Society, Politics & Law

The Cycles of Neurosis

Updated Monday 4th May 2009

Engin Isin asks whether society is encouraged to overreact to certain events.

It often starts with an event or a phenomenon. It could be a mass killing, a spreading flu, increasing migrants, or decreasing credit. Before we understand its causes, its consequences are predicted with ferocious repetition. "We are facing an unprecedented enemy that is well organized". "It could cost billions to contain the pandemic". "Are we prepared to provide services demanded by migrants?" "With the collapsed economy we may be facing a depression not seen since 1929."

A person wearing a pig mask Creative commons image Icon squacco under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license
Did we overeact to swine flu?

"It seems governments, businesses, nongovernmental and news organisations all have some vested interest in these disproportionate responses."

These predicted consequences become progressively disproportionate to actual consequences. The collective response becomes equally disproportionate. Armies invade countries with dodgy dossiers that look credible to some. Mass mobilisations are enlisted to contain pandemics that are not. Massive investments are made in border control and tracking methods. Trillions and billions are printed and pumped into markets with fancy names such as "quantitative easing".

It seems governments, businesses, nongovernmental and news organisations all have some vested interest in these disproportionate responses. A few academics, journalists, scientists, and activists warn against disproportionate responses and call for better understanding of causes rather than focusing on predictions of consequences. "There is no justification for war." "More people are killed on the road than by terrorist attacks." "Migrants contribute to the economy and we need them." These voices are drowned out, mostly by the argument that, had there not been dramatic responses, situations would have been worse - claims that are impossible to verify. Do you remember The Millennium bug?

"…after every cycle we have gone through, we realise that the responses we were led to believe to have been appropriate proved to be well beyond what was necessary."

What follows is more prophecies, prognostications, predictions, and various scenarios. Having determined the dramatic consequences to follow, explanations that fit those consequences are offered. In other words, in a strange but social twist of logic, consequences are made to explain causes. For lack of a better term, I can’t help but call these cycles of neurosis. In the twentieth century psychoanalysts called the disproportionate response to perceived dangers neurosis - a term that is no longer used in psychology to define any disorder. But it persists outside established science and many sociologists have used the term to define collective phenomena of anxiety, hysteria or unease.

I think it is apt to use the term "neurosis" and to name our response "neurotic" because the cycle that starts with a bang almost always ends with a whimper. It seems that, after every cycle we have gone through, we realise that the responses we were led to believe to have been appropriate proved to be well beyond what was necessary. Is Al Qaeda really the threat that it was presented to be? Are migrants really the threat that they were represented to be? Is there really an economic collapse to the extent that has been suggested? In a short time it has already been demonstrated that the most recent cycle - swine flu - may have been an over-reaction. The headlines already declare that swine flu did not spread as fast as predicted. The BBC News reported tests showing that the swine flu virus in Mexico may be less virulent than first feared, and asked "Did Mexico over-react on swine flu?" It is as though it was only Mexico that over-reacted.

Ten years ago the New Yorker cartoonist, Roz Chast, introduced "the neuro" as "the first official worldwide currency" in one of her cartoons. It may have been prescient. We really need to understand why it has become so. What are the reasons for the collective neurosis of our times?

Find Out More 

Isin, E.F. (2004) The Neurotic Citizen, Citizenship Studies, 8 (3), 217-235.

Horney, K. (1937) The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, New York, W.W. Norton.

Fromm, E. (1944) Individual and Social Origins of Neurosis, American Sociological Review, 9 (4), 380-384.

Roz Chast, The Back Page, “Introducing the Neuro - The First Official Worldwide Currency,” The New Yorker, April 26, 1999, p. 196.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Discuss: Housing for the working class Creative commons image Icon Betty Longbottom [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license activity icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Discuss: Housing for the working class

Housing has always been a problem for the working class. Fill in our short survey and share your thoughts and memories.

Activity
Discuss: Representations of the working class Creative commons image Icon By Goldfinger at sr.wikipedia [CC-BY-3.0-rs], from Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license activity icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Discuss: Representations of the working class

The working class in the media: stereotypes or accurate potrayals? Fill in our short survey and share your thoughts and memories.

Activity
Queen Elizabeth II is 90 activity icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Queen Elizabeth II is 90

As Queen Elizabeth II turns 90, take a look at the key moments in her life, reign and British history with our interactive timelines with photos, videos and related learning materials. 

Activity
The Laurie Taylor interviews Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license video icon

Society, Politics & Law 

The Laurie Taylor interviews

Why does Laurie Taylor think sociology is important? What advice does he have for our students? In this series of videos the Thinking Allowed host answers questions on social sciences.

Video
How we live is seen as a justification: Why the French way of life became a target Creative commons image Icon Gael Lombart under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

How we live is seen as a justification: Why the French way of life became a target

French academic Claude Poissenot says if terrorists claim going to a gig is a provocation, living your life is a peaceful but powerful response.

Article
The ethics and politics of the migration and refugee crisis Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Migrationmuseum article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

The ethics and politics of the migration and refugee crisis

We've shared some tasters of the Who Are We project - but this isn't the first time the OU's academics have come together with artists. Discover some earlier collaborations.

Article
Seeing foreigners as weird and different: What is orientalism? Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Francesc Darder (1851-1918) article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Seeing foreigners as weird and different: What is orientalism?

You might think we're past the point where we treated people from different cultures as something to stare at. Ingrid Piller isn't so sure.

Article
What's life like for Jordan's LGBTQ community? Creative commons image Icon Bucketlisty Photos under Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

What's life like for Jordan's LGBTQ community?

Jordan removed legal punsihments for same-gender relationships nearly two decades before the UK decriminalised consensual gay male intercourse. But day-to-day life for LGBTQ people in the country isn't easy. Nora B reports.

Article
Man vs machine Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Man vs machine

Should we worry about robots one day getting tired of being the junior partners?

Article