I’m so excited to be launching this project. I’ve mentioned it a few times (just a few) over past blog posts, but here we are… it’s live! You can visit the site here, and I’ll be posting more about the processes involved and how I’m approaching it here.
Copyright Clare Williams 2021, images reproduced here with the kind permission of tl;dr.legal
This project has been a long time in the making. I first started sketching out what my “journey” might look like in 2019, right after passing my viva and feeling that I could give myself permission to step away from the core content of my research for a bit. It had been a long 8 and a half years. In hindsight, it was worth every step. But there had been moments along the way where I’d sworn blind I wasn’t cut out for this and was going to quit.
Fortunately, for me, I had a wonderful support team of supervisors and mentors who made sure that the nuclear option never happened. But I’m not alone in having moments like this – any long research project has its ups and downs. Sometimes we want to give up. We don’t feel we’re good enough, or can make this lifestyle work.
So, the Mountains of Metaphor project is a way for me to share my story and reach out. Maybe you’ve experienced something similar? Maybe you’re considering a PhD but aren’t sure how to approach it, mentally?
There are some supplementary materials on the site that you can download and play around with – why not try creating your own map of your research journey? Where are you on the map? What’s going on around you? Can you still see your eventual goal?
There seems to be a general consensus at the moment that our ways of doing, talking and thinking are the constructs of “good ideas” in the social sciences over the past few centuries. We are living “the dreams of dead people”, to quote Yuval Noah Hariri. Once these are taken up on a broader level by society, these “good ideas” become taken for granted. We don’t spend our days pondering the rule of law, separation of powers, agency, productivity, and so on. We know these are important and work, as concepts, because… well, they just do. Look around you.
But the seeming invisibility of these “ideas” is a problem. Ignoring the fact that we prioritise concepts agency hides their historical and cultural contingency, and then leaves these unavailable to analysis. How can we challenge neoclassical economic theory that has become “common knowledge” or “just the way things are” when we no longer even notice it?
There have been a few books, blog posts and tweets recently that have spoken to this which are worth mentioning here.
Firstly, James Suzman’s new book. He’s just done an interview about this with GQ magazine, and it’s well worth a read. To oversimplify his argument hugely, he challenges our current notions of productivity in western liberal culture, and specifically puts this in the context of property ownership, heritage, lineage, time and space. In other words, our focus on productvity – often at the expense of other factors in life – is a cultural, social, legal and economic construct. Why do we internalise norms of productivity? Because a few economists 100 years ago thought that the abstract notion might be a good thing for growing the economy (and profits). However, in the process of moving from neoclassical economic theory to mainstream cultural doctrine, it has changed the way we see ourselves as citizens and as consumers.
There’s also a biography of Torsten Veblen by Charles Camic out at the moment, which is a really interesting take on the “outsider” economist. Geoffrey Mead has written a review on the LSE Review of Books Blog here, which offers “an excellent account of how Veblen arrived at his influential contributions to economic theory and paying close attention to how abstract ideas get embedded in institutions and practices”.
Well, yes. They do. And my book (out later this year) is a deep dive into the impact the way we talk about law and economy on how we do and think. Specifically, I look at embeddedness. In the drive to “Build Back Better”, there’s been a lot of talk of “re-embedding” the economy in society. Since responses to the 2008 financial crash started to appear, there have been a lot of statements either that “the economy is embedded in society” or that “society is embedded in the economy”. Start looking out for them – they’ll crop up more than you’d expect. And yet nowhere is there an explanation of what we’re talking about (what is embedded in what) and what we really mean by this.
But it really is important. My work is about just one example. But if we do want to Build Back Better, we need ways of talking about law, economy and society that recognise, acknowledge and then challenge “common sense” or accepted ways of doing and thinking about the economy. And this starts with those “good ideas” or abstract notions that eventually work their way into the mainstream and become “received wisdom”, invisible, or “just the way things are”.
