What are indicators

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What are indicators?

Social Research Glossary

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2020-20 , Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International, http://www.qualityresearchinternational.com/socialresearch/

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

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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.

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.

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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 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.

‘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 (2020) 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.

Investopedia, 2020, ‘Indicator’, available at http://www.investopedia.com/terms/i/indicator.asp#axzz2N7ZV7i9B, accessed 9 March 2020, still available 6 June 2020.

‘The Question Bank, ESRC, undated, ‘Developing Indicators for Concepts’, Question Bank FACTSHEET 7 , available at at http://surveynet.ac.uk/sqb/datacollection/developingindicatorsforconceptsfactsheet.pdf, accessed 8 March 2020, page not available 22 December 2020

copyright Lee Harvey 2020–2020


Last edited: October 31, 2020

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Once the conceptual framework is finalized, the next step in completing the monitoring and evaluation framework is selecting indicators. Indicators are signs of progress – they are used to determine whether the programme/intervention is on its way to achieving its objectives and goal.

What are indicators?

  • An indicator is a specific, observable and measurable characteristic that can be used to show changes or progress a programme is making toward achieving a specific outcome.
  • There should be at least one indicator for each outcome. The indicator should be focused, clear and specific. The change measured by the indicator should represent progress that the programme hopes to make.
  • An indicator should be defined in precise, unambiguous terms that describe clearly and exactly what is being measured. Where practical, the indicator should give a relatively good idea of the data required and the population among whom the indicator is measured.
  • Indicators do not specify a particular level of achievement — the words “improved”, “increased”, or “decreased” do not belong in an indicator.

Characteristics of good indicators

  • Valid: accurate measure of a behaviour, practice, task that is the expected output or outcome of the intervention
  • Reliable: consistently measurable over time, in the same way by different observers
  • Precise: operationally defined in clear terms
  • Measurable: quantifiable using available tools and methods
  • Timely: provides a measurement at time intervals relevant and appropriate in terms of programme goals and activities
  • Programmatically important: linked to the programme or to achieving the programme objectives (Gage and Dunn, 2009)

Challenges and considerations when selecting indicators

  • In an ideal world, indicators judged to be the highest quality and most useful would be the ones selected and used to monitor and evaluate programme activities.
  • However, in the real world many other factors may intervene. Links to programme activities, as outlined in monitoring and evaluation frameworks are important, as are the needs of the programme for decision-making.
  • Many indicators in common use are not well-defined in clear terms, or at least include terminology that could be improved to add greater precision. For instance, “knowledge of dating violence”, “attitude towards violence against women”, “support-seeking behaviour” of victims of violence, or “quality of services” can all mean and imply different things in different circumstances.
  • The more defined an indicator, the less room there will be for later confusion or complications. For example, “percentage of women accessing health services at X facility from TIME A to TIME B who state that they received appropriate care and assistance” or “percentage of men who state that it is not acceptable to hit, slap, punch their wives with hands or other objects under any circumstances.”
  • Ideal indicators may not be practical; the feasibility of using certain indicators can be constrained by the availability of data and financial and human resources. The requirements and needs of donors, the government, organization headquarters and others may need to be given priority.

Some examples of these considerations are:

