculated at the state level for each of the fifty US states and for metropolitan areas and regions within the states.

                              • Land, K. C., ed. 2012. The well-being of America’s children: Developing and improving the Child and Youth Well-Being Index. New York: Springer.

                                DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-4092-1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                The 11 chapters of this volume describe the development of, and summarize findings regarding, the CWI that were previously published in numerous publications over the previous decade. The objective of the CWI is to measure the circumstances of children’s lives in the United States in a way that reflects their well-being—to assess their quality of life, in other words—and to track changes in well-being over time.

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                                The Relationship of Objective and Subjective Social Indicators

                                The principle that the link between objective conditions (measured by objective social indicators such as mean years of schooling attained in a population, average household income, and levels of full-time employment and composite social indicators based on objective indicators) and subjective well-being (defined in terms of responses to sample survey or interview questions about subjective assessments such as happiness or satisfaction with life as a whole) is sometimes paradoxical, and therefore the idea that both subjective and objective states should be monitored is well established in the social indicators literature. At some level, however, there should be some degree of systematic relationship between objective and subjective indicators of well-being. An example is the recent effort of Human Development Index–related (see Human Development Index) work on comparisons among countries with respect to levels of subjective well-being, as reported in the World Happiness Report 2013 (Helliwell, et al. 2013). This report responds to a July 2011 United Nations General Assembly resolution that invited member countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use this to help guide their public policies. Among many other empirical findings, the report states that correlation between the HDI and average national life evaluations (averaged for the three years, 2010–2012) is 0.77. Similarly, a comparison of trends in the US Child Well-Being Index (see Child Well-Being Index) and data on overall life satisfaction responses in annual sample surveys of high school seniors (12th graders) over the years 1976–2008 produced a correlation of 0.78. Monitoring and assessing these kinds of comparisons are an essential part of the use of social indicators for quality-of-life/well-being assessment, and serve as an external validity check in the sense that when the comparisons show little consistency of objective and subjective indices, this should stimulate research for explanations of the inconsistencies.

                                • Helliwell, J. F., R. Layard, and J. Sachs, eds. 2013. World happiness report 2013. New York: UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

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                                  Describes analyses of the relationships between the HDI and its components to country-specific subjective overall life evaluations, measured using average national responses (averaged for the three years 2010–2012). Strong positive correlations (based on data from 124 to 152 countries, depending on the variables used) are reported for the overall HDI and for life expectancy, years of schooling, and per capita GNI components.

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                                  Child Well-Being and Community Indicators

                                  Research on social indicators/quality of life/well-being has been conducted on numerous aspects of human life and social organization; see, for example, the chapters and entries in Land, et al. 2012; Michalos 2014; and Glatzer 2014, all cited under Reference Works. Two topics that have received substantial and sustained research attention and that merit specific mention are indicators of the well-being of children and community social indicators. Ben-Arieh, et al. 2014 is a five-volume handbook of 114 chapters on child well-being. Topics addressed in this handbook include multiple disciplinary and theoretical perspectives and approaches to the conceptualization of child well-being; how children’s activities relate to well-being; social institutions (family, education, media, religion, health, community, economy) and child well-being; child development; the life course and child well-being; methods, measures, and indicators of child well-being; and interventions, policies, and global issues and child well-being. Community social indicators are the topic of a series of volumes on community well-being indicators. All of these volumes, of which Sirgy, et al. 2004 is the first and Sirgy, et al. 2011 is the most recent, are compilations of cases of “best practices” of community quality-of-life indicator systems. The cases describe communities that have launched their own community indicators programs, including descriptions of the history of the community indicators within the target region, the planning of community indicators, the actual indicators that were selected, the data collection process, the reporting of the results, and the use of the indicators to guide community development decisions and public policy.

                                  • Ben-Arieh, A., F. Casas, I. Frones, and J. E. Korbin, eds. 2014. Handbook of child well-being: Theories, methods, and policies in global perspective. 5 vols. New York: Springer.

                                    DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-9063-8Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                    The 114 chapters in this handbook describe multiple disciplinary and theoretical perspectives and approaches to the conceptualization of child well-being; how children’s activities relate to well-being; social institutions (family, education, media, religion, health, community, economy) and child well-being, child development; the life course and child well-being; methods, measures, and indicators of child well-being; and interventions, policies, and global issues and child well-being.

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                                    • Sirgy, M. J., D. Rahtz, and D. -J. Lee, eds. 2004. Community quality-of-life indicators: Best cases. New York: Springer.

                                      DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-2202-9Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                      This is the first volume of this series of compilations of case studies of “best practices” of community quality-of-life indicator systems, from the planning of community indicators, to indicator selection and data collection, to reporting the results and uses in development decisions and the formation of public policy.

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                                      • Sirgy, M. J., R. Phillips, and D. Rahtz, eds. 2011. Community quality-of-life indicators: Best cases V. New York: Springer.

                                        DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-0535-7Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                        The most recent volume in this series of compilations of case studies of “best practices” of community quality-of-life indicator systems. See also Sirgy, et al. 2004.

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