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S3 Ep3 - Anna Alexandrova Transcript

Welcome back to The HPS Podcast, where we discuss all things history, philosophy, and social studies of science for a broad audience. 

I'm Samara Greenwood, your host, and today I have the privilege to introduce you to Professor Anna Alexandrova from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University. Interestingly, I believe Cambridge, along with us here at Melbourne University, have two of the oldest HPS programs in the world!

Anna is a pioneer on the philosophy of well-being science – she literally wrote the book on it – and this is the fascinating topic she will be introducing us today.

As Anna points out, well-being and happiness are now established phenomena for scientific research in the disciplines of psychology, economics, and sociology. But does current scientific research produce knowledge that is properly about well-being? What kind of well-being? Should the goal be a single concept and single theory of well-being?

Anna persuasively argues that a ‘one-concept-or-theory-fits-all’ attitude is wrong-headed.

Rather, Anna proposes that researchers invest time in defining ‘well-being’ for specific people in specific contexts. For example, it makes sense that if we are studying two-year-olds versus urban dwellers versus the recently unemployed we must create bespoke definitions of well-being for each case. In particular, we must take into consideration the components of well-being – or better put – ‘human flourishing - that are meaningful to the people within those groups.


Samara Greenwood: So first, thank you so much, Anna, for coming on the podcast. It's great to have you with us. 

Anna Alexandrova: Thank you for having me, Samara. 


Samara Greenwood: Could you first tell us a little bit about your background? How did you make your way to history and philosophy of science? 

Anna Alexandrova: I came of age with the collapse of Soviet Union, which was a very formative experience: watching an enormous social change take place. I then heard that London School of Economics has a master's degree in philosophy of social science - how do we think about knowledge of transformations that was so formative for me? That expression - philosophy of social science - sort of imprinted on me. I felt like I never really got interested in anything else. 

HPS became just the place where I get to ask these sorts of questions. As I navigated my education and work, I have acquired a stronger identity. What I like to think about is: How do we produce knowledge? How do we go wrong? What does it mean to go wrong as it applies to very broadly human sciences? That's what I love.



Samara Greenwood: Could you tell us a little bit more about that background? So where did you grow up and what kind of formative experiences were they with the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Anna Alexandrova: I grew up in a provincial town in Russia in a family of engineers who were not intellectuals, but who had a lot of respect for ideas and a lot of reverence for them. They nurtured interest in the world outside. And then, as a child, you suddenly begin to see for example the Putsch, or the announcement of the collapse of Soviet Union, or the Berlin wall crumbling on TV.

Then suddenly people going completely crazy around you, saying things that they never used to say. Wondering about: what should girls be like? What should boys be like? What should men be like? How should we organize society? What is the right way to do it? Was communism all a mistake? No, it was not a mistake. Or was capitalism all a mistake? 

There were these grandiose and big questions. And the talking heads on TV saying things as if they know what's happening. And the American economists arriving and saying, you need shock therapy or you need liberalization. And some people saying, yes. 

That kind of experience of incredible uncertainty about what is to be done and, who knows who is the expert? I think that's what was so influential. 


Samara Greenwood: What an amazing story. I can only imagine how influential that would be. Thank you. You said that you imprinted on the philosophy of social science. Are there significant differences between the philosophy of the natural sciences versus philosophy of social science? 

Anna Alexandrova: I think if we started from scratch to organize our knowledge, we probably would not choose categories of social sciences, natural sciences. They are categories that we sort of made up. Within these, these categories are so diverse, so different that I do not believe that there are features that all and only social sciences have and features that all and only natural sciences have. 

I think any pursuit of knowledge is unique in some ways. So, any one of them is special, but it's not the ‘social’ and the ‘natural’ that is the right distinction.



Samara Greenwood: Now today you're talking to us about your philosophical work on the science of wellbeing. I was wondering if you could start by giving us a little bit of background context. First, what is wellbeing science about? 

Anna Alexandrova: You could start really broadly - that any kind of pursuit of knowledge is ultimately about how to secure human flourishing. 

But the sciences of wellbeing that I got particularly interested are in psychology and economics and some other social sciences. So, attempts to secure valid measures of subjective wellbeing, attempts to secure valid indicators of objective quality of life, attempts to mix those two and attempts to - through a statistical work - figure out what kind of determinants and consequences they have in the wider world.

For example, if you are a psychologist, you might be studying determinants of personality traits on certain indicators of subjective well-being. If you're an economist, you might be studying the effect of income and growth, and if you're a sociologist you might be studying features of your social environment and inequality and its influence on indicators of well-being. 

