Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19

It’s not exactly good news to find out that you have been successful for a funding bid to do research on Covid-19 – it generates a rather ambivalent response, the usual sense of self-satisfaction that such news generates tempered, to say the least, by the situation that is its very condition of possibility. Anyway, I’m already over thinking things – Nick Clarke and I have been awarded funding under the British Academy’s Special Research Grants: Covid-19 scheme, for a project entitled Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility: Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19. Nick is the PI on the project, which builds on his previous work using materials from Mass Observation to examine popular understandings of politics in the UK, and which arose out of conversations between us sparked by a blogpost I wrote just at the start of lockdown, which in turn was riffing off a set of conceptual themes from a research project from what nows seems like previous life that we worked on together, which investigated what we called ‘grammars of responsibility‘ in everyday life. At Exeter, the project is part of a wider set of humanities and social science projects on Covid-19 related topics, curated by the Wellcome Centre for Environments and Cultures of Health and The Exeter Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences (Egenis).

Anyway, in place of a fuller explanation of what we are meant to do on the project, which I guess we’ll get to writing about sometime between exam boards and online pivots to blended enhancement, here is the short summary of the project:

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, people living in the UK have been asked to act responsibly in novel ways because of the risks their behaviour poses to themselves and others, and their role in complex chains of causation. We aim to investigate how citizens have engaged with these demands, with the objective of contributing to conceptual and empirical understandings of popular responses to emergency situations including future pandemics. Specifically, making use of contemporaneous qualitative data available through the Mass Observation Project, we seek to develop a better understanding of how people interpreted sometimes conflicting demands to act responsibly in relation to COVID-19 and translated them into practices of everyday life.”

What’s Responsibility Got To Do With Anything Anyway?

Amidst the challenges of translating more than 25 years of University teaching experience into the task of ‘homeschooling’ a nine year-old and a thirteen year-old (or, just making sure they have something to do), as well as wondering whether Higher Education institutions which are not configured to deliver coherent blended learning at the best of times should really be trying to transfer all teaching and all assessment online in a moment of intense, rapidly changing global emergency, I’ve been thinking about the range of ethical postures generated by the Coronavirus crisis. That’s sad, I know. It helps me cope, though. It’s no sadder, perhaps, than lots of other forms of self-indulgent bias-confirming commentary flying around right now.

I have been processing in my head, quite consciously, since about March 11th, a bunch of thoughts about what sense to make of different forms of official messaging, health advice, as well as various forms of new coverage, twitter-commentary [now switched off for the most part], and shared conversations with real people. I’m trying to make sense of how and why I have responded in the ways I have, and why it’s been easy to respond in certain ways, and not in others.

In the UK right now, and for a week or more, there has been a lot of discussion about whether  and why people are acting selfishly, by buying too much loo paper or going to the park. Between right-wing journalists demanding that the Prime Minister condemn ‘immoral’ behaviour, Twitter-led outrage about ‘irresponsibility’ and Guardian-esque think-pieces confirming that this is all an effect of decades of ‘neoliberalism’, there is an awful lot of self-congratulatory rationalism flying about right now which is, if truth be told, almost certainly not very helpful.

The forms of behaviour at the core of these worries, the patterns of observance and non-observance, are no doubt more or less predictable outcomes of the strategy, such as it is, pursued by the UK government, of seeking to re-shape the conduct of conduct (by closing things down) while also trying to morally encourage ‘voluntary’ social distancing. They are also somewhat overdetermined by the accreted associations of deceit associated with the lead persona charged with leading this subtle communication strategy.

I’m actually struck by how effective the main message does seem to have been communicated, as a general national discourse. It stands in contrast, most obviously to the case in the USA, which does not have a central cultural institution (like the NHS) around which to mobilise forms of solidarity, but does have a governing political movement actively seeking to undermine elementary public health initiatives.

