The Social Quality Approach: Bridging Asia and Europe*

By Walker, Alan | Development and Society, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Social Quality Approach: Bridging Asia and Europe*

Walker, Alan, Development and Society

This paper sets out to achieve three aims. First of all it provides a basic introduction to the concept of social quality. This includes an outline of its architecture- constitutional, conditional and normative factors - and of the four key impulses that led to its development: ontological, methodological, sociological and normative. Then, secondly, it compares the East Asian and European social models. Although such summary accounts risk over-simplification, this section is critical to gain a broad understanding of the similarities and differences and prepare for the third and final part. Thus the third aim is to begin a discussion of how the European social quality approach might be applied to East Asia. The paper does so by working through the social quality architecture outlined earlier. The paper ends with a discussion of the role of political ideology in shaping stereotypes about Asia and Europe.

Keywords: Social Quality, Europe, East Asia, Social Models, Social Policy


This article introduces the concept of social quality and examines the extent of its applicability to Asian societies. This is an important issue because the concept was developed in Western Europe and the idea that it might be applied to other regions arose only subsequently. The article starts with an outline of the current state of play with regard to social quality theory: the concept is an organic one and still in development. It can, in other words, adapt in certain methodological respects, to the increasing dialogue with Asian scholars. Then, it is important for its application in an Asian context, to be clear about the key factors that lay behind the birth of social quality and the European circumstances surrounding it. Next a contrast is made between the social models of Asia (specifically China and East Asia) and Europe (specifically Western Europe) in order to understand the differing contexts of social quality application. The idea of the welfare society, as a socio-political construct, is used to emphasise the contrast. Finally the article examines the potential for social quality to contribute to social policy and social development in China and East Asia and identifies the key points for research.

The Meaning of Social Quality

The essence of the idea of social quality is the social nature of human beings. This is reflected in the definition:

the extent to which people are able to participate in the social, economic and cultural life of their communities under conditions which enhance their wellbeing and individual potential (Beck, Maesen v.d. and Walker, 1997: 6-7).

Although the definition emphasises individual well-being and potential it also indicates that these are derived from social engagement or participation (Beck et al., 2001). Thus the focus is on the extent to which the quality of social relations promotes both participation in social development and individual human growth and development. In other words, there can be no individual well-being and development without social relations. Starting from the assumption that people are essentially social beings, rather than atomized economic agents, it is argued that self-realization depends on social recognition (Honneth, 1995). In other words, a person's self-realization is derived from their interaction with others in a world of collective identities - such as families, communities, companies, institutions. Thus there is interdependency between the processes of self-realization and those of collective identify formation (Beck et al., 2001). Of course to participate in these processes people must have the capacity for selfreflection and the collective identities they interact with must be open. It is here, in these interdependent processes, that the 'social' is located. The field in which these interdependent processes take place is that represented by the interaction of two critical tensions: the horizontal tension between the formal world of systems and the informal life-worlds of families, groups and communities (Tonnies, 2002; Weber, 1978); and the vertical tension between societal development and biographical development (Weyman and Heinz, 1996).

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The Social Quality Approach: Bridging Asia and Europe*


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