Facing psychological coercion and manipulation has become a daily part of claiming benefits

This post was contributed by Lynne Friedli, researcher with Hubbub; Robert Stearn, PhD candidate in English and Humanities at Birkbeck; and Dr Felicity Callard, director of Hubbub and Reader at Durham University. Hubbub is an interdisciplinary project of scientists, public health experts, clinicians and humanists funded by the Wellcome Trust and run from Durham University, with support from the Max Planck Institutes and the University of York. This blog post first appeared in The Conversation on Monday, June 8

Workfare-webCuring unemployment is a growth market for psychologists. Job Centres are becoming medical centres, claimants are becoming patients, and unemployment is being redefined as a psychological disorder.

Made-up ailments such as “psychological resistance to work”and “entrenched worklessness” feature in ministerial speeches and lucrative Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) contracts, without attracting a murmur of protest from professional psychologists.

Psychological explanations for unemployment – the failings of the maladjusted jobseeker – isolate, blame, and stigmatise unemployed people. They reinforce myths about “cultures of worklessness”; they obscure the realities of the UK labour market and the political choices that underpin it. The same is true of psychological prescriptions for treating unemployment.

Interventions

People claiming benefits are already subject to psycho-interventions through mandatory courses designed to promote “employability” and “job readiness”. And as we show in a new paper published in Medical Humanities, “positive psychology” is pervasive in Job Centres (the newly privatised Behavioural Insights Team has trained more than 20,000 Job Centre staff). A narrow set of approved psychological and personality traits are widely touted as essential to getting and keeping a job: confidence, optimism, positive, aspirational, motivated, and infinitely flexible.

Motivational “messaging” targets both staff and claimants, and is set to intensify. The 2015 budget sets out government plans to put therapists in job centres this summer. Online cognitive behavioural therapy will also be provided, in order to “improve employment outcomes” for claimants with mental health conditions. (Some of the many problems with these approaches have recently been discussed in The Conversation.)

The “change your attitude” message of positive psychology is enforced by unsolicited “positive thinking” emails sent to claimants, and in mandatory “employability” training courses promising to help with “self-esteem, self-confidence and motivation”.

Employability, workfare and sanctions

People on benefits are made to take part in various pointless and humiliating psychological group activities (like building paper clip towers to demonstrate team work), or take completely meaningless and unethical psychological tests to determine their “strengths”. But the goal is not a job with pay that you can live on. Instead, this is an intensive “change your attitude” programme, which – along with other forms of workfare – is designed to force people off benefits.

Workfare is a name for the different kinds of “work-for-your-benefits” schemes, exported from the US, which have spread to many rich democracies over the last two decades. In the UK, unemployed people are forced to work unpaid for a charity, business, or local authority in order to continue to be eligible for benefits (both Job Seekers’ Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance – the benefit paid to sick and disabled people).

Workfare also includes coaching, skills-building and motivational workshops, and schemes that are part training course, part unpaid work placement. Failure to take part in these schemes may result in harsher or more demanding workfare activities or benefit sanctions.

Sanctions amount, as David Webster has recently argued, to a “secret penal system”. Entrenched, arbitrary, and unaccountable, they deprive people of the money they need to eat and live. Workfare – backed by sanctions – also ensures a steady supply of free labour, replacing paid jobs, further depressing wages, and creating a claimant workforce without the legal status and rights normally given to workers. The unemployed person is a generator of income for everyone except themselves.

At the same time, assessing “employability” and enforcing activities said to increase it is now a central function of workfare, stimulating the growth of a state-sanctioned, state-contracted industry heavily influenced by – and reliant upon – psychological “magic” .

“Employability” isn’t a set of skills or attributes required for a specific job or job offer (receptionist, bus driver, call centre operator, care worker). Rather, it is about personality and emotions: achieving a generic upbeat state; having the characteristics, attitudes and habits of “the sort of person who can get a job” – the familiar roll call of confidence, self esteem, motivation and aspiration so celebrated by the CBI, as they lament the absence of these “job ready” attributes in young people leaving school or university and identify “a positive attitude as the key foundation of employability”.

Attitudes to work

This means that “attitude to work” – boosted by confidence courses and assertiveness sheets – becomes a legitimate basis for deciding who is and who is not entitled to social security and a condition placed on receipt of benefits.

