La (non) quantificazione nello studio della società. Indicatori sociali tra controllo sociale e partecipazione democratica
| STUDI DI SOCIOLOGIA - 2010 - 3
P. PARRA SAIANI, The (non) quantification in the study of society. Social indicators between social
control and democratic participation
The social indicators movement seems to be regaining its appeal. It was an heir to the supporters
of quantification in the Social Sciences, as numbers were believed to be objective and scientific
per se. Echoing the London Statistical Society’s policy that was declared two decades earlier, the
newly created Statistical Society of Paris resolved in 1860 that «statistics is nothing else than the
knowledge of the science of facts». It was, their statutes continued, an indispensable science for a
liberal state: «It ought to provide the basis upon which society is governed». But the aspiration to
know the territory was not always the simple thirst for knowledge: initial attempts were conducted
by governments to carry out a policy of control and taxation. Only in the mid-18th century did
many initiatives flourish. These concerned the collection of information in a more democratic spirit:
information was now considered to be a citizen’s right. The study of society in its various dimensions
has stimulated the search for and construction of statistical indicators and indices. The search
for a better way of studying the progress of societies has often led to inappropriate uses of indicators
and measures. GNP, for example, has been commonly considered to be an indicator of wellbeing.
The lack of a conceptual frame for studying well-being is not the only problem, nor even the
greatest. Of similar importance are the meagre statistical skills of journalists and policy-makers. All
together, these elements facilitate limiting the use of data in public debate.
In this paper, I will consider the shift from political arithmetic to modern social reports (par.
1); the success of quantification in the Social Sciences (par. 2); the use of quantification (par. 3); the
validity of official statistics (par. 4); the current non-use of quantification and the search for contextual
conditions that interfere with the transformation of information into knowledge (par. 5).
Key words: social indicators, policy, democracy, quantification, well-being, knowledge.