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Applied Research Quality Life

DOI 10.1007/s11482-012-9166-x

Measuring Social Sustainability:


A Community-Centred Approach
Liam Magee & Andy Scerri & Paul James

Received: 28 August 2011 / Accepted: 19 January 2012


# Springer Science+Business Media B.V./
The International Society for Quality-of-Life Studies (ISQOLS) 2012

Abstract Efforts to measure social and community sustainability confront a


series of methodological dilemmas. We present four key distinctions that tend
to orient such efforts: between objective and subjective assessment; between
communities as the sum-of-their-parts, or as holistic and distinct entities in
themselves; between present and future aspects to be measured; and between
use of topdown and bottomup indicators. We then propose a questionnaire for sustainability assessment in light of these. We administered the
questionnaire to various communities in the Middle East, South and South East
Asia between 2006 and 2010, and present descriptive summaries and a factor
analysis of the results here. The results serve two aims: to augment existing
qualitative research conducted in the respective areas, and to test the validity
and reliability of the instrument itself. Several limitations of the questionnaire
emerged during analysis, which we discuss. The results also show strong
correlation with national Human Development Index figures for the communities surveyed and moreover, point to several interesting attitudinal divergences
between the communities sampled. We conclude with an outline of a revised
sustainability assessment instrument that has application for research looking to
bridge the gap between psychological orientations towards wellbeing, on the
one hand, and sociological or organizational studies on sustainability, on the other
hand.
Keywords Community . Wellbeing . Quality of life . Sustainability . Indicators

L. Magee : A. Scerri : P. James


School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia
L. Magee (*)
RMIT University, 96.2.7c, 17 Lygon Street, Carlton VIC 3053, Australia
e-mail: liam.magee@rmit.edu.au

L. Magee et al.

Introduction
Understanding the uneven resilience of communities has been a preoccupation of the
social sciences since the nineteenth century. Classical social theory and sociology was
preoccupied with themes and questions about the cohesion, stability and integration
of communities. While terminology has changed, debates in this area are still to be
resolved. Despite, or perhaps because of this lack of resolution, enquiry over the past
two decades has shifted sideways to potentially more fruitful lines of inquiry. The
task of understanding society, and more locally, community, has increasingly
intersected with a new set of preoccupationssustainability, wellbeing and quality of
life. The underlying task of enquiry thus has moved, at least rhetorically, from
questions of social structure, regulation and function, to more agency-focussed
questions dealing with issues such as sense of sustainability, community, wellbeing,
quality of life, security from risk or inclusion and participation.
We identify four common dilemmas in the measurement of community sustainability. The first of these relates to what is measured by indicatorswhether they
measure objective conditions of a community, or to those conditions as subjectively
experienced by its members (Diener 2006; McCrea et al. 2006). A second and
associated dilemma concerns the ontological status of community itself. Is community
as an entity reducible to the sum of its parts, or rather is it constituted as an integrated
object beyond its parts (Sirgy 2010). A third dilemma concerns the temporal orientation of assessment. We suggest that an important distinction between wellbeing and
quality of life, on the one hand, and sustainability studies, on the other, fundamentally
concerns this temporal dimensionwhile notions of quality of life and wellbeing
tend to assess past and present states of communities and individuals, sustainability
can be broadly conceived as oriented towards future states. The fourth dilemma,
epitomized in the distinction between so-called global, or topdown, and local, or
bottomup assessment approaches, concerns whether to apply universal indicators
setswhich lead to comparability but tend to ignore local, community-based meanings of sustainabilityor whether to devise context-specific indicators, selected by
and relevant to the communities themselves, but requiring interpretation and translation in order to compare communities meaningfully (Agger 2010; Fraser et al. 2006).
It is in this context that we developed a questionnaire instrument that provides an
integrated assessment of community sustainability. The particular instrument we
introduce is oriented towards these dilemmas in the following ways. It aims to
measure the subjective attitudes of a community towards sustainability. It is geared
towards understanding these attitudes both individually and as they relate towards the
community as a whole, thereby treating community as a distinct and irreducible
entity. It focuses upon both present wellbeing and future sustainability of the community. Finally, it adopts a topdown approach, where variables are predefined.
Hence, in this conception of sustainability, the kinds of theoretical distinctions
introduced abovebetween global and local, objective and subjective, holistic and
individualistic, and present and future framesare both important to distinguish
but invariably intertwined. Analytically, this suggests that contemporary communities
need to be understood as upon reflection they would understand themselvesas
enmeshed in global systems while striving for local autonomy; as entities that can be
objectively studied but also with validly subjective interpretations of their conditions;

