Manufactured Controversy: Adam Perkins, the Psychological Imagination and the Marketing of Scholarship

London poor circa 1870
“Each generation will contain proportionately more children who are exposed to disadvantage. In turn, the dysfunctional personality characteristics that result from this disadvantaged upbringing mean that these children will have a greater risk than average of becoming welfare claimants themselves and neglecting their own children, thereby perpetuating a cycle of personality mis-development.” – Adam Perkins (Image: From ‘London, a Pilgrimage’ 1872)
Adam Perkins
Adam Perkins

Adam Perkins, a lecturer in the neurobiology of personality at King’s College London, has achieved something difficult and rare. His recent book The Welfare Trait: How State Benefits Affect Personality has received considerable public attention. It has been debated in the mainstream media, it has attracted the attention of the general public, and it has generated substantial controversy. Very few academic books accomplish this. Even truly innovative and truly controversial books often do not attract readers beyond a small circle of scholars.

With The Welfare Trait, Perkins plugs into acrimonious public debates about austerity, the future of the welfare state and the limits of social citizenship. Perkins’s position in these debates is unambiguous. At the outset of his book, he warns of the negative consequences of the welfare state for human capital formation:

One potentially important discovery is that the welfare state can boost the number of children born into disadvantaged households. For example, research in the UK has shown that for every 3 per cent rise in the generosity of benefits, the number of children born to claimants rises by approximately 1 per cent […]. The importance of this discovery to the human capital debate is that childhood disadvantage has been shown in randomised controlled experiments – the gold standard of scientific proof – to promote the formation of an aggressive, antisocial and rule-breaking personality profile that impairs occupational and social adjustment during adulthood […]. A welfare state that increases the number of children born into disadvantaged households therefore risks increasing the number of citizens who develop an aggressive, antisocial and rule-breaking personality profile due to being exposed to disadvantage during childhood.(pp.2f.)

Nehring Corporate bugAnd so forth. Throughout the remainder of the book, Perkins reviews extant research to construct arguments about the genetic and social origins of certain personality traits. In chapter 7, for instance, he looks at various studies conducted in the 1970s to consider the intergenerational transmission of personality characteristics such as unemployment in “problem families” (p.113). Since the publication of his book, Perkins has doubled down on his arguments, for instance by arguing in The Guardian that “welfare dependency can be bred out.”

The resulting controversy has been all too predictable. Many academics have been critical of Perkins’s work, commentators hostile to the  welfare state have praised it as convincing scientific evidence for their long-held views (1, 2), a talk by Perkins at the LSE was cancelled for fear of protests (1, 2), and online spaces such as Twitter, the review pages on Amazon, the comments sections in newspapers, and various blogs have provided a forum for anger on both sides of the argument (1, 2, 3).

The Welfare Trait can be usefully interpreted in various ways. It can be read as an expression of a neuro-liberalism that seeks to construct a façade of scientific objectivity for right-wing politics. It can be read as a prime indicator of a conservative backlash in British academia and the increasing right-wing tilt of scholarly labour in the country. Finally, The Welfare Trait might be seen as the lynchpin of an astute marketing ploy meant to promote the career of the book’s author and the sales of the book’s publisher.

This final interpretation, to begin with, is supported by the strange fact that the personal consequences of poverty, welfare politics and citizenship are not at all Adam Perkins’s areas of academic expertise. The Welfare Trait makes for an odd high point to his career, in so far as his previous scholarly work, with one obvious exception, is largely situated within very different lines of enquiry. Constructing his argument in The Welfare Trait, Perkins therefore relies on the review and synthesis of extant research, rather than on original empirical research. In the context a publication record built around entirely different research questions, this makes the book’s argument appear oddly artificial. Why jump in one book from the pursuit of specialist lines of enquiry in neurobiology and psychology to the scientifically informed right-wing critique of social citizenship?

