The Social Progress Index and the Long History of Searching for the “Social”

We would do well to withhold our praise of another seemingly new composite index such as the SPI.
Stephen Macekura
Emilfaro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How do we know if a place is thriving? For decades now, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has long been the metric used to answer that question. GDP (and its predecessor, Gross National Product, or GNP) were reasonably accurate proxies for measuring a nation’s ability to produce wealth for its citizens. Despite GDP’s success as a key (if not the key) indicator for society, policy makers have longed questioned the metric’s exclusionary focus on economic factors at the expense of other social elements. However, a new initiative called the Social Progress Index (SPI) claims to have created a new way of assessing our society beyond GDP.

SPI aims high. According to its creators, Michael Porter, Scott Stern, and Michael Green, SPI offers a “robust and holistic measurement framework for national social and environmental performance that can be used by leaders in government, business, and civil society to benchmark success and accelerate progress.” Its creators envision “a world in which social progress sits alongside GDP as a core benchmark for national performance,” and they view SPI as the main tool to “guide strategy for inclusive growth.” Celebrated by the likes of TED and New York Times, SPI advocates have captured the prevailing zeitgeist surrounding our current anxieties about assessments. However, despite claiming to be the “first comprehensive framework for measuring social progress that is independent of GDP, and complementary to it,” the SPI’s methodology and underlying aspirations are not even that new. Rather, the SPI sits at the end of a much longer history of attempting to measure “social” concerns alongside economic metrics.

The origins of “social” indexes go back as far as the development of GNP. While economists and policymakers were searching for ways to measure the economy in attempts to stymy the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover was likewise seeking better ways of understanding the “social trends” of his day. Published in 1933, the volumes known as Recent Social Trends in the United States contained a wealth of social data compiled by some of the countries leading social scientists. These reports provided quantitative as well as qualitative depictions of society aimed at helping policymakers manage social affairs. However, as the depression worsened, policymakers turned their attention away from understanding society and began focusing exclusively on the economy. By basing their decisions on aggregate economic indicators such as GNP, these policymakers were able to justify controversial choices such as spending in times of recession, mobilizing vast resources for the war effort, and promoting full employment. By the end of the decade, GNP permanently solidified itself as the worldwide standard for measuring economic life as “economic growth.”

A few decades later concerns over GNP grew. In the 1960s, social scientists became interested in using statistics that prioritized “social” visions of progress rather than just economic. Their efforts stemmed from two sets of concerns: the affects of the Cold War on home life and the unintended effects of pursuing economic growth as the primary goal for countries around the world. For one, social scientists in the United States came to worry about how the Cold War’s arms and space race had reshaped life at home. In 1966, Raymond Bauer, a professor at Harvard Business School, published an edited collection on the need for “social indicators” to supplement economic ones. Bauer believed that a revolution in thinking was necessary to show citizens to “regard our decisions as involving the total social system, and not only that part of it which resolves around our own persons.” In 1967, Senator Walter Mondale took up the social indicator cause by sponsoring a bill that would have adopted national social indicators alongside economic ones as well as created a “Council on Social Advisers.” The initiative ultimately failed, but its existence testified to the significance that leading policymakers placed on the desire for social progress to be defined by more than simple economic aggregates.

The second key inspiration for social indicators was inequality. Over the 1940s and 1950s, the United States and Soviet Union engaged in a “third race” for economic development in the Third World. By pouring billions of dollars of aid, many developing countries did indeed experience high GNP growth rates in the 1960s. Yet, by the end of the decade, economists noticed some worrying trends. Although economic models suggested a rising tide would lift all boats, the opposite was in fact the case. Not only did poverty persist, but in many cases it increased. Despite well-intentioned projects, such as dam building for electricity, many remained unemployed and economic disparity between and within countries deepened.

In response, a growing number of development experts began advocating for a new set of strategies focused on promoting individual well-being over national economic growth. Development economists such as Dudley Seers and Hans Singer came to believe that more equal distribution of resources and access to basic social provisions should be the goal of development. Likewise, high-profile development experts from the Third World, such as the Pakistani economist and World Bank official Mahbub ul-Haq, began to question the growth paradigm and argue that development programs should strive to reduce poverty and protect basic human needs above all. Throughout the 1970s development experts and reformers alike yearned for a “basic needs yardstick” to help guide these new policies. Concepts such as “quality of life” became popular in public debate; alternative metrics, such as the Physical Quality of Living Index (based on life expectancy and other social statistics) flourished for a brief time; and a growing interest in resource distribution took off in international development circles. These trends all testified to the need for social indicators to supplement—or even replace—economic ones.

Crucially, within the growing interest of social indicators, reformers split over whether the mid-twentieth century’s central focus of economic growth should remain a goal at all. Some believed that social indicators provided a better way of pursuing growth. Others, such as the development economist Amartya Sen, sought to place the object of growth not in a country or a city but within the individual, understanding development in terms of individual “capabilities.”

Big initiatives failed to materialize in the United States as the economy rebounded in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, the social indicators movement had a much longer life internationally. Mahbub ul Haq, who had led the focus on distribution in the 1970s, worked through the UN Development Programme, to craft the Human Development Index (HDI). Established in 2000, the UN’s Millennium Development Goals contain a set of objectives that can only be measured and assessed with the help of social indicators. Indeed, the SPI is only another attempt at placing the social alongside or even above the economic.

We would do well to withhold our praise of another seemingly new composite index, such as the SPI. After all, the SPI’s leaders suggest “measuring social progress guides us in translating economic gains into advancing social and environmental performance in ways that will unleash even greater economic success.” Their end goal remains economic “success” and growth. Yet it was the pursuit of such growth that inspired interest in social indicators fifty years ago, and it is that continued quest for economic progress that underlies the current anxiety. What is needed now is a much deeper reflection on how we come to define social and economic goals and the interrelationship between them. Rather than lauding the next great index to come along that promises new “social” insights, we would do better to question the underlying ideologies and patterns of behavior that make such indicators seem so necessary in the first place.

Stephen Macekura is Assistant Professor of International Studies at Indiana University. He is the author of Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century. He is researching a book on the history behind the meaning and measurement of economic growth.