“The Flipside of Autonomy” – Abstracts

alphabetic order

Héloïse Durler : “The school injunction to autonomy: a sociological approach to a paradox

Day 1 – 3:15-4:45pm

Pupil autonomy appears to be a remedy for many ‘ills’: learning difficulties, lack of motivation, management of pupil heterogeneity in the classroom, problems linked to distance learning, etc. If this ‘solution’ is so strongly urged upon today, it is because autonomy appears to be a ‘flagship value of contemporary educational norms’ (Darmon, 2006, 36) and, more generally, it is one of the ‘positive categories of perception of the social world’ that is enjoying undeniable ‘discursive success’ (Lahire, 2005, 322). However, this recourse is most often presented as a paradoxical injunction, in which pupils must freely want what is imposed upon them by the school system.

This contribution seeks to explore this paradox by examining its implications on teachers, students and parents. We argue that the autonomy imperative contributes to establish specific forms of learning, as well as new relations to authority and even forms of subjectivity. It also promotes some teaching practices, as well as pedagogical materials, therefore preventing others. 

The discussion is based on several research projects related to the issue of student autonomy. Two ethnographic surveys will be mainly referred to. The first fieldwork took place at the end of the 2000s, in a primary school in Geneva, Switzerland. The second fieldwork took place in a secondary school located in the countryside, in the French-speaking region of Switzerland. Finally, some results of a questionnaire filled out by parents of primary school pupils in the cantons of Vaud and Fribourg in the western part of Switzerland during the school closure period (spring 2020) are also used.  

Alain Ehrenberg : “The child as individual and his order” 

Day 1 – 10:45-12:15am

This speech succinctly examines transformations in conceptions of the child since he has been considered as an individual during the second half of the 20th century, through therapeutic and reeducation practices.

The goal is to understand changes in the ways of thinking and acting regarding children with problems, whose socialization has disturbed, a disruption which expresses itself in the language of mental health. The troubled child is approached from the perspective of changes in collective representations, tensions these representations bring about and ways of dealing with these tensions. We roughly can distinguish two periods. The first, from the end of the Second World War until the 1970s and 1980s, the child expressive-self, whose evolution is open (and not following successive steps leading to a norm of maturity) and whose primary right is to be protected, whether he is perpetrator or victim.

The second period, the child actor who must be rendered capable of being responsible, able to make his/her choices, to have projects with practices conceived according to a handicap/competency axis centered to the potential of the individual. Psychoanalysis is the great reference of the child expressive-self; cognitive neuroscience occupies the same place for the child actor. 

The rise of cognitive neuroscience related to education corresponds to a general redefinition of learning difficulties as handicaps which must be dealt with reeducation methods, and no longer as symptoms treated with psychotherapies. In this framework, the practice of exercises promoted by cognitive neuroscience and the practice of discernment proposed by psychoanalysis constitute two great complementary ways to support our moral being. 

Ashley Frawley : “Mental Health and Therapeutic Entrepreneurialism in UK Higher Education”

Day 2 – 9:00-10:30AM

This presentation reports on the results of a British Academy funded project exploring the way that mental health is represented in discourses and individual and group practices in Higher Education (HE). It considers a content analysis of 15 years of newspaper discourses, detailed mapping of interventions available to four key university research sites, and in-depth interviews with various therapeutic entrepreneurs with an interest in expanding mental health interventions in HE. In particular, the presentation will detail the way that students become increasingly constructed as passive reactors to their conditions and those of the broader world. The sphere of individual control over one’s life becomes progressively narrowed so that even one’s relationship to one’s self and one’s own mind becomes a putative source of disorganisation and lack of control. Students are invited to submit themselves to constant scrutiny of outside sources in the name of ‘mental health’, which become a business opportunity and raison raison d’être for an expanding knowledge class. At the same time, we observe how mental health also becomes a catch all phrase subsuming nearly every social problem. 

