WEEK 9 PROGRESS

As we move into the final stages of our research, we identified specific elements that needed further clarifications and agreement, namely the definition of key terms, formulations of the overarching research question and argument, the implications of our research and how we will go about organizing the format of our presentation.  

Having broken our argument into steps and established a causal link between employment uncertainties within the neoliberal context and the rise of self-optimisation and self-care activities that are a product of the individualising and responsibilising effects of the former, we concluded that such activities are sought out by individuals in search of certainty within themselves, but also co-opted and proliferated by corporate structures. Key terms such as ‘responsibilisation’, ‘workfare’ and ‘labour uncertainty’ were picked out for clarification of definitions.

In order to encapsulate all relevant facets of our research, we agreed on the following question:

What are the origins and implications of the rise of wellbeing initiatives within the neoliberal labour systems?

Our response and argument:

Employment uncertainties inherent to a neoliberal labour system have contributed to the rise of individualised mindfulness and self-tracking activities, which companies have co-opted to maximise productivity within the same system.

From this, we noted how this hypothesis presents us with a ‘chicken-or-egg’ paradox, for it is unclear whether these concepts of self-help and mindfulness are popular amongst consumers because they are being pushed by employers as beneficial for productivity, or vice-versa. We reflected how there is evidence that suggests cause-and-effect relationships both ways. For example, the explosion of mindfulness in Silicon Valley is arguably based on how it is marketed as a way to increase emotional intelligence, suggesting the role of corporate structures in influencing the spread of the practice. At the same time, individual lifestyle choices, such as the active seeking out of meditation and yoga, and how these demands are taken on by app developers and runners of courses also point to a reversed relationship. This brings us towards the implications of our research, which we have begun to identify as the limits of wellbeing programmes as a way of dealing with human uncertainties within the neoliberal labour market, for they appear to serve the purposes of the very systems that generate the uncertainties in the first place.

In the week leading up to the presentation, we will continue our overall discussions of the research in a way that will ensure a cohesive presentation of information, highlight the circular nature of our findings, and finalise the structure and division of our presentation.

Niccoló, Caroline, Nat, Stefan

Week 7 Progress

This week we began by narrowing down our hypothesis further, coming up with the argument: Individual employment uncertainties inherent to a late capitalist environment have prompted the rise of self-improvement and self-care movements that are being co-opted in service of corporate goals.  Then, we divided up parts of our question for further research to ensure we have substantial evidence for each aspect.  Nat looked into labour uncertainty, Niccolo researched cognitive capitalism and responsibilisation, Stefan looked into individual mindfulness/ self-tracking activities and I focused on corporate mindfulness and self-tracking programmes.

According to Jacobs and Blustein, mindfulness ‘can provide an effective means for workers dealing with uncertain employment conditions to cope with the anticipation stress […] in an increasingly ambiguous work environment’.  This uncertainty is explained by phenomena such as globalisation, industrial restructuring, technological development, and contract changes.  Sverske and Hellgren note the additional phenomena of downsizing (which also puts more work and pressure on those who are not fired) , the rise of part-time or temporary contracts, and even the relaxations of employment legislations.  Neo-liberalism has shaped practices both in companies and higher education, prioritising ‘workforce versatility’ that enables job mobility and the ability to learn new skills.  Thus, individuals are solely responsible for updating their skills and finding employment.

The potential of new technology to replace jobs and require fewer highly educated people to oversee industries creates a sense of ‘dispensable self’, meaning people find themselves lacking in ‘lasting value to others’ due to their disconnection from economic growth and those in power of the corporations.  Therefore, people rely more on short-term, intermittent jobs often with zero hour contracts in response to volatile economies, certainly fostering uncertainty.

In terms of individual self-tracking programmes, Lupton argues ‘self-tracking can help people feel more in control of their lives’, particularly for those who feel their social structures and ties have dissolved with the advent of more choices for conducting one’s life.  Additionally, ‘illness, emotional distress, lack of happiness or lack of achievement in the workplace become represented primarily as failures of individual self-control or efficiency, and therefore are requiring greater or more effective efforts, including perhaps increased intensity of self-tracking regimens’.  For example, Studentfare particularly addresses the stress brought on by the uncertainty in finding employment after university graduation through mindfulness.

