The promise of the hyphen : an ethnography of self-help practices
2013-07-05T11:18:26Z (GMT) by
This thesis is an ethnography of the phenomenon of self-help. It begins by noting a problematic at the centre of the topic: the term self-help connotes, on the one hand, an autonomous agent ("self'), and on the other, a reliance on other agents ("help"). More substantively, the term attaches itself to two opposing ideological positions, individualism and collectivism. This strange splitting of the term is reproduced in a contemporary context, where we see the genre of self-help books, which is built around the highly individualistic activity of reading as a quest for self-help, and self-help groups, which are built around the collective, co-presence of members as they mutually help one another. But the phenomenon is engaged by separate, non-overlapping literatures that treat self-help books as having a status independent of self-help groups; one attends to self-help books, but disregards self-help groups, while the other attends to self-help groups, but disregards self-help books. Thus self-help books and self-help groups get polarized. This effectively makes the original problematic around the term itself disappear, because it' simply ignores it. This research turns this character of self-help into a topic for study. It looks at what holds the term together, that is to say, self-help books and self-help groups, when they appear to be entirely independent phenomena, and yet still share the term self-help. It is interested in the significance of the term, why it gets invoked as a description of particular activities and what that entails as a practical matter. It wants to see how self-help is performed. It identifies a hybrid of self-help books and self-help groups - a self-help workshop. This third site of self-help brings individual readers of self-help books into a context of collective, social activity. It uses this as a strategy with which to examine the relationships between self-help books and self-help groups, self and help. It undertakes a detailed empirical analysis of a corpus of self-help books, a selfhelp workshop and a range of self-help groups, drawing on textual, discursive and ethnographic modes of inquiry. It then uses this empirical work to map self-help and engage it as a wider, cultural phenomenon in the modem period.