Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

An Alternative Measure of Social Wellbeing: Analysing the Key Conceptual and Statistical Components of Quality of Life

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

An Alternative Measure of Social Wellbeing: Analysing the Key Conceptual and Statistical Components of Quality of Life

Article excerpt

Introduction

Social researchers have long been engaged ill a renewed theoretical and conceptual development of studies of social inequality and social wellbeing (Atkinson 1989). This renewed interest has largely grown out of findings from more advanced statistical analyses that have linked inequality with both macro-level factors such as economic production and social cohesion (Wilkinson & Picket 2009) and micro-level effects such as health and social participation (Stiglitz et al. 2009a). The outcomes of these studies have been highly consequential for social policy makers and for academic debates on social wellbeing.

It has now been widely acknowledged that measures of income and economic performance are poor proxies for quality of life. Starting with the pioneering work of Amartya Sen (1987) it has become increasingly clear that the quality of life of individuals and families depends on what the resources they have available that enable them to achieve as well as their capacity to convert such resources into social wellbeing. Resources, of themselves, will not, therefore, constitute a sufficient metric to predict quality of life, and indicators that go beyond income, wealth and consumption expenditure need to be developed and applied. A need to consider more nuanced measures of quality of life, taking into account a wider range of key aspects of an individual's life circumstances, has been widely discussed (Stiglitz et al. 2009a), fueling an increased interest in broader measures of social wellbeing.

A number of studies have responded to these postulates by viewing wellbeing as a multidimensional construct covering: physical, psychological, cognitive, social, and economic factors (Pollard & Lee 2003; Lent 2004); material wellbeing, health, productivity, intimacy, safety, community, and emotional wellbeing (Cummins et al. 2003), or family economic wellbeing, social relationships, health, educational attainments, community connectedness and emotional wellbeing (Land 2010). Cummins and colleagues (2003) developed a national index of subjective wellbeing, the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, comprising two subscales, Personal and National Wellbeing, and covering such domains as: standard of living; health; achievement in life; personal relationships; how safe you feel; community connectedness; future security (Personal subscale) and economic situation; state of the environment; and social conditions (the National subscale).

While such approaches are undoubtedly fruitful, the selection of the specific components of wellbeing is often problematic and can be somewhat arbitrary. In this paper, we introduce a more transparent way of selecting wellbeing indicators, based on what people consider to be important elements of their life situation. Incorporating only the components that people deem to be important to their wellbeing, we have developed a broad, transcending measure of quality of life which we have designated 'social wellbeing'. This measure aims to capture in a concise way subjective evaluations of more objective circumstances in which people live, The extent to which this measure is associated with other measures of quality of life provides the focus of the analysis reported in this paper. Before presenting that analysis we turn to a review of the major dimensions of quality of life that have broad currency in the contemporary literature.

Key dimensions of quality of life

Household income

There is increasing evidence that the relationship between life satisfaction and income is generally not very strong (for example, Blanchflower & Oswald 2004). However, as Grusky and Kanbur note, 'economics has seized on income as a major indicator of wellbeing and has accordingly treated income-enhancing policies as the centrepiece of any strategy to reduce poverty and inequality' (2006: 11). Similar things could be said about other disciplines within the social sciences. …

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