Conceptions of Progress

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Conceptions of Progress


<ul><li><p>Conceptions of Progress: How is Progress Perceived?Mainstream Versus Alternative Conceptions of Progress</p><p>Anat Itay</p><p>Accepted: 11 August 2008 Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008</p><p>Abstract Progress is a powerful political concept, encompassing different and sometimescontradictory conceptions. This paper examines the results of a survey on progress con-</p><p>ducted at the OECD World Forum entitled Measuring and Fostering the Progress of</p><p>Societies held in Istanbul in June 2007. First, a distinction is drawn between the two</p><p>approaches to progress (skeptical and optimistic) and four theories of progress (Liberal,</p><p>Social Liberal, Green, and Conservative). Second, the survey results are examined in order</p><p>to find the prevailing conception among the participants. Findings show that while the</p><p>literature regards the Liberal, economically based theory of progress as sitting at the heart</p><p>of the mainstream conception of progress, it is notable that, in fact, there emerged among</p><p>the participants a different mainstream conception of progress: one that is optimistic in</p><p>approach, yet both Social Liberal and Green in its theory.</p><p>Keywords Progress OECD Green theory Growth</p><p>A belief in progress implies that things will in some sense get better in the future,</p><p>but it has never been limited to this simple idea of melioration. (Sidney Pollard, The</p><p>Idea of Progress)</p><p>1 Introduction</p><p>The question explored in this paper is whether the economically based Liberal theory of</p><p>progress is indeed at the heart of the mainstream conception of progress, as portrayed in the</p><p>literature. This question is discussed through examining the results of a survey conducted</p><p>by me at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) World</p><p>Forum in Istanbul in June 2007, devoted to Measuring and Fostering the Progress of</p><p>Societies.</p><p>A. Itay (&amp;)The Department of Political Science, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israele-mail:</p><p>123</p><p>Soc Indic ResDOI 10.1007/s11205-008-9302-z</p></li><li><p>Progress serves as a strong political concept, frequently used by politicians and leaders to</p><p>describe many different, and often contradicting, conceptions of improvement.1 It is</p><p>important for political scientists to grasp and define these conceptions, in order to offer a</p><p>better understanding of this popularly used but vague concept. Moreover, many societies are</p><p>becoming engaged in trying to measure progress, and nowadays do so mainly along the lines</p><p>of the Liberal theory, neglecting to fully explore alternative conceptions of progress.2 This</p><p>creates a contemporary need for defining progress and exploring its different conceptions.</p><p>In order to analyze the various conceptions of progress, I use the following distinctions:</p><p>each conception of progress encompasses an approach and a theory. Generally speaking,</p><p>there are two main approaches to progress, the optimistic and the skeptical, and each</p><p>comprises two theories of progress: the optimistic approach comprises the Liberal theory</p><p>and the Social Liberal theory, and the skeptical approach comprises the Green theory and</p><p>the Conservative theory. Each approach, combined with one of the theories it encompasses,</p><p>constructs a conception of progress. Among the theories of progress, the Liberal one,</p><p>focused on economic growth, is the dominant theory nowadays, both in literature and in</p><p>policymaking, and is considered to represent the mainstream conception.</p><p>This paper analyzes a survey taken by 96 delegates (from 42 countries) of a total of</p><p>1,200 registered participants in an international conference conducted by the OECD,</p><p>devoted to discussing and measuring progress. After presenting the OECD case study, this</p><p>paper offers a mapping of the approaches and theories of progress. Following this dis-</p><p>cussion, the survey is analyzed in order to examine whether the participants perceptions of</p><p>progress do indeed tie in with what is considered the mainstream conception of progress,</p><p>i.e., the Liberal one focused on growth. As a result, this paper examines what the prevailing</p><p>conception of progress is among this small sample; it may, of course, not represent the</p><p>views of all the participants.</p><p>Results, in a nutshell, show that these participants in the OECD World Forum, who are all</p><p>engaged in re-thinking and defining progress as a political ideal, seem to be holding on to the</p><p>optimistic approach of the mainstream conception of progress, but, at the same time, rejecting</p><p>what is thought of as its main theory: the Liberal theory. In other words, they are adhering to</p><p>alternative conceptions of progress. Furthermore, the results indicate a surprising synthesis of</p><p>conceptions of progress: it seems that while participants are clearly optimistic in approach,</p><p>when it comes to the theories of progress, they hold views of both the Social Liberal and the</p><p>Green theories of progress, although these theories stem from two contradicting approaches.