Paper short abstract:
This paper questions the 'culture as lens' approach in discussion of well-being and development. It suggests the cultural construction of well-being is contested and unstable, constituted by human subjects working at the interstices of social structure, institutional culture and political economy.
Paper long abstract:
The aim of this paper is to explore the 'cultural construction of wellbeing', and question the dominant ways that culture has figured in discussion of wellbeing and development. The approach to culture is informed by perspectives from social anthropology, particularly as these relate to three main wellbeing themes: values, goals and ideals; welfare and standards of living; subjective perceptions and experience. Where much discussion of wellbeing has been normative and generalised, the analysis here is grounded in a practical situation: an extremely poor family in rural Bangladesh, faced with multiple challenges to health and well-being, and the diverse ways they sought medical care across the public and private sectors. These show the falsity of any notion of a hermetically sealed, uncontested 'traditional culture', and the inadequacy of any simple mapping of culture onto social group or nation-state. In place of the dominant understandings of culture as a 'lens', the paper suggests that the cultural construction of wellbeing should be considered a form of work. This restores the subject to the subjective, and shows people as agents of culture, constructing wellbeing in at once material and symbolic ways. The cultural construction of wellbeing thus appears as a contested process, and an always unstable and composite outcome, constituted through the work of human subjects operating at the interstices of social structure, institutional culture and political economy.
Understanding welfare and well-being in a globalised world