Matthew Syed wrote a comments piece in the Sunday Times this week about a new drug for obesity, but placing it firmly in the wider context of personal responsibility, agency (as a Weberian ideal), and the atrophying of this that happens when the state gets too involved in individuals’ lives. I think he misses a trick by not recognising that while the agency-structure duality is open for debate, the “structural elements” (the food industry, the farming industry, and the advertising industry) have evolved under the guise of free marketeering far faster than our capabilities as agents to confront these, both on a social level and a biochemical level. Nevertheless, this is a prime example of one of those “common sense”, “received wisdom” ideas (personal responsibility) that is derived from “good ideas” of theorists (agency and the notions of the individual agent of neoclassical economics) that is held up (usually by free market advocates) that we tend to ignore. Yet we ignore it at our peril. The agency-structure debate is as relevant as it ever was, however our grammars and vocabularies to respond to current crises, crashes and catastrophes are those of the mainstream… in other words, the mainstream mental models that got us into this mess in the first place.
So, we need new ways of doing, talking and thinking about the legal and the economic. We need new grammars and vocabularies that challenge these accepted notions. The fact that we are turning more to the social sciences, to our social and institutional heritage to seek answers for how we can respond to the current crashes, crises and catastrophes is something to be celebrated. The social sciences have a huge role to play in our response. We cannot Build Back Better without them, and the founding fathers of sociology still have a lot to teach us, if we’re willing to listen.
A little heads up on a current (soon to be revealed) WIP: I’m visualising the PhD journey using digital paintings, maps and interactive story-telling. It’s an exciting project and I can’t wait to share it when it goes live. This means that I’ve been thinking about metaphors and ways of storytelling. And it turns out that once you start looking for visual metaphors, they turn up everywhere.
My own personal metaphor for undertaking the PhD was pretty mainstream, despite being invaluable. For those who don’t know, I’ve been climbing a mountain whilst doing the PhD. Passing the viva was effectively reaching the summit, but on the way were a whole bunch of added extras, from being caught in an avalanche (loss or illness), so taking shelter in a cave while storms raged (fighting my university for access and not feeling able to go on), to getting stuck in a swamp and totally lost (doubting that my work was valuable, relevant, or particularly insightful).
Whatever was happening in my life at the time, there was a convenient metaphor for it, and one that helped me put my problems into a tangible frame where I could appraise their significance (objectively), figure out a plan, and then refocus on my goals. I think this is why I found the metaphor so helpful, and why it was it one of the keys to me completing the PhD after 8 years of hard slog. Having that mountain in the distance meant that, regardless of what happened along the way, I never lost sight of my goals and was able to appreciate the storms for what they were; temporary blips that would not permanently interrupt my progress.
Sky: Children of the Light
While my forthcoming project is designed, painted and written by me as a visual representation of my metaphorical journey, I stumbled upon a different version of the metaphor… scrolling through the latest games on Apple’s App Store, I came across a game called “Sky: Children of the Light”. Here are some screen grabs from the App Store, mainly so that you get an idea of the beautiful artwork in this game.
The aim of the game is to get to the top of the dangerous and dark mountain (sound familiar?) and this is best achieved by working altruistically and making friendships (also familiar – no one ever finishes a PhD by working alone). The graphics are undeniably beautiful, and the challenges include decoding glyphs and meeting ancestors to gain their knowledge as you go along (also, very relevant for a PhD journey, although less literal when those ancestors are in book form in a library).
The blurb about the game states that “with your trusty candle, you’ll illuminate the world bit by bit, pushing back the darkness and igniting beacons to open doors to new areas”. This might be a little poetic, but is a comforting thought to those of us trying to develop new knowledge that might just make the world a better place, one day.
“You’ll meet dozens of ancestors who will teach you new expressions – like setting off a dazzling fireworks show – or offer items like capes, hairstyles and musical instruments”. While no one offered me a hairstyle throughout the PhD, learning from ancestors, mentors and peers is a central part of the process. Despite the journey being solitary and even lonely at times, the most valuable resources are the people around you – your cheerleaders.
“Although you can play Sky alone, the experience truly comes to life when you connect with friends, family or strangers. Can’t reach a hidden cliff? Signal to a passer-by who has a more powerful cape and perhaps they’ll take your hand and escort you up. The desire to help others is woven throughout the game’s fabric.” There have been many occasions when I’ve benefitted from the generosity of others in my field. Progress doesn’t happen through sheer slog in the library, but from friendships, kindness, and solidarity. And some beautiful metaphorical scenery.
