Conceptions of Progress

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Conceptions of Progress: How is Progress Perceived? Mainstream Versus Alternative Conceptions of Progress Anat Itay Accepted: 11 August 2008 Ó Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008 Abstract Progress is a powerful political concept, encompassing different and sometimes contradictory 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 Á OECD Á Green theory Á 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 Societies’’. A. Itay (&) The Department of Political Science, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel e-mail: [email protected] 123 Soc Indic Res DOI 10.1007/s11205-008-9302-z
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Conceptions of Progress

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  • 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: [email protected]


    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.7,3407,en_21571361_31938349_1_1_1_1_1,00.html.8 The first World Forum to be held as part of the global project was entitled: Statistics, Knowledge andPolicy. It was held in 2004.9 All questions mentioned are quoted from: Itay (2007, p. 8).

    Conceptions of Progress


  • During the conference, I conducted a survey among its participants.10 The survey

    offered an opportunity to solicit answers from a unique audience: people who, on the one

    hand, were involved in the prestigious project, but, on the other hand, were mostly

    involved in the praxis of measuring progress rather than in contemplating the theoretical

    aspects of progress. The conference attracted 1,200 participants from 130 countries, all

    invited by the OECD. Most participants had been invited to represent their countries on the

    subject of measuring progress, and thus were likely to represent a rather mainstream point

    of view on the subject. They were mostly statisticians, public administrators and policy-

    makers.11 In that sense, it was also a rare opportunity to explore the conceptions of

    progress held by people who have a say in shaping its definition and measurement.12

    However, before turning to examine which is the dominant conception of progress among

    the participants, it is necessary to understand the theoretical difficulties regarding the concept

    of progress, as well as the different approaches and theories to dealing with them.

    3 Conceptualizing Progress: Approaches and Theories13

    The idea of progress has captured human imagination since the beginning of knownhistory. There is historical evidence for progress being on humans minds for quite a long

    time.14 In modern times, furthermore, scholars theorized about the idea of progress itself.15

    As a political ideal, progress is a challenging and complex concept; it differs from mere

    change in that its intended purpose is to lead to improvement. Generally speaking, it is

    complex because it comprises many, often contradicting, aspects, and it involves personal

    preferences in matters that often have global consequences. More specifically, progress has

    10 See appendix for survey. The survey was given to participants to fill out during the general assembly onWhat is Progress? during the first day of the World Forum, and was collected on the same day. Ninety-sixdelegates took the survey, which amounted to about 65% of the delegates present at that discussion. It wasan anonymous survey.11 To give a general idea, among the participants in the survey, according to their own accounts, 12 werestatisticians, 11 were connected to academia, and 10 were economists. Many of the participants hold highpositions, such as heads of bureaux of statistics, directors and chief economists. Age groups divided asfollows: 11 were under 29 years of age; 22 were 3039 years old, 27 were 4049 years old, 23 were5059 years old, 9 were 6069 and 4 did not share this information. Seventy-one of the participants takingthe survey were from developed countries, 16 from the developing countries, and 9 did not include thisdetail. Twenty-nine of the participants were women and 64 were men (3 did not state). No connection wasfound between answers and gender, or between answers and whether participants come from a developed ordeveloping country.12 It is a small survey, with very diverse answers, and so does not allow drawing of complex statisticalconclusions and connections. However, since it is pioneering research, all this survey needs to show areassociations and frequencies, in order to give us a good idea of what the participants perceive progress to be.13 This section is based on an overview published in: Itay (2007).14 From the Neanderthal trying to improve his hunting skills (aiming at hunting a herd of buffalo rather thanjust one)see an excellent account of prehistoric human progress and its environmental consequences inWright (2004)to Aristotle wondering how the polis and public life could improve, and how to generateinventions; to the Enlightenment philosophers deciphering the code for progress, believing it is humaneducation and knowledge that can lead humanity to a steadily growing better future, there are manyexamples.15 Examples include Bury (1920); Pollard (1968); Nisbet (1980); and others. Theorizing progress included,for instance, a debate on whether progress is a modern idea. Bury and Nisbet represent this debate well, asthey disagree on whether a philosopher dealing implicitly with progress, such as Aristotle, is indeed aprogress philosopher. Consequently, they each write a very different history of the idea of progress, andinclude different philosophers in their research.

    A. Itay


  • different meanings for different people: what might appear to one person as progress may

    seem the opposite to another. In addition, while we might, for example, welcome a growing

    economy and deplore pollution, it is the relative weight we give to each aspect that determines

    whether there has been overall progress or regression. Indeed, progress can also be broken

    down to many different spheres: technological, medical, economic, environmental, scientific,

    social, etc. Thus, for example, advanced embryo engineering might be seen as medical or

    technological progress, leading also to financial benefits, but not everyone would regard it as

    moral progress. Progress can be financial, moral, political, etc. Therefore, some aspects of

    progress trade off against each other and others reinforce one another.