In the past, conditionality related to things like refusing to take a job after receiving three offers of work. This was hardly beyond criticism. Now, the supposed absence of positive affect can trigger some form of sanction. “Lack of work experience or motivation” is one of the criteria for being sent on a Community Work Placement – six months’ unpaid community service for 30 hours a week.

 

Esther McVey, former minister of state for employment, talked about targeting people who are “less mentally fit, bewildered, despondent”, and about the difference between those who are “apprehensive but willing” and those who are “reticent but disengaged”. While unfit claimants will be sent on “more intensive coaching”, those who are “optimistic” can be placed on less rigorous regimes. This is how the DWP will decide who is to be punished with “extra support” – 35 hours a week at a Job Centre.

Medical professionals as state enforcers

The 2015 Conservative manifesto stated that claimants who “refuse a recommended treatment” may have their benefits reduced. This attempt to co-opt medical professionals as state enforcers is what led to the first protest by psychologists. However, while campaigns such as Psychologists Against Austerity have focused on the psychological impact of welfare reform, there has been little mention of psychology’s central role in disciplining and punishing people claiming benefits, or of the ethics of psychological conditionality.

Notwithstanding the UK’s low pay, no pay economy featuring a growing number of precarious, exploitative and part-time jobs, what employers want is “enthusiasm” and workfare is designed to ensure they get it. The “engage” training module will help job seekers achieve “a mindset that appeals to employers, assertiveness, confidence, understanding the benefits of work, motivation and coping with low mood”. In the Job Centre and at the premises of private training providers these positive psychological imperatives – frequently laughable in themselves – are plugged into a violent and coercive sanctions regime.

Substituting outcomes

The frameworks used for DWP evaluations of workfare schemes overwhelmingly focus on their psychological benefits. The explanation psychology offers, the treatment it delivers and legitimates, and the kinds of outcome it recognises, are also specified in DWP contracts worth hundreds of thousands of pounds (Focus the Mind, Achieve your Potential, Engage for Success). A programme for JSA/ESA claimants older than 50 even aims to persuade people that age discrimination doesn’t exist.

These developments raise important questions about the ethics of extending state surveillance – and state-contracted surveillance – to psychological characteristics. Psychology can offer a powerful critical perspective on these kinds of compulsion. But pressing issues of accountability and complicity have not been addressed by professional psychological bodies, in spite of persistent lobbying from anti-workfare campaigners. Boycott Workfare says that BACP – which sets standards for therapeutic practice – has been silent, and that they are still waiting for a statement from the British Psychological Society (BPS). Far from addressing the validity or ethics of assessing claimants for “psychological resistance to work”, BPS put out a press releasenoting that tests should be undertaken by qualified staff.

Psychological coercion and manipulation are part of the day-to-day experience of claiming benefits. It is time the profession took a stand against them.

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UK elects most diverse parliament ever but it’s still not representative

This post was contributed by Dr Rosie Campbell, reader in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, and Dr Jennifer Hudson, senior lecturer in Political Behaviour at UCL. It was originally posted on The Conversation on May 13

Ahead of the 2015 election, broadcaster Jeremy Paxman argued that voters were being given a choice “between one man who was at primary school with Boris Johnson and one man who was at secondary school with him – both of whom did PPE at Oxford”.

SNP's Mhairi Black smiles after defeating Labour's Douglas Alexander for the Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat at the Lagoon Leisure centre, Paisley.

SNP’s Mhairi Black smiles after defeating Labour’s Douglas Alexander for the Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat at the Lagoon Leisure centre, Paisley.

Throughout the campaign, we’ve been gathering data on the parliamentary candidates to see if this lack of choice plays out across the board. Do the people elected to represent the UK, bear any resemblance to the public they represent?

Women on the rise

This year saw 48 more women elected that in 2010 – bringing the total number of women MPs to a record 191. Women make up 29% of newly elected MPs, up from 22% in 2010.

The Green party had the highest percentage of women candidates selected at 38%, but with chances in only a handful of seats, they had little chance of affecting parliamentary gender balance.

Labour has the highest proportion of women in its parliamentary party. Its record number of 99 women MPs is the result of using all-women shortlists and the decision to put a majority of women candidates (53%) in winnable seats. So Labour’s conversion rate was higher, despite its poor performance in the polls.

