On ‘Social Evils’

June 11, 2009 at 9:37 pm | Posted in Social Policy | 4 Comments


Had the Joseph Rowntree Foundation been a less renowned institution, it might’ve titled its latest report Is It Just Me, Or Is Everything Shit? Instead, Britain’s premier social think thank has given it the refined, but altogether more gloomy heading of ‘Social Evils.’

In this new survey of public feelings about the health of our society, the JRF concludes that Britain is suffering from an erosion of trust, a culture of fear and the sense that confidence in human interactions is at a low ebb.

Obviously, ‘Social Evil’ is a rather broad concept, and the authors haven’t sought to narrow it down much. Among the Bad Things currently afflicting us are: a decline in community, shared values and the importance of family; a rise in consumerism, celebrity culture and the cult of the individual; increased pressures on the lives of young people and greater wariness that older Britons feel towards the young. After that, you’ve got crime, drugs & other anti-social behaviours, the misery of poverty and, lastly, that old favourite of immigration. Surprisingly, ennui isn’t listed in the report, but it might as well have been.

All these evils are conspiring to diminish our collective happiness, turn us into more cynical social participators and ultimately erode our quality of life. If you’ve reached this point and are now thinking “God, I need a holiday”, I can’t say I blame you.

Reports like this create a dilemma for pundits & social scientists because there’s a difference between what is and what people perceive. In the past 10 years, your tried & trusted measurements for functionality have become less important to policy makers; it’s all very well printing statistics which boast that crime is falling, but if people’s fear of crime is rising, then that has policy implications regardless of whether you think it’s batty or well-founded. Likewise, it’s no longer enough to judge the NHS on how many lives have been saved and how quickly you have your operation; a patient’s perception of her/his ‘health experience’ is also regarded as important. If Ed Balls achieves his promised changes to the school league tables, this ‘customer satisfaction’ approach will soon be adopted in education as well.

So I think you can see that on top of the bottom-line statistics about service delivery, there’s also a trend towards a kind of post-coital ‘how was it for you?’ line of enquiry, and this report certainly fits within that. There’s nothing at all wrong with persuing that line of questioning, but the fact remains that all human experiences are different and all human beings interpret their realities very differently from each other. So when I read that lots of people are downcast about society, the next question I want to ask is “what’s led that person believe this?”

This is important because we have – at least on the face of it – still got a lot going for us. We’re all (fingers crossed) destined to live longer, we breathe cleaner air, bathe on nicer beaches and walk (generally) safer streets. Our cars are safer; our public transport (believe it or not) is better; we can enjoy greater access to information and communication than at any time during human history; our food is better, and our politics is (just about) more liberal. Yes, we are more unequal; no, we haven’t done enough to tackle either domestic or international poverty; and yes, we still have some huge & daunting problems to tackle. But what I want to know is: were those debits to the human experience really at the forefront of people’s minds when they gave their answers? I suspect not.

Are we ruder to each other? Are our shared values being besieged by consumerism & selfishness? Are morals eroding and manners degrading? According to the JRF, they could be, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are. I think we have a tendency to look at society as though it has changed but we have not; as though we’re static observers who just recoil in horror as the world collapses around us. Assuming that two decades of consumerism & a service economy have altered the way we think & behave, is it not possible that our expectations of society have risen above those our parents once had? Is it not be possible that rather than everyone becoming colder and ruder to each other, we crave greater intimacy or instant gratification from human interactions than is currently possible? Might it not also be possible that we project the values & demands of consumerism onto society in a way that previous generations never did? More bluntly, do we just want too much?

I don’t know, of course, and what’s both frustrating & so attractive about social inquiry is that you can never really know any Absolute Truth. But what I do think is that in the course of asking different questions and considering many different answers, you’ll probably be a bit more optimistic about the prospects for society than a bunch of numbers would have you believe.

Picture courtesy of PostSecret.


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  1. I thought about this when writing the post you linked to (thank you!) about punk and how it seemed like music was too easily co-opted by corporations now. A younger friend read it and told me to cheer up and not to be such a grandma – that it certainly didn’t feel that way to her and her friends. Maybe there’s a hint of ‘course, it were all better in MY day’ about the whole thing.

    Perhaps as the population ages, someone will have to put Prozac in the water, or perhaps we will have to accept greater levels of curmudgeonliness as a by-product of longer life-spans…

  2. Hi Julia,

    Sorry for the sloppy response times; I just figured the best way of enjoying this glorious weekend was without a laptop.

    Both this post and your comment relate to something I’ve been pondering for a pretty long time. I had a great A-Level Sociology teacher who delighted in pouring scorn over the idea that there ever was a ‘Golden Age’ and pointing out all the many ways in which our lives have dramatically improved over the past 50 years. Yet if that’s true (and I think it is), why are many of us so incapable of seeing that, and instead either drift into some dewy-eyed reverie of how much better life was in the days of lower life expectancy, higher pollution, higher illiteracy and greater intolerance, or snap about “this country’s going down the swanny”? I suppose it’s something I’ll have a better understanding of when I get older; of all the good things about being 25, perspective & wisdom aren’t really included.

  3. True on all counts: this is no weather for sitting at a laptop!

    And yes, the looking back not in anger, but with rose-tinted specs. I’m not old enough to remember punk, but just about old enough to think it’s sad that all the fun times seem to come ‘sponsored by’ some mega-corporation now, plus what a tragedy it is that the simple pleasure of dancing under the stars to outrageously loud music has been deemed so subversive that it had to be banned.

    But equally, I’m sure that the young ‘uns think it’s worth having festivals sponsored by breweries if that means they get flushing toilets and “bars” which aren’t a bunch of blokes with a bin full of ice and cans. It’s all progress.

    I think your Sociology teacher is on the same page as my Dad, who’s fond of saying: ‘nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be, kidda.’

  4. […] month, I discussed the Rowntree Foundation’s publication on ‘social evils‘, which reported that the […]

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