Censuses, Surveys and Privacy


Chapters (13)

This book is about the impact of one social, political and moral issue — privacy — upon contemporary social science. As social inquiry extends its scope, questions about the legitimacy of its inquiries and the rights of the individual citizen to be left alone are posed with increasing sharpness. Is it justifiable to ask members of the public questions in censuses and surveys about sensitive and private topics such as income or sexual behaviour? Is it justifiable to allow social scientists access to medical records in hospitals or doctors’ surgeries in order to advance science? Should different sets of records be linked together for purposes of statistical analysis, even though the individual citizens who originally provided the information believed that it would be treated as confidential? What legal safeguards are there to prevent the release or legal seizure of social-research data collected under promises of confidentiality?
The idea of privacy is a vague one and difficult to get into a right perspective. Numerous meanings crowd in on the mind that tries to analyse privacy: the privacy of private property; privacy as a proprietary interest in name and image; privacy as the keeping of one’s affairs to oneself; the privacy of the internal affairs of a voluntary association or of a business corporation; privacy as the physical absence of others who are unqualified by kinship, affection, or other attributes to be present; respect for privacy as respect for the desire of another person not to disclose or to have disclosed information about what he is doing or has done; the privacy of sexual and familial affairs; the desire for privacy as a desire not to be observed by another person or persons; the privacy of the private citizen in contrast with the public official; and these are only a few. But not only are there many usages of the concept of privacy; there are also the numerous related and contrasting terms: freedom, autonomy, publicity, secrecy, confidentiality, intimacy, and so forth. In the ensuing paragraphs, I will attempt to state a little more clearly what I mean by ‘privacy’ and to place it in relationship to other concepts.
The sharp increase in the collection of personal information, combined with the development of advanced computers that can store and process this information in previously unimagined ways, has caused a steadily growing concern. Responding to public and professional concern, the British Association for the Advancement of Science set up a study group on privacy. It became clear that the general problem had been discussed in some detail over the past few years. There are a number of books on the subject and many countries have had one or more government committees. In the United Kingdom, the Rt Hon Kenneth Younger’s Committee on Privacy issued its report (Cmnd 5012) in 1972. But one important component of the data profile has not been given full consideration, data compiled by researchers.
The requirement of societies for data about themselves, about their social relationships and about their constituent individuals is not new. As societies have become more complex, the need for data has grown. Similarly, the ability to use data has been given a sharp additional impetus in the present century by the development of techniques of data processing which far exceed the capacity of their predecessors.
The American Statistical Association, under a grant from the National Science Foundation, brought together in 1973 a diversified group of distinguished social scientists and survey methodologists to discuss the problems of present-day surveys of human populations. The primary purpose of the conference was to explore whether or not these problems may now have reached a level or are growing at a rate that pose a threat to the continued use of surveys as a basic tool of social-science research. The widespread use of survey research to try to understand human behaviour and as an aid to public and private policy-making has long been recognised. The possibility that these surveys might be in difficulty because of changes in society or public acceptance has only recently become a matter of concern.
The population census is the largest single survey of demographic and socio-economic conditions in any country; it is also usually the most visible. As such it occupies a special position both as a source of social and demographic data and as the most prominent example of social research more generally. In recent years, the population census has become the subject of public debate, not only in Britain, but also in most other countries in Europe and North America. To some extent it now carries the burden of justifying not only itself but social research more broadly. And as the most visible of official data collections, it must bear the brunt of the new concern with privacy and data confidentiality.
In this chapter, invasion of privacy is discussed in relation to the confidentiality of census records and to the propriety of asking the public to answer the questions. It is also desirable to differentiate among three types of data collection and compilation of the United States Bureau of the Census:(1) National Censuses provided for by Title 13 of the United States Code in which replies are mandatory. (2) Other Bureau surveys taken at more frequent intervals under the provisions of Title 13 in which the replies are voluntary; and (3) Surveys conducted by the Bureau for other agencies of the Federal Government under provisions of their laws, in which the Bureau is involved primarily as a collecting and compiling service.
