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May 2017 Member Highlight: Francesco Sarracino
ISQOLS Executive Committee: Co-Vice President of Academic Affairs
ISQOLS Board of Directors Member
Describe your background, experience, and research as it relates to Quality-of-life studies. What initially attracted you to the field of quality-of-life studies?
My friends say that I have always been a dreamer, and perhaps they are right. This is why I devoted my university studies to environmental economics: I wanted to make the world a better place to live. At the time the discipline focused mainly on the natural limits to growth and I looked at renewable energies as a possible solution. That is when I met Stefano Bartolini, from the University of Siena. He was my professor of micro-economics and for his exam he gave me a decisive book: Social Limits to Growth by Fred Hirsch, an economist who passed away too early.
In his book, Hirsch argued that economic growth, for economists a proxy of well-being, had social constraints that would hamper people’s well-being to a greater extent and earlier than environmental constraints. However, the book was theoretical in its essence, as Hirsch perhaps lacked the data and the computing capacity to analyze them. I felt the need to measure and to test empirically the social limits to growth. Hence, rather than pursuing a career as a journalist -- my original dream -- I enrolled in a Ph.D. on development economics at the University of Firenze.
It was the year 2006 and subjective well-being measures were still considered exotic in economics. But to me they were fascinating: I found a way to observe at individual level how people fare, without making any assumption about people’s utility function. Also, by aggregating the individuals’ well-being in a country, I could proxy how well people fared over time. In other words, I found an alternative tool to income or gross domestic product to assess people’s welfare. That is when I learned that economic growth does not correlate with increasing well-being, the essence of the Easterlin paradox. Then the crisis of 2007-08 came and it gave a great impulse to the studies on the relationship between income and well-being.
My first publications, in collaboration with Stefano Bartolini and Ennio Bilancini, attempted to answer two questions: is it true that economic growth does not increase people’s well-being over time? Is the promotion of social relationships a way to improve people’s well-being? The answers to these questions composed my Ph.D. dissertation, and the answers have been published in journals such as Social Indicators Research, Journal of Socio-Economics and, more recently, in Ecological Economics and World Development. However, the encouraging results raised further questions: what drives the changes in social capital and well-being? Do all countries follow the same pattern of declining social capital? Under which conditions economic growth can lead to better lives? To further my studies on well-being I first moved to Luxembourg, where I was awarded a post-Doc grant from the National Research Foundation (FNR), and then to Germany, in Cologne, where I received a DAAD grant. Those years have been decisive for my career: I had time to focus on analysis and dissemination; I attended various conferences including those organized by ISQOLS, by the Association for Socio-Economics and by HEIRS; and I had the possibility to meet many scholars from various disciplines who taught me a lot.
My impression is that the scholars working on quality of life are particularly generous, open-minded, supportive, and collaborative: this greatly contributes to making this field of research pleasant and welcoming, in particular towards younger scholars. I feel I grew up in a very fertile environment that was not a priori closed to heterodox ideas. In the meanwhile, the economic crisis was still affecting the lives of many, in particular in Europe, and some international institutions, such as the European Commission and the OECD, started taking the studies on quality of life more seriously. The publication of the results from the Sarkozy commission, led by Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi, gave a great impulse to this field of research and many national institutions started implementing research agendas on quality of life, including STATEC, the statistical office of Luxembourg. Under the impulse of its director, Serge Allegrezza, the institute adopted a research agenda on economics which included studies on quality of life and socio-economics: a great opportunity for a young researcher looking for a fertile environment to pursue his studies on economic growth and well-being. At the end of 2012 I became researcher at STATEC and since then I contributed to a growing research agenda on the causes and consequences of well-being.
My recent studies focus on the conditions making economic growth compatible with people’s well-being, on the economic consequences of well-being, on the role of social networking sites for well-being, and, in my spare time, I also like to delve into methodological issues, such as the role of duplicate observations in regression analysis, comparing survey modes, etc. My friend and co-author Josh Dubrow recently summarized our paper in a video clip of two minutes and a half. In the paper Malgorzata Mikucka, Josh and I argue that economic growth can improve subjective well-being when income inequality declines and trust in others grow. If you are curious, you can find the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubbjr3J-Hls.
I believe that I have been very lucky in my career. I feel I have been at the right time, in the right place, and with the right people. I am really grateful and honored for the persons I met and who generously gave me so much. I believe that the best I can do to honor what I received is to pass what I can to younger scholars with the hope that together we will make the world a better place to live.
What are some areas of quality-of-life studies you feel are lacking attention? Any advice for future QoL researchers?
Virtually any area of quality-of-life I can think of is currently covered by at least a discipline. The major obstacle I see is that, despite the huge steps forward, disciplines still do not talk to each other. Too frequently I referee economic papers that re-discover what other disciplines have already ascertained long time ago. I am sure this happens also in other fields. International conferences and interdisciplinary journals are precious resources to overcome the provincialism of our disciplines.
If I were a “future QoL researcher” I would try to stay in contact with these interdisciplinary environments as much as possible. These are very nice and friendly environments where you can learn a lot, and it is a pleasure to be in the number of QoL scholars! Additionally, I would try to co-author with scholars from different disciplines, because diversity is a resource. Perhaps it will be more difficult to publish in the short run, but not necessarily because of low quality of the paper. Publishing highly innovative research is difficult and time consuming. Think of the fathers and mothers of the happiness literature who published in the 70s. How difficult ha that been? Well, I am extremely thankful to them for not giving up their ideas for a fast-paced publication. I also believe that from diversity we can get the most insightful breakthrough for the progress of social sciences. My last piece of advice is: have fun! Choose wisely what to work on: if you don’t like it, hardly anyone else will. It is your time you are putting into this work: make it worth it. Otherwise, as Henri Cartier-Bresson once said: “there are more enjoyable things to deal with” in life.
How long have you been a member of ISQOLS? Why did you choose to be a member of ISQOLS? How has your involvement in ISQOLS impacted your career/research/advancement in your knowledge of QoL studies?
Frankly, I don’t remember for how long I have been a member. I think my first conference was in Firenze in 2008, but I just attended it, I doubt I was registered. However, since 2010 I have regularly attended the ISQOLS conferences, except the one in Berlin in 2014 because I got married during the same week! I like attending ISQOLS events and to be in touch with scholars from ISQOLS because it is an extremely enriching experience. It gives me the opportunity to look at things from different perspectives, I learn about new tools, and people are nice, open-minded, and frequently deal with very important social issues. As an economist, I regularly check top economic journals, but if I want to read something really interesting I turn to quality of life studies.
I feel that ISQOLS has played a considerable role for the advancement of my career, both directly and indirectly. Directly, because ISQOLS offers an ideal environment to grow up, to share ideas and to receive comments, and to meet new people and tendencies. Indirectly, because the activities of ISQOLS and of its members helped to make quality of life studies relevant.
Francesco Sarracino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org