Official Statistics in Sociology

The theoretical, practical and ethical strengths and limitations of official statistics in sociology.

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.

Theoretical Factors

Theoretical advantages

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Practical Factors

Practical advantages

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’.

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.

Ethical Factors

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.

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)

Secondary Qualitative Data in Sociology

Secondary Qualitative Data is information that already exists in written or audio visual format. Secondary Qualitative Data typically take the form of documents – and there are a huge variety of them. They include government reports, newspapers, novels, letters, diaries, as well as pictures, and television and radio output.

It is useful to distinguish between official and personal sources of secondary qualitative data:

Official Documents are produced by organisations such as government departments and their agencies as well as businesses and charities and include OFSTED and other official government enquiries. These reports are a matter of public record and should be available for anyone who wishes to see them.

Personal documents are first-hand accounts of social events and personal-experiences, and they generally include the writer’s feelings and attitudes. They include such things as letters, diaries, photo albums and autobiographies.

Personal Documents may sometimes be referred to as Life Documents

Life documents are created by individuals and record details of that person’s experiences and social actions. They are predominantly qualitative and may offer insights into people’s subjective states. They can be historical or contemporary and can take a wide variety of forms. Ken Plummer (1982) illustrates this diversity when he says: “people keep diaries, send letters, take photos, write memo’s, tell biographies, scrawl graffiti, publish memoirs, write letters to the papers, leave suicide notes, inscribe memorials on tombstones, shoot films, paint pictures, make music and try to record their personal dreams.”

Strengths of Using Documents in Social Research

  • There is a wealth of different types of secondary qualitative information available – it is the richest vein of information available to researchers in many topic areas.
  • Sometimes documents might be the only means of researching the past.
  • Interpretivists generally favour using life documents in social research as they are not produced by the researcher, but written by respondents for their own purposes. This means they should give us an insight into the author’s own world view and meaning. This, of course, depends on us being able to verify the credibility and authenticity of documents (See limitations below).
  • At a practical level, many public documents are freely available to the researcher, and many of them are very in depth.
  • Ethically there are few issues with accessing public documents.

Limitations of Using Documents in Social Research

John Scott (1990) identifies four potential theoretical limitations which might undermine the usefulness of historical documents.

  1. The document may lack authenticity – Parts of the document might be missing because of age, and we might not even be to verify who actually wrote the document.
  2. The document may lack credibility – We may not be able to verify why somebody wrote the document, and what their motive was. We need to know if the document has been distorted for political reasons, for example, because this would mean they would put a spin on the content.
  3. Meaning – It may be hard to interpret the meaning of the documents if they are written in an archaic language. With older documents it is not possible to get the authors to clarify what they meant if they are dead.
  4. Representativeness – Documents may not be representative of the wider population – especially a problem with older documents. Many documents do not survive because they are not stored, and others deteriorate with age and become unusable. Other documents are deliberately withheld from researchers and the public gaze, and therefore do not become available.

In Summary: The main types of secondary data which you are likely to investigate as part of an A-level sociology course includes:

Official Documents:

  • Government Reports (‘public documents’)
  • Company reports and accounts (‘private documents’)

Personal Documents (or ‘life’ documents)

  • letters (including suicide notes)
  • diaries, blogs and vlogs
  • Individual Social media profiles
  • graffiti
  • autobiographies

Media Output:

  • The News (and ‘Fake News)
  • Various websites – Wikipedia should be of special interest to students

Related Posts 

Using documents to research education

Official Statistics in Sociology and Social Research

Related External Posts 

A very brief outline of qualitative secondary data

Assessing the Usefulness of Secondary Qualitative Data to Research Education

How useful is secondary qualitative data when researching education? This post considers some of the theoretical, practical and ethical limitations of Public and Personal Documents which are produced in the context of education – such as OFSTED reports, school prospectuses, school reports and messages sent between pupils.  

Public Documents

Personal Documents

Ofsted and Inspection Reports

School Websites

School prospectuses

School policy documents

School text books

School reports on pupils

Pupils written work

Pupils’ and teachers’ diaries

Notes and text messages passed between pupils

Practical Issues with using documents when researching education

Since the 1988 education act many Public documents on education are freely available to the public – OFSTED reports on schools are easily obtainable, and schools publish a wide variety of information about themselves in their prospectuses and on their websites.

Schools also publish a huge variety of policy documents – such as student codes of conducts, equal opportunities policies and information about how they implement every child matters and safeguarding policies – all of which are likely to be made available to researchers on request, since they are a matter of public record. These are useful as they give an account of the ‘official’ picture of schools in Britain from the perspective of management.

Theoretical Issues with using documents when researching education

In terms of validity, while school web sites and prospectuses can be trusted to provide some basic information about what subjects are on offer, GCSE results and extra-curricular activities, the credibility of such sites is undermined by the fact that they produced to advertise the school in a positive light, and all of these web sites put a positive spin on the school or college. For example, although schools are required to publicise their results, they do have some freedom to emphasise the way they report them so they can portray themselves in the best possible light.

To what extent do school web sites provide a valid picture of school life?

Suggested activity: Visit the web sites of your past school and present college – to what extent do they give you an accurate picture of what life was actually like in that school?

Extension activity: Look at the web site from another school in your area. Pick one that is very different in terms of results and so on. Are the impressions you get of the two schools that different, or are they quite similar, which would suggest that school web sites are designed to a formula and really tell you very little about a particular school.

OFSTED reports may provide greater insight into what’s going on in a school than the statistical snap shot of the yearly GCSE results, but OFSTED inspections only last for three days, and are typically only done every four years, so it is quite easy for a school to put on an act for this short a period and produce a performance which is better than usual.

Ofsted inspections
Might some schools be able to put on a better performance than usual during a brief OFSTED inspection?

Conversely, there are some schools that feel as if they have been harshly judged by OFSTED inspectors, and question the validity of OFSTED reports, feeling that the grade they’ve been awarded does not reflect the reality of school life. This is partly because OFSTED inspectors only really get to see one lesson by each teacher, which is not representative, but also because the focus of different OFSTED inspectors will be different in different schools, raising the prospect that schools are not being judged by the same standard.

