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About the research programme

Aims and research questions

Motivation is a key issue in fields such as education, management, social work and health promotion. It is about what drives people, and motivational work involves making people want to do the things that they have to do. The question of motivation and the task of motivating people keep changing, and motivation is an issue of relevance and increasing urgency in many different areas. In the past, people who were motivated did the things that were expected of them voluntarily; recently, a twist is added to this: people are now expected to take responsibility for motivating themselves. These days motivation is associated with self-management and, as such, it has become an aspect of the modern issue of formation / ‘Bildung’. Financial incentives, interview methods, standardised self-descriptions, games, self-monitoring apps and performance comparisons are all invitations designed to motivate professionals, organisations, students and citizens – either to try and live up to external expectations, or to define their own expectations with regard to personal change, participation, learning or willpower.

The aim of the programme is to analyse the way in which motivation has been (and is) articulated, mobilised and shaped in practices and organisations of various kinds. Our ambition is to contribute analyses and concepts which can identify and reconceptualise current tendencies in the field of motivational work and motivation technologies. We adopt a variety of theoretical approaches from disciplines such as psychology, history of ideas, sociology, and anthropology to analyse the way in which motivational work is done. We are interested in the way in which motivational work creates conditions for subjectification, management, education and professional work. In this sense, what is involved is a rearticulation: a reconceptualisation or reimagining of the issue of motivation. We adopt this approach in order to ask questions such as: Where and how is ‘something’ (be it willpower, desire, affects, attention, self-activation, initiative, etc.) articulated as motivation; how is motivation enunciated as an ideal; how has motivational work been done in the past; and how is it done in the present? How do motivation technologies modulate and transform motivation, organisation and subjectivity? What kind of subjects are sought to be constituted and formed – with what kind of independence, willpower, agency, desires, attention etc.? Are the effects of motivational work gendered? Racialised? Class-specific? What negative qualities arise in connection with the more dubious aspects of motivational work and motivation technologies? What forms of demotivation, exclusion, reluctance, resistance and powerlessness are created? Is there a limit to motivational work, and are people sometimes beyond the reach of motivational strategies?

The programme focuses on a range of empirical areas, including pedagogics/education, social work, bullying and well-being, guidance, resocialisation and management.

Our approach: Critique and ethics

People can be motivated in many different ways: for instance by threats and the exertion of authority; by incentives, rewards and prizes; or by guidance, comparisons, by offering self-insight or by nudging. In education, ever since the reform movement of the early 20th century, one of the central ideas in educational philosophy has been that the form of motivation employed should never violate the self-determination of children and young people. In order to enhance the agency of the pupil, punishment and patronage have been regarded as problematic. In accordance with this line of thinking, motivation strategies and technologies have involved gently motivating people to want to do the things you would like them to want and choose. But whether motivational work involves threats or velvet gloves, certain legal and ethical questions will always arise for anyone trying to motivate other people: In which ways is it justifiable to motivate and on which grounds? How are people entitled to motivate others, and to which degree or extent is it legitimate?  How is any responsibility for the more dubious aspects and the unintended effects of motivation and its unintended effects identified and dealt with?

We seek to analyse current and historically evolved technologies and understandings of motivation, to be able to regard them critically. This critical ambition also constitutes an ethical challenge to us as researchers, in line with the challenge facing people who are trying to motivate others. Our research is sometimes distant, at other times directly involved in dialogues and explorations in the field. This raises questions such as: What is the point of departure for our critical analyses? How can we ensure that our work interacts ethically and dynamically with the field of practice?