Understanding Well-being Data

chapter 9 Understanding

Understanding, well-being and data

We started this book with a preface: a personal note on why and how it came about. This included reflections on some of my experiences of coming to understand data and well-being—not only my direct experiences, of course, but my observations of people I know and have met, and how they interact with data issues and well-being issues. I argued this book was for friends, family and acquaintances on Facebook. For my students from courses across theatre studies to data sciences to social policy. For the data practitioners I work with in the cultural sector and for the hundreds of people I have spoken to about their well-being and/or their data in my research.

Given that most of these people are people I have met, the preface also points to how this book is based on my understanding of these issues. It often uses UK cases and relates them to more general problems, international contexts, lessons learnt and some of those that remain. Perhaps in another ten years, I will be writing about these issues from a different place again. I have been honest about how I came to know data and theories about well-being. I found it hard to find all I needed in order to be confident that I understood what I needed to understand.

Because there is a need to understand well-being and data together across many areas of society, this book is written for anyone. You are told to write a book with a specific reader in mind, but this is hard when you

are writing about big problems and your audiences are multiple. Given the aims of this book, it had to address everyone, but knowingly; aware that not all its parts are everybody’s cup of tea. It is therefore up to the reader which bits they want to read, and what they wish to pass on. All I could do was write for what I understood to be (1) the needs and (2) the desires to grasp these issues better or, indeed, differently. But the needs and issues are various, so one size can’t always fit all if you want to address understanding of the broader concerns. So, to return to all the people I wrote this book for, I want it to be clear that everyone can contribute to how we could understand the issues, and differently. What if we looked at the issues from someone else’s perspective, or approached them in an alternative way?

I want to close this book by focussing on understanding for all these reasons, and more. The title Understanding Well-being Data might imply that we were simply going to try and understand well-being, data and ‘well-being data’. Its subtitle ‘improving social and cultural policy, practice and research’ implies, of course, that I aspire for this book to change big things in society for the better. Really, this book has more modest aspirations to improve understanding in small ways—and who knows, perhaps these small ways can make their own differences. Whether it enables anyone who reads it to think about things they had not thought of before, or from a different perspective.

I have been talking about understanding in relation to data in a few ways for a while now [1]: first, as in how we acquire knowledge; second, as how we share understanding; third, how these work with becoming a more understanding society. When I have summarised my findings on how people understand data, I have also suggested that we might think of this on a scale of knowing at one end, and feelings on the other [2]. These qualities of understanding are in essence what well-being data should be about. Collecting data to inform how we might be more understanding of people’s needs and experiences to do better for them and society.

How do data, well-being—and data about well-being, help us with these two concerns of understanding? In many ways, that is what this book is about. We are going to touch on what understanding means, explaining it through another case study: this time one of my own experiences of watching people try and understand what data are doing. But more generally, how the social sciences can adopt a more understanding position.

understanding | ʌndəˈstandɪŋ |.
noun [mass noun].
1 the ability to understand something; comprehension: foreign visitors

with little understanding of English.
the power of abstract thought; intellect: a child of sufficient intelligence and understanding.
an individual’s perception or judgement of a situation: my understanding was that he would find a new supplier.

2 sympathetic awareness or tolerance: he wrote with understanding and

affection of the people of Dent.
[count noun] an informal or unspoken agreement or arrangement: he and I have an understanding | he had only been allowed to come on the understanding that he would be on his best behaviour


1 sympathetically aware of other people’s feelings; tolerant and forgiving: a kind and understanding man | people expect their doctor to be understanding.

2 archaic having insight or good judgement. (Oxford Lexico n.d. [bold and italics in original])

Sympathy This was first used to express ‘understanding between people’; it came via Latin from Greek sumpathés (from sun-‘with’ and pathos ‘feeling’).

