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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

This may strike readers as a polemical question, but it is kind of genuine. I am not going to bother disentangling James's various points about the link between either "selfish capitalism" and inequality and mental illness or however he wants to put it exactly (see here for more). What I haven’t seen in the debate that’s been on the blogs and in the papers the past week or so, but it may of course be in the book, is the wider reason for the problem of "affluenza", i.e. affluent societies suffering from high rates of mental health problems.
And that’s why I ask whether James has heard of Emile Durkheim. Durkheim is often considered the founding father of sociology. His seminal and defining work was on the most extreme outgrowth of mental health problems, Suicide. Durkheim ignored any individual factors leading people to commit suicide, and rather looked at the statistical likelihood of suicide occurring in a given group of people or under specific circumstances. The common view on suicide was, and I suppose still is, that it is done by people who are having a hard time so to speak. But Durkheim had a look at the evidence and found the data showed a slightly different picture, although much of it seems received wisdom these days. Suicide is more likely in cities vs villages, married vs unmarried, childless vs parents, involved in clubs vs not involved in clubs . . . even societies at peace vs societies at war.
What Durkheim distilled from this is that what increased the likelihood of suicide wasn’t about objective hardships, but rather more due to people feeling unconnected to others. Durkheim termed this anomie; later this has also been termed individuation and other sociological terms . . . but the point remains, that the less people feel connected to others around them, the more likely becomes suicide, and by extension the more likely other mental illnesses.

So what drives mental illness on the bigger level is this lack of community sense. Now, it is perfectly possible to argue that "selfish capitalism", particularly as practiced in Anglo-Saxon countries increases this decline of community feeling. But I wonder if that’s really the case? The Unicef study on childhood wellbeing -also out recently- found for example that the UK and the US at the bottom of the pile were joined by France. As usual the Scandinavians came out on top. So, let's run Durkheim's approach along this. One of the obvious differences is size: compare the small Scandinavian countries and compare them to the fairly large and populous France, Britain and America. The bigger a society, the more complex it inevitably becomes, and the more complex the more anomic it will become. This has a cultural dimension to it as well. The big three are countries that due to their internal structure, their history and their present role on the world stage have far raging and often painful debates about national identity and connected issues (from anecdotal evidence much more than the Scandinavians do). These debates inevitably put the national community into question, thus potentially weakening it, thus increasing anomie. In addition, and I hope this doesn’t come across the wrong way, France, Britain and America are societies that are culturally very diverse, and certainly more diverse than the Nordic ones. Again this possibly lowers the strength of community.
Are these factors negligible compared to income inequalities, as some seem to believe? I’m not so sure. I tend to take the view that cultural problems have cultural causes and need cultural solutions. I don’t for example think that multi-cultural societies need to be lacking in community, nor do I think that the same has to apply to societies with high-powered capitalism.
I don’t find there’s an entirely obvious answer to the problem of high incidences of mental illnesses in our societies. Particularly I find it hard to see how state intervention to redistribute income will make much of an impact. But perhaps I’m not quite on top of this yet?
Right, that’s Professor timmyhawk’s lecture for this week. And for next week: figure out how to fix this problem!

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Interesting to know.
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