The use of social indicators in the implementation of area-specific positive discrimination programmes is increasing and is likely to continue to do so. It is important in this context that some of the unintended consequences of their use be appreciated.
It is argued that the concentration on the statistical niceties and technical details of social indicators especially as they are applied to the identification of areas of urban deprivation has been misplaced, and the concern for the ‘arithmetic of woe’ has diverted attention away from some of the more fundamental assumptions underlying their use.
As predominantly used, social indicators have assumed both that a value consensus exists about the nature and parameters of urban deprivation, when in fact this is an issue of value (and political) conflict, and, more specifically, that urban deprivation springs from social pathology. By default, urban deprivation has been assumed to be that which the indicators measure, when in fact they often reflect no more than existing levels of service provision and current social policies.
There is a need for a clear (even if arbitrary) definition of deprivation, and the derivation of indicators from such a definition. In the latter part of the article the author outlines an attempt to do this.