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Durham University

Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing

Previous Events

Wolfson Guest Lecture: 'Welfare reform and the rise of psychological fundamentalism: the case of workfare’ by Dr Lynne Friedli

7th May 2014, 12:30 to 14:30, F009, Wolfson Research Institute

The Wolfson Research Institute is delighted to welcome Dr Friedli to deliver a lecture entitled 'Welfare reform and the rise of psychological fundamentalism: the case of workfare’.

Registration is essential - please click this link to register your place. 


My paper is concerned with growing influence of psychology and the role of psycho-policy in formulating and gaining consent for the current regime of welfare reform, notably in the roll out of the Department for Work and Pensions Workfare programme. What emerges is the construction of a psychological ideal that embodies the norms and values of privilege and wealth in neo-liberal Britain, (notably possession of relentlessly positive affect), and labels dissent or deviation from this model both maladaptive and unhealthy. 

The ostensibly scientific model that validates certain attributes: ‘the right kind of affect’ serves to legitimize the imposition of compulsory positive affect through a wide range of coercive and punitive health and welfare interventions targeting deprived communities.

Preferring psycho-analysis to economic analysis has serious consequences for how we explain and respond to issues of social justice. It also has a specific impact on people claiming unemployment related social security. ‘Employability’ is now less a set of skills than a mindset, enforced through psycho-compulsions (mandatory training, psychological referral, psychometric testing, psycho-sanctioning e.g. for ‘lack of motivation’) that form a central plank in the management and governance of a wide range of ‘unproductive’ or failing citizens i.e. those who are out of work, not working enough, not earning enough and/or failing to seek work with sufficient application.

The participation of psychology, aided and abetted by public health, in the delivery of coercive goals clearly raises ethical questions – questions largely unasked and hence unanswered, in the research literature. I very much welcome this opportunity for discussion and debate about the impact of psychological coercion through workfare, the role of psychology in stigmatising the behaviour and existence of poor citizens and the issues of complicity that this whole agenda raises.


Dr Lynne Friedli is a freelance researcher with a special interest in the relationship between mental health and the struggle for social justice. She is author of a report for WHO Europe on mental health, resilience and inequality and has contributed to the forthcoming WHO Europe Strategy on Mental Health.

Lynne is interested in current debates about the politics of ‘assets based approaches’ and the psychologising of public health, and is currently researching the use of psychological approaches in workfare and other employment programmes.