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BeyondtheBrokenSelfExploringtheSelf-HelpGenre

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ExploringtheSelf-HelpGenre-sociology
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    Beyond the Broken Self: Exploring the Self-Help Genre Introduction A simple search for self-help titles on Amazon.com yields 234,590 hits, 167 more than yesterday, and 389 more than the day before. The self-help genre provides every possible requirement for the D.I.Y identity project (Kleine and Kleine 1999). You can find 33 Ways to  Improve Your Business  (Dolan 2008), 101 Ways to Improve Your Mind   (Walker 2004), 50 Ways to Win Your Teen  (Olshine et al.  2000), or 365 Ways to Have a Happy Sex Life  (Hodson and Hooper 1990). The success of the genre is illustrated by its phenomenal growth since its attributed birth in 1791, with the publication of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and ‘thirteen virtues’ for personal development (Butler-Bowdon 2003). In the early 20th century,  books such as Napoleon Hill's (1937) Think and Grow Rich , and Norman Vincent Peale's (1952) The Power of Positive Thinking   were widely read, increasing awareness of the genre and helping to elevate it to a more dominant market position (Whyte 2007). In 2004 the self-help industry (to include seminars, books, DVDs and other self-help paraphernalia) was worth $9.6 billion in the US alone (PRWeb 2010). Even though self-help books represent only a  portion of the industry’s global pie, its market growth from $581 million in sales in 1998 to $693 million in 2004 (PRWeb 2010) demonstrates its importance in its own right. Although extant research has examined self-help text, author authority, narrative, and has also examined self-help as a treatment aid within biomedical and psychological disciplines (see Kurtz 1990), there has been surprisingly little consumer research conducted in the area. Observing consumption contexts such as this provides insight into elements of book culture and how they are “constituted, sustained, and transformed” through “acquiring, consuming and having” (Arnould and Thompson 2005: 869-871). To this end, this paper builds on the insightful contributions within Consuming Books (Brown 2006), paying attention to the heterogeneous ways self-help literature may be experienced; showing that as individual consumers and interpretive experiential agents, we do not consume in a homogeneous fashion, or for any one reason. Douglas and Isherwood (1979) underline the difficulties in reading meaning from a singular object, comparing it to an attempt to decipher a poem from a single word. McCracken (1988) further argues that meaning is clarified when goods are assembled together, making visual statements and texts. In examining self-help book collections, we are provided with a tangible record of cultural meaning that is otherwise left intangible (McCracken 1986). Once a book is  put on a shelf for display it becomes part of the narrative of past and present, providing insight into the meaning of ‘having’ books, and ‘using’ books as part of the extended self. The self is extended further through experience as consumers invest psychic energy in objects towards which they have directed time, attention and effort (Rochberg-Halton 1981). As a consequence books, through their consumption, contribute to the reader’s capabilities for ‘doing’, ‘being’ and ‘having’ (Belk 1988). The transitional state of reading enables the offers up the possibility of achieving a better state of ‘being’, and ‘having’ the life, figure or relationship promised in the book. Thus, in studying self-help consumption we can ascertain a sense of how consumers act as both culture producers and their own reality producers.  Next, we outline the narrative approach taken to data collection. As each reader’s experience is uniquely situated, in researching self-help consumption it is important to consider the narratives of consumers themselves (Kline 2009), and we offer a series of narrative excerpts as illustrative of the issues at play. Finally, we draw together some initial conclusions and recommendations.    Methodology Storytelling and narrative abound in everyday life (Woodside et al  . 2008) and offer the sole medium of describing lived time (Bruner 2004). Narratives are not necessarily grounded in fact and therefore do not purport to be factual descriptions. Rather they are a representation of experiences encoded with symbolism and meaning (McAdams and Ochberg 1998). The stories we tell about our lives allow us to construct the experiences we live through (Schiffrin, 1996) and narratives offer a method of understanding and communicating these experiences to others (Bruner, 1990). By telling our stories we begin to make sense of the world we inhabit (Barkin, 1984). The telling of stories can play an important role within consumption as it allows consumers to understand, structure and share their consumption experiences (Muniz and Schau, 2005). Four narrative interviews were conducted with women who consume self-help books on a regular basis. The focus on women was intentional as they represent the majority of self-help consumers (Zimmerman et al  . 2001). Key informants were purposively sampled and the determination of what self-help constituted was open to the informants’ own interpretations, and included sub-categories such as holistic, spiritual, diet, exercise, relationships and health (McGee 2005). The interviews took place in the informants’ homes within easy access of their collection of self-help books, allowing the informants to refer to particular books where necessary. Each interview lasted in the region of 80 minutes and was recorded and transcribed verbatim. Interview transcripts, were initially read in their entirety to provide an holistic  perspective (Thompson 1997), and then re-read allowing patterns and themes to emerge (Coffey and Atkinson 1996). Three main themes were used for comprehension, synthesis and theory building: the broken self, collecting, and fantasy. Encounters With the Broken Self Despite its undoubted popularity, the consumption of self-help books is plagued by value  judgements from outsiders and readers themselves. There is a presumption that those who read self-help books are dysfunctional (Rimke 2000); broken in some way and in need of fixing. Much like the way broken windows signify dilapidation and carelessness, the broken self is taken to symbolize a moral fault, a breakdown in the exercise of care over the self. In this way individuals are encouraged to search for ways to fix the self. The four women taking  part in this study spoke of their first encounters with self-help books. Each woman expressed a thirst for knowledge or meaning, seeing self-help books as repositories of ideas that would quench this thirst (Effing 2009). In each case, however, the underlying connection to a broken self eventually emerged as a deeper, more fundamental motive for their initial consumption. Hidden behind the search for knowledge was the question: How do I fix me? Jenny purchased her first self-help book to gain an understanding of her romantic disposition; not to fix her broken heart  per se  but to fix the faults that had caused her to have her heart  broken in the first place (Dunbar and Abra 2003). Her felt inability to connect and sustain a relationship was experienced as a failure of the self. I am sure it started off with that book Women Who Love Too Much.  