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Palgrave Macmillan

Understanding Well-being Data

Improving Social and Cultural Policy, Practice and Research

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  • Open Access
  • © 2021

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  • This book is open access, which means that you have free and unlimited access
  • Provides tools to promote better understanding of the power and potential of well-being data.
  • Offers practitioners an accessible view ‘under-the-bonnet’ of data collection.
  • Shows how well-being data have long been used to track the health and wealth of society.

Part of the book series: New Directions in Cultural Policy Research (NDCPR)

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About this book

‘Following the data’ is a now-familiar phrase in Covid-19 policy communications. Well-being data are pivotal in decisions that affect our life chances, livelihoods and quality of life. They are increasingly valuable to companies with their eyes on profit, organisations looking to make a social impact, and governments focussed on societal problems. This book follows well-being data back centuries, showing they have long been used to track the health and wealth of society. It questions assumptions that have underpinned over 200 years of social science, statistical and policy work.

Understanding Well-being Data is a readable, introductory book with real-life examples. Understanding the contexts of data and decision-making are critical for policy, practice and research that aims to do good, or at least avoid harm. Through its comprehensive survey and critical lens, this book provides tools to promote better understanding of the power and potential of well-being datafor society, and the limits of their application.



Table of contents (9 chapters)


“Wellbeing data have become integral to the evaluation of public policies and to the tracking of behaviour in the age of surveillance capital. Susan Oman breaks open the methods, assumptions and contexts that shape how wellbeing is constructed as an object, bringing clarity and sharp critical insight to an increasingly important field of expertise.” (William Davies, author of The Happiness Industry)

 “Given their power and influence, we might wonder how we feel about data and how data make us feel. In considering the relations between data and well-being, Susan Oman's vital new book considers what data now mean for our lives, opportunities, judgments and, crucially, for our impressions of our selves. Taking a critical approach, this book makes the crucial step of not just thinking of how data shape well-being but also how well-being itself is redefined by data processes.” (Prof. David Beer, Professor of Sociology, University of York)

“To understand wellbeing is to understand current cultural policy; it is also to understand the new language of data and metrics at the heart of how culture is governed. Understanding Well-being Data offers an essential and accessible guide to the future of the cultural sector, showing both the potential, and the critical limits, of wellbeing as the new language of cultural and social life.” (Dr Dave O’Brien, Chancellor’s Fellow in Cultural and Creative Industries)

“Susan Oman has written a much-needed book on how social and cultural policy use, for good or ill, data on well-being. She takes nothing for granted, and looks deeply into the centuries-old history of how we have thought about happiness and well-being, and the various ways it might be measured, before turning to its contemporary use as a metric for the impact of arts institutions and policy. It is engagingly written, lively and accessible for all students of culture.” (Michael Rushton, Professor, O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University)

Understanding Well-being Data is a very timely and valuable book. In a period when we have continually heard politicians claim to be following ‘the data’ on wellbeing, this book looks ‘under the bonnet’ of data collection. It examines the various types of data and information that policy-makers select for use, and how they analyse and interpret them. It shows how understanding the contexts of data and decision-making are critical for policy and practice that aims to do good, or at least prevent harm. It is written in an exemplary accessible and engaging style and provides much food for thought on how data shape society, culture, politics and policy. It deserves to be read by all who are interested in the use and misuse of data and how this impacts everyday lives.” (Professor Ian Bache, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Sheffield)

“As a practitioner, now more than ever, we need to critically reflect on our data practices; understanding the contexts of data and decision-making across policy, practice and research is core to this endeavour. This is a timely and accessible book that facilitates important conversations about wellbeing data and in its role in research, policy, culture and society, brought to life through a collection of practical examples.” (Dr Rhianne Jones, BBC)

“Susan Oman provides a timely and useful analysis, as a role arises for culture in supporting our mental and physical recovery from Covid.  Alongside tackling what is meant by wellbeing, the limits to data, and how they are used, Oman prompts us to think about each other; what we all gain from well-designed policy and about why practitioners and policy makers should offer our citizens transparency and empathy in exchange for the data they share with us.” (Mags Patten, Executive Director, Public Policy and Communication, Arts Council England)

Authors and Affiliations

  • University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

    Susan Oman

About the author

Susan Oman, Lecturer in Data, AI and Society, researches how data and evidence work in practice, looking at particular policy issues, such as well-being and inequality.


Bibliographic Information

  • Book Title: Understanding Well-being Data

  • Book Subtitle: Improving Social and Cultural Policy, Practice and Research

  • Authors: Susan Oman

  • Series Title: New Directions in Cultural Policy Research

  • DOI:

  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan Cham

  • eBook Packages: Literature, Cultural and Media Studies, Literature, Cultural and Media Studies (R0)

  • Copyright Information: The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2021

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-3-030-72936-3Published: 26 October 2021

  • Softcover ISBN: 978-3-030-72939-4Published: 26 October 2021

  • eBook ISBN: 978-3-030-72937-0Published: 25 October 2021

  • Series ISSN: 2730-924X

  • Series E-ISSN: 2730-9258

  • Edition Number: 1

  • Number of Pages: XXIX, 383

  • Number of Illustrations: 9 b/w illustrations

  • Topics: Cultural Policy and Politics, Media Policy

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