    Defining progress requires reflecting on different aspects of progress: both in terms of

    fundamental attitudes towards it, and in the choices regarding its content. Within the

    different conceptions of progress, two general attitudes (hereby: fundamental approa-

    ches) to defining progress can be identified, as well as four current theories of progress,

    describing the relationship of progress to other values.

    The two fundamental approaches to progress are optimism and skepticism, which stand

    at the heart of every debate about progress, even prior to the Enlightenment.16 The dis-

    agreement regarding progress focuses on whether human beings should or should not strivefor progress and human improvement. On the one hand, skepticsopponents of progress

    see an aspiration for social progress as dangerous, since it seeks human perfection.17

    Human perfection, they claim, cannot be achieved, and aspiring to it can be very costly.

    Indeed, it is this aspiration that can lead to totalitarian regimes and genocide. These

    skeptics believe that society should not try to achieve or direct progress; doing so hurts

    those in society who do not share the same view of progress, and it can incur other

    substantial costs, such as encouraging growth beyond the earths resources.18 On the other

    hand, the optimistic proponents of progress believe that striving for progress keeps the

    world from chaos, and allows conditions to improve. They maintain that without aspiring

    to progress, there can only be change for changes sake, with no actual improvement.

    Within these two fundamental approaches, four contemporary theories can be identified19:

    The Liberal Theory of Progress: this theory relies heavily on economic indicators tomeasure progress, and refers to economic growth, as both the generator of progress and as

    the essence of what progress is. With the major technological discoveries of the last

    century, and the growing dominance of the free market system, economic growth (as

    measured by Gross Domestic Product, GDP) became widely accepted as the indicator for

    progress of societies. Within the fields of progress, development and quality of life, it is the

    dominant theory of progress today.20 Drawing from the Liberal theory, which highlights

    16 This debate is also found within the progress discourse as a debate between progressivists and declinists(see Nisbet 1980, p. x). This is simple to grasp by thinking along the lines of the debate within thephilosophy of history, focusing on how to perceive history and its movement (as linear, spiral, random, etc.).17 See Passmore (1970).18 One of the most explicit proponents of this approach is John Gray (see Gray 2004).19 The term theory is used here to describe what should more accurately be referred to as a family oftheories. Each theory encompasses more than one coherent theory. However, since the focus here is on thecore values of each family of theories, each such family is referred to as one theory (see Freeden 1996, forthe use of core values in ideologies). This is the case for all theories mentioned in this paper.20 See a European Commission publication for one of many examples: Key Figures of Europe in:, as explained in a World Bank publication: In an ideal assessment of devel-opment, progress would be measured by human and environmental advances before consideringintermediate indicators, such as GDP. However, we lack good quality data to construct robust indicators ofhuman and environmental progress and consequently rely heavily on GDP (Vinod 2000, pp. 23).

    Conceptions of Progress


  • neutrality and rights, this mainstream economic theory is used to both define and to pursue

    progress. It perceives the free market as generating progress in all areas of life, and it grew

    more popular as it became evident that economic growth does indeed bring with it an

    increase in human well-being: a correlation is found between growth in GDP and other

    aspects of human life such as life expectancy at birth, health, social cohesion, etc.21

    However, this theory is controversial both in its demand for a particular form of cap-

    italism, and in the costs this model of progress incurs, primarily costs in environmental and

    social terms. Over the years, it became clear that not only was GDP growth not intended to

    measure progress, but it also provides a very partial picture of progress, failing to take into

    account transactions that are not money-basedactivities that are largely agreed upon as

    central to human life but are unpaid (such as family life, housework and clean air to

    breath). Similarly, GDP growth does not take into account environmental damage or social

    costs, and, on the other hand, is positively influenced by what we consider as regression,

    such as growth in crime. Indeed, in many countries around the world, environmental

    indicators have been added to national accounts of well-being, and are also measured;

    these include greenhouse emissions, carbon footprints, and social indicators such as

    enrollment in education. Nevertheless, for many reasonsperhaps misconceptions or

    perhaps for want of a convenient alternativeGDP remains the main indicator in the

    literature and in politics, when regarding progress, and GDP growth remains the primary

    goal of many of the worlds policymakers.22

    The Social Liberal Theory of Progress: in general, this theory perceives progress as aconcept in which the social dimensions should be emphasised.23 Its different representa-

    tives might equate progress with an increase in social capabilities, relief of poverty, or

    other notions of social justice.24 This theory puts greater emphasis on social indicators

    rather than economic indicatorsto measure progress.25

    The Green Theory of Progress: this theory regards progress as being necessarily in tune withthe earth, introducing notions of sustainability that emphasise the problems of limited resources

    and the interests of future generations.26 There are two main views of progress within the Green

    theory. One which I call the environmental view (or the soft view) works within mainstreampolitical system and presses for environmental costs to be more fully taken into account when

    considering progress. The other, which I call the ecological view (or the radical view)maintainsthat the search for growth and progress has been very costly. This view stresses the need for a

