CFP: Feeling and Faking: Evidence, Accident, and the Production of Expertise in Self-Help

Call for Abstracts (AAA 2016 Annual Meeting)

Feeling and Faking: Evidence, Accident, and the Production of Expertise in Self-Help

Amidst the dematerialization of value and austerity politics of late capitalism, the booming and largely unregulated industry of self-help marks a new category of professional expertise and intimate labor. From New-Age healers through life and executive coaches to positive psychologists and more, the genesis of this new professional class galvanizes public debates about the meanings of accredited knowledge, expert authority, and the ethics and practices of professionalization. As self-help becomes commodified, it generates a range of intimacies between practitioners and clients that retrace the contours of politics, community, and apportionment of access to the good life.

Public critique of self-help professionals renders some self-help agents as charlatans at best. For their part, scholars have criticized this industry for contributing to the dismantling of social solidarity while reproducing race, gender and class hierarchies (Illouz 2008; McGee 2007). This panel aims to shed new light on how self-help practitioners engage with the critiques they face by pragmatic forms of engagement with knowledge in the cultivations of their own professional authority. We follow the writings of Dumit (2001) and Bourdieu (1990) on New-Agers as seekers and bricoleurs who craft, borrow, and play with knowledge in a way that challenges the monopoly of legitimate knowledge in the form of scientific, religious, and university-based disciplines. Producing knowledge that links desires for spiritual redemption to the labor of optimizing health, happiness, and ‘peak performance’ across a range of personal, professional, and intimate settings, this panel explores the manners in which self-help professionals may negotiate with existing power structures by crafting new epistemologies of evidence, accident, order, and marginalia on their path to resist marginalization.

This panel invites ethnographic explorations of concepts of authority, professionalism, and expert knowledge in the realm of self-help. We invite ethnographies which examine the transmission of knowledge, including training, mentoring, self-branding, pedagogical practices, institutional work, and media strategies of self-help practitioners in their efforts to cultivate professional identity in a range of Western and non-Western contexts. Please send an abstract of 250 words to or by April 8th.