Governing for happiness
Mark Abrams, subjective social indicators and the post-war explosion of ‘middle-opinion’
in Scientific governance in Britain, 1914–79
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In the 1970s Mark Abrams led a pioneering attempt to develop ‘subjective social indicators’. His research team at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) Survey Unit aimed to map perceptions of social conditions (such as housing, education, poverty) against an ‘objective’ measurement of the same. As well as attempting to develop tools to improve the implementation of governmental policy, the Survey Unit’s work was influenced by a number of ideological, methodological and institutional trends that stretched from anti-Empiricism to the influence of Europeanisation. While rival social scientists used data collected from this research to posit the coming of a progressive post-war ‘silent revolution’, Abrams instead speculated that Britain’s ‘radical’ white collar middle-class were becoming ever more impatient and materially acquisitive in their attitudes. The SSRC’s experiments represented a triumph of public sector efforts to utilise sophisticated insights from the social sciences to govern ‘democratically’. At the same time they also highlighted (as it was felt at the time) the practical, intellectual and political difficulties that made it increasingly precarious to do so.

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