Evaluating the Usefulness of Official Statistics

Official Statistics are numerical data collected by governments and their agencies. This post examines a ranges of official statistics collected by the United Kingdom government and evaluates their usefulness.

Click the image to search 13, 848 official statistics produced by the U.K. government

The aim of this post is to demonstrate one of the main strengths of official statistics – they give us a ‘snap shot’ of life in the U.K. and they enable us to easily identify trends over time.

Of course the validity and thus the usefulness of official statistics data varies enormously between different types of official statistic, and this post also looks at the relative strengths and limitations of these different types of official statistic: some of these statistics are ‘hard statistics’, they are objective, and there is little disagreement over how to measure what is being measured (the number of schools in the U.K. for example), whereas others are ‘softer statistics’ because there is more disagreement over the definitions of the concepts which are being measured (the number of pupils with Special Educational Needs, for example).

If you’re a student working through this, there are two aims accompanied with this post:

  1. Before reading the material below, play this ‘U.K. official statistics matching game’, you can also do it afterwards to check yer knowledge.
  2. After you’ve read through this material, do the ‘U.K. official statistics validity ranking exercise’.

Please click on the images below to explore the data further using the relevant ONS data sets and analysis pages.

Ethnic Identity in the United Kingdom According the U.K. 2011 Census

U.K. Census 2011 data showed us that 86% of people in the United Kingdom identified themselves as ‘white’ in 2011.

How valid are these statistics?

To an extent, ethnic identity is an objective matter – for example, I was kind of ‘born white’ in that both my parents are/ were white, all of my grandparents were white, and all of my great-grandparents were white, so I can’t really claim I belong to any other ethnic group. However, although I ticked ‘white’ box when I did the U.K. Census, this personally means very little to me, whereas to others (probably the kind of people I wouldn’t get along with very well) their ‘whiteness’ is a very important part of their identity, so there’s a whole range of different subjective meanings that go along with whatever ethnic identity box people ticked. Census data tells us nothing about this.

Religion according to the U.K. 2011 Census

In the 2011 Census, 59% of people identified as ‘Christian’ in 2011, the second largest ‘religious group’ was ‘no religion’, which 25% of the U.K. population identified with.

Statistics on religious affiliation may also lack validity – are 59% of people really Christian? And if they really are, then what does this actually mean? Church attendance is significantly lower than 59% of the population, so the ‘Christian’ box covers everything from devout fundamentalists to people that are just covering their bases (‘I’d better tick yes, just in case there is a God, or gods?’)

The British Humanist Society present a nice summary of why statistics on religious belief may lack validity…basically based on the ‘harder’ statistics such as church attendance which show a much lower rate of committed religious practice.

The United Kingdom Employment Rate

The employment rate is the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 in work.

The lowest employment rate for people was 65.6% in 1983, during the economic downturn of the early 1980s. The employment rates for people, men and women have been generally increasing since early 2012.As of December 2016, the employment rate for all people was 74.6%, the highest since records began in 1971

Critics of the above data point to the existence of an informal or shadow economy in the United Kingdom which is worth an estimated £150 billion a year – people who are working and earning an income, but not declaring it. In reality, the actual paid-employment rate is higher.

Household Income Distribution in the United Kingdom

Household income statistics are broken down into the following three broad categories:

  • original income is income before government intervention (benefits)
  • gross income is income after benefits but before tax
  • disposable income is income after benefits and tax (income tax, National Insurance and council tax).

In the year ending 2016, after cash benefits were taken into account, the richest fifth had an average income that was roughly 6 times the poorest fifth (gross incomes of £87,600 per year compared with £14,800, respectively)

Reasons why household income data may lack validity

While measuring income does appear to be purely objective (you just add and minus the pounds), the income data above may lack validity because some people might not declare some of the income they are earning. Cash in hand work, for example, would not be included in the above statistics, and some money earned via the ‘gig economy’ might not be declared either – how many people actually pay tax on their YouTube revenue for example, or from the goods they sell on Ebay?

