Thursday, 3 March 2016

Swapping Arrows in the Heart of London

The London poverty map, produced by Charles Booth at the end of the nineteenth century, was an influential attempt to study the impact of socio-economic status – and, more generally, people's life conditions – on opportunities and wellbeing.

London Poverty Map, Charles Booth 1889

There are countries and contexts where poverty and war cause grave harm to individuals and communities. Their impact on health and wellbeing is devastating. But the link between the conditions of life and wellbeing is obviously not confined to extreme situations.

Social epidemiologists have provided much evidence for the claim that all the things that matter to us most have an impact on our health. This includes all the circumstances that shape our family lives, our work lives, and our opportunities for meaningful and egalitarian interactions with others, and for active participation in the various communities we belong to.

The social and political arrangements – and the public ethos and cultural contexts – that affect our life circumstances are therefore crucial. It is for this reason that it is possible and important to talk about the sociocultural and political determinants of health.

Anxiety, depression and similar conditions are increasingly common in affluent societies. The diffusion and promotion of competition-focused, hyper-individualistic, and narcissistic conceptions of success seems to be an important factor. The precariatization of the labour market in a labour-obsessed society is another important factor. And so is the erosion of collective forms of protection, which is due to changes in welfare regimes driven by demographic and social changes, but also by misconceptions about how to improve people's lives all over the world.

The world is changing fast, but despite the new technological tools we have at our disposal and their incredible productive power, the lives of many are becoming more insecure. And insecurity and wellbeing are incompatible.

Let me conclude this post with one story. The bushmen of the Kalahari desert swap arrows before they go hunting. Each hunter gives some of the arrows he has made to other hunters, in exchange for their arrows. Then they go hunting, and when the catch some game, the credit for the kill goes not to the person who killed the animal but to the person who made the arrow with which the animal was killed. In this way, because of all the swapping of arrows, sooner or later every hunter gets credit and gets praised for the successful hunt.

A mechanism like this ensures that all hunters feel they are an active part of the collective enterprise. It is also a way of reminding the strongest, most-skilled hunters or lucky hunters that they should not be boastful, or arrogant, or behave like bullies. Their success depends on the unity of the group and on the contribution and cooperation of everyone.

I like this story because it illustrates the importance of egalitarian relationships for individual wellbeing and for successful cooperation. Also, I like the idea of swapping arrows as a metaphor for how a successful research group should work. With this blog, we have started swapping arrows between ourselves and with some of our prospective collaborators. I look forward to swapping arrows with the various audiences we will interact with.

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