    21 Boarini et al. (2006, p. 24).22 Therefore, GDP is still the starting point for most methods of measuring progress, including the moreenvironmental and social ones, such as Genuine Progress Indicator (GPIan environmentally sensitivecalculation of an indicator, aimed at replacing the GDP), Human Development Index (HDI, influenced byAmartya Sen), and others.23 A prominent example is Amartya Sens work, which influenced the UN HDI and MDGs. For example:Sen (1999).24 Or other forms of an alternative social agenda. See for instance: Wolff and de-Shalit (2007).25 Another field of research contributing greatly to this theory is the work on Quality of Life, aimed atexploring and improving peoples quality of life and well-being. See the fascinating works of Michalos onthis subject (for instance: Michalos 2003) as well as: Nussbaum and Sen (1995). These works are also beingput into practice in policymaking through national and community participatory projects, asking citizenswhat they perceive as progress and quality of life. See for instance: The Canadian Index of Wellbeing in: Sustainability is defined as the effort to meet the needs of the present without compromising theability of future generations to meet their own needs. (The World Commission on Environment andDevelopment 1987, p. 43). For an account of the complexity of the term sustainability (see Jamieson 2002,pp. 321335).

    A. Itay


  • methodological shift in the way history and progress are perceived: focusing on progress

    prevents us from seeing the costs it involves, and moves us away from the good life in itself.27

    The Conservative Theory of Progress: this theory opposes the pursuit of progress in thesocial sphere. It perceives progress as possible within the technological and scientific

    spheres alone. This theory does not regard knowledge in the social sphere as cumulative,

    and consequently it suggests that political and social ideas should not aspire to progress.

    Primarily, most Conservatives regard changes in the social sphere with suspicion. More-

    over, they perceive human attempts to achieve progress in the social sphere as not only

    damaging social structures and family values, but also as the cause for all major atrocities

    in history.28 According to this view, the political sphere should deal with current affairs

    without aspiring to progress, which can only occur in the natural sciences and technology.

    When examining the components of different conceptions of progress, we find these

    four theories fitting into the two fundamental approaches to progress, as shown in Fig. 1.

    The Liberal and the Social Liberal theories are part of the optimistic approach to

    progress. Both theories, though emphasising different goals and means for progress, hold

    an optimistic approach, which assumes the possibility of planned progress leading to social

    and personal improvement. The Liberal theory is perceived in the literature today as the

    primary component of the mainstream conception of progress.

    Both the Green and the Conservative theories are included in the skeptical approach to

    progress. Although they differ in many ways, these two theories regard the possibility of

    human-planned progress as highly unlikely and very dangerous. While Conservatives fear

    hubris and the implications of trying to play God, regarding this danger as a threat to

    humans, the Green point of view holds progress as dangerous mostly to other species, and

    perceives the attempt to control all aspects of life as hubris towards nature.

    The survey conducted in Istanbul offers answers to the question of which fundamental

    approach and which theory was indeed dominant among the 96 representatives from 42 countries.

    Conceptions of Progress

    TheMainstream Conception of Progress

    Optimistic Approach Skeptical Approach

    Liberal Theory of Progress

    Social Liberal Theoryof Progress

    Green Theory of Progress

    Conservative Theoryof Progress

    Fig. 1

    27 This relies on the traditional opposition to progress: the worldview that modern political ecologistschallenge is the one that grew out of the early Enlightenment (Dobson 1995, p. 10).28 Following the political philosophy of Edmund Burke: Hume and Burkeloyal critics who would acceptmuch of what Enlightenment came to stand for but see themselves as putting a healthy brake on some of thewilder claims that the age of Reason made for itself (McClelland 1996, p. 404). For more recent Conservativeviews, see John Grays works. For example: An excess of moral zeal is fatal in politics, and the hope ofprogress can take a terrible toll. In the twentieth century communist regimes committed to Enlightenment idealsof progress wrought human and environmental havoc on a vast scale. Even the Nazis were driven by a perverseand hideous idea of progress in seeking to create a new type of human being (Gray 2006, p. 345).