</p><p>Thus, among the participants, a new mainstream conception of progress is identified.</p><p>2 The OECD World Forum as a Case Study</p><p>The challenge of defining progress has caught the interest of many different institutions</p><p>around the world since the beginning of the 21st century. In 2000, the UN initiated its</p><p>1 See, for example, the use of progress in speeches by Tony Blair:;;; By George Bush: and by Vladimir Putin: The one clear exception is Bhutan, which has declared its aim as growth of Gross Domestic Happinessrather than Gross Domestic Product as other countries do. On the dominance of the Liberal theory see, forexample: and the barometer of progress became the GDP (Mathews 2006, p. 3); Despite thesecautions, GDP maintains its prominent role as a catchall for our collective well being. (Cobb et al. 2007,p. 1); The prospect of a viable and progressive system alternative to capitalism seems to have disappeared(Mishra 1999, p. 1).</p><p>A. Itay</p><p>123</p></li><li><p>Millennium Development Goals (MDG), defining what progress it hopes for the world to</p><p>achieve by 2015.3 States around the world are trying to define their national goals with</p><p>respect to well-being,4 and in 2004, the OECD launched its long-term project titled</p><p>Measuring and Fostering the Progress of Societies,5 aiming at finding out what states</p><p>measure as progress and how.6</p><p>All these interesting projects are involved in defining and dealing with progress, but</p><p>they each have a different focus. Since the OECD project is a global project, and the most</p><p>ambitious and politically sound attempt to date to define the political ideal of progress, in</p><p>what follows I shall focus on this project.</p><p>Announcing the project, the OECD declared that:</p><p>The OECD Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies in collabo-</p><p>ration with other international and regional partners seeks to become the world</p><p>wide reference point for those who wish to measure, or assess, the progress of their</p><p>societies.</p><p>The project is being built around a series of World Forums and encompasses asso-</p><p>ciated work within and outside of the OECD.7</p><p>The OECD launched the project in 2004; it was initially aimed at exploring the connection</p><p>between statistics and policy.8 After the first year, the focus shifted to what revealed itself</p><p>to be a more prominent challenge: measuring progress and discussing its meaning. The</p><p>OECD then organized several regional conferences to discuss how progress is measured,</p><p>followed by a global conference, convened in Istanbul in June 2007, to discuss what</p><p>progress is and how it is measured at a global level. As part of a global discussion of</p><p>current conceptions of progress, a debate titled What is Progress?a discussion on what</p><p>progress is and what it meant to the various participants of the Istanbul World Forum</p><p>took place at the general assembly. Delegates to the conference were presented with key</p><p>questions such as: What are the specific aspects that should be included when measuringprogress? What are the specific components that determine each of them? At what levelshould progress be measured? Should we measure the progress of individuals, nations, orthe globe for example? What is progress for the world? What emphasis should be given tothe means to desired ends? What is the time period one wishes to consider progress over?The main question discussed was: What are the key measures for global progress?(emphasis in original).9</p><p>3 See The goals mainly refer to the developing world, and compriseeight goals including: eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; achievement of universal primary edu-cation, and so on.4 For example: The State of Victoria, Australia.,3407,en_21571361_31938349_1_1_1_1_1,00.html.6 The different terms (progress, development, well-being, quality of life, etc.) are often used inter-changeably, as synonyms, even though they describe different objectives. In this paper, I use these terms inthe following senses, unless otherwise stated: progress for the theoretical concept; development forprogress in the developing world, and well-being and quality of life for progress in the developedcountries.7,3407,en_21571361_31938349_1_1_1_1_1,00.html.8 The first World Forum to be held as part of the global project was entitled: Statistics, Knowledge andPolicy. It was held in 2004.9 All questions mentioned are quoted from: Itay (2007, p. 8).