Official Statistics

Do you consider the government a reliable source of data? How likely are you to use statistics provided by the government in your own research? And why?

Official Statistics Official Statistics

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Table of contents

    There are many reasons sociologists opt to use official statistics in sociological research, and this will be the focus of this explanation.

    • We will look at official statistics in sociology.
    • Next, we will look at some sources of official statistics.
    • We will consider some examples of research using official statistics and other uses for official statistics in sociology.
    • Lastly, we will consider some advantages and disadvantages of official statistics, including how certain sociological perspectives feel about official statistics.

    Let's get started!

    Official statistics in sociology: definition

    Official statistics are a popular data source in sociological research – but what exactly are they? Let’s take a look.


    In the UK, official statistics are sets of numerical data collected by the government and associated government agencies. They are often gathered on a large scale and are a major source of secondary quantitative data. Due to this, official statistics are often used in sociological research.

    For a simple definition:

    According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology (2006, p. 122), official statistics are “statistical data… collected by government agencies”.

    Official statistics cover a wide range of data, including (but not limited to):

    • birth rates,
    • marriage rates,
    • death rates,
    • crime rates,
    • unemployment rates, and
    • suicide rates.

    Official Statistics, Photograph of calculator and pen on notebook, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Official statistics are a major source of secondary quantitative data.

    Sources of official statistics

    Official statistics are published by the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) and on government websites.

    The ONS is a UK government agency that is responsible for gathering and analysing statistical data.

    It is the body that carries out the UK National Census (discussed below) which is a compulsory national self-completion questionnaire that must be filled out every 10 years by every UK household.

    Data from official statistics is used to identify trends and patterns and to make decisions concerning the whole population or a particular subsection.

    Using the census

    The last census was carried out in 2021.

    It is a valuable source of secondary data for sociologists because, as mentioned above, it covers a wide range of topics. Both central and local governments make use of census data to create and enact social policies in areas like education, housing, health, public transport and more.

    Furthermore, census data is useful because it surveys the whole population. For instance, the 2021 UK National Census had a response rate of 97%. This makes census data highly representative.

    However, it is important to note that such large-scale research is bound to run into some errors, or to leave some people out. For example, the fact that the census is sent to every household in England and Wales means that two groups will inevitably fail to contribute to census data: people who struggle with the English language, and people without stable housing.

    Official Statistics, Screenshot of questions about academic qualifications from UK National Census 2021, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Example of questions on academic qualifications in the 2021 UK National Census.

    Other sources of official statistics

    The census is not the only source of official statistics that is available to sociologists. Examples of other types of official statistics collected by the ONS include:

    • births, deaths, and marriages (these are called vital events statistics),

    • employment, unemployment, and earnings (labour market statistics),

    • business output and activity, and

    • government output and activity.

    Official statistics in sociology: examples of research

    As mentioned above, official statistics can be compiled on a large scale, which means they may cover the overall population - they can also cover a specific group, such as the residents of London. This is still large-scale, even if it does not involve the whole country.

    Official statistics can include data on factors such as:

    • Crime

    • Unemployment

    • Immigration

    • Health

    To understand the sources of official statistics better, it may be helpful to know that non-official statistics include numerical data from both public and private organisations, such as charities and businesses.

    Official statistics in sociological research

    It is clear that official statistics can be very valuable in sociological research. Through them, sociologists have access to a wide range of data that they would be unable to collect themselves due to a lack of resources and time constraints.

    Using official statistics, sociologists can:

    • Identify social issues.

    • Come up with social theories and/or explanations for social issues.

    • Carry out further research into particular social issues.

    Suicide: a study in sociology

    We cannot consider the use of official statistics in sociology without referencing Émile Durkheim's (1897) influential work on the sociology of suicide. Durkheim's work is a famous example of how sociologists can make use of official statistics to inform their research aims and questions.

    In Suicide: A Study in Sociology, he reports his careful analysis of French official statistics. Through a quantitative study of empirical data on suicide, Durkheim concluded that suicide is not an individual act, but one that is caused by social and structural factors.

    Other uses of official statistics in sociology

    Official statistics have many purposes in sociology. Let's list some examples of how they can be used to further sociological knowledge.

    • Official statistics can be used to link social identities and life chances. For example, researchers can make inferences about the links between gender and education.

    • Official statistics are also useful for making comparisons over time. Census data from the past 5 decades can be used to identify trends in employment, for instance (such as whether it has increased, decreased or remained largely the same).

    • Official statistics can be used to examine the impact of certain structural and political aspects on people's norms and values. For instance, legislation which made divorce easier was accompanied by a sharp increase in the number of divorces during those same years. This was partially because fewer restrictions on divorce meant it was less stigmatised as well.

    • Official statistics can be purposefully paired with other research methods to explore the meanings and reasons behind particular trends. Crime statistics on their own do not tell us much about those who commit crimes, and neither do they inform us about the victims of crime. However, when combined with in-depth interviews, sociologists can learn much more about the state of crime, e.g. trends in reporting as well as the dark figure of crime (crimes which are not reported or recorded).

    What are the advantages and disadvantages of using official statistics?

    It is important for sociologists to assess practical and theoretical advantages and disadvantages of using official statistics. For instance, an advantage is that they are an easily accessible data source, while a disadvantage is that they are not very detailed.

    Let's look at more advantages and disadvantages of official statistics below:

    Advantages of official statistics

    • As mentioned above, they are a major source of secondary quantitative data. Data collection time and costs can be saved, as these already exist and are easily accessible.