    Conceptions of Progress


  • 4 Survey Results

    4.1 Mainstream Versus Alternative Conceptions of Progress

    Based on the participants profiles and the projects, it is interesting to begin by examining

    whether, as might be expected, participants held, in general, more mainstream or more

    alternative conceptions of progress.

    Participants were asked on the survey to list freely three measures they perceived as

    progress for the world, their countries and themselves (a total of nine goals).29 Their answers

    were analyzed according to a categorization examining whether goals for progress were

    aligned with what is thought in the literature to be the mainstream conception of progress, i.e.

    the Liberal theory of progress (based on the optimistic approach), or tied in with any of the

    alternative theories of progress (i.e., Green, Conservative and Social Liberal, each based on

    its matching approach). As a more operational definition, mainstream was defined to

    include answers that associated with formal institutions and the Liberal theory, focused on

    economic growth, whereas all views that seemed to commit to alternative issues (such as

    feminism, ecology, pacifism, socialism, and so on) were defined as alternative.30

    What we see in Fig. 2 is that most participants held a mainstream conception when

    referring to the first and second goals they named at the global level, and the first on the



















    NationalProgress (3rd)

    NationalProgress (2nd)

    NationalProgress (1st)


    GlobalProgress (2nd)

    GlobalProgress (1st)

    Mainstream / Alternative Conceptions of Progress

    Mainstream Alternative Neither

    Fig. 2

    29 See appendix for questions 13 in survey.30 Some goals were categorized according to the level of commitment they seemed to require. For instance,peace is a mainstream goal, since it is found in every formal definition of progress (such as the UNMDGs), while abolition of all wars was defined as alternative, since it is less intuitive and declarative.

    A. Itay


  • national level.31 They stated goals such as economic growth, greater wealth, reduction in

    CO2 emission, peace and less poverty. However, when referring to the third global goal

    and the second and third national goals, participants stated more alternative goals, which

    included visions of progress such as greater equality, better public education, more public

    health services, no air pollution, happiness, and so forth.

    Interestingly, in cumulative numbers, an equal number of participants held mainstreamconceptions as alternative ones. Since the mainstream conception is based on the Liberal

    theory, while alternative conceptions are based on other theories of progress, this seems to

    show that an equal number leaned towards the Liberal goals as towards the alternative

    onesi.e., Green, Conservative and Social Liberal.

    However, the results actually show a preference for the mainstream conception over any of

    the other conceptions: the results show that participants held a mainstream conception of

    progress, i.e. took the optimistic approach and Liberal theory in equal numbers to participants

    holding any of the alternative conceptions (and theories) combined. In other words, the resultsshow a clear preference for the mainstream conception over each of the alternative ones.

    This seems to affirm the dominance (portrayed in the literature) of the Liberal theory of

    progress as standing at the heart of the mainstream conception of progress, as it was chosen

    by the participants over the alternative conceptions. However, this result should be tested

    by analyzing more particularly which approach and which theory of progress the partici-

    pants held.

    4.2 Approaches to Progress: Optimism Prevails

    Now we turn to examining which of the two fundamental approaches the participants held.

    The examination of whether participants were more optimistic or more skeptical regarding

    progress was done indirectly, by analyzing and interpreting the same three open answers

    participants gave on the survey in the following way:32

    One can choose whether to use positive or negative language to describe the goals for

    progress, e.g., use no war or peace to describe the same goal. When analyzing the results,

    all answers that included positive terms, such as to increase, to add, to have more of, etc.,

    were categorized as positive and therefore as reflecting optimism.33 All answers including

    to have less of, to decrease, to stop, to reverse, and so on, were categorized as negative,

    indicating a more skeptical approach. Neither is a category including answers which seemed

    neutral (technology, for instance), as well as non-answers.

    Later on, in light of the results regarding the approach, it will be interesting to examine

    the participants support or lack of it in what is perceived to be the currently dominant

    theory of progress, i.e. the Liberal one, since optimism indicates that participants are

    holding one of the two theories this approach includes: either the Liberal theory of pro-

    gress, or the Social Liberal theory of progress. We shall return to this point later on.

    Figure 3 shows the medium of each of the three sets of results within each level (global,

    national, personal).

    31 We see three results for each level as the participants were asked to name three goals at each level: theglobal, national and personal. The personal level is not included in this analysis, since categorizing personalprogress in terms of mainstream versus alternative is not suitable.32 See appendix for questions 13 in survey.33 In Positive Psychology, optimism and positive terms are often tautological (see Seligman andCsikszentmihalyi 2000, pp. 514). For the connection between positive and negative wording and thinking,also see: Mook et al. (1992).

