In the nineteenth and early twentieth, statistical and survey techniques were used to record, measure and compare a range of social factors such as poverty, crime and disease. This provided systematic information about the experiences and living conditions of a modern, urban population.

The social survey emerged in the nineteenth century as an important new method for gathering information about the population. Early political arithmetic produced knowledge about the population in a largely speculative manner. It wasn’t until later in that century that more organized methods of information gathering and recording were developed. It is at this point that we begin to talk of social surveys and social statistics.

The development of a statistical science began in the nineteenth century in Britain, and it is important to note two things about this: Firstly, this new science was greatly influenced by models of observation and induction developed in the natural sciences. Secondly, nineteenth century statistical science was tied to programmes of government. Numerical factors provided a basis for members of the political elite to make rational and informed decisions about economic and social policy.

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By the middle of the nineteenth century, a speculative and often haphazard desire to produce statistical information had become organized into systematic programmes to quantify the population and inform government policy, based on the belief that numerical factors provided the basis for rational and conclusive knowledge about social trends.

The explosion and rapid institutionalization of statistics in mid nineteenth century Britain was offset and to a significant attempt surpassed by more qualitative accounts of life in modern industrial society. Some of the early statisticians were Booth, Rowntree and Bowley. Their research provided ground for discussions in various areas, especially on poverty (a typical issue at that time).

* Booth: In his classic study of the “Labour and Life of the people of London”, Charles Booth brought together in a systematic manner, the different techniques of social investigation, which included the survey method, official statistics, participant observation and informants, accounts. Booth carried out a mammoth survey that consisted of house-to-house studies of practically all London. This survey not only gave the exact percentage of poverty levels but also gave details of the causes of such poverty, thus being very accurate. Booth also established a poverty line with four social classes from a total of eight that fell below his line. However, Booth’s scientific approach to social inquiry did not wholly escape the morality of his time, and his findings showed up correlations between patterns of poverty and “questions in habit”.

* Rowntree: Booth’s survey influenced Rowntree’s generation on empirical social research into the causes and extent of poverty. Rowntree was concerned by Booth’s problems’, regarding the persistence and severity of poverty in modern society. While Rowntree’s study was highly influenced by Booth’s, it involved a number of significant methodological and analytic advances. Firstly, Rowntree undertook a comprehensive house-to-house survey of every working class family in York. Secondly, Rowntree enlisted interviewers to derive data directly from the survey population themselves, rather then relying on informants’ such as Booth’s school board visitors, clergymen and police.

Rowntree’s third critical innovation was to establish a more systematic model for the analysis of poverty and social class. He distinguished between two basic types of poverty: primary and secondary poverty. In tracing the causes of primary poverty, Rowntree applied rather more rigorous categories than had Booth. While the York study represented a critical advance in quantitative techniques if inquiry problems, Rowntree’s methodology was not perfect and aspects of his analysis reflected a particular moral standpoint. However, in spite of all these drawbacks, the use of direct and comprehensive survey methods and clear analytic categories marked off Rowntree’s approach from earlier survey investigations.

* Bowley: A decade after the publication of these exhaustive, time-consuming and very-costly urban surveys, an important innovation in social survey research was made in Bowley’ study of the wage-earning class in reading. Bowley’s distinction was to make use of sampling techniques. His reliance on the earlier studies of Rowntree – and Rowntree’s own debt to Booth – indicates a move to greater replication, reference and comparison amongst surveys into social problems.

The innovation of sampling saw the consolidation of the survey method in the inter-war period, as it allowed it to be used more widely, without the massive resources required by booth and Rowntree. The interests of people using social surveys became broader.

The post was period brought further changes in the social survey. We can say that it developed in four main institutional areas: market and audience research, opinion polling, government social surveys and academic social science.

Social surveys help a great deal in the political sector. The political sector finds social statistics very useful as they can be a great help in picturing the population they are facing and adapt to the needs of that society.

One may say that social surveys have developed greatly over the years and today become a very useful type of research method, and has become very helpful in many sectors of society.


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