Understanding Well-being Data

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

Cultural policy: operationalising the questions ‘what is culture?’

Taking now the point of view of identification, the reader must remind himself as the author constantly has to do, of how much is here embraced by the term culture. It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people; Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar. The reader can make his[1] own list. And then we have to face the strange idea that what is part of our culture is also part of our lived religion.

(T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards a Definition of Culture [1948] 1973)

In cultural policy, ‘culture’ tends to refer to ‘the arts’ by default. There are many books which consider questions of culture and many ‘men of letters’ have concerned themselves with its definition, with Raymond Williams and poet T.S. Eliot some of the most quoted. Understanding culture is more complicated than thinking of its definition and devising lists of what it is, however. Williams and his fellow cultural studies scholars’ work on culture explains far more than its definition. Williams attempts to capture how meanings and values interact across society (1977); what he famously called ‘our modern structure of meanings’ [2], incorporating the institutions which manage our quality of life. He is interested in how ideas of ‘continuity’ are determined by certain groups which define ‘the tradition’.[3] He continues that it is ‘the tradition’ of certain groups that gets to decide what culture is ([1961] 1971, 66), and what culture will continue to be. By extension, this means that only certain people get to define culture and its role in society, as an ongoing process that repeats itself.

The definition and management of culture might make you think of some of the issues we have encountered with well-being data, particularly the penultimate section of Chap. 3. Some people get to define what they think well-being is, and what should be measured, using particular data. This essentially defines well-being, well-being data and their role in society, but also how society is managed. For Williams, the way well-being, data and culture are organised is vital to how society works, and we need to understand them all together.

Williams offers us more than a definition of culture. He presents a theory of culture, to deepen understanding of how culture works [4]. He argues that to develop an understanding of culture and society, we need to incorporate and deepen:

analysis of elements in the way of life that to followers of the definition are not “culture” at all: the organisation of production, the structure of the family, the structure of institutions which express or govern social relationships [and] the characteristic forms through which members of the society communicate.

([1961]1971, 57–58)

What he means by this is that if we want to understand culture and how it works in society, we need to look at all of the stuff around it: how it is organised, communicated and managed—in the context of how other social structures work.

A simpler way of describing this, and why it is important here, is that: to understand culture and society, we need also to understand social policy and governance in general, as well as the institutions that organise and manage them. This includes appreciating how social policy works on society, or its effects, alongside the ways that this happens. Also, good social policy and governance require a better understanding of culture and society.[5] Therefore, society and social policy—and culture and cultural policy—are interlinked and need to be understood together, and within the context of the ways they are organised. Furthermore, this book argues that data are cultural, and so we cannot fully understand well-being data without appreciating both society and culture and, as Williams explains, the institutions which manage them.


  1. Of course, you may find yourself noting the lack of consideration of a female reader by this ‘man of letters’.[]
  2. [1958] 1989a, xiii[]
  3. Other cultural studies scholars agree with this crucial point: Dick Hebdige explains that some groups have more opportunities to make more of the rules that organise ‘meaning’ as how we understand the world and each other through culture (1979). This he describes as hegemony, a term borrowed from Antoni Gramsci to account for how the dominance of certain groups of societies—their ideals, morals, values—and financial value—can be sustained over time. Stuart Hall (1977, cited in Hebdige 1979) explains that hegemony can only be maintained if the ‘dominant classes “succeed in framing all competing definitions within their range”, so that subordinate groups are, if not controlled, then at least contained within an ideological space which does not seem at all “ideological” which appears instead to be permanent and ‘natural’ to lie outside history, to be beyond particular interests’ (Hebdige 1979, 16).[]
  4. [1961] 1971[]
  5. For a recent take on Williams on this point, see Levine (2020).[]