    Conceptions of Progress


  • The findings show that on all three levels, the dominant language used to describe goals

    for progress was a positive one. This means that participants were optimistic when they

    thought of progress, and so they did so in positive terms, rather than negative ones. Within

    the different levels for progress, the participants were most optimistic regarding the per-

    sonal level.

    Before continuing to more results, let me discuss possible challenges regarding the

    meanings of this finding. One possible challenge could be that using negative or

    positive language does not indicate an approach, but instead, stems from common

    discourse: one could argue that within the political sphere, negative language is often

    used to discuss problems at the national and global levels (such as environmental

    problems, poverty, and so on), which might explain why negative language was more

    frequently used at those levels. However, this explanation is not sufficient because it

    was found that both negative and positive language were used by different participants

    to describe the same goals, meaning that there is no fixed format in discussing certain


    An additional challenge could be that the use of negative or positive terms does not

    indicate a participants approach, but is determined according to the probability of having

    an impact. Put differently, the more one considers the relevant goal to be one she can make

    an impact on, the more positive terms she will use to describe it. However, this does not

    offer a sufficient explanation since, again, different participants used both positive and

    negative language when speaking of the same goals (such as stopping war and achieving

    peace), even though they were likely to have the same impact on achieving it. In addition,

    if participants were to use positive or negative language according to the impact they might










    Global Progress National Progress Personal Progress

    Positive / Negative Terms for Progress

    Positive Negative Neither

    Fig. 3

    A. Itay


  • have or not have, then results seem to suggest the unlikely conclusion that participants

    think that they have a similar impact on global progress (such as global CO2 emissions)

    and national progress (e.g., the local education system).

    Another possible challenge offers an explanation related to how likely participants

    perceive improvement to be. Indeed, people are often more optimistic regarding the

    chances for improvement in their own lives (bear in mind the socioeconomic population

    taking this survey) than with regard to politics, not to mention their country and the

    planet.34 However, this is another aspect of optimism towards progress (how optimistic one

    is regarding chances for improvement), and strengthens the initial explanation that positive

    terminology implies optimism and negative implies skeptism.

    In conclusion, participants were more optimistic than skeptical towards progress, and it

    remains to be seen whether their optimism means that they are supportive of the Liberal

    theory of progress, thus establishing what seems to be their choice of the mainstream

    conception. Now we can turn to examine their answers on particular questions confronting

    the different theories of progress, in order to find which theories prevail for the


    4.3 Liberal Versus Green theory: Choosing Between Economic Growth

    and the Environment

    This section examines what participants perceived as progress when asked to choose

    between Green, environmental goals (such as less air pollution, life in a village, economic

    stability, a greener planet, better health and a simpler way of life) versus goals which are

    components of the Liberal theory of progress (such as economic growth, cheaper flights,

    better quality of life for developed countries and so on).35

    The participants were presented with 25 pairs of options on a variety of topics. Within

    each pair, they were asked to choose what, for them, seemed more like progress.36 Within

    each pair, the choices were not necessarily opposites of each other, but they reflected a

    choice between one of the two theories. For instance:

    (1) More Income per Person OR Greener Planet;

    (2) Life in a Metropolis OR Life in a Village;

    (3) Better Technology OR More Spiritual Life;

    (4) Economic Growth OR Economic Stability;

    Figure 4a and b presents the choices participants made on the X axis, and these, in turn,

    represent the more general choice between the two theories.

    The results seen in Fig. 4a and b (parts 1 and 2), show strong tendency towards the

    Green theory over the Liberal one.

    It is seen from the figure that with the exception of two, the answers reflect a very clear

    choice of Green, environmental goals, indicating a choice of the Green theory of progress

    over the Liberal one.

    34 See, for example, in: The survey did not specify the categories (e.g. Green versus Liberal), so participants chose withoutcontext. Notwithstanding, since participants were not taking the survey as experts on the different theories,they were presented with relatively simple-to-understand positions and choices for progress.36 See appendix for question 7.

    Conceptions of Progress


  • 43.8%












    13.5% 14.6%



    Life in aMetropolis ORLife in a Village

    CheaperFlights OR

    Less AirPollution

    Space TravelOR Investment

    in RepairingEnvironmental


    EconomicGrowth OREconomicStability

    Great WealthOR Financial


    More IncomePer Person ORGreener Planet

    Green OR Liberal Views? Part One

    Liberal Green Don't Know

    Liberal Green Don't Know












    Better TechnologyOR More Spiritual Life

    A more TechnologicalWay of Life OR a

    Simpler Way of Life

    Longer LifeExpectancy OR

    Better Health

    Increase in FirstWorld Quality of LifeOR Assistance for

    Third World Countries

    Green OR Liberal Views? Part Twob


    Fig. 4

    A. Itay


  • 4.4 Liberal Versus Social Liberal Theory: Choosing Between Economic Growth

    and Social Goals

    Within the pairs of choices participants were presented with, Fig. 5 reflects a choice

    between a welfare state (promoted by the Social Liberal theory of progress) and capitalism

    (promoted by the Liberal theory of progress).