Public health information, in normal times, tends to revolve around messages addressed to what is good for individuals, or immediate family members. Getting a flu jab is something one is meant to do so one doesn’t get the flu, oneself. Getting your kids vaccinated is something you do so they don’t get ill, but you’re supposed to worry about their health in ways not expected of you towards other people’s kids. Making lifestyle changes to reduce cholesterol or sugar levels or blood pressure is something you do to minimise your own risks of heart disease, stroke, and so on. Of course, we know that these initiatives all have a wider, systematic relationship to provision of public health care, and indeed to collective health outcomes (as made visible, for example, by the effects of anti-vaccination campaigns). But the address made to the subjects of public health campaigns is resolutely self-centred, in a non-pejorative way, and necessarily so.

In contrast, the Coronavirus crisis turns on a very different mode of communication, a different form of ethical imperative. The effort to make people social distance voluntarily, beyond the macro-level scale of closing things down and subsidising economic demobilisation, are difficult precisely because they ask people to take responsibility simply by virtue of being mere agents – that is, by virtue of their actions having effects in much the same way as Bruno Latour’s key fob or Michel Callon’s scallops can be described as agents simply because one can place them under a description in which they have traceable effects on wider patterns of action. But remember children, an ‘actant‘ is just a character in a story. On their own, lots of the defamiliarising, revelatory stories that academics tell about the links between action, consequences, and ‘responsibility’ provide rather thin accounts of what it is to be human. Rarely do those stories attain the level of having any motivational force at all. 

The crisis of social distancing strategy, right now, revolves around a very different kind of ethical address from ordinary public health initiatives – it involves asking people (or directing them, or forcing them) to act in certain ways in order to prevent or minimise or delay other people getting ill, so that other people don’t suffer. And it asks us to do this in two distinct, though related ways: by seeking to avoid directly infecting other people, particularly vulnerable people; and by thereby seeking to minimise unbearable strain on stretched infrastructures of health care. If you slow down for a moment, it’s worth considering just how complex that message is. It is, no doubt, difficult enough to convey. One could argue about how well it is being delivered. It might, also, be a really difficult message to take on board by its addressees, in ways that the much denigrated behavioural scientists probably appreciate better than they are given credit for.

I’m being asked to think of myself as acting responsibly by virtue of a capacity to see myself as a passive vector for a virus, and then to act accordingly. I am also being asked to think of myself as being responsible for a whole series of unintended consequences of that passively exercised status by virtue of being one small element in a very complex technological, social and organisational system. Oh, and to act in response to all of this primarily by NOT doing  lots of things. That’s really weird, if you think about it.

People like me – academics, certainly; Guardian-reading folk; geographers, especially geographers – are quite good at being able to place other people’s actions into these chains of consequences, from the outside. It’s what people like me are meant to do. It might even be what counts as our ‘science’. People like me are rather less good at recognising just how alienating that view of other people is, to those other people, when it is projected as a set of recommended virtues, as it often is (see, for example: ‘Brexit’, ‘Climate Change’, ‘Corbynism’). To borrow a line or two from W.H. Auden, it is easy enough to attribute responsibility for certain outcomes or even potential consequences; it is a different thing entirely to accept responsibility, to take on responsibility for such extended patterns of consequences, to ask or expect this of oneself, much less others. As ever, Iris Marion Young is the best guide to this general theme.

The standard way of trying to align the two perspectives is to find ways of getting those other people to recognise what’s really good for them and act in accordance with an externally derived idea of what they should really do. There is remarkably little reflection on the degree to which large swathes of academic work, belonging to broader cultures of rationalistic liberal good sense, have come to see themselves as engineers of acceptance.

There are various philosophical avatars for these ethical postures. I’m struck, for example, by how far the challenge of acting responsibly in this current public health crisis requires a kind of Spinozan ability to picture all the determinisms into which one’s own self is enchained, and then to find therein, from the acknowledgement of the very abjection of one’s own dependence, some power to act wilfully for the good of others. Or, perhaps it’s a version of embodied Kantian deontology. Or an other-regarding utilitarian consequentialism. These are really not very good ways of thinking about how people ordinarily do act, or how they should. An agent-centred narrative of the extended causal consequences of intended actions and their more or less unintended consequences lies at the heart of lots of analysis, whether of environmental change, global justice activism, and now, at least some of the more popular discourses around a public health crisis. These causal stories presume an ability of their addressees to reason about issues of actions, intentions, consequences. But on that assumption, it’s perfectly reasonable to suppose that the same stories that are thought, by some, to obviously have a motivating effect on getting people to act in one preferred way, will be interpreted in other ways, indeed, reasonably interpreted as demonstrating that anything I do won’t make much difference at all (that’s before one starts to think about the rationalities of ‘implicatory denial‘. As a vector for thinking about these sorts of issues, I suspect disease, viruses, will end up having a different ethical shape, shall we say, than that most often associated with ideas about the politics of commodity cultures or climate change activism.

