1. Ian Parker resigns from MMU in ongoing purge of free thought in education

    I was sad but not surprised to learn of the resignation of Professor Ian Parker from MMU in an ongoing climate of witch hunts against political activists within educational institutions.

    When I did my degree in the late 90s/early 00s Ian Parker’s ideas had a huge influence on me in terms of how my thinking about Psychology developed. He was a real force for change in Psychology, encouraging the reader to critically unpack the relationship between cultural hegemony and scientific “truth”. He was part of a wave of critical theorists within Psychology who pointed to the inevitable confounding variable of power in the traditional laboratories of knowledge production, developing practice for the use of discourse analysis and critical self-awareness within the field.

    Last Autumn Ian Parker was suspended from his post at MMU, with the university alleging gross professional misconduct. The allegations appear to surround e-mails sent by Ian Parker to colleagues in which he questioned the actions of management in terms of workload and appointment procedures. He was a departmental union rep for UCU. Following a disciplinary hearing he was allowed to return to work in December, but he is now apparently at the point where his position is unworkable, and has resigned, stating:

    "The University was making me sick. It was time to get out. My professional work as an academic has been undermined to the point where there is now nothing left to return to in the psychology department. Not only have my conditions of work changed, but the research base I helped to build in the last 27 years at MMU has very rapidly been dismantled.

    What this represents is an indicator of the absolute crisis being brought about in the education system by the conflict between the corporate model being politically imposed under the guise of sustainability, and the universal necessity of freedom of thought and expression for education to be functional.

    In Primary and Secondary schools, academisation is being aggressively pursued, and this will lead to a huge weakening of the checks and balances against internal poor management decision making. With unions castrated by the inevitable changes in conditions and management “freed” from the structure of national governance, there will be little in place to protect students from the inevitably market-led downgrading of provision. The word “freedom” is used a lot in privatisation, but what it refers to is freedom for the powerful few from multiple accountability. In FE the consequences of long term incorporation mean the power of senior management is ever on the rise against increasingly weakened unions, with teaching staff now seemingly sackable at will in relation to student outcomes, with no robust protection for students from drops in standards of provision as a result of the increasingly lean climate of cuts. Our Universities are seeking out injunctions against student displays of protest, and it is the norm for the future of academic departments to rest on market value in terms of research production.

    The encroachment of corporate culture within the education system is happening at every level, with disastrous consequences. It may be mainly Marxists who are specifically being targeted at the moment, but the writing is on the wall for the principles of liberalism and free thought in education if it is allowed to continue. We need a mass movement of students and educators across all levels beyond the scale of anything seen previously if this attack is to be effectively resisted.

  2. Depression - blog for depression awareness week

    It was brought to my attention yesterday that this is depression awareness week, so as it is something that has featured a lot in my life personally and professionally I thought I would write about it.

    Depression became a big part of my life in my mid teens, when my dad had a breakdown. It pretty much turned my world upside down, and while a lot of what i experienced was to do with worrying about what I could see happening to people I loved, I also had to deal with a lot of stuff relating to social attitudes. Not anything anyone said to me - I don’t think we ever received anything but kindness or support from people around us, who were mainly family members and their church friends - or implied, but my own issues in feeling uncomfortable about talking to anyone about what was going on, anger at what I imagined people thought based on how depression tends to be viewed. I don’t think I talked to any of my friends about it much if at all at the time. I felt like he was being swallowed up in his own sense of failure.

    When I met Ian, my partner, he was being treated for depression (at the age of 19), though fortunately this has not been a long lasting issue. Since then at least four of my closest friends have gone or are going through some form or other of it, along with lots of people I know less well.

