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Should Sociologists Make Use Of Official Statistics?

1586 words - 6 pages

Should sociologists make use of official statistics?Official statistics are notoriously problematic. They often distort or fail to show the complete social truth. Subjective interpretations of what sociology should be clearly impact upon any understanding of the use of official statistics. Tim May in his book "issues, methods and process" sets down the fundamental sociological assumptions that lie at the foundation of sociological view of official statistics. He divides sociological though on this issue into three categories positivist, institutionalist, and radical.Realists are of the Positivist schools of thought that believe sociologists should be "in the same state of mind as the physicst, chemist or physiologist when he probes into a still unemplored region of the scientific domain" They see official statistics as "objective indicators of the phenomena to which they refer." They recognize the difficulties associated with extracting these truths but believe that an accessible social answer to even the most personal of questions does exist, Durkheim, especially in his study of Suicide, is the case in point. The extraction of social truths require the maximizing of reliability and validity, "measuring the 'same thing' each time (and in the same way" and validity whether an indicator "measures what you want it to measure" can be used to remove any problems with "official statistics". Any problem therefore with the statistics stems not from fact that there is not a true answer to social questions but in the improper and inadequate collection of data. Official statistics which have good reliability and validity are to positivist of vital use to sociologists.The notion of "social facts" is itself ideological; it has no objective base and therefore is questionable. Paradoxically the group that strives for sociological objectivity builds its argument from a subjective base. The absence of any justification for this assumption potentially undermines the argument.Even if social truth does exist it may be inaccessible to mankind. Perhaps the processing of data by humans makes the inputs of bias and opinions unavoidable. That even with rigorous checks for reliability and validity, subjectivity will always be present. If true this criticism would radically undermine positivist's arguments and the use of official statistics.Institutionalists like idealists believe official statistics to have poor reliability and validity "official statistics tell us more about an organization's behaviour or the discretionary actions of individuals" than of the topic which they discuss. They examine the "process not the product" when considering official statistics. Their interest is in the way in which the statistics are compiled not the statistics themselves. Official statistics on drugs according to May tell us more about Police priorities than drug use. If official statistics are not based upon objectivity then their usefulness to sociologists is severely...

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