Like, why do you keep going out with asshole, basically! I was always in relationships and then  breakups and that. That was the start of it, a total hopeless romantic.  Jenny    Laura purchased self-help books in an effort to establish control over her ‘anger issues’ and ‘black demons’. She found self-help changed her outlook and showed her another way to live her life, more tolerant of others: I always kind of struggled with things like anger. I was struggling with myself and I knew I had to do something about those things. So, at first I think I would have gone to assertiveness courses and things like that, which opened me up to thinking there are other ways of doing things. Laura These women felt that they were in some way defective, not only romantically, but also in other areas of their life, be it weight, business or family. Elaine believed if there was a  problem, she was the problem. There was a need to fix me, you know, and every time throughout my life something happened to me, I would always try to fix me, not them! You can ever fix other  people, I realise that now! I would think, if I wasn’t so this, then maybe I wouldn’t have failed at that, or if I wasn’t so needy, or if I wasn’t so distant, or whatever the case may be. Elaine For these women initial forays into the self-help literature led to many years of acquiring and reading books. As their consumption continued, so did their awareness of the ‘reality’ of their  broken selves. Their consumption evolved from the search for the ultimate solution, to the enjoyment associated with exposing themselves to many solutions: Having read ten pages on something, I don’t think equips me much better than I was ten minutes previously to deal with whatever thing they are saying. For me the notion of self-help is a process. So I don’t necessarily want to be fixed by the end of chapter one, because if it’s that easy then, either I wasn’t broken or the advice isn’t great. Rachel  These women were clearly able to identify with self-help books on a deep level. However, if we assume that the only reason individuals buy self-help books is because they feel broken, we limit our understanding of the consumption experience in its totality. Consuming self-help is not simply about the end result, the change, or the new persona (Dittmar 1992), but about everything in between. As the above comment highlight, beyond the broken self, self-help consumption can develop into an extended relationship with meaning. In the collection and display of self-help books, these women gathered a symbolic language of their consumption experiences. Collecting Having a collection of books can be seen as the ultimate in self-definition as a self-help consumer (Stewart 1984), be it as a hobbyist (collecting out of pure enjoyment), or as an expressive collector (developing a collection as a statement of expression) (Case 2009). Jenny’s over-stocked book shelves make visible elements of her extended self. Here she  begins to catalogue her extensive collection of self-help books:    Ok let me take you through this. Your Erogenous Zones  ... read that a few times.  Be Your Own Life Coach  ... excuse me! The 10 Minute Life Coach . Creating Miracles in Everyday Life  ... we all want miracles, obviously!  Rebounding  .  Play Piano in a  Flash .  Everyday Greatness . The Idiots Guide to Procrastination  ... I should get rid of that!  How to Stop Worrying and Start Living  .  Manifest Your Destiny . Oh, we have another 10 Minute Life Coach ! You mean we bought that twice? … That’s frightening! Cosmic Ordering for Beginners  ... Well I obviously had to have the 10 minute one twice. I want it now! I want it this minute! Jenny Jenny became instantly aware of the extent of her collection as she read out the many titles. She expressed shock and embarrassment to find two 10 Minute Life Coach  books on her shelf, and acknowledged how her book collection communicates her impatience and her desire for a quick fix. Yet it reminded her just how much time and effort she had invested in self-help to the extent that she acknowledged “there is nothing quick fix about twenty six years of reading”. Laura collected self-help books for many reasons. While concerned with acquiring knowledge in order to relate socially to like-minded others, it also satisfied her compulsion to collect the work of admired gurus. I buy tons of books. I buy self-help books all the time, but I don’t even read them. I  just buy them to have them on the shelf, you know? I’m a terror for that. We have loads up in the bedroom now, all the Tony Robbins books ...  Awaken the Giant Within , Your Driving Force , Unlimited Power  . I love having all the greats at my fingertips. I tend to hop from one title to another, you know? I skim things and I  pick out something I like. I’m a picker you know. I don’t follow through on where I started at all. So I tend to hop around a bit and I wouldn’t always go back. Depends how interesting the trail was I went off on. Laura Elaine differed in the way she collected self-help books. For Elaine the notion of divestment (McCracken 1986) carried more meaning than keeping the books she had read. Elaine regarded the clear out as a visible sign of her self-development. She explained, if the books are no longer there, it meant she no longer needed that particular book’s help. Recently when I was doing a clear out I threw away load of books. It was a great sign, because it means I am done with them, and I am moving on to whatever the next thing is ... I had books on de-cluttering; they’re gone actually. Elaine Fantasy Reading about change can be an experience in its own right, where fantasy and dreaming make change instantaneous, possible and enjoyable for the consumer.“Fantasy provides hope” (Henry and Cadwell 2006: 1035) and here Jenny explains: I think sometimes if I read about something I kid myself that I have it done. It gives me the illusion that I’m actually doing something. There is a dreaming part of reading that is full of hope. The only way they (books) will make me thin, is if the  bookshelf falls down, knocks me out and I’m in a coma for six months. Jenny
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