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February 2016 Member Highlight: Valerie Møller
Describe your academic background, experience, and research as it relates to Quality-of-life studies:
I’m a sociologist by training and was once told that being marginal in society, an outsider, is an asset for a sociologist. So my mixed social background might have advanced my career: I’m a Swiss citizen, born to a Swiss father and a British mother. As a child, I went to the United States with my family and got my primary school education there. My grammar school and university education I received when the family returned to Zürich. I married a Dane when we were both still university students, which accounts for the Danish surname with the stroke through the ‘o’. By now, my husband and I have spent most of our lives living and working in Africa.
‘Best’ life experiences are often ‘firsts’ according to our current quality-of-life research. So I’ll reply to the questions in terms of ‘firsts’:
1st First: I was among the first intake of sociology students at the University of Zürich, Switzerland, in the 1960s. It was an exciting time and there was never a dull moment. We were introduced to each new book purchased to stock the departmental library. Our professor enticed each international social scientist, who changed planes in Zürich airport, to give us a seminar to whet our appetite for research. We students produced a bulletin printed on airmail paper that we exchanged with our professor’s South American research institute. We were taught that theory and research were intertwined, so we were involved in research from day one. Our research was always for real: The first student project assigned to two of us was to poll members of the Swiss radio orchestra to settle a dispute between the strings and the winds on whether the orchestra should relocate of stay in Zürich. We were also bit players in the 1968 student protests raging in France at the time. One of our Sociology colleagues acted as leader of the student protest by day; by night he joined the rest of us to conduct what was likely the most ambitious content analysis of the media reports on the protests.
I’d thought of applying to work in the peace research centre in Norway after graduating. However, I was dissuaded by my professor, who thought Oslo might be even more provincial than Zürich. So I ended up in the backwaters of Africa instead.
2nd First – Off to Africa: In 1972, my architect husband and I packed our bags, converted a Volkswagen kombi into a makeshift camper called the ‘white elephant’, and set off for Senegal where we’d planned to jointly conduct an urban study in Dakar. Fate had it that we never made it through the Sahara; the suspension on our VW was not up to the corrugated desert tracks. So we returned to Lisbon and shipped ourselves and our kombi to Angola instead. All our worldly possessions and the Volkswagen were hoisted in what looked like an outsized string shopping bag onto the deck of a Portuguese boat heading for Luanda. From there, we travelled in our VW along the southern coast of Africa for a year and got jobs in what is now Zimbabwe when the money ran out. Since that time, I’ve been employed in three different social research positions in southern African universities, starting as a researcher and advancing to become a full professor and director of a social research institute.
What initially attracted you to the field of quality-of-life studies?
3rd and 4th Firsts – A South African quality-of-life study: I have the director of the social research institute, where I was employed in the late 1970s, to thank for introducing me to quality-of-life studies. One Friday he burst into my office waving two books. He thought we should try our hand at measuring quality of life in South Africa. It was to be expected that there was much discontent in society under apartheid rule. He handed me the 1976 classics by Andrews and Withey (Social Indicators of Well-Being) and by Campbell, Converse, and Rogers (The Quality of American Life) and asked me to look at them and report back. That weekend, I read both books cover to cover and have been hooked on quality-of-life studies ever since. We’ve now tracked South African quality of life over more than three decades from the apartheid era through to the transition to democracy. Our first report on South African quality of life in Indicator South Africa was aptly titled: ‘Can’t Get No Satisfaction’. Editor Alex Michalos then agreed to publish our scholarly, footnoted papers in Social Indicators Research.
The Apartheid research years were never dull: We expected our office phones were tapped, a government informer once infiltrated our research team, and later in the mid-1980s, our offices were fire-bombed.
How long have you been a member of ISQOLS?
5th First: I first became a member of ISQOLS when I attended the first ISQOLS conference held in 1996 at Alex Michalos’s university in Prince George, Canada. There I was able to report that, for the first time, all South Africans, black and white, were happy and satisfied with life following the country’s first non-racial democratic elections of 1994. Unfortunately, post-election euphoria was not to last.
I’ve lost count of the many ISQOLS conferences I’ve participated in since the Prince George meeting. It must be ten in all, including the 1996 Prince George one. I’ve also participated in some five International Sociological Association Research Committee 55 Social Indicators meetings. Membership in the two organizations overlaps.
6th First – also a First for ISQOLS: In 2006, Denis Huschka, former ISQOLS Director, and I hosted the first ISQOLS conference to be held in Africa at my university. Denis and I were delighted to welcome ISQOLS colleagues from 37 different countries around the world.
Why have you become a lifetime member of ISQOLS?
Like so many other ISQOLS members, I have always felt most welcome at our meetings. My own experience is that ISQOLS members are a friendly and happy lot, who support each other, and are fun to work with. Over time, so many of my ISQOLS colleagues have become my research partners and friends. We enjoy each other’s company, work well together, and benefit from working as a team.
In 2006, we asked ISQOLS delegates what attracted them to our conferences. They said ISQOLS conferences provide rich opportunities to interact with colleagues from a very wide range of disciplines and to learn from their work. Newcomers and student members have told us that they feel comfortable when meeting prominent scholars on an equal footing. At the 2012 Venice meeting, held during the high water season, a student quipped that he’d never seen so many professors in gum boots!
Last word: Any advice for future Quality-of-life researchers?
7th First: I’m not good at giving advice, so this is another first. My most interesting research projects have also been the most exciting, worthwhile, and fun ones. So my advice is to make sure you really enjoy your research and are passionate about your work. That way you’ll likely also give your best . Ours is an important research field; it is not fortuitous that one of the most prestigious ISQOLS awards is for research programmes that contribute to the betterment of humankind.