Changing behavior through technology: therapeutic culture and the digital revolution

Changing Behaviour PhotographResearchers: China Mills, Eva Hilberg (University of Sheffield), Elise Klein (University of Melbourne)

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, with 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’ behavior).
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 digitization – 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 emphasizes 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.

Want to know more?

China Mills ImageAs part of this research, we have organized two workshops on therapeutic cultures and technologies, and have an upcoming conference on Global Mental Health and Therapeutic Assemblages. Our research team will also be presenting 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 have a conference in India on Psy-Technologies planned for March, with our partners at the Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS), Mumbai. So stay tuned for further information!

Global Mental Health Conference

Call for Papers

We are inviting a Call for Papers for a special issue of Economy and Society on Affective technologies: governance, subject making and the globalization of the psy-complex. Further information about the special issue can be found here.