A few months ago, I had the privilege of chatting with a student of public policy at one of the leading universities in the UK for science and disease. He was telling me about the postgraduate course he was on, and how public policy is a discipline based purely on science. I thought briefly, and then double checked. You don’t study anything resembling a social science at all then? No ethics, no law, no economics, for example? No no, public policy, he assured me, is based solely on scientific evidence.
I shelved my doubts and put any skepticism down to my natural bias as a social scientist and my tendency to argue for the wider understanding and valuing of the social sciences in any scenario.
And then COVID-19 happened. Of course, this is a scientific conundrum, and scientists, chemists, biologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, mathematicians, and the like are working together globally like never before to test, trial, model, and to keep the rest of us as safe as possible.
A recent paper in The Lancet identified the issues surrounding ethnicity, stating “Ethnicity is a complex entity composed of genetic make-up, social constructs, cultural identity, and behavioural patterns.2 Ethnic classification systems have limitations but have been used to explore genetic and other population differences. Individuals from different ethnic backgrounds vary in behaviours, comorbidities, immune profiles, and risk of infection, as exemplified by the increased morbidity and mortality in black and minority ethnic (BME) communities in previous pandemics.” This can be represented in the following chart:
This “complex entity” of “ethnicity” straddles the natural and social sciences as well as the arts and humanities, and there has never before been such a huge need for the disciplines to work together. Could there be any correlation between being a front-line worker and BAME? Is there any truth in the statements that those from a minority ethnic background are more likely to live with extended family in smaller, more cramped housing? Or is the answer down to genetic susceptibility to co-morbidities? The research here is, surprisingly, still in its infancy, although projects like the UNESCO dialogue offer hope that society may be forced to confront the inequalities that COVID-19 has laid bare.
Once again, we are not all in this together. The virus is not a great leveller, and we are not all suffering equally. The statistics bear this out in black and white. But science can only carry us so far down the road investigating this. The rest must be in combination with the insights of lawyers, economics, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and geographers, as well as historians, ethnographers, artists, musicians and – well, as much of society as possible if we really want a representative dialogue. And this means hearing voices that are usually silenced by inequality and minimised by power imbalances.
Interestingly, Germany may be already setting off down this road, enlisting scholars in the Arts and Humanities in that country to help establish a new normal and to ask how society can make sense of the changes. How can we forge meaningful relationships from a “socially-distant” 2 metres? And what might a post-COVID-19 society look like? Sound like? Behave like? Which social values and interests will be prioritised? These are questions that will require the full range of inputs, styles and learning from across the academy.
Despite the fact that we are facing a viral enemy, arguably we have never needed interdisciplinary research more, specifically combining insights from the social sciences, arts and humanities to interpret, process, disseminate and enhance understanding of the work of the natural sciences. COVID-19 has highlighted inequalities that society had previously been able to ignore. The role of the social sciences, arts and humanities in elevating those voices and interests will be critical not only to the successful implementation of vaccines and treatments (community dialogue and involvement is essential for engagement with health services), but for the reconsideration of social priorities and equality more generally.
Who doesn’t love a meme? And when a couple of these come along that just happen to sum up your doctoral thesis, it’s both impressive, depressing, and a funny feeling of having come full circle.
Elon Musk, king of many things but also of the art form that is The Meme, was widely panned for his early laid-back response to the pandemic, preferring to worry over the economy instead. And then there was this:
Admittedly, this is open to interpretation, and Musk hasn’t clarified how many layers of sarcasm are at play here but judging by more recent tweets, he seems to mean this literally. The image, of an astronaut on the moon watching the destruction of the planet earth while worrying about the fate of the economy is perhaps a fitting metaphor for some of the narrative around the Covid19 pandemic. Some have suggested that Musk was actually referencing the real role of the economy in human health, and the mutual dependence of the two rather than the “lives versus economy” binary that has defined the pandemic discourse. Alternatively, the image could beg the question of whether we are sacrificing the planet to satisfy the gods of economy. More on this later. In the meantime, the internet responded magnificently:
Humorous, yes. But there are two points to note here that relate to the relationship between economy, society, and the planet.
