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Measurement and the creation of ISD

Social and informal institutions – norms, beliefs, inter-personal interaction – are by nature difficult to detect. Measuring these institutions has relied upon two strategies. The first is to infer the existence of institutions from their causes or consequences: for example, using daily newspaper circulation as a proxy for the extent to which citizens take an active interest in local politics. Most early studies of social capital investigated the phenomenon on this basis. The classic study of civic engagement and local government performance in Italy by Putnam et al. operationalised social capital using newspaper readership, the availability of sports and cultural associations, turnout in referenda, and the incidence of preference voting (Putnam et al. 1993). Studies of the effects of ethnic cohesion have used measures of heterogeneity as a proxy for distributional conflict among groups, with the assumption that all groups possess an equal tendency to cooperation or non-cooperation (e.g. Easterly and Levine 1997).

The second strategy involves using respondent surveys, in order to get a better handle on the extent to which particular social institutions are present in given country cases. Much more data is now available through cross-country investigations such as Eurobarometer, the World Values Survey, Afrobarometer, Latinobarometer and Asiabarometer. Knack and Keefer (1997) used a series of items from the World Values Surveys as measures of trust, community engagement and civic cooperation. Theytested the effect of these variables on growth and development, concluding that higher trust societies experience faster growth in real per capita incomes. Narayan and Pritchett (1999) also used survey data to replicate tests for a similar effect of social trust on differences in household outcomes among villages in rural Tanzania.

To create the Indices of Social Development, we have compiled data from each of these different types of data. The aggregation methodology is described on the next page. Available data can be classified into three broad categories:

Proxy variables are typically used in studies of social capital. These include indicators such as per capita newspaper circulation, the density of international non-governmental organisations, or the reported number of violent street riots. The choice of such measures involves reasonable inferences regarding the causes and consequences of social action, such as the assumption that greater newspaper readership reflects greater citizen propensity to engage in civic activism, or that violent riots reflect the breakdown of cohesion among social groups.

Attitudinal and behavioural items taken from comparative, nationally representative survey projects. Questions on participation in demonstrations, signing of petitions, or willingness to discriminate against ethnic or caste minorities, provide perhaps the richest source of information on social behaviour and practices. The World Values Survey, founded in 1981, was the first such investigation to cover a globally representative number of societies, and currently provides comparative measures such as social trust, tolerance of minorities, and voluntary associational membership for almost 90 societies around the world. Since then a wide variety of regional survey projects, such as Latinobarometer, founded in 1996, Afrobarometer, founded in 1999, and Asian Barometer, founded in 2003, have added the same or similar measures for a joint total of 49 societies, and provide a valuable additional source of data.

Numerical ratings produced from qualitative assessments of social institutions. These have become more widespread in recent years, as researchers have sought to make social facts visible to quantitative analysis. The Minorities at Risk project , for example, as started in 1986 and has been updated over successive waves, providing comparative measures of discrimination and exclusion of minority groups in 118 societies across the world. The International Country Risk Guide has since 1980 provided assessments of a range of social variables, in addition to purely political and economic factors, such as the level of ethnic or religious tensions. Since 2003 the Civicus civil society network has been developing a range of indices for the health of civil society. These efforts to code descriptive assessments of the quality or otherwise of social institutions into numerical form open up a further rich source of information for researchers wishing to comparatively assess the social environment of different countries.


Putnam, R., Nanetti, R. and Robert Leonardi. (1993). Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

Easterly, W. and Ross Levine (1997). ‘Africa’s Growth Tragedy: Policies and Ethnic Divisions’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 112, Issue 4.

Knack, S. and Philip Keefer (1997). ‘Does Social Capital have an Economic Payoff? A Cross-Country Investigation’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol 112, Issue 4. 

Narayan, D. and Lant Pritchett. (1999). ‘Cents and Sociability: Household Income and Social Capital in Rural Tanzania’, Economic Development and Cultural   Change, University of Chicago Press, Vol 47(4), pp. 871-97.