Social Indicators Research

, Volume 116, Issue 3, pp 681–698

The Concept, Dimensions and Methods of Assessment of Human Well-Being within a Socioecological Context: A Literature Review


    • INPE-Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (DSR/OBT)
  • Vivian F. Renó
    • INPE-Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (DSR/OBT)
  • Evlyn M. L. M. Novo
    • INPE-Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (DSR/OBT)

DOI: 10.1007/s11205-013-0320-0

Cite this article as:
King, M.F., Renó, V.F. & Novo, E.M.L.M. Soc Indic Res (2014) 116: 681. doi:10.1007/s11205-013-0320-0


The concept of well-being has evolved over the past several decades as research has continued to reveal its multidimensional, dynamic, person-specific and culture-specific nature. Most recently, the ecological embeddedness of well-being has also gained recognition, and this development of the concept demands that we explore and identify new conceptual frameworks and appropriate methodological approaches towards the assessment of quality of life within a socioecological context. This paper offers a review of seminal and current research in the fields of social indicators, human development, ecological economics, and natural resources management, with the aim of examining the concept and the various methodologies designed to assess both the objective and subjective components and the multiple dimensions that comprise well-being. We also present some methodological approaches that have the capacity to account for the role of ecosystem services, considering several studies of rural populations whose well-being depends on the flow of ecosystem services, highlighting the participatory methods these studies employed to identify and assess locally relevant well-being indicators, and addressing some of the challenges inherent in such methods. We conclude with an appraisal of what we regard as the most appropriate methodological approach for measuring human well-being in the socioecological context.


Well-beingQuality of lifeSocioecological systemMillennium ecosystem assessmentParticipatory methodsIndicators

1 Introduction

The concept of a socioecological system emphasizes the interconnectedness of the biological and biophysical processes of ecosystems, and the cognitive, socio-cultural, and institutional processes of human systems (Adger 2006; Berkes and Folke 1998). This interconnectedness is still poorly understood (Maltby and Acreman 2011) and often unacknowledged (Hancock 2010). However, what is clear is that loss and degradation of ecosystem function has complex consequences for a socioecological system as a whole, impairing the flow of ecosystem services upon which humans rely for their livelihoods and well-being (Balmford and Bond 2005; Maltby and Acreman 2011; Folke 2006).

A plethora of recent studies (Brauman et al. 2007; Chiesura and de Groot 2003; Engelbrecht 2009; Hancock 2010; Glaser 2003; Knight and Rosa 2011; New Economics Foundation [NEF] 2005; Pereira et al. 2005; Summers et al. 2012; Vemuri and Costanza 2006) show a positive correlation between ecosystem services and human physical, physiological, and psychological well-being. The benefits of ecosystem services to quality of life are diverse, some of which are non-material. Such benefits include food, freshwater, fibers, and building materials (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment [MA] 2005); mental and physical health, medicines (Balmford and Bond 2005; NEF 2005); and cultural and spiritual significance (Daniel et al. 2012; Pereira et al. 2005).

This paper offers a review of literature from within the fields of social indicators, human development, psychology, ecological economics, and resource management to present the current knowledge on the dimensions of human well-being, recent findings on the contribution of ecosystem services, and the best approach for measuring well-being in the context of a socioecological system. What follows is a look at the concept and dimensions of well-being within the context of socioecological systems, and a consideration of the most appropriate methods, the inherent challenges, of measuring the well-being of rural populations.

2 Human Well-Being: Evolution of the Concept

The concept of well-being is ambiguous and abstract, with numerous interpretations and no universally acceptable definition (Brown and Westaway 2011; McGillivray and Clarke 2006). McGregor (2004) cautions that from an analytical perspective, such ambiguity can be dangerous, reflecting Alkire and Bank’s (2002) attention to the necessity of clearly defining a concept and its dimensions in order to provide a “secure epistemological and empirical footing” (p. 183) before any attempt to measure it.

Since the publication of Social Indicators (Bauer 1966) almost 50 years ago, a paradigm shift within development and social indicator research has brought about an evolution in the idea of what constitutes well-being (Brown and Westaway 2011; Camfield and McGregor 2005). From a narrow focus on objective measures of economic conditions, housing, education and welfare, social indicators have become more complex and multidimensional, expanding to include subjective and ecological components, as illustrated below in Table 1. This more holistic understanding of well-being emerged in the mid-1970s with the works of Erik Allardt (1976), Andrews and Withey (1976), and Campbell et al. (1976) and it continued to develop into a nuanced interpretation that is dynamic (McGregor 2004), person-specific (Sen 1985a), gendered (Narayan et al. 2000; Nussbaum 2003), and comprises people’s resources, agency, and pursuit of the living standard within their local context (Gough 2004; McGregor 2004; Narayan et al. 2000; Sen 1985a). It is both socio-culturally embedded (Economic and Social Research Council Research Group on Wellbeing in Developing Countries [WeD] 2007) as well as ecologically embedded (Balmford and Bond 2005; MA 2005).
Table 1

