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A critique of quantification in Social Science Research When...

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A critique of quantification in Social Science Research

When Well-Being Becomes a Number


Anna Alexandrova and Ramandeep Singh
Quantifying well-being is an old ambition. Proposals for how to measure happiness were made in the Age of Enlightenment
by utilitarian philosophers, throughout the nineteenth century by classical economists, and in the twentieth century by social
scientists of many stripes. Nevertheless, these initiatives remained the province of the quirky theoretician and utopian, while
well-being and happiness carried on being principally subjects of art, literature, philosophy, religion, and personal reflection,
where measurement was not the point. This began to change in the late twentieth century.
The comfort with quantification of what is perhaps the ultimate personal phenomenon was an outcome of several trends
(see Angner 2011; Davis 2015; Gere 2017). First of all, it is a culmination of decades of academic work at universities and
commercial laboratories refining measurements of psychological traits, emotions, and attitudes. Questionnaires and
psychometric scales of positive states such as happiness and satisfaction proliferated and a new identity of "positive
psychologist," or "wellbeing scientist," emerged. Central to this identity is the development and validation of such scales and
their use in experimental and statistical studies of the determinants of well-being. The second contributing trend was the
self-help movement that aligned itself with experimental psychology rather than the earlier humanistic tradition of
psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. This movement encouraged production of popular materials such as books, training
programs, and, lately, digital apps, which eventually made their way into management, human resources, and life coaching.
Finally, the last decades of the twentieth century saw the rise to prominence of critiques of orthodox economics and growing
demands that evidence-based policy be responsive to more than just growth of gross domestic product (GDP),
consumption, and income.
The late 1990s and the early 2000s saw high-profile conferences and publications in which eminent US economists and
psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Martin Seligman touted the optimistic new science of the good
life.1 In 2009, three famous economists, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, produced a report
commissioned by then French president Nicolas Sarkozy outlining the importance of well-being in national accounting
(Stiglitz et al. 2009). Guidelines for measurement were endorsed internationally and intersectorally by governments and
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), reaching even traditional economic tools of cost-benefit analysis (Fujiwara and
Campbell 2011; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2013). The arguments used against GDP and in
favor of richer measures were often old, resurrected, for example, from Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 speech that indicators
such as gross national product measure everything "except that which makes life worthwhile." By 2012 such sentiments no
longer sounded utopian, and the UK economist Richard Layard radiated confidence in The Guardian: "If you go back 30 or
40 years, people said you couldn't measure depression. But eventually the measurement of depression became
uncontroversial. I think the same will happen with happiness" (Rustin 2012).
Today there is a critical mass of consensus that well-being is quantifiable, or at least that it can and should be represented
quantitatively. Our focus here is the right attitude to this consensus. Should well-being quantification be exposed, opposed,
and discouraged as distorting the true nature of this complex phenomenon and as giving in to the late capitalist dream of
the numerical self? Or should it be tolerated and even celebrated as a scientific achievement centuries in the making? The
answer, perhaps predictably, is neither. The triumphalist narratives miss the mark because the controversies about
constructing a scale of so slippery a phenomenon never got resolved, only forgotten. Categorical disenchantment with
wellbeing quantification is problematic too: while it is tempting to point to the mismatch between well-being properly
understood in the light of some philosophical theory and the current measures, such criticism commits a category mistake.
Well-being "properly understood" is not the target of these measures. Instead, their proponents redefine well-being in a way
that builds quantifiability into the very concept. They sacrifice theoretical validity for the sake of making well-being a viable
object of public debate.
The better question is whether this move of construing well-being as a quantitative phenomenon for pragmatic reasons is
defensible all things considered. The issue as we see it rides on whether it is appropriate to trade off theoretical validity
against effectiveness in public debate, by using a quantitative measure for a qualitative phenomenon. Because this conmeasurement,
politician Oliver Letwin, we call it "Letwin's dilemma." Each type of well-being quantification makes a trade-off
between theoretical and practical demands, and different trade-offs are justifiable in different contexts.
We therefore urge that quantification of well-being should be neither cheered nor denounced as a whole, but instead
evaluated on a case-by-case basis. As an illustration of our strategy, we discuss two such cases. In the first one—the
measure of UK national well-being by the Office for National Statistics (ONS)—well-being is quantified by a rich table of
indicators which strikes, in our view, a defensible balance between validity and practicality. In the second—The Origins of
Happiness, a report by economists at the London School of Economics—quantification runs amok, making too great a
sacrifice of richness and complexity for the sake of political goals that are themselves questionable.

