‘Improve yourself!’: practices and ambivalences of personal development – Call for proposals

From bookstore shelves to companies, personal development seems to be diffusely present in diverse social contexts today. Apart from a few attempts to define it, the term “personal development” is used as if it was obvious and thus often remains vague and imprecise. Often described as nebulous (Marquis 2014; Bouver 2016), this phenomenon resists to its construction as a research object. Nevertheless, it can be approached by certain properties such as: the importance of “awareness”, of working on oneself, the prevalence of “positive communication” and benevolence, the central attention to interpersonal relations, a negative vision of society which is supposed to pervert the individual and hinder his or her “full realisation”, the individual responsibility of each person in the development of his or her “potential” and in the construction of his or her own happiness, regardless of his or her position in the social space, etc. These elements refer to the sociological characterisations of personal development proposed in particular by Fernando Ampudia de Haro and Nicolas Marquis (Ampudia de Haro 2006; Marquis 2014).

The majority of social sciences’ work on the subject emphasizes macro-social processes. Thus, Ampudia de Haro sees personal development as an extension of the “process of civilisation” (Elias 1973 [1939]) by analysing works on personal development as “material supports for the code of management of conduct and emotions” in contemporary societies (Ampudia de Haro 2006), similar to the treatises on good manners studied by Norbert Elias. According to this author, this extension leads to the constitution of a “reflexive civilisation”. In such societies, individuals are considered individually responsible in all areas of their lives (Rose 1999; 2006) and internalize a form of self-discipline. Emilie Hache, following Michel Foucault, considers this individual responsibility as a technique of neo-liberal governmentality (Hache 2007; Foucault 2004; Laborier 2014).

These macro-level analyses document little about the concrete modalities of personal development practices and pay only limited attention to social relations of class, gender, race, age, etc. and their articulations. This conference intends to explore this blind spot on the basis of concrete practices and actual receptions of personal development.

When we consider the literature focusing on concrete practices, some ambivalences appear. Some works highlight the possibilities of emancipation offered by personal development, while on the contrary, others underline the fact that personal development contributes to the consolidation of relations of domination. For example, Albenga and Bachmann (2015) report on a trajectory of women’s emancipation based on the reading of a book with an essentialist view of women which could be described as anti-feminist (Jonas 2006). Similarly, in the United States, Irvine views self- development literature on heterosexual marital relationships (in terms of “co-dependency”) as offering women readers opportunities for empowerment and emancipation (Irvine 1995), while other authors criticize such marital relationship literature as locking women into unbalanced relationships where themaintenance of the relationship depends on them (Jonas 2006; Christopher-Byrd 2019). Beyond reading practices, the researches of Scarlett Salman and Hélène Stevens on coaching and personal development in companies, also points to ambivalences (Stevens 2013; Salman 2019; Salman 2008). For example, Hélène Stevens highlights ambivalences both at the level of the political dynamics underlying the introduction of personal development in companies and at the level of the effects on individual trajectories (Stevens 2013).

Therefore, Emeline de Bouver’s observation that: “Today we need more tools to make the necessary distinctions within the nebula of personal and existential development. Depending on its orientation, internal transformation can in fact sometimes resemble a reform or a revolution, sometimes the development of a subjectivity more adapted to the system or, on the contrary, more subversive.” (Bouver 2016). Making these distinctions requires to surpass the analyses based on books’ contents and rather pay attention to the actual receptions and appropriations of them.

This conference aims to bring together empirical analyses to provide tools for reflection on the ambivalence of personal development. How is personal development practiced and by whom? To what extent does it intervene in the (re)production of social relations of domination and power? What emancipatory capacities does it allow? How does it impact forms of collective mobilization? etc.

In order to do so, we propose four axes to carry out our reflections.

Axis 1: Emergences and legacies of personal development

The first axis focuses on the conditions that made personal development practices possible. These are situated at the crossroads between the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s (Garnoussi 2011) and the spread of a “mass psychological culture” (Castel and Cerf 1980a; 1980b; 1980c). However, this inheritance has been reinvented from an ideal of radical transformation of the world and the self to an ordinary existential problematic disconnected from social structures (Garnoussi 2011). Thus, neoliberal logics (Dardot and Laval 2009) anchored in an individualistic culture would have domesticated this counterculture, both in its political and economic dimensions through the creation of specific markets (publishing, coaching) inscribed in the “industry of happiness” (Cabanas and Illouz 2018). This evolution is also combined with a spiritual dimension that is translated by a process of secularization leading to the appearance of new secular spiritualities (Garnoussi 2007; Prades 2013).

How did this domestication come about? How did the elements of this counter-culture circulate to give birth to the nebula of personal development that we know today? Does this process correspond to a transformation of the relationship to politics?

Axis 2: Changing oneself, and changing the world?

