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Member Highlight: Valerie Møller 

1. First, list your current professional title. Second, describe your background, experience, and research as it relates to Quality-of-life studies. Feel free to describe this in detail.

I’m currently Professor Emeritus of Quality of Life Studies at Rhodes University’s Institute of Social and Economic Studies (ISER). My university in Makhanda/Grahamstown is one of South Africa’s smaller universities, but one that punches above its weight. I came to Grahamstown as the university’s Director of the ISER (1998–2006). Before that, I headed the Quality of Life Research Unit at the now University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, in the 1990s.

I’ve lived and worked in different parts of the world. I was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of WWII to a British mother and a Swiss father. I always spoke English at home. When I met my future husband while still a student, we had only the Swiss-German dialect in common, as Per also spoke only Danish to his parents. I completed my primary school education in North Carolina in the USA, where my father was working in the 1950s, and my secondary and tertiary education in Zürich. I earned my Lic.Phil. and PhD degrees from the University of Zürich, majoring in Sociology. I’ve spent my entire academic career working as a social researcher. Even as a student, I gained valuable practical research experience collecting, analysing, and writing up survey and other data.

I’ve held research positions in southern African universities since 1972. How did I come to be in Africa? It was my architect husband Per’s idea to go on an African adventure. It sounded exciting. After completing our studies at our universities in Zürich, we worked to save money to buy a VW Kombi, which we converted it into a camper. Our intended destination was Dakar, Senegal, where we planned to undertake a joint urban studies project armed with a letter of introduction from my Sociology professor in Zürich. Our vehicle proved to be no match for the sand pistes of the Algerian Sahara, so we rerouted back to Europe, shipped ourselves and our VW camper on a Portuguese immigrant boat to Angola, and travelled along the southern coast of Africa to present-day Zimbabwe. Per and I found work there, and the rest is history as Peggy Schyns notes in her member’s report.

When we arrived in Zimbabwe, I was offered a temporary job as researcher in the Urban Studies Research Institute attached to the now University of Zimbabwe Sociology department (1972-1975). In 1976, I was appointed in a permanent position as ‘research officer’ at the University of KwaZulu/Natal in Durban, South Africa, in Lawrence Schlemmer’s Centre for Applied Social Sciences. In time, I moved up the ranks to become a full professor and acting director of the research centre.    

Together with Lawrence Schlemmer and colleagues at South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council, we developed the first survey instruments to measure personal well-being among South Africans from all walks of life in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We tracked the life satisfaction of South Africans from apartheid through to the transition to democracy. Since the 1980s, I’ve used individual, household, and attitude surveys; in-depth individual and focus- group interviews; as well as time-use studies and writing competitions in my QoL research.

I’ve researched and written on South African social indicators and quality-of-life issues related to life domains ranging from the most basic to higher-order needs on Maslow’s hierarchy: housing and community services; poverty and unemployment; safety and security and criminal victimisation; social protection; food gardening; return migration to rural areas and polygamy; youth development and empowerment; education – how youth do their homework, their leisure and spare time-use; voter education for the historic 1994 elections and national pride; religion – the spread of charismatic churches; TB-related stigma during the AIDS pandemic; and intergenerational and respect relations.  

I’ve served on the boards of Social Indicators Research, Applied Research in Quality of Life, and Journal of Happiness (associate editor 2012–14), and regularly review for these journals.

ISQOLS has been most generous to me with its awards: Together with Lawrence Schlemmer, I was awarded the 1997 Social Indicators Research (SIR) best paper award for our article on the challenges facing South Africa in the democratic era, and the 2014 SIR best paper award for my report on three decades of quality-of-life research in South Africa. I received the ISQOLS research fellow award in 2000 and its service award in 2007. I was awarded ISQOLS’ distinguished lifetime award in 2016.

Over the years, being a member of ISQOLS has opened up so many opportunities to work on projects with leading quality-of-life scholars. For example, we in South Africa were invited to collect data to test Alex Michalos’ Multiple Discrepancy Theory, and Ed Diener’s Satisfaction with Life scale. Alex Michalos published our first QoL article in Social Indicators Research, and later the proceedings from the ‘roving conferences’ in three urban centres that we organised to promote social indicators and QoL studies in South Africa – he had volunteered to be our keynote speaker. It was Alex’s idea to compile the Springer volume on ‘Barometers of quality of life around the globe’ at our Grahamstown ISQOLS meeting in 2008. Contributor Birger Poppel had invited me to Greenland in 2001 to learn about his Artic Circle’s SliCA QoL study; contributor Mahar Mangahas had invited me to present a seminar at his Social Weather Stations, when Per and I visited the Philippines on sabbatical in 2005.