Memes are metaphors
Firstly, these make great visual metaphors for our preoccupation with the economy at a time when lives are being lost to a virus. James Geary cites metaphors as essential for framing a subject, which in turn defines how we think about something. His book “I is an other” notes that:
“We think metaphorically. Metaphorical thinking is the way we make sense of the world, and every individual metaphor is a specific instance of this imaginative process at work. Metaphors are therefore not confined to spoken or written language.” (Kindle Loc. 219-221)
Perhaps the originator of work into metaphor and its effects on framing and cognition, George Lakoff highlights the importance of metaphor and its role in how we perceive, conceive and understand something that then gets wired into our neural circuitry. See “Don’t Think of an Elephant“, as well as Lakoff & Johnson’s “Metaphors we live by“.
A metaphor is a way of likening one thing to something else. In this case, the pandemic is represented by the destruction of the world, with the distant astronaut concerned over the fate of the economy. Is the implication really that the pandemic is a looming apocalypse? This would probably strike most people as extreme, but the similarities include the fact that we have not faced a global pandemic in living memory, that our way of life or “normal” probably has met the same fate as the meme-planet, and that the fate of the earth and the climate crisis has been unceremoniously bumped down the order of global priorities.
Much of the discussion about our responses to the pandemic seems to have polarised debate into a “lives versus the economy” binary. Of course, the world is not as simple as this. In previous posts I’ve emphasised the need to bring economics back into the social science and reorient it around people, highlighting the fact that without humans interacting, there is no economy. This fact seems to have been largely ignored in the discourse – if people are sick, the economy suffers. If the economy suffers, people will too. They are two sides of the same coin – another metaphor for trying to explain that the economy (itself a metaphor for a collection of human behaviour) benefits when we are fit, healthy, and productive, and vice versa. Pitting the one against the other is, admittedly humorous but erroneous and ultimately unhelpful.
Metaphors frame our thinking
Secondly, how (you ask) does Elon’s meme sum up my PhD thesis? Interpreted literally, it’s wide of the mark. But seen ironically, the meme captures a Polanyian interpretation of the economy-society duality.
We use metaphor to think, and our ways of thinking about the law and the economy are as steeped in metaphor as any area of life; in fact, possibly more so. We attribute human qualities to the economy (it’s “gathering strength”, it’s “taken a tumble”, etc), and neoclassical approaches have tended to prioritise the free market as a self-regulating mechanism that can regulate human behaviour accordingly.
This encapsulates Karl Polanyi’s assertions about the relationship between the economy and society. In more recent debates after the 2008 financial crisis, the question tended to be “is the economy embedded in society, or is society embedded in the economy” (both of these are readings of Polanyi’s thesis, and yes, they are contradictory). The point is, when we use “the economy” as a metaphor to start talking about collections of human behaviour, we can begin to personify these, and start talking about the economy as if it were a living, breathing thing. While we might think that “economy” should function for the benefit of society, there are those who argue that society now functions for the benefit of the economy. Some commentators have argued that the metaphorical aspirations of the economy have taken over the narrative, to the extent that society works to serve economic goals. We strive to increase GDP, growth, productivity, and so on.
And so, Elon’s meme neatly sums up the subordination of society, and the earth, to economic goals. At the same time, it hopefully asks us to reconsider the relationship between the economy and society, economy and the planet, and how we can move forwards in a mutually beneficial manner.
What if we could visualise frames and concepts in 3D and move around to see the impacts of those frames?
With the help of a little 3D modelling software called Blender, this is possible.
This is the very first step towards making a 3D version of my thesis. There is a lot more to learn, and a lot of work to be done, but the possibilities here are extremely exciting. Currently, this is compressed and uploaded as a GIF, meaning that the sequence is shorter, the frame rate is reduced and there’s quite a lot of noise. But you get the idea… what if we can visualise the frames, concepts and theories that we talk about in the social sciences? How could the visual assist in exploring how we do, talk, and think about law and economics?
This mini animation, with sound, asks what the reintegration of the economic, legal and social might look like and sound like.
This is relevant for each and every interaction that occurs – there are always legal and economic aspects to every interaction, but we tend to forget that talking about the legal and economic in isolation from the social is a metaphor, or fiction.
