Special issue on “Human development”

Society and Business Review

ISSN: 1746-5680

Article publication date: 20 June 2008


Urban, S. (2008), "Special issue on “Human development”", Society and Business Review, Vol. 3 No. 2. https://doi.org/10.1108/sbr.2008.29603baa.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Special issue on “Human development”

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Society and Business Review, Volume 3, Issue 2

Editorial preface

This thematic issue is devoted to “Human development” - something almost intuitively longed for by the many people who want to see human beings accorded, on their own merits as unique individuals, a central, privileged position within the social system, and not merely treated as a “commodified”, “monetarised” components of the body social, with a given exchange and investment value.

“Human development” is a dynamic concept, marking a recent reaction against that of “economic growth”, which emphasises quantity (goods and services produced, wealth created or income distributed in monetary units, material goods accumulated), rather than quality (satisfaction of basic human needs, recognition of the individual’s dignity and uniqueness, realisation of his/her full potential, an ethic based on justice and respect for everyone’s rights and responsibilities, etc.). These qualitative aspects, with their humanist connotations, actually coincide with age-old philosophical/religious preoccupations, but have only been applied in recent decades to modern or post-modern socio-economic systems by analysts using new terms like “social cohesion” or “inclusion”.

Time is not the only variable we need to consider in connection with this dynamic of development. The concept itself is protean, and shifts with the discipline and context. In fact, the term “human development” means different things when used by biologists, political scientists, economists, psychologists or philosophers, or of European, African or Asian countries. Indeed, there are various “cultures” of human development.

We have chosen to open this survey - inevitably brief and incomplete, given the wide-ranging nature of the topic - with a fundamental contribution on human personality by Pierre Karli, a neurophysiologist. Surely a necessary first step, in discussing human development, is to consider the nature of the “human” who is to be “developed”? We are all born with a certain development potential embedded in our (unique) genetic make-up - and realising it depends on multiple factors and on complex, interacting mechanisms, which Karli describes in clear, easy-to-understand language. Specifically, he shows that development starts in infancy and depends on the workings of the brain, and highlights the importance, in the brain, of the interplay between cognition and emotion, learning and feeling. But the workings of the brain are also conditioned by the way in which the individual interacts with his/her environment - which points to the crucial role played in infancy by parents and family, and later by schools. This is an area where society as a whole has major responsibilities, which demand in-depth discussion. Analysis of the brain’s workings eventually helps to explain social violence and exclusion, but can also highlight the factors which condition human development.

This is where political ideas and action come in. One of the merits of the text by the Council of Europe’s Gilda Farrell is its politically broad (46 member states) and relatively innovative vision of the “sustainable human development” referred to in Parliamentary Assembly Resolution 1318 of 2003, which seeks to “put human beings at the centre of all development policy”. Gilda Farrell does not simply explain the concept in the abstract, but cites examples drawn from experimental projects conducted in the field. These show us what “well-being” means to residents of a surveyed town, to workers polled in a Finnish multinational firm, and to a group of vulnerable debtors who are struggling to overcome their problems and reintegrate in the community. These are valuable real-life insights from an international institution which is not content to preach human development, but which sets out - on the basis of field research, dialogue and active citizen involvement - to embody that concept in practical political measures at urban, regional, national and European level.

Firms are another key element in the socio-economic system, and contribute to human development by generating resources and securing social recognition for their members. This is the area considered by Horst Steinmann, who provides a reference frame for ethical business management in a modern market economy. His case for ethical choices and action is based (and this is where his text breaks new ground) on methodological constructivism (not to be confused with radical constructivism) - a German philosophical approach, which has also been called “cultural pragmatism”, by contrast with the “natural pragmatism” current in the USA. On this basis, he explains the role which private enterprise plays in today’s market economies and its implications for action by management to prevent abuse of power, preserve the peace and promote an ethic of social responsibility which respects the public interest and human development.

Another important aspect of working life and its role in human development is explored by Gerhard Blickle and Alexander Witzki, who discuss the psychology of people at work. The basic question they consider is whether workers are essentially “economic citizens”, who find fulfilment in their work or, on the contrary, “victims of the market”. They base their answer on a close study of changing managerial practices, technological developments and new societal behaviour patterns linked with globalisation since the 1990s. The points they make are backed by the extensive literature which exists in German on the psychology of work, and by research studies carried out in Germany.

New managerial and economic “norms” are affecting our chances of achieving human development. Of course, the very unequal balance of power between Mammon (wealth) and Themis (justice) may suggest that promoting human development is a lost cause. This concern is addressed by Sabine Urban, who paints a disturbing picture of today’s financial markets and the rules which govern them. Those rules can have profoundly negative effects on people’s lives (particularly employment, wages and existential insecurity) and on their hopes of a new humanism, based on respect for human dignity and well-being (material and non-material). Nonetheless, she occasionally offers us glimpses of a less-gloomy future.

Sabine Urban