Throughout all this you can imagine a lot of attempts to make it look very new, make it look very revolutionary and make it look very relevant for practice. So, this is what I mean by sciences of well-being. 


Samara Greenwood: And then what kind of things do you focus on within that in your work? What are your research interests? 

Anna Alexandrova: Some challenges of the sciences of well-being are very similar to any other field science, science that is not done in a laboratory. How do you make inferences in the wild? How do you apportion causal strength? How do you make responsible statistical estimations? But those features are not unique. 

What I think is uniquely interesting to me about the science is that initial judgment of what I'm going to delineate as well-being. That's a very fascinating, tricky scientific process. 

You have a concept that you are inheriting from, well, from where? From regular life? From literature? From religion? From philosophy? And you have to operationalize it for purposes of science. 

How do you operationalize it? Do you completely report it? Like whatever it is people say where their well-being is? A huge assumption underlying that decision is, people have that concept, people share it, people have knowledge in order to answer the questions that you're putting forward in your questionnaires. Alternatively, you might decide, ‘no, what ultimately I'm interested in is core indicators of quality of life or human development’, such as in the Human Development Index

So dramatically different answers seem admissible to the very initial question of what well-being is. I find that endlessly fascinating. How people answer this question depends, first, and foremost, what data they've got available. What is it that they can help themselves to? I mean, they're busy scientists, they need to produce their PhDs and their papers, so they will inevitably go with what they've got.

Other influences might be their philosophical views about, whether ultimately what matters is how we feel. Or ultimately what matters is how we evaluate our life after the fact. Or ultimately what matters is our ability to do things, in which case you'll go with a kind of these more objective indicators.

So, what kind of considerations are admissible? What kind of considerations should guide scientists in making that initial decision? And does that initial decision need to be very well justified or justified a little bit in order to get the science going? Do we need to figure out what well-being is before we study well-being?

Nothing else interests me as much as these questions and it's been a while now, several decades. 


Samara Greenwood: What are some of the things that you think could be improved perhaps in the wellbeing science that you look at and examine?

Anna Alexandrova: Thank you. Great question.

So, my biggest hope is to make scientists more comfortable in handling questions that they feel might be outside their purview. It is very tempting for a scientist picking an operationalization of well-being to say, “well, it is not my job to ask what well-being really is, ultimately in the grand scheme of things. It is not my job to decide whether societies should be focused on increasing quality of life or subjective well-being. It is not my job to negotiate between big questions such as what matters more, the feeling self or the evaluating self, because those are philosophical questions that are above my pay grade, outside my area.”

First of all, those questions end up being answered inexplicitly. It is not like you can avoid those questions. You will end up making judgments, sometimes hidden, that privilege one of these philosophical positions over another. You might as well do it openly. You might as well handle it head on.

Importantly, also, I don't think technical notions that we have of say, validity of measures or reliability of indicators are anywhere near enough to enable scientists to decide on a good operationalization. A good operationalization is a much wider, much bigger concept than the existing tools are available to answer.


So, I would like to make scientists more comfortable in tackling these questions. I would like to give them tools. For example, I've argued in my work that you don't need to decide what well-being truly is, always and everywhere, in order to be a good scientist.

But you do need what I call a mid-level theory of wellbeing for the context in which you're working. So, you're going to have to be a philosopher, but you don't need to resolve the conflict between Aristotle and Bentham, or something like that. 


Samara Greenwood: What would be an example of thinking about wellbeing in this mid-level, context-dependent way? 

Anna Alexandrova: One project that I've had the honour to participate in with an American public health scientist, Ramesh Raghavan, is how to define child wellbeing. We were together in St. Louis for a brief period of time, and we sat and sketched a mid-level theory about what child wellbeing would be. 

We tried to connect it to the way, say, welfare agencies or charities measure child wellbeing. Of course, our theory was far more abstract and demanding. Our theory had this idea that child wellbeing is a forward-looking notion - in order to be well as a child, you need to be developing towards something, you need to be acquiring skills that you will need for the future. But you also need to be a child and to engage with the world in child appropriate ways. 

We tried to think about how to operationalize it. We never quite did, but then other people picked it up and it ended up unexpectedly a very cited paper that people kept using. I would like that to happen across the board. I would like there to be people who study the cities and urban environments, I would like them to have a notion of wellbeing appropriate to city dwellers.

