Thursday 2 August 2018

Reflections on 'Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character' – Pt. 2

by Akane Kanai

This blog series is adapted from talks given at the launch of the SRO special section 'Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character', 2nd July 2018, Goldsmiths College. The articles in this special section (published June 2018, Vol. 23 Iss. 2) query how character and resilience have been operationalised as both the cause and solution to social problems as diverse as educational underachievement, poverty, unemployment, the gender pay gap, and social unrest. The authors highlight fractures, tensions and slippages in how character is conceptualised, interpreted and mobilised. In illuminating these, the special section contributes not only to endeavours to resist dominant formulations of character and resilience, but to a wider project of re-appropriating these. 

When I was invited to respond to the recent special section ‘Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character’, I was very much struck by several key themes that the contributors bring so clearly to the fore in problematising the ‘turn to character’. To provide some context to my response, my work focuses on the connections between gender, affect, and digital media. A key concern of mine, which I think is shared with the authors in this special section, has been to think through the narrow, and highly interventionist ways we are asked to constantly adjust, modulate and makeover our subjectivity in line with neoliberal and post-Fordist goals. I want to outline three of the key insights the special section presented for me, and detail the way it connects to concerns across scholarship that I have been drawing on. At the end I’ll make some brief comments as to how this issue has raised further questions for me in a current project exploring contemporary feminism, subjectivity and digital culture. 

First, the emphasis on the masculinisation of soft or emotional skills, particularly noted by Erica Burman, and the continuing expropriation of women’s work. In following sociological interventions such as that of Lois McNay (1999) and Lisa Adkins (2003), we see continuing inequalities in which the ‘feminisation of work’ or rather the entry of middle class women into paid work, relies on the affective labour that women carry out while simultaneously de-gendering and devalorising that labour. In studies of digital culture I am particularly concerned with the way in which concepts such as immaterial labour and affect are used in ways that are completely divorced from analyses of gender and women’s work of social reproduction. It is vital to foreground this gendered dynamic, as this special section does so well. Moreover, I see applications of this kind of analysis in the valorisation of ‘resilience’, ‘vigour’, ‘grit’ and ‘non-fluffy’ feelings in the ways in which emotion in digital cultures is also valorised along gendered lines. For example, we might think of the ways in which feminist and antiracist campaigners are vilified as ‘snowflakes’, too emotional, too ‘soft’ compared to ‘trolls’ whose humour you just have to be ‘tough enough’ to withstand. 

Second, the articulation of the turn to the standardisation and measurement of emotion and corresponding character traits. The special section highlights a calculated sameness that aims to erase the existence of structural inequalities, particularly in the entrepreneurial subjectivities that are cultivated as Kirsty Morrin points out. To me, outside of formal educational contexts and policy spaces, this raises the question of what kinds of relationality and sociality such governmental grids produce. I have learned from scholars like Arlie Hochshild (1983), Sara Ahmed (2004) and Carolyn Pedwell (2014), amongst others, that affect and emotion must be understood as a relational phenomena that locates us in relations of inequality and dominance. As such, in seeing such patterns in the production of character extended in neoliberal culture in general, I am preoccupied by the standardisation of affective communication seen in varying mediated settings as well. These include the social platforms that extract value from users’ struggles to format themselves into shareable, likeable form, as well as the simplification and decontextualisation of affects such as aspiration, determination and hope. For example, one disturbing trend that Ros Gill and I have recently been thinking about is the way in which discourses of diversity in brand culture condense multiple differences of race, gender, disability into a single discrete obstacle that must be overcome by the individual through sheer ‘grit’. 

Third, and perhaps the most evident contribution of the special section is the focus on character itself. While I’ve been working in the area of gender, affect and digital media for a little bit of time now, the naming of the turn to character was a powerful articulation of the need to critically interrogate the production and intensification of certain moral subjectivities. As Kim Allen and Anna Bull state in their paper, across many contexts of austerity in post-industrial economies, we see concerted efforts to attach a socially conservative heart to neoliberal market principles. This was one of the most significant insights for me in creating conceptual links around the emotional landscape of the production of human capital in a context of social, political and economic crisis. And, in this special section and particularly in Nick Taylor’s piece, I observed resonances with the work of Stuart Hall (1988) in documenting the twinned discourses of Thatcherism and authoritarian populism some time ago, identifying the links between so-called Victorian values, crisis, economic transformation and abject and demonised subjectivities. The special section makes clear that in times of austerity, minoritised individuals are increasingly asked to lean in, bend, adapt to a society that gives little. In doing so it provides connections to the historical, nationalistic and imperialist histories that such a turn to character reinvokes, condensing, in Hall’s terms, the political and the moral in particular ways.