Perish the thought, today of all days, but it might be amazing that current strategies, whether of lock-down or ‘advice’ to stay at home varieties, are working as effectively as they are. I’m not being complacent, or flippant. I’m channelling my anxieties and fears. Who knows how all this will play out. But rather than add to the rapidly consolidating genres of ‘I told you so’ or ‘Let’s take this as an opportunity’, maybe the most responsible thing to do right now is to take care over the sorts of intellectual frames being promulgated in the midst of rapidly moving events, frames which are likely to resonate far and wide beyond them.

The urbanization of responsibility

UntitledI’ve been on leave for a week or so, swapping the hustle and bustle of both Swindon and Exeter for the relaxing byways of New York City. Just before leaving, I found out that I had been awarded a Leverhulme Trust Fellowship, which I applied for before Christmas. The fellowship will provide space and time to work on a two-year project exploring the theme of ‘the urbanization of responsibility’. This is something I have written about in passing over the last few years (here and here, for example). Theoretically, the project builds on the ideas I have tried to articulate around the theme of ‘emergent publics‘ as well as ideas about the problematization of responsibility, amongst other things. It also develops some ideas that I first worked out as contributions to teaching programmes around the theme of ‘changing cities‘. I’m not sure if that means that the fellowship counts as ‘teaching-led research’?

Here is an outline of the research that I will undertake over the two years of the fellowship (along with other commitments, like book-writing, new teaching, school runs, that sort of thing). I still have to sit down and work out just what sort of real-world work this is going to involve (it’s a while since I actually had to do research on a project all on my own), and there are all sorts of routes down which this could lead, so if anyone has any thoughts about what to look at or who to talk to or what to read, I’d welcome any advice.

 

Favourite Thinkers VII: Iris Marion Young

Picture 092Noticing, rather belatedly I now realise, that the last book by Iris Marion Young had been published got me reflecting on the different encounters I have had with her work over the years, making me feel old, and slow, but also making me realise that sometimes thinkers act as helpful companions. I have always found, on reading Young, that she had got somewhere I wanted to be well before I arrived there, but I have also found this kind of affirming – she is one of the thinkers who always reassured me that I wasn’t completely on the wrong track. So I have been reconstructing ‘my life with Iris’, which does, oddly, include one occasion when I met her in person.

I think my first encounter was in late 1989 – I was in my first term as a graduate student, and this was the moment of postmodernism in geography: Ed Soja’s Postmodern Geographies had been published earlier that year, shortly before I took my Finals as an undergraduate; the week I started as a graduate student, David Harvey’s much awaited (by me anyway) The Condition of Postmodernity was published (this is the last book I read before getting glasses; actually, I started it without glasses, but was wearing glasses by the time I finished). Shortly after this, I was leant an advance copy of the collection Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Linda Nicholson (which might just be one of the most influential books, in a more or less unacknowledged way, in geography of the last 25 years or so). This was a revelation – it opened a door into a world where though ‘postmodernism’ was still used as a term, people were talking about more serious things in more serious ways – deconstruction, phenomenology, post-structuralism. I’m not sure that I ever took discussions of ‘postmodernism’ in geography terribly seriously again, all a bit too Rorty-lite as they were, after reading this book, which included essays by Young, Nancy Fraser, Judith Butler, Donna Haraway. I remember around that time reading Young’s ‘Throwing like a girl’ in a reading group that some of us had set up , and remember too that  the argument in it resonated because, well, I’m a boy who never could throw quite well enough – a slightly different subject-position, as we all learnt to say about that time, from the one primarily intended by Young’s analysis of gendered embodiment.

