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Government documents as research evidence: policy processes and policy products

Held: May 2012

This half day session is designed to help students locate and evaluate published and unpublished documents created by governments, both historically and contemporaneously. The aim is to understand official documents and statistics less in terms of revealed truth than as products of politicised processes that reflect accepted ways of interpreting the world. To do this, we need to analyse not only the actors involved, but also the types of argumentation used, the document’s author(s) and objective(s): i.e. the reasons why it was written in the first place. Such evaluations are particularly required when we consider processes of social classification: the foundations for official statistical compilation.

 The advent of New Public Management and the extension of official audit have given official measurement new political significance, adding to an already considerable mass of secondary data generated by governments on the lives and attributes of citizens. The literature on measurement and appraisal has grown exponentially: there are few postgraduate theses that do not make reference to official statistics of some type. However, like any other written official document, they have to be subject to critical appraisal before they can be usefully employed within a research design. Major statistical sources cannot be interpreted simply in terms of information left out, misunderstood or created in error. Researchers must view official statistics as socio-political products. Social attributes and behaviour are categorised under specified forms to justify government action: the problem has to be created before it may be addressed. This becomes apparent when official statistics are viewed historically or comparatively: as this reveals how specific social problems were (and are) conceived, transposed into categories, adapted over time and how such conceptual frameworks are manipulated to forestall criticism or public protest. Using convention theory, the object of this session is to break with common assumptions of an external reality that can be captured (and tamed) through a process of social measurement. Most reference will be made to labour market statistics and specific reference will be made to administrative statistics and major official surveys.

There is no advance reading required, although students may care to read one of the following:
Thevenot, L. (2001) 'Organized Complexity: conventions of coordination and composition of economic arrangements', European Journal of Social Theory, 4(4): 405-25
Vero, J. (et al.) (2012) 'Decoding the European dynamic employment security indicator ...' Transfer, 18 (1): 55-67

This will be led by Noel Whiteside, Professor of Comparative Public Policy (Sociology)

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