Professor Rose is one of our leading contemporary social scientists. Currently he is Professor of Sociology and Head of the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College, London. In the talk, Professor Rose characterises the ‘territory’ of mental illness today by posing five hard questions that seem to represent genuine empirical, conceptual, professional and ethical dilemmas.

The questions are:

  1. Is there an ‘epidemic’ of mental disorder?
  2. Does the path to understanding mental disorder lie through the brain?
  3. What is the role of diagnosis and of diagnostic manuals?
  4. Should we seek early identification of those at risk of future mental pathology?
  5. What is the place of patients, users, survivors, consumers in the mental health system?

Is there really an ‘epidemic’ of mental disorder? Or are psychiatrists simply too willing to diagnose and, if so, why? Rose cautions against construing this as simple psychiatric imperialism. Instead we need to look at what he calls the ‘new engines of psychiatrization‘ which are driving these increasing figures. What are the implications of incorporating all ‘mental illnesses’ into the category of ‘brain disorders’? If so many have ‘abnormal’ brains then what does ‘normality’ actually mean?

I’m always amazed by how much ground Nikolas Rose is able to cover during one lecture. There a list of his lectures on his (new?) website, many of which are available to watch online.

Earlier this week, it was reported in a number of outlets that Tesco has been using armbands to monitor employees at a distribution center, enabling management to track moment to moment activity in a way which was previously impossible:

The armbands, officially known as Motorola arm-mounted terminals, look like something between a Game Boy and Garmin GPS device. The terminals keep track of how quickly and competently employees unload and scan goods in the warehouse and gives them a grade. It also sets benchmarks for loading and unloading speed, which workers are expected to meet. The monitors can be turned off during workers’ lunch breaks, but anything else—bathroom trips, visits to a water fountain—reportedly lowers their productivity score. Tesco did not respond to requests for comment, so it’s hard to know if the arm bands have been a success.

What struck me was the muted presence of gamification themes, both in the deployment of the technology and in the reporting of its use. The technology allows management to ‘grade’ workers and compile real time moment-to-moment data (facilitating Taylorism 2.0?) in a manner which produces ‘scores’:

The former employee said the device provided an order to collect from the warehouse and a set amount of time to complete it. If workers met that target, they were awarded a 100 per cent score, but that would rise to 200 per cent if they worked twice as quickly. The score would fall if they did not meet the target.

Micro-measurement of employee behaviour is obviously not new, however the use of mobile technology (that looks like a Game Boy) to produce ongoing scores for each individual is more novel. It produces the sustained, coherent and linear feedback which is integral to game dynamics. It doesn’t stretch one’s imagination to conceive of Tesco giving out FourSquare-esque badges for sustained levels of achievement by individuals in the depot or publishing league tables in order to ‘motivate’ workers in the depot to achieve ‘better scores’. When/if it takes such a form, gamification looks and sounds little like the radical technology described by its advocates, which draws together a trendily eclectic selection of behavioural knowledges into a easily saleable intellectual ‘movement’ which is increasingly in vogue within management schools.

However is there really such a disconnect? Drawing on the work of people like Nikolas Rose, it could easily be argued that technologies of motivation and affect (the ‘psi disciplines’) are intrinsically political. Or that, at the very least, they cannot be detached from their political implications. While I would resist any poststructuralist turn which, in my view, risks collapsing intellectual inquiry into cultural politics, I’d nonetheless suggest that people who work in these areas have a responsibility to consider the implications which their work might hold. I find gamification fascinating in a number of ways. Nonetheless my engagement with it (which to be fair amounts to watching some videos, reading a single book and doing a Coursera course) has also left me with the sense of it as deeply troubling. Largely because there seems to be little or no engagement with the question of the consequences that might be held by this work when it is thrown ‘out there’ into the world, free to be deployed in a world riven with inequalities of power and status, facing a long-term crisis of economic growth and an increasing tendency towards structural (near or total) redundancy for large swathes of the labour market. Within such a context, the failure of gamification people to engage with the politics of gamification is deeply troubling.

When Miller and Rose (2008: 1 – 25) describe the general trajectory of their work on governmentality, they elaborate upon the questions that have guided their inquiry over the last two three decades. Most notable for my purposes is the question relating to human self-understanding and its utilisation within governmental practices:

What understandings of the people to be acted upon – whether explicit or implict – underpinned these endeavours, and how did they shape or reshape the ways in which these individuals understood and acted on themselves?

This is a crucial question which, when pursued empirically, leads into all manner of localised, contingent and messy social phenomena which grand theories of modernity, globalization, individualization (etc) too frequently overlook. Yet there is a fundamental problem with the approach they adopt in attempting to address it: their hostility towards a theory of the subject. They suggest that any attempt to offer such a theory would leave them implicated in precisely those ‘psy disciplines’ which are a crucial object of their genealogical inquiry: “that question could only be answered on the basis of some explicit or implicit assumptions about human mental processes. Yet for us, the historical forms taken by those presuppositions were exactly what we were studying” (Miller and Rose 2008: 7).

Part of the problem here is methodological. A failure to distinguish between what Bhaskar (2011: 21) terms the transitive and intransitive objects of scientific inquiry: the “changing cognitive objects that are produced within science as a function of scientific practice” and “the unchanging real objects that exist outside the scientific process” respectively. As I understand their intention, Miller and Rose are inquiring into the transitive aspects of governmentality and the psi disciplines (i.e. the models of the subject worked with and the uses to which they are put as technologies of power and control) rather than the properties and powers of the subject, understood in an intransitive and ontological sense.

Due to their failure to draw this distinction they are left in the strange position of investigating the actual effects of such models of the subject when applied in social life while denying the possibility of objective knowledge of the underlying properties of actual subjects in virtue of which such effects become conceptually comprehensible. In essence they are forced to presuppose a model of the subject which their meta-theoretical and methodological commitments simultaneously force them to deny.

So what would such a subject look like? What has to be true of the human subject for Miller and Rose to be able to answer the questions they address about subjectification?

  1. Individuals must have the capacity for self-understanding
  2. Individuals must have the capacity to act upon themselves
  3. Both (1) and (2) must be, at least to some extent malleable in virtue of external influence

So some notion of reflexivity is tacitly affirmed, in so far as that individuals are assumed to understand themselves and act on themselves in virtue of this self-understanding. Yet this reflexivity does not stand insulated from external influences. While the capacity itself stands as an inherent power of the individual, its form and content is susceptible to social and cultural conditioning. What form would this conditioning take? If it is entirely external then it becomes difficult to see how it could produce the degree of malleability which Miller and Rose convincingly illustrate through their empirical inquiry: individuals could be told incessantly to practice their internal life in a particular way but without some mechanism through which such invocations could become, in some way, internalised, the efficacy of these efforts would likely be limited.

I want to suggest that this mechanism is something internal to reflexivity which is, as yet, under-theorised and under-researched. Its relative absence from theories of reflexivity perhaps accounts for at least some of the hostility directed towards them, as well as the straw man attacks which they are often subject to e.g. that a strong defence of reflexivity implies an anti-empirical quasi-existentialist belief in free will, as Atkinson (2010) suggests. That mechanism is the reliance of reflexivity – our conscious deliberations / internal conversations – on habitual cognitive categories which are themselves the products of socialisation and subject to change throughout the life course. In my next post I’ll have a go at elucidating what I mean by this, as well as its relation to the wider debate on reflexivity and habitus. Or maybe I won’t. I’m realistic enough to recognise that I’ve said ‘in my next post’ on various blogs countless times and almost never done it. Oh well.