Understanding Well-being Data

chapter 6 Relating well-being, values, culture and society


As we have seen, the naturalised role of cultural life as being valuable to a good society (or national and personal well-being) has been popularised in different parts of society and instrumentalised as policy. Yet articulations of cultural participation slip between everyday and elite activities, arguably confusing claims to social impact and understanding of what I call the culture–well-being relationship.

We have reflected on the theoretical lineage behind this naturalised relationship between culture and well-being. We have problematised assumptions, and shown the diversity of these claims for happiness, social justice or indeed hiding from social responsibility. The slippery nature of culture and well-being as concepts enables the relationship to morph to the needs of whoever chooses to invoke it, whether they are cultural commentators or policy-makers. This popularisation and instrumentalisation of the culture–well-being relationship is rife in cultural policy, and at a time in which the second wave of well-being and new valuation demands from Treasury affected demands for evidence, the relationship is increasingly reliant on well-being data and expertise.

The burden of proof is enmeshed with a historical tendency to decide what is good for (other) people’s well-being, and what has social and cultural value. Such relations and values are not as fixed as these approaches assume. Of course, really, one would hope that all social policy areas impact on personal, social or community well-being in one way or another; otherwise they would not require social policy-making. Ironically, the idea that well-being measures can neutrally capture technological change without making their own technological changes is highly disputable when you consider the policy histories of Chap. 2. Data are cultural and they change culture and society in ways that are not acknowledged.

The Bhutanese well-being index has a rich cultural domain, with cultural values featuring in other domains, such as education. Yet, despite acknowledging Bhutan as an inspiration to measure well-being, few indices are inspired by the GNH indicators. In the UK, the current, single well-being indicator has a limited capacity to capture even arts participation at present—let alone a broader idea of social and cultural life. The following two chapters account for some issues in the ‘evidence base’ of evidence-based social and cultural policy. We interrogate data, how these are used to make arguments and how we might all be better equipped to interact with well-being data to understand culture and society for ourselves.