Social Well Being in Geography

Social well being in Geography came to prominence during 1970s as a result of relevance movement. During 1970s, the most deprived groups in society, such as blacks, Hispanics, poor, disabled, sexual minorities and religious minorities etc., started political movements against those laws which hampered them from leading a dignified life. In response to this political discourse, different disciplines started to incorporate those methods in their curriculum which helped to assess, measure and improve the social well being of people. This paradigm shift in different disciplines to stay relevant to this political discourse is termed as relevance movement.

Definition of Well Being

According to Knox, “Well-being is satisfaction of wants and needs of the population.” These needs and wants are culturally and historically defined. So, there can not be an overarching index of well being based on few needs for all communities of the world. For example, getting food, clothing and shelter is dream come true for poor people in Africa whereas the American consider having car, big bungalow and lots of money as welfare. Whereas, the European citizens consider marriage and children as secondary.

Maslow’s (1954) classification of needs

  1. Survival Needs: Food, clothing and housing.
  2. Security Needs: Safe environment and protection from physical harm.
  3. Emotional Needs: Affection, relationship and conformity to group norms.
  4. Social Needs: Prestige, status and dominance.
  5. Self Fulfillment: Living up to full capabilities and potential or oneself.

Drewnowski’s Index of Well Being

Drewnowski provided a comprehensive index for measurement of social well being. He chose the following variables for quantification of well being.

  1. Somatic Status
    1. Nutrition
    2. Health
    3. Life Expectancy
    4. Physical Fitness
  2. Educational Status
    1. Literacy Rate
    2. Educational Attainment
    3. Congruence of education with industrial need.
    4. Employment (as an indicator of education’s effectiveness)
  3. Social Status
    1. Integration with society i.e. absence of discrimination and deprivation.
    2. Participation in socio-economic and political spheres.

In totality, all these needs contribute to overall well being of a person. 

  • Well being is of two types i.e. personal well being and environmental well being.
  • Personal well being refers to the good income, health, education, mental stability etc.
  • Environmental well being refers to the availability of a safe, secure and socio-culturally rich environment. This environment should enable individuals to participate in socio-economic and political discourses to the best of their abilities.

Assessment of Social Well Being

The concept of social well being is normative in nature. Correspondingly, the nature of social sciences is also normative. This similarity in nature enables different social sciences to judge the social well being based on the dominant paradigms of their disciplines. For example, economists will lay too much emphasis on income of people whereas the geographers will lay emphasis on regional equity. Similarly, sociologist will lay emphasis on class and caste equity. In totality, we can either assess well being objectively or subjectively.

Objective and Subjective Assessment of Well Being

Primarily, the social well being is of two types i.e. objective well being and subjective well being.

  1. Objective Assessment: The objective assessment of well being refers to the measurement of quantitative and behavioral parameters which fulfils the needs and wants of an individual or a group. The economists, geographers and other empirical or positivist sciences use the objective approach. The some of the major parameters under objective assessment are income, educational attainment, consumption expenditure, life expectancy, housing, sanitation etc. Such parameters are also used in Human Development Index.
  2. Subjective Assessment: The subjective assessment of well being refers to the measurement of qualitative and perceptive parameters which are not quantifiable. However, these parameters can express the overall well being of a person. For example, if a researcher asks a person about his level of satisfaction in life and the person says that he is satisfied, then income, education etc. do not matter for his well being. Social sciences such as political science, psychology, sociology, gender studies etc. use this approach.

The subjective well being is not constant and too vague to reach a policy decision because the perception of people about their well being depends on dominant political and social narrative. Whereas in reality, the people might not be actually well off. Similarly, the perception is relative which implies that the people do not assess their well being in absolute terms but compare with other people and communities. Contrarily, the objective approach shows the actual socio-economic and political situation of people.

Social Well Being in Geography

Social well being in geography is a result of relevance movement during 1970s. Many historical, political and socio-economic events led to this movement i.e. Vietnamese war, explosion of crime in cities, social injustice, environmental degradation etc. Social well being in geography went through many phases. There were other paradigms such as radical geography welfare geography and behavioral geography which accompanied social relevance movement. All these approaches aimed to find solutions to social problems and increase well being

Radical Geography

The radical geographer inculcated Marxian framework in their analysis of social problems. They argued that the misery and injustice in the society is primarily caused by hegemony of privileged classes over the socio-economic and political structure of country. Therefore, the privileged maintain the socio-economic status-quo to sustain their hegemony. This leads to misery among the poor. David Harvey, a British geographer, studied the cities in U.S.A. and concluded that the urban morphology of American cities is aimed at segregating black ghettoes from white residential sectors to limit their access to urban resources. Harvey is considered the father of radical geography.

Welfare Geography

The welfare approach in geography aimed to increase the socio-economic welfare of communities. It aimed to study the impact of welfare policies of the state on different geographical units. The geographer studies spatial inequality between different regions and suggested policies for territorial justice. Territorial justice implies that different geographic regions should get economic and political benefits of state policies without any prejudice. For example, India’s government provides tax holidays to the companies which are ready to setup their industrial units in the underdeveloped parts of the country.

Behavioral Geography

The geographers realized that the quantitative parameters were not sufficient to assess the concept of social well being. The social well being is based on perception, needs and wants. Therefore, researchers can not assess the social well being based on few parameters for all communities and individuals. Hence, geographers incorporated the behavioral aspects in studying needs and satisfaction. Geographers adopted qualitative parameters for studying well being i.e. individual emotions, decision, response, needs, wants etc. The use of qualitative methods such as in-depth interviews (IDI), focused group discussions (FGDs), personal life history etc. became key methods of geographical research.


Similar to behavioral approach, postmodernism came to vogue in 1990s and continue to be a major paradigm in geographical research, presently. Postmodernists argue that nothing is absolute and there is no single truth. Therefore, every community and group make socio-economic decisions based on geographic and cultural context. So, we should assess the concept of well-being in that context.

Social Well Being in Contemporary Geography

Presently, geographers used the above mentioned approach in combination to each other. These approaches are combined to eliminate the limitations arising out of using a single approach.

  • Geographer use quantitative methods in combination with qualitative methods. It helps to capture the objective and subjective well being of the communities. Since, the administration wants statistical proofs, even the qualitative data has to be converted into quantitative data. For instance, level  of job satisfaction has to be expressed from zero to ten by the interviewee. 
  • The key problems facing the geographers today, is selection of parameters and scale of spatial unit for correct assessment of social well being. Most geographers use proxy indicators for evaluate social well being. For instance, life expectancy as a symbol or availability of health facilities. Such proxies do not always present the correct picture.
  • Similarly, the selection of spatial unit is important to geographers as different levels of spatial analysis provides different results. For example, if we analyze the per-capita income of population at state level, we will find that Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and other industrial states are most developed. However, the state level analysis ignores the inequality between rural and urban population or industrial and agricultural regions within the state.
  • In contemporary world, the policymakers measure social well being through Quality of Life as it presents a more objective picture of people’s welfare.


To conclude, one can say that the social well being is central to geographical research as it keeps the spatial analysis relevant to people’s needs. It is geography which makes the regional inequality and deprivation, an important field of research for social well being. Geography suggests that hegemony of few cities or regions over economic resources and political power leads to spatial unevenness in social well being. Hence, socio-economic injustice is not only a class issue but also a territorial issue.