    There is no one cause of depression. I think the simplest and most accurate way to explain it is as a normal human experience (rather than a psychological disturbance as such, which is how it is clinically viewed), but one which can cause a lot of suffering for those who experience it. The stats for reported depression suggests that it is one of the most common mental illnesses:

    It is estimated that 5-10% of the population at any given time is suffering from identifiable depression needing psychiatric or psychosocial intervention. The life-time risk of developing depression is 10-20% in females and slightly less in males.” (WHO, 2004)

    Clearly with any sort of neurotic mental illness (a condition where people are still aware of reality) there are problems with report rates as a definite stat, because there are two issues which impact: firstly, the social stigma surrounding mental illness, and in particular the barriers to admitting an inability to cope. This may be the reason why the figure is slightly higher in women, who tend to seek medical help quicker and have less social pressure not to crack or show emotion. Additionally, there is probably a good deal of self-treatment, including relatively healthy activities such as exercising but also forays into other things such as alcoholism (or other addictions) or eating disorders.

    Depression is in part biological, in that people who are experiencing depression have chemical differences in the brain. It relates in part to levels of serotonin (a neurochemical which has a knock on effect on lots of other things chemically) activity in the brain, so is in that sense an invisible physical difference between those who experience it and those who do not, and like many other invisible physical differences tends to be misunderstood as a matter of choice (just not choosing to snap out of it). It is likely that people are to some extent genetically predisposed towards depression - born with a genetic combination which does not determine that they will become depressed but maybe makes their vulnerability greater in the right set of circumstances.

    Environmental stressors, including both issues in the home environment, personal relationships, work life etc, but also wider factors such as poverty and discrimination, all increase vulnerability to depression. Depression levels tend to go up at times of economic austerity (and have risen under the coalition). This may be in part down to increased personal failure and hopelessness - it has long been argued that depression is in part a behavioural response to repetitive failure and lack of control (Seligman’s learned helplessness theory) - in a time of high unemployment but may also relate to cuts to support services which could manage depression at a milder level.

    Anti-psychiatrists argue that the medicalised diagnosis of depression is a form of social control: that depression is a result of a failure of our social support systems and structure to provide opportunity and care, and that by diagnosing we point the finger inside the individual in deciding the cause rather than engaging with a wider look outwards at what is going wrong in our society. They also point to the massive international capitalist interests of psychiatric drug companies which do bear some investigation, though there isn’t space to do it here.

    Treatments for depression are controversial. Generally SSRIs (a drug which impacts on serotonin activity) are used these days but there is much debate over their effectiveness: they seem to be most effective for those with moderate to extreme depression, with placebos performing at the same level for mild depression and possible increased risk of suicide in teenagers and young adults. As with any psychiatric drug, there are issues surrounding control (by giving someone a drug you are taking away their involvement in their recovery, to some extent), dependency, side-effects etc. While traditionally depression has also been supported by psychotherapy with a humanistic element (person-centred counseling for example), in recent times Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a shorter, cheaper therapy which involves a large body of work being undertaken by the client alone, is rising in popularity. Reviews of therapeutic effectiveness suggest that the most important factor in success is how skilled the therapist is rather than the therapy chosen.

    As with most mental illnesses, I think it is really important that we look at the extent to which those suffering feel obliged to take responsibility. The assumption is that mental illnesses are a matter of choice, and this causes real problems in terms of what people have to go through, It puts up barriers which prevent the same level of social support that someone with a clear physical illness can get (though even that is being eroded under the current climate of suspicion over “scrounging” being deliberately stirred by the government and media). Depression may not be visible to the naked human eye, but unless it has been experienced there is no way to really judge how much it distorts judgement and decisions or what it is like living inside it. Like many other social issues, I think one of the first things we should do is look at the extent to which our education system and society teaches children an empathic imagination: the ability to see the world from another’s point of view rather than a shallow process of uninformed judgement.

  3. Four Big Problems with the Big Society

    As evidence from charities such as Save the Children grows ( http://goo.gl/sNQha ) that relative and absolute poverty in the UK are on the rise, I’ve been thinking about this Big Idea of the Big Society: the plan that in the face of austerity cuts, our collective love for one another as a species would step in and fill in the gaps. I think the problems with the concept in terms of its usefulness in developing us positively as a society can be grouped into four main issues.

