Social Research Glossary


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home


Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

An indicator is something that points to, measures or otherwise provides a summary overview of a specific concept. A set of indicators that are combined is referred to as an index.

explanatory context

An indicator is an observable and measurable entity that serves to define a concept in a practical way. For example, an intelligence test is used as an indication of intelligence.


The indicator is linked to the concept by rules that are known as operationalisations.


A combination of indicators into a single score is called an index



An index is a single score made by combining several other scores, sometimes by striaghtforward addition but often in more complex ways, in order to measure some given variable.


Index number are single numbers that measure movements in a given group of variables relative to base data. The base data's index number is often set at 100.


Index measurement

Index measurement is attained when the categories of a measurement scale do not allow exact reconstruction of reality.


For example, if weights of objects are given simply as heavy, medium and light the exact weight of an object is not determined: the boundaries on the weight scale are not clear. An index of the categories would need to be constructed and these might be based on specified cut-off points on a scale of measured weights.

analytical review

'The Question Bank (undated, pp. 2–4) dscusses indicators in social research as follows:

Once the concept has been defined the next step is operationising it in order to construct an indicator or measure... In the example below on ethnicity it is clear that the research team in this particular case decided that one indicator was not enough, more were needed to fully measure or quantify the concept. This is often the case in social research, where more than one indicator is used to build a data set which is used to analyse the concept. Psychologists have built entire questionnaires to measure complex concepts such as depression, with a range of questions on mood and emotion which are then scored until a persons depression level or ‘score’ is established.
A practical tip here is to look at what indicators have been used before in questionnaires to measure the concept you are interested in..... The Office for National Statistics [ONS] have developed a series of indicators called Harmonised Questions for key concepts which are used across their surveys, making data comparable. These are useful for researchers who are wanting to develop indicators for basic concepts as they have been extensively tried and tested as questions....

The concept ‘ethnicity’ is used in many social surveys as a general classificatory question, usually in the form of two questions leading to two indicators of a person’s ethnicity; their country of birth (sometimes the country of birth for the respondent’s Father and Mother is also asked) and a self-defined ethnicity question.
The Office for National Statistics have developed a set of questions (indicators) for ethnicity which are used in all government social surveys. The questions were developed by a team who undertook a review of the knowledge about ethnicity and what measures were used at the time. By narrowing down the concept using one definition of ethnicity by a leading expert in the field, they then studied the terminology used by others to define and measure ethnicity before looking in depth at the various dimensions involved in the concept.
Ethnicity for example has multiple dimensions all of which could be used in some way as an indicator:
• Country of Birth
• Nationality
• Language spoken at home
• Parental country of birth used with respondent’s country of birth
• Skin colour
• National origin
• Racial group
• Religion
Clearly ethnicity is a sensitive issue and measurement of it by any one of these ‘dimensions’ above may cause problems. Would judging a persons ethnicity by their religion for example be acceptable to all respondents – very doubtful?
Two questions were developed as a result of the research into the way that ethnicity is thought about in the United Kingdom, with some variations for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Extensive testing was carried out to find which questions were acceptable for participants and whether the terminology being used was acceptable to the different ethnic groupings....

Census Question on ethnicity in England 2001:
What is your ethnic group?

A. White 1. British 2. Irish 3. Any Other White background, please write in ____

B. Mixed 4. White and Black Caribbean 5. White and Black African 6. White and Asian 7. Any Other Mixed background, please write in _____

C. Asian or Asian British 8. Indian 9. Pakistani 10. Bangladeshi 11. Any Other Asian background, please write in ______

D. Black or British Black 12. Caribbean 13. African 14. Any Other African background, please write in _____

E. Chinese or other ethnic group 15. Chinese 16. Any Other, please write in _____

Investopedia (2013) defines indicator as:

Statistics used to measure current conditions as well as to forecast financial or economic trends. Indicators are used extensively in technical analysis to predict changes in stock trends or price patterns. In fundamental analysis, economic indicators that quantify current economic and industry conditions are used to provide insight into the future profitability potential of public companies.


associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 8


Investopedia, 2013, 'Indicator', available at, accessed 9 March 2013, still available 6 June 2019.

'The Question Bank, ESRC, undated, 'Developing Indicators for Concepts', Question Bank FACTSHEET 7, available at at, accessed 8 March 2013, page not available 22 December 2016

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home