Measuring Community Sustainability: A Community-Centric Approach

as coherent but necessarily fragmentary collections; and with a present sense of


wellbeing heavily conditioned by concerns about sustainability.
Although our variables are predefined in the questionnaire, we acknowledge the
need in other work for complementary grounded or engaged theoretic approaches
(James et al. 2011a, b), to elicit community-based definitions and indexes of wellbeing. Similarly, while here we pursue a strategy of eliciting individual responses
through a sampling questionnaire, we also acknowledge that a rounded picture of
community sustainability requires considerable further elaboration, for example
through more specific economic, ecological, political and cultural sustainability
indexes. We endeavour to reflect some macro-level features by extending our set of
variables to measure participant attitudes not only towards their own personal, or
subjective, wellbeing, but also towards the broader, intersubjective wellbeing of their
community. The strength of this assessment tool lies, though, in the other two vectors
of the dilemmas posed above. It does so, first, in assessing sustainability as experienced by the community itself; and, second, in combining existing wellbeing indicators with a series of supplementary variables aimed at eliciting responses to future
community sustainability challenges. While the questionnaire does not measure
sustainability definitively, by measuring a cross-section of community attitudes it
can contribute towards better sustainability assessment, augmenting both qualitative
studies and objective indices such as the Human Development Index (HDI).
We applied the tool in a series of pilot studies with various Global North and
Global South communities, each with distinct characteristics. Here the distinction
between North and South is treated as socio-economic distinction based on a geographical tendency for poorer countries to be located in the southern hemisphere. The
studies were part of an ongoing theoretical and empirical engagement with at-risk
communities that also included qualitative ethnographic studies. In particular, assessing the sustainability of communities in Global South regions requires sensitivity to
how these features are constructed and measured. Not only are many of these
communities spatially, politically and economically isolated, they are increasingly
at risk from environmental, economic and cultural hazards brought about, at least in
part, by ever-expanding global industrialization, and commensurate patterns of consumption and production. Growing awareness of these risks within communities
themselves means that objective conditions are increasingly reflectedthough not
necessarily directly mirroredby subjective experiences. Moreover, the present
assessment of quality of life in these communities is heavily tempered by anxieties
about how sustainable their ways of life can continue to be. Increasingly communities
are agitating for assessment tools that enable them to manage inevitable transitions
brought about by processes of globalization and climate change, and preserve what
they can of their traditions.
The research presented in this article thus had several distinct aims. Firstly, we
were interested in examining whether a generalizable questionnaire could accurately
measure subjective attitudes of members across diverse sites and communities, and
supplement information available from other sources. For this purpose we used two
forms of control: ethnographic research conducted at the communities, and general
HDI statistics for the countries in which the communities reside. Secondly, we
investigated whether salient differences existed between communities in low and
high-income countries towards different sustainability dimensions. In the context of

L. Magee et al.

the communities surveyed here, these differences further point to what may, given
further study, prove to be important distinctions between communities in the North
versus the South. Finally, the questionnaire is based upon an alternative theoretical
conception of sustainability to the common triple bottom line paradigm, as we
discuss further below. We therefore used the questionnaire as a form of extended
pilot, during which this conception was further developed, and in turn led to a
reformulation of the questionnaire itself, which we present below.
We begin in the next section by surveying briefly current trends in wellbeing and
sustainability indicator development. We then introduce our own sustainability questionnaire with an overview of its theoretical basis, and discuss pilot studies using the
questionnaire, conducted with a range of communities in the Middle East, South and
Southeast Asia. We include a range of communities in the Global South, and also
include several communities from Israel and Australia, for comparative purposes.
These communities were surveyed between 2006 and 2010, in conjunction with
qualitative studies. We then discuss our results, along with several limitations that
emerged during these pilots. We conclude with an outline of a new version of the
questionnaire, that includes some possible remedies, along with final observations.

Measuring Sustainability, Wellbeing and Quality of Life


The literature on sustainability, wellbeing and quality-of-life indicators has flourished
over the past two decades. So has the number of projects attempting to quantify and
qualify these concepts. In relation to wellbeing and quality-of-life, considerable
eclecticism exists among proposed indicator systems, with variation introduced by
scope (global, national or community-based), domain (life versus domain satisfaction
(Diener 2006)), demographic, geographic and cultural factors (Martin et al. 2010),
orientation (objective versus subjective (McCrea et al. 2006)), theoretical conceptions
of wellbeing (McMahan and Estes 2011) and statistical interpretations (Rojas 2011).
A further key distinction evident in early debates in the literature contrasts liveability
with comparison theories of quality of life. While liveability theory held that persons
judgements about quality of life referred to absolute standards or universalizable
norms, comparison theory held that people make judgements about quality of life
based upon comparison with some past experience, or with their own perceptions of
the experiences of others (Veenhoven and Ehrhardt 1995). In recent years, researchers
have attempted to combine the two theories by proposing the view that persons
judgements about quality of life implicate both absolute standards and recent changes
in quality of life (Hagerty 1999).
Quality-of-life and sustainability literatures have historically been somewhat divergent, with efforts to measure sustainability showing a similarly rich and complex
tradition. The broadening out of conceptions of sustainability in the 1990s, most
notably after the UNCED conference in 1992 (United Nations 1992a, b), led to
various compositional definitionsincluding, most famously, the triple-bottom-line
approach encompassing environmental, economic and social dimensions (Elkington
1997). Reflecting this diversity, in 2003, estimates of the number of sustainability
indices alone already exceeded five-hundred sets (Parris and Kates 2003). As those
authors and others have suggested, the proliferation of indicator sets stems from the

Measuring Community Sustainability: A Community-Centric Approach

many divergent views and corresponding definitions of sustainability (Bohringer and


Jochem 2007; McCool and Stankey 2004; Munda 2005; Parris and Kates 2003).
Among the operant distinctions are those between strong and weak definitions of
sustainability (Atkinson 2000); between topdown (expert-driven) and bottomup
(community-driven) indicator development (Fraser et al. 2006); and between economic,
ecological and holistic or indexical approaches towards measurement (Bramley and
Power 2009; Singh et al. 2009).
Similarly, a host of different methods have been employed for measuring sustainable development, adopting a range of biophysical, econometric and human development models (Gasparatos et al. 2008; Parris and Kates 2003; Wilson et al. 2007).
Finally, sustainability indicators have also integrated into a variety of broader frameworks oriented towards stakeholder engagement, policy and planning practices,
including multi-criteria analysis (Balana et al. 2010; Munda 2005), integrated
assessment (Hettelingh et al. 2009; Krajnc and Glavic 2005; Lee 2006), transition
management (Schilperoord et al. 2008), and various forms of strategic environment
assessments (Pope et al. 2004).
Recently, there has been some convergence between these large bodies of literature, as substantial research points to the often intimate connections between individuals perceptions of their own absolute and relative quality of life, and the
sustainability of the cultural, communitarian and organizational contexts in which
they find themselves (Holden 2007; Kilbourne 2006; Assche et al. 2010; Kruger
2010; Matarrita-Cascante 2010).
Community settings often make ideal units of analysis through which to study the
overlay between individual wellbeing and social sustainability in particular, and have
increasingly been studied in both respects (Agger 2010). Communities themselves
have been widely studied, both as psychological collectives, and as strongly cohesive
sociological entities. We draw here upon canonical representations of both conceptions in our understanding and subsequent measurement of community sustainability.
In describing the psychological sense of community, McMillan and Chavis (1986)
identify four components: membership, influence, integration and fulfilment of needs,
and shared emotional connection. In a similar vein, but abstracted into more generalized sociological terms, Putnams reintroduction of social capital as a distinctive
and distinguishing feature of social networks, and particularly of bonding capital in
relation to homogenous social groups, offers a guiding if problematic notion for what
it is that comprises communities, and what, consequently, needs sustaining for their
continued survival.
Against this background of theoretical distinctions in the sustainability and wellbeing measurement literature we present results of a survey, the Social Sustainability
Survey, alongside a series of indicators aimed at conveying a picture of the subjective
attitudes of community members in relation to their expressed ideals of sustainability. In endeavouring to encompass multiple dimensions of sustainability, the indicator set is similar to other holistic assessment strategies. However, our approach differs
in a number of respects. Firstly, we contrast the orientation of our model with triplebottom-line approaches, both by revising the underlying structural basis of understanding sustainability, and by focussing on this understanding from the experiential
standpoint of community participants. In this respect the survey shares common
features with the psychometric perspectives of the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index

