Need Now: Basic Human Needs in the 21st Century

Need Now: Basic Human Needs in the 21st Century
Speaker: Heidi Keller # Osnabrueck; Speaker: John O'Neill # Manchester; Speaker: Linda McKie # Durham; Speaker: Sophie Bowlby # Reading; Speaker: Ryan Watkins # GWU
Hosted by
Introduced by
Date and Time
29th Jun 2015 10:00 - 29th Jun 2015 17:00
6th Floor Staff Room, Chrystal Macmillan Building, George Square


This workshop will explore the contemporary use of ideas of basic human needs in disciplines such as social and political theory, health and social sciences, and moral philosophy. Need is a foundational concept in social theory and research, and far from new. However, our understanding and application of it has changed as our societies, resources, and environments have changed. For example, it is often argued that globalisation and industrialisation have resulted in the creation of new needs. ‘Basic needs’ are sometimes taken to form an empirical category, driving research in health and social sciences, as in the fields of development studies or disability studies. They are also considered normatively meaningful, featuring in ethical and political theory concerned with humanitarian duties, human rights, and fair distribution of resources. This workshop will bring together an interdisciplinary group of experts whose research and practice makes salient one or more of the themes of the workshop:

  • Human needs as a way of understanding well-being, vulnerability, or commonalities in the human condition
  • Empirical reasons for seeing some fundamental needs as 'real'
  • Needs as grounding entitlements, or need as a distributive norm

The workshop is supported by the Just World Institute at the University of Edinburgh.


  • Prof Heidi Keller
    University of Osnabrück, Professor of Psychology, Department of Human Sciences
  • Prof John O’Neill
    University of Manchester, Hallsworth Chair in Political Economy, School of Social Sciences
  • Prof Linda McKie
    University of Durham, Head of School, Professor of Sociology in the School of Applied Social Sciences
  • Dr Sophie Bowlby
    University of Reading, Visiting Research Fellow, School of Geography and Environmental Science
  • Prof Ryan Watkins
    George Washington University, Associate Professor, Educational Leadership


Participation is free of charge, but the number of places is limited. Therefore, it is essential you register here. (Eventbrite)

Time and Place

The workshop takes place in the 6th floor Staff Room, Chrystal Macmillan Building, George Square, Edinburgh. It will run from 10:00 to 17:00.


Download as PDF

10:00-10:30 Reception and Welcome, tea and coffee
10:30-11:45 "The Overshadowing of Needs"
Prof John O'Neill, Manchester
11:45-12:00 Coffee break
12:00-1:15 "The Cultural Specificity of Universal Human Needs"
Prof Heidi Keller, Osnabrück
1:15-2:15 Lunch break (catered)
2:15-3:30 "The Need to Care: Human Flourishing and Interdependencies Across the Lifecourse"
Prof Linda McKie, Durham
Dr Sophie Bowlby, Reading
3:30-3:45 Coffee break
3:45-5:00 "Needs: Defining What You Are Assessing"
Prof Ryan Watkins, George Washington


John O'Neill: "The Overshadowing of Needs"

Discussions of sustainability in economics have shifted from the needs-based formulation of the concept in the Brundtland report to the preference-based formulation that is standard in welfare economics. In this paper I contrast the logical features of the concepts of need and preference and I suggest that the characterisation of the concept of sustainability in terms of needs has both theoretical and practical virtues which disappear in the shift to the language of preferences. A needs-based approach captures the plurality of different constituents of well-being, and the limits to the substitutability between different kinds of goods that current generation must pass on to future generations if human welfare is to be maintained. It offers a better account of the nature and seriousness of the ethical obligations that are owed both to the poor in current generations and to future generations. It provides a more adequate starting point for the acknowledgement of forms of human dependence and vulnerability that informs basic concerns with sustainability. In developing these arguments I also address the questions of the relative merits of needs-based and capabilities-based approaches to welfare and sustainability, and examine how far they can be reconciled.

