Future research agendas: therapeutic lives

This collection of chapters stimulates us to reflect on other questions about politics. As someone who writes on gender, race, class and therapy culture, I was very pleased to read feminist-inspired reflections about social differentiation and inequalities. I would argue that one of the questions the book leaves us with is why women numerically dominate therapeutic practices, as practitioners and participants, as Salmenniemi, Nurmi and Jaakola note in their chapter.

Feminist theorists provide us with some useful pathways to follow. As I argue elsewhere (Swan, 2008, 2017a, b) women participate in therapeutic practices because they offer resources to cope with the impossible demands and costs of performing ‘successful femininity’; ‘propping up’ postfeminism; and undertaking the self-work to become the never-ending, self-improving, independent subject (Baker, 2010; Ringrose and Walkerdine, 2008). As chapters in this book suggest, therapeutic practices offer connections and sociality and, as has been argued, intimacy, friendship and emotional sustenance that was once met by friends and family (George, 2013; Swan, 2010). Indeed, in thinking about assemblages, it can be argued that psychological practices help people to paper over the cracks caused by the ‘fracturing and fragmentation of neo-liberal and globalised economies which are no longer willing to provide long-term forms of support’ (Walkerdine and Ringrose, 2008: 35).

Women looking for feminist support in their everyday lives can find elements in popular psychology. As chapters in the book suggest, feminism and psychology have long assembled, disassembled and re-assembled and have ‘rhetorical continuities’, for example, in notions about self-reflexivity and the family as sites of change (Illouz, 2008; Peck, 1995; Moskowitz, 2001). It has been argued that self-help is a proto-political form of feminism given its principles of self-determination and fulfilment and ‘might be tapped for a progressive, even a radical, agenda' (McGee, 2005: 24; Crowley, 2011; Simonds, 1992). Feminists also insist that women readers of self-help books are critical of some of their ideas but value the personal disclosure and experiential knowledge of the authors, and how the books offer new gendered behaviours (Grodin, 1995; Knudson, 2013; McGee, 2005; Simonds, 1992).

In addition to the numerical féminisation of therapeutics, cultural féminisation of therapeutic culture needs interrogation. For instance, feminist researchers insist counselling and coaching draw on symbolically feminine styles of discourse. Such discourse encompasses sharing feelings and personal problems, being facilitative, empathetic and supportive, all modes of talking culturally associated with women’s intimate private friendships (George, 2013; Graf and Pawelczyk, 2014; Pawelzyk and Graf, 2011; McLeod and Wright, 2009; Swan, 2006, 2008, 2017a, b). While chapters in the book don’t discuss feminine styles of talk, they point to other culmrally gendered elements in therapeutic assemblages. For instance, Salmenniemi, Nurmi and Jaakola show that the feminised fragile vulnerable self, promulgated in neoliberal therapeutic practices and much critiqued in the canonical critique, challenges the go-getting, productive masculinised ideal worker in affirming ways. Kolehmainen notes the ‘firm reliance' on gendered stereotypes and heteronormative values in the relationship counselling she studied. Peteri reveals how organisational fun culture in spite of its apparent associations with feminised aesthetics and emotions encourages masculinist forms of embodiment and laddish culture, reproducing old hierarchies. Putting it baldly, she writes that one man's fun culture is another woman’s #metoo campaign.

But as some authors in the collection allude to and others, including me, have pointed out, therapy culture also has classed and racialised implications (Frantsman-Spector and Shoshana, 2018; Sa'ar, 2016; Swan, 2008, 2017a, b). Because of the book’s focus on everyday lives, less attention is given to the ways in which racially minoritised and white working-class people are forced by state institutions and other assemblages to participate in therapeutic practices and reproduce themselves through therapeutic vocabularies and subjectivities (Lawler, 2005; Skeggs, 2004; Steedman, 2002). As Bergroth and Helen note en passant in their chapter, some people are ‘obliged’ to use self-tracking devices. In contrast, the middle-classes often take up therapeutic practices voluntarily. They have the time and income to be able to purchase self-improvement services (Swan, 2017a). Indeed, as I and others argue, middle-class, white women are culturally constructed as the ideal, self-transforming subject, having ‘psychological capital’ to effect self-work and self-transformation (Swan, 2017a, b; Baker, 2010; Blackman, 2004. 2005, 2007; Pfister, 1997). Seen as having this ‘proper subjectivity’, middle-class white women are positioned in opposition to racially minoritised and working white women, who are depicted as less willing, and less able to reinvent themselves, possessing shallow and more defective ‘psychologies’ (Lawler, 2005; Skeggs, 2002, 2004; Steedman. 2002). Therapeutic culture valorises the psychological and emotional styles of white middle-classness (Illouz, 1997; Lawler, 2005; Skeggs, 2009). Moreover, many tips and techniques point to problems and solutions that do not characterise the social situations or difficulties that are faced by racialised and white working-class women (Swan, 2017a).

In this vein, Salmenniemi and Adamson (2015) argue that popular psychology creates symbolic hierarchies by attaching value to middle-class women who are able to reproduce self-help tropes and narratives and thus construct Others as lacking value. Indeed, Makinen (2014) stresses that coaching aimed at people who are unemployed promotes the ideal subject of neoliberal individualism: someone who is autonomous, full of capacities and limitless power, who ‘makes their own future’. But coaches need to acknowledge subjects' failures in order to sell their services and imply that no one's individuality is quite good enough.

Therefore, coaching for people who are unemployed exacerbates feelings of insecurity and precarity, feeding off failure and fear. And as Perheentupa points out in her chapter in this book, class affects who gets to access critical knowledge and professional help in trauma culture, noting that women from working-class backgrounds are at greater risk of gendered violence.

At the same time, as the book highlights so carefully, therapeutic practices throw up complexities and contradictions. Thus, Frantsman-Spector and Shoshana (2018) show how women married to prisoners manage to reject what they know is a white, middle-class therapeutic subjectivity into which social workers attempt to inveigle them. Sa’ar (2016) reveals that working-class Israeli women who taught middle-class emotional skills in an entrepreneur workshop enjoyed the opportunity to garner middle-class capital and collective sociality with each other.

In my own work, I have tried to explore the racialisation of therapeutic practices, especially the whiteness of psychological and emotional capital promoted by coaching in a British context. In particular, I draw on studies of digital whiteness and critical white critiques of psychological notions of emotional control, positive thinking and feeling and enterprise (Swan, 2017a, b). Indeed, in their chapter, Stanley and Kortelainen highlight the limits of diversity in the mindfulness practices they study, with mindfulness seen as race, gender and class neutral and universally accessible and inclusive.

I leave this afterword with a few lines of inquiry enlivened by this wonderful book and its welcome contributions to help us follow the lives of psy as it moves and emerges in new contexts, bodies, media and practices. How do racialisation, ethnicisation and whiteness play out in therapeutic assemblages and their politics in Finland, Israel, Russia and other national contexts (Hervik, 2018; Zakharov, 2013)? How might assemblage thinking trace how gender, race and class are assembled through connectivities and elements that make up therapeutics? What other kinds of non-humans - representations, documents, technologies, objects, bodies and spaces - comingle to produce progressive and oppressive therapeutic politics? What kinds of labours are involved, by whom and what? How do minoritised groups harness assemblages to resist and reject? How are lives enabled, supported, inhibited and repressed thr ough congeries of therapeutic affects, atmospheres, socialities, spaces and events?


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