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Developing survey measures of inequality of autonomy in the UK

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This paper explores the development of survey questions to measure autonomy, interpreted as the degree of choice and control a person has in key areas of his or her life. A review of the theoretical literature leads to a conceptualisation of autonomy as consisting of three components: (1) self-reflection, (2) active or delegated decision-making, and (3) a wide variety of high-quality options. Three major barriers to autonomy are identified: (1) conditioned expectations, (2) coercion, and (3) structural constraints, including lack of advice and support. A suite of questions designed to assess these components and barriers was devised and subjected to cognitive testing with a purposive sample of 34 individuals with diverse characteristics. The tests resulted in refinements to the language, response categories and phrasing of questions. Analysis of responses indicated that issues of decision-making and range and quality of options were easier for respondents to grasp than questions about self-reflection, and conditioned expectations could be detected only indirectly. Nevertheless the components of, and barriers to, autonomy could be separately identified. The article concludes that despite limitations, survey measurement of the complex concept of autonomy is possible and revealing.

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