Chronological evolution of social and environmental indicators and theories of multidimensional well-being

Broadly defined, the objective components of well-being include many material and social attributes of people’s life circumstances such as physical resources, employment and income, education, health, and housing. These attributes are easily measured based on quantitative statistics such as frequency or quantity (Cobb and Rixford 1998; Hagerty et al. 2001; Sirgy et al. 2006). In contrast, the subjective components of well-being are represented in an individual’s thoughts and feelings about one’s life and circumstances, and the level of satisfaction with specific dimensions. It is measured by psychological responses, such as life satisfaction, autonomy, mastery, social connectedness, and personal security (Diener 2012; Narayan et al. 2000; Ryff and Keyes 1995). In sum, living well has to do with people’s physical, social, and mental conditions, the fulfillment of their basic needs and capabilities (Doyal and Gough 1991; Sen 1985a), and the opportunities and resources to which they have access (McGregor et al. 2007; Narayan et al. 2000; WeD 2007).

2.1 Capabilities and Basic Needs

Two influential approaches, the Capabilities Approach and the Basic Needs Approach, can be recognized in current conceptions of multidimensional well-being. Amartya Sen founded the Capabilities Approach and is one of the foremost pioneers of a people-centered understanding of well-being (Alkire and Bank 2002; Alkire 2005; Clark 2005). The Capabilities Approach arose shortly after the Basic Needs Approach associated with Paul Streeten et al. (1981), but gave greater emphasis to functionings and the role of freedom (i.e., autonomy; agency) (Alkire 2005). Within this approach, basic human needs are instrumentally, rather than intrinsically, important in the achievement of eudaimonic functionings and capabilities, which are the ultimate objects of value. The concept of capabilities represents the foundational importance and intrinsic value of a person’s autonomy in achieving various valued functionings (beings and doings). Sen (1985b) contends that, “Ultimately, the focus has to be on what life we lead and what we can or cannot do, can or cannot be… The main point here is that the standard of living is really a matter of functionings and capabilities and not a matter directly of opulence, commodities, or utilities” (p. 23 [our emphasis]).

The Basic Needs approach includes, inter alia, Doyal and Gough’s (1984, 1991) Theory of Human Needs (THN) and Max Neef’s (1991) Fundamental Human Needs (FHN) matrix. This approach includes autonomy as one basic need among others of equal importance. Doyal and Gough’s THN considers basic needs as “goals that must be achieved if any individual is to achieve any other goal.” (1984, p. 10). These universal preconditions for participation in social life are (1) survival/health, and (2) autonomy/learning (Gough 1998), the satisfaction of which depend on the fulfillment of intermediate needs (needs satisfiers) such as adequate food, water and protective housing; non-hazardous work conditions and built environment; appropriate health care; security in childhood; significant primary relationships; physical security; economic security; safe birth control and child bearing; and basic education. The satisfaction of intermediate needs, in turn, depends on the presence of opportunities for participation in significant social roles of production, reproduction, cultural transmission, and political authority (Doyal and Gough 1984).

Max Neef’s FHN matrix organizes needs and needs satisfiers into two interacting categories: existential (needs of Being, Having, Doing and Interacting) and axiological (needs of Subsistence, Protection, Affection, Understanding, Participation, Creation, Leisure, Identity and Freedom). Explaining the rationale for this framework, Max Neef writes, “Human needs must be understood as a system: that is, all human needs are interrelated and interactive. With the sole exception of the need of subsistence, that is, to remain alive, no hierarchies exist within the system. On the contrary, simultaneities, complementarities and trade-offs are characteristics of the process of needs satisfaction” (1991, p. 17). This systems approach to viewing human needs has most recently manifest in research considering the provisional role that ecosystem services play as intermediate needs satisfiers.

2.2 Ecosystem Services: Needs Satisfiers

Throughout the last four decades, global organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the World Resources Institute (WRI), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been instrumental in the development of indicators for ecosystem services and environmental sustainability (Cobb and Rixford 1998; International Institute for Sustainable Development 2012; IUCN 1980; Johnson 2012). These indicators have evolved in a similar fashion to social indicators, as it has become apparent that the environmental processes and conditions the indicators are intended to represent are considerably more complex than first believed. The IUCN, UNEP, WRI, and the IPCC have consistently provided scientific research and reports on environmental trends and problems, and the impacts they have on human populations, and their work has revealed that the complexity of environmental issues is due in part to the interconnectedness of social and ecological systems.