L. Magee et al.

(Cummins et al. 2003), World Values Survey (Inglehart and Basanez 2000) and
World Database of Happiness (Veenhoven 2009), and indeed certain constructs of
the Wellbeing Index and World Values Survey are incorporated into our indicator set.
Secondly, we distinguish our approach from purely psychometric studies in focussing
on the community as a level of analysis. Hence, although individuals responses
concerning their own wellbeing are relevant, we also measure attitudinal assessment
of the communities they belong to, reflecting Sirgys observation (2010) that community is both equal to and more than the sum of its parts. Finally, we differentiate
our approach by looking to measure the intersubjective and future character of a
communityhow members of that community not only feel about themselves in the
present, but also about their broader social and natural environment, and about the
future prospects of that environment.

Methodology
The Social Sustainability Survey was first developed and administered to a number of
rural and urban communities in Victoria, Australia in 2006. Over the next 4 years it
was further administered to a number of diverse communities in the Southeast Asian,
South Asian and Middle Eastern regions. When administered in urban and regional
community settings in India and Sri Lanka, the questionnaires were used as
auxiliaries to interviews and consultations with coastal rural communities affected
by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Use of the questionnaire with the City of
Melbourne cohort was through a combination of randomized street and online
polling. In all other cases, questionnaires were administered as part of community
consultation, and participants were selected through a combination of purposive and
snowball sampling in those areas. In those cases, the questionnaire accompanied a
more extensive qualitative engagement in the communities sampled, through a series
of ethnographic, interview-based and observational inquiries into community wellbeing and sustainability (see, for example, Mulligan and Shaw 2007; Scerri et al.
2009). Hence the initial aim of the questionnaire was to supplement existing qualitative research, to identify areas of community concern, rather than to offer a basis for
comparative assessment. Consistent with this aim, a number of supplementary questions were included in different community settings, regional, localized, projectbased and time-based differences. For example, questionnaires administered in Sri
Lanka and India after the tsunami included a module of additional questions on
disaster recovery (Mulligan and Shaw 2007). A core set of variables was measured
consistently throughout, with the notable exception of the City of Melbourne questionnaire administered in 2009. These are discussed further below.
The questionnaire is developed on a theoretical model, the Circles of Sustainability,
elaborated in earlier work (Scerri and James 2010a, b). This model departs from
conceptions such as the triple bottom line by treating sustainability under a broadly
social constructionist and critical pragmatic paradigm. In this model, sustainability
indicators measure the extent to which a communitys goals, desires and ambitions
are being met. Accordingly, in contrast to triple bottom line, we treat the social as an
overall category that is integral to the very definition of sustainability. We then
differentiate four rather than three conceptual domainseconomy, ecology, politics,

Measuring Community Sustainability: A Community-Centric Approach

and cultureagainst which the sustainability of different forms of social practice and
meaning can be assessed. Notably, in distinction to the triple bottom line, politics and
culture are distinguished as two separate domains of social life that, governed by their
own integral logics, warrant equal consideration and assessment as existing in a
relationship with the forms of social life that appear to take place when regarded in
terms of the economic and/or ecological domains. Aside from representing a more
evenly weighted conceptualization, this approach also mitigates against a key line of
critique of the triple bottom line approachthe invariable encroachment of economic
relations, especially market relations, upon environmental and social concerns.
Instead, respondents perceptions of what counts as indicators of sustainable social
relations, that is, economic, ecological, cultural and political relations, are treated as
prerequisites for sustainability.
The variables we introduce in the questionnaire aim to measure such perceptions
of community sustainability in each of these four domainsboth in absolute and
relative, atomistic and holistic, present and future and topdown and bottomup
terms. As the theoretical model itself was being developed during the pilot of the
questionnaire, we have constructed retrospective proxy subscales to measure sustainability against these domains. One side-effect of this iterative process has been some
early obfuscation between economic and ecological variables, and we opted to
collapse these into a single subscale in our principal component analysis below. We
also constructed a HDI Proxy subscale modelled on the Human Development Index
(Human Development Report 2010), to examine how our results could be interpreted
against a standardized index, and to test construct validity against the UNDP published HDI figures. Similarly, in line with our views that community sustainability
can be treated as an extension of community wellbeing, we adopted a number of
variables from the Wellbeing Index (Cummins et al. 2003). Other variables, as part of
the core set, were chosen to reflect broader intersubjective and future-oriented
community attitudes. The remaining common survey questions capture administrative and demographic variables. The complete set of questions and the manifest
variables they are measure are listed in Table 2 below.
A further interest was in how well our results at a community level, and measuring
subjective attitudinal responses, could be compared with nation-level objective indices such as the Human Development Index (Human Development Report 2010).
Though previous research suggests subjective and objective indicators do not always
correlate strongly even under controlled circumstances (McCrea et al. 2006), a
positive correlation for the self-assessment subscale of the questionnaire across
different communities is at least suggestive of construct validity. Similarly, we also
discussed results with researchers engaged in qualitative research with the surveyed
communities, to establish anecdotally whether results are consistent with their
findings.
Given that the administration of the questionnaire typically took place in the
context of a range of very different community engagements, where often the very
notion of community was difficult to define, there are notable inconsistencies in the
size and sampling strategies of the samples collected. We also note in our analysis that
this is the first time a comparative study of the samples has been conducted. In
addition to several difficulties harmonizing variant data sets, we became aware of
several problems of construct validity and reliability, which we aim to address in