I don't think it has to be the same notion for every context. When I say this, of course, I realize how demanding that is and how perhaps unrealistic it is. There are metrics of wellbeing that are collected by statistical agencies, international and national, and they are not specific to the context in which they're going to be used. That's unrealistic. They are life satisfaction or perception of meaningfulness or feelings of happiness. They couldn't possibly be mid-level theories. But nevertheless, I hope that in application we don't just help ourselves to off the shelf ready-made measures.

If you asked what I think is the greatest misconception in the field, I would say the greatest misconception is that there is such a thing as a pre-validated measure of wellbeing. I think that's a real myth and a dangerous one. There is no such a thing as pre-validation.

Validation is to a purpose. I'm citing a work of my former student and now colleague, Cristian Larroulet Philippi


Samara Greenwood: You explain that so well and it makes so much sense. You were saying, is it unrealistic? But surely not. The stakes are so with wellbeing. We're talking about human beings and their flourishing. So of course we should have that investment in really tailoring these things, as you say, to particular contexts for particular purposes. It just makes a lot of sense.

Anna Alexandrova: Thank you.


Samara Greenwood: So, I was interested to know: do you find there are areas of wellbeing science that are taking on board these kinds of critiques and are potentially doing these things well? Are there areas where you're like, “yes, that's the way we should be going forward?” 

Anna Alexandrova: It's a really profound question because it forces me to reckon: What does it mean for them to take things on board? You know, they might not be using my language, they might not be doing what I said they should be doing. But very often in responsible research we see an implicit judgment of ‘here's what matters for the stakeholders that I'm studying or the stakeholders of my research, potential users.’ That's when researchers make a decision, without justifying explicitly “I would like to propose a mid-level theory of wellbeing for the refugee population that I'm studying”. No, that's not what happens.


But people make implicit judgments about what's going to be within their sphere of interest. When those judgments are well motivated by both the interests of the stakeholders, the availability of data and conceptual judgments about what it is that I'm studying - that I think is work done well. 

Work done less well in my view is when you just grab the data that you've got, you call it wellbeing and you number crunch and say, “look, I've discovered eating a bar of chocolate a day increases subjective wellbeing.” That's not the wellbeing research that we need.

I also worry about scientists sometimes altogether sidestepping the judgment of whether what they're studying is wellbeing. They say, “well, that's not my job. I use wellbeing as a technical term. The technical term, it refers to whatever data I happen to have.”

In that case, you are behaving like a drunk man looking for the keys under the street light because that's where the light is. Which is okay, because in some ways we are all drunk men looking for our keys under the light, because that's partially where the light is, right? But it can't always be like that. We have to attempt to do better than the drunk man.


Samara Greenwood: Absolutely. Maybe sober up and find another light? Or spread the light a bit further? 

Anna Alexandrova: Indeed, exactly. 


Samara Greenwood: So, the way that you're talking about it, it seems that there could be a benefit with philosophers and scientists working on these issues together because philosophers have some of the skills and background knowledge that would help create the framework. Would that be something that you would like to see? 

Anna Alexandrova: Absolutely. In most of my work, I've sought out opportunities to do that. 

My most recent collaboration with social scientists Mark Fabian and Diane Coyle in the Bennett Institute for Public Policy is  all about how you co-produce conceptions of wellbeing for particular purposes. 

Mark and I had the honour of working with a British anti-poverty charity who wanted a conception of thriving that is applicable to the people that they serve, who are usually in grave financial difficulties temporarily or due to some structural cause. What does it mean to thrive under such conditions? What does it mean to get back to something that you value? 

It wouldn't be the same thing as child wellbeing, it wouldn't be the same thing as wellbeing for a city dweller. It wouldn't be the same thing as plain life satisfaction. No, it would have to be bespoke. 

So I know that it is possible to have that kind of model of embedding a philosopher in, not just the scientific team because it should never be purely scientific team. It should also be a team involving the stakeholders of your research. That's the ideal for me.


Samara Greenwood: Is there a role for historians here? I'm interested. I suspect the history of wellbeing could be useful as well for thinking about things in different ways. Would that be true? 

Anna Alexandrova: Absolutely. Both historical reflection and reflection across space, cross culturally, is really necessary. Exactly how conceptions of wellbeing change across history is really a fundamental and difficult question. The concept of wellbeing nowadays sounds so middle class. A word that your HR manager would use, right?


Samara Greenwood: Yes <laugh>

Anna Alexandrova: What exactly are the concepts that stand in or that play a similar functional role in different cultures and different times is a really profound and difficult question.

I think histories of happiness and wellbeing are definitely being written. Exactly what its sources should be, whether it should be the philosophers of the day or whether it should be inferred from the sort of things that people value at the time. Is the concept of sublime part of a conception of wellbeing in the 18th century? That's a great question. How does it change now? I would love for this to happen. And I would find it a great challenge to generalize both across time and across cultures. But you don't have to find the perfect concept in order to do good work. That's the good thing.