Reflecting the interconnectedness of social and ecological systems, recent conceptual frameworks of human well-being have striven to illustrate the linkages between quality of life and ecosystem services. Some notable contributions include Busch et al. (2011), Costanza et al. (2007), the MA (2005), Smith et al. (2013), and Summers et al. (2012). Costanza et al.’s generalized ‘basic needs and capital inputs’ model takes into account the role of natural capital, alongside built, human and social capitals, as input required to meet basic human needs. This has been similarly presented by Summers et al. in a model of human well-being, its primary drivers and related ecosystem services. Meanwhile, Smith et al. suggest a new index of well-being for the United States, showing the relationships between nine culturally-specific well-being domains and a range of contributive ecosystem services. Busch et al. have suggested an indicator set specific to a German fishing community and the potential impacts of offshore wind farm development.

The MA (2005) conceptual framework1 is perhaps the most comprehensive work to articulate well-being in a socioecological context. The project of a consortium of hundreds of scientists from over 70 nations, the MA is an extensive study of the correlation between human well-being and the world’s ecosystems. It generated a conceptual framework to guide the understanding and measurement of well-being within the wider context of the socioecological system (Mooney et al. 2004). The MA conceptual framework articulates the interconnection between the constituents (also referred to as dimensions throughout this paper) of well-being and ecosystem services, and the direct and indirect drivers of change. The well-being constituents include: “Security—personal safety, secure access to resources, security from disasters. Basic material for a good life—adequate livelihoods, sufficient nutritious food, shelter, access to goods. Health—strength, feeling well, access to clean air and water. Good social relations—social cohesion, mutual respect, ability to help others. Freedom of choice and action—opportunity to be able to achieve what an individual values doing and being” (MA 2005, p. Vi). The conceptual framework illustrates the influence of socioeconomic factors on these constituents and the strength of the relationships between specific well-being constituents and their corresponding supporting, provisioning, regulating, or cultural ecosystem services. It further illustrates how indirect drivers of change, be they social, cultural, economic, political, technological, ecological or climatic, have direct and indirect impact upon each other, and upon human well-being and ecosystem services, both of which, in turn, impact upon drivers of change (ibid, p. Vii).

The MA’s list of well-being constituents parallels the lists of dimensions provided in earlier works from Cummins (“ComQol domains”; 1996, p. 563), Qizilbash (“prudential values”; 1996, p. 155), and Narayan et al. (2000). All agree that the foundational well-being dimensions are (1) material, (2) bodily, (3) social, (4) emotional, (5) psychological, (6) productivity/accomplishment, and (7) autonomy. This aggregate of dimensions has been validated across a variety of cultures, with Clark’s (2003) study of human well-being and development in a South African context; by McGregor et al. (2007), exploration of the relationship between the household’s access to resources and the level of needs satisfaction attained by populations in Peru and Thailand; and by Camfield and Guillen-Royo (2010) study of the relationships between income, needs fulfillment and subjective well-being in Bangladesh and Thailand.

Busch et al. (2011), Costanza et al. (2007), the MA (2005), Smith et al. (2013), and Summers et al. (2012) all draw attention to the importance of ecosystem services—natural capital—in providing many of the necessary resources for the pursuit of needs fulfillment, goals, and life satisfaction, a finding that has been consistently confirmed by several studies (Chiesura and de Groot 2003; Costanza et al. 2007; Engelbrecht 2009; Hancock 2010; Glaser 2003; Knight and Rosa 2011; NEF 2005; Pereira et al. 2005; Summers et al. 2012; Vemuri and Costanza 2006). But, as Busch et al. conclude, the construction of such conceptual frameworks raises issues such as the difficulty in determining cause and effect in the various factors that shape human well-being, and how to assess the proportional contribution of ecosystem changes to any change in quality of life.

Brown and Westaway’s (2011) review of the literature within the fields of human development, well-being, and disasters reveal an emergent recognition that dynamic systems approaches and cross-scale perspectives of ecological and socioecological phenomena are required to adequately research human well-being while accounting for the complexity of the human-environment relationship. As suggested by Ayanu et al. (2012), Balmford and Bond (2005), the MA (2005), and Verburg et al. (2009), future research in this area should include (1) ground-truthed remote sensing data to map and quanitfy land use, land cover and ecosystem services, and to monitor changes; and (2) models that describe the underlying drivers of these changes, and the linkages between the delivery of ecosystem services and human well-being. The MA conceptual framework can contribute to empirical research of these linkages through informing integrated quantitative and qualitative approaches. The remainder of this paper explores current well-being research methodologies aimed towards assessing its objective and subjective components, and the impact of ecosystem changes on livelihoods and quality of life.

3 Approaches and Instruments to Assess Human Well-Being

3.1 Objective Indicators Approach

Within the social indicators movement, attempts to measure well-being has traditionally relied on the objective components, those social and economic attributes that reflect people’s life circumstances, and which are easily measured at the population level and communicated as quantitative statistics. Early examples include the pioneering NASA-sponsored project and publication, Social Indicators (Bauer 1966), the Physical Quality of Life Index, developed by Morris David Morris (1979), and the long-standing Social Indicator Programme of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD] (1976, 2001), which has been measuring social well-being since the 1970s.

