Twenty Years of Social Quality Approach

Aspects of the first stage: 1990-2000 and the constitution of the European Foundation on Social Quality (EFSQ)


The start of the social quality approach (SQA) happened in The Netherlands, with support of the national Interdisciplinary Institute of Social Sciences (SISWO) in Amsterdam. From the side of its department ‘Health and Welfare Provisions’,  three European oriented expert-meetings about aspects of societal transformations are organized (and financed by SISWO) in the 1990s with scholars from the UK, Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Hungary etc. This way, a collaboration could be started with participants of the European Observatory on Social Cohesion. All those engaged became inspired to develop the idea about the SQA as part of an answer to the one-sidedness of neoliberal economics. These economics were and remain the dominant point of departure in the build-up phase of the European Union. In June 1997, the Dutch Government and the European Commission have offered the opportunity and facilities during the EU Presidency in Amsterdam, to present and discuss the preliminary ideas about this new approach, as articulated in the first EFSQ- book on social quality (now called ‘IASQ-book’). This happened during a large social quality conference in Amsterdam.

The former Zeeman Physics Laboratory in Amsterdam was home to SISWO, the birthplace of the social quality approach.

As argued, the SQA is intended both as a standard by which the citizens of Europe can assess the effectiveness of national and European policies and as a yardstick for policy makers. Next to the GDP-measurement on behalf of the socio-economic dimension, this standard should be able to provide a comprehensive and comparable interpretation of the quality of daily circumstances in all European member states, including the socio-economic dimension. At this contemporary stage of the SQA it concerns in principle the comparability of all countries.  All authors of the first book strongly supported the fundamental critic of the European ‘Comité des Sages’ (Committee of wise people) at that time, that the EU’s one-sided specific focus on economic questions will not create a citizens’ Europe, and causes therefore a ‘Democratic Deficit’.

At that time the distinction is made between economic policies and social policies, derived from the supposed duality of the economic and the social. Thanks to the conceptual elaboration of ‘the social’ afterwards, the SQA has risen above this duality. In the contemporary presentation it is meant that all relevant policy areas (employment, income, housing, public health, health cure/care, education, ageing, migration etc)  of societies are already for a long time a handmaiden of these dominant economic policies. In addition to the conference, a colorful meeting was organized, in which parts of the ‘Amsterdam Declaration of Social Quality’ were nominated from fourteen European Member States. The Declaration was two months later subsequently translated in more than ten European languages and signed by 1000 scholars from all over Europe. In October 1997, this Declaration and signatures were solemnly presented to the President of the European Parliament.

The direction of this work – theoretical and practical – was in the hands of the board of the European Foundation on Social Quality (EFSQ), a ‘legal entity’,  constituted at the end of the 1990s and located in The Netherlands.

Aspects of the second stage:  2000-2005 and the start of the SQA

Since the year 2000 the EFSQ left SISWO and obtained space in the 18e century building of Felix Meritis in Amsterdam. This heralded the independent start of the social quality approach SQA. In March 2000,  the European Parliament organized in fact the second conference about the ‘SQA in statu nascendi’. Both conferences -  from the first stage and the latest conference - and the draft of the forthcoming second IASQ-book on social quality that reflected the outcomes of both conferences, created ample space for two sponsorships through the European Commission (DG Research and DG Employment and Social Affairs). First for the elaboration of social quality indicators. Second  for the analysis of processes in the policy area of employment, seen from the perspective of the preliminary SQA. For both conferences participating universities financed at least 50% of the costs. This is further described on the website with the ‘project social quality indicators’ and the ‘project employment’.  During three or four years, both projects connected  representatives of 22 universities from the EU, elaborating essential issues of the SQA.

Prior to the start of the second stage, the Kingston University from the United Kingdom had taken the initiative,  in collaboration with the publisher Berghahn Journals from New York/Oxford, to produce the European Journal of Social Quality. This University pledged for this initiative the finances as well. Twelve issues from 1999 till 2006 are published on the following policy areas as: public health, employment, urban development, citizenship, social justice, migration, ageing, social quality indicators, social cohesion, social empowerment and transformation processes in Eastern Europe.

Thanks to also this work a manifold of specific expert-meetings were organized all over Europe to discuss and deepen various issues of the SQA in the European Union. The final second book on social quality (see above) functioned as a stimulus as well. Finally, in this stage in fact a third IASQ-book on the SQA was published, namely, the double issue of the European Journal of Social Quality (Volume 4) about flexibility and security in employment. It concerned the presentation and further reflection on the ‘project employment’, mentioned above.


Aspects of the third stage: 2005-2010 and the sustainability challenge

This stage started with the preparation and publication of another double issue of the European Journal of Social Quality (Volume 5) namely about the indicators of social quality and their application in fourteen European countries. It concerned the presentation and further reflection on the ‘project social quality indicators’ project’, mentioned above, and the outcomes of the application to the four conditional factors of social quality, for understanding the daily circumstances in fourteen EU Member States.

A second highly relevant aspect of the third stage was the start of the presentation of the SQA in South-East Asia and also Australia. This happened in the beginning under the relentless stimulus of the Chiba University from Japan. This resulted first in a series of international conferences about the SQA in Japan, Taiwan, mainland China, Thailand, Hong Kong and South Korea. Second in the start of great empirical research projects in these countries financed by their governments and concerned universities. The subject was the application of the social quality indicators to analyze and understand the changes and consequences of the four conditional factors of social quality on national or sub-regional level. In the meantime, empirical research (inductive) and theoretical research (deductive) - based  on the European and South-East Asian and Australian experiences and analyses – paved the way for the fifth IASQ-book, called ‘from theory to indicators’, see following stage.

