Battle in Print: Debating therapy culture: a brief response to Kathryn Ecclestone

Simon Anderson and Julie Brownlie, 29 October 2009

As the authors of ‘Therapy culture?: attitudes to emotional support in Britain’, published as part of last year’s British Social Attitudes report, we take issue with a number of points made by Kathryn Ecclestone in her Battle in Print essay, which refers extensively to our article, making similar criticisms to those made by Jennie Bristow on spiked. In particular, we reject the suggestion that by questioning one aspect of the therapeutic culture thesis, we are therefore ‘in denial’, as Jennie Bristow puts it, about the wider social ramifications of the therapeutic turn.

Ecclestone and Bristow both argue that we have misunderstood Furedi’s thesis about ‘therapy culture’, which they correctly point out is not simply about dependency on therapeutic professionals but represents a broader critique of emotional conformism or the ‘tyranny of emotional etiquette’. In fact, in the opening paragraph of our chapter we clearly acknowledge that understandings of therapeutic culture are much broader than beliefs about and uses of formal therapeutic services but indicate that our interest in the survey is with one part of this assumed cultural shift: the general population’s beliefs and practices about formal and informal emotional support. We do not, then, reduce arguments about therapeutic culture simply to these beliefs and practices. But it would be curious indeed if such beliefs and practices did not tell us something about this broader cultural shift towards the therapeutic. In fact, in his book Therapy Culture, Furedi draws heavily on evidence of the expansion of the provision and use of counselling services as a key part of his broader critique.

That said, we do not set out (or claim) to disprove the wider thesis from this relatively narrow start. Indeed, we clearly acknowledge the limitations of the focus and methods of the research in that regard. We also highlight the ways in which the findings concur with the broad thrust of Furedi’s argument (for example, in relation to the apparent growing acceptance of the value of ‘emotions talk’). Therapeutic culture is, indeed, a much more subtle and nuanced phenomenon than the simple recourse to formal therapeutic practices (which is why the survey work reported on in the British Social Attitudes book has been accompanied by a second phase of more detailed qualitative investigation). However, it is precisely because it is subtle and nuanced that rigorous, systematic research is necessary. The aim of the module in the BSA was quite specific: to provide an empirical mapping of actual beliefs and practices around formal and informal emotional support and the significance of talk in relation to both. Significantly, this mapping involved differentiating therapeutic culture, rather than constructing it as moving en bloc across UK society, impacting uniformly on everyone in its path. Our work is not about the denial of therapeutic culture, then, but about researching people’s actual experiences of it. In doing so, it allows for the possibility that there may be a gap between that experience and the dominant discourses of media and policy.

Ecclestone implies that we dispute that more people are actually seeking or being given specialist therapeutic interventions than in the past. We don’t. Our research is a snapshot and has no longitudinal dimension. We simply point out that, at this particular point in time, such interventions remain the experience of a small minority and could by no means be described as a widespread or dominant cultural phenomenon.

We are not questioning the wider spread of therapeutic discourses or assuming a position in opposition to or in defence of the therapeutic: we are just pointing out that, in the critical realm of emotional support, the vast majority of the population continues to be overwhelmingly dependent on close personal relationships and sceptical about or resistant to ideas of professional intervention in the face of emotional difficulties. In other words, therapeutic ideas may encounter resistance in the everyday and not just in the realm of academic debate.

Author

Simon Anderson and Julie Brownlie are the authors of ‘Therapy culture?: attitudes to emotional support in Britain’, in Park, A., Curtice, J., Thomson, K., Phillips, M and Cleary, M. (eds) (2009) British Social Attitudes 25th Report (London, Sage)

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