Heidi Keller: "The Cultural Specificity of Universal Human Needs"

During the history of humankind, particular environmental challenges posed adaptational problems that had to be solved. There are in particular two predispositions that are part of the general human psychology: autonomy and relatedness. Autonomy represents the individual agency, mastery and competence, relatedness represents the social orientation and interrelatedness. These two predispositions can be understood as basic and universal human needs because no human being can live without autonomy and relatedness.

There is a long tradition in psychology to discuss these conceptions under different labels with different implications. Often they are understood as antagonistic representing the end poles of one dimension.  In this presentation it is argued that these predispositions need to be understood as cultural constructs since different sociocontextual conditions necessitate different conceptions of autonomy and relatedness without denying their general importance.

Two adaptive patterns are presented, one serving the Western urban middle class populations, and one serving small scale rural non-Western farmers. It is argued that the Western urban middle class psychology is organized around psychological autonomy, which emphasizes the mental world of intentions, wishes, preferences and individual uniqueness. This understanding of autonomy is related to an understanding of relationships as voluntary, self-selected and negotiable. The traditional rural farmer psychology is organized around hierarchical relatedness that emphasizes the role obligations and social responsibilities of individuals. The related conception of autonomy centres around independent behavioral functioning in terms of action autonomy. The socialization of these conceptions will be highlighted with examples from our cross cultural research program.

Linda McKie and Sophie Bowlby: "The Need to Care: Human Flourishing and Interdependencies Across the Lifecourse"

Many societies are grappling with the care implications of public health success; these include enhanced survival at birth and early years, the growth in chronic illnesses managed over years, to increased longevity. It is a taken for granted truism that as we grow and age we are all in need of care to varying degrees at differing times. Yet all too often, and quite literally, we work to exclude care from our public and working lives. In summary a boundary appears to persist between caring and working. However, there are flows of energy, labour and resources which move from caring to working and vice versa. Thus care and caring have an absent presence in our daily lives.

In contributions to the analysis of informal caring and paid working, across time and space, we offered the framework of caringscapes (McKie et al., 2002 and Bowlby et al., 2010). This framework incorporates past and current experiences, knowledge of the experiences of others, together with anticipations about the changing nature of caring over time-space. Caringscapes continues to offer relevance and explanatory potential when we consider the example of stroke among the middle aged and the implications for working partners and family members. However, our original framework did not adequately address (a) the multifaceted experiences and inequalities of opportunities facing carers given their differing social capital, class, ethnicity and age, as well as gender, and (b) the particular demands of crisis and chronic care. Crisis care requires short term, intensive everyday care support which may give way to the need to manage a chronic condition through rehabilitation, adaptations and long term everyday care support. Much of this everyday support is provided by family members (or more rarely friends) who may be involved in paid work and wish, or need, to continue doing so. Recognising the gendered nature of the multifaceted nature of care we explore the intersectionalities of carers who continue to try to do paid work in late middle and older age.

In this paper I will first explore the fundamental nature of care to human survival, go on to explore how we interpret care in contemporary contexts introducing the framework of caringscapes, and reflecting on the futures of care and caring.

Ryan Watkins: "Needs: Defining What You Are Assessing"

Needs assessments are practical tools that we commonly use to guide decisions. From humanitarian assistance to personal purchases, we formally and informally assess needs all of the time to help us decide what to do next.  It is through these assessments that the concept of needs routinely shapes our individual choices, our organizational strategies, and even our societal responses to challenges.  By definition then your needs assessment should assess needs, but how do you define them? Further, how do you operationalize that definition to measure needs? Do your partners and stakeholders also hold the same conceptual, and operational, definitions? Can your assessed needs be aggregated with the assessment results of others?  Is there agreement that you will only assess needs and not wants, assets, capacity, or solutions? Or are you really expected to assess all these, and more? Each of these is an important consideration that can substantially influence the success of any needs assessment. In this session we will examine how definitions and use of the word need influence the design and implementation of an assessment, suggesting that the definition can shape the results of the assessment and the decisions that follow.


  • Christina Dineen
    PhD Candidate in Political Theory, Programme Coordinator of the Just World Institute University of Edinburgh
  • Prof Tim Hayward
    Professor of Environmental Political Theory, Director of the Just World Institute, University of Edinburgh