Ian Gough, Deputy-Director, ESRC WeD, University of Bath

There remains a deep contradiction between the domination of post-modernism and cultural relativism in intellectual life and the universalism and globalism dominant in the real world of institutions and politics. This paper probes that fault-line. It does so in an unashamedly academic way by reviewing theoretical literature and developing arguments.

Two fundamental approaches can be distinguished in the social sciences. On the one hand an attempt to develop social sciences in the manner of natural sciences, understanding outcomes detached from the self-understandings of people in social contexts. In the hands of economists this generates simple but powerful concepts and measures of human well-being in terms either of revealed preferences or of purchasing power over commodities. On the other hand, stands a hermeneutic approach which brings people’s own self-interpretations centre-stage, in the manner of much anthropology and cultural studies. Writing of developments in the study of history, Hobsbawm notes that the latter perspective gained ground some time in the early 1970s: there was a turn ‘from structure to culture, from Braudel to Geertz, from analysis to description, from telescope to microscope’. Despite a regular barrage of criticism it is hard not to conclude that this remains the case today.

Yet when we turn to the real world of institutions, politics and power a quite different ‘story’ dominates. Globalisation is perceived as a structural juggernaut crushing all practices, cultures, localities and groups that stand in its way. The dominant economic version argues that the power of capital (whether structural or voice-based) is winning out and constraining agents and autonomy across the world, states are losing their capacities to govern and the result is a relentless race to the bottom in everything from cultural preferences to labour and living standards. In the world society version a more Durkheimian process is at work as global norms and discourses are imported into every national setting, whatever the mismatch with reality. Again, despite numerous attempts to critique this structuralist understanding, it remains prevalent among both globaphiles and globaphobes.

Thus the two discourses – on the nature of wellbeing and on the institutions, processes and policies that affect wellbeing in developing countries – are disconnected. This disadvantages people in the developing world, for two reasons. First, they are deprived of influence over arguments about universal and global goals. Second, they are deprived of influence over arguments about local and place-specific means and policies.

If, as I have argued with Len Doyal, basic human needs are universal but need satisfiers are place- and time-specific, then the ability to influence collective understanding of both is lost. The former is lost because, due to the bias towards cultural relativism, all talk of human universals is allegedly modernist, imperialist, Western. The latter is lost because in practice powerful global agencies promulgate and implement ‘one size fits all’ policies that ignore local realities on the ground. In this topsy-turvy world, core values and needs are relative and local, while means and policies are global and universal.

This paper seeks to challenge this worldview in three parts. The first part looks at human well-being and is itself in divided into three. First, it sets out the intellectual case for a universalist understanding and appreciation of all people’s capabilities and needs which, at whatever remove, underpin such global initiatives as the Millennium Development Goals. Then it rehearses the case for localism, respect for people’s values and knowledges, the ‘understanding of understandings’. The third section considers and evaluates theoretical attempts to communicate between the universal and the local and at ways of reconciling the two. It concludes that there remains a strong argument for a dynamic, positional objectivity in conceptualizing and researching well-being.

Part two turns to the world of institutions and structures and is divided into two sections. First, theories of globalisation as a universal trajectory are critiqued. Then it moves on to expound and defend multi-level and middle-range frameworks, in particular the regime paradigm for understanding the generation of welfare, illfare, security and insecurity in the contemporary world. The common element in these approaches is that they undermine narratives of homogenization and in their place stress diversity and path dependency. They can form a bridge between universalizing and localizing accounts of the world in general and of social structures impacting upon human well-being in particular.

The paper concludes by bringing together the two perspectives advocated and favoured in the paper and sketching out their mutual support and interactions. It restates the case for critical autonomy as a universal basic need. It argues that a more contextual concept of ‘culture’ does not rule out some testing, evaluating and reform of cultural practices, invoking external viewpoints. It develops the case for regional and regime-specific policies and institutions to provide social models and policy learning which are better moulded to national and local realities than current international organisations. However, this returns us to the case for an ethically attractive universalism around which consensus can be built. To succumb to cultural or post-modern relativism would simply leave open the field to the most powerful global forces.