Corporate Mindfulness companies often market their programmes as being particularly suited for employees undergoing stress and uncertainty as a result of downsizing or other workplace issues.  One top UK company claims their programmes teach participants to know ‘that the future is yours to create’, thus putting more pressure on the individual (who has experienced similar responsibilisation through education and the job market).  Mindfulness companies additionally tie their programmes to the idea of cognitive capitalism, by claiming they teach people to think more creatively and improve their ‘energy’ while they work; employees could therefore increase valuable yet difficult to quantify traits in an uncertain labour market.  However, corporations’ tendencies to monitor usually private aspects of employees’ lives as aspects of wellbeing initiatives (or otherwise) raise questions about privacy and the expendability of workers who do not perform well.  Ambiguity regarding how this data will affect individuals’ employment or advancement opportunities can create more uncertainty among employees.

 

Nat, Niccolo, Stefan and Caroline

 

 

Week 7 Progress

Having formulated our primary line of argument in a clear, concise, though still relatively conceptual shape last week, the focus of our supervised meeting last Tuesday, and especially our research since, has shifted towards real-world phenomena and data that have the potential to draw out & reinforce the most salient discussions and processes among those discussed at every stage of our investigation so far.

We initially highlighted a number of potential systemic sources of late capitalist uncertainty, including the shifting nature of labour, the reification of familial & religious values, and falling away of political certainties. With those in mind, it became clear that our connection between employer (mis)use of wellbeing practices & technology and these uncertainties would have to be a second-order one, where workplaces are not directly responding to uncertainty but instead co-opting a consumer-driven search for self-knowledge and self-care to serve their financial goals, such as employee retention and productivity.

In order to deeply investigate these connections, and to make sure that we would be able to dedicate ourselves fully to the form and function of our final presentation during the two weeks prior, we recognised the need to make difficult decisions regarding which phenomena to hone in on at each stage of the process, and which to at most mention. For this purpose, we set the date for an additional hour-long meeting dedicated to narrowing down not only the empirical scope of our subject matter but also of our conceptual language so as to agree on exactly how we would like to pose our argument.

This task has since become significantly more feasible thanks to some of the concrete case study research that we have carried out as a collective.

The studies of Hochschild, Jacobs, and Gerson, have drawn out the ways in which for US families with children, the reification and merging of work and home through initiatives such as flexible hours and an increase in double-income couples during the 90’s has caused friction related to traditional familial role expectations and family time becoming a form of capital through scarcity. This, we found, ties into the way consumer-based or consumer-facing groups ranging from the self-help industry to mindfulness and the Quantified Self movement all put forward self-improvement as something that should be aimed for in all spaces of life.

The QS movement in particular, in which members use wearable technology or apps to track & draw empirical conclusions to increase their own wellbeing, has been defined by its co-founder as “a self-definition in an age of great uncertainty about who we are”. Despite its community-building aspect, a notable common factor with the booming billion-dollar industries of self-care and self-help is the narrative or imperative of continuous individual self-improvement. This perspective is mirrored in both UK public opinion towards the unemployed (56% believed they could find a job ‘if they wanted to’) and the way the UK government has deployed its ‘Fit to Work’ scheme (90 people per month died after being found able to work and losing their benefits), and importantly links to more conceptual theories of governmentality and responsibilisation inherent to neoliberal capitalist structures.

The existence and social importance of case studies relating processes of increased uncertainty and individual responsibility with self-focused trends for identity and wellbeing, including some that are co-opted to achieve corporate objectives, has increased group understanding, confidence, and excitement towards our research and further confirmed the objective of making good choices and focusing our argument into its final form over the coming week.

Niccoló, Caroline, Nat, Stefan

Week 5

Our project has considerably moved forward during our last meeting, as we progressively narrow down and take up in-depth research about different aspects of our topic. After we exchanged the considerations and insights gained through our initial skim of the relevant literature about positive psychology, spirituality and modern capitalism, we have decided to potentially focus our attention on the interlink between late capitalist phenomena on one hand and the individual quest for a better psychological well-being on the other.