How could frames or lenses like ESL help us to remember the social basis for any legal or economic aspects of interactions?
In other words, “why science does not have all the answers… and why it needs to work with the social scienes for maximum impact”.
This post starts from the saying that a scientist can tell you how to clone a human being, but a social scientist can tell you why this might not be a good idea… or then how to regulate the technology and maximise social benefit if you’re determined to go ahead.
Similarly, I was watching BBC’s “Pandemic” on BBC4 with Dr Hannah Fry, which aired last week. This asked how vulnerable we might be to a viral infection that had decided to turn into a global pandemic. They took a group of mathematicians and modelled the infection rates of the virus across a small town in the south of England. The results were, frankly, worrying. A pandemic is coming. The questions relate to how prepared we are.
The approaches were entirely scientific, and consisted of mathematicians and virologists wondering how social interactions could spread a virus. It did occur to me that if they had included a social scientist on the panel, someone could have pointed out that scale, depth and nature of social interactions have actually been the subject of social science research for decades.
The team used smart phone GPS tracking to analyse social interactions and deduce the likelihood of infection from these.
The results of the Pandemic experiment revealed the existence of some so-called super-spreaders of infection. These were generally high-profile individuals in the community – people who ran local businesses or who spent time in cafes or busy hubs of social interaction. This led to the suggestion that vaccinations could be targeted at super-spreaders for maximum impact. This was certainly an impressive result of the experiment and hugely important if we are to respond effectively to a super-virulent strain of flu, for example (the experiment assumed possible infection from 20 metres away).
But, instead of focusing solely on science, what could the results achieve if we combined insights from the social sciences to change behaviour as well as immunity?
As we know, you can present people with all the facts in the world, and they will fail to change their behaviour accordingly. Vaccinations, the climate emergency, and so many other examples show that presenting people with “the cold, hard facts” will change nothing. There’s an side point to be mentioned here about the devaluing of information through the spread of “fake news”, but since the 1970s psychologists have demonstrated that “reasonable-seeming people can be completely irrational”. For a review of the main studies in this area and why reason and confirmation bias could actually be helpful from a social perspective, see this post in The New Yorker. Applying this to cognitive bias that can be dangerous for the belief-holder, the Gormans have analysed how we can tackle these mistaken thoughts.
On the other hand, research has shown that “nudges” and insights from social science can have as much, if not more impact than financial incentives. The Behavioural Insights Team, founded on Sunstein and Thaler’s “Nudge”, published in 2008, looks at opportunities to shift the context in which people make decisions, hopefully pushing them towards “the correct” choice. In the case of improving our diets, or reducing knife crime, this is obviously a good thing. But what does this mean for epidemiology, virology, and pandemic response?
What could we achieve if we combined the insights of the natural and social sciences? The BBC Pandemic experiment into how viruses infect a community are insightful. But only when they are combined with the insights of the social sciences to actually translate this into real human behavioural changes that could change lives.
For example, if we want people to wash their hands for 20 seconds using soap, telling them about how they are reducing abstract infection rates will have little impact. “Nudges” on the other hand, like installing timers next to taps, singing happy birthday twice, or better still stopping water-saving taps that cut off water after 3 seconds, will have far greater impact. Other nudges that could encourage people to wash their hands are reminders that “everyone else does”, and countdowns near taps that tick red until 20 seconds are up – potentially showing on a smart screen how many bacteria are left on the subjects’ hands… these are just suggestions. But imagine what we could achieve if we combined science and social science insights. We would be unstoppable!
Is the economy embedded in society? Is society embedded in the economy? Is the law embedded in society? Or is society embedded in a set of rules and regulations?
Have the law and economy become “disembedded” from society, and is this why the financial crisis in 2008 came as such a surprise? Would it help to “re-embed” the economy?
This post explores the use, misuse and abuse of the concept of embeddedness in the context of econo-socio-legal interactions.