Party breakdown (percentages are rounded). Parliamentary Candidates UK, Author provided

With 26% of women candidates selected, the Tories have 68 women MPs, up from 47 in the last parliament. Although there was no equivalent of the A-List David Cameron used in 2010 to increase the number of women put forward for winnable seats, the Tories did place women in 38% of their retirement seats.

One of the key reasons for the increase in the number of women MPs is the performance of the SNP. The Scottish party came second and tied with Labour in terms of the percentage of women candidates selected (34%) and added 20 women MPs to the overall total – as well as the youngest in Mhairi Black.

Ethnic diversity

Perhaps surprisingly, given accusations of racism within the party, 6% of UKIP candidates were black or from an ethnic minority group. That’s more than the SNP, the Greens and Plaid.

The vote on May 7 saw 41 BME MPs elected to parliament, and increase on 2010 where 27 MPs were elected. MPs from non-white backgrounds make up just 6% of Parliament.

BME MPs. Percentages are rounded. Parliamentary Candidates UK, Author provided

Prior to the election, it was suggested that the Conservatives had closed the gap with Labour when it came to the proportion of black and ethnic minority candidates in the running. Our data show that the Tories led the way with 10% of BME candidates selected to stand in 2010, compared to 8% for Labour and LibDems.

But this is not the success it seems when you look at winnable seats. While 13% of Labour’s black and ethnic minority candidates were placed in winnable or marginal seats, just 5% of those standing for the Conservatives found themselves in similar positions. Labour had 16 black and ethnic minority MPs in 2010 so the increase to 23 in 2015, despite poor polling, shows the importance of where candidates are placed.

The Tories were able to boost BME representation by selecting candidates in very safe retirement seats, including Rishi Sunak in Richmond, Yorkshire – a 44% Tory majority seat – and Suella Fernandes in Fareham, a seat with a 31% majority. The Tories now have 17 black and minority MPs – an increase of six from 2010.

True representation?

The increased diversity in Westminster after the 2015 election is a success worth celebrating, but we should be careful not to lose sight of the big picture. Paxman’s general premise – that there isn’t a great deal of diversity amongst the candidates of the different parties – still holds.

Women MPs make up just 29% of the new parliament, that’s less than a third for a country where women make up 51% of the population. It also puts Britain behind many of its European counterparts (Germany, France, Sweden), and well behind countries like Rwanda, Cuba and Kazakhstan. And black and ethnic minority MPs make up just 6% of parliament, despite representing 13% of the population.

To put the progress made in perspective, the UK would need to elect 130 more women and double the current number of black and ethnic minority MPs to make its parliament descriptively representative of the population it serves – and the political parties are still not offering enough candidates from these groups in the right places to make that happen.

Chrysa Lamprinakou, Marco Morucci, Sally Symington, Sam Sharp and David Ireland also contributed to this article.

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The United Nations: Is Language Just Part of the Plumbing?

This post was contributed by Dr Lisa J. McEntee-Atalianis, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Dr Lisa McEntee-AtalianisSince the first General Assembly Resolution 2 (I) in 1946, the United Nations (UN) has championed multilingualism and cultural diversity through the promotion and support of six official languages and a varied number of working languages for its work within its Headquarters in New York, its various agencies and in its outreach and fieldwork.

In its most recent resolution the UN reiterates its commitment to multilingualism, noting that the General Assembly:

‘Recogniz[es] that the United Nations pursues multilingualism as a means of promoting, protecting and preserving diversity of languages and cultures globally, Recogniz[es] also that genuine multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding, and recognizing the importance of the capacity to communicate to the peoples of the world in their own languages, including in formats accessible to persons with disabilities, [and] stress[es] the need for strict observance of the resolutions and rules establishing language arrangements for the different bodies and organs of the United Nations…’ (65/311: 1)

However despite this de jure set up the de facto reality has seen a continued imbalance in the support given to these languages and in the linguistic practices of its membership, who have overwhelmingly favoured English.

Attempts have been made at Headquarters to redress this imbalance through rigorous inspections of the status of multilingual implementation across the system and via internal processes of review and reform across its organisations; the most recent precipitated by an inspection in 2011.

