Elaboration of the Theory of Social Quality and Its Approach

April 2020

Introduction: The Purpose of the Theory
Understanding Dialectic Between Processes in Three Fields

This brief representation of the current development of the theory of social quality and the social quality approach (SQA) is  based on the outcomes of the third book on social quality Social Quality: From Theory to Indicators, published in 2012. It may be further appreciated as a provisional improvement and elaboration as presented in Working Paper nr 17, Preliminary ideas about the application and elaboration of the ‘social quality approach’ (SQA) in Eastern Europe, published at the end of 2019. This Working Paper is based on the outcomes of many projects in Europe, Asia and Australia since 2012, thus on the contribution of a very large number of scholars, working with this theory. The ultimate goal of the theory and its SQA is at least twofold. Firstly, to analyze societal complexities (first field) and to understand the results of this for also the daily urban contexts nowadays (second field), and the consequences for eco-systems (third field), and vice versa. For academics – who will be the focus of this theory and approach – this presupposes an ontological and epistemologically conceptual framework, that allows an unequivocal embedding for herewith relevant scientific disciplines. This should pave the way for a comprehensive understanding of the dialectic between these fields. Secondly, to apply the five normative factors as points of departure for the SQA for understanding the outcomes. Purpose is to pave the way for a really acceptable living conditions in all Continents which also contribute to the challenge of the overall sustainability. These factors are: (1) social justice (equity), implying the rule of law, (2) solidarity, (3) equal value, (4) human dignity, and (5) eco-equilibrium. The theory’s ontological assumptions reject the hedonic tradition which its emphasis on the utilitarian-individualistic orientation as individual happiness and the quality of especially personal life. This is also explained in the book The Decent Society: Planning for social quality, published in 2016. This ego-centric oriented tradition refers to the work of Hobbes, Locke  and Rousseau. Instead the theory of social quality focuses on the eudaimonic tradition, and tries to understand processes, resulting into personal expressiveness in the context of societal wholes.The purpose is to stimulate personal growth, one’s potentials and the quality of societal wholes. This refers to the work of Aristoteles and his followers in the past centuries as explained in the book which discussed the quality of life and social quality, namely: Quality of Life: Concept, Policy and Practice, published in 2006. A logical consequence is, that the SQA does not design a model for citizens, policy makers, and academics but analytical frameworks for understanding the world we are living in and how to judge the outcomes of these analyses. This judgment may have clear implications for politics and policies. For example, the ultimate goal of the BRICS-platform (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) is to enhance the quality of global development (see IJSQ: Vol. 9.1, 2019). In this platform it has not been formulated how to determine what quality really means in this and how we can determine whether this quality is increasing or decreasing. And the question remains, how this is related to the overall sustainability. What has the SQA to offer for supporting this ultimate goal and to deliver an orientation to really explain what is meant with ‘quality?’Whatever the answer may be, this theory is completely antithetic to politics which explain ‘my country first’. According to this theory, this means an outright undermining of the quality of global development and the chances of strengthening global forms of government as a condition for climate change and overall sustainability.It concerns an internationalist orientation.

The Definition of ‘The Social’ and of ‘Social Quality’

Current dominant ‘thinking’ and ‘policy-making’ to address societal challenges is usually related to the theoretically indefensible supposed duality between the ‘economic’ and the ‘social’. This is also the case with the dominant Western economic approach. Its utilitarian-individualistic assumptions function as point of departure resulting in neo-liberal market suppositions. As a logical consequence of this paradigm, the noun and the adjective ‘social’  - and see the well-known statement by Friedrich Hayek – are without any meaning. He explained ‘social democracy’ is no democracy, ‘social economics’ is no economics, ‘social innovation’ is no innovation, ‘social progress’ is no progress. Seen from this paradigm he did not go wrong. Therefore, for other followers of this paradigm this duality should be logically without any meaning. It suggests implicit that the ‘economic’ is the main aspect of societies and everything what is ‘not-economic’ is appreciated as handmaiden of economic processes and especially financial interests. For them this is self-evident. At the end of the 1990s critics of this paradigm and its desolate consequences as the fundamental (and increasing) inequality and injustice and the undermining of the overall sustainability started with the theory of social quality to elaborate a new orientation, as explained in the first book on social quality, The Social quality of Europe, published in 1998.