What particularly sticks in my mind as a turning-point, intellectually, for me is coming across a copy of Young’s Justice and the Politics of Difference in a bookshop in 1990. In October to be precise – more or less systematically, I put the date in the front of books when I get them. Around this time, I was trying to start ethnographic research which somehow was meant to keep together various things I was interested in – space, gender, money, urbanism, culture, language, all sorts really. I gave this up, for various reasons, but partly it was because Young’s book impressed upon me the sense that there were a set of theoretical traditions it might be fun to engage with in greater depth than discussions about ‘postmodernism’ seemed to allow. So, alongside Robert Young’s White Mythologies, Justice and the Politics and Difference set me off in the direction of doing a reading-based dissertation all about deconstruction, discourse theory, Foucault, Ricoeur, postcolonialism Said, Spivak. (The two Youngs, Iris and Robert, also strike me now as exemplary figures whose work gets subjected to a certain style of reading in geography – finding someone talking about ‘spatial’ or ‘geographical’ things, but then finding them not quite up to scratch, not materialist enough perhaps, lacking an adequately sophisticated grasp of the wobbliness of spatiality, that sort of thing. Sometimes, most of the time perhaps, there are more interesting things to talk about than space, spatiality, and the like).

Picture 041Over time, I came to work out just how smart Young’s use of Derrida, Levinas, Irigary to re-read notions of public space in more affective registers was – I ended up writing about this in my book, Culture and Democracy (pages 60 to 65 if you’re really interested), but really didn’t have much to say on these issues that Young had not already got to in developing the notion of communicative democracy, in Inclusion and Democracy for example.  I’m not sure whether one should admit it, but sometimes, in a field like mine, ‘critical exegesis’ is shaped primarily by the commitments of the fan. 

Young’s response to David Harvey’s Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference is also a key reference point for another thought I now take almost for granted. Reading this in Antipode in Columbus, Ohio in the summer of 1998, what I took away was the insistence on thinking of universal notions of justice or rights as, well, discursive, that is, in terms of claims. That is, I think, a much more political understanding of universality than one finds in most other places, but also a more redeemably ‘universal’ notion of universality because of its concern with the to-ing and fro-ing of claim-making.  More generally, it was, for me at least, a precursor to thinking about claims as an important register for thinking about practices of representation or responsibility, or democracy more generally, an idea I have tried to articulate myself, but which other people like my former colleague Mike Saward or John Parkinson have smarter versions of than me.

When I started work at Bristol, in the early 2000s, I tried to teach Young alongside more obvious geographical literature on justice, by Harvey, David Smith and so on – not least, I think by then I was working out that her work did rather different things with a Rawlsian line of thought than you got in geography, where Rawls was either summarily dismissed as ‘liberal’ (an accusation that I have come to think reflects more negatively on the person making it than on the person so accused), or taken as providing a universal model to be applied to empirical situations.

In 2003, during the long Easter weekend in Durban, when most of the country seems to close down completely, I actually met Iris Young, visiting as a guest of Raphael Kadt, then editor of the journal Theoria – a few of us, Di Scott, Jenny Robinson, Murray Low, spent an afternoon in the garden of Gill Hart’s house in Musgrave, drinking wine and eating nibbles. I admit to having been more than a little bit star-struck.

IMG_4846Then in the late summer of 2003, Marion Werner, who had been a Masters student at Bristol that year, left a copy of Dissent in my pigeon-hole, pointing me in the direction of an essay by Young on a social connection model of responsibility in relation to labour solidarity campaigns. This was another ‘Wow’ moment, and I have spent the last decade shamefully ripping-off Young’s model of political responsibility in various research and writing projects. When I started at the OU, later that same year, I did my best to get Young’s account of responsibility adopted as the framework for the course on globalisation that we were making then. Later, in 2004 or 2005 we approached her to do an audio interview for the OU globalisation course, but she was unable to do so, because she was by then already dealing with her illness, from which she died in 2006. Her influence does, though, resonate across that course and various pieces of work by myself and others who engaged with it at that time. Her influence is reflected in the idea that structures that course – globalisation is a process that is realised through demands and responses that different actors make on each other. The responsibility theme also provided an important reference point for the project on ethical consumption that I worked on at this time too – Young’s ideas on the distribution of responsibility across extended fields of action provide the intellectual ballast at the front and end of the book from this project.

