Official statistics are quantitative data produced by local and national government bodies, and can cover a wide range of behaviour including births, deaths, marriages and divorce, income, crime, and work and leisure.
Two main sources of official statistics are the government and its departments, and surveys. For example, government departments such as the Home Office and Education and Skills request; process and then publish information from organisations such as local tax offices, social services and hospitals. An example of a source of surveys that produce official statistics is The Office for National Statistics, which is a government agency and is responsible for compiling and analysing statistics. Every ten years this agency carries out the Census of the Population, which covers every household in the UK.
By law each head of household must complete a questionnaire that includes family composition, housing occupation, transport and leisure.
Looking at the above advantages, it would be easy to draw a conclusion that official statistics are in fact very useful as a source of data, however there are also important disadvantages to official statistics.
Positivists view official statistics as a potentially valuable source of quantitative data; however they do recognise that statistics have several faults. They generally agree that statistics can provide measures of behaviour that can be used to investigate possible 'cause and effect' relationships. However Interpretivists, in particular ethnomethodologists and phenomethodologists, reject the use of official statistics for measuring or determining certain behaviour of which they refer to. Cicourel and Atkinson believe that statistics are the products of meanings, which are assumptions of those who construct them.
However, although they think that official statistics are not social facts, but social constructs, this does not mean they are not of sociological interest. Phenomenologists believe that they can be studied in order to discover how they are produced. Cicourel said that this is the only use of official statistics, partly because all statistics involve classifying things, when such decisions are really subjective. When assessing this view, it seems it cannot be applied to all types of official statistics, especially those concerning data on age and gender. Although there may well be considerable room for interpretation when considering whether, for example, a sudden death is suicide, there is less room for interpretation when deciding whether someone is male or female.
Conflict theories such as marxist and feminist theory, argue that official statistics are neither hard facts or subjective meanings. Instead they believe they consist of information which is systematically distorted by the powerful institutions in society. Although the statistics are not complete distortions, they are manipulated through the definitions and procedures used to collect the data, so that they tend to favour the interests of the rich and powerful. One example of this is the claim by Anne and Robin Oakley that official statistics are sexist. They have pointed out that in eighty-percent of cases a man is defined as the head of the household, and that women engaged in housework or unpaid domestic labour are defined as economically inactive, despite the contribution which housework makes to the economy. These theories suggest that official statistics aren't particularly useful in presenting a valid picture of an area of society.
Compared to other methods of collecting data, official statistics can seem both superior and inferior. As a secondary source of data official statistics come ready coded and presented, which can be hard to do with some data, particularly qualitative. However this categorised data may not be categorised in the exact way a sociologist might prefer it, so this is a definite disadvantage. Like questionnaires and social surveys, official statistics produce quantitative data, can generally cover a fairly large sample size, and are pre-coded. Again, like questionnaires and social surveys, the data can be manipulated to support or reject a hypothesis; for example by the way the data is collected and categorised.
To conclude, it seems that although there are many benefits to using official statistics as a source of data, they must be treated with caution, bearing in mind the social processes involved in their collection. Although some see statistics as social constructions rather than social facts, official statistics do often provide a unique opportunity for sociologists to obtain data the whole population. This would otherwise be far too expensive and time-consuming for a sociologist to collect themselves.