Social quality thinking emerged from a wider humanist tradition, as explained above. It may be appreciated as an alternative to the utilitarian-individualistic orientation by explaining people as ‘social beings.’ According to its theory, ‘the social’ is defined as “the outcome of the dialectic between processes of self-realization of people (as social beings) and processes resulting into the formation of collective identities”. This is geared to overcome a major weakness of the current human and societal (including economic) sciences, namely the paradox that the term ‘social’ itself - see the usual application of this adjective as in: social sciences, social democracy, social-economics, social cohesion, social groups, social model, or social dimension - actually is not defined anywhere. Curiously this is also the case with new books about economy and sustainability, which stresses the significance of taking on board ‘the social’ without explaining what it really means. The quality of ‘the social’ or ‘social quality’ is defined in the above mentioned third book as “the extent to which people are able to participate in soci(et)al relationships under conditions which enhance their well-being, capacity and individual potential. It refers to a new understanding of ‘the social’ as the outcome of the productive and reproductive relationships of people. According this interpretation, ‘economics’ is an aspect of ‘the social’ as defined in this theory.

The Analytic Framework: Two Basic Tensions and the Social Quality Architecture

Hypothesized is, that this above mentioned dialectic will be realized in the interplay of two basic tensions (see Figure 1): the horizontal (between systems/institutions and families/ communities) which refers to the interactions between unequal actors and the vertical (between the transformation of societal complexities and biographical transformations) which refers to the whole of opportunities or non-actualized possibilities. The vertical concerns the manifestations of symbols, meanings, constructions, values, norms, traditions and cognition. Assumed is, that the endless changes in the outcomes of this dialectic can be analytically understood by applying the instruments of the three set of factors, assembling the social quality architecture (Figure 2). In each quadrant especially one of the conditional, constitutional and normative factors play a main role.

The changes of the factors of these three sets concern the point of departure for analyzing processes in the four quadrants of Figure 1, namely:

  • the constitutional (subjective and individual oriented) factors of daily life: as the degrees of personal security; social recognition; social responsibility;  and their personal capacities to combat situations feelings of alienation, exploitation, discrimination and degradation. Their instrument for research is social quality profiles. They have not yet been designed.
  • the conditional (objective and societal oriented) factors of daily life: the socio-economic conditions people live with: the social cohesion they experience in their communities; social inclusion to realize their civil rights; and the extent of their social empowerment to enable them to play responsible roles in society and in the processes of societal change. Their instrument for research is social quality indicators.
  • the normative (ethical oriented) factors of daily life: social justice and equity; solidarity at community, national and international level; to promote the equal value of all people and to defend; and enhance their human dignity. These also form the basic orientation to judge the outcomes of the linking of the objective and the subjective conditions. Their instrument for research is social quality criteria that have yet to be worked out.

This SQA transcends traditional discourse, e.g. with regard to the welfare state, the European social model, social harmony, liberal-capitalism or state-capitalism in three ways:

  • All fifteen concepts of thissocial quality architecture are related to the definition of ‘the social’ and, therefore, all are intrinsically related to each other. Their understanding can only be derived from this intrinsicality. They have no meaning suis generis. This is a rather new point of review. This concerns at this stage also the new three factors connected with the eco-systems (see below)
  • New is also, that this approach clearly distinguishes and interrelates individual, societal and ethical aspects. For each are specific measurement instruments (see Figure 2), coping with this distinction and interrelatedness. For example, qualitative research concerning profiles will better search complex human feelings, capacities and potentials than quantitative oriented indicators’ research. By far, most SQ-research has concerned the application of social quality indicators. The profiles are a very important current issue for the SQA.
  • The instruments of these three sets of factors are a device to analyze the results of the interference of the above mentioned dialectic and the interplay between two basic tensions, expressed in the transformations of the three most interesting fields for SQA, mentioned above in the Introduction. This delivers a foundation for the indispensable comprehensive approach. This point and the two previous points are not really reflected in issues such as the welfare state or the European social model etc.

Connecting the SQA with the Development of the Overall Sustainability

Thanks to the increased attention for connecting the ‘social quality approach’ (SQA) with societal oriented analyses of climate change and the overall sustainability, a fifth factor is added to each of the three sets of factors. The argument is that the three original sets of factors  - as points of departure for enhancing and defending the general circumstances for social quality – should also contribute to the development toward sustainability. This is a state of dynamic equilibrium between human actors and the whole eco-system which remains within its resilient boundaries. A high state of social quality in a certain place at certain time which undermines the overall sustainability (at other places) is a contradiction in terms. This implies also investments into sustainable urban development, encompassing citizens of all cities and metropoles, tackling the present gross inequalities between them. This may happen by e.g. supporting the transformation of cities and metropoles into pillars for both sustainability and social quality at the same time.