    • They can provide a good 'overview' or 'snapshot' of current society.

    • Sociologists can have data on very large samples that might be impossible for them to collect themselves.

    • Data is collected fairly and with care as the ONS has strict rules on surveys and data collection.

    • Sociologists can easily identify trends over time; for example, by comparing the results of the 2021 Census to the 1921 Census.

    • Comparisons can be made, both between groups in society (such as between the working-class and middle-class) and cross-culturally (such as crime rates in the UK and France).

    • Governments collect data on things private companies may avoid, due to lack of profitability.

    • Sociologists can determine how public bodies (such as hospitals, schools, and the police) are performing.

    • The validity of official statistics can be improved when combined with other (especially qualitative) research methods, such as in-depth interviews.

    Limitations of official statistics

    • Some sociologists question the objectivity of official statistics. They argue that only data on the topics that are deemed ‘important’ by statisticians are collected and reported. In other words, official statistics are a social construction.

    • Researchers may not be able to find the data they are looking for as the government does not collect data for research purposes.

    • The government defines certain terms e.g. unemployment or poverty a certain way, so researchers must ensure that their definitions match the government's. This is especially important when researchers intend to make comparisons.

    • As it is secondary data, researchers cannot control how the original data was collected.

    • Official statistics are unlikely to be completely free of political, economic, or social considerations; data can be manipulated to fit certain agendas.

    • Official statistics can obscure the reality of various social phenomena. Marriage/divorce statistics do not account for empty shell marriages, and crime statistics do not account for the dark figure of crime.

    • Statistics can lead to inaccurate and incomplete conclusions. For instance, certain ethnic groups are over-represented in prisons, suggesting they commit more crime; however, the statistics do not consider systemic issues like racial profiling and selective stop and search programmes.

    Sociological perspectives on official statistics

    As well as general advantages and disadvantages we can consider how different types of sociologists view the use of official statistics in sociological research.

    Positivist perspective

    Overall, positivists see official statistics as an advantage in sociological research. Positivists favour quantitative data as it is reliable and generalisable to the wider population; therefore, official statistics are a valuable source of quantitative and objective data.

    Using official statistics, positivists can identify trends, patterns and cause and effect relationships. Not only can statistics inform on known issues, but they can help positivist sociologists identify potential new issues and links that may not have been considered previously.

    It may be well-known to sociologists that social class and criminal activity have a strong connection. However, if official statistics also show that there may be a further connection between poor health, social class and criminal activity, sociologists can use the data from the statistics to investigate this on a deeper level.

    Interpretivist perspective

    Overall, interpretivists do not see official statistics as an advantage in sociological research.

    Interpretivists argue that official statistics do not explain the meanings behind changes in behaviour, and therefore may only show a partial reality.

    According to interpretivists, official statistics do not represent objective 'facts' about the world, as claimed by positivists. This is because the meanings given to certain terms are socially constructed.

    Interpretivists may question official statistics on crime, for example, by questioning the meaning given to the term 'crime'. Positivists would argue this is because there is no objective meaning of 'crime' and it is socially constructed depending on the context and the alleged criminal.

    Marxist perspective

    Marxists do not trust official statistics, as they are constructed to uphold and protect the ruling class ideology. Official statistics protect the interests of the powerful and wealthy and are therefore distorted reflections of society. This is done in several ways:

    • official statistics that harm the elite and powerful, such as those on white-collar and financial crimes, are not shown.

    • 'working-class crimes' such as theft and vandalism are over-reported and targeted in official statistics, portraying the working class as criminals

    • official statistics can have political biases and agendas, and therefore may not be completely reliable or valid

    • as well as choosing which statistics to publish, the government can choose which statistics not to publish, which may result in distortion

    Feminist perspective

    Feminists argue that official statistics may not always be valid because of under-reporting.

    Cases of domestic violence in the UK, for example, are under-reported, so official statistics on them do not accurately reflect reality. Feminists point to this as a fundamental issue with official statistics.

    Official Statistics - Key takeaways

    • Official statistics are sets of numerical data collected by the UK government and its agencies. The ONS and UK government websites publish official statistics.
    • Official statistics are an important data source in sociology as they are a form of secondary quantitative data.
    • Data from official statistics is used to identify trends, patterns, and to make decisions about the whole population or a particular group in the population.
    • From official statistics, sociologists identify social issues, develop theories and/or explanations for social issues, and conduct further research into particular social issues.
    • There are many advantages to using official statistics in sociology e.g. accessibility and the ability to make comparisons. However, disadvantages of using official statistics include lack of validity due to under-reporting of crimes, and potential manipulation of data to fit agendas.


    References

    1. Fig. 2 - Example of questions on academic qualifications in the 2021 UK National Census. Licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3/
    Frequently Asked Questions about Official Statistics

    What are the sources of official statistics?

    In the UK, the sources of official statistics include the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and government agencies.

    Are official statistics quantitative or qualitative?

    Official statistics are a form of quantitative data.

    What are official statistics?

    In the UK, official statistics are sets of numerical data collected by the government and its agencies.

    How are official statistics collected?

    Official statistics are collected through large-scale surveys such as the UK Census.

    What are official statistics in sociology?

    Official statistics are sets of numerical data collected by the government and associated government agencies. They are a significant source of secondary quantitative data, and as such, are often used in sociological research. Data from official statistics is used to identify trends and patterns, and to make decisions concerning the whole population or a particular subsection.

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    Team Official Statistics Teachers

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