Dr Laura Camfield, University of Bath, on 20 June 2003

Dr Laura Camfield is a member of an Environmental and Social Research Council (ESRC) sponsored research group at the University. Dr Camfield, an anthropologist, is concerned primarily with one aspect – ‘people’s experience of subjective well-being’ – of the ‘Well-being in Developing Countries’(WeD) project. (1)

In January 1999 Professor Skevington of the University of Bath spoke at a World Affairs meeting at the Institution on plans for the research (see World Affair Discussion Group archives on http://brlsi.bath.ac.uk) and some BRLSI members cooperated in a pilot exercise. Since then the research group was set up and to date has been active on the WeD project for nine months of a five-year project period.

The purpose of the project is stated as being ‘to develop a conceptual and methodological framework for understanding the social and cultural construction of well-being in specific societies’. Three areas of study are entailed – ‘the relationships between objective states of well-being and the quality of life; the ways in which existing policy regimes affect the quantity and quality of resources which people are able to deploy, as well as their choice of strategies for using them; the ways in which the inequality of distribution of different categories of resources within communities is implicated in the processes of constructing an objective state of well-being and a desired quality of life’. Their four country case studies are Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Peru and Thailand. They cover 4000 rural and 2000 urban households overall. The researchers will use both an overall household survey and individual household studies (through observation, semi-structured interviews, etc., undertaken by research students living in the communities over the fieldwork period of one to two years).

The team began by considering what factors affect ‘subjective well-being’ (SWB) – such as personal income, which is known to be less important for SWB the more people have. (For example, lottery winners lose enjoyment of smaller activities and their divorce rate is relatively high.) Equally, national wealth shows a diminishing return effect and political freedom seems to matter less in poorer countries than in richer countries. Age and gender appear largely irrelevant. There is evidence of an improvement in SWB, however, if self-set attainable goals are reached. One factor may be concepts of ‘personhood’, which may be much more embedded in community in the case study countries than in the West. Personality, heredity and religious faith certainly are important factors, but education and health (except where multiple disabilities occur) appear less important for SWB.

SWB responses are influenced by mood and immediacy of personal events (good and bad days, for example), but the methods of study must be fitted to the society in focus (for example, the degree of illiteracy must rule out some methods). Critics argue that the concept of ‘Quality of Life’ (Q of L) has differing weightings in differing societies and that expected ‘norms’ may distort response profiles. The team therefore hope to avoid a more narrow focus by studying as many aspects as possible, in order to reflect the realities in the countries studied, where personal happiness may not be as dependent on wealth and health as in the West. In order to have comparable data outcomes across the four countries, however, a particular Q of L definition is being used – ‘An individual’s perception of their position in life, in the context of the culture and values in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns’.

In the 1995 piloting model about 25 facets were included, but experience of its use in various countries has caused adjustments, so that by 2002 the revised measure includes both old and new facets under four main headings – physical, psychological, social relationships, spirituality-religion-personal beliefs. Two child-centred facets, relating to the ‘right to speak out’ and the ‘right to have identity’ have been added – the latter because in some countries identity documents are crucial. The speaker considered various facets in some detail, then some problems with reported responses.

Responses to questions requiring self-rating of Q of L on a five-point scale tend to cluster in its middle. The team recognize that ‘response shift’ may occur if the subject’s ‘standard of measurement’ changes – for example, if seeing another athlete in a wheelchair puts their own knee injury in perspective. Similarly, the subject’s ‘values’ may change – for example, a medically retired athlete might prioritise coaching athletes instead of competing themselves. The subject’s definition of Q of L could thus change and, for example, focus on sporting relationships rather than achievements. Many psychological factors which affect responses were then discussed by the speaker – to the extent that people with difficult life experiences may report good Q of L and vice versa. Also, differing life experiences at differing times will yield differing responses from individuals.