Currently, the most influential objective indicator of social well-being is the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI is a composite index that, since 1990, measures well-being by aggregating four objective indicators (life expectancy at birth; mean years of schooling; expected years of schooling; and gross national income per capita) across 3 dimensions—health; education; and living standards (UNDP 2011). Studies by Celentano et al. (2012) and Rodrigues et al. (2009) both used the HDI metric to investigate relative development patterns across spaces of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Both studies reported that the boom-and bust pattern of deforestation is associated with a higher-than-national-average HDI score in areas of active frontier deforestation, but below-average rates as deforestation progresses. Celentano et al. (2012) note that if the definition of welfare were expanded to consider factors such as violence and forced labor, the situation in both the active frontier and the deforested zone would look far less favorable. This caveat highlight the important role that qualitative and subjective measures play in completing the well-being picture of communities in these areas. Rodrigues et al. (2009) suggest that one of the challenges facing the Amazon region is “how to ensure that future development paths translate into sustained improvements in human well-being, while avoiding the depletion of nature and the services it provides” (p. 1436). The HDI alone cannot serve to indicate a socioecologically sustainable development path for communities, but studies like those from Rodrigues et al. and Celentano et al. are helpful towards meeting such a challenge in that they point to areas where further investigation is necessary. Vemuri and Costanza (2006) found that the HDI is also useful as a suitable proxy for built and human capital, and contributes as a valuable indicator in a wider assessment of life satisfaction in explaining a significant percentage of variation. However, an important point to remember about all of these objective indicators is that a degree of subjectivity is inherent in the selection and weighting of topics for which data is being gathered (Busch et al. 2011; Cobb and Rixford 1998).

3.2 Subjective Well-being Approach

Over the past several decades, the study of well-being’s subjective components has also become popularized (Andrews and Withey 1976; Bradburn 1969; Campbell et al. 1976; Diener et al. 1993; Diener et al. 1999; Easterlin et al. 2010; Inglehart et al. 2008; Kahneman and Krueger 2006; Ryff and Keyes 1995), taking into account individuals’ perceptions and experiences of their social environment, for which qualitative approaches are essential (Camfield et al. 2009: Diener and Suh 1997; Gasper 2004). Hagerty et al. (2001) insist that each well-being dimension must have the potential to be measured by both subjective and objective indicators if we are to capture the totality of life experiences, for as he explains, “A person may report a high level of subjective well-being, despite environmental conditions bad enough to significantly shorten life expectancy, hence affecting immediate future QOL. Similarly, objective QOL conditions (e.g., health, material possessions) of a person may have very little to do with subjective well-being. For example, a person may be wealthy, yet feel very dissatisfied with life…” (pp. 8–9).

Findings suggest that there is an association between one’s material life situation (economic variables) and subjective well-being, but that this association is limited (Biswas-Diener and Diener 2001; Diener et al. 1993; Easterlin et al. 2010). As Camfield and Guillen-Royo (2010) found, basic need satisfaction is important to experience well-being, but alone it is as insufficient as income to completely explain what motivates people. Quality of life is also influenced by cognitive, affective, and psychosocial variables (Biswas-Diener and Diener 2001; Diener 1994), and is sometimes referred to as psychological-need satisfaction (Ryan and Deci 2001) or psychological well-being (Ryff and Keyes 1995). An increasingly sophisticated and systematized body of approaches and methods have been developed to gather information regarding these variables and what people themselves believe they need in order to achieve a good quality of life, as well as to provide insights into how satisfied they feel with the extent to which they are meeting those needs (Hagerty et al. 2001; McGregor et al. 2009).

Though subjective well-being and psychological well-being survey instruments may use multi-item scales, such as Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS, Diener 1994; Diener et al. 1985; Pavot and Diener 1993) and the Psychological Well-Being Scales (Ryff and Keyes 1995), these instruments are limited in assessing multidimensional well-being as far as they are focused entirely on subjective outcomes. That being said, Vemuri and Costanza (National Well-being Index 2006), Abdallah et al. (2008), Engelbrecht (2009), and Knight and Rosa (2011) have made use of existing national and global life satisfaction data in combination with data on objective measures of built, human, social, and natural capital in order to better explain the determinants of national well-being. One of the most important demonstrations of these studies has been the importance of natural capital to life satisfaction.

3.3 Mixed Methods Approach

The Happy Planet Organization’s Happy Planet Index (HPI, Marks et al. 2006; Abdallah et al. 2012) also uses existing national life satisfaction data as one component of an indicator system that, like Vemuri and Costanza’s (2006) National Well-being Index and several others over the past decade (reviewed in Knight and Rosa 2011), attempts to measure the environmental efficiency of well-being. The HPI is an aggregate of both subjective and objective measures, capturing experienced quality of life, life expectancy, and the widely recognized Ecological Footprint measure (Wackernagel and Rees 1996) in a single measure of sustainable well-being and its impact on the planet. The ecological footprint component of the HPI provides a metric of human demand on nature, measuring the amount of land required to sustain a particular consumption pattern (Abdallah et al. 2012).

