Modern evils

Michelle Singer writes:

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has now closed its website questionnaire on the subject of ‘modern social evils’. It reports that 3,500 responses were submitted, and these are now being analysed prior to the publication of a report on the subject early next year.Over a century ago, Joseph Rowntree was concerned to address “the underlying causes of weakness or evil in the community, rather than remedying their more superficial manifestations”. Amongst these “great scourges of humanity”, he included war, slavery, intemperance, impurity, the opium traffic and gambling.


Inspired by JRF’s initiative to explore contemporary equivalents, Henley Centre HeadlightVision has been conducting its own internal project with a greater emphasis on global issues and comparisons. By identifying a number of ‘evils’ (we use this term in the loosest sense!) and ‘virtues’ which could be said to characterise specific countries, we constructed a web of competing perspectives and challenges. These were particularly helpful in illuminating the vexed relationship between the developed and developing world.

For example, we were forced to scrutinise the assumptions and interests driving oft-used concepts such as globalisation, sustainability and social responsibility. Many of the other themes we discussed could be considered as an evil or virtue on different sides of the same coin, or for different nations or communities.

Grappling with this kind of complexity is a valuable exercise. It ensures that we take sufficient account of big macro drivers and international influences when seeking to understand consumers’ changing day-to-day lives and needs. For some good reasons, it has become unfashionable these days to base such analyses on high level ‘meta-narratives’; instead, more interest is now being expressed in the micro-trends which are often the first indicators of change (see Mark Penn and E. Kinney Zalesne’s new book, Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes). But, of course, balance is the key, and we firmly believe that if trends programmes are to be sufficiently robust while also still having practical application, then macro and micro must be interwoven.

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