Michael Hagerty and Joachim Vogel invited me to co-edit their 2002 volume on ‘Assessing quality of life and living conditions to guide national policy’. Wolfgang Glatzer invited me to contribute to his 2002 volume on ‘Rich and poor’, and to assist with editing his 2015 ‘Global handbook on quality of life’. Richard Estes and Joe Sirgy asked my South African research partner Benjamin Roberts and me to contribute a chapter on sub-Saharan Africa to their 2017 volume ‘The pursuit of human well-being: the untold global history’. John Helliwell challenged us to prepare a chapter on why people on the African continent are the most unhappy in the world for the 2017 World Happiness Report. Talita Greyling trusted me with writing ARQOL pioneer articles for two of my mentors, Lawrence Schlemmer and Jan Bernheim. I was humbled when ISQOLS colleagues Irma Eloff, and Fermina Rojo-Pérez and Gloria Fernández-Mayoralas asked me to write forewords for their Springer volumes, after I’d let them down by not producing a chapter, pleading time constraints. It was an honour to be asked to contribute to Alex Michalos’ Encyclopaedia, and to the Festschrifts for Alex and Ruut Veenhoven.  

Benjamin Roberts and I have examined South African quality of life in greater depth. For a project carried out jointly with our Belgian and Algerian ISQOLS colleagues, we replicated the original method Hadley Cantril developed for his 1960s study of the Pattern of Human Concerns (Richard Easterlin gave us this idea!). As Cantril had done, we asked our survey respondents to describe in their own words their hopes and fears for self and nation, which represent the top and bottom rungs of the Cantril ladder. We also asked them to describe their experience of Best and Worst times in life, the end-anchors of Bernheim’s ACSA scale. We then compared their Cantril ladder ratings and their ACSA score with their scores on the Personal and the National Wellbeing Indexes and life satisfaction.    

Our next project will focus on South Africans’ hopes for the future. The project will pick up where our 2021 Springer book on ‘Quality of life and human well-being in sub-Saharan Africa’ left off. The last chapter looks at the prospects for future happiness in the region and talks of the extraordinary optimism found among Africa’s youth. Thanks go to ISQOLS colleagues for providing pointers for our next QoL project: to Carol Graham for her stimulating inaugural lecture on hope as president of our Society, and to Emma Pleeging and Martijn Burger for their excellent literature review of hope and quality of life.

2.  What initially attracted you to the field of quality-of-life studies?

In the early 1980s, Lawrence Schlemmer asked me to read the classics by Andrew and Withey and by Campbell colleagues, both published in 1976. I was captivated! Their approach to studying quality of life would serve as a template for our South African study. Lawrence Schlemmer had already had some experience in administering a 5-point ‘happiness – anger scale’ to samples of urban black South Africans to rate their life situation under apartheid, when he collaborated with an inquiry into the prospects of peaceful change in South African.

My particular interest in studying the well-being among older South Africans was sparked when I came across Bernice Neugarten’s life satisfaction measure reported in a 1961 gerontology article. I also remember being stunned by Alex Inkeles’ and David H. Smith’s prophecy that older folks’ knowledge and wisdom would no longer be of value to younger generations in future. This was the price developing countries must pay for ‘Becoming modern’, the title of their 1974 book.

3. What are some areas of quality-of-life studies you feel are lacking attention? Any advice for future QoL researchers?

We in ISQOLS probably have most areas covered. The ISQOLS Vermont conference was a future-oriented one. There were sessions that focussed on making future cities more liveable, and on safeguarding our planet for future generations. The sessions on well-being during the Covid-19 pandemic also drew attention to the importance of mental health as a new area of concern.

Time-use studies. We might like to pay more attention to what we can learn about mental health from time-use studies. Apparently, the first time-use studies were conducted to learn about the impact of television on society in the 1950s. Today, the focus may have shifted to how social media has affected lifestyles in the digital age.

Sleep. Time-use studies might also shed more light on sleep and well-being. I once was curious and checked how many articles on sleep had been published in Social Indicators Research over a ten-year period – it will have been around the time of Wolfgang Glatzer’s ISQOLS conference in 2003. I found only two or three articles on sleep-related quality of life. Surely, sleep is an important domain of life, as it may take up about a third of our day.