    As seen in the results, on almost all accounts, a welfare state is chosen over capitalism.

    The only exception is work versus state assistance.

    In order to cross-check these results, and examine whether, indeed, the Social Liberal

    theory was chosen over the Liberal, answers to the open questions were analyzed also

    according to topic.37

    The most immediate finding seen from Fig. 6 is the dominance of social topics

    named as goals for progress. Social goals for progress are by far dominant over eco-

    nomic ones. This may indicate that the Social Liberal theory of progress is more

    prevalent than the Liberal one, but not necessarily. If, for example, within the category

    social one finds many goals referring to topics included in the Liberal theory (which

    is, of course, not only economic), then the finding that social is chosen over eco-

    nomic is not sufficient to argue that the Social Liberal theory is dominant among the

    participants over the Liberal theory. Let us examine, then, what social encompasses

    for the participants.

    Figure 7 shows that social encapsulates a variety of topics, most dominantly peace,

    education and equality. However, when calculated cumulatively, the one leading topic

    within social progress is equality.38 Equality is a Social Liberal goal, and is highly pre-

    ferred here over Liberal goals.

    At this point, I want to meet another possible challenge. One can argue that the strength

    of the Liberal theory lays in its offering the best means to achieve progress, and thus it is nowonder that on questions referring to goals it is rated lower than other theories. If this is

    indeed the case, then in questions regarding means, the Liberal theory should prevail.

    However, when asked which were the best means for achieving goals they had stated

    earlier, participants did not adhere to economic means (Fig. 8).39

    While the current Liberal theory of progress refers to the economy as the most

    important (or even imperative) means of achieving progress, most participants did not

    accept the economy as either a dominant goal of progress or as an important means to

    achieving it.40

    37 This refers back to questions 13. See appendix.38 Equality (78.1%); Education (57.2%); Peace (45.8%); Politics (31.2%); General (22%); Human Rights(7.2%).39 The question on the survey was What would be the most effective way to reach those goals? Choosetwo of the following and grade according to importance (see appendix for question 5 on survey).40 Another question (number 6, see appendix) examined how participants perceived progress philosophi-cally: as a goal in itself or as a path towards goals. Results show that 58.3% saw progress as a never-endingroad (while 35.7% saw it as achieving goals). This implies that the means for progress are important to theparticipants, since they saw progress as focused on the path rather than on achieving goals.

    Conceptions of Progress


  • 21.9%














    Expansion of thefree market ORIncreased Public


    Work OR StateAssistance

    Economic GrowthOR Economic


    Great Wealth ORFinancial Security

    Highly Paid JobsOR More Leisure


    Liberal OR Alternative Liberal Capitalism Welfare State Don't Know

    Fig. 5








    Personal Progress(3rd)

    Personal Progress(2nd)

    Personal Progress(1st)

    National Progress(3rd)

    National Progress(2nd)

    National Progress(1st)

    Global Progress(3rd)

    Global Progress(2nd)

    Global Progress(1st)

    Topics of Progress Economy EnvironmentSocial* PovertyTechnologyHealth Spiritual Well-beingOther

    Fig. 6

    A. Itay


  • 8.3%


































    Global Progress(1st)

    Global Progress(2nd)

    Global Progress(3rd)

    National Progress(1st)

    National Progress(2nd)

    National Progress(3rd)

    Sub Topics for Social ProgressSocial (Equality) Social (Peace)Social (Education) Social (Politics)Social (Human Rights) Social (General)

    Fig. 7

    Means for Achieving Progress




    Don't Know3%




    Fig. 8

    Conceptions of Progress


  • 5 What Do the Results Mean: Mainstream, Alternative Conception or a New Mix?

    So far, we have two contradictory findings:

    On the one hand, when participants were asked to freely define goals for progress, they

    named mostly goals that belong to the mainstream conception of progress, which is based

    on the optimistic approach and the Liberal theory of progress.

    On the other hand, when asked to choose particularly between Liberal and alternative

    (namely Green and Social Liberal) goals and means for progress, we find a clear choice of

    alternative conceptions of progress.