I want to conclude with some brief comments on some further connections with my current project that explores how self-identifying feminists are using digital spaces to learn about and participate in feminism. I think that this ‘turn to character’ is something of which we need to be cognisant, not simply in formally neoliberal state-based settings, or corporate culture, but also in the everyday mediated and even social justice settings in which we work. Here I’m also drawing on Ros Gill and Shani Orgad’s observation of mediated spaces as key to the proliferation of character discourses. In this project, feminist participants discussed their everyday social media use in explicitly pedagogical ways- that is, as spaces where a feminist curriculum could be learned outside of the classroom. But this learning dovetailed with significant work on the self. My feminist informants expressed a clear commitment to social justice causes. But it was equally evident that for many of my informants, perhaps because it felt too daunting to address larger structures, often the main ways in which feminist practice felt achievable and practicable was through ‘character work’. That is, by continual labour on the self, one’s disposition, and relations with immediate others. In the digital social spaces in which my informants participated, there was a sense that one’s individual feminism needed to be continually refined and improved as a personalised character trait. This dovetailed with the way in which feminism was at times conflated with moral notions of virtue and goodness; evidently, these are idealised traits historically associated with white middle class femininity.  

I hope I’ve been able to give a very brief account of some of the extremely insightful and useful connections this scholarship has allowed me to make in connecting the emotional and the moral with questions of gender, labour and digital culture. I want to thank the authors and especially the editors, Anna and Kim, for the opportunity to engage with this special section. 

About the author:  Akane Kanai is a Lecturer in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University. Her research on youthful femininities and digital intimate publics has been published in outlets including Feminist Media Studies, the Journal of Gender Studies, the European Journal of Cultural Studies, and Social Media and Society. Her first book, Gender and Relatability in Digital Culture: Managing Affect, Intimacy and Value is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan.

Adkins, L. (2003) ‘Reflexivity: Freedom or Habit of Gender? Theory, Culture & Society 20(6): 21–42.
Hochschild, A. (1983). The Managed Heart: The Commercialisation of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ahmed, S. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Hall, S. (1988). The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the crisis of the Left. London: Verso.
McNay, L. (1999) ‘Gender, Habitus and the Field: Pierre Bourdieu and the Limits of Reflexivity’, Theory, Culture & Society 16(1): 95–117.
Pedwell, C. (2014). Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Reflections on 'Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character' – Pt. 1

by Val Gillies

This blog series is adapted from talks given at the launch of the SRO special section 'Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character', 2nd July 2018, Goldsmiths College. The articles in this special section (published June 2018, Vol. 23 Iss. 2) query how character and resilience have been operationalised as both the cause and solution to social problems as diverse as educational underachievement, poverty, unemployment, the gender pay gap, and social unrest. The authors highlight fractures, tensions and slippages in how character is conceptualised, interpreted and mobilised. In illuminating these, the special section contributes not only to endeavours to resist dominant formulations of character and resilience, but to a wider project of re-appropriating these. 

Let me start off by saying many thanks for asking me back to act as a discussant once again. I’ve been able to stand on the sidelines and watch this project develop since the first seminar the guest editors held, and out of which this special section developed. It’s been a privilege to see it take shape in this way.  It’s a really important collection and I’m glad it’s being properly celebrated.  Well done to everyone involved and particularly to Anna and Kim for taking the initiative and guiding it through to publication

I was a bit shocked when I dug out my original comments to realize the first seminar was all the way back in July 2016. A whole two years ago! It was just after the Brexit vote and everything seemed so uncertain and unstable then. But that’s just become the new normal now. The Government’s been teetering for years, ministers come and go and the country lurches from one crisis to the next. Yet the same stale, hoary old narratives around character and resilience still hold sway, making the papers in this special section as relevant as ever.  Various character infused programs, interventions and buzz words have waxed and waned over time, but the core ideology of the concept is deeply embedded. 

A real strength of this collection is its ability to hold on to and critically describe the amorphous, nebulous but highly contingent nature of character as a powerful trope. The authors show how there are different manifestations in different contexts but trace them back to the same genus and show how they accomplish similar aims and objectives. For example, the authors discuss ‘resilience’, ‘entrepreneurialism’, ‘grit’, ‘positive mental attitude’, ‘moral responsibility’. It’s almost like a neoliberal dot to dot and the picture it creates of a mythical creature. An ideal, invincible subject who toughens up in adversity, takes it on the chin and is all the stronger for it. 
But as we know this ideal is being pushed while the human misery caused by late capitalism piles up all around us. We’re being sold the trope of character in the context of rising rates of destitution, hunger and malnutrition, even homeless people dying on the streets. The solution to acute social need and political failure is, we’re told, for us to become stronger as individuals.

As Nick Taylor’s insightful paper points out there is a striking echo here from the 19th century when an orthodoxy of liberal individualism last reigned supreme. The parallels and the differences he teases out are absolutely fascinating and very telling. I found it particularly interesting because he discusses the role of the Charity Organisation Society, a historical institution I know a bit about. I’ve spent many hours buried in the COS archives as part of a recent project tracing the history of ‘troubled families’I’m very aware of the role character assessment played in determining who did and didn’t get help during this period. These decisions were often ruthless and cruel. One of the case studies we drew on concerned the desperate Thorpe family and their starving children who were denied help in 1888 because they were deemed to lack self-reliance. So we know where a preoccupation with character led to in the past. And given the current political context there’s no reason to believe it will be any less brutal second time around.