Though single-measure life satisfaction metrics have their applications, there are much more comprehensive well-being measures including a variety of participatory and mixed methods. Over the last 50 years, advances in the social sciences have increased the availability of both quantitative and qualitative research methods (Camfield et al. 2009), as well as mixed methods design (Creswell et al. 2003), Participatory methods and mixed methods approaches have provided valuable insights into how local people define well-being, and as Camfield et al. note, “The contribution of qualitative approaches to a focus on people’s resources and agency is that they can encompass areas of people’s lives that are influential and important, but rarely measured” (Camfield et al. 2009, p. 7). The authors propose a mixed methods approach in which qualitative methods can supplement as well as assist in the development of sensitive and relevant quantitative measures. In agreement with Gasper (2004) and McGregor (2004), Camfield et al. recommend combining data from qualitative and quantitative approaches to enhance its explanatory power. However, McGregor recommends that objective and subjective indicators be measured concurrently but with separate instruments, because objective need fulfillment does not correlate with life satisfaction as subjective need fulfillment does. It is also necessary to distinguish between satisfaction in different domains of life and satisfaction with life as a whole (Camfield and Guillen-Royo 2010).

From 2002 to 2007, the WeD project developed several tools for measuring both the objective and subjective components. These tools, which include the Resources and Needs Questionnaire (RANQ), the WeD Quality of Life (WeD-QoL) Survey, and the Income and Expenditure survey (WeD 2007), operationalized a framework for empirically researching well-being by translating what WeD researchers saw as the three basic dimensions of well-being into three broad considerations: (1) the resources (material, social, human, and natural) people have; (2) what are they able to do with what they have; and (3) how they think about both what they have and can do (McGregor et al. 2007, 2009).

The QoL survey has become a comprehensive well-being instrument that accounts for variety of well-being domains. Subjective indicators are integrated with measures of resources, income, expenditures, and perceived and objective needs satisfaction. Though a considerable amount of QoL studies are focused on health- and disease-related issues, some examples of general, multidimensional QoL studies include the work of Camfield and Ruta (2007), Lavers (2007), McGregor, et al. (2009), and Martin, et al. (2010).

The WeD-QoL is actually a combination of a variety of instruments including the Person Generated Index survey (Ruta et al. 1994; Martin et al. 2010); the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener et al. 1985); the RANQ, which provides information on households’ access to and control over a wide range of resources; and the Income and Expenditure survey, which provides information on what people do with their resources. The WeD-QoL is a highly structured, yet participatory process that generates individualized well-being measures using a mix of open-ended questions, scoring, and points allocation to establish a particular person’s satisfaction with the areas of life that are most important to them (McGregor et al., 2009). This suite of instruments is compatible with and could accommodate the MA well-being constituents and ecosystem services model as a guiding theoretical framework in the assessment of well-being in the socioecological context. The following sections pay closer attention to each of these instruments and research methods, as well as other participatory methods used in the definition of well-being indicators relevant to rural populations.

3.3.1 Resources and Needs Questionnaire

The RANQ is based on the Doyal and Gough′s Theory of Human Need and on the Resource Profiles Approach (RPA, McGregor et al. 2007). It focuses on the social and cultural resources that influence well-being outcomes, as well as the household’s access to a wide range of physical resources and the need satisfactions they achieve. With RPA as its base, it uses a notion of resources that is similar to the notion of capitals as used in ecological economics research, such as that by Costanza et al. (2007), Vemuri and Costanza (2006), Abdallah et al. (2008), Engelbrecht (2009), Knight and Rosa (2011). The RPA considers five analytical categories including material, human, environmental, social and cultural resources, with each category having material, relational, and cognitive dimensions (McGregor 2004). A basic premise of the RANQ is that the relationships between material conditions and the subjective dimensions of well-being effect people’s own definitions of what they need, expect, and aim toward (Camfield and McGregor 2005). The RANQ supplements the WeD-QoL by providing the descriptive components regarding objective resources. It expands the traditional QoL research approach and its focus on subjective well-being to a more comprehensive, balanced assessment method that also accounts for perceived and objective resources (also recorded in the Income and Expenditure survey), and their influence of satisfaction with life (WeD 2007). In consideration of cultural specificity, these assessment tools are designed to give individuals and communities the opportunity to define for themselves the dimensions that they consider important to their quality of life (Martin et al. 2010).