  • Availability of data: Some data may be considered ‘privileged’ information by agencies, projects, or government officials.
  • Data may be available only on aggregated levels or already calculated into indicators that may not be the ideal indicators for your programme or activities.
  • Resources: Ideal indicators might require collecting data to calculate an unknown denominator, or national data to compare with project area data, or tracking lifetime statistics for an affected and/or control population, etc.
  • The cost of collecting appropriate data for ideal indicators is prohibitive.
  • Human resources and technical skills may be a constraint as well.
  • Programmatic and external requirements: Indicators may be imposed from above by those not trained in monitoring and evaluation techniques.
  • Reporting schedules may not be synchronized (e.g. fiscal vs. reporting year).
  • Different stakeholders’ priorities may diverge.
  • Standardized indicators should be used if available.
  • In general, programmes should stay away from indicators that activities cannot affect, that are too vague, that do not currently exist and cannot realistically be collected, or that do not accurately represent the desired outcome. (Gage and Dunn, 2009)
  • When quantitative indicators of success cannot be identified, qualitative methods offer a valuable alternative. When it is difficult or not possible to measure “benefits” or “risks” in simple, quantitative terms, it is almost always possible to gather qualitative data, such as information on the perspectives of health care providers and women who come for services. In many cases, qualitative indicators provide more relevant information with respect to the success and effectiveness of the intervention. (Bott, Guedes and Claramunt, 2004) See the qualitative approaches section.
  • Information on the perspectives of women and girls (rights-holders) and service providers (governmental duty-bearers or NGOs) is essential. Evaluation efforts and indicators should include the perspectives of both clients and providers. Information from women accessing or attempting to access services is critical for assessing the effectiveness of an intervention.
  • Select a set of indicators that pertain to the identified objectives for the programme. If the intervention focuses on training providers, select indicators related for example to providers’ knowledge, attitudes and practices, ability to provide care, ability to make referrals, or others depending on the specific objective.

How many indicators are enough?

  • Some guidelines to follow when selecting indicators:
  • At least one or two indicators per result (ideally, from different sources)
  • At least one indicator for every core activity (e.g. training, airing of TV spot)
  • No more than 8-10 indicators per area of significant programme focus
  • Use a mix of data collection strategies and sources

Process versus result/impact indicators: It is important to remember the difference between process and results indicators.

Process Indicators are used to monitor the number and types of activities carried out. Examples include:

  • The number and types of services provided
  • The number of people trained
  • The number and type of materials produced and disseminated
  • The number and percentage of female clients screened

Results Indicators are used to evaluate whether or not the activity achieved the intended objectives or results. Examples include:

  • Selected indicators of knowledge, attitudes and practices as measured by a survey
  • The perceptions of survivors about the quality and benefits of services provided by an organization or institution as measured by individual interviews (Bott, Guedes and Claramunt, 2004)

Results indicators can be developed at the output, outcome and impact levels. (Bott, Guedes and Claramunt, 2004)

Output indicators illustrate the change related directly to the activities undertaken within the programme (e.g. percentage of traditional leaders in community x who completed the training on international human rights standards related to violence against women and girls whose knowledge improved.)

Outcome indicators relate to change that is demonstrated as a result of the programme interventions in the medium-to-longer term (e.g. the number of decisions in the informal justice system of community x related to violence against women that reflect a human rights-based approach.)

Impact indicators measure the long-term affect of programme interventions (e.g. the prevalence of violence against women and girls in community x.)

An important issue that needs to be resolved in order to monitor project progress is how to define success. Commonly, organizations are able to track how many events they have held, and how many people have participated (outputs), but not how people have changed their attitudes or behaviours as a result (outcomes), especially over time.

The main indicator of impact should be a reduction in the prevalence and incidence of violence, but that takes years to achieve and to measure. So more indicators are needed to gauge whether programmes are moving in the right direction.

Monitoring and evaluation frameworks and plans should incorporate both process and results indicators.

Illustrative Indicators at the National and Programmatic Level:

Violence Against Women and Girls: A Compendium of Monitoring and Evaluation Indicators (MEASURE Evaluation/USAID, 2008). Available in English.

Measures for the Assessment of Dimensions of Violence against Women: A Compendium (Flood, 2008). Available in English.

Women, Peace & Security – Report of the Secretary General on UN Security Council Resolution 1325 Indicators for Monitoring Resolution Implementation (United Nations Security Council, 2020). Available in English.

Towards a common European Framework to monitor progress in combating Violence against Women (European Women’s Lobby, 2001). Available in English and Spanish.

Proposal of New Indicators to Measure the Effects of Gender Violence (Gender Violence Effects Indicators, 2009). Available in English and Spanish.

Handbook on Performance Indicators for Counter-Trafficking Projects (IOM, 2009). Available in English.

Guidelines for the Collection of Data on Trafficking in Human Beings Including Comparable Indicators (International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Federal Ministry of the Interior of Austria, 2009). Available in English.

