Statistics, argues Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, reveal less than
researchers would have us believe, so the government and social
services departments would learn more by introducing more human
context to their indicators
My husband is a social scientist who has published a number of
highly respected reports using empirical data to map out and
understand some of the most intractable of our social problems.
He wrote Black and White Britain, the Policy Studies Institute's
third survey, which contained some indisputable evidence of how
much direct and indirect discrimination still existed in this
country in the 1980s. The findings were then used for nearly a
decade by agencies, the non-governmental sector and public bodies
to argue for anti-racist and equal opportunity policies.
And yet we often quarrel about the use and misuse of statistics
and how, in this strangely mechanistic world, everybody feels the
need to have some numbers work to back up what they are saying as
politicians, journalists, and policy pundits.
Like many researchers, he feels passionately that research that
is well done and statistically valid is the best way of knowing a
problem and finding solutions. I am uneasy about this and am more
of an agnostic.
Personally, I am tired of being bombarded by information which
claims to be the truth but which can be disproved by alternative
figures. Again and again we see examples of how two completely
different beliefs can be validated using statistics - even in the
same piece of research.
A couple of years ago, for instance, we had a near-farcical
national debate about children and divorce when a complex and
important report was published on the subject by the Joseph
Rowntree Foundation. Pro-divorce pundits said the report proved
that children were less damaged by divorce than by a bad
relationship between parents. The pro-family lobby concluded
exactly the opposite, thus proving that statistics and research
were simply weapons with no neutral life of their own.
That said, it is true that some research findings can completely
thwart expectations and a set agenda. Two years ago, I wrote my
first ever research-based book called True Colours. It was a report
on public attitudes to multiculturalism and the role of government
in creating a more integrated society. I commissioned the polling
body NOP to examine attitudes, using quantifiable questions and
The results were extraordinary: for example, only 15 per cent of
people associated African-Caribbeans with the crime of mugging, in
spite of the much publicised comments by Paul Condon, the erstwhile
head of the Metropolitan Police, who had produced his own
statistics "proving" that 60 per cent of muggings in London were
carried out by young black men.
The survey also showed that 70 per cent of the white people
interviewed thought we should help asylum seekers, and both Asians
and whites thought there was too much immigration from South Asia
The value of this material was that it was almost all
counter-intuitive. But I still felt that we needed another parallel
qualitative study, which I conducted, to get people to explain
their thoughts on this issue - something which is impossible in
quantitive research, even with the best questions in the world.
The qualitative study was not statistically valid but did
provide some fascinating insights into the way black, Asian,
Jewish, and white Britons feel about this country and each other.
Each study on its own would have been inadequate. Together they
The lesson here is that numbers alone, although very useful, can
hide as much as they reveal. I have seen further education and
training and enterprise councils falling headlong into a culture of
ceaseless form-filling and information gathering. I have also
watched the way people in authority become proficient at providing
written evidence which has little bearing on reality.
With the government and other institutions getting into figures
and league tables, which I think are no bad thing, great care needs
to be taken that the package of information includes in-depth
interviews which can add flesh to the figures and that all such
information is based on some knowledge of the conditions and
It is important to compare like with like - the inspections on
children in care that compared Brent with Ealing were enormously
useful. It made it clear that in very similar boroughs, the social
services department was performing much better in Brent than in
Ealing. But what is the point of comparing, say, Ealing with
And why is nobody talking of carrying out frequent focus group
studies of client groups and social services staff in every area?
The idea is not all that different from the nationwide people's
panel, which currently "converses" with Labour and responds to
policies and speeches on a regular basis.
This would enable us to contextualise the bald figures and to
appreciate that we are talking about living, individual human
beings, instead of mere statistics.
The work carried out by social workers is not simple and should
never be simplistically measured. But nobody should believe that
what they do is so precious that it should never be called to
account. No job in the world is so complex that it cannot be broken
down into assessable sections.
But this cannot be the final word. Local authorities must find
ways of gathering and providing information beyond that called for
within the remit of performance indicators, perhaps by issuing
companion publications containing qualitative research.
That way the public will get the transparency and accountability
it demands and deserves.