Interesting findings in this direction have been the concept of ‘cognitive capitalism’, which comes as the stage following ‘industrial capitalism’, and which is characterised by ‘intelligent, inventive and innovative labour’ (Reveley, 2013). In the era of cognitive capitalism, subjectivity is at centre of social relations and perceptions. Thus, productivity is strictly related to the individual perception of itself, and therefore to the individual’s capacity to think and be inventive. This, seen in a materialist fashion, calls for a ‘superstructure’ that is constantly caring about the individuals’ internal well-being, since it is only ‘in mens sana’ that the productivity sought after by capitalism can be fully exploited.

The precepts of cognitive capitalism, however, only exacerbate the inherent stress that the modern individual has to bear. In particular, it is due to an ‘existential uncertainty’ produced by the constant push for personal ‘development’ and maximization of the life-experience that the individual finds himself squeezed between the constant desire to do and the very fluid nature of modern society. The latter is defined by the processes of globalization and identity loss, together with the general feeling of being constantly ‘incomplete’ and ‘undefined’ (Lee, 2005).

These ideas led us to discuss positive psychology, and especially its practical impact in the modern capitalist environment. After some specific research on the matter, we have noted a clear trend among modern firms and enterprises to actively deal with employees’ individual well-being in a wide range of ways. This phenomenon, which is commonly referred to as ‘corporate mindfulness’ or ‘workfare’, includes activities such as compulsory gym-membership, tracking of body parameters as happiness indicators, yoga classes etc. The problem that is posed is to what extent these phenomena are a consequence of capitalist modes of production specifically and whether they are co-opting methods and practices that are associated with the search for certainty (or becoming at peace with uncertainty) in service of the very systems and structures that are creating this uncertainty & anxiety. If we look at the growing issue of precariat, for instance, we can ask whether it is precisely this type of uncertain position in society that fuels the psychological problems associated with cognitive capitalism. Is rising job-uncertainty a threat to the positive cognitive environment needed by this late stage of capitalism, or is it precisely because of the new ‘paradigms’ of employment that these workers find themselves constantly on the brink of failure? Are we moving from a ‘security’ society to an ‘uncertain’ one?

It is with these types of questions that we will have to deal in the coming weeks, establishing relationships and connections between the various concepts. In addition to that, we will start considering how to design the final presentation, thinking about which format it will take, and how we are going to display our findings.

Niccolò, Stefan, Caroline, Nat

Week 4 Progress

Our key aims going into this week’s group meeting under the supervision of Conor were threefold. First, we dove deep into our further established research question – concerning the link between (1) a commodification of spirituality in the ‘Liberal West’ and (2) the rise of existential uncertainties under late capitalism – in order to lay out the different elements of which it is comprised more clearly, and to open up the first potential routes that our research could take. Here, we employed the scientific labels of observation and hypothesis to explain the relationship between (1) and (2) and made the decision to initially conduct our research surrounding both separately so as to attain greater expertise in each as well as avoid the influence of possible assumptions regarding the link between them. From this decision, it flowed that we would first seek to provide evidence for the rise in ‘commodified’ spirituality before attempting to explain the phenomenon causally in relation to particular kinds of uncertainty.

Second, as referred to above, we identified the challenge of choosing which assumptions to proceed on when formulating our research as well as the potential and space to make these claims overtly. This means that we looked further into the merits of the idea that there might be an existential uncertainty specific to late capitalism, as well as that religion and spirituality act (or are sought out because they are expected to act) as a ‘grip’ or foothold in the face of uncertainty for individuals. Both ideas seemed to conflict, for example, with the thought of Alan Watts, English philosopher and proponent of Mahayana Buddhism, that spirituality is the practice of coming to terms with the lack of existential footholds, and that it is a tool indispensable for life in general, not just life under certain socio-economic conditions.

