Any subject that deals with human problems at a population level is heavily dependent upon census data and other government-sponsored surveys for an understanding of different populations. So it was odd to find Ruth Levitas and Will Guy first admitting that: "In the late 1960s, and throughout the 1970s, many sociologists became sceptical to the point of hostility about statistical data". And then offering the following justification for this hostility: "Rather than treating people, and aspects of their behaviour, as objects to be counted sociologists ... should be concerned with understanding the myriad complex meanings which inform human activity and constitute social life".
To someone who is constantly using a mix of official and unofficial statistics this was an unpromising start to a book whose stated purpose was to discover what can be learnt from official statistics "about poverty, unemployment, crimes and health, and the social divisions of class, gender, ethnicity and disability". But it soon became clear that Levitas and Guy were merely providing an historical introduction to a series of articles by sociologists who seem to be none the worse for being students during a period when it was fashionable to decry official statistics.
The government-sponsored surveys most often mentioned in Interpreting Official Statistics are the Labour Force Survey, the General Household Survey and the Family Expenditure Survey.
These are exceptional inasmuch as they were allowed to continue and even expand during a period of extensive cuts in government statistical services, immediately after the Rayner report of 1980. Fortunately, these cuts had a paradoxical effect: by heightening the visibility of official statistics they increased the number of times that secondary analyses by academics followed primary analyses by civil servants under direct government control.
It was the existence of these secondary analyses which led Levitas and Guy to envisage a book that would not only provide students and lay persons with a guide to official statistics in areas of special concern but would also reveal the strengths and weaknesses of these statistics.
For example, after describing the contents and consequences of the Rayner report, Levitas reviews official "measurements" of unemployment, and Townsend does the same thing for poverty. They each have occasion to describe numerous attempts by the Thatcher government to "bend" statistics to their own end, and Levitas also shows how continuation of the Labour Force Survey prevented major distortions by providing alternatives to official measurements of unemployment.
The critique of "social class" concepts in chapter four was originally written by Theo Nichols before the Rayner report. It deals with various concepts of modern, capitalist societies. There follow two chapters on health issues: one by Guy which shows how an offshoot of the 1991 census that was threatened by the Rayner report is still producing useful information; and one by Nichols, which deals with official measurements of industrial injuries.
Then comes an essay on "Working women" by Jackie West, which again emphasises the importance of the Labour Force Survey; followed by a chapter on "Counting ethnicity" by Steve Fenton, which shows how the large, undifferentiated category of "white" in census data has obscured the social consequences of huge numbers of immigrants from Ireland.
The penultimate chapter by Paul Abberley includes a lengthy discussion of the new sociological problem caused by increasing numbers of disabled persons and virtually no official statistics on which to base appropriate assessments of special welfare provisions. Finally, the book ends with a chapter on crime statistics by Robert Reiner whose title, "The case of the missing crimes", warns of the inadequacies of official statistics in this area.
The book deserves to be widely read since it provides a clear account of what every responsible citizen should know, namely, what is and is not being done at government level to make Britain a truly civilised country.
Alice Stewart is honorary professor of medicine, University of Birmingham.
Interpreting Official Statistics
Editor - Ruth Levitas and Will Guy
ISBN - 0 415 10835 7 and 108355
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 214