</p><p>Conceptions of Progress</p><p>123</p></li><li><p>During the conference, I conducted a survey among its participants.10 The survey</p><p>offered an opportunity to solicit answers from a unique audience: people who, on the one</p><p>hand, were involved in the prestigious project, but, on the other hand, were mostly</p><p>involved in the praxis of measuring progress rather than in contemplating the theoretical</p><p>aspects of progress. The conference attracted 1,200 participants from 130 countries, all</p><p>invited by the OECD. Most participants had been invited to represent their countries on the</p><p>subject of measuring progress, and thus were likely to represent a rather mainstream point</p><p>of view on the subject. They were mostly statisticians, public administrators and policy-</p><p>makers.11 In that sense, it was also a rare opportunity to explore the conceptions of</p><p>progress held by people who have a say in shaping its definition and measurement.12</p><p>However, before turning to examine which is the dominant conception of progress among</p><p>the participants, it is necessary to understand the theoretical difficulties regarding the concept</p><p>of progress, as well as the different approaches and theories to dealing with them.</p><p>3 Conceptualizing Progress: Approaches and Theories13</p><p>The idea of progress has captured human imagination since the beginning of knownhistory. There is historical evidence for progress being on humans minds for quite a long</p><p>time.14 In modern times, furthermore, scholars theorized about the idea of progress itself.15</p><p>As a political ideal, progress is a challenging and complex concept; it differs from mere</p><p>change in that its intended purpose is to lead to improvement. Generally speaking, it is</p><p>complex because it comprises many, often contradicting, aspects, and it involves personal</p><p>preferences in matters that often have global consequences. More specifically, progress has</p><p>10 See appendix for survey. The survey was given to participants to fill out during the general assembly onWhat is Progress? during the first day of the World Forum, and was collected on the same day. Ninety-sixdelegates took the survey, which amounted to about 65% of the delegates present at that discussion. It wasan anonymous survey.11 To give a general idea, among the participants in the survey, according to their own accounts, 12 werestatisticians, 11 were connected to academia, and 10 were economists. Many of the participants hold highpositions, such as heads of bureaux of statistics, directors and chief economists. Age groups divided asfollows: 11 were under 29 years of age; 22 were 3039 years old, 27 were 4049 years old, 23 were5059 years old, 9 were 6069 and 4 did not share this information. Seventy-one of the participants takingthe survey were from developed countries, 16 from the developing countries, and 9 did not include thisdetail. Twenty-nine of the participants were women and 64 were men (3 did not state). No connection wasfound between answers and gender, or between answers and whether participants come from a developed ordeveloping country.12 It is a small survey, with very diverse answers, and so does not allow drawing of complex statisticalconclusions and connections. However, since it is pioneering research, all this survey needs to show areassociations and frequencies, in order to give us a good idea of what the participants perceive progress to be.13 This section is based on an overview published in: Itay (2007).14 From the Neanderthal trying to improve his hunting skills (aiming at hunting a herd of buffalo rather thanjust one)see an excellent account of prehistoric human progress and its environmental consequences inWright (2004)to Aristotle wondering how the polis and public life could improve, and how to generateinventions; to the Enlightenment philosophers deciphering the code for progress, believing it is humaneducation and knowledge that can lead humanity to a steadily growing better future, there are manyexamples.15 Examples include Bury (1920); Pollard (1968); Nisbet (1980); and others. Theorizing progress included,for instance, a debate on whether progress is a modern idea. Bury and Nisbet represent this debate well, asthey disagree on whether a philosopher dealing implicitly with progress, such as Aristotle, is indeed aprogress philosopher. Consequently, they each write a very different history of the idea of progress, andinclude different philosophers in their research.</p><p>A. Itay</p><p>123</p></li><li><p>different meanings for different people: what might appear to one person as progress may</p><p>seem the opposite to another. In addition, while we might, for example, welcome a growing</p><p>economy and deplore pollution, it is the relative weight we give to each aspect that determines</p><p>whether there has been overall progress or regression. Indeed, progress can also be broken</p><p>down to many different spheres: technological, medical, economic, environmental, scientific,</p><p>social, etc. Thus, for example, advanced embryo engineering might be seen as medical or</p><p>technological progress, leading also to financial benefits, but not everyone would regard it as</p><p>moral progress. Progress can be financial, moral, political, etc. Therefore, some aspects of</p><p>progress trade off against each other and others reinforce one another.</p><p>Defining progress requires reflecting on different aspects of progress: both in terms of</p><p>fundamental attitudes toward...</p></li></ul>


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