Is well-being a western construct?

The politics of well-being is increasingly a global phenomenon, which is impacting on the thinking and approaches of agencies, multilaterals and charities working in the developing world. Where once the ‘Washington Consensus’ reigned supreme, now governments and agencies are increasingly thinking in broader, more holistic terms, about how aid and interventions affect communities’ well-being, rather than simply their GDP and average income levels.


There is, in fact,
a conference next week, in York, aimed at re-thinking ‘the development paradigm in all its dimensions’. I interviewed one of the speakers at that conference, Dr Sarah C. White of the Centre for Development Studies at Bath University. She worked on a research project called ‘Well-being in developing countries‘ from 2002-2007, and is in the middle of another research project, called Well-Being and Poverty Pathways, financed by DFID and the ESRC, exploring well-being and poverty in two communities, in India and Zambia. We discussed whether well-being is a universal term, or to what extent it is culturally-bound. The beautiful photo is by Susan White, from Wiki-Commons.

JE: How new is it to approach development from a well-being framework?

SCW: It’s been around since the early 2000s, but increasingly so since the Sen-Stiglitz-Fitoussi commission in 2009. But that built on a lot of work before that, for example in gender and development, and participation and empowerment. There’s been a growing concern with the human side of development for some time.

JE: How important has Amartya Sen’s work on human development been?

SCW: It’s a very important brand, not least because it’s within economics, which has been the dominant discipline in development work. Sen’s been trying to bring in the social aspects of well-being, not merely focusing on the economic. But there’s a danger of amnesia in development work. There’s often an excitement with the new, which under-emphasizes older traditions. Part of the attraction of well-being is that it takes us back to earlier theorists, to thinkers like Jeremy Bentham or Adam Smith, and even earlier than that. Some would argue thinking about well-being is at the heart of many religious and philosophical traditions, including people like Aristotle.

JE: What strikes me about Adam Smith’s work is that it brings together the economic, the sociological, the psychological, even the aesthetic.

SCW: Yes, an important part of the approach is working across disciplinary boundaries.

JE: Would that also include incorporating the arts?

SCW: So far there hasn’t been much of that in development work. There was a big conference on well-being in Birmingham this year, which incorporated the role of the arts and architecture. Part of the well-being approach involves an attention to place and space which includes the aesthetic side– people feel happier in places they find beautiful.

JE: So tell me a bit about your work exploring well-being in developing countries.

SCW: We’ve already done work exploring well-being in Bangladesh and India. At the moment, we’re working on a three-year longitudinal research study exploring well-being and poverty in two communities, one in Zambia, the other in India.

We’re trying to question the universalist approach, and explore the variability of definitions of well-being in different contexts to the western contexts in which well-being has typically been explored. In the West, well-being has typically been researched by psychology departments in western universities, often using university students as test subjects. That approach tends to be quite individualistic. It will ask individual subject how happy they are, for example, or how satisfied with their life they are. And participants in that context will more or less understand what is expected of them if a psychologist asks them to rate how they are feeling or how satisfied with their life they are.

In other contexts, for example in rural villages in developing countries, such questions might be really hard to make sense of. If you ask them, ‘how satisfied with your life are you?’, they might answer ‘what aspect of my life do you mean?’. And it’s naive to think that if you ask direct questions, you will get direct answers. In other contexts, people often won’t give direct answers, they will talk through metaphors and nuances, especially when you are asking for quite personal information.

There’s this fallacy that you can have a disembodied idea of well-being. What we’ve found is that ideas of well-being are very embodied and context-specific. You hear narratives about what’s appropriate for women, for example, or for certain age groups. For example, in our research into religion and well-being in Indian and Bangladeshi communities, it’s quite difficult to disentangle well-being from the moral order, and from questions about what it is to be a good daughter-in-law, or wife, or an elderly person at the end of life. It’s very relational, involving questions of how relationships are, and how they should be, across generations. So we’re looking at whether the typical well-being measurement approaches work at the community level, let alone at the national level.

JE: Is it possible that if you ask an economist for their definition of well-being, it will be mainly material; if you ask a psychologist, it will be mainly subjective and individual; and if you ask a sociologist it will be mainly relational? In other words, is there a danger that you also are importing in your own disciplinary assumptions?

SCW: Our team is a mix of sociologists and psychologists, and is quite diverse in terms of ethnicity and gender. Our field work research officer is an Indian woman, for example. But we’ve worked in this field for over a decade, so we’re not going in as a blank slate. We try to look at the material, and the relational, and the subjective. Psychologists often don’t look at the material, and only look at relationships in a way that emphasizes their importance to the individual, by asking ‘how satisfied are you with your relationships?’ or some such question. That’s not enough.

Take the specific example of the well-being of the elderly in Bangladesh. There are important questions of material support, but they’re grounded in the context of relationships – where they’re living, who with, what their relations with their children are. And it’s also about culture and the subjective – are their relationships taking the form that they feel they should be?

JE: So, in broad terms, do you think that in a western context we have a more individual definition of well-being, while in developing countries it is often more relational?

SCW: That’s an open question. There are clearly cultural and contextual differences, but I wouldn’t assume that the dominant approaches in the west necessarily reflect everyday western understandings of well-being. They reflect a particular disciplinary approach. I think we under-recognize the relational aspect of well-being in western cultures. And that’s the great thing about well-being as an orientation for development, as opposed simply to focusing on poverty. There’s a built in reflexivity. It’s not simply ‘the west is the best’. There are big areas where western cultures might have a lot to learn about well-being from other cultures.

JE: Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum have both talked about the problem of adaptation: it’s not enough simply to ask people how satisfied with their life they are, because they might have adapted to dreadful conditions and learnt not to expect more. Nussbaum, for example, says she decided to be a philosopher after she was sent on a student exchange to a welsh town, and she was horrified by the conditions there, and by the lack of protest. She felt the factory workers there should protest at the conditions there but had adapted to it so as not to expect more. So clearly in their well-being approach, there’s a normative sense of what people should expect from life. What do you think of that idea?

SCW: Personally, I don’t think failure of aspiration is the problem. People often aspire to a better life, the difficulty is that they don’t get what they know they’re entitled to. If people are constantly being beaten down, they may give up. But there can always be things that spark them back into life. Nussbaum herself puts forward quite a strong, assertive view of what life should be. But that may reflect her own social background. And there’s a danger of writing people off because they don’t express protest in terms you recognize. People don’t necessarily wave placards or say very positive things about themselves. Americans tend to have a default position where it is good to say positive things about themselves. Other cultures don’t.

JE: Your work also explores the relationship between scarcity and well-being. Tell me a bit about that. In some ways, I suppose the connection is obvious – if you don’t have any food, you’re unhappy.

SCW: Yes, in the middle of a famine, you obviously don’t go up and ask people how they’re feeling. There’s an important difference between taking well-being as a focus of enquiry or assessment, and having a well-being orientation in the way you think about and organize your programme or institution. For example, it’s important for aid agencies to think about how they’re working in crisis situations, and to think in terms of local people’s dignity, relationships and reflexivity. How can they develop aid mechanisms that will maximize clients’ sense of control, well-being and dignity, rather than seeing clients simply as bellies to fill. Look, for example, at Alex De Waal’s book, Famine That Kills, which showed that people in famines are not simply concerned with preserving life, but also with preserving ways of life. Even people who are starving still talk about dignity.

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