Third, we reflected thoroughly on the terms and concepts evoked by our research question so as to understand their range of potential meanings and applications, and to make sure that, through closer research on how they have been employed and ‘translated’ by different authors and disciplines, we will come as a group to a unified conclusion regarding their use and limits in our presentation. This was reflected in our individual responsibilities for the past week. Half of our self-determined reading was comprised of works that would illuminate key definitions for our research. For example, we turned to the work of Frederic Jameson on postmodernism to hone in on the processes inherent to ‘late capitalism’ and ‘commodification’. Furthermore, the work of Williams Davies has informed a greater understanding of how spiritual practices such as yoga and meditation have been subjected to capitalist expectations of productivity through the lens of ‘workfare’. Finally, an array of articles drawn from psychology, sociology, and politics, have shed light on the origins and content of the ‘positive psychology’ ideal that has informed much of the contemporary self-help literature and wellbeing interventions.

As our group expertise in part (1) of the aforementioned research question grows thanks to the pooling of our collective reading and reflection, we are looking forward to starting to redistribute time and attention towards part (2) in order to understand, explain, and connect the uncertainties behind the processes and trends we have been studying this week.

Nat, Niccòlo, Caroline, and Stefan

 

WEEK 3 PROGRESS

Following the aims laid out from last week, this week we collectively looked at the three broad questions concerning the popularisation of Eastern traditions in the West, the emergence of new ways of responding to existential uncertainty in the contemporary context and the commodification of spirituality and its relations to individualism, capitalism and labour uncertainty. We identified how these three strands intersect and diverge, in order to narrow down the scope of our research. We singled out the relationship between individualism, labour precariousness and the commodification of spirituality and how the first two concepts seem to create an uncertainty that leads to the latter as the key relationship that underpins all three of our original questions.

This led us to the initial draft question: how and why are non-Western religions and spiritual practices commodified and consumed in the face of uncertainty?

In order to incorporate all of our group members’ specialisations (philosophy, politics and history), we decided to frame the potential question in a way that also explores the elements of change over time and the tracing back of the political and philosophical origins of this phenomenon, which led to the question of ‘How and why are non-Western religions and spiritual practices commodified and consumed in the face of existential uncertainty and how can we trace back this uncertainty?’, focusing particularly on the ways in which this existential uncertainty plays out in the contemporary context of globalisation in post-industrial/late capitalism. In our discussion, we also touched upon possible case studies such as the growth in spiritual tourism as a point of intersection between consumption, commodification and spirituality and the tension this generates with actual traditional religious practices. Looking at both scholarly sources and more current and popular publications, the former can help inform our research of the economical, political and historical context, while the latter can offer a reflection of contemporary trends and opinions.

Next week, we will aim to clarify key concepts and categories such as ‘spirituality’ and ‘non-Western practices’, come up with ideas for the possible approaches and theoretical groundings for the research, as well as start gathering and reading initial resources on the key concepts.

Caroline, Nat, Nicolo and Stefan

Week 2 Progress

During last week’s meeting, we began by summing up the areas of interest each of us had collected since the previous sitting. We especially focused on the general loss of certainty in contemporary society as a possible consequence of individualisation and industrialization. We then started setting up a mindmap of ideas in order to establish linkages and relationships between the various aspects of our broad topics. In the following post, we will cover the main points of our discussion.

 

First, we considered the thesis by which transformations in modern society have created the basis for a more systemic uncertainty. The loss of ‘traditional’ truths in the West, such as religion or national culture, has been gradually perpetuated by the growing capitalist and industrial economic structure. The modern concept of ‘precariat’ and the uncertainty related to one’s career life are good demonstration of this dilemma. Political systems play a central role in this, because they (should) provide their citizens with a degree of meaning or purpose, in order to guide them in life. The question arises however whether these new forms of political organization, such as democracy and liberalism, have been able to perform their function and replace old guiding beliefs with new solid certainties. Moreover, the problem was tackled as to what extent have these political establishments and political cultures emerged out of a ‘fluid’ society or have come as a consequence of it.