The United Kingdom Crime Rate

Below I discuss data from the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW), which is a victim-survey conducted by structured interview with 35 000 households. It seems pointless discussing the crime rate according to police recorded crime because it’s such an obviously invalid measurement of crime (and the police know it), simply because so many crimes go unreported and hence unrecorded by the police.

Latest figures from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) show there were an estimated 6.1 million incidents of crime experienced by adults aged 16 and over based on interviews in the survey year ending December 2016.

The green dot shows the figure if we include computer based crimes and online fraud, a new type of crime only recently introduced to the survey (so it wouldn’t be fair to make comparisons over time!) – if we include these the number of incidents of crime experienced jumps up to 11.5 million.

Reasons why even the CSEW might lack validity

Even though its almost certainly more valid than police recorded crime – there are still reasons why the CSEW may not report all crimes – domestic crimes may go under-reported because the perpetrator might be in close proximity to the victim during the survey (it’s a household survey), or people might mis-remember crimes, and there are certain crimes that the CSEW does not ask about – such as whether you’ve been a victim of Corporate Crime.

The U.K. Prison Population


 

 

The average prison population has increased from just over 17,400 in 1900 to just over 85,300 in 2016 (a five-fold increase). Since 2010, the average prison population has again remained relatively stable.

Prison Population Statistics – Probably have Good Validity?

I’ve included this as it’s hard to argue with the validity of prison population stats. Someone is either held in custody or they or not at the time of the population survey (which are done weekly!) – A good example of a truly ‘hard’ statistic! This does of course assume we have open and due process where the law and courts are concerned.

Of course you could argue for the sake of it that they lack validity – what about hidden prisoners, or people under false imprisonment? I’m sure in other countries (North Korea?) – their prison stats are totally invalid, if they keep any!

United Kingdom Population and Migration Data


 

 

Net migration to the U.K. stood at 248 000 in 2016, lower than the previous year, but still historically high compared to the 1980s-1990s.

There are a number of reasons why UK immigration statistics may lack validity

According to this migration statistics methodology document only about 1/30 people are screened (asked detailed questions about whether they are long term migrants or not), on entering the United Kingdom, and only a very small sample of people (around 4000) are subjected to the more detailed International Passenger Survey.

Then of course there is the issue of people who enter Britain legally but lie about their intentions to remain permanently, as well as people who are smuggled in. In short the above statistics are just based on the people the authorities know about, so while I’m one to go all ‘moral panic’ on the issue of immigration, there is sufficient reason to be sceptical about the validity of the official figures!

Ranking Exercise:

You might like to rank the following ‘official statistics’ in terms of validity – which of these statistics is closest to actual reality?

  • Immigration statistics – Net migration in 2016 was 248 000
  • Prison statistics – There are just over 85 000 people in prison
  • Crime statistics – There were around 6 million incidents of crime in 2016
  • The richest 20% of households had an average income of around £85 000 in 2016
  • The U.K. employment rate is 75% in 2016.
  • 59% of the population were Christina in 2011
  • 86% of the population was white in 2011

Related Posts

Official Statistics in Sociology

Education Statistics – 12 things Department for Education data tell us about the state of education in England and Wales today (forthcoming)

Family and Household Statistics – seven interesting statistics about family life in the U.K.

Sources

Please click the pictures above to follow links to sources…

The United Kingdom Census is a survey of every person in the United Kingdom, carried out every 10 years, the last one being in March 2011. It asks a series of ‘basic’ questions about sex, ethnicity, religion and occupation. It is the only survey which is based on a ‘total sample’ of all U.K. households. You might also like this summary – What is a Census?

U.K. Prison Population Statistics – House of Commons Research Briefing

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Scientific Quantitative Methodology in Sociology

Positivists prefer to the limit themselves the study of objective ‘social facts’ and use statistical data and the comparative method to find correlations, and multivariate analysis to uncover statistically significant ‘causal’ relationships between variables and thus derive the laws of human behaviour.