Policy documents produced by schools, such as student codes of conduct might be useful for seeing how schools function in an ideal-world, but they lack validity in that they tell you nothing about how many students actually stick to the code of conduct or what’s done with students who break the code of conduct. If you wanted to get more of an insight into this, a researcher would have to gain access to individual reports of each student, which would be more difficult to obtain.

Representativeness and Public Documents in Educational Research

All schools and colleges are required to publish prospectuses and results, so these should cover a 100% sample of educational institutions, but the same cannot be said of OFSTED reports – schools graded outstanding go into ‘light touch’ mode and may not be observed for several years.

Using Personal Documents to Research Education

Suggested starter activity – Have a browse of this interesting blog – ‘Scenes from the Battleground’ – which has had over a million hits and is written by a teacher. What impression does this give you school life?  How valid and representative do you think it is?

Personal documents in the context of education include school reports on pupils, pupils written work, pupils’ and teachers’ diaries and Notes and text messages passed between pupils

Practical Issues

For a start, these will be very difficult to access. Things like teacher mark books, records of conversations with students, and disciplinary records may not be available because of the ethical requirement to safeguard children’s privacy. The same could also be true of the written work of pupils.

Where private messages and texts are concerned, it is unlikely that researchers will be allowed access to students personal mobile phones or tablets, and even if they could gain access, threads of conversation may have been deleted shortly after they took place, and the more ‘anti-school’ such messages are, the more likely they are to have been deleted.

Validity and Personal Documents

The kind of personal documents which are readily available are likely to be of a public nature (social media accounts for example) and because they are public, they would have been subjected to impression management so they are acceptable – so while this can give us an insight into what teachers and staff think is socially acceptable, using these to give us a picture of what people actually think about school life is problematic. The more ‘personal’ and private a document is, then the higher the validity is likely to be – however, the number of people who write down in-depth personal accounts of their school experiences is tiny.


If one could gain access to social media accounts and personal messaging services, representativeness should be good as the majority of students have access and make use of these services.

As mentioned above, hardly anyone keeps diaries any more, and so representativeness here is a problem.

If a researcher is lucky enough to gain access to disciplinary records, these may not be representative of the actual underlying patterns of student disobedience – teacher bias may increase the number of certain types of students who have undergone disciplinary procedures.

Ethical Issues when using public and private documents in educational research

There are no particular ethical problems with using publicly produced documents,

When using private or personal documents, there are some ethical concerns. If the researcher is given access to teacher mark books, records of conversations with students, and disciplinary records this won’t necessarily be with the informed consent of the pupils for example.

Related Posts 

Secondary Qualitative Data Analysis in Social Research

The Strengths and Limitations of Education Statistics

The Consequences of an Ageing Population

Populations across Europe are getting older which can create social problems related to higher levels of poor health among older people and a greater financial and caring ‘burden’ on younger generations.

But careful social planning can help to overcome these challenges.


What are the consequences of an ageing population?

This is a summary of a recent Radio 4 Analysis podcast – Three Score Years and Twenty on Ageing Britain. It’s of clear relevance to the demography topic within the 7191 families and households module….

Here are some of the main points.

In 1850,half the population in England were dead before they reached 46. Now half the population in England are alive at 85; and 8 million people currently alive in the UK will make it to 100 years or more. And if we extrapolate that to Europe, we can say 127 million Europeans are going to live to 100.

Hans Rosling points out that: We reached the turning point five years ago when the number of children stopped growing in the world. We have 2 billion children. They will not increase. The increase of the world population from now on will be a fill up of adults.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt: The two biggest issues that we face as an ageing society are the sustainability of the NHS and the sustainability of the pension system; and within the NHS, I include the social care system as part of that.

The basic problem we have in Northern European countries is the generational tension between individualism and communal responsibility – Across the generations within a typical family we have become more individualistic and less collective/ communal:

People in their 80s (who grew up in the 1960s) are generally very individualistic – they have retired into property wealth and are unwilling to relinquish the independence this gives them. They have also socialised their children into being more independent: most people today in their 50s (the children of those who are in their 80s) have bought into this – The family norm is one of the typical 50 year old living an independent life with family, miles away from their own parents.

Grandparents today of course help out with childcare occasionally and pay regular visits, but they are generally not taking a day to day role in childcare, and finances are kept separate.  This arrangement is mutual – People in their 80s don’t want to be burdens on their children, they want them to have the freedom to live their own lives – to be able to work and raise their children without having to care for them in their old age. (So I suppose you might call the 2000s the era of the individualised family).

(This is very different to what it used to be like in the UK, and what it is still like in many other parts of the world where grandparents live close by and are an integral part of family life, taking an active role in raising their grandchildren on a day to day basis. Various interviewees from less developed countries testify to this, and to the advantages of it.)

Within this context of increasing ‘familial-individualism‘ a number of problems of the ageing population are discussed:

Firstly, one of the main problems which this increasing ‘familial-individualism’ creates for people in their 80s is one of increasing isolation and loneliness as their friends and neighbours move away or die.

One proposed solution is for older people to be prepared to move into communal supported housing where there are shared leisure facilities, like many people do in Florida. However, people are quite set in their ways in the UK and so this is unlikely. A second solution, which some immigrants are choosing is to return to thier country of origin where there are more collectivist values, trading in a relatively wealthy life in the UK for less money and more community abroad.

A second problem is that healthy life expectancy is not keeping pace with life-expectancy, and there are increasing numbers of people in their 80s who spend several years with chronic physical conditions such as arthritis, and also dementia – which require intensive social care.

healthy life expectancy.png
Low ‘healthy life expectancy’ is more of a problem for the most deprived

As with the first point above, this is more of a social problem when children do not see it as their duty to care for their elderly parents – It is extremely expensive to provide round the clock care for chronic conditions for several years, and this puts a strain on the NHS. Basically, the welfare state cannot cope with both pensions and chronic care.

On potential solution to the above is mentioned by Sally GREENGROSS: The Germans in some cases now export older people to Eastern European countries because they can’t afford – or they say they can’t – to provide all the services they need in Germany itself. Could this be the future of chronic elderly care in the UK – Exporting dementia patients to poorer countries?

However, the idea of care-homes themselves are not dismissed when it comes to end of life care – the consensus seems to be that the quality of care in UK elderly care homes is generally very good, and better than your typically family could provide (despite all the not so useful scare programmes in the media).

