Call for Papers for a special issue of Economy and Society on Affective technologies: governance, subject making and the globalization of the psy-complex

Co-edited by Elise Klein (University of Melbourne), China Mills (University of Sheffield), Asha Achuthan (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), and Eva Hilberg (University of Sheffield)

About the special issue

Minds, behaviours and psychologies are increasingly and explicitly problematized within social, economic, health, education and development policy, in both the global North and global South. While this shift is new, it also builds on a long colonial history of the constitution and governance of the ‘psy’. Much has been written on the globalization of the psy-complex, yet less attention has been paid to the ways digitization and quantification (including calculative technologies) are constituted by and constitutive of the psy-complex and its global reach and resistance. Technological ‘solutions’ that mobilise the psy-complex are increasingly being put forward to address a multitude of diverse social and economic complexities from unemployment, underdevelopment to poverty and distress. These include the use of smart phones and algorithms to ‘nudge’ behavioural changes in populations; income management regimes and debit cards to shape population spending; technology to aid mental health diagnoses and clinical management; and apps that aim to increase resilience and emotional fitness. These changes operate simultaneously, but differently, and differentially, across the global North and South. These technologies can also blur boundaries between global/local, public/private, and empowerment/disempowerment, and are used by a multitude of actors (including governments, international organisations and individuals) in ways that both discipline and liberate.

This special issue will consider these developments through critically engaging with them as ‘human technologies’ (Wahlberg and Rose, 2015), or more specifically as affective (and/or psy) technologies, whereby certain cognitions, affects and behaviours come to be made knowable, calculable and amenable to technological interventions and quantification. Attention will be paid to the ways psy-technologies circulate globally (potentially both facilitating and challenging the globalization of the psy-complex) and assemble data to tell a story of global significance (whether it be the global quantification of happiness, of depression or economic efficiency, or their interaction with the metrics of molecularisation and the conception of the bodily subject).

Affective and psy technologies (including the rise of technology-enabled health care, algorithmic clinical decision-making tools, and m(mobile)-health) are tied to multiple forms of self and health-making, and different kinds of medicine (welfare, developmental and neoliberal). In some ways psy-technologies act as ‘technologies of the self’, as ‘inscription devices’ constituting ‘the domains they appear to represent’ (Rose, 1999: 198), and creating what they seek to measure (Merry, 2016). This subjectification is evident throughout diverse sites, from the individualisation of financial risk through the figure of the ‘risky borrower’, to algorithmic mental health diagnostic practices used in global tools, such as the World Health Organizations mhGAP-Intervention Guide and associated app.

As well as subject-making, the social, economic, political and cultural processes underlying the production and circulation of affective technologies have significant implications for governance (often at a distance), including, algorithmic governance (Amoore and Piotukh, 2015), governmentality (Merry, 2016; Wahlberg and Rose, 2015), and nation-making and upholding circuits of global capital (Lakoff 2005; Sunder Rajan 2017). This seems especially apparent given the more top-down imposition of particular technologies, such as the use of income-management regimes with some indigenous groups in Australia (Klein and Razi, 2017), the protocological violence of racialized technologies (Miller, 2017), and use of neuroscience for cognitive enhancement by the US military (Howell, 2016). An aim of this special issue is to analyse these forms of (self) governance as they emerge ‘differentially through entanglements of practices’ (Miller, 2017, 1), tracing the complex constellations through which psy-technologies are produced, used, reworked, locally appropriated, or resisted, and how they mediate and (re)present both new and existing social relations and ways of being.

The special issue will speak to the key differences in uses and implications of different technologies for subjection – from individuals who actively seek to quantify themselves (Lupton, 2016); those who do not immediately or ever know the terms through which they are quantified (such as not telling those who have been diagnosed as mentally unwell their diagnosis in the name of cultural sensitivity, Mills, 2014); those who are framed as lacking capacity and whose involvement with technology is decided by others (such as, disabled children); and those who know and resist their quantification and/or digitisation (such as indigenous activism against the Cashless Debit card (Klein and Razi, 2017). Yet the special issue takes seriously that responses to technology are not (always) simply about acceptance or resistance but instead are marked by a ‘constant movement between the two’ (Achuthan, 2011, 4).

Responses to affective and psy technologies are particularly timely given that the processes underlying production of affective and psy technologies are often obscured and rendered incontestable, ‘black-boxing’ debate by making it appear only open to challenge from technological insiders and experts (Porter, 1995). Central to social scientific inquiries into affective and psy technologies is attention to the larger social projects and prevailing logics into which such technologies are embedded, and the eco-systems and global assemblages into which they fit (such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, nation making policies and business strategies for increasing accumulation globally). In this regard, the proposed special issue’s focus on technologies complements important recent work on global health metrics and evidence (Adams 2016; Kelly & McGoey 2018).

While affective and psy technologies span a diverse group of interventions, what many have in common is that while they may promote holistic ways of acting upon oneself and others in the name of healthy behaviours, they tend to conceive of behavior and affect as individual traits, separate from wider systems and practices of meaning-making (Bell, 2016). This means they tend to focus on the individual as the site of transformation and depoliticise power and structural complexity. At the same time, epidemiological calculative technologies, in their mapping of patterns of distress or disease, may also make visible social and/or economic determinants.

This special issue will pay specific attention to the ways ‘newer’ affective and psy technologies co-exist alongside older technologies (such as psychopharmaceuticals, psychometric testing, and biometrics), disrupting linear historical narratives that overlook the centrality of affective technologies to colonial rule and global coloniality (Klein and Mills 2017; Mills and Hilberg, 2018). Thus, this special issue welcomes analyses (such as those from postcolonial scholarship, feminist science and technology studies (STS), critical race theory, and disability studies) that situate empirical analysis of specific technologies within longer genealogies that challenge both techno optimistic claims of empowerment and critical discussions that assume disempowerment. Attention will be paid to the ‘new’ social and psychological relations enabled through digital technology, while firmly historicizing and contextualizing specific technological interventions, including attending to their colonial histories, and conditions of possibility, and their contemporary colonialities.

The range of contributions in this special issue will serve to explore multiple examples of affective and psy technologies and the variations these undergo in different global south and north contexts.

Please send abstracts of 250 words to or by Friday 28th of September 2018.

As part of the development of the special issue, we will invite contributing authors to a writing workshop in the UK in February 2019 (we have some funding from the British Academy and will aim to cover expenses for participation as much as possible – this will be discussed with contributing authors in October 2018). Drafts of all papers will need to be ready early January 2019 to distribute to contributing authors ahead of the workshop.
Final submissions for the special issue to Economy & Society will be due on June 30th 2019. These submissions will then undergo the usual Economy & Society review process.