This post explores the Positivist approach to social research, defining and explaining all of the above key terms and using some examples from sociology to illustrate them.

Social Facts

The first rule of Positivist methodology is to consider social facts as things which means that the belief systems and customs of the social world should be considered as things in the same way as the objects and events of the natural world.

According to Durkheim, some of the key features of social facts are:

  • they exist over and above individual consciousness
  • they are not chosen by individuals and cannot be changed by will
  • each person is limited (constrained) by social facts

According to Durkheim what effects do social facts make people act in certain ways, in the same way as door limits the means whereby you can enter a room or gravity limits how far you can jump.

Positivists believed that we should only study what can be observed and measured(objective facts), not subjective thoughts and feelings. The role of human consciousness is irrelevant to explaining human behaviour according to Positivists because humans have little or no choice over how they behave.

For a more in-depth account of social facts, have a look at this blog post: What are Social Facts?

Statistical data, Correlation, and Causation

Positivists believed it was possible to classify the social world in an objective way. Using these classifications it was then possible to count sets of observable facts and so produce statistics.

The point of identifying social facts was to look for correlations – a correlation is a tendency for two or more things to be found together, and it may refer to the strength of the relationship between them.

If there is a strong correlation between two ore more types of social phenomena then a positivist sociologist might suspect that one of these phenomena is causing the other to take place. However, this is not necessarily the case and it is important to analyse the data before any conclusion is reach.

Spurious Correlations

Spurious correlations pose a problem for Positivist research. A spurious correlation is when two or more phenomena are found together but have no direct connection to each other: one does not therefor cause the other. For example although more working class people commit crime, this may be because more men are found in the working classes – so the significant relationship might be between gender and crime, not between class and crime.

Multivariate Analysis

Positivists engage in multivariate analysis to overcome the problem of spurious correlations.

Multivariate Analysis involves isolating the effect of a particular independent variable upon a particular dependent variable. This can be done by holding one independent variable constant and changing the other. In the example above this might mean comparing the crime rates of men and women in the working class.

Positivists believe multivariate analysis can establish causal connections between two or more variables and once analysis is checked establish the laws of human behaviour.

Positivism – Establishing the Laws of Human Behaviour

A scientific law is a statement about the relationship between two or more phenomena which is true in all circumstances.

According to Positivists, the laws of human behaviour can be discovered by the collection of objective facts about the world in statistical form and uncovering correlations between them, checked for their significance by multivariate analysis.

Positivism and The Comparative Method

The comparative method involves the use of comparisons between different societies, or different points in time

The purpose of using the comparative method is to establish correlations, and ultimately causal connections, seek laws and test hypotheses.

The comparative method overcomes the following disadvantages of experiments:

  • Moral problems are not as acute
  • The research is less likely to affect the behaviour or those being studied because we are looking at natural settings
  • The comparative method is superior to the experimental method because allows the sociologist to explore large scale social changes and changes over time

However, a fundamental problem with the comparative method is that the data you want may not be available, and you are limited to that data which already exists or which can be collected on a large scale via social surveys.

Related Posts

Positivism and Interpretivism in social research

Social Action Theory – criticises the positivist approach to social research, arguing that human consciousness is too complex to reduce to numbers.

 

 

What are ‘Social Facts’ ?

Social Facts are one of Emile Durkheim’s most significant contributions to sociology. Social facts are things such as institutions, norms and values which exist external to the individual and constrain the individual.

Durkheim

The University of Colorado lists as examples of social facts: institutions, statuses, roles, laws, beliefs, population distribution, urbanization, etc. Social facts include social institutions, social activities and [the strata of society – for example the class structure, subcultures etc.]

The video below provides a useful introduction to the concept of social facts….

The video suggests that the concept ‘social fact’ is a broad term designed to encompass the social environment which constrains individual behaviour.

