Action Research: Demoralisation Through Down Sourcing

This is the next part of my action research project which has been a long term study of how administrative systems are used to shape people’s lives and allocate resources for sufficiency and support needs in the UK society during the early 21st century…

You can read the previous section of this project ‘Action Research: The Psychology of Institutionalisation’ by clicking HERE.


This part of the research project discusses the effects of societal structures which ‘downsource’ responsibilities down what is in effect the vertically integrated structures of a socio-economic caste system.  Downsourcing is a specific type of externalisation process where workloads, problems and costs are placed on those who are lower in the socio-economic structure done by those who work further at the top of these structures.


This is discussed in terms of the managerialism of cumbersome and, in some cases, absurd bureaucratic loads placed on those who have to operate at the front lines of the support systems and on those who have no option to negotiate a mixture of hostile environments, technocratic and dysfunctional administrative systems, understaffed and under-resourced workforces, and exhausted, similarly demoralised individuals attempting to make a difference to the person they are attempting to support.


There is a short examination of some elements of psychology which realise themselves through the arbitrary and morally disengaged structure of the systems; something that arguably produces the amoral decisions in otherwise moral people at the top of the power juncture, and which arguably produces psychological trauma setting up the conditions for responses such as self medication with intoxicants.



In doing this series of writings I have tried to keep notes on all my experiences over the past two decades.  Rather than just writing technical analyses from the perspective say of a systems analyst, what is important is to include humanising ethnographic accounts which are almost entirely lacking from review reports and focus groups.  The result of the lack of these complete ethnographic accounts is that the human – the humane – is denuded from the discourse resulting in ‘yet another damn report’ that speaks to the abstract theatre of bottom line management.


The medicalised disappearing of the trauma and harms done by putting people in impossible situations, of infantilising them, of dehumanizing them, of passing them around a system which is not equipped to deal with complex problems is a major issue of our time.  Individuals must carry in silence the crazy-making realities of the way the Department of Work and Pensions operates to make it as hard as possible to get the support which is mandated.  As a bureaucratic system it is entirely opaque and unaccountable, even to senior support workers, who day in and day out must negotiate deliberately dysfunctional interfaces.


For example, having to wait for hours and hours on a phone where you are put on hold – situations where you are not uncommonly then disconnected, sometimes before any conversation, sometimes mid conversation.  Situations where you have no record of the hard won interactions which you do have result in the administration system being unaccountable because they do everything to avoid working in email – which can act as a legal document of evidence to challenge injustice or maladministration.  None of this is ever mentioned or highlighted.


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The medical world compounds these harms by not challenging the social inequalities produced by state structures and private contractors which in clear ways manifest structural violence sufficient to drive people crazy.  The medical world instead has chosen the path of psychoactive drug prescription and the occasional talking therapy where the emphasis is put on the individual.


The psychiatric drugs which are dished out are intoxicating, many of which are addictive and many of which cause long term damage when taken for prolonged periods.  Damages like Tardive Dyskinesia – prescription drug induced parkinson’s disease in laymans terms – then make people more dependent on supplementary benefits completing an unvirtuous and devilish downward cycle.


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The social model of disability starts to kick in when people start seeing you as the vampire press portray you; psychiatric labels become shorthand for dysfunctional, bad and dangerous – in receipt of benefits becomes economic free rider… but nowhere in the discourse is there an account of how people are chewed up and harmed by the systems purported to help you or economies which are nearing exploitation tipping points due to the precarity which tax absent stock market mega companies produce through asset stripping the culture.


Nowhere in the shiny outward facing public relations spun projection of national ego is featured the relentless pitting of individual against individual for the scraps which fall to the floor.  The semiotic of the society is dominantly shaped by warlike and antiquated masculine cultures which are self toxic; there lacks the lexicon to talk about the harms, the emotional and spiritual pains, the set-up-to-fail cultures of exceptionalism and exemplification, the cruelties of the money addicted.  Likewise, there lacks any discussion of the complimentary toxic culture in the encultured feminine which darkly says to those brought low “man up”.


It is enough to drive people to drink.  Alcohol knackers your memory which is a relief but further compounds your incapacity to deal with the sheer chaos of it all.  And for many you just appear as a cypher of a human being, a wraith of an economically useful person even though you might do a large amount of unpaid labour; your words do not hold truck and the information you provide has no authority – the author has become deracinated, uprooted from its material base.