    1. The concept of Big Society is psychologically incompatible with the neo-liberalism it seeks to supplement

    The idea of Big Society is based on the idea that humans have a great capacity for coming together and helping one another, sharing skills and resources. I believe this to be true, but it is not encouraged by the dominant ideology of neo-liberalism and the impact this has on the psychological mindset of the people needed to put in the social labour for it to work. In overt and covert ways, we are encouraged to be individualistic, a trait which has been on the rise since at least the days of Thatcher. This ideology is supported in at least three ways:

    • Firstly, in our socialisation process, which rewards competitiveness far more than collective behaviour from early on in the classroom and raises us to view ourselves as primarily consumers and workers.
    • Secondly in terms of the messages given out by the government about the need for valid contributions to be in place for a person to be deserving of support or care: this is implicit in the welfare reform which has been taking place and is also written into the language of mainstream political dialogue.
    • Thirdly, in the explicit language of the tabloid press, which uses the terminology of “benefits scroungers” “bogus asylum seekers” etc in a way in which valid needs are dismissed and need itself is programmed to be associated with selfishness in the collective consciousness.

    2. The “Big Society” label is just terminology rather than action planning, and refers to social labour which was already in place

    The concept of the Big Society is really just middle (or upper, considering its origins) class language for social labour and exchanges which were already in place prior to the arrival of the coalition. It is a nonsense to assume that people did not already give their time and resources to look out for others within their family and community others, and the sticking on of a new label to this process without serious consideration of what needs to happen (which as above should look at the rise of individualism if it is going to be thorough) to encourage those who don’t help others is just going to put more labour on to those who are already providing it, without giving them any extra time or money to do it with. As a business model, it is a nonsense.

    3.The Big Society is at best a gap filler and will prove a false economy in terms of the long term social problems it will lead to and the financial impact these will have on society

    By cutting the funding for social and care related labour in the community we are removing the experience and skills of existing providers and the impact these can have in terms of long term social change. Where charities and community groups and members are stepping in, they are doing so at a stretched point where they have to concentrate on short term need rather than being able to build for social change. An impoverished community which is delivered food parcels can survive, but for the individuals in the community to have the skills and opportunities to grow out of poverty, they need more, and stretched and sometimes untrained providers are not able to give it to them.

    4. Big Society is implicitly Anti-Equality, and so hinders rather than building for a meritocracy

    Big Society is implicitly anti-equality in at least two ways.

    • Firstly, it is regressive, an ideological step back which devalues traditionally feminine labour (care, provision of food, nursing, counseling) as something which people should be obliged to give as a (often gendered) social responsibility rather than a valuable skill which should be paid accordingly.
    • Secondly, the reliance on charity is a big issue in that it frames social care needs as “naturally” low priority: it is implied that funding for military defense programs, tax breaks for business  and other state spending priorities are in some way “essential” where as social care is an add on for a functioning society and something we can make our own minds up as individuals about whether to contribute or not. This culturally specific funding decision reproduces existing power imbalances within society.

    Both of these issues are bad news for social equality, which is in turn bad news for the realisation of a meritocracy (where people fill social roles, professional positions etc according to their abilities).

    The Big Society is proving to be a Big Waffle and essentially has only functioned to distract from the compassion still lacking today in modern conservatism.

  4. Samantha Brick, circles of shame & the body panopticon

    Most people will have seen the Samantha Brick article. I don’t think I need to elaborate too much - suffice to say, daily mail writer pens article along the lines of “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful”, explaining how difficult her life is as a beautiful woman, on account of all the jealous haters she has to deal with on a daily basis. They stop her getting promoted, they don’t let her stand in the middle of photographs, they don’t ask her to be a bridesmaid. Along with the article are photographs of aforementioned Samantha Brick, which the nation judge to be somewhat lacking in attractiveness, and much hilarity ensues.

    As an aside, from a psychological point of view, we actually tend to show more liking for attractive people rather than less, regardless of gender, and less liking for unattractive people. The stereotype of ugly bullies hounding the beautiful through life is not a very accurate overview: it must happen, but unattractive people probably come in for a lot more abuse overall. Other characteristics which have a stronger influence on liking, such as perceived arrogance, can overpower the positive influence of looks, however.

