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October 1989, Vol. 112, No. 10
Developing statistics to meet society's needs
Janet L. Norwood and Deborah P. Klein
The development of statistics in the United States has been very much stimulated by the country's need for knowledge about its people, its economy, and the conditions of life. Beginning with the counting of the population as required by the Constitution, government data collection has expanded to cover employment, agriculture, industrial production, prices, earnings, consumption, health conditions, and a variety of other important areas. As the statistical system developed, data collection techniques became standardized and scientific sampling and estimation procedures were developed.
Although the history of this methodological progress is well known, it is surprising that so little attention has been paid to the development of the concepts and definitions that frame the issues and give substance to the results of statistical series. This is especially true when social and economic phenomena are measured, because definitions in these areas tend to change with society's view of the issue.
A statistical system, if it is to remain relevant, must build on the past but also must be prepared for change. Of course, there also must be order in the system for useful statistics to be developed; without consensus on what to measure and on the definitions and classifications involved, statistical knowledge cannot be developed.
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