Behavioural Psychology as a Social Project: From Social Engineering to the Cultivation of Competence

Baistow, Karen. 1998. Behavioural Psychology as a Social Project: From Social Engineering to the Cultivation of Competence. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

The starting point of this project is an interest in the social influence of psychology during the twentieth century. It differs from other analyses in that it focuses on behavioural psychology, examining its contribution to new ways of thinking about people and new ways of intervening in their lives in the name of social as well as individual improvement. Despite the demise of behaviourism and the controversy surrounding behaviour modification techniques, the last twenty years has seen a widespread increase in their use in non-clinical settings for non-clinical problems, most controversially in residential institutions. However, over the last two decades their use has extended into the "well community" as solutions to a range of individual and family problems and it is these that form the focus of the thesis. Drawing conceptually and methodologically on Foucauldian analyses of the human sciences and "government", the study aims to account for these expansions by examining the formation and conditions of existence of behavioural discourses on social improvement, by documenting the recent and current uses of behavioural approaches in the field of child and family welfare, and considering the implications of these for the government of the social. Analysing textual and interview sources, I show how changing internal and external conditions of behavioural discourse and practice have made possible these expansions. In particular I trace the contribution of behavioural discourses on locus of control to current emphases on empowerment. In conclusion, I argue that behavioural approaches have a number of characteristics that enable them to fit reciprocally with changing economic, organisational and ethical conditions and that recent deployments of behavioural approaches point not so much to the decline of the social as a domain to be governed, but to transformations in the way that is it is configured, which continue to connect the improvement of society with the improvement of the individual.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

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behavioural psychology, behaviourism, Foucault, governmentality

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Date Deposited:

29 May 2020 13:27

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 14:24


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