A third problem is for those in their 50s – with their parents still alive and ‘sucking money out of the welfare state’ there is less left for everything else – and this has been passed down to the youngest generation – As a result people in their 50s now face the prospect of their own children living at home for much longer and having to help them with tuition fees and mortgage financing, meaning that their own plans for retirement in their late-50s/ early 60s are looking less likely – In other words, the next two generations are bearing a disproportionate cost of the current ageing population.

Worryingly, there is relatively little being done about this in government circles – Yes, the state pension age has been raised, and measures have been taken to get people to bolster their own private pensions, but this might be too little to late, and it looks like little else is likely to be done – The issue of the ageing population and the cost of welfare for the elderly is not a vote-winner after all.

The programme concludes by pointing out that pensions and care homes are only part of the debate. What will also be needed to tackle the problems of the ageing population is a more age-integrated society, a possible renegotiation at the level of the family so that grandparents are more integrated on a day to day basis in family life (trading of child care for a level of elderly care) and also social level changes – to make work places and public places more accessible for the elderly who might be less physically able than those younger than them.

Here’s the full transcript of the show –analysis-ageing

Further Reading 

The Future of an Ageing Population (Government Report)

Underfunded and Overstretched – The Crisis in Care for the Elderly – 2016 Guardian article

Related Posts 

The question of why we have an ageing population is explained by the combination of the long term decrease in both the birth rates and death rates dealt with in these two posts: Explaining changes to the birth rate, and Explaining the long term decline of the death rate.

A related topic in the Global Development module is the question of whether ‘overpopulation’ is a problem – an informed view on this topic is that of Hans Rosling’s who argues that ‘overpopulation’ isn’t really a problem at all because of the rapid global decline in birth rates.

This mind map on The consequences of an ageing population offers you an easier summary or the topic compared to this post.

Other Summaries of Thinking Allowed Podcasts 

Thinking Allowed really is an excellent resource for A level Sociology – here are two other summaries of recent Thinking Allowed Podcasts…

Why do White Working Class Kids Lack Aspiration?

Sociological Research on Gangs

Social Policy and The Family

How do social policies affect family life?

This post defines social policy and then examines the 1969 Divorce Act, Maternity and Paternity Acts, the Civil Partnership Act and Child Benefit policies, looking at how these policies have impacted different aspects of family life such as marriage, divorce, family structure, as well as the differential impact on men, women and children within the family.

What is social policy?

Social policy refers to the plans and actions of state agencies such as health and social services, the welfare benefits system and schools and other bodies.

Policies are usually based on laws introduced by governments that provide the framework within which these agencies will operate. For example, laws lay down who is entitled to each specific welfare benefit.

Most social policies affect families in some way or other. Some are aimed directly at families, such as laws governing marriage and divorce, abortion or contraception, child protection, adoption and so on.

Policies are not necessarily aimed specifically at families, but will have an effect in families. Such policies would include those on childcare, education, housing and crime. Furthermore, many policies that impact upon families are those that make changes to the legislation on taxation and benefits, such as child tax credits.

Recently, the Department for Education and Skills has been given a new name and expanded role. The creation of the Department for Children, Schools and Families suggest that the current government believe that to make a better society for the children of today, family life and education should not be treated as two separate areas of life.

There are many social policies which have affected family life over the years, so the summary below is necessarily selective!

The 1969 Divorce Act (and the 1984 Divorce Act)

Previous to 1969, one partner had to prove that the other was ‘at fault’ in order to be granted a divorce, however, following the Divorce Reform Act of 1969, a marriage could be ended if it had irretrievably broken down, and neither partner no longer had to prove “fault”. However, if only one partner wanted a divorce, they still had to wait 5 years from the date of marriage to get one. In 1984 this was changed so that a divorce could be granted within one year of marriage.

Maternity and Paternity Policy – The Employment Protection Act of 1975 and the ‘Paternity Act’ (2010)

Social responsibility for women’s health during childbearing was first recognised through the 1911 National Insurance Act. It included a universal maternal health benefit and a one off maternity grant of 30 shillings for insured women (around £119 in today’s money)

However, many women were routinely sacked for becoming pregnant until the late 1970s and the UK only introduced its first maternity leave legislation through the Employment Protection Act 1975. However, for the first 15 years (until 1990!) only about half of working women were eligible for it because of long qualifying periods of employment.

In 2003, male employees received paid statutory paternity leave for the first time, an entitlement that was extended in January 2010.

Today in the UK employees can take up to 52 weeks of Statutory Maternity Leave, of which the first two weeks after the baby is born is ‘compulsory’ maternity leave (4 weeks for women who work in a factory).

Since 2010 (following what is often called the ‘Paternity Act’) – This leave is divided into a two 26-week periods. After the first 26 weeks, the father of the child (or the mother’s partner) has the right to take up to 26 weeks’ leave if their partner returns to work, in effect taking the place of the mother at home. Eligible employees can take similar periods of Statutory Adoption Leave. It is unlawful to dismiss (or single out for redundancy) a pregnant employee for reasons connected with her pregnancy.

From 2015, parents will be given the right to share the care of their child in the first year after birth. Women in employment will retain their right to 52 weeks of maternity leave. Only mothers will be allowed to take leave in the first two weeks’ leave after birth. But after that parents can divide up the rest of the maternity leave.

The Civil partnerships Act 2004 and the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013

The Civil Partnership Act 2004 gave same-sex couples the rights and responsibilities similar to those in a civil marriage. The Act was introduced by the New Labour government in power at the time. Civil partners are entitled to the same property rights, the same exemptions on inheritance tax, social security and pension benefits as married couples. They also have the same ability to get parental responsibility for a partner’s children as well as reasonable maintenance, tenancy rights, insurance and next-of-kin rights in hospital and with doctors. There is a process similar to divorce for dissolving a civil partnership. 18,059 couples entered into a civil partnership between December 2005 and the end of December 2006, with approximately 6000 taking place each year since.

The Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 allows same-sex couples to enter into a marriage in England and Wales on the same basis as heterosexual couples, and to convert Civil Partnerships to Marriages.