The UN has been vociferous in its continued support of multilingual provision citing its commitment to cultural and linguistic diversity. However increasing financial and administrative burdens, global challenges and realities have led to the emergence of regulations, recommendations and practices that run counter to this ideal. Moreover some argue that its language policy is somewhat ‘outdated’ and discriminatory given that a number of official languages spoken by Member States who joined subsequent to the initial policy formation fail to be recognised, forcing diplomats into negotiating positions in which they may not have the linguistic ‘upper hand’.

In a forthcoming publication (McEntee-Atalianis, in print) I detail the contemporary concerns of the UN with respect to their language policy and provision and relay findings from recent ethnographic and desk work carried out within the organisation.

The current system needs to be revised in order to foster a variety of language regimes across the ecology of the organisation. I presented these recommendations, with a specific focus on the role of member ‘agency’ in language policy formation for international organisations, at the recent ‘Symposium on Language and Exclusion’ hosted by the ‘Study Group on Language and the UN’ in New York last week, along with a number of other contributions from international scholars and UN language personnel who explored the role of language in the various activities of the UN (e.g. in international peacekeeping).

Contributors to the symposium discussed whether language has indeed just become ‘part of the plumbing’ within the organisation – a taken-for-granted resource used mechanistically – without regard for its power to include or exclude stakeholders, members and individuals in the field.

The overwhelming conclusion was that whilst the organisation has made some strides since its last inspection report (as detailed in A/69/282), it still has a long way to go to reform its current policy and practices to ensure it meets its goal of linguistic equity.

Like many organisations however the UN is difficult to penetrate. It has an established ‘Outreach’ programme and has Memoranda of Understanding with a number of academic institutions (in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas) but these MoUs are predominantly established to train language personnel in order to subsequently service the organisation in its official and working languages. Recommendations were made for the UN to extend its mandate in order to work with academics to support internal and external operations and nurture linguistic regimes suitable for contemporary international/transnational demands.

It is time to extend the plumbing metaphor, to envisage and prioritise language as THE vital resource fundamental to the functioning of the system, not just a necessary installation.

  • McEntee-Atalianis, L.J. (in print) ‘Multilingualism and the Unitied Nations: Diplomatic Baggage or Passport to Success?’ In Ulrike Jessner & Claire Kramsch (Eds.) Multilingualism: The Challenges. Trends in Applied Linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

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How does academic research really benefit business?

This post has been contributed by Dr Federica Rossi, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Management, and Aldo Geuna, professor of Economics at the University of Torino, Italy. Their new book The University and the Economy: Pathways to Growth and Economic Development is published by Edward Elgar.

The University and the EconomyIn an international economic environment where innovation processes are increasingly open and decentralised, companies’ ability to innovate often depends on acquiring knowledge from external sources: in particular, it depends on companies quickly identifying the knowledge they need and integrating it with their internal research, development and production processes. Interactions with universities allow companies to embed scientific knowledge in their internal innovation processes, an accomplishment which is particularly important in high technology sectors, but increasingly across the board.

While in recent years university-industry interactions have become the focus of a growing academic literature, much remains to be learned about the factors that promote such interactions and about how they really unfold. Our knowledge of how companies engage in technology transfer – how they access, exploit and build upon academic research – is particularly lacking.

Thanks to two original and in-depth surveys of companies and company-based inventors in North-West Italy, we have been able to shed some light on the dynamics of university-industry technology transfer from the companies’ perspective (Geuna and Rossi, 2015). While some of our findings support arguments already made by previous research – among others, that companies value science which is openly disseminated through scientific publications and conferences rather than through proprietary means such as licenses, that the more educated the workforce the better able companies are to exploit academic knowledge and, relatedly, that larger and more research intensive companies are more likely to interact with universities – they also shed light on some as yet unexplored issues, which challenge commonly held ideas about how knowledge transfer occurs.

Not all university-industry knowledge transfer involves universities

A lot of technology transfer occurs under the radar of university institutions, through personal contacts (and contracts) between businesses and academics. Direct interactions between industry-based inventors and academic researchers are an established channel through which companies access academic knowledge, and they are particularly important because they contribute to the production of valuable inventions. The share of companies that interact with universities exclusively through direct personal interactions with academics, without any involvement of university structures, is almost as large as the share of companies that formalise their interactions with the university institutions (alongside, possibly, direct interactions with academics).