It uses the analogy of a how the physical structure of a room limits our actions (we can only go in and through the door or windows for example; in the same way the social facts which make up our social environment constrains us – norms, values, beliefs, ideologies and so on effectively limit our choices.

Sociology is about identifying the relationship between the social conditions and people’s behaviour.

 This second video is a bit more complex…

According to Durkheim, social facts emerge out of collectives of individuals, they cannot be reduced to the level of individuals – and this social reality is real, and it exists above the level of the individual, sociology is the study of this ‘level above the individual’.

As far as Durkheim was concerned this was no different to the concept that human life is greater than the sum of the individual cells which make it up – society has a reality above that of the individuals who constitute it.

A key idea of Durkheim – that we should never reduce the study of society to the level of the individual, we should remain at the level of social facts and aim to explain social action in relation to social facts.

(Not in the video) – this is precisely what Durkheim did in his study of suicide by trying to explain variations in the suicide rate (which is above the level of the individual) through other social facts, such as the divorce rate, the pace of economic growth, the type of religion (all of which he further reduced to two basic variables – social integration and social regulation.

In this way sociology should aim to be scientific, it should not study individuals, but scientific trends at the level above the individual. This is basically the Positivist approach to studying society, as laid down in Durkhiem’s 1895 work ‘The Rules of Sociological Method’.

NB Durkheim’s study of suicide is just about the best illustration of the application of social facts that there is – In which he researched official statistics on suicide in several European countries and found that the suicide rate was influenced by social facts such as the divorce rate, the religion of a country, and the pace of economic and social changed – Durkheim further theorized that the suicide rate increased when there was either too much or too little integration and regulation in society. 

The major criticism of Durkheim’s concept of social facts is that the statistics he claims to be ‘social facts’ aren’t – suicide stats are open to manipulation by the people who record them (coroners) – and there is huge potential for several suicides (intentional deaths) to be mis-recorded as open verdicts or accidental deaths and thus we can never be 100% certain of the validity of this data, thus theorising on the basis of cross national comparisons based on said data is risky.

It is possible to apply this ‘social construction critique’ to a range of statistics – such as crime stats, unemployment stats, immigration stats, happiness stats, and a whole load more, which means that while there may be a really existing social world external to the individual, it’s not necessarily possible to know or measure that world with any degree of certainty or to understand how all of the various social facts out there interact with each other. NB This may well explain why no one seems to be able to make predictions about economic crashes, Arab Springs, or election results these days! 

Other critics, such as phenomenologists (kind of like precursors to Postmodernists), argue that the whole concept of an external reality is itself flawed, and that instead of one external reality which constrains individuals there are a multitude of more fluid and diverse social realities which arise and fade with social interaction. From this perspective, we may think there is a system of social norms and values out there in the world, but this is only ‘real’ for us if we think it to be real; this is nothing more than a thought, and thus in ‘reality’ we are really free as individuals. (Monstrously free, if you like, to coin a phrase.)

Do Social Facts Exist?

Durkheim’s view of society and the Positivist method have been conceived over 100 years ago, and it has been severely criticised by Interpretivists and Postmodernists, but this hasn’t stopped many researchers from adopting a quantitative, scientific approach to analysing social trends and social problems at the level of society rather than at the level of the individual, and there does seem to be something in the view that society constrains us in subtle and often unnoticed ways, many of which you would’ve come across over the two year A level sociology course.  

Firstly, the suicide rate still varies according to various social factors (‘social facts’?)

For example, after noting that the male suicide rate is 3 times higher than the female suicide rate, and highest for men in their late 40s, This 2016 suicide report by the Samaritans (UK focus) notes that ‘Research suggests that social and economic factors influence the risk of suicide in women as well as men’

suicide

Hence as Durkheim said in the 19th century, the decision to kill yourself isn’t just a personal decision, it’s influenced by whether your’re male or female and your age. (As a 43 year old male, I don’t find this graph particularly encouraging, then again at least I’m into ‘the hump’ rather than staring at it from my 30s and with only 8 years of shit to go.) 