Indicadores sobre violencia contra las mujeres: Sistematización y evaluación crítica (Instituto Interamericano de Derechos Humanos, 2008). Available in Spanish.

CEDAW Indicators for South Asia: An Initiative (CENWOR/UNIFEM, 2004). Available in English.

See also the illustrative indicators for specific areas of work:

Internationally comparable indicators on violence against women and girls

Indicators can be developed to track a specific programme or intervention; to track national progress across sectors; and to track progress across countries globally. In this regard, policymakers and activists have called for a comprehensive set of international indicators on violence against women to monitor States’ progress in addressing such violence.

The United Nations General Assembly requested the Statistical Commission to develop and propose, in consultation with the Commission on the Status of Women, a set of possible indicators on violence against women in order to assist States in assessing the scope, prevalence and incidence of violence against women.

In response to the General Assembly, the Statistical Commission, formed the Friends of the Chair group to build on the previous work undertaken by the United Nations Statistical Division, Regional Statistical Commissions and the Division for the Advancement of Women (2007), and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, to establish a proposed set of indicators.

An interim set of six indicators was initially proposed and adopted at the Statistical Commission’s 40 th session (2009) and expanded by the Friends of the Chair to nine indicators in December 2009. The current nine interim indicators, which were accepted by the Statistical Commission in February 2020, are as follows:

  • Total and age specific rate of women subject to physical violence in the last 12 months by severity of violence, relationship to perpetrator and frequency.
  • Total and age specific rate of women subject to physical violence during lifetime by severity of violence, relationship to perpetrator and frequency.
  • Total and age specific rate of women subject to sexual violence in the last 12 months by severity of violence, relationship to perpetrator and frequency.
  • Total and age specific rate of women subject to sexual violence during lifetime by severity of violence, relationship to perpetrator and frequency.
  • Total and age specific rate of ever-partnered women subjected to sexual and/or physical violence by current or former intimate partner in the last 12 months by frequency.
  • Total and age specific rate of ever-partnered women subjected to sexual and/or physical violence by current or former intimate partner during lifetime by frequency.
  • Total and age specific rate of women subjected to psychological violence in the past 12 months by the intimate partner.
  • Total and age specific rate of women subjected to economic violence in the past 12 months by the intimate partner.
  • Total and age specific rate of women subjected to female genital mutilation.

An Expert Group Meeting was convened by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Conference of European Statisticians in September 2009 to discuss the development and testing of a survey module and methodology to measure the interim set of violence against women indicators. The report is available in English and the updates, along with the survey module and complimentary tools are available from the UNECE website.

Programming Essentials, Monitoring & Evaluation

Monitoring and Evaluation Frameworks (3 parts)


A compass needle is an indicator of direction.

  1. An example of an indicator is a compass needle pointing northwest.
  2. An example of an indicator is a thermostat saying it’s 65 degrees outside.
  3. An example of an indicator is a statistic such as the unemployment rate that reflects economic conditions.
  4. An example of an indicator is a substance that changes color to reflect the acidity or alkalinity.

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APA Style


  1. a person or thing that indicates; specif.,
    1. any device, as a gauge, dial, register, or pointer, that measures or records and visibly indicates
    2. an apparatus that diagrams the varying fluid pressure of an engine in operation
  2. any of various substances used to indicate the acidity or alkalinity of a solution, the beginning or end of a chemical reaction, the presence of certain substances, etc., by changes in color
  3. a statistic, as the unemployment rate, used to measure economic or social conditions
  4. Ecol. a species of plant or animal, or a community, whose occurrence serves as evidence that certain environmental conditions exist

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APA Style


    One that indicates, especially:

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APA Style

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indicator – Medical Definition

  1. One that indicates, especially:
    1. A pointer or an index.
    2. An instrument used to monitor the operation or condition of an engine, furnace, electrical network, reservoir, or other physical system; a meter or gauge.
    3. The needle, dial, or other registering device on such an instrument.
  2. Chemistry Any of various substances, such as litmus or phenolphthalein, that indicate the presence, absence, or concentration of another substance or the degree of reaction between two or more substances by means of a characteristic change, especially in color.
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