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Affluenza and changing values

The author of They F*** You Up has a new book out but, asks Ailean Mills, could it be quallies he's referring to this time?

Oliver James, psychologist and bestselling author has just published Affluenza.This new book is a bull's-eye read for qualitative researchers. If They F**** You up was about the effect of family dynamics on children's minds, Affluenza is about society's change in values since the 1970s - ironically, when qualitative research got in to its stride - and how we now define our lives through earnings, appearances and celebrity.

These are what make us miserable because they impede the meeting of our more fundamental needs. We are, he says, infected by a virus which is screwing us up by conflating what we want with what we really need, 'Having with Being'.

So, why a bull's-eye read? Three main reasons:

Emergent theme

The first is that he is clearly writing on an emergent theme, that of happiness and values beyond money - a trend we quallies need to keep abreast of. He's probably also on a bit of another bandwagon, the anti-US one, as he states that "to put it crudely, the more like America a society becomes, the higher the rate of emotional distress", extolling Chinese collectivist values as he goes.

Another hobby horse is that we are becoming "marketing characters" due to our desire for belonging through consumer symbols. Oh yes, and then he lambastes TV, which he links with adolescent violence.

I have to admit that it would be simple to go on the counter attack with some of James' contentions - yet I find there is some material that makes me uneasy, personally and professionally. While some of his statements tend to be ridiculous, there is a timely irrefutability to many others.

The second reason is because I suspect that qualitative researchers, individually and as a community, will increasingly, in our new ethical environment, have to come to terms with their role as prime support architects of what James refers to as "Selfish Capitalism". This is a nasty form of political economy causing the Affluenza Virus, consumerism which has, he contends, "hijacked" emancipation and feminism and caused the devaluation of motherhood.

Uncomfortable ambivalence

Yes, that's right; I'm looking at you now! And me! And there has always been, to my mind, a rather uncomfortable unspoken ambivalence about the qualitative research world. Researchers tend to be caring, deep-thinking sorts of a left'ish political flavour who are happy in pretty much anyone's sitting room. Yet much of the work they undertake is at the pinnacle of 'spin' or, as James would have it, engaged in an encouragement of object-grab to medicate people's misery.

"To fill the emptiness and loneliness, and to replace our need for authentic intimate relationships, we resort to the consumption that is essential for economic growth and profits. The more anxious or depressed we are, the more we must consume, and the more we consume, the more disturbed we become". It is easy to forget how recently, just pre-Thatcher, there was widespread hostility towards marketing and advertising

And I for one won't be too happy when (again) I try to explain to my children what I do for a living, to say that I am in the business of replacing authentic needs with confected wants, a practitioner of the dark consumerist arts. But then again, they never listen anyway, so what the hell.

The third reason is that Oliver James uses the technique of international qualitative research to reach his sweeping conclusions. He claims to have interviewed "about" 240 people, often while on holiday with his wife and very young children.

It is, however, Sam in New York, Sandy in the UK, Will in Australia, Boris the Russian, "sundry distressed professionals" in New Zealand and Singapore, and various pressed parents in Denmark who hold centre stage. How many of our client research buyers would, I wonder, be prepared to pay for this research?

Highly anecdotal, James proceeds to analyse his interviewees' childhoods in depth, by which time the reader is unsure whether it's artificially stimulated consumerism causing their woes or because their dads didn't eyeball them enough at the critical nine-month baby mark. There is little evidence of any psycho-analytic supervision or even sociological colleague consultancy in the work. The economic data shunted in the Appendices, meanwhile, might also fail to impress our quant cousins.

Self-portrait

James also submits his own biographical detail (maybe not a new qual technique to be recommended having read this), sometimes opting for a self-deprecating tone. "You may still dismiss me as a high-falutin', patriarchal tosser, but when I implore you to seek out the beautiful in life, whatever you may regard that as, you ignore me at your peril."

He is the son of a high achieving father, a psychoanalyst treated by Anna Freud. The strong subtext of the book, meanwhile, is that the rich are unlikeable, dysfunctional and completely ignorant of their inner emotional existence. But if this is a déclassé Englishman in snob mode, he does do it rather endearingly, the writing is fluent and the ideas are refreshing in their frankness. It's also worth wading through James' stereotypes and his frequent diversionary rants to reach the finale and his recommendations for the next utopia. Plus there is some good stuff on creativity.

But do only read this book if you don't mind being called a virus-driven cog who suffers from infantile premature ego development.

 

Ailean Mills
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2007