Privacy is a contemporary issue and one which has implications for social research in general and censuses in particular. This chapter considers the impact of privacy concerns upon the content of the United States Census. The many books published in recent years on the issue of privacy range from serious commentaries to a best-selling vulgarisation.1 Their common theme has excited organisations from the John Birch Society to the American Civil Liberties Union. Government agencies at various levels have investigated the matter and made recommendations.2 The frequently paranoiac tone of many discussions can be illustrated with an editorial from the New York Times (6 August 1966): Can personal privacy survive the ceaseless advances of the technological juggernaut?… The Orwellian nightmare would be brought very close indeed if Congress permits the proposed computer National Data Center to come into being.… Perhaps in the long run the fight to preserve privacy is a vain one. But, like the struggle to preserve life, it must be continued while any shred of privacy remains.
The 17th Decennial Census of Population and Housing was held in Great Britain on 25 April 1971. It was the largest census exercise ever attempted in Britain. A wide range of questions was asked, covering housing and household facilities, employment, education, birthplace and nationality, and several other topics, as well as more conventional questions on age, sex and marital status. Some of the questions asked were the same as those which have been asked for 100 years or more. Others covered topics which have become the focus of national or local government planning activities, such as educational achievement and journey to work. Some others, in particular a question on parental birthplace, were designed to provide information on issues of contemporary political concern.
A good deal of the popular criticism of social research by public ‘defenders’ of privacy is in varying degrees inflammatory, ill-considered, ignorant of the realities of research and statistical work, and even irresponsible. Nevertheless, the community of social researchers owes it to the public to take privacy as a serious issue because there are real and important problems and even conflicts of principle, and because the very moderate infringement of privacy which social research represents has to be justified and its potential abuse regulated. The remaining chapters of the book consider how privacy may be safeguarded in social research and how public confidence may be maintained.
The bulk of survey research in Britain is currently undertaken by commercial organisations, of which about 150 are listed in a current Market Research Society publication. Not all these listed firms carry out complete surveys, since many are primarily engaged in consultancy work, or use secondary information sources in preference to engaging in the collection of new data. Others concern themselves only with limited aspects of the survey process such as card punching. Nevertheless, there remains a substantial number which can be described as sample survey research agencies. About sixteen of the largest of these belong to the Association of Market Survey Organisations (AMSO), which has a comprehensive code of practice. It is the responsibility of its member organisations to ensure that their staff abide by all provisions of this code.
The Committee on Data Protection, set up to advise the British government on legislation to protect personal data handled in computers, published its report in December 1978. This recommended that the function of a law on data protection should be different from a law on privacy; rather than establishing rights, it should provide a framework for finding a balance between the interests of three different parties — the individual citizen, the user of the data and the community at large. Legislation (the report suggested) should be introduced to cover all automatic handling in the United Kingdom of personal data by any user, including both the public and private sectors.
Individual dignity and human rights have been a matter of fundamental concern to Americans since the colonial period. That interest is reflected generally in explicit law, including the Constitution, and in social custom. The recent growth of applied social research, especially research on the evaluation of social programmes, is in many ways entirely consistent with that interest. For research seeks in its broader efforts to understand better the nature of economic, social and mental disability, and to verify the effectiveness of social programmes designed to ameliorate these problems. Insofar as disabilities influence the individual’s control over his own destiny, that research will, at its best, enhance human dignity and freedom of choice.
During the 1980s the phenomenon of elder abuse was focused upon by researchers in the field of family violence. The ‘discovery’ of child abuse in the 1960s and domestic violence/spouse abuse in the 1970s led directly to the construction of elder abuse as a social problem [1]. This view combined with other emerging issues: the increasing numbers of elderly frail people at risk of abuse [2], the long-term effects of community care policies upon the family care of older people [3], and a greater interest in the sociology of old age [4]. This amalgamation of ideas and issues led directly to the need for research to clarify basic questions asked by sociologists [5], gerontologists [6], social policy analysts [7], psychologists [8] and geriatricians [9, 10].