L. Magee et al.

future iterations of the questionnaire. Nonetheless, the exploratory analysis which


follows demonstrates how further iterations might complement a sustainability assessors existing toolkit. The analysis also makes a contribution in its own right into
understanding key factors and relationships of the sampled communities.
The particular countries, sites, communities, years and sample sizes of surveys
conducted are listed in Table 1.
Data Preparation and Analysis
The data was collected, recorded and coded into separate SPSS files after each
administration of the questionnaire. In mid-2010, we began an intensive effort to
collate, clean and consolidate the various data sets. During this process, we encountered several difficulties with both the data and constructs being measured. We outline
the procedure used to prepare and analyse the data, as well as some of these
difficulties, where they relate to our findings and interpretations below.
To prepare the data for analysis, results of all surveys were consolidated from a
number of SPSS and Excel sources into a single SPSS file. A number of operations
were then undertaken to correct for consistency issues described above. These steps
included:
1. Coding was re-applied to variables consistently. Where variables had different
levels of information (for example, where a combination of ten-point and fivepoint scales had been used), the lesser of the two options was adopted.
2. Variable and data types were specified for all variables. The majority were
attitudinal variables measured by five-point Likert items; these were accordingly
coded as ordinal.
3. Missing values were flagged explicitly either as user missing or system
missing.
4. Variable names and labels were made less ambiguous.
5. Values were cross-checked across all surveyed communities, to ensure broadly
comparable range, median and frequency distribution values.
Once the data was aggregated in SPSS, a set of core variables was defined. These
are presented in Table 2, and include those variables common to most of the surveys
administered. Where a given item was not included in a particular survey, values were

Table 1 Countries, years, sample


sizes and percentages

Country

Year

Size (N)

Percent

Papua New Guinea

2006

1,062

Malaysia

2006

105

3.1

Sri Lanka

20072008

515

15.3

31.5

India

2008

181

5.4

Timor Leste

2008

615

18.3

Israel

2009

137

4.1

Australia

20062009

753

22.4

3,368

100.0

Total

Measuring Community Sustainability: A Community-Centric Approach


Table 2 Sustainability measures, common variables
Variable

Domain

Variable kind

Variable type

Age

Demography

Characteristic

Interval

Gender

Demography

Characteristic

Nominal

Ethnicity

Demography

Characteristic

Nominal

Location

Demography

Characteristic

Nominal

Postcode

Demography

Characteristic

Nominal

Country

Demography

Characteristic

Nominal

Living_With

Demography

Characteristic

Nominal

Household_Size

Demography

Characteristic

Ratio

Country_of_Birth

Demography

Characteristic

Nominal

Years_lived_in_current_neighbourhood

Demography

Characteristic

Ratio

Years_lived_in_previous_neighbourhood

Demography

Characteristic

Ratio

Financial_Assessment

Economy

Characteristic

Ordinal

Health_Assessment

Culture

Characteristic

Ordinal

Level_of_Education

Culture

Characteristic

Ordinal

Identified_Community

Culture

Characteristic

Nominal

Integration_with_Community

Culture

Attitude

Ordinal

Environmental_Conditions

Ecology

Attitude

Ordinal

Life_as_a_Whole

Culture

Attitude

Ordinal

Personal_Relationships

Culture

Attitude

Ordinal

Sense_of_Safety

Culture

Attitude

Ordinal

Work_Life_Balance

Economy

Attitude

Ordinal

Influence_Authority

Politics

Attitude

Ordinal

Decisions_in_Interest_of_Whole_Community

Politics

Attitude

Ordinal

Experts_can_be_trusted

Politics

Attitude

Ordinal

Govt_make_good_laws

Politics

Attitude

Ordinal

Enjoy_meeting_others_with_differences

Politics

Attitude

Ordinal

Trustworthiness_of_others

Culture

Attitude

Ordinal

Influence_of_cultural_history

Culture

Attitude

Ordinal

Importance_of_technology

Culture

Attitude

Ordinal

Frequency_of_use_of_technology

Culture

Behaviour

Ordinal

recorded as missing. For the purpose of the exploratory analysis, all Likert items are
here treated as ordinal variable types.
A series of descriptive statistics were obtained for this variable set, both to
observe tendencies in the data and to cross check the data-cleaning process, to
ensure absence of out-of-band data. We also correlated pair-wise all scalar
variables. We then conducted a factor analysis with varimax rotation, to view
whether variables clustered together intelligibly. We hypothesized also that
characteristic demographic data could be useful predictors for some of the
behavioural and attitudinal data, and ran regression tests to test this. Finally,
ANOVA and further correlation tests were administered to determine whether

L. Magee et al.

meaningful differences existed, for the core attitudinal variables, between the
various communities participating in the survey, and also how strongly our own
measures correlate with published HDI figures. The interpretation of these tests
is discussed below.