The Adoption Act 2002 (came into force 2005)

Not much to say about this one – In 2005, under New Labour, the law on adoption changed, giving unmarried couples, including gay couples, the right to adopt on the same basis as married couples.

The Child Benefit Acts (1975) and significant changes (1998 and 2013

The Child Benefit Bill introduced for the first time a universal payment, paid for each child. The rate payable was £1/week for the first and £1.50 for each subsequent child. An additional 50p was payable to lone-parent families.

Child Benefits increased in line with inflation, until 1998, when the new Labour government increased the first child rate by more than 20%, and abolished the Lone Parent rate. Rates increased again in line with inflation until 2010, since which time they have been frozen.

Effective from 7 January 2013, Child Benefit became means tested – those earning more than £50,000 per year would have part of their benefit withdrawn, and if earning over £60,000, would receive nothing at all.

Changes to Income Support for Lone Parents since 2014

There are two main types of out of work benefit for working age people in the UK – Income Support and the Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA). Income support is for those deemed unable to work, JSA is for those who are able to work but currently out of work, and is conditional on proving that you are looking for work. Income support for lone parents over 18 is currently £73.10, the same as for non-parents on both Income Support and JSA.

  • To qualify for Income Support you must be all of the following:
    between 16 and Pension Credit qualifying age
  • Pregnant, or a carer, or a lone parent with a child under 5 or, in some cases, unable to work because you’re sick or disabled.
  • Have no income or a low income (your partner’s income and savings will be taken into account)
  • Be working less than 16 hours a week (and your partner works less than 24 hours a week)
  • Living in England, Scotland or Wales

Recent changes to the rules mean that single parents of children aged 3-4 are now required to attend more work readiness interviews with their local job centre in preparation for starting work when their children reach school age.

Signposting and Related Posts 

This topic is part of the families and households module, normally taught in the first year of A-level sociology.

After reading this post you should read this one: Sociological Perspectives on Social Policy and The Family 

You might also like this brief video on… How do Social Policies Affect Family Life?

Sustainable Development

This post defines sustainable development, summarises the environmental challenges we face and contrasts technocentric and ecocentric views on the relationship between economic growth and sustainability.

There are many definitions of sustainable development, including this landmark one which first appeared in 1987:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The above definition comes from a landmark report called ‘Our Common Future’ (Oxford University Press, 1987) which was authored by the World Commission on Environment and Development and represents the first serious attempt to assess the impact human development has had on the natural world at a global level.

The Concept of Sustainable Development has two elements –

Firstly, the ‘development’ part recognises that people have basic needs and that there is a need for further economic development because there are still hundreds of millions of people who lack access to sufficient food, water, sanitation and social services for example.

Secondly, the ‘Sustainable’ aspect recognises that there are ‘limits to growth’ – the earth has finite resources and a limited capacity to soak up the waste and pollution associated with economic growth.

These ‘limits to growth’ are manifest in a number of environmental problems – namely

1. The burning of fossil of fuels which leads to global warming and sea level rise

2. Deforestation

3. Desertification

4. Toxic Pollution and waste

5. Resource Depletion

6. Species Extinction

One outcome of the above report was the first Earth Summit, held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro (known as the Rio Summit). At the time this was the largest meeting of world leaders in history, attended by 172 governments under the auspices of the United Nations. Various earth summits have led to various global agreements to tackle environmental problems –

  • Agenda 21 – in which signatories agreed in principal to the concept of sustainable development – finding ways to combat poverty and develop without depleting resources or harming the environment
  • The 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity which commits nations to finding ways to develop which avoid destroying natural ecosystems
  • The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, in which 192 nations eventually committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the basis that global warming was man made and the burning of fossil fuels was the main cause.
  • In 2015 – The Sustainable Development Goals – A set of 17 goals which look forward to 2030, approximately half of which are explicitly to do with sustainability, a much stronger commitment than the previous Millennium Development Goals.

However, whether or not these commitments are met remains to be seen.

Criticisms of International Agreements on Climate Change

Many environmentalists suggest that the above global agreements on Climate Change are too little too late because…

1. Many of the treaties above are voluntary – Agenda 21 for example. There are very few legally binding agreements about climate change which come attached with sanctions.

2. Two of the world’s biggest polluters – China and India were not required to sign up to reducing CO2 emissions (globally we emit more now than we did in 1992).

3. Greenpeace suggests that big oil companies have played a role in PREVENTING a global move towards more sustainable energy sources such as solar and wind power.


Competing Ideas about what to do about environmental decline 

Although 97% of the world’s climate scientists agree that human activity is changing the planet (the other 3% work for the oil industry) there is little agreement over what we should actually do about this, and so many different ideas about what ‘sustainable development’ looks like. There are numerous reasons for this: firstly we are in uncharted territory: we’ve never faced climate change before, we have little prior knowledge about what effects human activity has on the planet, secondly, climate science is complex – think how difficult it is to predict the weather tomorrow, let alone global warming trends over 10 years or more, and finally, new technologies are evolving all the time which may enable us to offset some of the problems of climate change and environmental decline.

It is these uncertainties that allow for different ideas about how we should relate to the earth. Timothy O’Riordan suggests that there are different theories as to how humans should relate to the earth, some of which he says place ecological laws at the centre of their approach and identify that humans are subject to these laws (he classifies these approaches as ‘eco-centric’) and others which place humans and their capacity to adapt the world to their needs at the centre of the approach (he classifies these as ‘technocentric’).

NB What’s below only summarises aspects of these two approaches to sustainable development.

A Technocentric Approach to Development and Environmental Decline 

The Technocentric ‘solution’ to climate change is associated with neoliberalism, and is a view that many leaders of big business subscribe to. It is popular amongst 10-30% of the population. Technocentrics basically believe that economic growth is the primary goal and that efforts to combat climate change should not compromise economic development.

Technocentric thinkers believe that humans have the right to exploit the earth’s resources and that the earth is generally robust enough to be able to handle resource extraction and a degree of pollution. They believe that when resources (such as oil for example) become scarce, the laws of supply and demand will kick in, prices will go up, and so demand will be reduced.

The resulting scarcity of resources will create a market-niche, and new business will be set up in order to meet demand. For example, as oil runs out, it will become more profitable for businesses to innovate and invest in renewable technologies such as solar, wind and nuclear power.