Secondly, the birth rate/ total fertility rate seem to be effected by a number of ‘social facts’

Think back to the module on the family – while the decision to have babies seems personal and private, the number of children women have, and the age at which they have them seems to be influenced heavily by society. The decline in the birth rate is now  a global trend – and while there are different ’causes’ which have led to its reduction, some of the more common ones appear to be women’s empowerment and education , economic growth and state-promoted family planning.

Web

This isn’t just me saying this, it’s backed up by a whole load of number crunching of global data on birth rates which are summarised in this excellent Guardian article.

According to the The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) there are a number of factors that can play a role in a country’s fertility rates, including its investment in education, the availability of family planning services, the status of women’s rights and the prevalence of early and forced marriage.

“Population dynamics are not destiny,” the UNFPA’s population matters report says. “Change is possible through a set of policies which respect human rights and freedoms and contribute to a reduction in fertility, notably access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, education beyond the primary level, and the empowerment of women.”

Thirdly, educational achievement still varies enormously by (the social fact of) social class background

It’s depressing to have to remind you about it, but from the Education module you learnt that social class background has a profound impact on educational achievement. The graph below shows achievement by FSM pupils compared to all other pupils.  ‘FSM’ stands for ‘Free School Meals’ – to qualify for FSM status a child needs to be in approximately the bottom sixth of households by income -NB FSM is only a proxy for social class, one indicator of it, the only one we have to hand which is convenient. (The government doesn’t collect information on social class and educational achievement for ideological reasons). 

fsm-educational-attainmentKeep in mind that this is the bottom sixth by income compared to all other pupils. If you separated out the top sixth, you’d probably see a 90% 5 A-C achievement rate (or something like that).

Again if you think back to the lessons on material and cultural deprivation, coming from a poor background seems to weigh heavily on ‘poor kids’ while coming from a middle class background confers material and cultural advantage on the children of wealthier parents. Sad to say but educational results in England and Wales are most definitely NOT a reflection of just intelligence.

For the full report click here

The Spirit Level – Equality as a ‘Social Fact’?

One of the best examples of a Positivist approach to social research carried out in recent years is ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.– a study of the effects of wealth and income inequality on a whole range of social problems 

mental-illness

Chapter by chapter, graph by graph, the authors demonstrate that the more unequal a rich country is,the worse its performance is likely to be in a whole range of variables including:

  • life expectancy
  • infant mortality
  • obesity
  • child wellbeing
  • amount of mental illness
  • use of illegal drugs
  • teenage pregnancy rates
  • homicide and imprisonment rates
  • levels of mutual trust between citizens
  • maths and literacy attainment
  • social mobility (children rising in social scale compared with their parents)
  • spending on foreign aid

The authors consider and eliminate other possibilities, and conclude:

 ‘It is very difficult to see how the enormous variations which exist from one society to another in the level of problems associated with low social status can be explained without accepting that inequality is the common denominator, and a hugely damaging force.”

Inequalities erode “social capital”, that is, the cohesion of a society, the degree to which individual citizens are involved in their society, the strength of the social networks within it, and the degree of trust and empathy between citizens.

The mechanisms by which inequality impacts on societies, it is suggested, is that individuals internalise inequality, that their psyches are profoundly affected by it, and that that in turn affects physical as well as mental health, and leads to attitudes and behaviours which appear as a variety of social and health problems.’ 

So if you’ve got an anxiety disorder, blame Thatcher, she’s the one whose government kick started the march towards inequality.

Social Facts… In summary 

According to Durkheim (a French dude from the 19th century), society exists at a level above the individual and it kind of has a life of its own. It consists of social facts such as institutions and the class structure which constrain individuals depending on their relation to said social facts.

Durkheim believed that we should limit ourselves to studying ‘social facts’ at the level of society – aim to understand how and why social trends vary, and do this in a scientific way.