Findings
After the data was consolidated, our total sample size was 3,368. Country distribution
was heavily oriented towards Papua New Guinea, Australia, East Timor and Sri
Lanka. Gender distribution was approximately even (Female 049.4%; Male 0
50.2%), while age distribution is skewed towards a younger demographic, with over
75% of respondents under the age of 50. Self-assessments of health, wealth and
educationvariables related to indices such as the HDIreflect the application of
the survey to large number of Global South countries. The majority of respondents
described themselves financially as Struggling (50%), with only 9.1% stating they
were Well-off. 45.2% of respondents stated they had primary school or no formal
education at all, while only 18.4% had completed secondary school. Conversely,
against the health measurement-construct, 48.6% of respondents self-assessed as my
health is generally good.
A proxy HDI index variable, termed HDI Self-Assessment was composed out of
the normalized values of health, financial and education self-assessment variables.
The frequency distribution of this composite variable demonstrates that in fact the
relative skews of these variables collectively cancel out, leaving a close approximation to a normal distribution, as shown in Fig. 1 below.
Of the 15 common attitudinal variables listed in Table 2, all but three had
median, and all but one had mode values of Agree (4). As all Likert items were
phrased in such a way that agreement tended to endorse the underlying variable
being measured, this indicates a degree of correlation between responses is
likely. The average mean value was 3.65, while the average standard deviation
was 1.06, a relatively low dispersion, one that confirms the clustering of
responses on the positive end of the scale. As the presentation of inferential
tests below suggests, there are some interesting differences between communities
sampled however.
Correlations
Both Spearmans rho and Pearsons correlation coefficient were obtained of all core
scalar variables, 22 in total, and separately, of all attitudinal variables, 15 in total. Of
231 possible scalar correlations, 179 (77.5%) were significant at the 0.01 level, with a
further eight significant at the 0.05 level (81.0%). Of the 105 possible correlations of
the 15 attitudinal variables, 100 were significant at the 0.01 level. Together these
results suggest a very high degree of dependence between the variables, a feature
discussed further below in both the factor analysis and survey redesign sections.
Given the sample size, use of five-point scales for attitudinal variables, and potential
for skew in both wording of question probes and sampling strategy, such coalescence
is perhaps not surprising.

Measuring Community Sustainability: A Community-Centric Approach

Fig. 1 Distribution of HDI self-assessment variables

Principal Component Analysis


A factor analysis was conducted on all attitudinal variables. Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin
measure of sampling adequacy was 0.843, a very high level for conducting factor
analysis (Field 2005). Varimax rotation was selected, due to potential dependencies
between discovered factors (Field 2005). Table 3 tabulates the varimax-rotated
factors, with the factors themselves interpolated as follows:
&

&
&

Satisfaction with various aspects we have interpreted against our theoretical fourdomain model as economic and ecological conditions (life as a whole, involvement with community, personal relationships, the environment, sense of safety,
work/life balance).
Trust and confidence in political conditions (ability to influence authority, belief
decisions are in interest of whole community, trust in experts and government)
Trust and confidence in cultural conditions (enjoy meeting and trust in others,
influence of history, importance and use of technology)

L. Magee et al.
Table 3 Principal component analysis
Component 1
Integration_with_Community

.639

Environmental_Conditions

.674

Life_as_a_Whole

.711

Personal_Relationships

.669

Sense_of_Safety

.627

Work_Life_Balance

.629

Component 2

Influence_Authority

.577

Decisions_in_Interest_of_Whole_Community

.711

Experts_can_be_trusted

.765

Govt_make_good_laws

.731

Component 3

Enjoy_meeting_others_with_differences

.581

Trustworthiness_of_others

.551

Influence_of_cultural_history

.488

Importance_of_technology
Frequency_of_use_of_technology

.577
.671

Principal component analysis is used as the extraction method. Rotation is conducted using varimax with
Kaiser normalization, converging in 5 iterations. Only scores above 0.4 are recorded

The three factors are interpreted here as accounting for each of the four domains in the
underlying model. The first factor combines all six satisfaction constructs, taken from
the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index (Cummins et al. 2003). These have been
admittedly quite liberallyinterpreted as reflecting general contentment with
economic and ecological circumstances, where ecology is considered as the intersection between the social and natural context. The following two factors more
directly aggregate items reflecting political and cultural engagement, respectively.
Since missing values caused a large number of cases (1,593, or 47.3% of 3,368) to
be ignored in the analysis, a separate analysis was conducted with mean values
substituted back in. The analysis showed a weaker sampling adequacy result, but
no change in the variables or factors identified. A series of composite indices, termed
respectively Attitudes towards Economy and Ecology, Attitudes towards Politics and
Attitudes towards Culture, was constructed from the normalized values of the relevant
underlying indicators. These in turn were compiled into an overall Attitudinal SelfAssessment index, similar to the HDI Self-Assessment variable described above. All
five computed variables were then used in subsequent regression and ANOVA tests.
Predicting Sustainability AssessmentsRegression Results
Regression tests were conducted to note the significance and direction of relationships between the principal component clusters of attitudinal variables, and demographic and self-assessment characteristics. Results of these for all attitudinal
variables are included in Table 4. For the Well-being Index satisfaction levels
(interpreted, as suggested above, so as to cover economic and ecological domains),

Measuring Community Sustainability: A Community-Centric Approach


Table 4 Regressions
Model

(Constant)
Age
Household size
Financial assessment
Health assessment

Unstandardized
coefficients

Standardized coefficients t

Beta

Std. Error

Sig.

