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Society, Politics & Law

Social scientists and social commentators are often more powerful than they like to admit

Updated Friday, 28th February 2014

The use of a comic lifestyle disease to keep a reckless Texas driver out of jail underlines the need for clear definitions in social science, argues Alan Shipman.

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A cartoon about affluenza Creative commons image Icon Catherine Pain under Creative-Commons license With one mighty leap of imagination, a teenage killer has walked free – leaving expert witnesses perturbed by their own persuasiveness. Ethan Couch might once have been on a drink-fuelled road to nowhere. But in the sort of judgement that inspires defence lawyers and appals everyone else, Couch has now been spared jail for causing several fatalities while driving – on the grounds that his chaotic impetuousness was not his own fault. An attorney successfully argued that a serious lifestyle disease, Affluenza, was the reason for his client going out of control. 

Affluenza was defined as the inability to defer any gratification, tolerate delay, or show any understanding of ordinary people, arising from being brought up in a super-rich household that catered for its children’s every need.

Instead of being locked up, Couch will attend a special rehabilitation centre – at a cost of $450,000 a year, to be met by his parents. To many observers, this highlighted the absurdity – and injustice – of the US court’s decision.  The offender will continue to be provided with facilities and treatments that are beyond the imagination of the vast majority of less-than-affluent citizens. If Affluenza can be treated at all, a scrappy boot-camp in the Bronx might be a better place to start. 

The ‘Affluenza Defence’ raises disturbing questions for judicial procedure. But these are largely confined to Texas, and likely to be quickly addressed through changes in the law already being prepared. 

A more serious issue – arousing concern well beyond the six people killed or maimed by Couch’s carelessness, and their families – is the way a jokey social science concept was elevated into a serious (and successful) legal defence. 

Taken too seriously…
‘Affluenza’ was popularised by the science writer Oliver James, whose medical credentials are significant. He trained and practised as a clinical psychologist, gaining experience that extends to child psychology. But James introduced Affluenza as catchy term to describe the malaise of those who don’t have to work for what they consume, and expect all rewards to be a finger-click away. It has never been given a precise diagnosis, or clinically researched to track down causes or investigate cures.

The concept had earlier been chronicled in the US by Jessie O’Neill, who may have glimpsed it at first-hand as a daughter of the General Motors founder. But she used it as a concept in social psychology, diagnosing easy wealth’s derailment of the ‘American Dream’, rather than focusing on what over-indulgence does to individual minds.   

The psychologist whose testimony persuaded the judge to take Couch’s ‘Affluenza’ seriously, Dick Miller, has vigorously defended his diagnosis. In court, Miller argued less in terms of the specifics of the ‘disease’, and more about the practicality of the situation. Jailing the teenage tearaway would just leave him to fester at state expense, whereas an expensive clinic might steer him towards rehabilitation. But because the disease is not formally recognised or medically understood, it is difficult to be sure how rehabilitation can proceed, or its success be measured. 

A cynic might argue that the prison regime, in which wishes are frequently ignored and gratification routinely deferred, might be the better antidote. Cynicism is, after all, an equally identifiable condition with a much longer social history.  But neither jail nor clinic is likely to work if Affluenza turns out to be hereditary, unless the rich can buy their way to the head of the gene therapy queue.   

… and still not understood
The fuzziness of the concept means Miller and the district judge he persuaded, Jean Boyd, may well have misunderstood it. Although Oliver James has not (yet) managed to get Affluenza into the influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, he did travel the world to track down multicultural cases of the ‘disease’ for his 2007 book of the same title. This summarises the condition as “an obsessive, envious keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, that has resulted in huge increases in depression and anxiety among millions”. 

On that definition, Affluenza is not a rich kids’ affliction at all. It is more likely to affect the many who don’t come from ultra-comfortable family backgrounds, and hanker after luxuries and lifestyles they cannot have. Lee Gibb’s ‘The Joneses: How to Keep Up With Them’ was first published in 1959, as parody of the English lower middle classes whose prime minister was about to declare that they had “never had it so good”, but who were eternally frustrated that their neighbours seemed to have a newer car, a bigger home-extension and a more discerning collection of antiques. Their condition was practically the opposite of Ethan Couch’s, whose problems appear to arise from having nothing more to envy or aspire to. And it’s likely to have had opposite effects: spurring them to earn more income in order to spend more, rather than getting drunk and crashing a pickup truck.

The lesson of this sorry saga is that social scientists, and social commentators, are often more powerful than they like to admit. They need to take care when disseminating words and concepts whose intuitive appeal can outrun their evidential grounding.  For every half-formed theory or less-than-serious causal mechanism, there is at least one lobby-group or lawyer keen to build it into a serious argument.  So from Freud’s ‘subconscious mind’ to Marx’s ‘surplus value’, public thought and political action get reshaped by big ideas, while intellectuals are still debating exactly what they mean.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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