Social indicators

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Social indicators or social indicators are measuring instruments of the social sciences with which the quality of life , overall condition and development processes of a society are quantified and compared with other societies. Social indicators represent objective living conditions and determine subjective satisfaction (well-being). Applications are in social reporting and the establishment and improvement of welfare-oriented policy planning. In a narrower sense, they are indicators for measuring quality of life, in contrast to the purely economic measurement of welfare based on gross national income . Examples are life expectancy, infant mortality, illiteracy rate, poverty rate, home ownership rate, etc. In a broader sense, there are also other parameters for describing social structure , social change and other issues considered socio-politically important, e.g. B. Fertility rates .


While the term indicator in the social sciences refers to any measure used to operationalize theoretical terms, the term social indicators ( also: social indicators ) refers to special groups of indicators. “Social indicators” differ from other indicators only in the definition of the subject area.


Social indicators have existed since economic and social statistics existed, even if the current name for them was coined much later.

The subject experienced its boom in the 1970s. The suggestions came from different quarters: In economics , the limits of the informative value of national accounts were increasingly recognized. Politicians placed the concept of quality of life in the foreground of public discussions, while sociology recognized an area of ​​activity that had hitherto been inadequately and not systematically worked on.

Following the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, June 3-14, 1992), studies were carried out on how sustainability can be measured. In Rio de Janeiro in 1992, under pressure from developing countries, an agreement was reached that sustainability should be seen as a construct of ecology, economy and social issues. In “Principle 8” of the Rio Declaration, it is stated that states should ensure a better quality of life. In Rio they agreed on measures and a financial framework as well as follow-up conferences. In 2003 the World Bank presented a report (“Sustainable Development in a Dynamic World”).

In Germany, a number of indicator systems have been formulated to assess progress in implementing " Agenda 21 ". For example in Hamburg from the Future Council: HEINZ (“Hamburg Development - Indicators Future Viability”). With 32 sustainability goals, 48 ​​indicators and statistical time series, the Future Council of Hamburg measured the 10-year development of the city in the areas of economy, environment, social affairs and citizen participation.

The European System of Social Indicators was initially funded for three years by the European Commission as part of the EuReporting project (" Towards a European System of Social Reporting and Welfare Measurement "). A series of working papers has been published from this. The indicators cover the 27 EU member states as well as Norway , Switzerland and, as the most important comparison countries, Japan and the USA . In 2011, a Europe-wide population, building and housing census took place.

Indicator systems and their problems

Quality criteria of social indicators are objectivity (test results are independent of persons), reliability (reliability of the measuring instrument) and validity or validity (suitability):

Weighting problem

Indicators are used that are believed to measure the same or similar. There is then a need for an aggregated index as a '' core indicator ''. The weighting of individual indicators in order to combine many social indicators into one is a task. This can be solved, among other things, by a factor-analytical weighting (empirical determination of the weighting factors). It can also take place on the basis of expediency. Examples of this are the weightings for "sustainability" by weighting each of the three areas (ecology, social affairs, economy) equally. Core indices in the social area have so far not been able to gain acceptance with the public.

Selection of social indicators

In the social sciences, one is often forced to fall back on official statistics for the empirical verification of hypotheses . Costs and time reasons play a role here, so that practicality reasons when choosing social I. precede the optimal, desirable selection. In addition, there have been questions of data protection since the end of the 1970s (see the more recent discussion on this with Heike Wirth and Walter Müller).

Theoretical and political justification

A methodological reflection, e.g. on the basis of analytical-empirical science, makes it clear that data, indicators, terms, nomological hypotheses and theories represent an inseparable whole (see: Holism ). Anyone who isolates one aspect of this loses the functionality of his approach, at least if his program contains: the description, explanation and / or prognosis of the social processes actually taking place .

Similar to national accounts, the way out is often a conventional solution, i.e. H. the decision for a conceptual alternative or concept as an agreement. But that only postpones the problem. If conventions do not want to be completely arbitrary, then they have to be tied to certain objective criteria.

There is also the problem of the international comparability of social categories and data collections.

Another fundamentally serious problem arises from the claim of supporters of the social indicators project to use the social indicators to record either political target variables (the output of the political system) as a kind of success control of government policy. Or they should fulfill a critical function in that specific deficits in society are to be located in some problem areas. A variant of this would be a kind of early crisis detection system (see: model ).

In this regard, the problem of empirical measurement and relevance of theories is increased by the fact that a reference to values and social norms is more or less explicitly sought and established in political use . Such standards of value cannot be derived from empirical science alone.

One attempt was made with the OECD Primary Area Goals. Critics have criticized the omission of target areas and stressed the foreseeable disagreement in the further breakdown of the general terms.

See also


  • Hartmut Bossel : Indicators for Sustainable Development (Theory, Method, Applications). (PDF; 727 kB). 1999, ISBN 1-895536-13-8 .
  • P. Flora, HH Noll: Social reporting and welfare state observation. Campus, Frankfurt am Main 1999, ISBN 3-593-36120-5 .
  • J. Gadrey, F. Jany-Catrice: Les nouveaux indicateurs de richesse. La Découverte, Repères, Paris 2005.
  • Hans-Joachim Hoffmann-Nowotny (Ed.): Social indicators V. 1977.
  • Hans-Joachim Hoffmann-Nowotny (Ed.): Social indicators in international comparison. Campus, Frankfurt am Main 1980, ISBN 3-593-32636-1 .
  • C. Leipert: Social reporting. Springer, 1978, ISBN 3-540-08496-7 .
  • M. Peters, P. Witness: Social Indicator Research. Enke, 1979, ISBN 3-432-90381-2 .
  • World Bank: Sustainable Development in a Dynamic World. World development report. Bonn 2003, ISBN 3-923904-53-3 .
  • Heike Wirth, Walter Müller: Microdata of Official Statistics - Your Potential in Empirical Social Research. In: Cologne journal for sociology and social psychology. Special issue 44/2004.
  • BMS Van Praag, A. Ferrer-i-Carbonell: Happiness quantified. Oxford 2004, ISBN 0-19-828654-6 .
  • Wolfgang Zapf (Ed.): Social indicators, concepts and research approaches I. Section Social Indicators in the Dt. Society for Sociology, Reports and Discussions 1972, Frankfurt / New York 1974, ISBN 3-585-32109-7 .
  • Wolfgang Zapf (Ed.): Social Indicators I - IV. 1974–1976.
  • Wolfgang Zapf (Ed.): Living conditions in the Federal Republic. 2nd Edition. Campus, Frankfurt am Main 1978, ISBN 3-593-32222-6 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. European System of Social Indicators ( Memento of May 1, 2013 in the Internet Archive ), information from GESIS - Leibniz Institute for Social Sciences