    Although this contradiction is possible to explain simply by accepting that participants

    are inconsistent in their answers, I offer a different explanation.41

    I suggest that in order to explain these results, we need to turn back to what constitutes

    the conceptions of progress. Each conception of progress is constituted by an approach and

    one of the theories of progress it encompasses. While the mainstream conception of

    progress encompasses the optimistic approach and the Liberal theory of progress, the

    alternative conceptions of progress encapsulate either the optimistic approach and Social

    Liberal theory, or the skeptical approach and one of its two theories: Green or Conser-

    vative. However, and this is an important point, while the conception is the combination of

    an approach and a theory, it is not merely the equal sum of the two. The explanation of the

    results is based on this unique combination.

    When participants named goals that are considered mainstream, they were choosing more on

    the basis of their optimism than according to the Liberal theory. Some of the mainstream goals

    (defined as Liberal and associated with formal institutions), especially those associated with

    formal institutions such as peace and healthier planet, are mainstream in their optimistic

    essence, but not as much so in their content; the mainstream conception aspires to achieve such

    goals and is optimistic in thatbut in content, as in practice, it aims (often implicitly) to do so

    through Liberal economic means. Consequently, participants (whom we have shown to be

    mostly optimistic) named goals that are mainstream in their essence, which is for them more

    optimistic than Liberal. Thus, the combination forming the mainstream conception for the

    participants was strongly based on their optimistic approach and weakly on their Liberal theory

    views. This explains why, when pressed harderon more particular questionsthey chose

    goals that belong to the alternative theories. Indeed, this explanation coincides well with the

    popularity of Social Liberal goals for progress on the survey: if the participants mainstream

    answers relied more on their approach than on the theory, then it is reasonable to get results

    throughout the survey indicating strong support of the approach (i.e., having an optimistic

    approach), and weak support of the theory (in this case the Liberal theory), while supporting the

    other theory sharing the same approach (i.e., the Social Liberal). If, on the other hand, partic-

    ipants held a mainstream conception based on their support of the theory, then we would have

    seen, in addition to the support of the approach, a choice of this theory throughout the survey.

    To sum up this point, it seems that participants held the mainstream conception as far as

    their optimistic approach was concerned, while in terms of the theory they held, they were

    more Social Liberal than Liberal.

    41 Another explanation can be offered by arguing that participants bent the truth when answering, in anattempt to appear more Green and social than in fact they were (not wanting to appear focused on economicgrowth, for instance, rather than on eliminating poverty). However, this does not coincide with the answersthey gave throughout the survey. If participants were to lie to a great extent (thus making results invalid),they would be expected to have done so throughout the survey. Since we see contradictory results, thiscannot be the case.

    A. Itay


  • Now we can examine the meaning of the results. If indeed the mainstream conception

    was preferred, since it is optimistic and not due to the Liberal theory it is thought to

    encompass, then we should reconsider what constitutes mainstream according to this

    survey. We know that for participants, optimism prevailed, and the Social Liberal theory of

    progress was greatly preferred over the Liberal, in addition to an evident choice of Green

    theory (although skeptical in approach). It seems that we are seeing a new synthesis of

    optimism in approach while Social Liberal and Green in theory (Fig. 9).

    In other words, the results of this survey are indicating a different mainstream con-

    ception than the one portrayed in both literature and practice; one which is being formed

    from a synthesis of the optimistic approach with the Social Liberal theory and the Green

    theory of progress. Although having a theory based on a skeptical approach (the Green

    theory) seems inconsistent with the other (optimistic) components of this new conception,

    this is the phenomenon the survey identifies. In order to fully explore these findings and

    their meaning, further research is required.

    This may have one immediate important implication. Since participants in this survey

    were likely to hold the mainstream view of progress, as representatives of their countries to

    a World Forum discussing progress, and yet it became clear that they held alternative

    opinions, the results should raise immediate questions regarding the reasons and justifi-

    cations for the dominance of the Liberal theory, both in literature and policymaking.

    6 Conclusion

    The survey presented here gives us a good idea of what some participants in the OECD

    World Forum, who were assembled from around the world to discuss the measuring of

    progress, perceived progress to be.

    The results suggest that the mainstream conception of progress (the predominant view

    expressed by the participants) is not based on the Liberal theory, but rather, is a new synthesis,

    still based on an optimistic approach, yet combined with the Social Liberal theory of progress,

    and the Green theory of progress. As such, these are noteworthy results, as they might indicate

    that the Liberal theory of progress is dominant and leading policymaking all over the world

    not because its goals and means are preferred, but due to other reasonsperhaps inertia,

    misconceptions or possibly, due to an optimistic approach towards progress.

    Conceptions of Progress

    Optimistic Approach

    Liberal Theory of Progress

    Social Liberal Theory of Progress

    Skeptical Approach

    Green Theory of Progress

    Conservative Theoryof Progress

    A New MainstreamConception?