As you try to negotiate the bureaucracies you realise that you need someone who is in an official position for your experience of the systemic malfunctions to be taken as real.  In desperation you try to get a support worker with enough experience and still with enough personal constitution to help you walk the next mile as you try to sort out even menial things.  The squeeky wheels get the oil but you lost your voice from shouting many years ago and shouting further corroded the humane interactions you need just to be human; just to be human for a day, for an hour away from the straw man which the paperwork and financial system dictates you are.


“Although less well known, and perhaps less intuitive, than dissonance reduction, the process of psychological reactance (Brehm, 1966; Brehm & Brehm, 1981; Wicklund, 1974) also belongs on our list of biases that create barriers to dispute resolution.  Of particular relevance is the phenomenon we call reactive devaluation, whereby potential compromise offers or concessions become less attractive to the recipient as a consequence of the fact that they have been offered.  In one study (Maoz, Ward, Katz, & Ross, 2000), Arab and Israeli university students evaluated peace proposals actually offered by the two sides in the latest round of Middle East negotiations.


The participants all read exactly the same proposals, which were necessarily vague about exactly what kind of Palestinian state would emerge after the negotiation process was complete.  What varied was purported authorship; that is, some respondents were told that the proposal under examination had been offered by the Israelies whereas others were told that it has been offered by the Palestinians.  The results were dramatic.  Purported authorship mattered more than the actual authorship and content of the proposal, so that when the proposals’ purported authorships were reversed, partisans preferred the other side’s proposal to their own.”


[Page 638, Pronin, E., Puccio, C., Ross, L., (2008), Understanding Misunderstanding: Social Psychological Perspectives, in Gilovich, T., Griffin, D. W., & Kahneman, D. Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press]


  • Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press
  • Brehm, S. S., & Brehm, J. W. (1981). Psychological reactance: A theory of freedom and control. New York: Academic Press
  • Wicklund, R. a. (1974). Freedom and reactance. Potomac, MD: Erlbaum
  • Maoz, I., Ward, A., Katz, M., & Ross, L., (2000). Reactive devaluationo of an “Israeli” vs. “Palestinian” peace proposal. Unpublished manuscript, Stanford University.


Then you find that legal services are scant, representation by the legal process has been rarefied to the simple or the extreme; citizens advice withers under a slow choking down to take away sound bites.  The poor support workers you realise are burning out because they are dealing with the arbitrariness of the system with you.


Day in and day out they are seeing the injustices, the repeated failures structured into hammering home the message “The state does not have your back any longer” (7 min 35 sec below) as Professor Philip Aston, one of the most cited human rights scholars and United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty said about the UK.


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You realise that if the wealthy had to use these systems they would work better; if the people who could afford legal representation had to go through these ordeals, the issues would be raised and dealt with.  You realise that if you had the money you could afford not to care about the phone company which has stiffed you on a phone contract which you cannot get out of, or you could buy another washing machine when it is broken, or you could buy food you wanted rather than take a lucky dip on the reduced counter to get something which is a treat.


This work is not about making the perfect the enemy of the bad; it is not about any Nimbyism of sorts – although much criticism is met with accusations of this kind of dismissive label; it is a genuine and heartfelt attempt to send up flares in the face of a desperate sociological situation which is affecting millions of people in terrible ways.  Similar to the fact we are witnessing environmental crises, we are also seeing sociological crises which require attending to as societal and personal fabrics are moving to states of collapse.


The question ‘so what can we do about this ?’ needs to be asked along side ‘what are the active values of this nation state ?’ – we orient towards these by making examinations of the categorical demonstratives in play; those exemplars and examples which have been elevated to positions that signal the cultural categorical imperative.  We also need to be able to identify and distinguish systems effects from deliberacy, as well as legacy from intention. Ultimately this synonymously involves individuals making similar examinations of their own character and values, exploring how our individual actions feed into and perform what we call society or the nation state.


On this road of cultural self awareness I believe two things are vital elements needed – one is the production of historical documents for future times of the sociological experiences of the general populations, and the other is the production of thoughtful but uncensored provokations.  Is this the fifth richest economy in the world because it is expropriating that value and wealth from the lives of people ?  This is an important question to think through.


Demoralisation Through Down Sourcing

The demoralising element of these paper outcomes originates from the ease with which people’s complexities are reduced, packaged down and subsequently replaced by simple binaries. The systemic managerialism of welfare supports shifts the emphasis from broaching the problem encountered in the individuals life to that of ensuring funding for service providers [25], and to the ‘marketisation’ of the public and third sector through competitive thinning of organisations impeded by disproportionate bureaucratic workloads.


