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When More is Less?

September 14, 2012 by and tagged ,

Now this is an interesting short article to show students how data can hide or reveal different realities based on how they are socially constructed:

“Which two countries are the kidnapping capitals of the world?

Australia and Canada.

Official figures from the United Nations show that there were 17 kidnaps per 100,000 people in Australia in 2010 and 12.7 in Canada.

That compares with only 0.6 in Colombia and 1.1 in Mexico.

So why haven’t we heard any of these horror stories? Are people being grabbed off the street in Sydney and Toronto, while the world turns a blind eye?

No, the high numbers of kidnapping cases in these two countries are explained by the fact that parental disputes over child custody are included in the figures.

If one parent takes a child for the weekend, and the other parent objects and calls the police, the incident will be recorded as a kidnapping, according to Enrico Bisogno, a statistician with the United Nations.

Comparing crime rates across countries is fraught with difficulties – this is well known among criminologists and statisticians, less so among journalists and commentators.

Sweden has the highest rape rate in Europe, author Naomi Wolf said on the BBC’s Newsnight programme recently. She was commenting on the case of Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who is fighting extradition from the UK to Sweden over rape and sexual assault allegations that he denies.

Is it true? Yes. The Swedish police recorded the highest number of offences – about 63 per 100,000 inhabitants – of any force in Europe, in 2010. The second-highest in the world.

This was three times higher than the number of cases in the same year in Sweden’s next-door neighbour, Norway, and twice the rate in the United States and the UK. It was more than 30 times the number in India, which recorded about two offences per 100,000 people.

On the face of it, it would seem Sweden is a much more dangerous place than these other countries.

But that is a misconception, according to Klara Selin, a sociologist at the National Council for Crime Prevention in Stockholm. She says you cannot compare countries’ records, because police procedures and legal definitions vary widely.

“In Sweden there has been this ambition explicitly to record every case of sexual violence separately, to make it visible in the statistics,” she says.

“So, for instance, when a woman comes to the police and she says my husband or my fiance raped me almost every day during the last year, the police have to record each of these events, which might be more than 300 events. In many other countries it would just be one record – one victim, one type of crime, one record.”

The thing is, the number of reported rapes has been going up in Sweden – it’s almost trebled in just the last seven years. In 2003, about 2,200 offences were reported by the police, compared to nearly 6,000 in 2010.

So something’s going on.

But Klara Selin says the statistics don’t represent a major crime epidemic, rather a shift in attitudes. The public debate about this sort of crime in Sweden over the past two decades has had the effect of raising awareness, she says, and encouraging women to go to the police if they have been attacked.

The police have also made efforts to improve their handling of cases, she suggests, though she doesn’t deny that there has been some real increase in the number of attacks taking place – a concern also outlined in an Amnesty International report in 2010.

“There might also be some increase in actual crime because of societal changes. Due to the internet, for example, it’s much easier these days to meet somebody, just the same evening if you want to. Also, alcohol consumption has increased quite a lot during this period.

“But the major explanation is partly that people go to the police more often, but also the fact that in 2005 there has been reform in the sex crime legislation, which made the legal definition of rape much wider than before.”

So, higher statistics of rape might indicate (note: “might”) wider definition of the crime, more vigorous enforcement, or higher levels of attacks, or all three. It might take more specific data and maybe more qualitative analysis to figure out which is which. This is something that I learned in my first sociology course when we read Durkheim’s Suicide in parallel with Jack Douglas’s The Social Meanings of Suicide. Data are socially constructed based on socially constructed categories of meaning.

This does not mean that “numbers can mean anything you want” is often heard. But it does mean that analysis of data, especially data produced by specific agencies need to be interrogated and deconstructed. This was Durkheim’s first advice: not to accept commonsense categories of meaning as starting point for sociological analysis.

Posted in Social Research, Sociology | 1 Comment »



One Response to “When More is Less?”

  1.   Filip Says:

    If you’re interested, I’ve made some similar points here:

    http://filipspagnoli.wordpress.com/2010/12/23/measuring-human-rights-13-when-more-means-less-and-vice-versa/

    http://filipspagnoli.wordpress.com/2009/11/24/measuring-human-rights-9-when-worse-doesnt-necessarily-mean-worse/

    Reply

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