But, perhaps more hopefully, we also know that the hard liberal virtues espoused by the 19th century elite came to be widely reviled and mocked. COS were colloquially dubbed as ‘Cringe or Starve’ while the Christian socialists filled out hilarious mock COS applications for Jesus Christ (he was rebuked for his utter want of thrift, industry, temperance and for the bad company he kept). And even as Alfred Marshall was writing the Principles of Economics, COS were fighting a losing battle with the Fabians. Character then has always been a controversial and contested concept. Moreover, with organized opposition ‘character’ was excised from the political lexicon for the best part of a century (though blaming the poor for their own misfortune merely assumed other guises). 

It is no coincidence that the tarnished vocabulary of character has been buffed up and redeployed at a time when capitalism is once again in crisis, squeezing us ever harder, while having to account for the increasingly visible moral vacuum at its centre. Political and economic elites desperately need to mobilize some legitimacy at the moment.  As Kim Allen and Anna Bull’s excellent network analysis shows, they are the ones behind the curtain, pulling the strings and building the apparent consensus behind character education. Kim and Anna’s paper skillfully strips back all the policy and practice rhetoric to reveal the global flows of power, influence and money that are directed towards the character infused version of ‘just desserts’ that we are now so familiar with.

Erica Burman’s paper provides a perfect case study of how an evidence base for character education is produced through papering over contradictions, elisions and gaping holes in the logic. She also neatly and perceptively reveals how the hardening up of the ‘soft skills’ agenda associated with the turn to character re-inscribes old gender hierarchies between agency and relationality. This is a crucial observation, not least because gendered representations in school initiatives are so blatant and uncritical. My daughter is in Year 1 at infants school and gets to play with brightly colored puppets designed by the ‘You Can Do It’ program, featuring ‘Ricky Resilience’, ‘Pete Persistence’, ‘Oscar Organization’ – and two for the girls ‘Connie Confidence’ and ‘Gabby Get Along’. The gendered dimensions are far from subtle.

Pictured: the ‘You Can Do it’ puppets in action illustrating ‘British values’ in a London infants school corridor (even though they’re actually Australian). Connie and Gabby have exaggerated eyelashes and hair bows to feminize them. 

But as Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad’s paper astutely notes, Ricky Resilience later morphs into the face of the empowered middle class woman who ‘leans in’ through the career knocks and stays strong. They highlight the unsettling cultural saturation of resilience strategies and the self-investment this demands, particularly from women. What strikes me most about their analysis is the way that challenges to, or subversions of, prevailing power dynamics are seamlessly co-opted, defused and put to work to undergird the status quo. The psychological turn they identify within neoliberalism reframes and tames any resistance to the model, then flogs it back to us as a personalized prescription for overcoming its hurdles and triumphing.

And that brings me on to Kirsty Morrin’s excellent analysis of an entrepreneurial education program in a secondary academy school. I saved that one until last because it explores resistance in a really sophisticated and nuanced way and the potential for resistance is something I’m thinking a lot about at the moment. Also the very subtle resistances she documents are very familiar to me - I’ve seen the same dynamics in my own work in schools. Kirsty references Stephen Ball’s ‘politics of refusal’ in her paper. This is a concept I really like because it foregrounds the capacity we all have to disrupt and unsettle even the most totalizing logics we find ourselves incased within. Small acts on a mass scale can render some things unworkable, meaning we all have more power than we perhaps always recognise. Some, in social work have gone further and call for a form of ‘guerrilla warfare’, ‘a small-scale subversion of institutional strictures that disadvantage and misrepresent’ (Ferguson 2009).

Of course what Kirsty describes is not at all consciously political in this way. But the point is it could be. Our work as critical scholars can (and does) contribute to and support a politics of refusal. At the very least it troubles easy assumptions and opens up alternative perspectives. This special section does exactly that - I hope it’s widely read. Congratulations again to everyone involved.

About the author: Val Gillies is Professor of Social Policy and Criminology at the University of Westminster. Her research interests include family, parenting and social class, marginalised children and young people, home school relations, critical social policy as well as historical sociology. Her most recent books include Pushed to the Edge: Inclusion and Behaviour Management in Schools’ (Policy Press, 2016) and Challenging the Politics of Early Intervention: Who’s Saving Children and Why (Policy Press 2017) with Ros Edwards and Nicola Horsley.

Ferguson, I. (2009) Another Social Work is Possible!’  Reclaiming the Radical Tradition, in V. LeskoŇ°ek (Ed.), Theories and methods of social work, exploring different perspectives (pp. 81-98). Ljubljana: University of Ljubljana.