Understanding Well-being Data

Chapter 2 Knowing well-being: a history of data

So, 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 well-being data, especially what it might mean for social and cultural policy.

To assess the value (or worth) of something, people can go about their own personal estimation, perhaps on a scale, for example: ‘in a fire I would save my family photos over my TV’. This is a hypothetical ranking system, where you state you value photos more than television. Or people can use (or invent) a measuring device: a tool, which might include systems of rankings or ratings, for example. Crucially, no matter how neutral and scientific these tools and devices are (or claim to be), they perform an act of calculation that assigns value on behalf of the person who invented or is applying the scale1. As Sociologist Bev Skeggs explains, ‘values will always haunt value’2. Metrification— as the process of converting aspects of life into metrics for measurement— does represent existing inequalities, so that they can be addressed. However, it can also reproduce inequalities set out by demographics, such as class and race. This is a broader and bigger argument that we will return to, but let me begin to explain with the example of the photographs versus the TV.

What’s interesting about the idea that you would save old family photos over your television is that this is an expression of your values, as a sort of moral value—or the kind of person you see yourself as—as much as it is scale of values (that you could translate into numbers). So, like any rankings scale, or well-being index, they express the values of the person who designed them. Sometimes a well-being index that is a ranking system might want to appear as if it cares about one thing, when in fact it cares about something else entirely. This is also true of people, and when you ask them about themselves, they may feel like they might be being judged in some way (asking people questions can have that effect, see Chap. 9). For example, many people may want to look like the sort of person who would save photos of their family, rather than a surround sound TV, because they think that will make them appear a better person. Sociologists have long been interested in the way we judge our own actions and compare them to the actions of others.

Sociologists often call this a process of ‘distinction’, after Pierre Bourdieu3. Bourdieu has proved very influential in how people understand class (working class, middle class, etc.). This includes how we classify and categorise each other in day-to-day life, as well as how society is ordered unequally. This means—as Skeggs (afore-cited) tells us—judgements about how we classify ourselves and each other affect how we also come to value things.((There is much work which addresses these issues of class, geopolitics and stigma, that there is no room to repeat here. Key texts include Skeggs and Loveday4. See also Tyler and Slater’s5 special issue of The Sociological Review.)) This is also wrapped up in how we want our ‘taste’ to be understood by others—what we like and dislike, or what we think is good and bad. So, how we want to express our taste, through music, for example, relates to other people’s perceptions, values and how we wish to be seen by them. Likewise, taste can indicate social position or privilege. People judge people’s class based on the beer they drink, the clothes they wear and what they say they watch on TV. It is a cultural cliché to joke that ‘the middle classes just don’t understand the importance of a giant telly’6, but that also they pretend they don’t watch telly at all. This trope is an attempt to understand how a group of people value things in relation to their values.

Taste: how it is expressed and how we show our taste are very much embedded in cultural life, helping people to feel equal to their peers, or demonstrate superiority over others. For example, you might say, ‘Lauren has a good taste in music’, but what you decide is ‘good’ is different from what I decide is good. It is all caught up in this process of distinction, of how we classify people, and this is influenced by class. It also allows people to undermine perceived norms (what the majority does). For example, people in UK sub-cultures (whether rave, punk or Grime) might like similar things, products and clothing that are deliberately distasteful to many. How people ‘use’ this to navigate or succeed in social groups is called cultural capital7. Cultural capital means that how people connect to particular culture (e.g. knowledge of music, food, travel and history) can give them a particular privilege, but that the more privilege you have to start, the easier it is to gain. Evidence suggests that people’s cultural capital changes how they value things and what they say are valuable.

So, how people answer a question on how they value one thing over another might change from a socially controlled situation (such as answering a questionnaire or social survey) to a real-life situation for many reasons and what people value differs quite a lot. In fact, in any mundane moment, any subjective valuing system might appear. Someone may wish to disguise the fact that they actually value the financial worth of their TV more than the priceless photographs, because this may be seen as crass or shallow. They might use another value system, for example: ‘well, I would spend more time in the future watching TV than I would spend looking at photographs, therefore the TV would bring me more joy’ (were they to use the Marie Kondo((Marie Kondo, a Netfix sensation, has encouraged people to go through their belongings to de-clutter by way of a value system that asks people to anticipate future joy)) value system of which objects to keep). We might argue they are protecting their future well-being here? Or they might think, what would I pay to replace these items? These are all examples where a rational value is applied to one object over another using a ranking system where the value of one thing is based on its relationship to another.

In cultural policy terms, the TV and the photo album might be considered relative: they could be categorised as cultural objects. For the UK’s ‘Happiness Tsar’, Lord Layard, these two items could symbolise two aspects of culture he has pitted against each other: watching television is responsible for depreciating well-being in the country of Bhutan, because it reduced family relations8. Couched in these terms, the TV has a proxy value that is bad for family relations, while the photo album represents a positive, symbolic value of the family; thus, one is good for well-being and one is bad.

The photo album and the TV could also be seen as incommensurable, meaning that they do not share enough in common to enable comparison. For example, the photos may have emotional value and are unlikely to hold much economic value (for most families, at least); the TV, perhaps, the other way around. But who is to assume that someone’s TV isn’t a family heirloom, when their photo album may be one where those that houses all the photos which have been rejected because they were badly taken? So we assume and judge how people value things over other things as making them a better person when we don’t know about them: their rationales of value, or whether an object holds intrinsic or extrinsic value for them. Indeed, we are in no position to decide what should be valuable to them and why.

Box 2.3 Intrinsic and Extrinsic Value

Extrinsic Value is value from external factors.

  • Also known as Utilitarian Value.
  • Placing a value on something, say, a park, based on what we can get out of it or get from it.
    Intrinsic Value is something’s own inherent qualities.
  • Can be moral, ethical, emotional or spiritual value.Do animal species have value even if we can’t ‘use’ them?

The problem with categories and ranking systems is that they have to assume all TVs are the same and all photographs are the same on at least one dimension. Also, how we judge people’s behaviour using these categories is based on assumptions which are organised by class and race and disability, by gender and place and time; the tendency to judge people for watching TV is very classed, for example, and may not consider how able-bodied they may be, or indeed the quality of their relationships with people who may be in a family album. Value systems and tools also, therefore, tend to generalise who people are in order to make them ‘commensurate’ which is a process of making different things understandable in relation to each other.

  1. Espeland and Sauder 2007 []
  2. Skeggs 2014, 1 []
  3. 1984 []
  4. 2012); Bennett et al. (2009 []
  5. 2018 []
  6. Moran 2019 []
  7. Bourdieu 1984; Bennett et al. 2009 []
  8. see Layard 2006, 77–78; and further discussion in Oman 2020 and Chap. 6 []