3.3.2 Sustainable Livelihoods Framework

Fontalvo-Herazo et al.’s (2007), Raymond et al.’s (2009), and Fazey et al.’s (2010) research highlight the many ways in which livelihoods depend on and interact with ecosystem services, and the impacts of ecosystem changes, which often result in the shrinking diversity of available livelihood opportunities. Fewer livelihood options has negative implications for community resilience, increasing vulnerability and diminishing the capacity of communities to adapt in the face of environmental change, which in turn, has negative implications for their well-being (Fontalvo-Herazo et al. 2007).

A sustainable livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets and activities that lead to well-being of a person or household (Chambers and Conway 1992). The sustainable livelihoods approach (SLA), which the RPA parallels, provides a mechanism to facilitate the discussion and development of ecosystem degradation indicators (Fraser et al. 2006), and implications for the livelihoods and well-being (Adger 2006). SLA is used to assess the vulnerability of populations according to their assets and entitlements, to identify critical assets capacity, and to link livelihood strategies to the opportunities and constraints of the broader socioecological (institutional and biophysical) environment (Eakin and Luers 2006).

Fraser et al.’s (2006) undertook household-scale livelihood analyses in the Kalahari Rangelands, Botswana. Their methodological approach was based on the SLA, by which livelihood constraints and opportunities were identified, and the links between land use decisions and ecological changes were examined. Methods included semi-structured interviews to examine social, financial, physical, human and natural capital assets used by households to ensure livelihood security (Scoones 1998; Bebbington 1999). Changes in natural capital (or ecosystem services) form a key part of such iterative discussions between researcher and local residents to provide a range of sustainability indicators and management strategies. Their study also assessed the impact of participatory processes on environmental management projects, finding that participatory methods to sustainability indicator identification results in a much more complete and complex list of indicators, providing a comprehensive assessment of local social, environmental, and economic issues. It also resulted in an increase community capacity to manage the environment. In Fraser et al.’s (2006) case study of forest management involving First Nations communities in Coastal British Columbia, it was found that the participatory process gave fair consideration to local human requirements in the determination of ecosystem management goals. The process of selecting and analyzing indicators involved multi-stakeholder dialogue, which was productive and served to build confidence within the community, broaden the perspective of the participants, and give voice to traditionally disenfranchised residents (specifically some of the First Nations communities).

3.3.3 Other Participatory Approaches

Participatory research has become increasingly popular during the past twenty years (Camfield et al. 2009) as more authors recommend participatory methods to investigate the complex, culturally specific and context-dependent dynamics behind well-being or its lack (Brown and Westaway 2011; Gasper 2004), to identify local conceptions and criteria for living well, and to establish locally relevant well-being indicators (see examples in Fazey et al. 2010; Fontalvo-Herazo et al. 2007; Fraser et al. 2006; Pereira et al. 2005; Raymond et al. 2009). The wisdom of Alkire and Bank’s (2002) insistence on a clear definition of a concept and its dimensions as a crucial foundation for assessment is ever more apparent with the increasing role of communities in the research process through participatory, qualitative methods for exploring understandings of poverty, vulnerability, well-being, resilience, and development. Within these fields of study, community-based participatory research provides more accurate representation and measurement of the whole of people’s lives, and is proving useful in developing locally relevant indicators of well-being (Camfield, et al. 2009). Crucial to the selection of relevant indicators is the use of some procedural method rather than simply applying a pre-existing list, suggests Robeyns (2005), who stresses the need for coherence between theoretical definitions, epistemological goals, and the methodologies applied. Maggino and Zumbo (2012)2 support Robeyns′ judgment, having found that the lack of a clear conceptual definition, and its logical cohesion with analytical tool and strategies, is often associated with methods that risk distorting reality and producing distorted results.

In the assessment of well-being of individuals, communities, and socioecological systems, the users—stakeholders—of the ecosystem services in question are the greatest source of knowledge about the social and ecological processes that shape their landscape (Fazey et al. 2010; Fontalvo-Herazo et al. 2007; Fraser et al. 2006; Pereira et al. 2005; Pinedo-Vasquez and Sears 2011). To gain a representative, place-based understanding of a study area and its inhabitants, a participatory approach in required. Stakeholder groups participate in determining the appropriate principles, criteria and indicators, which can serve as an indicator system for assessing vulnerability, adaptive capacity, resilience, and human well-being of a socioecological system. To protect or recover the delivery of ecosystem services critical for human well-being, current and historical drivers of change operating both directly and indirectly must be fully understood. In this, local knowledge about how resources are, and have traditionally been evaluated, utilized, and monitored is vitally important to the assessment of well-being, vulnerability and resilience (Pereira et al. 2005). Local ecological knowledge is seen as critical in supporting resilient and adaptive social–ecological systems, and human well-being (Folke 2006; Raymond et al. 2009). Furthermore, when perceptions and priorities of the users of ecosystem services are reflected, susitainable ecosystem management activites are more feasible and more likely to be implemented (Glaser 2003).

