UEP tackles the social life of well-being indicators 

susan omanThis summary of Susan Oman’s recent chapter, ‘Measuring National Well-being: What Matters to You? What Matters to Whom?outlines the importance of in-depth enquiries into the methodological aspects of metrics and what they might tell us about culture.

“Disbelief” at tick box assessments


Nicholas Serota

The recent controversy over the ‘Orwellian nightmare’ of Arts Council England’s Quality Metrics programme demonstrates the power that the continuing demand for metrics still holds. In spite of ACE’s incoming Chair, Nicholas Serota, “reacting with disbelief” at “tick box quality assessment”, the signs abound that the Pandora’s box of measuring cultural value won’t be closed any time soon. Serota is quoted as being particularly concerned by the use of tick boxes to assess the quality and value of something as subjective as the production and experience of the arts and culture.

The broader relationship between culture, participation and well-being has been a recent preoccupation of policy-makers and politicians with much debate on the ways in which any causal relationships can be indicated, measured and understood. The ‘Measuring National Well-Being: What Matters to You?’ debate was conducted and analysed by the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) in 2010-11 for this purpose. The nation offered 34,000 [1] responses which could be used to improve what would be measured by what the media was calling David Cameron’s Happiness Index. However, despite the claims that the participation in this debate has contributed significantly to a robust evidence base, this does not include most of the data collected.

The methodological problems with well-being data

Measuring National Well-being: What Matters to You? What Matters to Whom? proposes that due attention should be paid to all of the ways in which well-being data are collected. An investigation into the national well-being debate has revealed that large proportions of data were overlooked in the evaluations of the debate’s findings that have made their way into the reported evidence base. Importantly, these are the qualitative descriptions of what matters to people about their well-being. Many people who replied to the online survey felt inclined to use ‘free-text’, rather than relying on a tick-box to represent their thoughts on what matters. Secondary qualitative analysis of these free-text fields, notably labelled ‘Other’, reveals new findings which contribute to the well-being evidence base. The chapter describes how returning to these free-text fields using an open-coding technique, can offer a completely different picture of what is important to people for well-being, a proposition which is of ethical and  political importance to the well-being agenda.

Furthermore, the chapter expands on the potential value of social survey data collection. Where Savage and Burrows highlight the social survey’s capacity to ‘imagine the nation’ (2007), I argue for the value of survey data beyond simply calculating the social indicator. The chapter demonstrates that analysis of survey free-text fields is an under-investigated, but increasingly necessary methodology for progress towards understanding the nation in an era of automated ‘big data’. It provides evidence that supports Serota’s comments in Arts Professional when “in relation to the notion of using tick boxes he said: “I think the boxes will have to get larger.”


What is the relevance to UEP?

Most importantly for UEP research, the chapter also offers a fuller appreciation of the importance of participation to well-being. Crucially, the re-analysis of the free-text fields as described in the chapter suggests that most important thing for well-being is how people spend their spare time and the activities that they participate in, and yet, cultural activities and everyday participation were missing from the ONS’ measures until June 2013.  The current measure of culture in the National Well being measures is from the ministry for culture’s Taking Part Survey, and therefore only refers to England. The measure is: “Engaged with/participated in arts or cultural activity at least 3 times in last year”, and as argued by other UEP-related research, represents a very limited view of cultural participation across the UK. By contrast, the free-text field responses from the national well-being debate account for a far broader conception of cultural participation, as investigated by UEP. Crucially it is this broader concept of cultural participation that Oman’s analysis demonstrates as mattering most to book-coverpeople for their well-being.

This post summarises Susan Oman’s recent chapter, ‘Measuring National Well-being: What Matters to You? What Matters to Whom?, in Cultures of Wellbeing: Method, Place, Policy, published by Palgrave MacMillan, (pictured right).


[1] These responses were made over many platforms: an online survey, a forum, social media, postal submissions, a telephone line and 175 live events featuring 2,750 people.

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