Social Quality Indicators: projects and a global research publication

Projects: 2015
Book publication: 2016

Aberdeen University Projects' Application of Social Quality Indicators for Understanding the Nature of the ‘Decent society’

For a long time, from the side of the Aberdeen University attention is dedicated to the application and further elaboration of  social quality indicators. The book The Decent Society: Planning for social quality by Pamela Abbott, Claire Wallace and Roger Sapsford may be appreciated as an outcome of the herewith related research projects of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland during the past years. The pillars are research projects on the former Soviet Union funded by the European Union, the Rwanda research projects supported by the Senate of the Republic of Rwanda and the participation in the work of the International Association on Social Quality resulting in the Aberdeen expert meeting in 2015. A ‘decent society’ is one that assures a parity of participation – of distribution, recognition and political representation. Above all, it is a just society, whose rules are set in such a way that everyone benefits equally.

Moving away from individualistic measurements

The authors refer firstly to debates (and research) of ‘wellbeing’ and ‘quality of life’ as endeavors to understand the nature of decent life and societies. The first is more generally used in medicine and psychology; the second in sociology and social policy. The first refers to the actual physical and mental experience of individuals. The second is ultimately concerned with something that individuals have, and its proposed indicators are often validated by the extent to which they correlate with subjective satisfaction. Those who stress the importance of subjective feelings of wellbeing, happiness and satisfaction take a purely utilitarian hedonic approach. Those that argue for more objective measures of the quality of daily circumstances that people are living in a society are more concerned with people’s way of life and whether they are able to lead a good life which enables them to be in balance with daily circumstances. They apply a more expressionistic eudemonic measure which focuses on meaning and self-realization and defines wellbeing in terms of the degree to which a person is fully functioning. For the explanation of both traditions, see the study from 2006 by David Phillips. The authors' interpretation of the link between theory and measurement with both approaches – namely, the ‘quality of life’ and the ‘happiness approach’ -  is rather negative. Measures of quality of life, satisfaction and wellbeing, which are individualistic, provide little or not rationale for a particular choice of indicators and lead all too easily to privatized solutions.

Using the social quality approach

The authors have chosen to use the social quality approach, which is according to them a radically different approach. It refers to the second tradition.  It sees ‘the social’ as central to the quality of societies and challenges the subordination of welfare policies to the economy and economic policies. It rests on the premise that people are essentially social beings and that we are able to live our lives only through our relationships with others. It is structural and has a societal perspective with strong theoretical and ontological foundations; it shows a recognition of the interdependency of human beings and the ‘conditional’ or ‘foundational’ components of their experiences, including opportunity and contingencies.

The authors take on board the elaboration of the four conditional factors (socioeconomic security, social cohesion, social inclusion and social empowerment), the different domains and subdomains of these factors and the herewith (theoretically) related/derived social quality indicators which are stronger related with their suppositions of the decent society.

Therefore they have developed a modified index for this research on which to rank countries (in Europe, in Africa, in Russia, in Northern America). They argue, what the Decent Society Model borrows from the Social Quality project is their schema of society, identifying four conceptually different quadrants within which to organize aspects of life. They have found this useful and important when trying what might count as a decent life.

From good society to decent society

The authors note that they have become aware of how hard many governments were working to make a decent life for their residents. It was clear that what they needed was not academic evaluation of progress, or not that alone, but a method for the regular monitoring of their policies and practices, to see what was not making a strong enough or quick enough contribution to achieving their long-term goals and what short-term processes needed to be inserted or modified to get them back on track.

They began to move away from the notion of the good society, towards the idea of a decent society – one where residents could trust government, each other and the rule of law, where corruption was controlled, where resources were sufficient for something more than survival and where people had the possibility of expressing their capabilities in actions and take control of their lives to some degree. The decent society takes responsibility for all its members. The authors of The Decent Society have constituted  the ‘Decent Society Index’ based on the set of four conditional factors of social quality: socio-economic, social cohesion, social inclusion and social empowerment. The fundament use of this index is not to compare countries on what their residents experience and enjoy nor even on what the countries are achieving: the are many other measurement schemata which can be used for these purposes. Instead they have taken Sen’s argument about capabilities seriously and are trying to measure and summarize the extent to which and the ways in which a given country is providing for its residents the conditions to achieve each of the four conditional factors. In line with Sen – and according to the social quality approach (SQA) – they are more concerned with the conditions for agency than the experience of it, where possible they take their measures from ‘objective’ sources-national statistics which are required to be provided to international organizations, such a the World Bank and the United Nations. They applied this index to 121 countries and distinguished four categories

  • The Scandinavian countries are at the top, along with the UK, most Western Europe, North America, Uruguay, Japan, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand,
  • The second category contains most of the rest of Europe, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Central America, Argentina and Ecuador, Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, Senegal, Kazakhstan, china and some other far Eastern countries,
  • The third category contains the Russian Federation and some other CIS states, Iran, Jordan, Bangladesh, South Africa, the East African Community (but Rwanda is in Category 2), several countries in West Africa and most of the rest of South America,
  • The bottom category holds the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, Yemen, Iraq, India and Pakistan, Venezuela, Paraguay, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.
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