Eva Gulløv : “To fit in and be independent the right way. The paradox of contemporary upbringing”

Day 1 – 5:00-6:30pm

Inspired by the work of Norbert Elias, Cas Wouters and Eva Illouz, the aim of this paper is to present an analysis of contemporary upbringing with a specific focus on autonomy, forms of authority and emotional expressions. Drawing on fieldworks in Denmark in families and professional settings working with children (therapeutic groups and kindergartens), I want to show how the understanding of the child as an independent though vulnerable person have changed and how this relates to more general processes in society.

The point of departure will be a presentation of the altered status of the child and the changed generational relations, which have turned the formative work with children into a highly complex area with various conflicting demands to upbringers as well as to children. I intend to show how upbringing today at once demands a downplaying (informalisation) of authority and a formalisation (or ritualisation) of articulations of intimate emotions and demands of children that they know when and how to express their feelings and be de-controlled in a controlled way. 

Claude Martin : “Some Paradoxes in Parental Coaching issues”

Day 2 – 10:45-12:15am

In public policies in France and around the world, recent decades have seen the emergence of several models promoting autonomy: for example, education policies promoting student autonomy. Autonomy is also one of the watchwords behind policies concerning older citizens and disability. Here, in some ways, autonomy is an objective pursued precisely for people who are partially or fully deprived of it, often because their social and material environment is incompatible with exercising their own autonomy. Of course, these two major areas of public action are not the only areas in which autonomy has become a watchword, and sometimes an injunction. Examples include the sphere of work and employment, and even companies, which increasingly encourage autonomy. In our presentation, we propose to look at two hidden faces, or flipsides, of autonomy to understand some of the consequences of promoting autonomy in contemporary societies. The first concerns a sector of public action emerging at an international scale, with some specific features that we will illustrate with the case of France, i.e. parenting support policies. The second concerns the withdrawal behaviour of young people in the parental home.

Nicolas Marquis, Solène Mignon and Gaspard Wiseur : “The CoachingRituals project and first results”

Day 1 – 9:00-10:30am

What does the success of coaching tell us about our societies? What does this pervasive and elusive logic say about the ways we nowadays act on people?

The three domains of mental health care, parenting and education have been confronted to the growing legitimacy of forms of intervention that, instead of acting asymmetrically on a child, a pupil or a care-receiver, tend to foster his/her agency in order to put him/her in the driver’s seat of his/her own change. What kind of tensions and paradoxes do arise from these new practices? What kind of discursive elements are mobilized by their proponents and opponents? Why is a cross-cultural comparison useful in understanding the intrication of the coaching logic with the collective representations of different societies?

We will shed light in the presentation on the first results of the ERC-CoachingRituals project. Since September 2020 (WP1), we have developed a special focus on controversies surrounding what it means to “be a child” and consequently, what it means to act on a child as a “good enough” (Winnicott) parent or childcare institutions in three different cultural contexts: Denmark, the U-K and France/French speaking Belgium. We have tried to grasp specific and/or common traits between these geographical and cultural areas, as well as between the education and the parenting scene. 

In the parenting field, Solène Mignon will explore controversies through the nature/nurture spectrum. The hypothesis is that the collective representations nowadays value the innate competencies of the child, while on the contrary supporting the idea that parents need help and education to find again their own innate skills that society would have perverted. Thus, if the innate potential is valued in the child, it is as if the parent had to rediscover their own, repair their “inner child” with the help of coaches (legitimate by their own experience), or to return to something they have lost because of a family history made up of ordeals, and/or because of a society presented as degrading, perverse, dangerous, etc. 

In the education field, Gaspard Wiseur will compare the three countries through a discourse analysis of the content of their educational programs, and will situate them on  a spectrum opposing a socio-pedagogical approach of childcare and a pre-primary approach of it. He will complete this lexical analysis with a focus on controversies regarding the idea that “schoolification” is harmful to the well-being of the child and its natural learning strategies, in particular (free) play. He will then show that beyond the apparent differences, these institutional programs are comparable because they are based on the same constitutive rule: to take care a child and preserve, repair or increase its “hidden potential”.

Stanislas Morel : “What is the role of cognitive sciences in the building of an “autonomous pupil”?