Samara Greenwood: Yes. It can be more about exposing all the possible options, can't it? About the variability of the concept of wellbeing to give us a better toolkit for then tailoring the concept for different circumstances.

Thinking bigger than just scientists, what are some important insights that we might all take away about wellbeing and the study of wellbeing? 

Anna Alexandrova: The public expectations about the sciences of wellbeing are bimodal, if I may use this term. 

On the one hand, there is sometimes a request, “tell me what I have to do in order to be well. You the scientist, you the expert should know.”

On the other hand, on the other extreme, you have a total scepticism, a total rejection of expertise. “There is no such thing as expertise about the good life, of wellbeing. Something like that is personal, that is something that only an individual can know about.”

The truth I believe is somewhere in the middle. 

There will be some aspects of wellbeing that scientists come to understand pretty well. Psychologists think they understand pretty well the phenomenon of gratefulness, feeling grateful or doing some kind of pro social behaviour and what that does to your own conception of how you are. So there will be definitely aspects of wellbeing that scientists will discover things about. 

The really difficult thing is then translating that knowledge for your particular case as an individual or as a community. The expectation should that be either you as an individual or as a community takes a very active role – an initiative - in picking what you think might be relevant and turning it for your own purposes right? 

That means neither believing scientists nor rejecting the very possibility of expertise because, “it's expertise about values and values only I can know about.” That's not true. 

A good child psychologist knows a lot about what children need. That does not cross out the possibility of the parent also knowing what that child needs. 

So that kind of intelligent, selective use, heavily geared towards translation for particular outcomes is I think what the ideal relation between the sciences of wellbeing and public is. 

Sometimes we're quite close to that ideal. For example, city level programs that work with the community in order to use the best available knowledge of how architecture and public spaces contributes to cohesion, solidarity, equality, creativity of a place and adapting this to the needs of this particular city. That's what I hope would happen. I hope people neither just have blind faith nor blind scepticism.

Samara Greenwood: Hmm. The importance of that translation and adaption for those local contexts again. And marrying them up with your own personal experience, whether that is as an individual or as a community. That makes so much sense. 

My final question is: where would you like to see wellbeing science heading in the future?

Anna Alexandrova: My hope is that wellbeing science becomes much more methodologically diverse. 

It's so happened that these big figures in the sciences of wellbeing - the late great Ed Diener, Kahneman, Seligman, Layard and Sonja Lyubomirsky and many others have all been either psychologists or economists. That created quite a narrow model of what the science of wellbeing is. They wanted a bunch of metrics and they wanted a lot of really good statistics in order to determine, how much those metrics are helped or harmed by certain social features or income or factors.

So much so that in the UK now we've got economists quite seriously advising the government and the charities that you need to estimate the amount of wellbeing that you could buy through extra housing or buy through extra childcare programs. You need to adopt a policy that gets you wellbeing most efficiently, or something like that, right? There are lots and lots of both ethical and epistemic problems with that kind of conception of wellbeing and wellbeing science. 

I think what has been sidelined from the beginning were small scale, less ambitious, but just as impressive, qualitative approaches to understanding: how do people conceive of their own wellbeing? How do they create social technologies and environments that foster it? How do they repair them? How do they make them sustainable? How do they deploy whatever they've got? What kind of evidence can be used for that? Can this evidence be ethnographic? Do you sometimes have to talk to people in order to cross validate an existing quantitative metric of wellbeing? How do we combine methods so that it is a mixed methodology, for example?

I'm influenced in this desire to make the science of wellbeing more omnivorous and more diverse and more pluralistic by an ideal that a very important teacher and mentor of mine, Nancy Cartwright, is putting forward in her recent work called - the tangle. 

So the tangle of science is the idea that we never really confirm hypotheses on their own, we confirm la whole package, what you call the tangle. A tangle works if we remove opportunities for it going wrong. In order to do that, you need to be very omnivorous. You need to be very opportunistic and you need to use and produce a variety of evidence at once. So that's what I'd like to happen in the sciences of wellbeing.

Samara Greenwood: Oh, that's a fabulous answer. Thank you so much. 


Samara Greenwood: Thank you so much for being on the podcast, Anna. It's been just such a wonderful experience to hear all about your research.

Anna Alexandrova: I have loved talking to you. Thank you for the service that you do to our profession and our field Samara. 

Samara Greenwood: Thanks Anna.



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