Companies that do not collaborate with universities are over-represented among small companies and under-represented among large ones, and are less likely to invest in internal R&D. This suggests that company staff need an adequate level of education and competence in order to collaborate with academic staff. Among the companies that do not interact with universities, however, it is possible to identify different groups: those that do not interact because they find it unnecessary or too difficult and/or expensive, and those that do not interact with university institutions but instead they interact with individual academics outside of these institutional channels.

The latter companies are an interesting group because they are smaller and they are more likely to adopt open innovation strategies than the companies that interact with universities through institutional channels. Direct interactions with individual academics are, therefore, particularly appealing to dynamic small and medium size enterprises which probably find institutional channels too cumbersome.

The social sciences have a key role to play in regional knowledge transfer

Much university-industry technology transfer does not involve technology at all. Rather, a lot of interactions between companies and universities focus on providing solutions to legal, logistic, marketing, management and organisational problems. This is particularly so for interactions that occur between companies and universities based in the same region, while interactions between more distant universities (outside the company’s own region and sometimes even internationally) are more likely to concern technological issues.

Why do companies prefer to interact with regional universities, as opposed to distant ones, in order to solve business problems? The reason may depend on the fact that business problem-solving (for example, problems that have to do with human resource management, marketing, legal compliance, and so on) builds upon detailed knowledge of the socioeconomic and legal-institutional context in which the firm operates.

This requires direct interactions that allow the transfer of tacit knowledge. Instead, collaborations with distant universities involve more often codified and abstract forms of knowledge, the transmission of which does not require direct communications. Companies may also look at distant universities when they are seeking very specific knowledge that does not exist in the region.

Companies that collaborate with distant universities are often larger and tend to invest more, since technology-focused projects are usually more expensive than those focused on the solution of business problems. Nonetheless, collaborations with universities in the same region are very frequent and have important roles to play for the competitiveness of businesses and of the region overall.

Theoretical academic knowledge is particularly valuable to business

Our survey of company inventors has allowed us to investigate what modes of interaction between industrial inventors and academic researchers led to the realisation of more valuable inventions.

We have found that collaboration setups that involve direct interactions between industry researchers and academics tend to lead to more valuable inventions. Also, interactions where universities transfer theoretical knowledge and scientific principles (instead of more applied knowledge) lead to more valuable inventions. This is an unexpected result, since it is commonly believed that the theoretical knowledge developed by academics is quite far from having an impact on industrial innovation processes. Instead the companies and the industry inventors that we interviewed find that theoretical academic knowledge directly supported their innovation processes.

What does this mean for universities?

In short, these results suggest three immediate implications for universities. First, universities should focus on enabling academics to interact with industry whatever the governance of the collaborations, instead of insisting on regulating all interactions between academics and companies – in fact, direct personal interactions often fit companies’ needs better and are more productive than those that are formalised through the involvement of the university institutions.

Second, universities should exploit their business problem-solving competences (residing particularly in social science departments) to support the needs of local businesses and to strengthen intra-regional collaborations. Third, universities should not forget that their key source of competitive advantage resides in the development of advanced, cutting edge theories and methods rather than in the pursuit of very applied knowledge, which could also be provided by other actors in the economy.

Rather than focusing on providing solutions to immediate day-to-day problems, universities should continue to put their resources into producing the high level knowledge that very few other organizations in the economy are capable of generating.

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References

Geuna, A., F. Rossi (2015) The University and the Economy Pathways to Growth and Economic Development Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

See also:

Bodas Freitas, I., Geuna, A., Lawson, C. and F. Rossi (2014) How do industry inventors collaborate with academic researchers? The choice between shared and unilateral governance forms, in Patrucco, P. (ed.) The economics of knowledge generation and distribution. The role of interactions in the system dynamics of innovation and growth, London: Routledge.

Bodas Freitas, I., Geuna, A. and F. Rossi (2013) Finding the right partners: Institutional and personal modes of governance of university–industry interactions, Research Policy, 42(1): 50-62.

Bodas Freitas, I., Rossi, F. and A. Geuna (2014) Collaboration objectives and the location of the university partner: evidence from the Piedmont region in Italy, Papers in Regional Science, 93(S1): S203-S226.

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