Authored by Sarah Bell
In April, I had a great opportunity to be part of the ‘Researching Wellbeing’ event, held at the Royal Geographical Society and jointly sponsored by the Geographies of Health and Wellbeing Research Group and the Development Studies Association.
Professor Sarah Atkinson (Durham University) and Professor Sarah White (University of Bath) opened the event, drawing on their respective fields of Geography and Development Studies to give a flavour of some of the key ideas, themes and debates that have come to characterise wellbeing research to date. These themes were then illustrated through case studies presented by Dr Iokine Rodriguez (University of East Anglia) and myself (Dr Sarah Bell, University of Exeter), highlighting some of the challenges and benefits of researching wellbeing at both individual and community levels.
There are huge variations in how people across cultures define, prioritise and experience wellbeing; across much of the Anglo/American literature, there is a tendency to prioritise individual values when we think about wellbeing. As discussed by Sarah Atkinson, we therefore see efforts in policy circles to assess wellbeing at the individual level in terms of its component parts – such as social relationships, health issues, income status, safety and security – before then using aggregates of those measures to inform the allocation of resources across different groups within the population. Although these ‘big data’ sets are deemed important for detecting health and wellbeing inequalities within and across populations, there are three key limitations to this approach.
First, it fails to recognise a community or group as more than the sum of its parts; that social life is bigger than the individuals within it and that one’s wellbeing is often intimately tied up with that of another – be it a person, a place, or more intangible entities such as histories, socio-cultural meanings and values. This creates a paradox whereby dominant discourses of wellbeing are highly individualised, and yet the complexities of individual life are lost in the aggregate measures that are used to inform policy intervention.
Second, it places responsibility for maximising wellbeing upon individuals, thereby shifting the focus away from the socio-cultural, physical, economic, political and historical contexts in which people are embedded (and indeed, for many, constrained by). This shift is reflected in the plethora of interventions targeting ‘behaviour change’, seeking to equip people with the information they need to proactively ‘work’ on their internal wellbeing. Therefore, as noted by Sarah White, while the concept of wellbeing can be democratic, it also lends itself to somewhat intrusive interventions that assume individuals have the agency to enact ‘expert’-prescribed wellbeing behaviours while simultaneously denying their agency to define or prioritise wellbeing practices that make sense in the complex relational contexts of their everyday lives. Reflecting on this, I drew on my current research to discuss how and why people living with vision impairment may or may not come to embody diverse wellbeing practices in nature.
Thirdly, it assumes a somewhat universal conception of wellbeing, thereby failing to engage with deeper and longstanding philosophical debates about ‘a good life’; what constitutes a good life at different times, amongst diverse cultures and in the context of shifting relationships? It overlooks the contrasting interdependent values that underpin notions of wellbeing amongst many other cultures, and paints wellbeing as an endpoint rather than a process that could support progress towards wider collective goals, such as those linked to sustainability or environmental justice. As illustrated by Iokine Rodriguez, for example, fostering intercultural relationships that support the identification of mutually respected notions of wellbeing can be integral for transforming environmental conflicts within indigenous territories.
Looking ahead, we discussed the need to address such tensions in how wellbeing is constructed and measured; in particular, we noted the need for more critical reflection regarding the research methods we use to understand diverse cultures of wellbeing and how they emerge, evolve and shift both spatially and temporally across different groups and communities, at different (often intersecting) scales of analysis.
For more detailed insights into some of these themes, do look at the edited collection ‘Wellbeing and Place’ produced by Sarah Atkinson, and Sarah White’s new volume, ‘Cultures of Wellbeing: Method Place Policy’, which was launched at this event.