Peter Little (PI) (Anthropology, Emory University)

Workneh Negatu (Agricultural Economics, Addis Ababa University)

Mark Risjord (Philosophy, Emory University)

Why do remote, materially poor communities often seem more content with their lives than many better connected, economically prosperous populations? What is it about cultural expectations and values that might help explain why this apparent contradiction takes place? What can we learn about how individuals and communities pursue the ‘good life,’ maintain cultural identity, and remain optimistic about the future under very different cultural and material conditions than found in the United States (US)? This project attempts to answer these and other questions through a cross-cultural study of well-being in two low-income communities: South Wollo, Ethiopia and Baringo, Kenya. Each of these have been depicted as among the poorest in their countries but also undergoing rapid changes in modern development, including telecommunications and education. The study addresses important questions on well-being that are unexplored in previous work, including how absolute versus relative poverty affects subjective perceptions of well-being and what effects exposure to new forms of wealth, inequality, and materiality have on individual perceptions of well-being. It will allow for understandings of the extent to which goals, aspirations and imaginations of the good life are being altered by widespread change; the extent to which core cultural values are being held on to or relinquished with increased opportunities of lifestyle change; and what role age (youth) plays in designing new trajectories of well-being among Africa’s poor, where unlike the US and Europe, the large majority of the population is below 25 years of age. The project will test two hypotheses about well-being: (1) that differences between objective and subjective measures of well-being mainly relate to the degree to which perceived structures of opportunity are constrained and (2) that life cycle (age) factors and incremental life improvements explain much of the differences in subjective perceptions of well-being regardless of material conditions. Specific questions to be addressed include: how quantitative metrics of material welfare relate to self-assessments of well-being; how the perception of incremental improvements in social and material well-being transform (if at all) aspirations and goals of individuals; and how external exposure to new wealth and lifestyle differences affect aspirations and assessments of well-being? A philosophical framework informs the project and the questions that it asks and seeks answers. The study team includes an anthropologist, economist, and philosopher who are committed to robust interdisciplinary collaboration. They seek answers to larger moral and philosophical questions about well-being, aspirations and ethics, but with an analytic lens on the material conditions undergirding these values. They believe the proposed work has relevance for other world regions and countries, especially the United States, where relative poverty and high levels of material consumption and inequality are the norm and the relationship between material well-being and contentment with life or happiness is not always straight forward.