 

Diversity of Quantifications: A Survey

 

What does it mean to quantify well-being? The first step is to adopt a definition of well-being; the second is to put forward a
scale that captures variations in well-being according to this definition. There are many such definitions available and
several possible scales for each, so options multiply quickly. Table 1 summarizes what we see as the main traditions. Each
row presents a different bundle of measures that correspond to different answers to the initial question "What is well-being?"
Very roughly, the first three rows come from the psychological sciences. While they represent distinct philosophical
traditions, all elicit self-reports of well-being with questionnaires.
Psychologists in the first row identify well-being with felt experiences of positive and negative emotions, or happiness, and
they trace their intellectual roots to hedonism. They favour experiential measures of happiness that ask whether
respondents feel a given emotion such as sadness or joy. These ratings are then aggregated into a "hedonic profile" that
represents a time slice of the individual respondent. Those in the second row see well-being instead as an individual's
judgment about her life as a whole, or her life satisfaction, and hence adopt short evaluation questionnaires that invite
subjects to agree or disagree with statements such as "All things considered my life is going well." Their philosophical
heritage is probably closest to subjectivism—the theory that grounds well-being in the fulfillment of the individual's priorities.
Finally, the advocates of flourishing, in the third row, trace their roots to Aristotle (and classical eudaimonism more broadly)
as well as to twentieth-century humanistic psychology: the good life is a life of maximal functioning andactualization of
personal potential. Although operationalizing this theory is undoubtedly hard, psychologists typically articulate several
"virtues," such as autonomy, connectedness, and sense of purpose, and ask respondents to answer questionnaires
corresponding to each.

The definition of well-being as "preference satisfaction" in the fourth row comes from economics. The economic tradition of
welfare measurement builds upon the view that well-being consists in satisfaction of the individual's preferences as
expressed in their choices. Adding the assumptions that money is a measure of the individual's ability to satisfy their
preferences, and that individuals make choices rationally, income (or consumption) becomes a proxy for well-being.
"Quality of life," in the last row, includes several different traditions reflecting different understandings of this concept. First,
we have the "social indicators" tradition in sociology from the 1970s, which sought to enrich the statistics collected by
governments and NGOs beyond the most basic ones. Second is development economics with its capabilities approach
(and various related proposals), which sets out to capture sets of goods that matter for the progress of poor countries
beyond mere economic growth. Finally, quality-of-life measures focusing specifically on health are common in medical and
public health research. In all these cases, a measure is basically a collection of indicators all thought relevant to quality of
life (including sometimes economic and subjective indicators) plus a rule about how to aggregate these indicators into a
single number, if necessary.


Source: Anna Alexandrova and Ramandeep Singh (2022). When Well-Being Becomes a Number. In Newfield, C.,
Alexandrova, A. and John, S. (Eds.), Limits of the numerical: The abuses and uses of quantification, pages 181 - 185,
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

 

*NB - Please give references

You were conducting a research study titled:
Investigating the effect of perceived organizational reputation risk on employee well-being at Eskom Holdings SOC
Ltd.

 

Question 1

After thoughtful consideration of Alexandrova and Singh's (2022) prosaic critique of the quantitation of well-being, you have come to the conclusion that a quantitative paradigm still offers the best approach for your study.

 

1.1. Specify FIVE (5) qualities of a good questionnaire.                                          [5]

 

1.2. Design a 20-item questionnaire that you would use to gather data from the study respondents. Your questionnaire
should comprise three sections: section A: Demographics; section B: Perceived organisational reputation risks; and section
C: Employee well-being. Use a 5-point Likert scale for sections B and C of the questionnaire.                  [20]

 

Question 2

2.1. Critically discuss the type of data and the level of measurement of the data that would be collected by the questionnaire
you have designed in question 1.2.                                                                     [5]

 

2.2. Provide a comprehensive discussion of how you would ensure that the questionnaire designed in 3.2 meets validity
and reliability criteria.                                                                                           [20]

 

 

Answer & Explanation

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