December 2015 Member highlight: Claire Wallace
December 2015 Member highlight: Claire Wallace
Professor of Sociology
University of Aberdeen
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? What are some areas of quality-of-life studies you feel are lacking attention? Any advice for future QoL researchers?
My first interest in quality of life came from trying to understand it’s opposite: social and system
collapse. At that time I was doing research on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union where
the breakdown of communism had meant that quality of life had plummeted for most people.
There was a slump in life expectancy which meant that average age of death fell by ten years during
the transition period in some countries. It was as though there had been a major war. In addition
there was a rise in morbidity – people dying of every sort of thing, but cardio-vascular disease was
prominent. This led us to see that undermining the quality of life could really kill people.
The usual explanation for this decline in health was the high rate of drinking and smoking.
However, some of our interviews suggested that smoking and drinking was actually a way of coping
with acute social stress. Drawing on this insight, our more quantitative analysis showed that social
and mental stress was a key driver of poor health. Whilst the collapse of employment and
withdrawal of the welfare state plunged people into poverty, we searched for a way to understand
the social stress that accompanied it. Societal quality of life provided a framework for
understanding how the withdrawal of economic security as well as the disintegration of the social
system undermined quality of life. People no longer understood the “rules of the game” or felt
included in society. The felt acutely disempowered. We came to the conclusion that economic
security, social cohesion, social inclusion and social empowerment were the building blocks of
quality of life in European societies both East and West and so our model of societal quality evolved.
This was further reinforced by the work of Pamela Abbott, who looked at the same issues in Rwanda
- a society trying to reconstruct itself after a terrible genocide in the early 1990s.
I was later involved in analysis of quality of life in the European Union through the European
Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions which carries out a bi-annual
survey of quality of life in EU and Accession countries (those that are on the way to joining).
http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/ef-themes/quality-of-life. I have been involved in authoring a
number of these reports over the years, which have fed into EU policy making. Whilst the absence
of societal quality led to social and individual stress in the former Soviet Union, the presence of
these things helped to improve general satisfaction and quality of life everywhere. Some countries
had these characteristics in abundance (mainly the Nordic countries) and some less so, but all of the
countries of Europe, including the former communist ones were developing higher quality of life by
Then came the economic crisis. Whilst this has had a negative impact on some countries, such as
Greece and Portugal, the general trend is for the quality of life to keep improving across EU member
states. These insights have been captured in our most recent book “The Decent Society” to be
published in 2016 (http://www.amazon.in/The-Decent-Society-Routledge-
In the last years, I have been investigating the quality of life in rural villages in Scotland using
qualitative methods and I am currently focusing on the regeneration in the deprived areas of
Aberdeen drawing on these ideas.
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?
ISQOLS has played an important role in this intellectual journey. The first ISQOLS conference I went to
was held in a lovely old renaissance building in Florence in 2008. I was delighted to find a
gathering of people from all disciplines and to meet some of the great names in quality of life
research. Of course I had heard of the journal “Social Indicators” and had also published in it, but
here was a chance to meet many of the contributors. This helped to reinforce an interest in quality
of life studies that is generally missing in my own discipline of Sociology.
Perhaps due to this lack of engagement by sociologists and anthropologists it seems to me that an
appreciation of the social context of quality of life is still underemphasised in ISQOLS, which tends to
be dominated by economic and psychological approaches, even if these approaches have produced
so much good research. Also missing, perhaps for the same reason, is a more qualitative
understanding of quality of life. How do people see their quality of life and how does it differ
according to cultural contexts? Does life satisfaction mean the same everywhere or is it a “western”
construct? There are now some studies starting to emerge and I hope that the many young and not
so young scholars that I met in Phoenix at the last ISQOLS conference in 2015 will help to take up
For more information see my website http://www.abdn.ac.uk/socsci/research/new-europe-centre/