Most recently, in writing about justice and responsibility and ethics in geography, I have tried to be more explicit than before about what it is that Young’s work brings to the debates that geographers engage with, or at least draw from. Her concept of political responsibility comes into better focus if you triangulate it, for example, with Cohen’s work on justice and Pogge’s working up of the idea of a global basic structure. I also noticed around the time of writing these pieces that Young, like one or two other thinkers I was reading, made more or less explicit reference to Pettit’s account of republican freedom as non-domination in working up her account of responsibility – one day, if I have time, I’d like to delve deeper into that relationship in the case of Young’s ideas and others. I think, in particular, what is of most value is the theme of shared responsibility that Young develops across all the work on the idea of justice and responsibility over the last decade or so of her life: this is a lot smarter than the standard move of simply asserting that one needs to think in terms of collective responsibility rather than individual responsibility (which kind of closes down problems of effective agency in its knock-down simplicity). By bringing into view differential capacities to act responsibly, it is a resolutely political but not moralising notion of responsibility. And if you can’t find something of ‘geographical’ value in this work, something which does not need simply to be corrected, then you just aren’t trying.

Responsibility for Justice by Iris Marion Young

9780195392388_450I’ve only just noticed that Oxford University Press have a final book by Iris Marion Young  called Responsibility for Justice – a little bit of overlap with Global Challenges, but much deeper and more sustained philosophical engagement with concepts of responsibility. My all-time favourite thinker. I made salad for her once.

 

 

Globalizing Responsibility

A new book, Globalizing Responsibility: the political rationalities of ethical consumption, co-written by myself and three colleagues – Paul Cloke, Nick Clarke and Alice Malpass – has just been published. It comes out of an ESRC/AHRC funded project on Governing the subjects and space of ethical consumption that we all worked on together, and which formally ended back in 2006. But these things take time to come to full fruition (we have another book in the pipeline).

The book sets out to analyse various ethical consumption practices from a political perspective. By this, I mean it tries to understand them as forms of political mobilisation, campaigning, lobbying, and so on – not in the sense of evaluating them from a pre-established position of what counts as politics or what makes politics more or less progressive – but in terms of trying to understand how these sorts of activities are indicative of changes in the way politics gets done now. It is based primarily on case studies undertaken in and around Bristol in the mid-2000s, especially focussing on fair trade campaigns of different sorts, and tries to make sense of the local dynamics of global solidarity politics. Theoretically, the book works through various approaches to understanding this sort of activity, including accounts of neoliberalization, governmentality theory, theories of practice, social movement theory, and theories of consumerism.

We have a couple of nice endorsements on the back cover, one from the geographer Peter Jackson at Sheffield: “Based on original research and innovative thinking, this profound and insightful book challenges conventional thinking about ‘ethical consumption’.  Approaching the subject as a distinctive form of political mobilisation, Globalizing Responsibility shows how our everyday consumption practices are related to wider narratives of social justice and collective responsibility”; and one from Rob Harrison of Ethical Consumer Magazine: “‘By viewing ethical consumption patterns as a political phenomenon, the authors deliver a far deeper understanding of this growing movement than a whole raft of marketing and business literature which has gone before.”

So if anyone is still stuck for gifts to put under the tree this festive season, this comes just in the nick of time.

Theorising the Crash

Now that I have finished, for now at least, with regular air travel, I have finally got round to reading a book published in the UK earlier this year by William Langewiesche (how exactly do you pronounce that?), called Fly by Wire – it’s about the US Airways plane which ditched in the Hudson River in New York in January 2009. I have not quite felt able to read this book in the midst of various flight-dependent speaking commitments (one thing which Langewiesche’s writing does, mind you, if you want it to, is make you feel a little safer about flying). Oddly enough, aeroplanes were quite important to my early reading experiences. I grew up in a household full of books, which was good, but an awful lot of them were about famous WW2 bombing raids – books by or about Guy Gibson, that sort of thing. And at school I had a subscription to one of those weekly magazines that built-up into a complete encyclopaedia of the history of military air warfare. So this post is partly about a guilty pleasure.