Understanding more about how these social forces drive social change, and deriving the laws which govern human interaction is the point of sociology according to Durkheim, and doing this requires us to study social facts at the level of society, there is no need to focus on individuals.

Some of the findings of this type of research based on social facts include……. 

  • Being male, 40-50, poor, and divorced means you are more miserable and more likely to kill yourself (Oh yeah, I’m not poor, or divorced, so yay I’m OK!)
  • Economic growth, female empowerment, and family planning policies have led to women having fewer babies
  • Being from a poor household means you’re much more likely to get crap CGSEs
  • The more unequal a country in terms of wealth and income the worse of everyone is in pretty much every way imaginable, especially those at the bottom.

So that’s all pretty useful, right? Basically we need to make the world more equal, empower more women, and help poor children and middle aged men more and everything’ll be a whole lot better….

Related Posts 

Positivism in Social Research 

Positivism, Sociology and Social Research

This post provides a brief overview of Positivist Research Methods, which consist of a scientific approach to social research using quantitative data to ensure objectivity and reliability. (In contrast to the Interpretivist approach to research which favors qualitative data.)

Positivism

The historical context of Positivism is that it emerged out of The Enlightenment and The Industrial Revolution….

The Enlightenment  refers to a period of European history spanning from 1650 to 1800. During this time, the authority of the church was challenged as people started to believe that knowledge should be derived from science rather than from God. The Enlightenment witnessed the birth of modern science which lead to massive social changes. The following three core beliefs (there were others too!) emerged out of The Enlightenment:

  • Underlying laws explained how the universe and society work (wasn’t just God’s will)
    Scientific study could reveal these laws.
  • All men could understand these laws (unlike religious belief – God’s will is unknowable)
  • Laws could be applied to society to improve it (the belief in progress and the pursuit of happiness).

The Enlightenment, Industrialisation’, ‘Progress’ and the Birth of Sociology

The 18th and 19th centuries saw a number of new scientific discoveries in the fields of physics, chemistry and biology. Most notably for students of Sociology, scientific discoveries lead to new technologies which in turn lead to industrialisation, or the growth of factory based production and the building of such things as railways.

This in turn lead to much social transformation – such as Urbanisation and the growth of what Marxists called the Proletariat. Many commentators from the early 19th century onwards were disturbed by the contradiction between the huge advances, or progress being made in science and industry and the apparent worsening of the lives of the majority. As hundreds of thousands of people flooded into expanding industrial city centres such as Manchester and elsewhere in Britain and Europe, these new urban centres were plagued with new social problems – most notably poverty, unemployment, and social unrest.

It was in this context that August Comte founded Sociology – Comte basically believed that if we can use scientific findings to bring about improvements in production through industrialisation then we can study the social world and figure out how to construct a better society that can combat social problems such as poverty, lack of education and crime.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857): The Founder of Scientific Sociology (aka Positivism)

August Comte - The Founder of Positivist Sociology
August Comte – The Founder of Positivist Sociology

Comte introduced the word “Sociology” in 1839. The term “Sociology” is derived from the Latin word Socius, meaning companion or associate, and the Greek word logos, meaning study or science. Thus, meaning of sociology is the science of society.

Comte concentrated his efforts to determine the nature of human society and the laws and principles underlying its growth and development. He also laboured to establish the methods to be employed in studying social phenomena.

Comte argued that social phenomena can be like physical phenomena copying the methods of natural sciences. He thought that it was time for inquiries into social problems and social phenomena to enter into this last stage. So, he recommended that the study of society be called the science of society, i. e. ‘sociology’.

The General Ideas of Positivism – or The Scientific Method Applied to the Study of Sociology

1. Positivists believe that sociology can and should use the same methods and approaches to study the social world that “natural” sciences such as biology and physics use to investigate the physical world.

2. By adopting “scientific” techniques sociologists should be able, eventually, to uncover the laws that govern societies and social behaviour just as scientists have discovered the laws that govern the physical world.