Dr Camfield then discussed various aspects and implications of the project with members of the audeince. These interchanges were essentially in three broad areas – facets, valuations and outcomes, and methods of research. A number of facets were queried initially - particularly health, gender, ethnicity, religion and education. The speaker conceded that the original analysis of facets was derived mainly from pilot studies in Western countries and that some (e.g. gender) were ‘counter-intuitive’ if they were treated as less important elsewhere. She pointed out too that healthcare facilities vary, which could skew responses. Ethnic, age and religious differences were given weight as facets, but ‘education’ per se covers a variety of issues – for example, while primary education may be very beneficial (particularly for women) other forms may not: in Pakistan degrees often lead to menial employment, which in turn causes a ‘brain drain’. While poor education is certainly not beneficial, there are ‘structural problems’ for researchers. When it was suggested that a ‘sense of belonging’ is an important facet, the speaker replied that while that was considered in the earlier studies (particularly with respect to Peru), the new approach incorporated it in an amalgam of three basics - autonomy (including trusting advice), competence (having sufficient skills), and relatedness. While around 150 facets could be included, the more subtle aspects would be explored through ‘talking to people in their own situations, while living with them’, rather than by questionnaire and more formal methods.

When questions of ‘value for money’ expended were raised, valuations and outcomes were discussed. Dr Camfield said that ‘Ultimately it is to get a slightly more nuanced understanding of what is important to people in developing countries and how they use their resources’ so that ‘development interventions can be made to meet these perceived needs and wants’. The presumption that ‘Western values’ and ‘development’ are desirable was questioned, one comment being that industrialisation underpinned Western development, which became the model. Others noted that since ‘aid perpetuates poverty’, commercial relationships through trade and thus wealth must be addressed through political and international organisations. If this project can indicate a wide disparity between the West and the rest in terms of what provides a ‘good life’, valuable outcomes may be derived. Hopefully, policy would not be distorted from attempts to address imbalances, but the direction of supportive projects might be improved through better analysis of people’s actual needs in the context of their situations – for example, village community might be given priority over other material facilities.

It was suggested that the project results might be used to question our own priorities, e.g. on moral and environmental issues. The speaker agreed that ‘liberal guilt’ motivates some aid agencies, but she thought that opening markets, reducing consumption and cancelling debt were very difficult to achieve - it is ‘like sticking a band-aid on to a wound that is spurting blood’, but perhaps ‘it is better than nothing’. We must try to avoid the very common view that ‘they were poor but they were happy’. Outcomes hoped for are involvements in the media, international conferences, etc., with non-governmental organizations and through email and website channels. The British government, the U.N. and the World Health Authority are aware of the project and it is hoped that policy will eventually be influenced – at least with respect to the four countries directly involved. There is some evidence of change of priorities, for example where ‘intermediate’ rather than Western technologies (such as those used for bilaterally-provided dams) are employed. One comment made in response was, however, that ‘decision-makers are politicians with their own agendas’, which may not be compatible with the implications of the project (which events in Iraq and Palestine may currently show).

Methods employed in the research were also discussed and their validity questioned. The speaker conceded that questionnaires are ‘quite artificial experiences’, and that urban/rural and cultural differences can skew responses, but claimed that there are techniques through the use of differing methods to reduce bias. Some team members favour large-scale survey tools and measures, others more qualitative approaches, but methods are still being discussed in the recognition that large numbers are involved. It was suggested that people should simply be asked to express their own values and the speaker reported that that was done in researches in South Africa, when dominant items which resulted were food, income, shelter, education, and a place in the community. She agreed that there is a danger if there is a West-derived ‘sophisticated theory of what human beings are and what makes them tick’, but hoped that their studies would be ‘flexible enough’ to allow for that problem. A respondent commented by suggesting that if we studied ‘how badly problems have been dealt with in the West’ our dealings elsewhere might be instructed.

Geoffrey Catchpole

(1) see www.welldev.org.uk


Recommended Books :


Ian Gough and Len Doyal – ‘A Theory of Human Need’ (1991) Macmillan Press Ltd.


Allister McGregor – ‘A Poverty of Agency: resource management among poor people in Bangladesh’ (2000) WeD.


Suzanne Skevington – ‘Advancing cross-cultural research on quality of life: observations drawn from the WHO QOL development’ Quality of Life Research 11: 135-144 (2002) WeD.