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.
Official statistics are a type of secondary quantitative data and are one of the main methods you need to know about for the research methods component of A-level sociology.
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.
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.
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.
Many official statistics are freely available to researchers and the general public. This is a distinct advantage over ‘privately collected data’ which is collected by companies – Facebook and Amazon, for example, have a lot of data on individuals, but they are not going to share it for free! Official Statistics are more likely to shared with the public because they are paid for by taxes.
They are generally easy to access and to navigate – by using the Office for National Statics (ONS) web site for example.
It is possible to access many official statistics from home, and you can do comparative social research without needing any ‘people skills’.
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.
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.
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.
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)