ESRC Seminar Series continues

We’ve been neglecting this blog slightly in favour of new projects but I just thought I’d paste in some info on an upcoming event we are organising along with geography colleagues from Bristol and Durham Universities.

Please go to: if you’d like to book a place, and to have a look at the other events that we’ve been holding on this exciting theme of psychological governance and behaviour change…..

Psychological resilience. Governing the brain, mind and behaviour

University of Birmingham, Michael Tippett Room, Astor Suite, 3rd Floor, Staff House (R24 on map)

23rd June 2014, 9:00 – 4:30pm

This seminar highlights the range of psychological approaches which have influenced contemporary public policy making in different national contexts, exploring how and why it is that particular psychological insights are used and taken up by specific governments.

Participants will discuss initiatives, policies and projects which make use of: positive psychology, flourishing, nudge, the science of happiness, wellbeing, mindfulness, neural plasticity, socio-psychological resilience. The seminar critically interrogates the political claims made in the name of broadly positive psychology; claims revolving around a discourse of hope and potential. Participants will consider what kinds of psychological and behavioural realities are omitted from these accounts.

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Confirmed Speakers:

9:00 Tea and Coffee

9:30 Welcome and introduction

10:00 Dr Jan de Vos, Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences, University of Ghent

Why does the brain need a party? Neuropower and the spectacle, assessed via (para)governmental campaigns related to the brain and mental health in Flanders.

10:30 Professor Erica Burman, School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester

Manifesting resilience

11:00 Professor Kathryn Ecclestone, School of Education, Sheffield

Governing psycho-emotionally vulnerable citizens: new subjectivities in an inclusive neo-liberal therapeutic state

11:30 Discussion

12:00 LUNCH

13:00 *Video Interlude* Dr Sam Binkley, Sociology, Emerson College, USA

Happiness as Enterprise. An Essay on Neoliberal Life

13:10 Vanessa King, Action for Happiness and Change Able

Building Resilience – Practical Interventions to Help People Survive and Thrive in Today’s World

13:40 Dr John Cromby, Psychology, School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University

Psychology as practical biopolitics

14:10 Discussion


15:00 Dr Will Davies, Department of Politics, Goldsmiths University of London

The Politics of Silent Citizenship: historical lessons for contemporary psychological government

15:30 Professor Peter John, Department of Political Science, UCL

Changing bureaucrats and citizens: The transformative potential of an experimental public administration16:00 Discussion and closing comments

16:30 Close

Speakers’ Abstracts (to follow)

Jan de Vos

Why does the brain need a party? Neuropower and the spectacle, assessed via (para)governmental campaigns related to the brain and mental health in Flanders.

Critics of the neuro-turn are inclined to ask: “What do we know more now, what is the surplus of neuroscience?” Instead of hastily answering this in the negative, perhaps we should look for an added value elsewhere. In this paper I will look for this surplus-value by engaging with the relation of neuropower to the spectacle, and I’ll do that via assessing some (para)governmental campaigns related to the brain and mental health in Flanders. The cerebellum, so it seems, must be celebrated, it deserves a party and festivities. In neuro-education – conceived here as the instruction of youth into the neuroscientific findings (“the amazing and fascinating world of our brain”) – this celebrative aspect is particular poignant. A brain festival for 14 to 18 your old pupils is, for example, announced as “An entertaining mix of scientific presentations, live brain dissection and workshops!” This, then, will be juxtaposed with another observation: that is, neuroscience can be said to be well aware itself that it does not really bring in an extra knowledge: neuroscience knows it does not know more. For is the neurodiscourse not itself relentlessly deconstructive vis-à-vis all kinds of presuppositions and claims used to be made in the psy-sciences? At the least it shows that there is no subject (endowed with a free will or agency) of knowledge. Is it not this lack, this hole in contemporary subjectivity which has to be acted out, which has to be partied away? The brain has to become a vociferous spectacle in order that we can gloss over it sheer muteness, the fact that is hasn’t anything to tell us. Arguably, we have to dance on our ontological abyss. It will moreover be argued that, to understand the govermentality in play in such brain campaigns, we have to discern that the music, the dances, the balloons and the funny hats in the spectacle of the brain are supplied by psychology, the latter seemingly miraculously surviving the neuro-turn as its MC.


Erica Burman

Manifesting resilience

This paper takes as its focus the recent UK policy document, the Character and Resilience Manifesto, (launched in February 2014). It identifies and situates its key tropes in relation to other recent British government educational and social policies. While ‘resilience’ is not a new concept, its resurgence in recent years arises from a psychologization of socio-political and economic insecurities such that structural vulnerabilities and risks can be passed back to a fortified, responsibilised neoliberal subject. But this is not all. This performative text also produces what it describes in four ways. Firstly, not only does resilience emit a neutral to positive rhetorical charge, between the gendering of ‘positive psychology’, ‘thriving’, or the ‘happiness’ vs. ‘hardiness’. ‘mental toughness’ and ‘psychofortology’, but it also, secondly, provides a (further gendered) means of acknowledging and addressing emotional dynamics and relationships without explicitly topicalising these and so maintaining its scientific status. Thirdly, it both appeals to and blurs the boundaries between the technical and the scientific by ventriloquising its evidential claims, so also guaranteeing ‘deniability’. Finally, as a combined trope ‘character and resilience’ fruitfully navigates current contestations between nature and nurture, and between neuroscience and psychopedagogy.