    I think it bothered me though didn’t surprise me that most of the commentary I’ve read so far is entirely focussed on mocking her as a delluded individual rather than looking at the validity of her general worldview in terms of the importance of attractiveness. She seems to have internalised everything we get sold from a very young age about the path to female happiness - that happiness can be yours through exact discipline in the pursuit of rigorous control of the body, a sort of modern female cult of the self - without actually sounding that cheerful about it. The article, along with others I browsed through in her back catalogue (including one about how her husband tenderly nursed her through a festive stomach bug with the joyful proclamation of how much weight she would be losing) screamed “validate this existence”. She is being set up as a pinnacle of anti-feminism: a self absorbed misogynist, who smugly prescribes hew own brand of self loathing for any others seeking her level of empowerment (remember, she’s a top TV exec), and yet because she is a woman, ultimately this constant self-policing (assisted, of course, by her helpful chauvinistic husband, who has been clear from very early on that weight gain will result in the end of their relationship, and who loves to draw attention to the shameful imperfections of any unsuitably dressed women who cross his path, in a way which she seems to blindly believe is down to him being French rather than down to him being an arsehole) is the price she has to pay for her piece of the pie. It seems like a very tiring and emotionally fraught existence, specifically because it is so empty of friendship. In Amanda Brick’s worldview, women can’t stand her because they believe her unworldly beauty will lure their husbands away. Men see her as an object of desire. Her husband is her companion only so long as she fulfills his exact requirements of wifedom.

    In the age of reality TV, lads mags, tweenagers and the circle of shame, we could very well be raising a whole army of Samantha Bricks. Young girls are experiencing their bodies in a more self-observing way than any generation before them: the media showing ideal womanhood  (as well as the ability to record, reflect on and transmit the self) is growing and growing by the day, creating a panoptican effect where for many young women, the body is something they experience from the outside as well as from within. For many there is unpassable space between the real self and ideal self. The diet industry offers women control: the illusion that the body will be personal rather than public property with the right amount of discipline. For years we have been fighting the battle that the space is impassable, that the diet industry sets up impossible standards and then lap up the money women waste on trying to reach them. But maybe we haven’t been fighting hard enough to show the loneliness which could be created by the successful achievement of conventional female physical perfection.

  5. Three reasons why anyone, including conservatives, should oppose workfare

    This morning I read that Tesco have again advertised for a job position offering JSA and travel expenses as the pay. Most of the opposition for workfare up to this point comes from the left. But it is not just the unemployed who lose out as a result of this scheme: regardless of your opinion about whether unemployment is the result of structural problems with society and political policy, or down to individual choice, everyone except big business stands to lose from the scheme.

    1) Workfare undermines the conditions of the existing workforce. Imagine that you are working on low pay, when your employer finds a source of labour which is cheaper than you. What happens next? Regardless of the ongoing left/right battle over long term unemployment (where the left would generally argue that society creates unemployment and the right would blame the individual), workfare causes real damage to the job stability and conditions of people who have never claimed any JSA. If there is free labour, why bother to offer pay rises, why invest in permanent contracts, why bother about favourable working conditions?

    2) Workfare means that the tax payer subsidises wealthy corporations: big business doesn’t have to pay for the worker, so YOU pick up the bill. You may or may not be aware that most of the richest corporations in the UK already receive heavy state subsidy in the form of tax credits: they pay out huge bonuses and cream off massive profits at the top, but don’t actually pay staff at the bottom enough to live on, so the state picks up the bill. With workfare this situation changes from a top-up to the tax payer picking up the whole bill for the labour. So in other words, whilst we experience record cuts to services across the whole of the public sector, including health, education, police, fire services and other things we might think everyone benefits from and so are a worthy recipient of state money, big business is making even more out of the state.

    3) Workfare will probably increase “work apathy”. Inspite of the scheme being intended to provide work experience and a pathway into long term work, it is being used by big business as an agency: the pattern seems to be that they will keep on a job seeker for the useful period before replacing them with more free labour. If unemployment really relates to psychological factors within the individual, as the right believe, then this kind of pattern would be utterly unrewarding so behaviourally would reinforce avoidance of work rather than promoting future attempts at employment. Which would mean, in the long term,  a bigger benefits bill.

    Find out more here: http://www.boycottworkfare.org/?p=139