‘Useful members of society or motiveless malingerers? Occupation and self-Injury in late nineteenth-century British asylum'

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Dr Sarah Chaney

Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines, University College London

‘Useful members of society or motiveless malingerers? Occupation and self-Injury in late nineteenth-century British asylum psychiatry

(Introduced by: Prof Jenny Butler, Health and Life Sciences, Oxford Brookes University)

[19min; 12 slides]


Paper presented to the International Research Symposium:

"Therapy and Empowerment – Coercion and Punishment:

Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Labour and Occupational Therapy"

26–27 June 2013,  St Anne’s College, Oxford


Abstract: Occupation was a key feature of the nineteenth-century asylum system. On the one hand, providing residents with daily tasks was designed to counter the “morbid introspection” thought to contribute to mental illness, while simultaneously aiding the economic functioning of the institution through free labour. On the other, this system was designed to create “useful members of society”. The asylum itself functioned on this model: all inhabitants were expected to contribute to social order and earned privileges when they did. Meanwhile, training in certain tasks, for example typing or artisan labour, was expected to assist the individual on discharge. This emphasis on usefulness, however, was challenged in the later nineteenth-century by a new psychological model of “motiveless malingering”, which arose from contemporary debate around self-inflicted injury.

The concept of “malingering” emerged in the early nineteenth century in the domain of French military surgery, and treatment of the topic had initially in no way assumed a psychological dimension. In the 1890s, however, British psychiatrists became increasingly interested in the idea of “hysterical self-mutilation” which, it was assumed, needed to be understood in relation to the psychological and emotional needs of the individual. This paper will argue that the increased interest within psychiatric circles in this topic encouraged a shift in the assumed motivation underlying “malingering” from financial or social (avoidance of work) to a focus on the emotional gratification of the individual concerned. This challenged contemporary models of the social and political value of occupation. However, it must be recognised that this shift was by no means total. Instead, such explanations existed side by side, with photographs of “hysterical self-mutilators” used to illustrate discussions of malingering within the political context of the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1906 and subsequent developments in National Insurance.



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