    Fig. 9

    Conceptions of Progress


  • The results, challenging the existing discourse regarding progress, although referring

    only to the small case study presented, demonstrate how necessary further research is in

    order to clarify and define current conceptions of progress, as part of the quest to illuminate

    and understand this important political ideal.

    Acknowledgments I wish to thank the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations for its generoussupport of my research. In addition, I would like to thank the Max Kampelman Chair for its funding. Thisresearch and paper benefited tremendously from help and comments from Jon Hall, Alex C. Michalos, SaraDonetto, Andreea Udrea and Noam Hoffstater and to all of them I am very grateful. Special thanks are dueto Avner de-Shalit for his valuable comments on all versions of this paper.

    A. Itay


  • A Global Survey

    What is Progress?This is a brief survey, part of a PhD research project on the subject of progress.

    Please take a few minutes to fill in the survey, giving your genuine opinion.

    1. Which three key measures would indicate for you that global progress had been achieved (in 50 years time)?

    1. _________________________

    2. _________________________

    3. _________________________

    2. Which three key measures would indicate for you that your country had made progress (in 50 years time)?

    1. ________________________

    2. ________________________

    3. ________________________

    3. Which three key measures would indicate for you that you had made progress as an individual(in 50 years time)?

    1. ________________________

    2. ________________________

    3. ________________________

    4. Which do you think are the most important goals for progress? Please choose five and grade according to importance (1 for most important):

    Advanced Technology

    Longer, Healthier Life

    Human Rights

    Freedom / Equality

    Wealth (Money)

    Economic Growth

    World Peace


    Conceptions of Progress


  • Happiness

    Healthy Ecological Environment

    Many Education Possibilities

    Empowerment of cultures

    One Global Community

    Religious Strengthening

    Other __________________

    5. What would be the most effective way to reach those goals? Choose two of the following and grade according to importance (1 for most important):

    Politics (e.g. world leaders decisions; voting; )

    Economics (e.g. market choice; economic growth)




    Other ____________________

    6. Which statement describes your opinion more accurately?

    Progress, as I see it, is a never ending road.

    Progress, as I see it, is about achieving goals.

    7. Which option would seem more like progress to you? Choose one out of each pair: Increased Public Services / Expansion of the Free Market

    Less Crime / More Freedom

    Empowerment of Communities / One Global Community

    Open Borders between Countries / Stronger Communities

    Religious Education / General Spiritual Education

    Social Inclusion / Education for Community Values

    Work / States Assistance

    Personal Freedom / Equality

    Better Technology / More Spiritual Life

    A Simpler Way of Life / A More Technological Way of Life

    Life in a Village / Life in a Metropolis

    A. Itay


  • Cheaper Flights / Less Air Pollution

    Space Travel / Investment in Repairing Environmental Damage

    Economic Growth / Economic Stability

    Financial Security / Great Wealth

    Investment in Arts / Investment in Technology

    Longer Life Expectancy / Better Health

    Safe Drinking Water / Biodiversity

    Legalization of Drugs / More Law Enforcement

    More Leisure Time / Highly Paid Jobs

    Personal Happiness / Wealth of Future Generations

    Greener Planet / More Income Per Person

    Abolition of Nuclear Weapons / Peace Enforcement

    Assistance for Third World Countries / Increase in First World Quality of Life Having More Possibilities in Life / Living a Safe Life

    8. In your opinion, what are the three areas in which it is most important that progress is made? Please grade according to importance (1 for most important)?


    Ecology / Environment



    Science / Technology



    Other _____________

    9. If you had to name just ONE GOAL for the world, what would it be? _____________________________________

    10. What is the time period in which you think global progress could be achieved? 10 years 50 years 100 years other ______

    11. Did you feel any important category was missing in this survey? Please comment. ________________________________________


    Conceptions of Progress


  • References

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    Demographic Information Initials: _________________________

    Gender: Male / Female

    Age Group: 29 3039 4049 5059 6069 7079 80+Nationality: _________________________

    Position / Organization: __________________

    Thank you for your cooperation!

    A. Itay


    Conceptions of Progress: How is Progress Perceived? Mainstream Versus Alternative Conceptions of ProgressAbstractIntroductionThe OECD World Forum as a Case Study13Survey ResultsMainstream Versus Alternative Conceptions of ProgressApproaches to Progress: Optimism PrevailsLiberal Versus Green theory: Choosing Between Economic Growth and the EnvironmentLiberal Versus Social Liberal Theory: Choosing Between Economic Growth and Social Goals

    What Do the Results Mean: Mainstream, Alternative Conception or a New Mix?ConclusionAcknowledgmentsAppendixReferences

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