Changing behavior through technology: therapeutic culture and the digital revolution

This British Academy funded project, led by China Mills, analyses the social life (production, use, appropriation and resistance) of psy-technologies for behaviour change within international development.

Image representing the mind

There is a focus on specific technologies in Australia, India and South Africa, including the Cashless Debit Card, the use of algorithmic diagnostics for mental health, and the use of apps to promote ‘healthy’ behaviour.

Research aims

Our research examines the way development ‘problems’ get framed as amenable to technological ‘solutions’. It seeks to explore:

  • the cultural processes involved in the development and use of digital technologies for behavioural change;
  • the kinds of stakeholders involved and consulted in the development of different technologies, and methods of consultation used;
  • the circulation and uses of data and digital technologies (including uses that exceed original design);
  • the effects that data and digitalisation have for users, particularly for the lives of those who count within the data (i.e. people targeted in the intervention).

    Our findings so far points to an underexplored relationship of reinforcement between quantification and digitisation – how they fold into each other to make visible behavioural and psychological ‘problems’ and to construct them as amenable to technological intervention (Mills and Hilberg, forthcoming).

    These technologies are often presented as entirely new and ahistorical, while our project emphasises their immersion in social and cultural contexts with longstanding histories of the quantification of mental wellbeing.

    Fieldwork included time spent at the WHO mhGAP Forum and in South Africa, doing focus groups with young people who use wellbeing apps.

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    As part of this research, we organised two workshops on therapeutic cultures and technologies, and a conference on Global Mental Health and Therapeutic Assemblages. Our research team also presented our findings and ongoing research at various events, including: a paper on "The Psycho-Social Lives of Diagnostic Algorithms" at the XIX ISA World Congress of Sociology (July 15-21, 2018) in Toronto, Canada.

    We held a conference in India on Psy-Technologies with our partners at the Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS), Mumbai.

    Global mental health conference

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