81.237

2.084

.612

.220

.089

38.979 .000
2.781 .006

.159

.119

.043

1.336 .182

2.649

.536

.155

4.946 .000

.606

.502

.039

1.206 .228

Level of education

.263

.272

.031

.966 .334

Years lived in current neighbourhood

.812

.220

.124

3.687 .000

.198

.167

.039

1.189 .235

Years lived in previous neighbourhood

and attitudes relating to the political domain, only the financial self-assessment
variable stands out as a strongand negativepredictor, suggesting that those who
assess themselves poorly nonetheless score highly against satisfaction and political
engagement indicators. Conversely, all variables other than Financial Assessment
and Years lived in previous neighbourhood have a strong predictive relationship on
the aggregated cultural engagement indicator.
Comparing CommunitiesANOVA and Correlation Results
An ANOVA test was also conducted using the community as the grouping variable. Of
particular interest was whether the first three principal components identified in the
component analysis had significant differences between communities. Similarly we
examined the composite Attitudinal Self-Assessment and HDI Self-Assessment
variables across the groups. The tabulated results of this test are included in Table 5.
Each of the five computed variables showed significant differences across the
different community groups at both 0.05 and 0.01 levels.
Table 6 compares both mean values and rank for the five composite variables
across each of the seven communities (Melbourne (2009) and Timor Leste are
incomplete due to certain items not being included in their respective surveys). As
the ranks make clear, HDI self-assessment means appears to correlate with attitudes
towards economy, ecology and culture, with Australian Towns and Beer Sheva
ranking highly for each of these four variables. Attitudes towards Politics, on the
contrary, correlate inversely. This suggest that communities generally satisfied and
confident regarding economic, ecological and cultural dimensions are sceptical of
prevailing power systems and structures; those, on the other hand, who self-assess
poorly and are dissatisfied with present material conditions nonetheless express
greater trust and confidence in political mechanisms.
A further pair-wise set of correlations was ran over the composite variables, which
confirm the above findings across the whole data setall variables correlate significantly at 0.05, 0.01 and 0.001 levels, with Attitudes towards Politics the only variable
correlating negatively with the others. We also plotted our HDI Self-assessment proxy

L. Magee et al.
Table 5 ANOVA of composite variables across communities
Sum of squares
Attitudes towards economy
and ecology

Attitudes towards politics

Attitudes towards culture

Attitudinal self-assessment

HDI Self-assessment

Between Groups

df

Mean square

1763.205

440.801

Within Groups

34612.283

2159

16.032

Total

36375.488

2163

Between Groups

1999.909

399.982

Within Groups

26098.794

2614

9.984

Total

28098.704

2619

Between Groups

14879.615

2975.923

Within Groups

26435.147

2711

9.751

Total

41314.762

2716

6620.378

1655.095

Within Groups

Between Groups

199032.075

1770

112.448

Total

205652.453

1774

Between Groups

429736.973

71622.829

Within Groups

1122152.037

3205

350.125

Total

1551889.010

3211

Sig.

27.496

.000

40.061

.000

305.189

.000

14.719

.000

204.563

.000

variable against 2010 HDI values given by the UNDP for the corresponding countries.
Here we noted a strong positive correlation (R00.756, p<0.05).

Discussion
In the first instance, this article has reflected our interest in examining whether a
generalizable questionnaire could accurately measure subjective attitudes of
members across diverse sites and communities, and supplement information
available from other sources. For this purpose we used two forms of control:
the ethnographic research conducted at the communities, and general HDI statistics
for the countries in which the communities reside. Secondly, we investigated
whether salient differences existed between low and high-income communities
towards different sustainability dimensions. In the context of the communities
surveyed here, these point to distinctions between communities in the Global North
versus the South. Finally, the questionnaire is based upon an alternative theoretical
conception of sustainability to the common triple bottom line paradigm. We therefore
used the questionnaire as a form of extended pilot, during which this conception was
further developed, and in turn led to a reformulation of the questionnaire itself, which we
present below.
Overall, results suggest that the questionnaire provides a useful and general
instrument for measuring community attitudes towards what is perceived by
community members to constitute sustainability. Administered over a broad
range of communitiesurban and rural, high and low-income, and those dealing
with the aftermath of environmental (Sri Lanka), political (Timor Leste) and
economic (Melbourne) upheavalpost facto regressions and component analyses

21.4

11.7

22.5

Sri Lanka

Timor Leste

14.0

Papua New Guinea

Sri Lanka

Timor Leste

(Human Development Report 2010)

Malaysia

Melbourne, Australia

Australian Towns

15.3

19.7

17.1

15.8

22.7

72.7

70.9

65.2

74.8

36.0

38.4

41.6

53.6

46.5

78.4

0.502

0.658

0.431

0.937

0.744

0.872

Attitudes towards Economy Attitudes towards Attitudes towards Attitudinal Self-Assessment HDI Self-Assessment 2010 HDI Country Relative
and Ecology
Politics
Culture
Ranks a

Beer Sheva

Mean ranks

13.8

24.2

Papua New Guinea

13.5

Melbourne, Australia .

13.1

0.937

24.3

65.5

Beer Sheva, Israel

72.8

Malaysia

21.4

24.2

Australian Towns

11.5

Attitudes towards Economy Attitudes towards Attitudes towards Attitudinal Self-Assessment HDI Self-Assessment 2010 HDI Country Values a
and Ecology
Politics
Culture