Technocentrics believe that there is no need to change the current neoliberal economic system – solutions to the current environmental crisis can be found within the system.

Some Technocentric Solutions to Climate Change

Technocentric thinkers tend to emphasise market-solutions, and rely on a fusion of science, engineering and big business to manage environmental problems. Below we consider just two of these – Carbon Trading Schemes and Geo-Engineering Projects

Carbon Trading

Carbon Trading works around an exchange of credits between nations designed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. The carbon trade allows countries that have higher carbon emissions to purchase the right to release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from countries that have lower carbon emissions. The carbon trade originated with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and is intended to reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions to 5% below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.


Geo-engineering refers to artificial efforts to mitigate global warming by manipulating weather patterns, oceans, currents, soils and atmosphere to reduce the amount of greenhouses gases –

According to a recent Guardian article – ‘The range of techno-fix ideas is growing by the month. They include absorbing plankton, growing artificial trees, firing silver iodide into clouds to produce rain, genetically engineering crops to be paler in colour to reflect sunlight back to space, fertilising the ocean with iron nanoparticles to increase phytoplankton, blasting sulphate-based aerosols into the stratosphere to deflect sunlight, covering the desert with white plastic to reflect sunlight and painting cities and roads white.

There are serious proposals to launch a fleet of unmanned ships to spray seawater into the atmosphere to thicken clouds and thus reflect more radiation from Earth. Most controversial of all is an idea to fire trillions of tiny mirrors into space to form a 100,000-mile “sunshade” for Earth.

Most are unlikely to be seriously considered but some are being pushed hard by entrepreneurs and businessmen attracted by the potential to make billions of dollars in an emerging system of UN global carbon credits. Research by ETC, the Canadian-based watchdog, shows at least 27 patents have been granted to inventors and assignees including Bill Gates, Dupont, the US government and various corporations.’

From the UK, everyone’s favourite bearded billionaire Richard Branson is a big fan of geo-engineering, so much so that he set up a £25 million prize fund for the best scalable technological solution which could remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Check out the The Virgin Earth Challenge for more details.

An Ecocentric Approach to Climate Change 

To my mind Naomi Klein’s latest book can be characterised as an Eco-Communalist approach to climate change, which comes under the broad umbrella of ecocentrism 

In her recent (2014) book ‘This Changes Everything’ Naomi Klein argues that Neoliberalism is responsible for Climate Change, and that Nation States the world over need to gain control over Big Oil and Energy companies and the World Trade Organisation in order to achieve sustainable development. (NB she is effectively arguing that Neoliberal Development has caused climate change.) She also argues that we need to develop localised control over our energy supply and resource use in order to deal with climate change. All in all – this is a good example of an eco-communalist approach to sustainable development.

Klein argues that the three policy pillars of the neoliberal age (1989 – present day) which are:

* privatisation of the public sphere

* deregulation of the corporate sector, and

* lowering of income and corporate taxes, paid for with cuts to public spending

are each incompatible with many of the actions we must take to bring our emissions to safe levels and bring climate change under control.

These neoliberal ideas lie at the heart of the World Trade Organisation, and many of its policies are incompatible with a sustainable future. Specifically Klein says there are three contradictions between the (neoliberal) goals of the WTO and what’s needed to control climate change. Klein offers the following reasons for this:

* Firstly, the WTO encourages more international trade which has meant a huge increase in fossil fuel burning container ships and lorries. Reduced carbon emissions would require less trade or more local trade.

* Secondly, the WTO gave TNCs the rights to sue national governments for preventing them to make a profit out of mining/ burning fossil fuels (I KNOW – It sounds crazy, but it’s true!). Whereas to protect the environment, governments would need to be able pass laws to protect the environment (kind of an obvious point I know!).

* Thirdly, the WTO has given western companies stronger patent rights over their technologies – whereas if renewable technologies are to be transferred to the developing world, they would need to make their own cheap copies of those technologies (because they would not be able to afford to buy them).

To illustrate the lunacy of the current Capitalist System Klein outlines how TNCs use the WTO to sue governments who try to subsidise renewable energy.

(Firstly some context) Fossil fuel companies lie firmly at the heart of the global capitalist system, and presently receive $775 billion to $1 trillion in annual global subsidies, but they pay nothing for the privilege of treating our shared atmosphere as free waste dump.

In order to cope with these distortions (which the WTO has made no attempt to correct), governments need to take a range of aggressive steps – such as price guarantees to straight subsidies so that green energy has a shot at competing.

However, green energy programmes which have been instigated under nation states are increasingly being challenged under World Trade Organisation rules. For example:

In 2010 the United States challenged China’s wind powered subsidy programs on the grounds that it contained supports for local industry considered protectionist. China in turn filed a complaint in 2012 targeting various renewable energy programmes in mainly Italy and Greece.

In short, the WTO encourages nation states to tear down each others windmills while encouraging them to subsidise coal burning power stations.

The sad thing is, when governments subsidise green energy – it works – Denmark has the most successful renewable energy programs in the world, with 40% of its energy coming from renewables, mostly wind, but its programme was rolled out in the 1980s, with most installations being subsidised at 30%, before the WTO was established. Now such subsidies are illegal under WTO rules because it’s ‘unfair’ to fossil fuel companies.

Solutions to Climate Change : Ground-Up Social Democracy Is The Most Effective Way to Combat Climate Change

Klein notes that much has been written about Germany’s renewable energy transition – It is currently undergoing a ‘transition to green’ – with 25% of its energy coming from renewables. This is up from only 6% in 2000.

Though rarely talked about there is a clear and compelling relationship between public ownership and the ability of communities to get off dirty energy.

In Germany, this has taken the form of local citizens groups taking control of their own energy supplies from multinational corporations. There are about 200 of these in Germany, and they take the form of locally controlled energy companies which are concerned with public interests, not profit, which was democratically

controlled by citizens, with money earned being returned to the city, rather than lost to shareholders of some multinational.

This movement is actually more widespread than Germany (there are even some cities in America have done this, such as Boulder in Colorado which have gone down this route), and is most prevalent in the Netherlands, Austria, and Norway, and these are the countries with the highest commitment to coming off fossil fuels and pursuing green energy alternatives.