(Cresswell 2010, 432 [bold and italics in original])

Now that I spend some of my time in academic research meetings, I am party to conversations on how we understand what understanding means. As you can see above, people who write dictionaries also think about these things. Ironically, people talk about academics living in ivory towers—not caring about what people think and feel; but for some of us, that is so much of what we think about. For example, I am a co-investigator on a research project called Living With Data [3].[4] In project meetings (perhaps you can picture it?), we academics have spent quite a lot of time discussing what we mean by understanding and knowing. How they differ and overlap and how our understanding may be different from people in their day-to-day lives. This was also a conversation point in a recent project meeting with our Advisory Group[5] made up of experts from across public sector, civil society, advocacy and research.

One of the experts on the Advisory Group suggested that perhaps understanding was such a ‘complicated’[6] term that maybe we might want to ask people what they understand by understanding. At this point, we all took a moment to laugh (kindly at ourselves, I like to think) and concluded that while this is important, ‘ordinary’ cultural understandings of the word understanding were a simpler experience. What I meant by this in the meeting, and still do now, was that most people move through life not really thinking about what the word ‘understanding’ means but are familiar with its meaning.

Understanding is a process by which we come to know something, the amount of or the depth of knowledge we have about something. At the same time, being understanding involves empathy, and putting yourself in someone else’s position. Shared understanding, on the other hand, requires the sharing of knowledge with someone in a way that you know they will understand it.

Hence, understanding is both knowing and feeling—crucially it is as much about ‘understanding between people’ (as cited at the beginning of the section) as it is to grasp knowledge about something. As this book has explained, data and the way science and social science knowledge are constructed are also about having a shared understanding of how things are done: how to collect and analyse data in the ‘right way’ is a matter of discipline and tradition, which are not universal. This can lead to differences in interpretation of both well-being and how to use data across disciplines. How do those who work with data share their understandings with those who don’t? Often this is done quite badly, or without thought, care and empathy.

More care is given to sharing understanding in other areas of life. When you ask a child ‘do you understand?’ after you have told them off for doing something and explained why: you are asking, do you understand why I had to tell you off? Have you learnt why what you were doing was dangerous or wrong? You are asking them to appreciate things on an emotional level and on a cognitive level—whether this is successful or not, is another matter. Understanding is both an emotional and cognitive exercise for all of us: we gain knowledge through understanding, and we become more understanding of others through experience.

You may remember that this idea of developing understanding is one of the age-old arguments for the benefits of aesthetic and cultural experiences in Chap. 6. Watching a film or reading a book can help us understand other people’s lives, and culture’s contribution to well-being is often argued because of its capacity to increase empathy. Philosophers have long seen the moment where we come to understand something as a pleasurable

moment, as well as one that brings purpose and meaning to our lives. This is an idea of how understanding improves personal well-being; while of course, knowledge and understanding are seen as contributing to the development of good societies, thus improving well-being at population level. If this is indeed the case, then there is a strong case that more care and attention should be paid to understanding as good for well-being.

Using data about well-being should fulfil all of the functions of understanding: caring for and appreciating the conditions of others, building knowledge of what to do to improve it—and sharing these understandings. As an aside, it should also involve learning from mistakes. Yet, as we have discovered in this book, the limitations of ‘following the data’ are not always admitted to, but instead, often dodged around. First of all, I want to return to the importance of understanding in data. As with the rest of this book, we are going to use a case study to look under the bonnet of the data. While not strictly well-being data, this case study does show how simple processes of everyday data collection can feel ‘hostile’, and unsympathetic.


  1. i.e. Oman 2019a, b[]
  2. Oman 2019b, c[]
  3. n.d.[]
  4. The full name of the Living With Data project (because we love a colon in academia) is: Living with Data: knowledge, experiences and perceptions of data practices[]
  5. It is not only the OECD and ONS projects about data that have an Advisory Group. Many research projects do. The current Living With Data Advisory Group is here: https://livingwithdata.org/advisory-group.[]
  6. Remember that Raymond Williams describes culture as ‘one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language’, this is actually an issue of understanding: ‘This is so partly because of its intricate historical development, in several European languages, but mainly because it has now come to be used for important concepts in several distinct intellectual disciplines and in several distinct and incompatible systems of thought’ (Williams [1976] 1988, 87).[]