Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn – Positive Affect as Coercive Strategy: Conditionality, Activation and the Role of Psychology in UK Government Workfare Programmes

William Viney writes – This is the fifth and final post introducing individual papers from a special issue of Medical Humanities, edited by myself, Felicity Callard, and Angela Woods. A more general overview of the special issue can be found here.

In the last contribution to this special issue, Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn reflect the activist edge of the critical medical humanities with an important theorisation and documentation of how psychological types and ideals, promoted by positive psychologists, have been mobilised by government employment schemes. The findings of this study have been widely reported in the mainstream press this week, first in an op-ed in The Conversation, then by the BBC, and Independent. The study describes a Government policy called ‘workfare,’ the name given to mandatory unpaid work carried out by social security claimants in the UK. Friedli and Stearn provide disturbing evidence of how workfare programmes are supported by a form of psychological discipline, demanding that citizens take cognitive responsibility for their joblessness. Becoming a successful employee becomes a question of presenting the right psychological attitude or emotional orientation, rather than recognising that having a job is a complex consequence of economic and political policy or social disadvantage.

The medical humanities has made extensive interventions in the field of mental health, care, and diagnosis, especially patient experience. Friedli and Stearn’s research, which draws conceptually and empirically from the wellsprings of their activism, shows how psychologists can be mobilised as political agents under the cover of professional neutrality. The recruitment of psychologists and the concomitant privatisation of public and economic policy upon the emotional lives of underprivileged sections of society are insidious processes. Not only do the critical medical humanities have a capacity to report on political practices that are, by their nature, obscured from public visibility, but Friedli and Stearn show how benevolent therapies are used to legitimise and make mainstream new forms of governance that aim to operate at the level of belief, emotion, and affect. In her response to Friedli and Stearn, Sarah Atkinson suggests that the messages of positive psychology are a danger to us all: ‘infus[ing] our everyday understandings of who we are, what we might become and our own responsibility for determining our own well-being.’

Friedli and Stearn’s paper is available for free download and you can read the full introductory paper, too; both are available Open Access.

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