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‘Improve yourself!’: practices and ambivalences of personal development

‘Improve yourself!’: practices and ambivalences of personal development

Maison des Sciences de l’Homme Paris Nord, 17th et 18th June 2021

From bookstore shelves to companies, personal development seems to be diffusely present in diverse social contexts today. Apart from a few attempts to define it, the term “personal development” is used as if it was obvious and thus often remains vague and imprecise. Often described as nebulous (Marquis 2014; Bouver 2016), this phenomenon resists to its construction as a research object. Nevertheless, it can be approached by certain properties such as: the
importance of “awareness”, of working on oneself, the prevalence of “positive communication” and benevolence, the central attention to interpersonal relations, a negative vision of society which is supposed to pervert the individual and hinder his or her “full realisation”, the individual responsibility of each person in the development of his or her “potential” and in the construction of his or her own happiness, regardless of his or her position in the social space, etc. These elements refer to the sociological characterisations of personal development proposed in particular by
Fernando Ampudia de Haro and Nicolas Marquis (Ampudia de Haro 2006; Marquis 2014). The majority of social sciences’ work on the subject emphasizes macro-social processes. Thus, Ampudia de Haro sees personal development as an extension of the “process of civilisation” (Elias 1973 [1939]) by analysing works on personal development as “material supports for the code of management of conduct and emotions” in contemporary societies (Ampudia de Haro 2006), similar to the treatises on good manners studied by Norbert Elias. According to this author, this extension leads to the constitution of a “reflexive civilisation”. In such societies, individuals are
considered individually responsible in all areas of their lives (Rose 1999; 2006) and internalize a form of self-discipline. Emilie Hache, following Michel Foucault, considers this individual responsibility as a technique of neo-liberal governmentality (Hache 2007; Foucault 2004; Laborier 2014).

These macro-level analyses document little about the concrete modalities of personal development practices and pay only limited attention to social relations of class, gender, race, age, etc. and their articulations. This conference intends to explore this blind spot on the basis of concrete practices and actual receptions of personal development.
When we consider the literature focusing on concrete practices, some ambivalences appear. Some works highlight the possibilities of emancipation offered by personal development, while on the contrary, others underline the fact that personal development contributes to the consolidation of relations of domination. For example, Albenga and Bachmann (2015) report on a trajectory of women’s emancipation based on the reading of a book with an essentialist view of women which could be described as anti-feminist (Jonas 2006). Similarly, in the United States, Irvine views selfdevelopment literature on heterosexual marital relationships (in terms of “co-dependency”) as offering women readers opportunities for empowerment and emancipation (Irvine 1995), while other authors criticize such marital relationship literature as locking women into unbalanced relationships where the maintenance of the relationship depends on them (Jonas 2006; Christopher-Byrd 2019). Beyond reading practices, the researches of Scarlett Salman and Hélène Stevens on coaching and personal development in companies, also points to ambivalences (Stevens
2013; Salman 2019; Salman 2008). For example, Hélène Stevens highlights ambivalences both at the level of the political dynamics underlying the introduction of personal development in companies and at the level of the effects on individual trajectories (Stevens 2013).

Therefore, Emeline de Bouver’s observation that: “Today we need more tools to make the necessary distinctions within the nebula of personal and existential development. Depending on its orientation, internal transformation can in fact sometimes resemble a reform or a revolution, sometimes the development of a subjectivity more adapted to the system or, on the contrary, more subversive.” (Bouver 2016). Making these distinctions requires to surpass the analyses based on books’ contents and rather pay attention to the actual receptions and appropriations of them.

This conference aims to bring together empirical analyses to provide tools for reflection on the ambivalence of personal development. How is personal development practiced and by whom? To what extent does it intervene in the (re)production of social relations of domination and power? What emancipatory capacities does it allow? How does it impact forms of collective mobilization? etc.

In order to do so, we propose four axes to carry out our reflections.
Axis 1: Emergences and legacies of personal development
Axis 2: Changing oneself, and changing the world?
Axis 3: Institutional frameworks and organizational practices
Axis 4: Techniques of the self, biographical trajectories, individual transformations

Practical modalities:
Communications may be given in French or English.
Proposals, approximately 500 words (maximum), must be written in one of these two languages and sent by March 14th 2021 at the latest to colloque.developpezvous@gmail.com .
Proposals should:
– have a title,
– indicate the name of the author(s) and institutions,
– specify the materials on which the communication is based,
– be sent to colloque.developpezvous@gmail.com .
Please send to two versions of your proposal, one with your name and institution and the other one completely anonymized. The proposals will be evaluated by the scientific committee and the answers will be sent by mail at
the beginning of May 2021. For any question about the event or request for details you can contact colloque.developpezvous@gmail.com
The conference may result in a publication: submission of a manuscript to a journal (thematic issue).

Organizing Committee: Ivan Garrec (USPN, IRIS), Julie Rodrigues Leite (EHESS, IRIS), Océane Sipan (EHESS, IRIS/CEMS)
Scientific Committee: Luc Berlivet (CNRS, Cermes3), Marc Bessin (CNRS, IRIS), Hélène Bretin (USPN, IRIS), Emeline De Bouver (UCLouvain), Françoise Champion (CNRS, EPHE), Tristan Fournier (CNRS, IRIS), Daniel Friedmann (CNRS, EHESS), Eric Gagnon (Université de Laval), Nadia Garnoussi (Université Lille 3, CeRIES), Aurélie Jeantet (Université Paris 3, CRESPPA), Samuel Lézé (ENS Lyon, IHRIM), Nicolas Marquis (Université de Saint Louis, CASPER), Scarlett Salman (Université Gustave Eiffel, LISIS), Hélène Stevens (Université de Poitiers, GRESCO)