Kathryn Ecclestone

Governing psycho-emotionally vulnerable citizens: new subjectivities in an inclusive neo-liberal therapeutic state

In response to profoundly pessimistic discourses of structural and psychological crisis, British social policy settings have become key sites for state-sponsored psycho-therapeutic interventions. Education is a key focus for these. In parallel, the government’s Behavioural Insight Team extends behaviour change techniques into new areas. Taken together, these applications of the ‘psy-sciences’ embrace ad hoc elements of positive psychology (as a particular form of behavioural/cognitive psychology), neuroscience, counselling, self-help and psychoanalysis. Resonating powerfully with ‘therapeutic culture’, widespread support for these elements of the psy-sciences is underpinned by equally diverse concerns and intentions, some remerging from earlier periods, some of which are new. Combining insights from both areas of policy illuminates shifts and continuities in older discourses of political subjectivity. The paper argues that a highly inclusive neo-liberal state embraces seemingly competing strategies and concerns to legitimize new therapeutic forms of governance and governmentality. A powerful unifying strand is disdain for, and rejection of, the neo-liberal rational subject. This raises new political and ethical questions about the legitimate boundaries of behaviour change strategies and their psycho-emotionally-vulnerable human targets.


Vanessa King

Building Resilience – Practical Interventions to Help People Survive and Thrive in Today’s World

There is a growing focus on ‘building resilience and psychological wellbeing’ in organisations, in schools and communities. The recent economic downturn and longer-term shifts have meant this is timely. It is fuelled by three forces: psychological ill-health as a growing issue with associated social and economic impact; psychological research broadening to include a greater focus on functioning and prevention in addition to the causes and cure of dysfunction; and thirdly, a growing attention on non-financial measures of society’s progress.  Vanessa King has developed and implemented resilience building programmes and psychological wellbeing interventions within large and smaller organisations and in community settings in the UK and overseas. She’ll provide an overview of this work, how it is perceived and received and the practicalities of translating academic research into day-to-day action.  Vanessa is an experienced a leadership and organisation development consultant. She completed a Masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology under Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, one of only 250 people worldwide to have done so. She is trained as a facilitator on the University of Pennsylvania’s Master Resilience Training programme for the US Army.  She is a Board Member of the not-for-profit, Action for Happiness, founded by the economist Professor, Lord Richard Layard. Leading their work with organisations and speaking on their behalf nationally and internationally. Vanessa developed their ‘10 Keys to Happier Living’, wrote the psychological content of their extensive website. Vanessa has worked with the new economics foundation, is a member of the UK Government Taskforce on Engagement’s Well-being sub-committee and is an affiliate of the Wellbeing Institute at the University of Cambridge.




Will Davies

The Politics of Silent Citizenship: historical lessons for contemporary psychological government

Current efforts to govern via psychology, such as behaviour change and wellbeing optimisation, have been heralded as a major innovation in public policy. This paper suggests that they are merely recent adaptations of a project initiated by Bentham, which aims to strip discourse and deliberation out of politics. The paper explores two precedents for this, by way of a ‘history of the present’. The first is Jevons’ application of Benthamite psychology to the study of prices in the 1870s. The second is the reconception of depression within American psychiatry during the 1970s. Both are efforts to bring mental states within a governing framework, which avoid the need to speak to people, though both ultimately fail in that effort. The paper looks at the politics and limits of this desire for ‘silent citizenship’, which has recently been refreshed once more by the neurosciences.

Peter John

Changing bureaucrats and citizens: The transformative potential of an experimental public administration

Ideas about behaviour change have the potential to transform public administration as it is practised today. Although theories of behaviour change can help evaluate public policies and to improve their effectiveness, it entails bureaucrats doing things differently, often having to readdress established procedures.  To test for behaviour change, it is essential to use experiments, in the form of RCTs, and these often involve the redesign of existing administrative systems, which raises questions about why old procedures were introduced in the first place. Using robust evidence means that old ways of business can be challenged. More experiments can set off chain reactions within bureaucracies, encouraging innovation to become more a common practice, whereby bureaucrats start to learn through testing and adapting what they do. In a broader conception, behaviour change may be applied to other actors in the political process, such as to the bureaucrats themselves, and can be applied by citizens to bureaucrats and politicians. In this way, ideas about information and behaviour change can be used to create positive feedback loops between different actors in the political process, encouraging more responsiveness to bureaucrats to citizens, and citizens to bureaucrats. Of course, implementing such changes involves challenges as well as successes, and the paper gives examples of both from the UK at local and national levels.


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