Social Indicators

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Science  16 May 1975:
Vol. 188, Issue 4189, pp. 693-698
DOI: 10.1126/science.188.4189.693


The notions of social indicators and social accounting, expressed by analogy with the national economic accounts, generated excitement in the 1960's, and the interest continues to grow if we may judge from governmental activity and the publication of programmatic and research papers. But the concepts which focused much of the early enthusiasm gave exaggerated promise of policy applications and provided an unproductive basis for research. The essential theoretical prerequisites for developing a system of social accounts—defining the variables and the interrelationships among them—are missing. It is now realized that evaluation research, particularly experimentation, must be relied on for evaluation of government programs. Through the development and analysis of descriptive time series and the modeling of social processes, we will be able to describe the state of the society and its dynamics and thus improve immensely our ability to state problems in a productive fashion, obtain clues as to promising lines of endeavor, and ask good questions. But these activities cannot measure program effectiveness. Finally, we must be skeptical about definitions of the social indicators enterprise which confine it to social engineering efforts.

The issue is not whether social indicators are useful for policy but, rather, how this usefulness comes about. The interest in social indicators has stimulated a revival of interest in quantitative, comparative, social analysis (60), in the analysis of social change, in conceptual and measurement work on such topics as prejudice, crime, and learning, and in the development of models of social processes. The fruit of these efforts will be more directly a contribution to the policy-maker's cognition than to his decisions. Decision emerges from a mosaic of inputs, including valuational and political, as well as technical components. The work we have described deals with only one type of input; it is a contribution to the intellectual mapping process which is essential if decisionmakers are to know what it is that has changed, and how the change has come about.

The character of the scientific contribution will, of course, vary with the subject. Models of a few social processes, such as those pertaining to social mobility and population dynamics, are in varying degrees of development and application. But for many other areas, the appropriate question is not "How does it work?" but "How has it changed?" And for still others, the question is "What is it?" The work of the Berkeley sociologists on the measurement of prejudice illustrates very well the interaction between measurement and conceptual development that is required to answer the question "What is it?" In the present state of work on this topic, the appropriate hypotheses are not so much concerned with the relationships of the phenomenon to others in a causal system, as they are with the nature of the phenomenon itself. What is being tested is a set of propositions that certain ways of thinking about social reality are productive, that a phenomenon as conceptualized is "there" in the reality being measured, and that the investigators have found a set of measures which tell us something we need to know about changes in the society.

It is apparent that many different types of work go on under the rubric of social indicators. What is important is that the field be seen as an arena for long-term development, as an effort of social scientists to push forward developments in concepts and in methodology that promise payoffs to both science and public policy.Such a view is reflected in the funding commitments of the National Science Foundation, which supports many of the research projects reported above. What we may expect of this work was aptly stated by Duncan (61):

The value of improved measures of social change ... is not that they necessarily resolve theoretical issues concerning social dynamics or settle pragmatic issues,of social policy, but that they may permit those issues to be argued more productively.