November 2017 Member Highlight: Ronald Anderson
Member Spotlight: Ronald Anderson
ISQOLS Board of Directors Member
Describe your background, experience, and research as it relates to Quality-of-life studies.
During my primary grades, I lived in Ethiopia and acquired permanent mental images of poverty and suffering. My Father ran a hospital, so I saw diseases like leprosy and children of all ages in pain. We traveled a lot and the globe felt like my home.
After getting my PhD in sociology at Stanford University in 1970, I specialized in computer modelling and evaluation of the effects of computer systems on the quality of life, especially educational life. In 1984, Robert Leik and I developed a learning game called “The Social Indicators Game,” which was published by Random House for teaching sociology. The game required that the player fine tune the amounts spent on various types of social goods in order maintain well-being in a space station community.
By the late 1980s I had become part of the leadership of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), which is the principal professional association of computer professionals. In that capacity, I organized the first conference on “Computers and the Quality of Life” in 1990. Topics ranged from database tools for professionals to citizen privacy. (The event took place 15 years before smartphones and five years before the founding of ISQOLS.) In related roles, I led the ACM Task Force that wrote the current ACM Code of Ethics, and I became Co-Editor of Social Science Computer Review, a Sage Academic Journal, and served from 1987 until now.
Later, I directed a survey research center at the University of Minnesota, asking questions about community satisfaction and use of public services. This prepared me for directing a series of large international surveys of how teachers adapted to new information technology in their teaching of primary and secondary students. After spending 15 years working on understanding the forces underlying the quality of educational life, I had traveled to 80 countries, and learned a lot about cultural differences.
In 2005, I chose to retire early and expand my focus beyond education. My first project was to develop an Index of Good Societies. That led me to explore the concept of human suffering and to try to come up with better ways of measuring it in both developing and developed nations.
In 2012, I contracted with Springer for a book titled Human Suffering and Quality of Life: Conceptualizing Stories and Statistics (2014), which introduced a suffering paradigm. In writing the book I discovered that the community of quality of life researchers had largely ignored negative dimensions of quality of life. I found only one article on ill-being but thousands of articles on well-being; only a few books and articles on unhappiness but thousands of articles on happiness. Correcting that became a personal challenge.
My next project with Springer consisted of a contributed book titled World Suffering and Quality of Life (2015). I contacted about 100 authors of books or articles on human suffering and invited them to submit a chapter proposal. This book of 439 pages and 40 authors had 7,700 chapter downloads in the first 12 months. Amitai Etzioni described the book as follows: “This is a truly original book. Different essays from a variety of first rate scholars come together to provide a new ethical and social science vantage point for understanding of the world around us—and ours.”
After resting a few months, I proposed a companion book to Springer and they accepted my proposal. The name of this volume is Alleviating World Suffering—The Challenge of Negative Quality of Life (2017). It focuses on policies and practices that reduce suffering.
Now I am working on two more books, one on the relationship between happiness and suffering and the other on a global framework for improving our chances of reducing suffering but avoiding extinction
What initially attracted you to the field of quality-of-life studies?
Growing up in Ethiopia and spending 15 years conducting international surveys of comparative educational progress left me with a global perspective and a commitment to universal quality of life. After retirement from teaching, my time has been devoted to research and writing about suffering and its alleviation. My last three books addressed these topics and I continue to apply a quality of life perspective in advancing our understanding of suffering and its relief.
What are some areas of quality-of-life (QOL) studies you feel are lacking attention? Any advice for future QOL researchers?
As a sociologist, I sometimes feel outnumbered in ISQOLS, where the majority of members are either economists or psychologists. That is not a problem except that I believe the field would benefit by investigating research problems using more sociological concepts such as role conflict, reference group, social cohesion, status inconsistency and so on.
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?
I joined ISQOLS in 2007 because I was working on an index of Compassionate Societies and wanted to present it at the 2008 ISQOLS conference in Florence, Italy. The content of the conference seemed more compatible than most, and I was familiar with the work of many of the presenters. Over my career I had belonged to at least 12 professional associations, but I liked ISQOLS because of its scope and the quality of the work being done by the conference presenters. After 2008, I went to every subsequent ISQOLS conference. My idea that the field needed more development of the negative dimensions of quality of life was well received, so I felt “at home” with the lead researchers active in ISQOLS. Their acceptance of my work was gratifying and spurred me on. It made it possible to get book contracts from Springer and to find authors to write chapters in my edited books.
In 2017, I was honored by ISQOLS by the formation of the “Ronald E. Anderson Endowed Track on the Alleviation of Human Suffering,” which will guarantee that at least two sessions on the alleviation of human suffering will be organized at each ISQOLS conference in perpetuity.
Feel free to include any other important comments or things you'd like to share with the ISQOLS community.
Listening to ISQOLS conference presentations or reading ISQOLS journals, I sometime wish that members would tackle bigger problems, such as: What if we measured and analyzed unhappiness rather than happiness? What if we did as many studies of ill-being as well-being? How can we drastically reduce self-centeredness? Racism? Why not build models of the world that would make it possible to deliver enough humanitarian aid more efficiently?
In my most recent, unpublished work, I am asking the question: Given what we know about what makes people around the world suffer (e.g., poverty, inequality, ethnocentrism), how do these conditions of suffering intersect, how can we prioritize policy actions such that we can accomplish global goals (as specified by the UN) more rapidly and completely? I conclude that: “The framework proposed reveals the intimate, powerful link between suffering and associated human rights. Suffering that violates a specific human right legitimizes that human right and the declaration of the human right makes the suffering more serious. Suffering thus becomes the missing link between human rights and global goals.”