Participatory methods have met with success in defining ecosystem-based well-being indicators. For example, Raymond et al. (2009) used the MA (2005) natural capital and ecosystem services typology, enhanced to reflect the local setting, to study regional natural resource management planning within the South Australian Murray–Darling Basin region. The methods used open-ended interviews focused on the question: what do you value in the environment and why do you value it? Further questions related to natural assets, ecosystem services, and their spatial distribution asked participants to describe their values. Study participants then engaged in a community mapping technique, incorporating GIS-based tools, to map the spatial distribution of natural capital and ecosystem service values and threats, prompted by the following questions: What natural asset do you value there? What ecosystem service does that asset provide that you value? Is there anything that could happen to impact what you value? Is there anything that could be done to protect what you value? Community members then brought local ecological knowledge to a mapping task in which participants were asked to locate and describe places of value and threat. This process identified community values and key ecological functions critical for sustainable livelihood and for maintaining ecosystem function, and the threats to ecosystem services and well-being.

Similarly, Fazey et al.’s (2010) vulnerability assessment in the Solomon Islands used a combination of general community surveys, community mapping, detailed focus groups, in-depth interviews and participatory workshops. The objectives were to learn about levels of education and wealth within the community; perceptions of change, social networks, and income generation; the relationship between various components of the socioecological system; and to determine drivers of change, and identify long-term goals. Fazey et al.’s research demonstrated that 1) participatory, community-based research enables ordinary people to discuss and raise issues regarding socio-environmental change in a way not previously achieved, while also providing impetus and motivation for grassroots-led action; 2) participatory methods have the potential to empower local people to make decisions and implement their outcomes; and 3) vulnerability assessments can be designed to generate robust scientific data and policy relevant findings.

Fontalvo-Herazo et al. (2007) studied the Bragantinian coastal region, a riverine-fringed mangrove ecosystem located at the Bragança peninsula, where about 15,000 people derive the majority of their daily livelihood from multiple sources of the mangrove. The authors used a novel participatory method to determine community stakeholders’ definition of current problems, priorities, principles and criteria to provide the basis for a locally relevant indicator set, which in this case was used for the assessment of coastal resource management. However, Fontalvo-Herazo et al.’s method could also be applied to the formulation of an indicator set for the assessment of well-being of a socioecological system. The authors designed their indicator system by first identifying all local stakeholder groups within the study’s particular socioecological system. Small focus groups then identified relevant indicators of change by examining stakeholder perceptions of past problems and current solutions, and current problems and desires for the future. Fundamental issues included socio-economic relations; access to services; institutional equity; gender equality; education and training facilities and resources; social security and benefits for ill, unemployed, or retired people; infrastructure and service investment; health, including sufficient meals per day; and livelihoods concerns, including employment opportunities, income alternatives, and resources management. These finding correspond closely with the well-being dimensions discussed in Sect. 2.2 of this paper.

3.4 Challenges of Participatory Qualitative Methods

While participatory methods offer many benefits, there are also scientific, professional, temporal, financial challenges and ethical considerations. Participatory methods require experience, sensitivity, time, and can be costly. These are particularly important considerations when designing research that aims to define local conceptions of well-being and relevant indicators. First of all, as Camfield et al. (2009) concluded, qualitative methods work best when undertaken in communities where some rapport has already been established, by trained and experienced researchers, preferably with knowledge of the local language. However, collaborations with local researchers and translators who have qualitative research experience can be difficult and costly to arrange, and training local researchers, research assistants, and participating community members in the methods may be required (Camfield 2006; Fazey et al. 2010).

Second, Narayan et al. (2000) warn that attempts at quantification of qualitative data can obscure participants’ own words, and risks the loss of diversity of voices and realities in the organization and categorization of data. Unfortunately, however, qualitative methods still lack credibility among some those audiences with a preference for statistical representation (Camfield et al. 2009). Further to that, Minkler (2004) acknowledges that community-based participatory research often involves what Bradbury and Reason (2001) term “broadening the bandwidth of validity” (p. 343). Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that research methods structured to accommodate community participation and perspectives do not compromise scientific rigor and valid, reliable findings (Minkler 2004).

Third, ethical concerns regarding community partners of participatory research include raised expectations of assistance (Narayan et al. 2000) and methods that are top-down and extractive (Camfield et al. 2009; Gough 1998). Minkler (2004) suggests that a Memorandum of Understanding between outside researchers and their community partners to set formal or informal ground rules, and continued dialogue and co-learning among all partners, particularly the sharing of views regarding what constitutes meaningful and “valid” research, and whether or not community participants can expect to benefit from the research outcomes. There should also be an explicit agreement between researchers and community participants with respect to ownership and dissemination of the research findings (Green et al. 1995; in Minkler 2004, p. 695).

