Social progress and its measures
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Social progress and its measures

If society exists in communication, as John Dewey argued, we need to consider communication as one of the basic human resources, in the same way as access to clean water and other basic human needs. Photo: Maxger/Shutterstock 

In the early 20th Century, the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey argued in his Democracy and Education that society is intrinsically linked with and embedded in its communicative forms.

Society, Dewey wrote, “not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication” (Dewey 1916/1923: 5). Without communication, hence, there can be no society. We could not develop what Raymond Williams (1962/1966) has called “our common life together” without communication, binding us together in social bonds of commonality. The highly complex and large-scale societies of today could not self-organise without the means for communication, without the knowledge of writing to preserve knowledge, and without the media as technological “extensions” of the human body (McLuhan 1964). 

The means of communication that any society has at its disposal has of course varied over time, but they have always set their mark on each society in every epoch of human existence – from the early precursors of writing of the Stone Age, to the sophisticated digital communication facilities of modern society. This fact also makes it of utmost importance for modern society to reflect on its technological means of communication, how they are distributed within populations, which types of access citizens have to them, and how they should be governed. Because, without equal opportunities to communicate, and without even distribution of the access to information and abilities to making one’s voice heard, there cannot be an equal and just society. Communication is thus one of the most important resources that any society disposes of. However, as we all know, in most societies this resource is unevenly distributed. 

In the following, I will discuss this unevenness, how it can be mapped and measured, and what would be a way to make it more evenly spread among citizens. I will do this against the background of a chapter I have been co-authoring for the International Panel for Social Progress (IPSP), an international initiative to “rethinking society for the 21st Century”. I will first say something about the background and execution of this larger project. I will then more specifically account for some of the main points in the chapter of media and communication, to which I contributed, including the recommendations, the action plan and the toolkit that we suggested. I will lastly say something about the Social Progress Index and give some suggestions on how this index could be improved.

The International Panel of Social Progress
The International Panel of Social Progress is a major intellectual initiative, led by philosopher Marc Fleurbaey from Princeton University and the director of the French Institute for Advanced Study Network, Olivier Bouin, and with a board of prominent researchers from around the word, among which Amartya Sen. In the mission statement of IPSP it says that the goal is to “harness the competence of hundreds of experts about social issues and will deliver a report addressed to all social actors, movements, organizations, politicians and decision-makers, in order to provide them with the best expertise on questions that bear on social change.”

Against a general background of a weakening of the nation state, of rapid technological change (including the aligned rapidly changing power structures), of “unequal transformations in health and education outcomes, and falls in income poverty in many emerging economies, yet rising inequalities of wealth and income within countries”, as well as increased tensions between religious groups (and between religious and secular groups), post-cold war tensions, etc., the panel has sought to produce a multidisciplinary state of the art for policy-makers, governments, NGOs and other interested parties to act on.

The manifest result is a three-volume set of books, covering 22 chapters published in print and electronic form, and with preprints downloadable from the web site of IPSP. In addition, a range of articles, manifestos, etc. has been published, as well as numerous conference presentations and seminars all across the globe. Chapters covered issues such as health, economy, labour markets, democracy, war and conflict, belonging, family, etc., with chapter 13 devoted to media and communications. In that chapter there is a brief overview of access and use of media and communication technologies around the world, partly through a number of country case studies, and a discussion of regulations and legal frameworks.

Against this background policy recommendations, an action plan and a toolkit were formulated, suggesting areas of potential actions by governments and policymakers, international organisations, media corporations and the tech sector, social movements and civil society, and of citizens. This last point we deemed important in order to try to mobilise not only organised activities within e.g. NGOs, but also pointing to the importance of engaged individual citizens to exercise their civic rights and duties. 

As we set out to draft the IPSP chapter 13, a clear inspiration for the work was the MacBride report, Many Voices, One World (UNESCO 1980), and one of the aims of was to relate the analysis of the media to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (Couldry et al. 2018a). IPSP began its work roughly at the same time as the 17 SDGs were signed by 193 countries in September 2015. 

Already from the start, the IPSP had initiated a dialogue with the Social Progress Index (SPI). SPI was founded by the NGO Social Progress Imperative in 2014 as an attempt to broaden the indicators of wellbeing for countries around the world, deliberately seeking to move beyond the crude measures of GDP as indicators of a country’s wellbeing, or, in their own words: “to measure social progress directly, rather than to utilize economic proxies”.

Accordingly, the SPI covers the three broad areas of Basic human needs, Foundations of wellbeing, and Opportunities. Each of these are then broken down into four groups of indicators or “components”, each component containing three to five individual “outcome indicators”. One can thus find the component Access to information and communications under Foundations of wellbeing. 

The Social Progress Index as a tool for measuring communicative commonality
The task of measuring qualitative phenomena such as happiness, well-being, joy, sadness, loneliness and social progress is, of course, an enduring problem for the social sciences, as well as for policy-makers, welfare organisations and others who are determined to increase the conditions that make the world a better place to live for as many people as possible. The ISP should therefore be seen as a welcome contribution to broadening our knowledge on societies’ wellbeing. Since its launch, it has also become refined and nuanced in several respects. There are still some additional adjustments that could be made.

Chapter 13 of the IPSP thus mapped the conditions for just and fair communication around the world, highlighting sources of inequality, based on the ways in which various national media systems were organised, but also differences in technological infrastructure. The report included a number of country case studies, highlighting for example the vast differences in media systems between the highly commercialised and privately controlled broadcasting market – controlled by a handful of individuals and where boundaries between private ownership and political regulators are blurred – and the Scandinavian, public service-based systems marked by clear distinctions between media and the state, the market and civil society.

