Wellbeing ESRC Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and Manchester Metropolitan University
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Seminar 4

Research and Policy


Speaker's Notes

Richard Wilkinson Social Capital: the impact of inequality.
Perri 6 Sense and solidarities: politics and human well-being.
Perri 6 Sense and solidarities: a neo-Durkheimian institutional theory of well-being and its implications for public policy.


Social Capital: the impact of Inequality.

By Richard Wilkinson


Research suggests that psychosocial risk factors are among the most important determinants of health in the developed world. Because the biology indicates that they almost certainly affect physical health and death rates by precipitating sustained periods of physiological arousal – “chronic stress”, the epidemiology of psychosocial risk factors tells us a good deal about the most common sources of stress in modern societies. The evidence points strongly to particular dimensions of the social environment as crucial.

I shall link an understanding of the role of the quality of social relations at the individual level to an understanding of how they and social capital are impacted by macrosocial determinants. Both levels seem to suggest that the primary issue is the contrast between friendship on the one hand and relations based on social dominance or social status on the other.

From an evolutionary perspective, friendship and social dominance are two contrasting strategies for dealing with the Hobbesian potential for conflict over access to scarce resources – hence our attentiveness and sensitivity to both. In dominance hierarchies access to scarce resources is determined by rankings of power, regardless of the needs of subordinate others. In contrast, friendship and social alliances involve degrees of reciprocity, mutuality and a recognition of each others needs (reciprocity and gifts serve almost as a symbolic social contract by which people avoid conflict by agreeing not to compete with each other for scarce resources).

After suggesting that friendship and dominance relations are, in an important sense, the obverse of each other, I will show that greater income inequality (as a crude measure of the extent of social status differentiation) is related to a number of different indicators of a poorer quality of social relations in societies. Where income differences are larger, the quality of social relations seems to deteriorate as people shift from more affiliative social strategies based on equity and inclusion, towards social strategies appropriate to dominance hierarchies where what matters is the position in the dominance hierarchy, the pursuit of position and status.

This analysis is relevant to well-being insofar as the common causes of negative well-being (dis-ease) are associated with damaging levels of chronic anxiety (as for instance are depression, fear, insecurity, lack of a sense of control, shame, embarrassment, feelings of inferiority, hopelessness, social isolation, hostility, negative social relations, etc., etc.).

See: Wilkinson RG. Mind the Gap: Hierarchies, Health and Human Evolution. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2000.

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Abstract of a paper given at the the seminar on “Well-being: research and policy” in the ESRC funded seminar series on “Well-being: social and individual determinants”,
King’s Fund, Cavendish Square, London, July 4th 2002

Sense and solidarities: politics and human well-being

A neo-Durkheimian institutional theory of well-being and its implications for public policy

By Perri 6

In recent decades, aspirations for politics in the developed world have moved from focusing mainly on deterrence of invasion, the promotion of economic growth, the alleviation of sickness and destitution and containment of class conflict to a set of wider concerns that have come to be called “well-being”. Some scholars talk of this as a generational shift, at least among those with a modicum of financial security, from “materialist” to “post-materialist” values. Governments are expected to care not just about the standard of living, but the quality of life – in work, in careers, in retirement, in residential communities, in health, in the experience of public services. More recently, many intellectuals have argued that governments ought to focus more as much on the subjective happiness of their citizens as on the objective conditions of material prosperity. Ironically, all this has taken place during an era in which many commentators detect rising popular insecurity about a wide range of risks to material security.

The resulting debate is strangely confused. A wide range of subjective and objective measures are being lumped together into the concept of well-being. Well-being has come to absorb ideas of the quality of life, embracing at once self-reported happiness and the projected state of health in the final years and the patterns of friendship and quality of relationships with children, as well as concerns with the material standard of living. Typically, it is treated as something that can be optimised, because it is assumed to be a variable that runs along a scale from high to low. Where well-being is treated as another word for self-reported happiness, and where that is measured by asking people to give a simple arithmetical score, it becomes easy to imagine that well-being is something that can be optimised by identifying those features of a national society that seem to be correlated with the highest scores, and working on those things. The same procedure can be followed for self-reported health or some combined index of economic prosperity and environmental quality or any other variable that one wants to reduce well-being to. Economists, public health advocates, analysts of human relations at work all propose models in which people’s well-being is ranked, and they go on to propose their favourite political solutions for increasing average scores – freer markets, more redistribution, security of employment, an end to status distinctions, more environmental protection, and the like. Philosophers and political gurus produce laundry lists of good things that supposedly conduce to well-being – autonomy, equal rights, respect, community, understanding. The supposition is either that well-being can be understood as the reduction of the good things in life to one or a few, or else that all the good things can go together.

This paper will argue that this understanding of well-being is misguided, and it will propose an alternative account. It presents an outline of a theory of well-being and draws out its implications for public policy and for politics.

At the heart of the argument of the paper are the following three propositions, for which it will briefly offer some evidence and from which it will develop a larger account.
First, well-being is a much more demanding and more important idea – and, indeed, ideal – than, for example, health or employability or material security or happiness or utility. Nor can it be captured by adding together income, wealth, health status, work, or higher level goods such as autonomy. Indeed, both the monistic attempts to reduce well-being to one of these things, or the laundry list attempts to run them together to produce an account of well-being all fail some basic empirical tests. For there are social contexts in which people will pursue a perfectly intelligible conception of the good life, positively sacrificing each of these things.

Rather, well-being is about what people will recognise, under particular institutions, as shared life well lived and worth living together. Taking this recognition seriously has huge implications for the way in which we think about public policy and about politics.