 

Secondly, our discussion has shifted according to the possible substitutes that have been developed for these missing ‘grips’ in the West. We mentioned Eastern Philosophies and Religions as examples of increasingly diffused practices in the West which were imported because of the need for a more spiritual approach to life in the wake of a increasingly materialist culture. Again, we asked to what extent these Eastern Religions are transposed in the Western context in their real and traditional form, and whether we can identify a trend of commodification within the spiritual environment. With the latter idea, we considered the business opportunities that arise out of these new ‘spiritual’ practices, such as the circulation of new dedicated apps, the establishment of new specific schools etc.

 

Ultimately, we thought about the link between political phenomena as such and their implication for growing individual uncertainty and loss. For instance, we looked at how democratic procedures and values produce a larger spectrum of choice for the individual, who is thus burdened with increasing responsibilities. As the individual actions become more important and affect not only one’s own path, but also that of those around us, this may translate in a bolstered sense of confusion and uncertainty about the future.

 

As a result of our discussions, we all came up with a narrower research question, which could include some of these areas of interest. The following are, up to now, those questions which appealed the most to us:

  1. Is there a commodification process taking place within the area of spirituality and self-identification? Is spirituality/self-identification being consumed and thus developing together with the broader consumer trend?
  2. Is the loss of religion in Western society just being replaced by other types of ‘existential grips’? How can we compare the role of religion in pre-industrial society with the modern spirituality concept? How do they relate to the sense of uncertainty inherent in the human condition?
  3. Tracing the popularisation of Eastern spiritual traditions in the West, exploring the changes they have undergone with relation to concepts such as individualism, capitalism, and the precariat.

 

At the next meeting, we will focus on these questions to further narrow down the scope and the general direction we would like to take for our research. This will involve deciding on a research question, thinking about possible case studies, the methodology we would like to apply given our multidisciplinary team and the specific strategy we would like to set out for the coming weeks.

Niccolò, Stefan, Caroline, Nat

Week 1 Progress

Our group began by setting out a schedule for the week in order to identify possible topics and decide the format for our blog in ways that ensured everyone contributed equally. Thus, we created a Google Doc in which we each wrote about two topics we would like to consider for the presentation, and how they apply to our major discipline.  We then all added a paragraph to each other’s topics, explaining how we would approach them from our disciplines. Subsequently, we opened a Google Doc in which one person could summarise our weekly work, after which everyone could edit the post and make suggestions before uploading it to the blog. This week’s work has helped us identify our common interests and prepared us to choose our presentation topic in the coming week.

One topic we are considering centres on industrialism, capitalism and uncertainty, which we would approach by considering the materialist and sociological motives behind the shift from an agricultural based society to an industrial and capitalist one, as well as how the political structure responds.  We would explore what we can learn from previous labour transitions and their ethical implications. From a historical perspective, we would consider the legacy of the tension established from democratisation following the fall of the Berlin Wall; additionally we would choose a case study to examine the uncertainty created by the capitalist job market by, for example, looking at the rise of the ‘precariat’ as a global social class.

We have also explored multiple ideas surrounding migration and subsequent cultural uncertainty.  From a political standpoint, we could look at the concept of a ‘politically unified society’ and its effect on the foreigner.  Philosophically, what are the obligations and rights potentially demanded from the state? It might be interesting to assess a case study involving a colonial state or one with a large wave of migration, while also considering the role of revisionist historiography in allowing for multicultural perspectives.  Additionally, we could incorporate a cultural perspective into this topic by examining the role of migrants’ cultural shifts or retentions in their sense of belonging or political involvement.

Another topic we are discussing is the ways in which modern individuals shape their identities through religion or spirituality in the face of uncertainty.  We would consider contemporary influences of approaches in Indian and Chinese ancient philosophy and humanism, analysing what such a shift may reveal about human nature and the need for stability.  Related to this shift is the potential role of political systems in shaping the need for individuals to identify themselves with certain religions. Additionally, we could compare these contemporary political systems to the roles these religious traditions have historically played in the societies and political systems of the nations where they emerged.

In our next meeting we will discuss these topics as well as others we have explored, and subsequently make our decision.  We will then be able to set out a plan for how we will organise our workload throughout the rest of the term.

Nat, Niccolo, Stefan and Caroline