Fazey et al. (2010) draw attention to a fourth important aspect of participatory approaches, which is that collective processes can disempower those less competent in public speaking, while reinforcing the authority of existing leaders who may present their dominant agendas as ‘the community’ view, and may use their relationship with external researchers to leverage greater power. Thus, the voices of marginalized members of the community (e.g. women and youths) are less likely to be heard. To guard against co-optation of the process of identifying locally relevant well-being criteria and indicators, Pereira et al. (2005) used a technique known as diversity or common sense sampling ensuring diversity and avoid sampling errors containing biases related to leadership, gender, age, visibility, and wealth. The technique involves the purposeful inclusion of men and women, younger and older people, people engaged in different activities, and people considered worse or better off economically if the initial sample did not reflect this diversity. Another example of how researchers have addressed the challenges of equal stakeholder representation and barriers to participation is illustrated in Fontalvo-Herazo et al.’s (2010) participatory approach. The researchers ensured that participants from different stakeholder groups and sub-groups were divided into separate meetings to decrease the constraints on speaking freely, experienced particularly by young, female and otherwise marginalized stakeholder groups. The authors note that it was critical for all participants to be able to express their beliefs and concerns without any fear of reprisal. They also found that the organization of meetings in different sub-groups strengthened sub-group identity and facilitated discussion on common issues, problems, desires, and ideas.

Despite the challenges, the less structured and more equitable engagement between researcher and participant in participatory qualitative research also offers key benefits for understanding and addressing quality of life issues. Most importantly, it can function as a co-learning process (Fazey et al. 2010; Minkler 2004), providing both researcher and participants the opportunity for understanding local criteria for well-being (Brown and Westaway 2011; Camfield et al. 2009; Fazey et al. 2010; Fraser et al. 2006; Glaser 2003). Community participation in identifying well-being indicators gives people the opportunity to acquire knowledge about indicators, understand their importance, and get involved in their definition and development (Fazey et al. 2010; Fraser et al. 2006; Glaser 2003). This, in turn, facilitates the development of community and individual autonomy (Brown and Westaway 2011; Eakin and Luers 2006; Fraser et al. 2006; Magis 2010).

4 Conclusion

In this paper, we examined the current definition and research methods for assessing human well-being within a socioecological system, such as that of a rural population whose livelihoods and well-being depend on the flow of ecosystem services. The findings of research in the fields of social indicators, human development, psychology, ecological economics, and resource management show that the well-being dimensions foundational for a good quality of life include material, bodily, social, emotional, and psychological well-being, autonomy, and productivity/accomplishment, as well as ecosystem services as the inputs necessary to meet many basic needs and capabilities that correlate with these dimensions. The key to applying this or a similar list of well-being dimensions to a quality of life study is choosing the appropriate methodological approach and instrument(s).

Based on the reviewed studies, we conclude that future research of human well-being within a socioecological context should include participatory methods such as focus groups with local stakeholders, the WeD-QoL tools, and community mapping, as these instruments have proven valuable in identifying and assessing locally relevant well-being indicators, key ecosystem services critical for livelihood sustainability, drivers of change, and threats to well-being. The MA conceptual framework can be adapted for local conditions to guide the use of these instruments. Future research should also include (1) ground-truthed remote sensing data to map and quanitfy land use, land cover and ecosystem services, and to monitor changes; and (2) models that describe the underlying drivers of these changes, and the linkages between the delivery of ecosystem services and human well-being. We view these components as an important part of a mixed methods approach.

Mixed methods and participatory approaches are necessary to adequately investigate the complex dynamics, cultural specificity and context-dependent nature of well-being, and identify local conceptions, criteria, and indicators of living well. However, special attention must be given during all stage of the research, from design to dissemination of results, to the potential challenges of participatory qualitative research. Despite the scientific, professional, financial and ethical challenges and time constraints, the inclusion of community participation and perspectives is indispensible in the attempt to tell the whole story of the quality of life of populations.


The MA conceptual framework can be viewed in the cited publication, in Figures A. Linkages Between Ecosystem Services and Human Well-being, and Figure B. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Conceptual Framework of Interactions Between Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services, Human Well-being, and Drivers of Change, on pages Vi and Vii.


See Maggino and Zumbo (2012) for a detailed overview of measuring quality of life, including the definition of a conceptual model, development and management social indicator sets, and selection of appropriate analytical tools and strategies.



This paper is a contribution to the project CNPq 550373/2010-1–Efeito de perturbações antrópicas sobre a Estrutura florística e funcionamento das Florestas de várzea e Seu Impacto sobre os Ecossistemas aquáticos da calha do Solimões-Central do Amazonas (Process 382443/2012-8 and 384174/2012-4), and it was accomplished with financial assistance from the National Counsel of Technological and Scientific Development (CNPq), an organization under the Ministry of Science and Technology of the Federal Government of Brazil.. Vivian F. Renó acknowledges the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) for the financial support of her PhD program (Process 2012/02544-5).

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013