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Privacy and confidentiality are often of great concern to respondents answering sensitive questions posed by interviewers. Using the 1993-2010 General Social Survey, we examined trends in the provision of social security numbers (SSNs) and correlates of those responses. Results indicate that the rate of SSN provision has declined over the past three decades, that is, from about 60% in 1993-1994 to 20% after 2004. Although younger, unmarried, and less-educated respondents are more likely to provide SSNs, an indicator of trust toward others is not a significant predictor of SSN provision. Further, those who refuse to report their income and who receive an incentive are less likely to provide their SSN. Our findings have implications for studies involving sensitive questions as well as privacy and confidentiality issues.
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Problèmes méthodologiques dans la recherche par enquêtes - Un historique. Dans cet article, nous présentons un survol historique des enquêtes sociales et décrivons le développement historique des statistiques et de la méthodologie empirique des enquêtes. Les origines de la recherche par enquêtes datent du début du 19ème siècle: la première enquête empirique a été faite en Angleterre en 1912 par Bowley. Les méthodes modernes d'enquête trouvent leurs origines dans les années 1930 quand trois aspects majeurs de l'enquête ont été développés et perfectionnés: techniques d'échantillonnage, techniques de collecte de données et les méthodes statistiques d'analyse de données. Dans les années 1950, l'interview en face-à-face s'est développé et des manuels ont été publiés. Au débuts des années 1970, l'interview par téléphone est apparu et l'enquête postale s'est répendue. Dans les années 1980-1990, l'interview assisté par ordinateur et les enquêtes électroniques ont été développées. En même temps, des progrès dans la mesure de l'erreur, dans l'étude de la non-réponse et dans le contrôle global de la qualité des données, ont été réalisés. Dans le nouveau millénaire, les principes de base de l'enquête empirique continueront d'avoir cours mais les statisticiens d'enquête, comme Bowley, seraient surpris de voir la structure d'une enquête en 2012. Sans doute, elle s'appuiera sur de nouvelles technologies et concentrerait sur la réduction de la tâche du répondant. tout en améliorant la qualité des données. Bowley apprecierait de voir que des méthodes sophistiquées de réduction de la non-réponse et de l'erreur de mesure incorporées dans la structure de l'enquête pour améliorer la qualité finale des résultats.
There is a growing interest among several disciplines in the phenomenon of the abuse of elderly people (elder abuse). This article examines how elder abuse is being constructed as a social problem and the particular conceptual difficulties which sets elder abuse apart from other forms of family violence. American elder abuse research findings are discussed focusing upon the difficulties of developing indicators of ‘abuse’ and the consequent problems of comparing findings. A lack of British research on elder abuse is noted and this deficit is examined with reference to the methodological and ethical issues of researching a sensitive topic. The way in which the research process interacts with and influences our understanding of elder abuse is examined in the light of these considerations. The article concludes with a call for greater awareness of these issues in future research on elder abuse.
 This paper considers the use of secondary data analysis in educational research. It addresses some of the promises and potential pitfalls that influence its use and explores a possible role for the secondary analysis of numeric data in the ‘new’ political arithmetic tradition of social research. Secondary data analysis is a relatively under-used technique in Education and in the social sciences more widely, and it is an approach that is not without its critics. Here we consider two main objections to the use of secondary data: that it is full of errors and that because of the socially constructed nature of social data, simply reducing it to a numeric form cannot fully encapsulate its complexity. However, secondary data also offers numerous methodological, theoretical and pedagogical benefits. Indeed by treating secondary data analysis with appropriate scepticism and respect for its limitations, by demanding that tacit assumptions about the unreliability of secondary data are applied equally to other research methods, and crucially by combining secondary data analysis with small-scale in-depth work, this paper argues for a return to prominence of secondary data analysis in its own right as well as becoming a central component of the new political arithmetic tradition of social research.
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