Two further case studies of countries which practice small-scale environmentalism are Cuba, which was forced to adopt organic gardening with the collapse of communism in the 1990s, and protection of the environment also forms a cornerstone of the Gross National Happiness strategy of Bhutan.

Extreme ‘Eco-Communalism’ in the UK – The case of Tinkers Bubble.

There are a handful of people (less than 1% of the population) who believe that nothing less than radical lifestyle change is required to tackle climate change. One example of this in the UK is Tinkers Bubble.

Tinkers Bubble is a small woodland community which uses environmentally sound methods of working the land without fossil fuels. They make their monetary incomes mainly through forestry, apple work and gardening. As a result they are money poor but otherwise rich.

They manage about 28 acres of woodland using horses, two person saws, and a wood-fired steam-powered sawmill. Their pastures, orchards, and gardens are organically certified, and no-dig, and they press apple juice for sale, grow most of their own vegetables, keep chickens and bees, and sell their produce at farmers markets.

They rely on off-grid solar powered 12v electricity, have their own natural spring water, use compost toilets. and burn wood for cooking, heating, and for hot water. Most people wash their clothes by hand and life is lived mostly outdoors, so it’s cold in the winter.


A Radical Feminist Perspective on the Family

Radical feminists see society as patriarchal – a simple definition of patriarchy is provided by the London Feminist Network – ‘Patriarchy refers to a society in which there are unequal power relations between women and men whereby women are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed’.

Most radical feminists see the family as a important in maintaining male power. Below I restrict myself to focusing on the work of one radical feminist – Germaine Greer.

Germaine Greer – The Whole Woman and The Family

Germaine Greer (2000) argues that the family continues to disadvantage women. She focuses on looking at the role of women as wives, mothers and daughters.

Women as Wives

Greer argues that there is a strong ideology suggesting that being a wife is the most important female role. The wives of presidents and prime ministers get considerable publicity, but often have to be subservient to their husbands. Such a role demands that the woman…

‘Must not only be seen to be at her husband’s side on all formal occasions, she must also be seen to adore him and never to appear less than dazzled by everything he may say or do. Her eyes should be fixed on him but he should do his best never to be caught looking at her’.

Radical feminist criticism of marriage

This inequality is mirrored in most marriages. Greer argues that marriage reinforces patriarchal relations from the outset. What she refers to as the ‘ghastly figure of the bride’ expresses traditional conceptions of femininity and once the honeymoon period is over marriage settles into a pattern in which husbands spend more time outside of the home compared to the wife (reinforcing the gendered public-private divide), spends more money on himself, does less housework and generally does better out of the relationship. Wives tend to see it as their job to keep the husband happy, while the husband thinks he has done all he needs to keep his wife happy just by consenting to marry her.

It is typically women who are more likely to think they need to be married in order to be happy, but in reality this is a myth. In fact it is men who do better out of marriage than women. Married men report higher levels of satisfaction than non-married men, while single women report higher levels of satisfaction than married women.

Three quarters of divorces are initiated by women, which has led to a decline in the stable married-family in recent years. Greer sees this as a good thing because the illusion of traditional family life was built on the silence of suffering women.

Women as mothers

Greer consents that motherhood can be intrinsically satisfying she argues that it is not valued by society. She says ‘mothers bear children in pain, feed them from their bodies, cherish and nourish and prepare to lose them’. Children are expected to leave their mother’s home when quite young and to ow their mothers little or nothing in return. Many of the elderly who die of hypothermia are mothers, yet their children accept no responsibility for helping to support them. Society attaches no or little value to motherhood:

‘Mother’ is not a career option; the woman who gave her all to mothering has to get in shape, find a job, and jeep young and beautiful if she wants to be loved. ‘Motherly is a word for people who are frumpish and suffocating’.

Greer suggests at least the following pieces of evidence to demonstrate that mothers are undervalued in society:

  1. In childbirth, the attention focuses mostly on the well-being of the child. The mother’s health takes a back-seat.
  2. Mothers and babies are generally not welcomed in society – in restaurants and public transport for example.
  3. Women are expected to return to work shortly after giving birth, on top of all of the child care duties.
  4. The feminine ideal is to be slim and hipless, while broad hips and the blossom of maternity are seen as monstrous. Women are expected to ‘regain their figure’ shortly after childbirth.
  5. After all is said and done the final role for mothers is to take the blame if their children go bad. Single mothers are here singled out for special attention.

Women as daughters

According to Greer men expect to exercise control over women and expect them to service their needs. Greer argues that daughters are quite likely to experience sexual abuse from their fathers, step-fathers and other male relatives and that this is a particularly horrendous form of patriarchy and is an extension of male heterosexuality. She believes that such abuse is very much more common than most of us think and that ‘it is understood that heterosexual men fancy young things, that youth itself is a turn-on, but no-one is sure how young is too young. Why after all are sexy young women called ‘babes’?


While Greer does not believe that women should cut themselves off from men altogether she thinks they would be better off in matrilocal households, where all the adults are female. She believes such households have a lot to offer women, especially if they incorporate the many older women currently living alone.


A problem with Greer’s work is that it makes sweeping generalisations which are not backed up by evidence. In fairness it took me a while to find the above picture of the Camerons, most of them seem to involve them looking at each other!

Jennifer Somerville in particular is very critical of Greer, arguing that she does not take into account the progress women have made in terms of family life in recent years.

Related Posts

Feminist perspectives on the family (which covers all three types of Feminism)

The Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family

The Marxist Feminist perspective on the family

The Personal Life Perspective on the Family

The Personal Life Perspective: dogs and dead relatives are part of the family too!

The personal life perspective on the family is essentially an Interactionist perspective and makes two basic criticisms of structural perspectives such as Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism’. Carol Smart is the main thinker associated with this perspective.

The Personal Life Perspective: Key Ideas

  1. ‘They tend to assume that the traditional nuclear family is the dominant type of family. This ignores the increased diversity of families today. Compared with 50 years ago, many more people now live in other families, such as lone-parent families and so on.
  2. They are all structural theories. That is, they assume that families and their members are simply passive puppets manipulated by the structure of society to perform certain functions – for example, to provide the economy with a mobile labour force, or serve the needs of capitalism or of men.