The report ended with a number of policy recommendations, an action plan and a toolkit with recommendations. One of the things we recommended was that the key measure of “social progress” in the SPI should be adjusted to recognize effective media access and use (as opposed to the mere availability of technology), and communication rights. By effective access, we meant the just “distribution of media resources, even relations between spaces of connection and the design and operation of spaces that foster dialogue, free speech and respectful cultural exchange”. By communication rights, we meant a subcategory to “personal rights” as measured in the SPI under the component Opportunity, alongside indicators such as Freedom of expression (Couldry et al. 2018: 174). Such resources, we argued, should be provided to citizens without them also being subjected to surveillance and/or them being extracted data from for commercial or other purposes. 

At the time of writing the report in 2017, the component Access to Information and Communications included the three indicators: Mobile phone subscriptions, Internet users and the Press Freedom Index. However, since 2018 the SPI has changed its indicators, within the component to include also Access to online governance, and the Press Freedom Index has, due to low correlation with the other indicators, been replaced with Access to independent media, which is of course a much broader measure.

Access to online governance measures the “availability of e-participation tools on national government portal for of the following uses: e-information – provision of information on the Internet; e-consultation – organizing public consultations online; and e-decision-making – involving citizens directly in decision processes”, while Access to independent media is defined as the percentage of a population that “has access to any print or broadcast media that are sometimes critical of the national government”.

This is clearly an improvement of the index, but we still think that there is room for further improvement of the SPI indicators, since this measure also emphasises the citizen as a receiver of information, rather than as an actively producing subject. Effective media access, we argued, is dependent on an interrelationship between media and other closely related factors such as literacy, language, and education. This means that the availability of media has to be combined with initiatives to empower citizens through, for example, media and information literacy projects, training opportunities and education.

Importantly, such initiatives cannot be left to the market, but need to be publicly funded in order to reach relevant parts of populations, in line with what was stated in the Tunis Agenda for The Information Society (WSIS 2005). Technological means of communication and content production should also be affordable and should be freed from business models that rely on surveillance technologies. The design of media infrastructures and digital platforms also needs to be pertinent to varied language communities in order to prevent exclusion of minorities. 

While we appreciate that “effective media access and use” is difficult to measure and that there are as yet no existing sources for this measure, we nonetheless believe that in a world of massive information overload, and with algorithmic models based on keeping media users locked to specific platforms of often light entertainment media (e.g. Facebook, YouTube), there is a need for also trying to construct indicators to measure media use as an activity. Over its relatively short existence, the SPI has already improved its measuring techniques and its combination of components and indicators, and there can thus be high hopes for the index to improve further. 

If society exists in communication, as John Dewey argued, we need to consider communication as one of the basic human resources, in the same way as access to clean water and other basic human needs. This also means that the means to communicate needs to be considered a common good that all citizens should have equal access to, just as other infrastructural common goods such as railways, roads, power supply, etc. To acknowledge communication and the media that facilitates communication as such a common good will be the first step towards a more just and equal society. 

Couldry, Nick, Clemencia Rodrigues, Göran Bolin, Julie Cohen, Gerard Goggin, Marwan Kraidy, Koichi Iwabuchi, Kwang-Suk Lee, Jack Qiu, Ingrid Volkmer, Herman Wasserman, Yuezhi Zhao (with Olessia Koltsova, Inaya Rakhmani, Omar Rincón, Claudia Magallanes-Blanco and Pradip Thomas) (2018a): Media and Communications. Rethinking Society for the 21st Century. Volume 2: Political Regulation, Governance, and Societal Transformations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 523-562. 

Couldry, Nick, Clemencia Rodriguez, Göran Bolin, Julie Cohen, Ingrid Volkmer, Gerard Goggin, Marwan Kraidy, Koichi Iwabuchi, Jack Qiu, Herman Wasserman, Yuezhi Zhao, Omar Rincón, Claudia Magallanes-Blanco, Pradip Thomas, Olessia Koltsova, Inaya Rakhmani, Kwang-Suk Lee (2018b): ‘Media, Communication and the Struggle for Social Progress’, Global Media & Communication 14(2): 173-191. Doi: 10.1177/1742766518776679. 

Dewey, John (1916/1923) Democracy and Education. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.

McLuhan, Marshall (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill. 

UNESCO (1980) Many Voices, One World (Report by the International Commission for the Study of Communicative Problems). Paris: UNESCO. 

Williams, Raymond (1962/1966) Communications. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 

World Summit on the Information Society (2005) Tunis Agenda on the Information Society, WSIS-05/TUNIS/DOC/6 (Rev. 1)-E, 18 November. Available at:


Göran Bolin is professor in Media & Communication Studies at Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden. His present research interests are focussed on the relations between media production and consumption, especially in the wake of digitisation and datafication. Bolin has since the early 1990s worked in or headed research projects on youth and cultural production, nat6ion branding, generational media use, and the relation between production practices and textual expressions, media consumption and the production of value in cultural industries, etc. His publications include Value and the Media: Cultural Production and Consumption in Digital Markets (Ashgate, 2011) and Media Generations: Experience, Identity and Mediatised Social Change (Routledge 2016) and the edited volume Cultural Technologies. The Shaping of Culture in Media and Society (Routledge, 2012)

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