Coinage of the term in the context of economic sociology and ESL is attributed to Karl Polanyi in his 1948 book The Great Transformation. Polanyi had reportedly been reading about the coal mining industry in the UK, and had taken the term “embeddedness” from descriptions of coal embedded in the walls of a mine. Thus, to Polanyi, the term was likely a relational descriptor and metaphor. Interestingly, despite earlier documented usage, Richard Thurnwald’s use of “embeddedness” has gone largely unremarked, enabling him to dodge the bullet of origination foisted on Polanyi. The term only appears twice on page 60 of Great Transformation, and then on pages 68, 73 and 135. There is no great overarching theme of embeddedness. Nor is there a definition offered. It is probably safe to assume that the word was a throw-away term of description that came to hand, and was then never given much more thought.
Little did Polanyi realise that 70+ years later, scholars would be puzzling over his meaning and even writing doctoral theses on the matter! One catalyst for the development of embeddedness into the core concept of sociological lenses was Mark Granovetter’s accidental revival of the term. Granovetter’s theory of networks, published in 1985, described the actor as embedded in networks. He has since admitted that at the time of writing, he had forgotten Polanyi’s usage of the term. Nevertheless, the success of Granovetter’s paper revived the career of embeddedness, but at the same time created confusion. Polanyi had been referring to the macro-level embeddedness of economy in society, although his “always-embedded economy” is more a theoretical proposition than empirically-proven reality. Conversely, Granovetter had used the term at the micro-level to describe the embeddedness of the individual in networks of interaction. Thus, development of the concept of embeddedness already straddled the micro and macro, giving rise of the question; “what are we talking about”?
Here’s the rub. When discussing the extraction of coal from a mine, for want of a better example, “embeddedness” is a perfectly adequate relational descriptor. It implies the co-existence of two conceptually separate phenomena in time and space; the coal, and the rock from which it is hewn. There is no problem with saying that one is embedded in the other.
Where difficulty arises though is where we also want to investigate the possibility that the two phenomena described not only share characteristics but might even be two aspects of the same phenomena. For example, we can say that the economy must be re-embedded in society if we accept that the economy and society are two distinct entities. This is clearly nonsense. An economy cannot exist outside of a society. An economy necessarily implies human interaction of a specific nature (economic). The same is true of law. We cannot imagine a legal system without a society behind, underpinning, and performing it. A legal system implies human interaction of a specific nature (legal). Therefore, stating that one is embedded within the other – whichever way round you phrase it – clearly does not make sense.
My research puts this in the context of ESL, which aim to reintegrate social science dialogue and which ultimately takes a constructivist approach. In other words, economic and legal phenomena (the econolegal) are performed through social interactions. All social interactions have econolegal aspects or flavours. There’s no escaping this, just as there is no way to have an economic exchange without it being between people (I’m excluding high frequency trading between computers here for argument’s sake, but will return to this in a future post).
Why is this important? Well, the response to the 2008 financial crisis is something we, in the UK, are still living with. Austerity, as the main policy response, was based on a particular understanding and framing of the economics that led to the crash. This is an economics that sees the discipline as somewhat ‘apart’ from society. Neoclassical economics sets out a version of ‘economic man’ on which complex economic theories are modelled. There has been recognition of the limitations of this approach. But in turn, those who criticise mainstream neoclassical economics frames tend to (with or without the help of Polanyi) argue that we need to “re-embed” the economy in society.
If we take this approach, we deny the possibility of ever seeing the economy as an aspect of society, the same as the law. We cannot hope to reorient the economy and its regulation (the law) towards real people if we talk about society, economy and law as separate entities. Speaking of one being embedded in the other simply reinforces their difference, their separation, and their disunity. It reinforces existing ways of doing, talking and thinking, which are predominantly shaped by neoclassical economics. It prevents us moving forwards.
So, what to do? We need to move beyond embeddedness, and how to go about that is the subject of a future post.
Copyright note: animation by me using ProCreate 5 on iPad Air 3. Please ask before you take!
Vignettes can be an invaluable tool for generating, controlling for, interpreting and contextualising research data in a variety of fields. They can be both input and output methods of research. Finally, they can also frame, and be framed by, the research raising important questions about comparability, use, and ability to measure culturally relative norms. This post discusses the use of vignettes, when they might be appropriate, some relevant literature, and matters to be aware of.
Gourlay et al define vignettes as “short stories about a hypothetical person, traditionally used within research (qualitative or quantitative) on sensitive topics”. They can be used to gain insight into people’s beliefs, and can be a way of discussing sensitive or personal topics freely by projecting these on to a third person. Vignettes can be constructed through text or images, and Hughes and Huby set out a guide to constructing and interpreting vignettes as a methodology in the social sciences.