The Sociology of Personal life is strongly influenced by Interactionist ideas and contrasts with structural theories. Sociologists from this perspective believe that in order to understand families, we must start from the point of view of the individuals concerned and the meanings they give to their relationships.’

Carol Smart: ‘Personal Life: New Directions in Sociological Thinking’

Carol Smart Sociology of Personal Life

Carol Smart is the main person associated with this perspective. She has become frustrated by the fixation of many commentators with the supposed decline of the possibility of family life. She rejects many of the assumptions about the decline of family life found in theories of individualisation by authors such as Beck and Beck Gernsheim and Giddens.

Instead, her approach prioritises the bonds between people, the importance of memory and cultural heritage, the significance of emotions (both positive and negative), how family secrets work and change over time, and the underestimated importance of things such as shared possessions or homes in the maintenance and memory of relationships.

‘By focusing on people’s meanings, Carol Smart’s personal life perspective draws our attention to a range of other personal or intimate relationships that are important to people, even though they may not be conventionally defined as family. These include all kinds of relationships that individuals see as significant and give them a sense of identity, relatedness and belonging, such as:

  • Relationships with friends who might be like a sister or a brother to you.
  • Fictive kin: close friends who are treated as relatives, for example your mum’s best friend who you call your ‘auntie’
  • Gay and lesbian ‘chosen families’ made up of a supportive network of close friends, ex partners and others who are not related by marriage or blood
  • Relationships with dead relatives who live on in people’s memories and continue to shape their identities and affect their actions
  • Even relationships with pets. For example, Becky Tiper (2011) found in her study of children’s views of family relationships, that children frequently saw their pets as ‘part of the family’

In short – The Family is not in decline, it is just very very different and much more diverse and complex than ever before. 

Evaluation of the Personal Life Perspective

  • ‘It helps us to understand how people themselves construct and define their relationships as ‘family’ rather than imposing traditional sociological definitions of the family from the outside.
  • However, taking the personal life perspective can be accused to taking too broad a view. Critics argue that by including a wide range of personal relationships, we ignore what is special about relationships that are based on blood or marriage.
  • The personal life perspective rejects the top down view taken by other perspectives, such as functionalism but it does see intimate relationships as performing the important function of providing us with a sense of belonging and relatedness
  • However, unlike functionalism the personal life perspective recognises that relatedness is not always positive’

Related Links

Late Modern Perspectives on The Family (what Smart criticises)

Understanding Society – A longitudinal study of changing households in the UK (you can use this data to assess the validity of the Personal Life Perspective)

The Personal Life Perspective is one the main perspectives on the family within the A-Level Sociology Families and Households topic

Please click here to return to the main ReviseSociology home page!

Further Reading

Vanessa May Sociology of Personal Life

Criticisms of Neoliberalism

The three country case studies below all suggest that although neoliberal policies might promote economic development in the long run, in the case of Chile at least, there are some significant negative consequences of this pathway to development.

  • Chile in the 1970s
  • Boliva in the the 1990s
  • India – Contemporary

NB – If you’re here for a blog post about Neoliberalism in India – please click here (I moved it!)


The following clip from ‘The Shock Doctrine’ outlines the ‘neoliberal experiment in Chile from 1973 onwards, the very first neoliberal experiment in development.

Following the overthrow Salvador Allende, the democratically elected but Socialist President, the American backed Dicator Augusto Pinochet implemented neoliberal economic reforms.

These were written for him by by a group of American economists known as ‘The Chicago school’, headed by Milton Freedman.

Examples of neoliberal policies reforms included the cutting of taxes on imports to 10% (previously Chile had the second most protected economy in the world) and the privatisation of state owned companies.

In the short term – the policies increased unemployment and inflation and inequality and human misery which led to massive social unrest which Pinochet oppressed violently killing tens of thousands of people.

However, 40 years later… Chile is one of Latin America’s leading economies.

Neoliberals might argue tens of thousands of lives is a price worth paying for rapid wealth creation

Neoliberalism in Bolivia 

This video clip from ‘The Corporation’ summarizes the case study of water privatization in Bolivia in the 1990s.

  • In the early 1990s, one local administrative area within Bolivia was forced to privatise the previously state owned water supply as part of a ‘Structural Adjustment Programme’
  • A Multinational took over running the water supply for a profit
  • The poorest people couldn’t afford to pay for water.
  • This led to massive protests which the government violently suppressed.
  • In this case the government eventually renationalised the water supply due to popular demand.
  • Did neoliberalism help development?
  • If you define progress as the right to clean water then no.
  • If you define it as increasing profit for European Transnationals then yes.

Neoliberalism in India 

Arundhati Roy notes that  ‘Trickle down hasn’t worked in India, but gush up certainly has’


She notes the following three ways in which the Elite in India Benefit from Neoliberal Policies

  • Corrupt government officials sign a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ (MoU) with a Corporation which privatises a chunk of publicly owned land, giving that corporation the right to use that land to establish a business – this either takes the form of mining the raw materials from under the land, or establishing a range of other projects such as Agribusinesses, Special Economic Zones, Dams, and even Formula One racing circuits.
  • Taxes are typically kept very low in these deals – often sow low in that local people see little of the financial benefit of the new business. This is especially true were mining is concerned. In 2005, for example, the state governments of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and Jharkhand signed hundreds of memorandums of understanding with private corporations, turning over trillions of dollars of bauxite, iron ore and other minerals for a pittance – royalties (effectively taxes) ranged from 0.5% to 7%, with the companies allowed to keep up to 99% of the revenue gained from these resources. (Allowing people like Ambanni to build their 27 story houses, rather than the money being used for food for the majority of the Indian population.)
  • In a third strand of Neoliberal policy, companies are subjected to very little regulation. It seems that they are allowed to develop their projects without protecting the environment or paying any compensation to people who are negatively affected by these projects.


Sociological Perspectives on Increasing Immigration to the UK

This post looks at the recent increase in net migration to the UK, and at some of the reasons for increasing immigration in particular, including push and pull factors. It also looks at some of the consequences of increasing migration and the relationship between globalisation and migration. 