This axis aims to question the effects of personal development on contemporary collective mobilizations. It appears today that some of the collective mobilizations advocate changing oneself (first) to change the world (second). This observation was made by Bookchin about anarchism in the 1980s (Bookchin 2019) and it seems to be equally valid for contemporary mobilizations such as part of ecological mobilizations. This imperative and this individualizing vision refer back to the logics of personal development. It is therefore possible to question the consequences of the appropriation of these principles of personal development on the repertoires of actions and modes of organization. In what way does personal development affect the relationship to the politics of these mobilizations that advocate individual change first and foremost?

Mobilizations tinged with the principles of personal development blur the boundaries between the self, the private and the political: do they make it possible to redefine politics and modes of engagement? What about the individuals who take part? Do they define themselves as activists? Here again, it is a question of accounting for practices and their ambivalence: if activism becomes existential (Bouver, 2016), is there not also a risk of “changing one’s life without changing the world” (Bookchin, 2019)?

Thinking about collective frameworks for personal development can also lead to investigating self-help groups. (How) do they contribute to the individual emancipation of their participants? Can they be supports for the collective elaboration of political demands and mobilizations? On the contrary, can they be considered as a kind of alternative to collective mobilization, a means for individuals to overcome uneasiness and difficulties without questioning social relations nor threatening the social order?

Axis 3: Institutional frameworks and organizational practices

Personal development and especially its characteristic language and ideologies have spread to several private or public institutions: the hospital with its therapeutic care, the prison with the emergence of coaching practices and activities proposed to the detainees, the school environment with the students orientation or even the company with its management techniques and career management, to name a few. If personal development has passed through the doors of institutions, it is partly due to its dual function of control and care.

This third axis proposes to analyze the different forms that personal development takes when it enters in a private or public institution (company, association, hospital, school, prison etc.). It questions the effects of personal development and its constitutive logics (self-fulfilment, research of its potential, etc.) on the groups, the companies, institutions or administrations etc.

How institutions have appropriated the language and techniques promoted by personal development? What transformations are expected by institutions? In what way are these expectations socially situated and can they (re)produce social relations of domination (gender, class, race, age, etc.)? How, within institutions, do personal development practices that seem to focus on intellectual and mental dimensions (mindfulness, non-violent communication, etc.) have effects on bodies?

Axis 4: Techniques of the self, biographical trajectories, individual transformations

Finally, the fourth axis privileges biographical approaches and microsociological perspectives. Indeed, personal development, its literature and its practices, can be considered as techniques of the self (Foucault 2001). These are notably diffused through books, conferences, coaching sessions, individual or collective psychotherapies, etc. They promise a transformation of self through questioning and exercises. Based on the premise that the reception and appropriation of personal development varies according to the social positioning, the trajectories, the dispositions and the context of reception, the aim is to question the inscription of these techniques in individual trajectories. This axis intends to propose sociological readings of the receptions and their possible impacts on the trajectories, by taking into account the socializations, the moments of biographical bifurcation, the evolution of relationships, the temporalities of these changes, etc.

How do these personal development practices fit into individual trajectories? How does this inscription influence their reception of these works? At what point do these encounters with personal development take place? In what circumstances can they be transformative? What are the sources of this possible transformative dimension? Finally, in which temporalities do these practices and their possible effects? In the contrary, how can we account for situations where the expected transformation does not come?

Practical modalities:

Communications may be given in French or English.Proposals, approximately 500 words (maximum), must be written in one of these two languages and sent by March 14th 2021 at the latest to colloque.developpezvous@gmail.com .

Proposals should:

  • have a title,
  • indicate the name of the author(s) and institutions,
  • specify the materials on which the communication is based,
  • be sent to colloque.developpezvous@gmail.com .

Please send to two versions of your proposal, one with your name and institution and the other one completely anonymized.

The proposals will be evaluated by the scientific committee and the answers will be sent by mail at the beginning of May 2021. For any question about the event or request for details you can contact colloque.developpezvous@gmail.com

The conference may result in a publication: submission of a manuscript to a journal (thematic issue).

Organizing Committee :

Ivan Garrec (USPN, IRIS), Julie Rodrigues Leite (EHESS, IRIS), Océane Sipan (EHESS, IRIS/CEMS)

Scientific Committee:

Luc Berlivet (CNRS, Cermes3), Marc Bessin (CNRS, IRIS), Hélène Bretin (USPN, IRIS), Emeline De Bouver (UCLouvain), Françoise Champion (CNRS, EPHE), Tristan Fournier (CNRS, IRIS), Daniel Friedmann (CNRS, EHESS), Eric Gagnon (Université de Laval), Nadia Garnoussi (Université Lille 3, CeRIES), Aurélie Jeantet (Université Paris 3, CRESPPA), Samuel Lézé (ENS Lyon, IHRIM), Nicolas Marquis (Université de Saint Louis, CASPER), Scarlett Salman (Université Gustave Eiffel, LISIS), Hélène Stevens (Université de Poitiers, GRESCO)

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Océane Sipan

Doctorante en sociologie, EHESS, IRIS, CEMS.

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