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Conceptions of Progress


  • Conceptions of Progress: How is Progress Perceived?Mainstream Versus Alternative Conceptions of Progress

    Anat Itay

    Accepted: 11 August 2008 Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

    Abstract Progress is a powerful political concept, encompassing different and sometimescontradictory conceptions. This paper examines the results of a survey on progress con-

    ducted at the OECD World Forum entitled Measuring and Fostering the Progress of

    Societies held in Istanbul in June 2007. First, a distinction is drawn between the two

    approaches to progress (skeptical and optimistic) and four theories of progress (Liberal,

    Social Liberal, Green, and Conservative). Second, the survey results are examined in order

    to find the prevailing conception among the participants. Findings show that while the

    literature regards the Liberal, economically based theory of progress as sitting at the heart

    of the mainstream conception of progress, it is notable that, in fact, there emerged among

    the participants a different mainstream conception of progress: one that is optimistic in

    approach, yet both Social Liberal and Green in its theory.

    Keywords Progress OECD Green theory Growth

    A belief in progress implies that things will in some sense get better in the future,

    but it has never been limited to this simple idea of melioration. (Sidney Pollard, The

    Idea of Progress)

    1 Introduction

    The question explored in this paper is whether the economically based Liberal theory of

    progress is indeed at the heart of the mainstream conception of progress, as portrayed in the

    literature. This question is discussed through examining the results of a survey conducted

    by me at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) World

    Forum in Istanbul in June 2007, devoted to Measuring and Fostering the Progress of


    A. Itay (&)The Department of Political Science, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israele-mail:


    Soc Indic ResDOI 10.1007/s11205-008-9302-z

  • Progress serves as a strong political concept, frequently used by politicians and leaders to

    describe many different, and often contradicting, conceptions of improvement.1 It is

    important for political scientists to grasp and define these conceptions, in order to offer a

    better understanding of this popularly used but vague concept. Moreover, many societies are

    becoming engaged in trying to measure progress, and nowadays do so mainly along the lines

    of the Liberal theory, neglecting to fully explore alternative conceptions of progress.2 This

    creates a contemporary need for defining progress and exploring its different conceptions.

    In order to analyze the various conceptions of progress, I use the following distinctions:

    each conception of progress encompasses an approach and a theory. Generally speaking,

    there are two main approaches to progress, the optimistic and the skeptical, and each

    comprises two theories of progress: the optimistic approach comprises the Liberal theory

    and the Social Liberal theory, and the skeptical approach comprises the Green theory and

    the Conservative theory. Each approach, combined with one of the theories it encompasses,

    constructs a conception of progress. Among the theories of progress, the Liberal one,

    focused on economic growth, is the dominant theory nowadays, both in literature and in

    policymaking, and is considered to represent the mainstream conception.

    This paper analyzes a survey taken by 96 delegates (from 42 countries) of a total of

    1,200 registered participants in an international conference conducted by the OECD,

    devoted to discussing and measuring progress. After presenting the OECD case study, this

    paper offers a mapping of the approaches and theories of progress. Following this dis-

    cussion, the survey is analyzed in order to examine whether the participants perceptions of

    progress do indeed tie in with what is considered the mainstream conception of progress,

    i.e., the Liberal one focused on growth. As a result, this paper examines what the prevailing

    conception of progress is among this small sample; it may, of course, not represent the

    views of all the participants.

    Results, in a nutshell, show that these participants in the OECD World Forum, who are all

    engaged in re-thinking and defining progress as a political ideal, seem to be holding on to the

    optimistic approach of the mainstream conception of progress, but, at the same time, rejecting

    what is thought of as its main theory: the Liberal theory. In other words, they are adhering to

    alternative conceptions of progress. Furthermore, the results indicate a surprising synthesis of

    conceptions of progress: it seems that while participants are clearly optimistic in approach,

    when it comes to the theories of progress, they hold views of both the Social Liberal and the

    Green theories of progress, although these theories stem from two contradicting approaches.

    Thus, among the participants, a new mainstream conception of progress is identified.

    2 The OECD World Forum as a Case Study

    The challenge of defining progress has caught the interest of many different institutions

    around the world since the beginning of the 21st century. In 2000, the UN initiated its

    1 See, for example, the use of progress in speeches by Tony Blair:;;; By George Bush: and by Vladimir Putin: The one clear exception is Bhutan, which has declared its aim as growth of Gross Domestic Happinessrather than Gross Domestic Product as other countries do. On the dominance of the Liberal theory see, forexample: and the barometer of progress became the GDP (Mathews 2006, p. 3); Despite thesecautions, GDP maintains its prominent role as a catchall for our collective well being. (Cobb et al. 2007,p. 1); The prospect of a viable and progressive system alternative to capitalism seems to have disappeared(Mishra 1999, p. 1).

    A. Itay


  • Millennium Development Goals (MDG), defining what progress it hopes for the world to

    achieve by 2015.3 States around the world are trying to define their national goals with

    respect to well-being,4 and in 2004, the OECD launched its long-term project titled

    Measuring and Fostering the Progress of Societies,5 aiming at finding out what states

    measure as progress and how.6

    All these interesting projects are involved in defining and dealing with progress, but

    they each have a different focus. Since the OECD project is a global project, and the most

    ambitious and politically sound attempt to date to define the political ideal of progress, in

    what follows I shall focus on this project.

    Announcing the project, the OECD declared that:

    The OECD Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies in collabo-

    ration with other international and regional partners seeks to become the world

    wide reference point for those who wish to measure, or assess, the progress of their


    The project is being built around a series of World Forums and encompasses asso-

    ciated work within and outside of the OECD.7

    The OECD launched the project in 2004; it was initially aimed at exploring the connection

    between statistics and policy.8 After the first year, the focus shifted to what revealed itself

    to be a more prominent challenge: measuring progress and discussing its meaning. The

    OECD then organized several regional conferences to discuss how progress is measured,

    followed by a global conference, convened in Istanbul in June 2007, to discuss what

    progress is and how it is measured at a global level. As part of a global discussion of

    current conceptions of progress, a debate titled What is Progress?a discussion on what

    progress is and what it meant to the various participants of the Istanbul World Forum

    took place at the general assembly. Delegates to the conference were presented with key

    questions such as: What are the specific aspects that should be included when measuringprogress? What are the specific components that determine each of them? At what levelshould progress be measured? Should we measure the progress of individuals, nations, orthe globe for example? What is progress for the world? What emphasis should be given tothe means to desired ends? What is the time period one wishes to consider progress over?The main question discussed was: What are the key measures for global progress?(emphasis in original).9

    3 See The goals mainly refer to the developing world, and compriseeight goals including: eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; achievement of universal primary edu-cation, and so on.4 For example: The State of Victoria, Australia.,3407,en_21571361_31938349_1_1_1_1_1,00.html.6 The different terms (progress, development, well-being, quality of life, etc.) are often used inter-changeably, as synonyms, even though they describe different objectives. In this paper, I use these terms inthe following senses, unless otherwise stated: progress for the theoretical concept; development forprogress in the developing world, and well-being and quality of life for progress in the developedcountries.7 http://www.o


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