Values

Mean values

Table 6 Composite variable mean comparison

Measuring Community Sustainability: A Community-Centric Approach

L. Magee et al.

demonstrate moderately coherent patterns. Such patterns are commensurate with


what the theoretical model suggests is the case: that sustainability combines
absolute and relative subjective interpretations of prospects for individual and
collective wellbeing, now and into the future, and requires input both by
community members and authorities. The strong correlation result between our
proxy HDI variable and actual HDI figures suggests both reasonable construct
validity and high convergence between the subjective impressions and objective
assessments among the communities sampled. This is particularly striking due to
two potentially confounding elements during the periods examined. The Melbourne survey was conducted in 2009, at the height of concerns over the Global
Financial Crisis, while the Sri Lanka survey was conducted relatively soon after,
and in areas directly affected by, the tsunami in 2004. The survey results also
confirmed data obtained from observations and interviews. Studies of affected
communities in post-tsunami in Sri Lanka by Mulligan and Shaw (2007), for
example, outline both the immense development challenges facing communities, and
their resilient attitudes in response.
While the aims of the survey were exploratoryand emphatically not intended to
introduce ranking considerationsthe correlation, regression and ANOVA tests also
do demonstrate significant relationships and high degrees of deviance between the
various communities who have participated. The key finding from the exploration
appears to be the inverse relationship between levels of political engagement and
satisfaction and all other subjective indicatorseconomic, ecological and cultural.
Results for Australian and Israeli communities, in particular, demonstrate that those
with high levels of general satisfaction, education and material contentment tend to be
more sceptical and pessimistic with regard to their involvement in structures of
power. This clearly needs more robust study but points to a potential series of
hypotheses to be tested in future rounds of the survey, and possibly calls for more
robust theorization of the links between education, material contentment and ideals of
political wellbeing.
From the point of view of establishing the theoretical model, of greatest
interest in the results was the strong relationship between the first three factors
of the factor analysis, and the four domainseconomic, ecological, political
and culturalarticulated in the theoretical model. This suggests that the survey
instrument successfully measures community values are oriented towards different
domains of sustainability: that is, sustainability is a social problem that encompasses economic, ecological, political and cultural relations, relations that are both
reproduced in social structures but also open to pressure to change from social agents
or actors.
This said, several confounds should be noted. Firstly, these factors all only
account for 47.2% of the total variationleaving a large amount of attitudinal
variance still unexplained by the four-domain model. Secondly, the limitations
around the survey design and administration discussed earlier suggest higher
levels of significance testing are needed at the very least before results can be
inferred to the broader community populations. Thirdly, both economic and
ecological constructs were coalesced in the primary factor identified. Given a
key claim of the four-domain model is that each of the domains is at least
potentially in conflict with others, the moderate sample size and range of

Measuring Community Sustainability: A Community-Centric Approach

communities ought to bring out greater variation between constructs measuring


each domain. Of course both the domain-construct relationship and the factor
analysis have been conducted ex post; an important feature to exhibit in results of
follow-up surveys would be a stronger correlation between ex ante and ex post
alignment of variables to co-ordinating factors. Nevertheless, the coalescence of
principal components with the independently derived domains suggests these
remain a sound basis for the construction of future iterations of any resulting
indicator set.
Measuring Social Sustainability, Version 2.0
As mentioned above, a range of difficulties were encountered with the data and
their analysis. In part this is due to the initial aims of the questionnaire, which
were to illustrate local areas of community concern, rather than to coerce commensurability across all applications of the questionnaire. Other issues relate to
specific applications of the questionnairereliable translations of key constructs,
inconsistent coding and varied sampling strategies employedand these clearly
limit the inferential power of the results. More generally, a more systematic
organization of items and scales would improve the reliability and validity of
results from future applications of the instrument.
To address these goals, we conducted a number of workshops in 2010 and 2011. A
revised set of indicators/questions was drafted, with an associated set of reference
questions and responses. These retained consonance with the existing survey yet
sought to address the identified limitations. Version 2.0 now measures sustainability
explicitly against the four domains and their subdomains, which only formed the
background to the original survey. More explicitly, community sustainability is
assessed with reference to the following:
&
&
&
&

Economic prosperitythe extent to which the community can engage in activities


relevant to their economic wellbeing and feel confident about the consequence of
changing structures beyond their locale.
Ecological resiliencethe extent to respondents perceive the rates at which the
surrounding natural environment can withstand and recover from the communitys
actions.
Political engagementthe extent to which members of the community can
participate and collaborate in structures and processes of power that affect them.
Cultural vitalitythe extent to which the community is able to maintain and
develop its beliefs, celebrate its practices and rituals, and cultivate narratives of
meaning that define the community.

In total, the revised structure of 48 variables more closely measures community sustainability against our own Circles of Sustainability theoretical model.
We have included eight items for each of the four domains, along with 10 demographic and six wellbeing items (the latter are again sourced from the Australian
Unity Wellbeing Index). The domain items are further divided into subscales for
sense of trust, concern and optimism about the future. We have also mapped the
questions in the survey in relation to the Human Development (Creating Capabilities)
approach (Nussbaum 2011), to provide more structured concordance with an existing

L. Magee et al.

widespread measure of sustainability. We plan to conduct further pilot studies of the


instrument in 2012.

Conclusion
The Community Sustainability Survey has been applied to approximately 3,300
members of various communities in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia
between 2006 and 2010. Our results showed several interesting patterns: members
of communities in countries with above average HDI scores (Australian towns,
Beer Sheva, Melbourne) scored higher on all but one of our composite attitudinal
scales (attitudes towards economy, ecology, culture, self-assessment and HDI proxy).
The exception, Attitudes towards Politics, tentatively corroborates other findings
confirming widespread disaffection with politics in economically advanced liberal
democracies, such as those observed over several decades by Inglehart (1977, 1990,
1997). The relative stable political environments in these countries further suggests
discrepancies between subjective assessments and objective conditions regarding
specifically political sustainability. As we acknowledge though, this result may be
the product of confounding variables and construct validity. Political scepticism can
equally be taken as an indicator of a robust political environment rather than its
converse, the failure of political processes. We also found a pleasing degree of
correlation between our own HDI proxy variable and published UNDP HDI values,
and anecdotal confirmation with qualitative research conducted at the same community
sites.
In terms of the first of four dilemmas we introduced at the outset of this article, we
note this instrument will sit alongside others piloted under the same project rubric, thus
complementing the standardized, topdown indicators of sustainability outlined here
with locally developed, bottomup and issue-based indicators. In terms of the remaining three of the dilemmas, the results of the questionnaire provide a useful context for
examining the relationship between alternative subjective, intersubjective and objective
modes of measurement; between individuals and community; and between present
wellbeing and future sustainability. The reformulation of variables will, we expect,
allow us to better gauge these dimensions, and so provide a more robust instrument
for understanding and assessing sustainability from a communitys own point of view.
Though initially intended as an augmented instrumental probe into qualitative
modes of community engagement, the process of consolidating, cleaning and
analysing the results of the survey suggests that the instrument has a potentially
broader role to play as a tool for assessing a communitys own attitudes
towards sustainability. Further work is required to formulate and pilot the
revised survey. However, as the exploratory analysis shows, useful results have
been extracted from the existing data set, including the inverse relations between political and other domain indicators, and a potential scoring mechanism
for ranking communities self-assessments. We suggest that it may fill a gap
between the current group of objective, techno-scientific indices, and subjective,
psychometrically-oriented well-being and quality of life measures, focussing on
sustainability as an intersubjective and future-oriented process between community
members.

