Assessing the wellbeing of a population: find ways to ‘listen to’ and not just ‘see’ data

I read with great interest Katherine Trebeck’s blog for Open Democracy proposing a “new economic system”, based on valuing collaboration, community and the reduction of inequalities. She describes being called “naïve” by a fellow panellist when presenting her vision at a recent conference, and recounts her critic’s argument that if we just “look at the data” we will see that, overall, things are “fine” in the UK in terms of welfare and wellbeing.

Katherine goes on to challenge the “tyranny of averages” of statistical data and how they are interpreted that means that inequalities at a population level can become pushed to the sidelines, if the overall average rating of wellbeing is comparable to other populations. She argues firmly for a sea-change, away from the idea that the current economic system is working well enough, and towards a “wellbeing economy” prioritising human and ecological wellbeing.

This led me to think more about the role that our approach to understanding and measuring wellbeing plays in maintaining or challenging the status quo. The idea of ‘seeing’ data – denoting the visual presentation of numbers in graphs, charts, and other distilled formats – holds potential for making quick sense of large amounts of information. However, as Katherine points out, it also holds potential for obscuring the multitude of realities experienced by people across a population. Admittedly, as a qualitative research specialist, I naturally lean away from numbers and statistical data. But Katherine’s experience with her fellow panellist helps make it clear to me the potential danger of attempting to understand the world only through averages and comparative numerical measures.

‘Seeing’ the data implies that it’s the data themselves that are of interest, not what underpins them: the experiences that have led to the data forming in this way. Instead, perhaps we need a shift away from the language of the ‘visual’ towards the language of ‘listening’ and ‘hearing’; orientating ourselves much more closely towards the experiences that are at the heart of the realities we’re trying to understand. Through listening, we can potentially become more attuned to hearing those stories that do not fit the ‘average’; the stories of those people at the margins who face difficulties and inequalities that should not be obscured or explained away through measures of wellbeing or their visual representations.

Of course, this has its challenges. It’s time-consuming work to gather and make sense of people’s accounts of their lives and difficulties they face, and it’s hard to pull this information together in a way that can usefully inform decision-making, particularly when quick stats and visuals have become the currency of policy makers. But it’s important work that needs to be done, both to bring to light the needs of the people who are not doing ‘fine’ within our current system, and to begin to challenge the way we seek to understand and prioritise wellbeing across the population.

For more information and guidance on engaging with qualitative data and methods in your work, get in contact with Capacity Q.


  1. Sarah Stewart-Brown, professor of public health at Warwick University (UK) and wellbeing expert explains that wellbeing can take many forms but a useful description is “feeling good and functioning well and feeling happy is a part of wellbeing but far from the whole”.

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