Anyway, so here I am, aware of the risk of seeming to be trying to pull off that most academic of conceits, which is to try to establish some intellectual sounding justification for one’s own personal interests, tastes, hang-ups – like arguing that baseball is ‘the best of all games’, or that all the best cricket writing (not much) is written by lefties – CLR James, er, er.., er…?

Langewiesche writes about why planes crash. I first remember reading something by him sometime last year, on a train, in Vanity Fair, about an accident in which two planes collided over the Amazon forest. The great thing about his writing about crashes is that, of course, you know from the start what is going to happen – the planes are going to crash. But he develops narrative tension by reconstructing the ‘why’ of crashes (think of a highly literate version of the TV programme Air Crash Investigation, which I should probably be ashamed to admit to watching, but hey, it’s sponsored by the National Geographic Channel, so it’s almost formally related to my professional world as a geographer…). The story of crash over the Amazon turns out to be about how attempts to programme safety into complex systems like international airline flight only generate unanticipated consequences of some sort – i.e. crashes.

This essay, ‘The Devil at 37,000 feet’, is reproduced in Aloft, an expanded collection of Langewiesche’s writings on the magic of human flight. Langewiesche is a moralist, of a sort, in so far as what he does in these essays is work-up a clear account of how the development of human flight has gone hand in hand with competing scientific and social scientific understandings of the degree to which complex systems are inevitably prone to ‘normal accidents’, or whether, as in the view of ‘high reliability’ theorists, the prevention of accidents is actually within human control – Langewiesche’s position seems to lean towards the former position. Anyway, I learned new things about social science from reading his books, about sociologists and political scientists like Charles Perrow, Scott Sagan, and Todd La Porte, and other exponents of ‘systems accident thinking’. Langewiesche uses plane crashes to elaborate on the relationships between technologies, organisational systems, and the idiosyncrasies of embodied, human skill and judgement. In the book about the plane landing on the Hudson, Langewiesche has this repeated theme of how the ‘heroism’ ascribed to the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, in terms of his displaying ‘cool under pressure’, is not so much mistaken as mis-described – the theme he reiterates is that both pilots pulled of ‘a work of extraordinary concentration’.  The book is a brief history of fly-by-wire design technologies, pioneered by Airbus – the plane they were flying was an Airbus A320. To cut a long story short, these technologies surround pilots in ‘flight envelope systems’, which ensure that various parameters of flight are maintained automatically, not least in crisis situations. This is one of the feedback loops of perverse consequences which Langewiesche explores in the essays in Aloft, looking at the ways in which enhanced safety-oriented design features of modern commercial airlines can, under certain circumstances, combine with the routinization of the skill and fluency of pilots in flight “to inhibit their powers of self-assessment”. It turns out that the design features innovated to keep us poor folks back in Economy safe (Langewiesche is also very acute on the political economy of the airline business as it impacts on the performance of pilots in stressful situations), might inhibit the exercise of the very reflexive skills which pilots have at their disposal to negotiate unexpected situations when they arise.

When Fly by Wire was published in the US at the end of 2009, it was rather predictably spun in terms of a scandalous de-bunking of the media-created mythology around Pilot Sullenberger’s heroism – as if the implication was that the plane landed itself on the water. This is unfair – Langewiesche wants to give the built-in design features of the plane their due, for sure, but the point about the pilots being ‘concentrated’ is precisely about locating what it was that they did so well. This is the reason why Langewiesche’s writing is interesting – it is his concern with thinking through the distribution of ‘responsibility’, in good and bad senses, across technologies and humans, between systems and discretionary acts. It reminds me of early actor-networky theory, by Latour and Steve Woolgar for example, which made so much of re-describing social theories of agency in terms of the dynamics of attributions of responsibility. This emphasis seems to have been lost in the slippage of so much of the work inflected by these sorts of thinkers into making big claims about the ontological status of various sorts of ‘non-humans’, ‘actants’, and the like. So if you are ever worried by the challenge of that sort of social theory, I recommend reading something by William Langewiesche.