Measuring Community Sustainability: A Community-Centric Approach


Acknowledgements The people who have contributed to the development of this questionnaire are too
numerous to list, but to give a sense of the reach of our indebtedness to others we list the researchers who
were involved in the Papua New Guinea project: Albert Age, Sama Arua, Kelly Donati, Jean Eparo, Beno
Erepan, Julie Foster-Smith, Betty Gali-Malpo, Andrew Kedu, Max Kep, Leo Kulumbu, Karen Malone,
Ronnie Mamia, Lita Mugugia, Martin Mulligan, Yaso Nadarajah, Gibson Oeka, Jalal Paraha, Peter Phipps,
Leonie Rakanangu, Isabel Salatiel, Chris Scanlon, Victoria Stead, Pou Toivita, Kema Vegala, Naup Waup,
Mollie Willie, and Joe Yomba. In addition, given the issue that the PNG project involved many languages
across 50 villages in five provinces, we need to thank in particular, Gerard Arua, Vanapa, Central Province;
Monica Arua, Yule Island, Central Province; Viki Avei, Boera, Central Province; Sunema Bagita, Provisional Community Development Advisor, Milne Bay Province; Mago Doelegu, Alotau, Milne Bay
Province; Clement Dogale, Vanagi, Central Province; Jerry Gomuma, Alepa, Central Province; Alfred
Kaket, Simbukanam/Tokain, Madang Province; Yat Paol from the Bismark Ramu Group, Madang Province; Joseph Pulayasi, Omarakana, Milne Bay Province; Bing Sawanga, Yalu, Morobe Province; Alexia
Tokau, Kananam, Madang Province; and Naup Waup, Wisini Village, Morobe Province. They became our
formal research leaders in their respective locales and guides to language nuances.
Parts of this research were supported under Australian Research Councils Linkage Projects funding
scheme, and for that we thank the ARC.
We also gratefully acknowledge the comments and suggestions of three anonymous reviewers in the
preparation of this article.

Appendix 1. Measuring Community Sustainability, Version 2.0


Demographic Variables
1. What is the highest level of formal or school education that you have completed?
[Level of educational attainment]
2. What is your age? (Please write how many years old you are.) [Age]
3. What is your gender? [Gender]
4. Financially speaking, how would you describe your household? [Financial
self-assessment]
5. Compared to other people of the same age, how would you describe your
health? [Health self-assessment]
6. Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not enough money
for the health care that you or your family needed? [Cost of health care]
7. With whom do you live? [Cohabitation]
8. How many people live in your household presently? [Household size]
9. For how many years have you lived in your current locality? (That is, in this
local place or area) [Duration at current location]
10. What or whom do you identify as your main community? [Identified
community]
Well-Being Satisfaction Levels
11.
12.
13.
14.
15.
16.

How satisfied are you with being part of your community?


How satisfied are you with the environment where you live?
How satisfied are you with your personal relationships?
How satisfied are you with the balance between your work and social life?
How satisfied are you with how safe you feel?
How satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?

L. Magee et al.

Political
Sense of Trust
17. I can influence people and institutions that have authority in relation to my
community.
18. Decisions made in relation to my community are generally made in the interests
of the whole community.
19. Outside experts can be trusted when dealing with local issues.
20. Governments make decisions and laws that are good for the way I live locally.
Sense of Concern
21. I am concerned that global levels of politically-motivated violence will affect
our locality.
22. I am concerned about the corruption of local political institutions.
Sense of Optimism About the Future
23. Outsiders are and will continue to be comfortable coming to live in our locality.
24. People can learn to live with people who are culturally different from
themselves.
Ecological
Sense of Trust
25. Experts will always find a way to solve environmental problems.
26. My identity is bound up with the local natural environment and landscape.
27. Conserving natural resources is unnecessary because alternatives will always be
found.
28. In order to conserve natural diversity, economic development should be excluded
from substantial wilderness areas.
Sense of Concern
29. Across our locality there is good access to places of nature.
30. I am concerned that global climate change will affect our locality.
Sense of Optimism About the Future
31. We have a capacity to meet our local needs for basic resources such as food,
water and energy.
32. Continuing economic growth is compatible with environmental sustainability.

Measuring Community Sustainability: A Community-Centric Approach

Economic
Sense of Trust
33. Wealth is distributed widely enough to allow all people in our locality to enjoy a
good standard of living.
34. Our government supports economic growth as one of its highest priorities.
35. Our economy is adequately protected against competition from foreign-owned
businesses.
36. Hard work and initiative alone is enough to get ahead financially.
Sense of Concern
37. I am concerned that global economic change will affect our locality.
38. A slump in the local economy.
Sense of Optimism
39. Keeping our economy sustainable requires that our needs for a wide range of
consumer goods are fulfilled.
40. Current levels of consumption in our locality are compatible with an environmentally sustainable future.
Cultural
Sense of Trust
41. I feel that I can influence the generation of meanings and values in relation to
our way of life.
42. I feel comfortable meeting and talking with people who are different from me.
43. Most people can be trusted most of the time.
44. Places of learning, health, recreation and faith are distributed across our locality
in a way that ensures good access by all.
Sense of Concern
45. I am concerned about a decline in the vitality of local cultural institutions.
46. I am concerned that globally-transmitted cultural values will affect our locality.
Sense of Optimism
47. I am free to express my beliefs through meaningful creative activities.
48. People living in our locality are free to celebrate publicly their own rituals and
memories, even if those rituals are not part of the mainstream culture.

L. Magee et al.

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