The time-use study we conducted among South African youth in the mid-1980s collected information on their activities from the time respondents woke up in the morning until they retired to bed at night. Some of our colleagues joked that we probably overlooked the most interesting daily activities in the lives of NEET youth ‘not in education, employment or training’  – and our colleagues were not referring only to sleep!

4. How long have you been a member of ISQOLS? Why did you choose to be a member of ISQOLS? How has your involvement in ISQOLS impacted your career/research/advancement in your knowledge of QoL studies?

I will have joined ISQOLS in 1996, as I came to Alex Michalos’ Prince George conference that year. It was a wonderful experience! I seem to have been a real enthusiast from then on. I became a lifetime ISQOLS member early on. I thought I’d not need to pay annual dues thereafter, as it was very difficult to transfer money overseas from South Africa at the time!  

I checked my list of conference papers and see that I presented at fourteen ISQOLS conferences: Prince George 1996, Williamsburg 1998, Girona 2000, Washington DC 2001, Frankfurt 2003, Philadelphia 2004, Grahamstown 2006, San Diego 2007, Florence 2009, Venice 2012, Berlin 2014, Innsbruck 2017, Granada 2019, and Burlington 2022. I still have a host of conference badges and bags as souvenirs!

In addition, I met up with ISQOLS members at conferences hosted by organisations associated with ISQOLS, the International Sociology Association’s ISA Working Group 6 Social Indicators (later upgraded to ISA Research Committee 56 Social Indicators), and the International Association for Time Use Research (IATUR). I presented at eight ISA Social Indicators meetings (Madrid 1990, Bielefeld 1994, Montreal 1998, Berlin 2000, Durban 2006, Barcelona 2008, Gothenborg 2010, and The Hague 2013) as well as at three IATUR conferences (Madrid 1990, Rome 1992, and Vienna 1996). I remember being made welcome by Alex Michalos and IATUR’s Andrew Harvey at the Madrid 1990 meetings, even though I was coming from apartheid South Africa.  

Denis Huschka and I were entrusted with hosting the first ISQOLS conference to be held on the African continent. The Grahamstown ISQOLS conference dovetailed with the ISA Social Indicators meeting held the following week in Durban, so I also organised that programme. Denis and I found Don Rahtz’ conference guide, a concise three-pager, really useful. We tried to follow Don’s instructions to the letter in order to keep expenditure to a minimum. We opted for a simple conference programme printed in black and white. We provided delegates with transport from the nearest airport to Rhodes University, accommodation on campus, morning and afternoon tea/coffee, lunch, and dinner. There were some special touches a piano was played in the background to welcome ISQOLS colleagues at registration and we took our board and executive members on safari to a game park for their meeting. We managed to return the ISQOLS conference advance as well as a return from hosting the conference, as set out in Don’s guidelines. We hoped that we’d proved that developing countries could successfully host ISQOLS conferences! To be truthful, Denis and I had slightly over-estimated the cost of accommodation on campus for delegates, as we’d prepared the conference budget when the university was closed for the Christmas holidays. So unwittingly, the many ISQOLS colleagues, who had sportingly opted to stay in student accommodation, did help us to boost the conference surplus.

At the 2006 conference, we had asked Wolfgang Glatzer and Anna Lau to lead a lunchtime discussion on what ISQOLS meetings had to offer that was special. A common response was that unlike conferences in specialist fields, ISQOLS conferences provided delegates with opportunities to share their particular research interests and skills with scholars from different backgrounds and to find common ground in QoL studies.     

5. Feel free to include any other important comments or things you'd like to share with the ISQOLS community.

It has been a privilege and a pleasure to meet so many ISQOLS colleagues around the world since I joined ISQOLS. It is encouraging to see how many more ISQOLS members now come from developing countries. I’ve been pleased to learn that newcomers value the inclusive and friendly atmosphere at our meetings as much as I did when I joined ISQOLS as a ‘rookie’ QoL researcher. I know the younger generation of ISQOLS members are poised to develop QoL studies for the future. You are well placed to apply the latest digital technologies and methodologies to address the many challenges facing our planet and us humans in the 21st century.

The International Society for
Quality-of-Life Studies

P.O. Box 118
Gilbert, Arizona, 85299, USA


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