Last night I had the great pleasure of hearing Kathryn Ecclestone present her professorial inaugural lecture at the University of Sheffield. Kathryn is well known for her work on the political and cultural rise of what she sees as a ‘therapeutic culture’ which is reflected in policies designed to promote resilience and well-being. Her lecture was concerned with the growing tendency of government, teachers and parents to present young people as vulnerable.
Drawing on her own experience of teaching unemployed youngsters at the time of the miners’ strike, Kathryn argues that the therapeutic culture is a new phenomenon that has become pervasive during the last three decades. Her writing clearly speaks to a large number of people who are worried by the turn towards introspection, emotionalism and self-analysis in our society, and who are concerned at the consequences for young people’s and adults’ education. I think that she is pointing to a trend that is widely discussed in the world at large but largely ignored within educational studies.
I do, though, have misgivings. The main one is conceptual: Kathryn situates her work within the broad body of conservative cultural critique that is most flamboyantly represented by Frank Furedi. Typically, this approach seizes on a cultural trend, and chews over it as a symptom of a pervasive societal state of anxiety and dependency.
Furedi and his supporters usually pick out interesting and topical trends. With their origins in a now-defunct Trotskyist grouplet, they tend to adopt a fairly combative style, exemplified in their online journal, Spiked, and know how to pull the tail of the political Left. Its most prominent representatives are good speakers, and have a high media profile; one of my old friends is able to work himself into a fury over their influence in programmes like the BBC’s ‘Moral Maze’.
On the whole, I find their work interesting and provocative, but shallow. Remarkably, for former Marxists, their analyses are largely ahistorical, often comprising a contrast between critique of a very specific contemporary cultural pattern and an unsupported assertion that this did not occur in the past. They rarely attend to causality; no one knows how or why any particular deplorable cultural practice or belief has arisen. And finally, they are often less than impressive on what might be done to remedy things.
People in past times certainly were concerned about well-being. During the 1930s, for example, hard-nosed Communists like John Gollan and Wal Hannington drew attention to the effects of unemployment on mental health. Of course, psychologists and other medical specialists also focused on these issues; I’ve blogged about one of these, Marie Jahoda, who studied resilience and vulnerability among the unemployed. Of course, while there was debate over young people’s vulnerability, much of it focused on the economic conditions that were undermining security and resilience.
So if there is an ‘affective turn’ in our society, what has fuelled it? One possibility is that it has arisen solely because of a successful lobby from vested interests. My impression was that last night was that this is largely how Kathryn sees the rise of political and educational concern over young people’s vulnerability – it is, she seems to suggest, largely driven by the growing army of therapists, psychiatrists and others. This seems pretty unconvincing; unless she knows something that I don’t, this is not the most powerful and united lobbying group that occurs to me.
A more convincing explanation is that well-being now matters
more. I think this is highly likely, and that in our affluent, consumption-driven society, people are far more likely to worry about their own mental state. As I’ve said elsewhere, I see much of the interest in counselling, positive psychology and self-help therapies as connected to wider tendencies towards individualisation and introspection that arise from deeply-rooted social trends, combined with the rapid expansion of post-secondary education, and growth in the importance of qualifications and skills. In short, what was once a private trouble has become a public issue as a result of deep-rooted social and cultural change.
Arguably, too, our modern world is creating more insecurity and new sources of anxiety. The well-known phenomenon of precariety is often understood to refer mainly to people who work on the economic margins, in insecure and fragmentary jobs that might end at any moment. But the experience is also felt in many other occupations that once were highly secure, from policing to sales. These occupations no longer provide a solid foundation for a secure identity – and, for many people, our intimate relationships and community contexts are equally precarious.
Finally, what should we do? I worry about our ability to develop critiques and our inability to offer solutions. For some, the affective turn means that we are moving towards a softer, more caring society. If Kathryn believes that the therapeutic culture is undermining our ability to act, and to take responsibility for our actions, then surely the onus is on her to come up with a few clear proposals. Meanwhile, isn’t a world where Andy Murray cries in public preferable to one where we absorb pain in private, but present a fixed smile to the outside world?