Recent Patterns of Migration to the UK

The Office for National Statistics Net migration was actually negative during the 1970s and early 1980s, turning positive but at a relatively low level during the 1980s and early 1990s. Since 1994, it has been positive every year and rose sharply after 1997.

migration to the UK

During the 2000s, net migration increased further, partly as a result of immigration of citizens from the countries that have joined the EU since 2004. Since the mid 2000s, annual net migration has fluctuated between approximately 150,000 and 300,000.

The most recent figures show a stable level of net migration, at around 200 000 to 300 000 per year:

Why are people immigrating to the UK?

The most common reason for migrating to the UK is work. This has been the case historically, with the exception of 2009 to 2012, when formal study was the most common main reason for migration.

In the year ending June 2015, a total of 294,000 immigrated for work-related reasons. This is a statistically significant increase from the previous year when 241,000 people immigrated for work-related reasons. Of those immigrating for work-related reasons in the year ending June 2015, 64% (187,000) came with a definite job to go to and 36% (107,000) came to look for work.

There were increases in immigration for work among EU citizens and non-EU citizens. Provisional estimates from the International Passenger Survey (IPS) show that 58% (162,000) were EU citizens (excluding British citizens), which was not a statistically significant increase and 24% (67,000) were non-EU citizens, also not a statistically significant increase from the previous year. The majority of other sources also show that immigration for work has increased over the last year for both EU and non-EU citizens.

The second most common reason for immigrating to the UK was formal study. In the year ending June 2015, a total of 192,000 people immigrated to the UK for formal study. Provisional estimates from the IPS show that the majority (131,000 or 71%) were non-EU citizens while 47,000 (24%) were EU citizens (excluding British citizens).

In the year ending June 2015, a total of 80,000 people arrived in the UK to accompany or join others,this remains relatively unchanged from 82,000 the previous year. Provisional estimates from the IPS show that the majority (45,000 or 58%) were non-EU citizens while 23,000 (30%) were EU citizens (excluding British citizens).

Where are people Emigrating from? 

migrants to the UK
Immigration to the UK

Refugees and Asylum Seekers Coming to the UK 

Migrants to Britain hoping to gain citizenship must get 75 per cent or more on the Life in the UK test, which was recently revamped to incorporate “British values” (whatever they are).

A survey has found that most young Britons would actually fail the test, however, which probably has UKIP supporters feeling very confused indeed.Try for yourself and see if you can pass!

The British Red Cross notes that far fewer people come to the UK to apply for asylum than you might think.

In 2018, the UK received applications for asylum for 37,453 people

The UK is below the European average for asylum applications and ranks 17th among EU countries per head of population.

Asylum seekers were around five per cent of immigrants to the UK in 2018.

What do the terms mean?

Asylum seeker

  • flees their homeland
  • arrives in another country , whichever way they can
  • makes themselves known to the authorities
  • submits an asylum application
  • has a legal right to stay in the country while awaiting a decision.


  • has proven to the authorities that they would be at risk if returned to their home country
  • has had their claim for asylum accepted by the government
  • can now stay here either long-term or indefinitely.

Refused asylum seeker

  • has been unable to prove that they would face persecution back home
  • has been denied protection by the authorities
  • must now leave the country, unless they wish to appeal the decision or there are legitimate reasons why they cannot yet return home.

Economic migrant

  • has moved to another country to work
  • could be legally or illegally resident, depending on how they entered the country
  • may or may not have a legal work permit.

Sources: Home Office, Immigration Statistics, Oct to Dec 2014; UNHCR mid-year report 2014; Office for National Statistics (mid 2013).

The Causes of Increasing Migration to the UK

The simplest level of analysis lies in explaining increasing migration to the UK in terms of push and pull factors:

Push Factors refer to problems which encourage a person to leave or emigrate from their country

Pull Factors refer to the real or perceived benefits of another country which attract people to it, or migrate towards it

You should be able to identify a number of  push and pull factors from the material above note down at least two push and pull factors which repel people from other countries and attract them towards the UK.

Increasing globalisation is also fundamentally linked to globalisation, which is covered below. 

The impact of migration on UK population structure and family life

There are three main effects:

  1. Population size is increasing because net migration is increasing. If it were not for high net migration the UK population would be shrinking due to low birth rates, which on their own are below the fertility rate required to replace the population, which is 2.1. babies per woman.
  2. The age structure changes. Immigration lowers that average age of the population both directly and indirectly. Directly because immigrants tend to be younger by 10 years than the British born population. Indirectly because Immigrant women have a higher fertility ratio – they have more babies than British born women.
  3. The dependency ratio. Here immigration has three effects:
  • Immigrants are more likely to be of working age and this thus helps lower the dependency ratio.
  • However because they are younger, immigrants have more children and so the immigrants’ children add to the dependent population.
  • Finally, the longer a group is settled in the country, the closer their fertility rate comes to the national average, reducing their distinct impact on the dependency ratio.

Impacts on Public Services..

It is not possible to say with certainty what the implications of migration are for public services, and these impacts are likely to vary by area and depending on the type of public service. Migrants contribute to demand for public services. If foreign-born people in the UK used public services in the same way as demographically similar UK-born people, they would be expected to make less use of health and social care, but greater use of education. Migrants also contribute to financing and providing public services, and are over represented in the health care and social care work forces.

The Political Impact of Globalisation 

States now have policies that seek to control immigration, absorb migrants into society and deal with increased ethnic and cultural diversity. More recently policies have also become linked to national security and anti-terrorism policies.

Assimilationism was the first state policy approach to immigration. It aimed to encourage immigrants to adopt the language, values and customs of the host culture, to become ‘like us’. However assimilationist policies have mainly failed because of the desire of many migrants to retain aspects of their ‘culture of origin’.

Multiculturalism accepts that migrants may wish to retain a separate cultural identity. One consequence of multicultural policy is the emergence of multicultural education in schools. However,Eriksen criticises such education as encouraging ‘shallow diversity’ – so we accept the surface elements of other cultures such as Samosas and Saris, but it fails to address issues surrounding ‘deep diversity’ such as arranged marriages.

Since September 11th many politicians have demanded a return to assimilationsim

Two further consequences include –

  • A More Multicultural Society
  • A divided working class and the white working class backlash.

Sources used to write the above include information from the ONS, British Red Cross and Rob Webb et al’s  AS level Sociology book for the AQA.

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