Furthermore, a start is made to connect the SQA with the challenge of the overall sustainability. Awareness rose, that if social quality increases in a certain place and time, while this contributes to a decrease of the overall sustainability (elsewhere), and that we in that case can speak of an unacceptable contradiction. It touches the heart of the relationship between rich and poor countries; rich and poor cities;  conspicuous consumption and unbearable poverty.


Aspects of the fourth stage: 2010-2015 and the constitution of the International Association on Social Quality (SQA)

A highly relevant start of the fourth stage is characterized by the creation of a Dutch think-tank on how to make the SQA suitable for contributing to the challenges of the overall sustainability. This think-tank – for which three Dutch foundations have been found – also used the opportunity to express a serious commentary on the traditional discourses on sustainability from the side of the human and societal sciences. It concerns the change of thinking about the tripartite dimensions as pillars of sustainability into a quadripartite dimensions as its pillars.  This was a major turning point of the SQA. The outcomes were sent to many participants of the Rio conference on Climate Change, 2012. See Working Paper 11.

Because of the expansion of the SQA in South-East Asia and Australia, it has been decided to change the European Foundation on Social Quality (EFSQ) into the International Association on Social Quality (IASQ). This change took place in 2013. The Zhejiang University had previously decided to revive the journal with the EFSQ (and soon with the IASQ); a decision concerning 2011 till 2016. In the summer of 2011 the first issue of the ‘International Journal of Social Quality was launched’.

Thanks to a European-Chinese funding, the IASQ could play a role in analyses of the ‘project urban processes in the Zhejiang Province’, which were oriented on environmental questions, as well as herewith related debates about urban challenges of Hangzhou (see Working Paper 14). This paved the way for a specific SQA-perspective in the ‘project health, welfare and sport provision in the district (neighborhood) Laak’ of the city of The Hague, funded by the European Commission and the municipality. Both urban projects  with regard to China and The Netherlands – and especially the outcomes of the Dutch think-tank (see above) -  stimulated the IASQ and the ISS in The Hague to present with support of a manifold of advisors a ‘Manifesto on Climate Change’, commenting the lack of an orchestrated strategy from representatives of ‘human and societal sciences’ around the world. This lack prevents comprehensive approaches to defend the sustainability of human existence on earth. More than 400 scientists all over the world, informed about the SQA, signed this manifesto shortly before the Paris Climate Conference at the end of 2015.

Finally during this stage the IASQ book Social Quality: From Theory to Indicators was prepared and published, thanks to an intensive ‘on-line dialogue’ by the authors for two years. It built on the fourth book by broaching the following topics:  (1)  the current  nature of EU’s politics and policies, (2) the deepening of the theory of SQA and its functionality concerning the nature of these politics, (3) based on this renewal, a the reflection on the construction of indicators, (4) deepening the meaning of these indicators for each conditional factor, based on the past empirical research in fourteen EU Member States in circa 2003, (5) and the hereupon based new openings for theory and practices concerning  the extension of the SQA in South-East Asia and Australia, (6) the exploration of the differences with popular approaches as ‘quality of life’, ‘social capital’, ‘capability approach’ etc, (7) and last not least recording the challenge of the overall sustainability and exploring the desirable role of the SQA to contribute to its increase.


Aspects of the fifth stage: 2015-2020 and an unique Dutch experiment

To turn words into action, during this stage studies are made and published in the International Journal of Social Quality about  relevant subjects related to the overall sustainability, namely: about the destruction of ancient forests in Western Australia and the battle against it by community groups;  the increase of various forms of green businesses in the UK; the disheartening results of the UN- Climate conference in Poland and the role of NGOs; the nature of the pollution of the oceans, rives and landslides and the devastating role of multinational organizations: the case of the Plastic Soup;  the necessity of global governance for applying new climate-techniques for compensating the insufficient outcomes  with the CO2 reduction. See Project Sustainability.

New is the formal collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) with the IASQ and the publisher of the International Journal of Social Sciences in New York.  The CASS has replaced the Zhejiang University regarding further development of this journal in order to support the SQA and especially its instrument of social quality indicators. Decided is to also a co-financing from 2018 till 2022. Goal is to strengthen the comparability of the outcomes of the application of this instrument in various continents. The conference in Beijing, September 2018, heralded the start.

New is also the start by Eurispes in Rome – in collaboration with the IASQ – to publish studies about the meaning of the BRICS platform (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) with regard to their plans for renewing of the four societal dimensions in these countries as also point of departure to contribute to the UN-goals regarding the overall sustainability by strengthen the quality of – BRICS’ terms – the global development. In this stage a start was made with the Eastern European project – thanks to the initiative of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine – to apply the SQA in these Eastern countries and herewith to make the SQA more appropriate at the same time.

Also a start is made with explaining the outcomes of the investments by the Radboud University in The Netherlands, to strengthen the capabilities of vulnerable people. Since 2008, with more  than 60 Dutch care-institutes and their 5000 counselors methodologies are designed and applied to stimulate vulnerable people to enhance themselves into citizens living independently. These methodologies are based on the principles of the SQA. Herewith, and for the first time in the history of the SQA, huge attention is devoted to its constitutional factors. The outcomes may change and enhance many aspects of the SQA in the near future.

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