Vignettes can both generate or refine data. As the GIF above shows, they can be an input tool, generating and shaping the data gathered. Similarly, they can be used as an output tool, contextualising and illustrating research findings. Kandemir and Budd note that, given the debate ongoing about the precise definition and use of vignettes, simulations, real-life stories, anecdotes, or simply a narrative form of presenting research findings have all been referred to as vignettes.
In development economics, vignettes are not commonly deployed, but can respond to a specific methodological problem. For example, the measurement of intangibles such as happiness or subjective wellbeing or satisfaction can suffer from cultural relativity. Concepts, words, and their ultimate meaning can all vary by country or culture, making comparative studies in their area particularly tricky to undertake. However, in an era when the value of measurements like GDP have been questioned as inadequate, being able to measure satisfaction, happiness and similarly intangible attitudes is especially important for those working in development.
Reviewing the literature on what constitutes happiness between cultures, Uchida et al find that there are a variety of factors that determine an individual’s likelihood of declaring themselves happy, and that these requirements are culture-specific. What constitutes a good life in Japan includes emotional support from others, while personal achievement and self-esteem feature more prominently in the United States.
There are also cultural differences in the way we describe our happiness. Research by Minkov cited here notes that responses from Middle Eastern respondents tends towards extremes of happiness and unhappiness, while Asian and Western respondents tend towards moderation. Minkov and Bond have also examined the genetics of happiness as well as the impact of local climate, finding that certain genetic traits have a far greater impact on perceived happiness than factors such as recent economic growth or the rule of law.
King et al examined the incomparability of survey results when measuring subjective wellbeing and explored the use of vignettes as a way of measuring the incomparability. They find that “[b]ecause the actual (but not necessarily reported) levels of the vignettes are invariant over respondents, variability in vignette answers reveals incomparability. Our corrections require either simple recoded or a statistical model designed to save survey administration costs. With analysis, simulations, and cross-national surveys, we show how response incomparability can drastically mislead survey researchers and how our approach can alleviate this problem”.
One technique to measure and make sense of the variables in to anchor survey results to vignettes. This method is used by Angelini et al in their cross-country comparison of subjective wellbeing in 10 European countries. Standardised vignettes on life stories were included in each of the ten national surveys, and the vignette responses were included through econometrically rescaling self-responses according to how the respondent rated the standardised vignettes. This reduces disparities in life satisfaction across nations, and changes the ranking across counties from the original unadjusted cross-country data.
While the anchoring vignettes method has the potential to improve welfare comparisons and reporting, it relies on certain assumptions like vignette equivalence. This means that a particular vignette is capable of being interpreted and have the same cultural ramifications across the populations surveyed – for example, is a large family a blessing or a burden? There are ways of testing vignette equivalence, but this also usually requires some degree of interpretations and relativity.
Jed Friedman remarks that “[v]ignette anchoring can indeed improve the inter-comparability of different samples so where researchers have the opportunity to add meaningful vignettes to a planned survey then they should do so. But the assumption of vignette equivalence is not guaranteed, especially when comparing dramatically different populations in terms of culture and custom. If we have any doubt about vignette equivalence there may be no alternative to more focused mixed-methods research into the interpretation of [subjective wellbeing] concepts specific to the populations studied”.
While vignettes anchored to subjective wellbeing analyses can measure the incomparability of data, there are limitations to their use that also need clear explanation. The problems with language, interpretation, translation, and cultural norms remain, and there is the possibility that use of a vignette as a methodological tool to control for variability and comparability is still simply testing cultural frames. As noted, vignettes can both be used as a tool to output (explain, contextualise and understand) data, and as a tool to input (gather, frame, collect) data. Kandemir and Budd note that, to be of value, the vignette must be specific enough to guide the respondent, but not too specific as to nudge the respondent into an “expected” answer. In short, vignettes can both frame, and be framed by, the cultural norms in which they are constructed and deployed, and any researcher must be mindful of, and reflexive about, the use existing frames within vignettes when these are used both as research method inputs and outputs.