This ‘Down Sourcing’ has a demoralising effect on all participants downstream from policy, resources and power [70]. Dewey’s concept of occupational psychosis describes a myopia which develops through institutionalisation to a professional role. As a result of their day to day routines, people develop special preferences, antipathies, discriminations and emphases to their normal routine. These ‘psychoses’ emerge on the back of demands put upon the individual by the particular organization of their occupational role [21].


Excerpt from Merton, Robert K Social and Social Structure p.256
Excerpt from Merton, Robert K Social and Social Structure p.256


With the risks of reductive, labour-intensive, non-representative bureaucracy and those of empathy fatigue, the sense of helplessness can be immense and embody knock on effects to the morale of the client (as well as the frontline worker). We know that helplessness produces emotional disturbance via the work of Seligman and Miller: “Our first hint that helplessness has emotional, as well as motivational and cognitive, consequences came when we found that the motivational effects dissipated in time.


Trauma often produces disturbances in animals and man that have surprising time courses, and are readily seen as emotional changes….If a dog is placed in the shuttle box within 24 hours after uncontrollable shock in the harness, he will be helpless. If, however, we wait 72 hours or a week after the single session of inescapable shock in the harness, the dog will escape normally in the shuttle box. One experience with uncontrollable trauma produces an effect that dissipates in time. But what happens if many experiences of uncontrollability occur before the dog is given an opportunity to escape ?


If a dog is given four sessions, spread out over a week, of inescapable shock in the harness, then he will remain helpless weeks later. Repeated uncontrollability produces an interference with response initiation that is chronic. On the other hand, it should be mentioned that helplessness produced in the rat, even by only one session of inescapable shock, does not dissipate in time…. In summary, helplessness is a disaster for organisms capable of learning that they are helpless. Three types of disruption are caused by uncontrollability in the laboratory: the motivation to respond is sapped, the ability to perceive success is undermined, and emotionality is heightened. These effects hold across a wide variety of circumstances and species, and are prominent in Homo sapiens” [103].


“Learned helplessness is caused by learning that responding is independent of reinforcement; so the model suggests that the cause of depression is the belief that action is futile. What kind of events set off reactive depressions ? Failure at work and school, death of a loved one, rejection or separation from friends and loved ones, physical disease, financial difficulty, being faced with insoluble problems, and growing old. There are many others, but this list captures the flavour. I believe that what links these experiences and lies at the heart of depression is unitary: the depressed patient believes or has learned that he cannot control those elements of his life that relieve suffering, bring gratification, or provide nurture – in short, he believes that he is helpless” [104].


We know now from the updated work of Seligman [104.1] (In 2016 Martin Seligman revisited this provokative work in a paper called ‘Learned Helplessness at Fifty: Insights From Neuroscience‘ written with the original co-author Steven F. Maier) that the psychological phenomenon which he and his colleagues were studying was not a manifestation of the cognitive function actively learning that the subject was helpless but was instead a manifestation of the cognitive mechanism being abolished and damaged via the stress reaction.


Placing individuals into a depersonalised system of no win double binds brings about psychological harms which further impede individuals who are already at a disadvantage – by dint of their need to seek support in the first place.  The hostile environments created by the government over the past years has played a key role in traumatising individuals attempting to gain support via the Department of Work and Pensions.


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Understanding the psychology of the individual in the bureaucratic situations is a key part to unravelling the downwardly mobile society which has been formulated in 2015. These are issues of social justice in a society which is increasingly professionalised and where lifeworlds are micro-managed from positions of great liberty. The rocketing levels of depression and ‘mental illness’ have been medicalised, rending them from the cultural contexts in which they have arisen. It is very demoralizing to be poor, and outside of the enfranchised society; it is very damaging to be made a target by the media and the spin doctors.



[21] Kenneth Burke (1935), Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, New York: New Republic, pp. 58-59
[25] Alex Dunedin, Personal testimony as anecdote, The Situation That I Am In, Essay. Reproduced in Appendix A
[70] Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997 – 2013 Alexis Jay OBE, Independent Inquiry was commissioned by Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council in October 2013. Accessed online 11.09.2014:
[103] Martin E. P. Seligman, ‘Helplessness; On Depression, Development, and Death’, ISBN 0-7167-0751-9, Page 40 – 44
[104] Martin E. P. Seligman, ‘Helplessness; On Depression, Development, and Death’, ISBN 0-7167-0751-9, Page 93
[104.1] Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. (2016). Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychological review123(4), 349–367.