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A Critical Study of Self-Help and Self-Improvement Practices

Textual, Discursive, and Ethnographic Perspectives

A Critical Study of Self-Help and Self-Improvement Practices
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This is an ethnographic investigation of the phenomenon of self-help. It notes a problematic at the centre of the topic: the term self-help connotes, on the one hand, an autonomous agent (“self”), and on the other, a reliance on other agents (“help”). More substantively, the term attaches itself to two opposing ideological positions, individualism and collectivism. This splitting of the term gets reproduced: we see the genre of self-help books, built around the individual activity of reading as a quest for self-help, and self-help groups, built around the collective, co-presence of members as they mutually help one another. But the phenomenon is engaged by separate, non-overlapping literatures that treat self-help books as having a status independent of self-help groups; one attends to self-help books, but disregards self-help groups, while the other attends to self-help groups, but disregards self-help books. Thus self-help books and self-help groups get polarized. This effectively makes the original problematic around the term itself disappear, because it simply ignores it.It contributes to social science scholarship the first study to engage this problematic as a topic of investigation. Through detailed textual analytic work, it finds that self-help books display their own critique, and actually point away from themselves and the activity of reading, in order for readers to complete their quest for self-help. Through detailed ethnographic fieldwork, it finds that activities in self-help groups point towards themselves, and endorse continued membership to successfully complete self-help. A truly innovative feature of this study is its identification of a hybrid of self-help books and self-help groups, the detailed examination of interaction in a life-coaching workshop. It uses this, hypothesized as the hyphen in self-help, to discuss the two poles of self-help as a substantive contemporary phenomenon.
The Edwin Mellen Press; April 2011
350 pages; ISBN 9780773420687
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
IntroductionIt is a funny term. There it is, just two little words: “self-help”. What makes it funny is that it seems to point in different directions, at different things. Look at the OED definition, at the top of the page. Self-help implies some inner faculty, an ability to perform some action on one’s own, without external assistance. But where does the “help” fit in? Look again: self-help. Help is different from self. It implies the requirement of some outside agency assistance from others. So self-help is an internal capacity and an external capacity; sufficiency and insufficiency; independence and dependence; autonomy and sociality. What does that mean? Surely there is a tension. But the two words fit together happily enough; they appear in the dictionary like that. See: self-help. Or do they? You see the hyphen – the small line, almost unnoticed, between self and help. What is its function? Is self-help one phenomenon, or two phenomena being brought together with a hyphen? What is happening in the name of self-help? What is embodied in the term? And what does it mean to practice self-help? I thought the term appeared noticeably strange. And it is. Engaging the topic of self-help plays out the classic conflicts in the culture wars (see Curran, Gaber & Petley, 2005). There are two versions of culture here, conflicting views of moral authority on human existence. Like most wars, a tension exists, a paradox:Like all living creatures, Homo sapiens initially seeks to satisfy his biological needs and to ensure his personal survival. But biological survival depends largely upon the cooperation and assistance of other human beings, and man, who is also a social being, is committed to living in a society through which he and his fellows attain individual and common goods (Katz & Bender, 1976: 14 original italics)So, man [sic] is at the centre of the culture wars. Does he derive his sense of self, that is to say survive in the world, as an individual or as a member of a collective? What is his identification? Is he autonomous or not? Self-help, then, embodies two predominant ideological currents in Western thought: individualism and collectivism (Williams, 1989). History provides us with a picture of this tension. In primitive cultures, cooperation was readily practiced. It had to be; life was amazingly harsh, with only the strongest surviving. Tribes would group together, and engage in communal activities such as food gathering, child rearing, cultivation of land and resources, protection against “outsiders”, rival tribes (Kropotkin, 1989). Then there were medieval guilds, early associations of craftsmen: masons, carpenters, glassworkers. They were enjoined by “conjurations”, oaths obliging artisans to support one another in times of need or in business ventures. They organized funds, to support elderly or infirm members and their families, maintain tools and secure employment. Trades would be learnt, passed down from master craftsmen; apprentices would be required to produce evidence, a “masterpiece”, to display their abilities to the guild, who would decide, collectively, their eligibility to practice. They did things together. The Industrial Revolution tells another story too. It brought about a huge rise in the population through industrialization, where people had to adjust to the demands of industrial economic life; things were competitive, and highly fickle. Friendly societies emerged – mutual associations of individuals who grouped together for financial and social services (Neave, 1991). A regular membership fee ensured that, if members became ill, or even died, they or their families would receive an allowance. Times were hard. But the societies were social occasions too: members would regularly meet for ceremonial dances, engage in team activities and have annual feasts (Katz, 1993). It might seem odd that, given the prevalence of unemployment, and the considerable domestic costs of living, especially among the working classes, people would carry the burden of ongoing costs for society membership. There was a good reason: membership in these collectives prevented the threat, never too distant, of having to go to the workhouses . Nobody wanted that. The guilds and the friendly societies were related to another strategy of mutual aid: trade unions. Peoples’ livelihoods in the heavily inhabited towns depended on the industrial economy; but employment was notoriously insecure, and working conditions highly unsatisfactory (Hopkins, 1995). There were no safeguards in place against unemployment, and employers were not about to change things. Workers were vulnerable to exploitation e.g., exhausting piecework, long working hours and threats to wages in times of depression in trade. With the inception of trade unions, workers began to participate in the decisions affecting their working conditions. Employers took notice; they did not want ongoing strikes, violence and disruption in the workplace. That was bad for business. Besides: happy workers meant more industry. But things did not improve immediately. There was a need for political change, to obtain trade union representation in parliament. Workers wanted to change policy on employment, and elected working class men to stand in parliament as independents, to break away from the current political parties. Workers sought public ownership and nationalization of the means of production, as well as equal partnership, with employers, in their contracts of employment. The capitalist system was insensitive to the needs of the ordinary, working man. Thus: it was through the socialist thinking of working class self-help, that is, trade unionism, that the Labour party was created, a political party for the working classes which promoted the interests of labour. So this is collective self-help, achieving social and cultural goals, or goals that impact and effect society and culture, through mutual aid. There is a strong social ethic.