Day 2 – 1:30-3:00PM

Since the 1990s, in France, as in many countries, the scientific disciplines grouped together under the umbrella of “cognitive science” (cognitive psychology, neurosciences, genetics and artificial intelligence) are more and more influential in the field of education. Testing Alain Ehrenberg’s assertion that autonomy has become one of the central values in our societies, I will ask the following question: to what extent do cognitive sciences contribute to the production of autonomous individuals (pupils, teachers, parents, etc.)? There is probably no objective answer to this question. The compatibility of cognitive sciences with autonomy is a very controversial issue.

First, I will expose all the reasons why cognitive sciences are likely to come into conflict with the central value of autonomy and other values associated with autonomy like originality, creativity and innovation. Cognitive sciences are particularly exposed to criticism because, at least in the field of education, they are also valued, by policy makers, for their capacity to substitute an evidence-based pedagogy for the so-called “pedagogies of autonomy”. I will try to account for the criticisms that some social groups address to cognitive sciences in the name of the respect of the autonomy of children, parents and teachers.

Then, I will focus on the narrative by which cognitive science researchers and all those who support this scientific approach to educational issues try to reconcile cognitive science with the idea of a “structured” and “guided” form of autonomy, compatible with the biological and genetic constraints shaping cognitive processes as well as with a fairly directive conception of education.

Finally, in the light of these first two parts, I will ask the following question: considering that autonomy is a very plastic notion, compatible with a lot of representations and practices, including some quite different to the common idea of autonomy we may have, how can we explain that some scientific theories trying to study the bio-psycho social determinisms which shape our lives succeed in complying with the social standard of autonomy while others do not?

Anders Petersen : “The Achievement Society – and so what?”

Day 1 – 1:30-3:00PM

In the Scandinavian countries of Norway and Denmark, the notion of “the achievement society”, where men and women are primarily recognised on the basis of how they perform initially in their professional lives and eventually in their life in general, has been gradually more influential over the past decades. Achievement society is both a sociological diagnosis of Western civilisation in the 21st century and an alleged root cause of why a seemingly increasing number of young people suffer from mental health issues like depression, anxiety and stress. Expanding on this analysis, I portray our contemporary society as an achievement society. The main argument here is that the competition state not only paves the way for an achievement society but also supports its emergence culturally and normatively. In the achievement society the worth of all things is measured and recognised according to the principle of constant activity and hence whether people are able to achieve all the time. In order to do so, people have to incorporate specific – and highly individualistic – human traits, enabling them to be flexible, polyvalent, mobile and adaptable human beings that are able to manoeuvre in a world seemingly in constant flux. The principle of constant achievement does not only pertain to people’s work-life but to life per se : People should perform well as friends, in intimate relations, as families, neighbours in school, etc. Moreover, it is inappropriately stressful and pressing particularly young people mentally.  

Allan Westerling : “Doing Parenthood: autonomy and interdependence in everyday family life

Day 2 – 3:15-4:45PM

The recent Danish Day Care Act (2018) makes Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) professionals responsible for supporting parents in developing the home learning environment. The explicit policy focus on parental responsibility in early learning constitutes a historical shift in the partnership between families and the welfare state. But what it means for parenthood remains to be seen.

This paper outlines how ECEC in the Danish Welfare Model can be seen as a platform for the partnership between the state and families. I will argue that this platform has allowed for the development of democratic collaboration and the unfolding of care chains in which ECEC professionals and parents take different perspectives in shared focus on the child as an actor (Sparrman, Westerling, Lind & Dannesboe 2016) . This platform has had a significant influence on the development of Danish Parenting Culture which seems to change in the light of a transnational trend of “Parental Determinism” (Lee, 2014).

Taking the policy focus on the home learning environment as an example this chapter studies what the introduction of heteronomous learning agendas in ECEC mean for parenthood. Does this lead to increased instrumentalization of family life and pose a potential threat to parental autonomy and in turn children’s autonomy? How is parenthood (and childhood) done when Danish ECEC institutions focus on the home learning environment? Which modes of interdependence are made possible in everyday family life? This chapter will provide insight into these questions by taking a social psychological perspective on parents’ experience and orientations in daily living.