The addition of a fifth factor to each set of factors connects the SQA with anthropomorphic caused environmental questions. But these three extra factors concern each quadrant of Figure 1, because they dispose of an all-encompassing status. Therefore, they are placed outside the illustration of the crossing of two basic tensions. Herewith related debates started in 2010 with a Dutch ‘social quality and sustainability think tank’, resulting into Working Paper nr. 11, Development toward sustainability: The need for a Comprehensive Conceptual and Methodological Framework for new politics and policies, published in 2012. As a logical consequence of the reasoning above, this implied a critic of the classic distinction between the three dimensions of the sustainability as presented in the famous Brundtland Report “Our Common Future, published by the UN in 1987. It concerns the economic, the social and the environmental dimension. From the SQA proposed is a fourfold distinction between the: socio-economic/financial, socio-political/legal, socio-cultural/welfare and socio-environmental dimensions. In this  proposal, the ‘social dimension’ is changed into the socio-political/legal and the socio-cultural/welfare dimensions, because the ‘social dimension’ lacks any heuristic meaning, because it regards everything what is not economic or environmental. The members of the think tank argued in above mentioned Working Paper, that the incessant use of this black box is not merely a minor blemish but a fundamental basic problem that brings about a misunderstanding of well-being, welfare and societal dynamics and also for what could be effective policy responses to address the change of sustainability. Notwithstanding this, all international institutions, the European Commission, many governmental bodies and international oriented research institutes refer without any scientific hesitation to the ‘social dimension’ as the subject of analysis and policy making for developing the overall sustainability.

A New Procedural Framework and Overall Sustainability

In Working Paper nr 17, referred to above, a comprehensive overview is made of the interrelations between the three fields, the four dimensions and the SQA. It also refers to the outcomes of research in the city of The Hague, financed by the Municipality of The Hague and the European Commission. Outcomes are published in, among others, Working Paper nr.8 of 2012, namely, Welfare Arrangements, sustainable urban Development, and new forms of Governance: the current ‘demonstration project’ of the city of The Hague as Example. It refers also to empirical research in the city Jiaxing, financed by the Chinese Government and the European Commission, published in, among others, Working Paper nr 14, The position of citizens with regard to environmental protection: a contribution to a Chinese and European comparison based on reflections on the applied model by the Chinese city Jiaxing, published in 2015. The entirety of these ever-changing interrelations of the dimensions and fields ultimately determine the nature of the increase or decrease of the overall sustainability.

In three recent studies first endeavors are made to analyze aspects of the interrelationships between the three fields and the intervening processes that take place within every dimension. This happened from the perspective of the SQA:

Closing Remarks – Some of the Main Challenges of the SQA

A main challenge remains, first, to deepen our understanding about which processes which take place in and between the four dimensions of the selected research subject and to understand their consequences for one or more ‘fields’. It concerns the application of the procedural framework (see Figure 3). After all, the herewith related transformations will influence the nature of the conditional and constitutional factors. And that can be investigated, revealing understanding of the transformations. The analytical framework can be used for these investigations. As point of departure of the analytical framework functions the conceptual framework, explaining the ontological and epistemological assumptions of the social quality theory.

With regard to the near future, in addition to the renewal of social quality indicators research, urgent is to focus,  second, on the constitutional and the normative factors. In order to be able to judge the increase or decrease of the social quality in a certain place and time, insight into both sets or factors is a must. Therefore, also with regard to the normative factors, invested will be in, third,  the attention for the ‘rule of law’ in this time frame; on national level and also on international or global level. Furthermore, in the Editorial (see IJSQ: Vol.9, 2, 2019)  - thus before the outbreak of the coronavirus – a plea has been made to pay more attention to the significance of, fourth, the public health as a crucial aspect of societal complexities (first field) and the urban context (second field). What happened in early 2020 with the coronavirus makes clear that this should be high on the agenda for both fields. The same applies, fifth,  to the subject of acceptable labor and working conditions, in particular also because of the consequences of the intrusive communication systems, which will influence thoroughly the production and reproduction interrelationships. This theme has also appeared in the same issue of the Journal. Sixth, last but not least, as discussed above, the SQA’s legitimation is dependent of its productivity for contributing to the increase of the overall sustainability and herewith related problematique, on local, national and global level.

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