3. Positivists believe that good, scientific research should reveal objective truths about the causes of social action – science tells us that water boils at 100 degrees and this is true irrespective of what the researcher thinks – good social research should tell us similar things about social action

4. Because positivists want to uncover the general laws that shape human behaviour, they are interested in looking at society as a whole. They are interested in explaining patterns of human behaviour or general social trends. In other words, they are interested in getting to the ‘bigger picture’.

5. To do this, positivists use quantitative methods such as official statistics, structured questionnaires and social surveys. Statistical, numerical data is crucial to Positivist research. Positivists need to collect statistical information in order to make comparisons. And in order to uncover general social trends. It is much more difficult to make comparisons and uncover social trends with qualitative data.

6. These methods also allow the researcher to remain relatively detached from the research process – this way, the values of the researcher should not interfere with the results of the research and knowledge should be objective

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) – Positivism and Quantitative Sociology

Emile Durkheim - Founding Father of Sociology
Emile Durkheim – Founding Father of Sociology

The modern academic discipline of sociology began with the work of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). While Durkheim rejected much of the details of Comte’s philosophy “positivism”, he retained and refined its method. Durkheim believed that sociology should be able to predict accurately the effect of particular changes in social organisation such as an increase in unemployment or a change in the education system.

Durkheim believed the primary means of researching society should be the Comparative Method which involves comparing groups and looking for correlations or relationships between 2 or more variables. This method essentially seeks to establish the cause and effect relationships in society by comparing variables.

Durkheim’s Study of Suicide (1897)

Durkheim chose to study suicide because he thought that if he could prove that suicide, a very personal act, could be explained through social factors, then surely any action could be examined in such a way.  Durkheim’s method consisted of comparing the incidence of various social factors with number of cases of suicide.  Durkheim did this work so well, that seventy years later his study was still being cited in textbooks as an excellent example of research methodology

The starting-point for Durkheim was a close analysis of the available official statistics, which showed that rates of suicide varied:
• From one country to another – countries experiencing rapid social change had higher suicide rates.
• Between different social groups – The divorced had higher suicide rates than the married.
• Between different religious groups – Protestants had higher suicide rates than Catholics

Durkheim noted that these rates were relatively stable over time for each group. The rates may have gone up or down, but the rates remained stable relative to each other. Durkheim theorised that if suicide was an entirely individual matter, untouched by the influence of social factors, it would be an astonishing coincidence if these statistical patterns remained so constant over a long period of time.  Entirely individual decisions should lead to a random pattern.

Durkheim used his data to derive his now famous theory – that suicide rates increase when there is too little or too much social regulation or integration. Social Regulation is the extent to which there are clear norms and values in a society, while social integration is the extent to which people belong to society.

Even though this study is now almost 120 years old it remains the case that suicide rates still vary according to the levels of social integration and regulation.

Positivism and Social Facts
Durkheim argued that social trends are ‘social facts’ – they are real phenomena which exist independently of the individuals who make them up. He claimed that by if sociology limited itself to the study of social facts it could be more objective. He argued that these facts constrain individuals and help us to make predictions about the way societies change and evolve.

Some Criticisms of the Positivist Approach to Social Research

  • Treats individuals as if they passive and unthinking – Human beings are less predictable than Positivists suggest
  • Interpretivists argue that people’s subjective realities are complex and this demands in-depth qualitative methods.
  • The statistics Positivists use to find their ‘laws of society’ might themselves be invalid, because of bias in the way they are collected.
  • By remaining detached we actually get a very shallow understanding of human behaviour.

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of  A level sociology papers 1 and 3.

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Research Methods Coverv3
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Related Posts 

Official Statistics in Sociology

Positivism and Interpretivism – A Very Brief Overview

Further Reading 

S Cool – Positivism (click through for link to Positivism)

The Open University – Positivism 

The Open University – Interpretivism