Spot the Subjectivity

Categories: Life, Politics
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We got our September National Geographic and I like to flip through it and read the short little things out loud while Brett makes our Sunday waffles. One of the little blurbs was about the most “liveable” cities in the world (September 2012, pg. 18). It listed five of the several factors that the cities were ranked on: education, public health, censorship, mass transit, and culture. And that list caught our attention, particularly the third one on the list.

So we looked up the company that does the ranking to see what the other factors were that they listed. What we found was a pretty good contradictory paragraph, claiming objectivity but sprouting subjectivity like Medusa’s head spouts snakes:

Quality of Living, for the purposes Mercer’s survey, analysis, and city rankings, differs fromquality of life.” Quality of life may involve a subjective assessment or opinion about one’s personal state and circumstances in a given city, but Mercer’s criteria for Quality of Living are objective, neutral and unbiased. Our objective system measures the quality of living for expatriates based on 39 criteria grouped into 10 key categories. We weigh each category to reflect its importance for overall quality of living. We assess the degree to which expatriates enjoy the standard of living in each host location, factoring in the interaction of political, socio-economic and environmental factors in the host location.

For Mercer’s Quality of Living rankings, New York serves as the base city. All other cities are ranked in relation to it.

This table shows the categories and criteria that Mercer quantifies for each city:

Mercer’s Quality of Living Survey Criteria

Political and Social Environment

  • Relationship with other Countries
  • Internal Stability
  • Crime
  • Law Enforcement
  • Ease of Entry and Exit

Economic Environment

  • Currency Exchange Regulations
  • Banking Services

Socio-Cultural Environment

  • Limitation on Personal Freedom
  • Media and Censorship

Natural Environment

  • Climate
  • Record of Natural Disasters
Medical and Health Considerations

  • Hospital Services
  • Medical Supplies
  • Infectious Diseases
  • Water Potability
  • Sewage
  • Waste removal
  • Air Pollution
  • Troublesome & Destructive Animals & Insects

Public Services and Transport

  • Electricity
  • Water Availability
  • Telephone
  • Mail
  • Public Transport
  • Traffic Congestion
  • Airport

Schools and Education

  • Schools

  • Variety of Restaurants
  • Theatrical & Musical Performances
  • Cinemas
  • Sport & Leisure Activities

Consumer Goods

  • Meat & Fish
  • Fruits & Vegetables
  • Daily Consumption Items
  • Alcoholic Beverages
  • Automobiles


  • Housing
  • Household Appliances & Furniture
  • Household Maintenance & Repair

Objective, neutral, and unbiased when they’ve decided New York is the base to judge everything else on? Objective, neutral, and unbiased decision on what counts as cultural experiences? Can you objectively judge the socio-cultural environment of a city? Looking at their top 30 list, those are all very liberal cities. The fact that they’re weighting the different factors means that they’ve subjectively decided which ones are most important.

You can objectively measure natural disasters. You can objectively measure monetary exchange rates. You can objectively measure crime rates (as long as they are being reported accurately). But I don’t think you can objectively say that one city is more liveable than other. Defining culture as restaurant variety and professional theaters misses a whole lot of culture and recreation out there in the world. It’s like limiting art to oil paintings and granite sculpture. You miss a lot of art with that definition.

I’m not against subjectivity. There are a lot of very good things in life we judge subjectively. Beauty, love, joy, are all judged subjectively. There is a lot of subjectivity in deciding how good a place to live is and you’re fooling yourself if you think otherwise. Or at least fooling those who pay you for your analysis.

2 shared thoughts about Spot the Subjectivity

  1. mama G says:

    :whistle: It all depends on who the judge is and what they think is important. My visiting teacher brought her husband with her on Wednesday evening. They were talking about Pres Monsons Birthday telecast. The husband said that “it was ok except for the singing. He had his wife fast forward through all that opera crap, if it aint country, it anit music”. He and I judge things differently. 🙂

  2. Denice says:

    You can prove anything you want to prove by a survey. It depends a lot on how questions are phrased and who is doing the survey.


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