Understanding Well-being Data

Chapter 2 Knowing well-being: a history of data

2 Knowing well-being: a history of data

What is well-being? Well-being has become synonymous with the multi-billion-dollar wellness industry, whilst also being rooted in ancient philosophy and religious practices. It has no universal definition across time, place or scientific discipline, yet the very term ‘statistics’ was invented to measure human happiness.

This chapter contextualises the history of well-being data and development as one which is tied to political and technological change, firstly, in the desire to monitor human welfare, and secondly, for policy. Public management strategies embraced economic approaches to auditing, as a means to define value and efficiency in social policy choices. The chapter considers how well-being data became co-opted into an ostensibly rational process of decision-making and evaluation, becoming a tool of policy—for good and bad.

2.3Audit Culture, value and public management

[T]he ‘fact of audit’ reduces anxiety, or more positively, produces comfort. (Power 1994, 307) One of the effects of developing better measures of well-being and human progress is that we are measuring more things. More than this, we are measuring things for more reasons. Some argue that this is just because we can, or a more cynical description might be […]

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2.3.1Social policy

Just as policy decisions became less fathomable to people, NPM also changed the relationship between people and policy in other ways. Members of the public were increasingly regarded as customers, and compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) was introduced. CCT requires local council services to be tendered out, and the winning contract going to the most ‘efficient’ tender. The political relevance of […]

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2.3.2So, what is value?

To complicate the issue further, ‘value’ not only refers to what counts (what is valuable, or of value), but how to count. It can also be used to describe our values—as the moral codes we live by in terms of what is right and wrong. In this sense the word and meanings of value are incredibly important when thinking about […]

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2.3.3Economics, value and human behaviours

As observed by the historians of the hedonimeter [1], economics has trends: periods of time where ideas, approaches and aspirations for what should be possible ebb and flow. This is not unlike any discipline or, to be honest, act of human effort. Following Edgeworth’s failed dreams of a hedonimeter in the nineteenth century, economics largely lost interest in understanding the […]

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2.3.4What is social value?

There is no single authoritative definition of ‘social value’. Nevertheless, several leading organisations in this field do provide similar explanations of it. These explanations are almost always within the context of measuring social value. (New Economics Foundation, 2016) The debate around value, its definition and its measurement will never be one on which consensus can easily be reached (if ever), […]

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