374.1 Self-help reading : A social ritual of coping with risk in everyday life

Thursday, August 2, 2012: 2:30 PM
Faculty of Economics, TBA
Oral Presentation
Nicolas MARQUIS , Centre d'Útudes sociologiques, FacultÚs Universitaires Saint-Louis, Bruxelles, Belgium
Self-help books have for some decades raised interest (and often criticism) in social sciences. Yet, most authors deduced theoretical implications from analyses based on the texts of these books only. In doing so, they completely overlooked the problematic of the reception and the social uses of the messages imbedded in the books. Drawing on the recent works of Eva Illouz and Alain Ehrenberg, as well as on a large empirical field based on interviews of and letters to authors of self-help books, this communication will attempt to provide new insights into the reason why self-help books are such a successful commodity and why self-help readers endorse their discourse so willingly and playfully.

The thesis that I will develop is that self-help reading should be understood as a way of dealing with risk, uncertainties and unpredictable events, an attitude which is particularly adapted to social environments where autonomy and personal responsibility have been erected as key values. Self-help books provide their readers with new ways of dealing with all kinds of problems in everyday life. Moreover, the particular translation of these problems offered by the discourse of such books, adapted to the norm of autonomy and responsibility, allows the reader to claim social benefits from his/her new attitude by being considered as a “responsible person” rather than as an “inactive victim”.

In order to sustain this argument, I will sketch a comparison between self-help reading and witchcraft practices analysed by Edward Evans-Pritchard and Jeanne Favret-Saada within other societies. I will follow Peter Winch’s plea to understand such practices as “attitudes towards contingencies”. Finally, understanding this practice as a “competence”, I will address the question of the potential social stratification it may induce.