Saying “I told you so”–the power of social indicators

I love it when I find the perfect example to use for class. It’s as though the world is guest lecturing, or something. Wonderful.

One of the assignments that I use for the Advanced Policies and Programs course relates to social indicators–basically, how we know what it is that we think we know about the social problems that face us. For example, we don’t know what real unemployment looks like, we only know our unemployment rate, which uses a particular definition of unemployment (which specifically excludes those people who are so discouraged that they’ve given up looking for a job), and which inevitably misses some people who might, from their own perspective, view themselves as ‘unemployed’.

The assignment asks students to analyze a social problem and its indicator, discussing how the indicator might be improved, the particular perspective it articulates, and what the indicator says about how we, collectively, view that social problem. Students are unanimous that it’s a tough assignment, because they have to dissect social problems in a way that they never have before, but it’s also uniquely useful in making them more sophisticated analysts, better able to critique our way of ‘knowing’.

And one of the points that I make frequently is that the mere fact that we collect social indicators on some social problems and not really on others says volumes about what we really prioritize, and that a way to begin to shift those priorities can be, sometimes, just changing the kinds of questions that we ask and the kinds of data we collect. After all, we can’t paint those very compelling pictures of injustice if we don’t know exactly what that injustice looks like (or, at least, we can’t do it well).

A section in Half the Sky (go on, get it now, I’ll wait) speaks to this. In 2000, Congress started to require the State Department to put out an annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP). It ranks countries according to how they combat trafficking, and it includes sanctions for those in the lowest tier.

This is where, often, social justice advocates would start to roll their eyes–the whole “Rome burns and we issue a report” thing.

But wait. The power of social indicators.

What happened once Congress started to require this report is that American diplomats had to collect the data, so they started to talk with ministry counterparts in the countries where they were working, putting pressure on them to collect the data, prioritizing trafficking then, similarly to anti-terrorism, weapons proliferation, and drug trafficking concerns. The foreign ministries had to find the data that the Americans were demanding, or else risk their approbation. And, of course, those sanction threats didn’t hurt either.

Whether from wanting to avoid falling into that lower tier, currying favor with Americans (perhaps to make up for other areas where they were falling short of diplomats’ expectations), or legitimately outraged at what they were discovering in their countries as a result of their inquiries, countries began to act. They passed laws, conducted law enforcement raids, and initiated their own investigations. As the authors discuss and I found in my own research into this effort subsequently, the TIP has even more potential for impact. As is perhaps not surprising, the human trafficking office is marginalized within the Department of State (they report that it’s not even in the same building!). The issuance of the report is perfunctory, when we need press conferences and Presidential response. And, while the lowest tier countries are sanctioned, there are no incentives for those excelling.

Still, there are indications that, in the wake of TIP, the cost of doing business went up for brothels, eroding their profits and encouraging some traffickers to find another line of work. And the ripple effects from formally denouncing trafficking and exploitation of women are significant, too.

Indicators matter. We collect and talk about and disseminate that about which we care. And as we, as social workers, improve our ability to use and interpret and manipulate social indicators to not only reflect social problems but actually move the needle, we’ll get closer to the world as it should be.

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