research institute for compassionate economics

The people behind the numbers

Written by Diane Coffey on July 16th, 2011
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I’ve often heard it said that when social science research involves too many numbers, we can lose track of the people behind the numbers. I don’t necessarily agree with this claim—in fact, some numbers not only remind me of, but force me to confront human profundity. For this post, I want to share two such numbers—443 and 815.

Last summer, a team of researchers, managers and surveyors collected data about the lives of villagers living on the borders of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Rajasthan, three states in India. I had privilege of sitting in on several of the interviews. Surveyors asked respondents about their migration history, their work on a public employment program, and other questions about how they earned a living. A short section was asked of women about their children.

443 is the number of women interviewed in this survey who had ever had a child that was born alive and later died. 815 is the number of their children who died, despite having been born alive. Thinking of the pain felt at the loss of a single child is difficult. Thinking about the pain felt at the loss of 815 children is crushing.

And yet, there are so many ways to consider these numbers that make them all the more painful. Of the respondents in the survey, only 1027 were women who had given birth. This means that 43% of women who had given birth had lost a child. Half of women who lost a child had lost more than one.

Worse yet, many of the women interviewed had not completed childbearing. Because they will have more children, they will lose more children. Demographers often consider 45 to be an age past which women no longer have children. If we look at women over 45 in the survey, 60% of them had lost a child. Women over 45 who lost children lost 2 children on average.

What’s more, only a small fraction of the women in each village were interviewed. Villages had hundreds, even thousands of residents, but in each, we only talked to 10 families. Since we chose families randomly off of a voter list, it is unlikely that we chose the poorest or least educated families to talk to. The experience of other women in these villages is probably much like the experience of those surveyed.

Though they are devastating numbers, I’m glad we know about 443 and 815. And I’m glad we know that they capture the suffering of a few hundred people, while reflecting the enormous suffering of the people living in the survey villages. In cases like this, it is because numbers so vividly depict people’s lives that social scientists should stay committed to knowing and writing about them.