Just wait ‘til after you have taken that long-planned plane journey. Better to read it on a train.

The politics of behaviour change

Another plug, this time for a Theme Issue of the journal Environment and Planning A, on the topic of Ethical Foodscapes. I was asked to write a short commentary on the papers in this collection, and ended up using this an excuse to try to say something coherent about ‘the politics of behaviour change’ – the papers in the collection all engage, in different ways, with ongoing attempts to influence individual patterns of consumption by fiddling with the backgrounds of food practices. This is just one field in which the issue of how and whether to influence people’s conduct to achieve various ‘public goods’ has become central to contemporary politics and governance. There is a great research project investigating this phenomenon, based at Aberystwyth, on the time-spaces of soft paternalism. Behaviour change is all over the place these days – in climate change debates, in obesity agendas, amongst the Research Councils who fund science and social science in the UK – it’s all the rage in policy circles, not just in government but also amongst think-tankers and NGOs. The House of Lords Select Committee has just announced an inquiry into how ideas about behaviour change are working in government. What I find most interesting about all this is the challenge this seems to present to styles of ‘critical’ social science analysis – Elizabeth Shove has an interesting reflection on this issue, also in Environment and Planning A earlier this year, which focusses on how ‘attitude-behaviour-change’ models of governance tend to marginalise insights of social theory. It is interesting, certainly, to track the ways in which certain scientific and social scientific fields are being ‘sourced’ for authoritative models of how to intervene to bring about social change – the most obvious example being the selective use of neuroscience, along with the popularisation of behavioural economics by Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge. There is a cross-over here between academic research fields and popular discourse too; think of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, the success of Freakonomics, or my favourite, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics – a book which uses simple statistical analysis to develop some interesting explanations and make some entertaining predictions about how success in national and international football is determined (interestingly, this book was published in the UK under the title Why England Lose: And other curious phenomena explained – the difference in the title between the UK and US version is indicative of the current popularity of this style of popular social science beyond any particular specialised interest).

There is an easy default position that this style of thinking about influencing people is inherently sinister, since it explicitly seeks to get at people through less-than-fully-rational means – by either designing change into infrastructures, or by deploying affective styles of communication. This seems to circumvent a basic principle of persuading people of the reasons to change through rational argument. Behaviour change initiatives are all about ‘manipulating’ the contexts in which people exercise choice and discretion. They seem to be designed to confirm the model of ‘governmentality’ developed by Michel Foucault, of a mode of power which works by shaping the contexts of individuals’ conduct without directly intervening in that conduct. Of course, the question that Foucault doesn’t  necessarily help us with is how to know when it is a problem that your conduct is being configured, ‘nudged’, in certain ways, and when it isn’t. There is a tendency of course to read Foucault as a theorist of social control, but I think the proliferation of behaviour change initiatives is one occasion to re-visit the ‘politics’ of using Foucault. The anthropologist James Ferguson has recently argued that  there is a real political stake at play in seemingly arcane differences between conceptualisations of neoliberalism as a hegemonic project of class-power, informed by Marxist theorists such as David Harvey, and  neoliberalization as a contingent assemblage of varied ‘arts of government’, informed by governmentality theory, in the work of Aihwa Ong for example. One reason not to reconcile these approaches – not to think that Foucault provides a nice micro-analysis of the ‘how’ of neoliberalism, while Marxism still holds the secrets to explaining the real interests driving the ‘why’ (an argument made by Bob Jessop) – is because the governmentality approach draws into view the ‘critical’ imperative to think through the possibilities of alternative ‘arts of government’. Quite a lot of sexy theory these days doesn’t like to do this, preferring stylized images of contestation and disruption.  This is why the default reading of behaviour change, as a sinister way of controlling people’s actions in the interests of more neoliberalism, more consumerism, more responsibilization, doesn’t seem convincing to me – it seems to close down the more difficult form of analysis which would ask about the possibility of using devices and discourses of ‘behaviour change’ for different purposes, or in more democratically accountable fashion.