New research published in Medical Humanities journal has accused the UK government of trying to rebrand joblessness as a psychological disorder. The study looks at the effects of government employment schemes such as welfare-to-work (often referred to as Workfare) and assesses the view that ‘unemployment is evidence of both personal failure and psychological deficit’.
However, the report has two major problems: it is full of sloppy jargon and the independence of the authors is at best questionable. Consider the following two near-illiterate paragraphs:
‘Labour on the self in order to achieve characteristics said to increase employability is now widely promoted. This work and the discourse on it are central to the experience of many claimants and contribute to the view that unemployment is evidence of both personal failure and psychological deficit.’
‘The use of psychology in the delivery of workfare functions to erase the experience and effects of social and economic inequalities, to construct a psychological ideal that links unemployment to psychological deficit, and so to authorise the extension of state—and state-contracted—surveillance to psychological characteristics.’
Presumably Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn, whose research this is, are trying to explain how the state is psychologically profiling jobseekers – which is worrying for them because the government is not qualified to do this. But on the subject of academic qualifications it is worth mentioning that Friedli and Stearn are members of Boycott Workfare. This hardly lends weight to their findings. They appear to set out with a conclusion in mind and make the anecdotes fit their thesis – if you can dignify it with that term.
Note their use of the word ‘psycho-compulsion’ which is ‘defined as the imposition of psychological explanations for unemployment, together with mandatory activities intended to modify beliefs, attitude, disposition or personality’. Defined by whom? Try googling it. I can’t find examples of it being used by psychologists.
This week I asked Dr Friedli about her doctorate. Here’s her Twitter response:
A spokesperson from the Department for Work and Pensions has responded to the article, saying that since it relies on anecdotal evidence from blogs and social media it lacks credibility. That is an understatement.
To be fair to Friedli and Stearn, they wear their colours on their sleeve. This is from the article’s introduction:
Our focus on workfare schemes and interventions targeting unemployed people’s attitudes is also indebted to the body of feminist and Marxist critical work on emotional and affective labour.
Combine this paragraph with phrases like ‘neoliberal welfare reform’ and we immediately realise they’ve given up pretending to be impartial – something we all need to check before believing ‘independent research’.