Occupational psychosis

Occupational psychosis

Occupational psychosis is the concept that one's occupation or career makes that person so biased that they could be described as psychotic. Especially common in tight occupational circles, individuals can normalize ideas or behaviours that seem absurd or irrational to the external public. The term was created by John Dewey.The most accessible introduction to this concept is Chapter III of Kenneth Burke's Permanence and Change (Hermes Publications: Los Altos, CA, 1954). Burke is careful to say, "Incidentally, it might be well to recall that Professor Dewey does not use the word 'psychosis' in the psychiatric sense; it applies simply to a pronounced character [original emphasis] of the mind." (pg. 49.)

In fact, Robert K. Merton's notion of occupational psychosis is also important: "The transition to a study of the negative aspects of bureaucracyis afforded by the application of Veblen's concept of "trainedincapacity," Dewey's notion of "occupational psychosis" or Warnotte'sview of "professional deformation." Trained incapacity refers to thatstate of affairs in which one's abilities function as inadequacies orblind spots. Actions based upon training and skills which have beensuccessfully applied in the past may result in inappropriateresponses under changed conditions. An inadequate flexibilityin the application of skills will, in a changing milieu, result inmore or less serious maladjustments. (8) Thus, to adopt a barnyardillustration used in this connection by Burke, chickens may bereadily conditioned to interpret the sound of a bell as a signal forfood. The same bell may now be used to summon the trained chickens totheir doom as they are assembled to suffer decapitation. In general,one adopts measures in keeping with one's past training and, undernew conditions which are not recognized as significantlydifferent, the very soundness of this training may lead to theadoption of the wrong procedures. Again in Burke's almost echolalicphrase, "people may be unfitted by being fit in an unfit fitness";their training may become an incapacity.

Dewey's concept of occupational psychosis rests upon much the sameobservations. As a result of their day to day routines, peopledevelop special preferences, antipathies, discriminations andemphases. (9) (The term psychosis is used by Dewey to denote a"pronounced character of the mind.") These psychoses develop throughdemands put upon the individual by the particular organization of hisoccupational role.

The concepts of both Veblen and Dewey refer to a fundamentalambivalence. Any action can be considered in terms of what it attainsor what it fails to attain."

And again Merton footnotes Kenneth Burke's, Permanence and Change (1935), pp. 50, 58-59: "I believe that John Dewey's concept of "occupational psychosis" best characterizes this secondary aspect of interest. Roughly, the term corrresponds to the Maarxian doctrine that a society's environment in the historical sense is synonymous with society's methods of production. Professor Dewey suggests that a tribe's ways of gaining sustenance promote certain specific patterns of thought which, since thought is an aspect of action, assist the tribe in its productive and distributive operations. This special emphasis, arising in response to the economic pattern, he calls the tribe's occupational psychosis. Once this psychosis is established by the authority of the food-getting patterns (which are certainly primary as regards problems of existence) it is carried over into other aspects of the tribal culture."

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