Second, all the good things in life do not go together to add up to some unitary phenomenon called “well-being”, which can be “optimised” by some technical exercise of policy design. Those – and I know that they are many both in politics and in the academic policy sciences – who will brook no other way of thinking about either public policy or about well-being will, I am afraid, be disappointed by this paper. On the contrary, there are tragic conflicts between practices of well-being that can be neither obviated or ignored. Understood properly as a set of practices, not as a state, well-being is more complex, more unstable, more important and more interesting than this. Moreover, understood in this way, the imperative power well-being exerts makes much more sense than it does in the commonplace models of optimising a variable.

Not only do all good things not go together, there is good reason to believe that a measure of ill-being is actually necessary to well-being, both in the individual life where the integration of disappointment is essential, and in the dynamics of a society where conflict is not merely unavoidable but vital to the viability of the very settlements that seek to contain it.

Third, well-being is achieved as much by the ways in which people, under different institutions, make sense of their lives and their social world, as it is by the accumulation of institutions for security of income, wealth, health, environment, or against crime or any other risk. These material consolations are indeed important, but at best they conduce to any of the kinds of social arrangements that might enhance our shared lives: by no means are they sufficient. Well-being turns upon being able to sustain narratives, myths, rituals, that both support memory and aspirations, and that relate the individual to shared past and future, and by bonds to institutions and other individuals. But people do not, cannot and indeed should not make sense of their lives in the same way. Well-being then, is, best understood as a social process of conciliation to institutionalise, however provisionally, settlements between the elements of what I shall argue is a limited plurality of basic ways in which we organise social life. We can, the paper will argue, say something substantive and of direct policy relevance about what those settlements might look like. But they remain just that – settlements, always provisional, always vulnerable – between rival commitments that will show up in any society.

An adequate account of well-being therefore requires a theory of the range of basic institutions of social organisation. The paper presents a theory based on the neo-Durkheimian institutional approach, which derives from the work of anthropologists Douglas, Thompson, Mars, Rayner, Adams and political scientist Wildavsky, but taking it inspiration from the classical anthropologist such as Evans-Pritchard and from the sociology of knowledge tradition. It argues, contrary to post-modern conceptions, that the forms of social organisation – and hence of well-being – are not indefinite in number. Rather, there is a limited plurality of basic institutional forms, which support a limited number of hybrids or coalitions. In each of these forms, quite distinct styles of sense-making are to be found.

These styles of sense-making in turn support distinct capabilities for well-being. Sen has rightly argued that what people can do is more important for their well-being than their income level. Unfortunately, his methodologically individualistic framework prevents this insight from doing the work that it could, in Sen’s own analysis. For the really important capabilities for well-being are ones that inhere, not in resources but in social relations and in institutions. Well-being is something that we do together, not something that we each possess.

However, each of these basic forms of social organisation produces an unique form of ill-being, as well as distinct kind of well-being. The paper explores this in the case of social exclusion. It argues that the forms of ill-being are each forms of social disorganisation, for within every form of social organisation there is a dynamic that leads to its peculiar decay.

Moreover these basic forms of social organisation are in perpetual conflict with each other. Each spring up in response to the others. None can be eliminated from any viable society: attempts to do so will result in the return of the suppressed form, often in corrupt, illicit or violent forms.
The central challenge for policy and politics, then, is to find ways in which the basic commitments of each of the forms can be articulated in an overarching settlement. This is best understood by recasting Durkheim’s concept of “organic solidarity”. The paper offers an account of the varieties of settlement available, and the strengths and limitations of each, and their implications for well-being.

The implications for public policy are developed in the analysis of two cases – the debate about so-called “social capital” and the conflicts over privacy and data protection. In the first case, the general argument that we need more or less “social capital” for well-being is shown to be misguided, for the concept lumps together too many forms of social organisation to be useful. Understood at the level of social networks, the theory enables us to re-read with more exactitude the body of research that finds social networks, friendship and social support to be beneficial for a wide range of outcomes, to show that different kinds of network benefit different practices of well-being. However, policy makers thinking about the larger set of interests should try to sustain the requisite variety of all the types of friendship and acquaintance that are defined by the basic institutional forms of social organisation. In the same way, in the second case, the rival claims to different kinds of accountability and surveillance or freedom from that surveillance in the name of privacy need to be settled politically, not reconciled by some grand philosophical argument: no other approach to privacy conflicts can be expected to be viable. The paper shows how these insights can guide the selection of policy tools and design of policy processes.

The conclusion draws together the argument of the paper as a whole. It argues that well-being must be pursued through politics, as the practice of negotiation and restrained conduct of basic conflicts. It is argued that it is both intellectually facile and socially dangerous to imagine that we can or should try to use social science or any other form of expertise to substitute technical optimisation of variables for politics. The technocratic aspiration to substitute policy analysis for politics must be resisted at all costs. Two particular political strategies are considered. It will be argued that all human societies need to invest in ritual forms – not merely or even principally public ceremonial, but often very quotidian rituals of the kind that Goffman used to analyse – in order to sustain the settlements between the basic forms of social organisation.

Of course the enhancement of employment, health, environmental safety, technological safety, community safety, and all the rest are important. Indeed, for those in the many deprived situations, achievement of these outcomes are necessary to long run improvement in the quality of life and thriving. However, no single form of social organisation conduces unequivocally to well-being; every kind, including egalitarian forms, creates risks and undermines some kinds of well-being in the process of promoting others.

Only by striking settlements between rival practices of social organisation can we engage in the negotiation of sense and meaning which is the basis of well-being.
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