In our recent Popular Psychology and the Global Self-Help Industry (2016), my co-authors and I analyze the entrepreneurial strategies of self-help writers – the authors of the books on happy marriages, everlasting love, quiet divorces, easy money, and astounding professional success that fill long shelves in your local bookshop. We argue that these books inevitably promote a ‘psychological imagination’ of self and personal development. Seeking to sell success, pop psychologists ask their readers to buy into the idea that a good life – measured in love, money, career, happiness, and so on – is the outcome of individual efforts sustained by a positive, disciplined, entrepreneurial outlook on life. Social structures and inequalities rarely matter in self-help writing, as they disable narratives of easily achieved success.

Just like the aforementioned self-help authors, Adam Perkins constructs a reductive argument that denies the connections between personal troubles and larger issues of social structure.

Self-help writers such as Bear Grylls or Paul McKenna routinely mirror the success stories they write about by positing themselves as successful entrepreneurs – men of action who made it through a strategic mind, toughness and business acumen. There is nothing new in this sort of rugged individualism and the denial of the role that social forces play in shaping individual biographies. Self-help stories sell because they promise a better life in times of crisis, austerity and sharply declining mobility. Self-help stories also sell because they feed into and sustain cultural narratives that have been dominant in British society for decades: the denial of the social, the neoliberal story of entrepreneurial success grounded in a positive personality, and the portrayal of the disadvantaged as ‘scroungers’ undeserving of solidarity.

The Welfare Trait is the academic analogue of a self-help book, both in terms of its narrative and in terms of the role it may play for its author. The Welfare Trait is an exercise in entrepreneurial self-promotion that is likely to kick-start Adam Perkins’s career, by virtue of attention, prestige and the career-boosting metrics of REF impact, citations, grant money and so forth. The book in this sense brings into relief the overriding importance of branding and image in contemporary British academia. The content of scholarly debates is increasingly secondary to the instrumentalization of scholarship in the promotion of one’s brand. It may not matter much that this brand is built on — academically at least — somewhat dubious welfare bashing, as long as the right markers of scholarly status are attached to it.

The Welfare Trait’s narrative about welfare illustrates a cultural and political climate in which there is little support for notions of collective solidarity and limited will to engage with questions of citizenship from a sociological perspective. Just like the aforementioned self-help authors, Adam Perkins constructs a reductive argument that denies the connections between personal troubles and larger issues of social structure. Perkins’s standing as a scientist and his ability to draw on a host of academic sources in building his argument are of primarily rhetorical significance in this context: The details of scientific arguments are likely to be of limited interest to the readers who discuss his work on the websites of The Guardian or The Daily Mail, while the image of a neurobiologist criticising the welfare state can easily be used to reinforce right-wing political standpoints through claims of scientific credibility.

Therefore, The Welfare Trait ought to be a dire warning to British sociologists. The book and the debate it has sparked amount to a hostile takeover of discursive terrain that, for many decades, used to be covered by the sociological imagination, accounts of social citizenship, and dedicated engagement with the social production of inequalities. It seems troubling that this ground has now apparently been ceded to the reductionist psychological imagination of a neurobiologist.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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Have you read the book? Do you think his claims are incorrect in some way? I feel as though there was no engagement with any of the ideas he puts forward at all, the evidence clearly points to him being correct in his assertions. You say he’s right-wing, yet he clearly supports government spending on preschool programs proven to drastically improve children’s personality profile later in life, resulting in higher income, higher rates of employment, and lower crime rates. That’s an example of a non-neoliberal policy which he clearly advocates in his book and in public talks about the book.… Read more »

Sue Jones

Very interesting take on this. I did see Perkins’s say something along the lines of “there’s nothing like a bit of censorship to promote a work”, and wondered myself about It being “an astute marketing ploy meant to promote the career of the book’s author and the sales of the book’s publisher.” Even more interesting was Perkins’s sudden following of Charles Murray on twitter. Absolutely agree that “The Welfare Trait ought to be a dire warning to British sociologists. The book and the debate it has sparked amount to a hostile takeover of discursive terrain that, for many decades, used… Read more »

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