Friday, May 18, 2007

WTF you doing?!

I started a new job this week in a learning disabilities team. I like working in learning disabilities - it keeps life interesting.

Thus far, I've met with lots of other professionals...and each time, I've been told horror stories about the ways in which care staff behave towards the people they care for. I have no doubt that the stories are true and that such outrageous occurances happen frequently. I've worked in this area before...I know...

Typically what happens is that care staff (the people who work with the person every day) find the person difficult to deal with, refer to some outside professionals, who go in and think "OMG, WTF you doing?!" and tell the care staff to get their acts together, whereupon the professional is dismissed with "You don't work 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week and clean up shit so you don't know what you're talking about."

But it makes me wonder, what happens to people when they work in institutional environments that makes them behave in outrageous ways? Sometimes it makes me think about Zimbardo's prison experiment and how ordinary students took so easily to the roles (prison guard and prisoner) assigned to them and became torturer and tortured. (If anyone wants an unsettling but deeply relevant read, Zimbardo's new book, 'The Lucifer Effect' is an excellent account of the prison experiment and exploration of current horrors such as Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq from a psychological point of view.)

Anyway...from Abu Ghraib back to the local residential homes for people with learning disabilities. What is it that makes people who go into this job to care (and I've no doubt that the vast majority of care staff start with compassionate motivation) that turns people to do dangerous, stupid, thoughtless and, at times, abusive things? What is it that fuels the us and them mentality between care staff and the people they care for?

Or perhaps even more importantly, what is it in my work that turns me from someone who wants to be compassionate and empowering, into someone who oppresses and disempowers? What is it that I do that I cannot see? What is it that creates an us and them mentality between outside professionals and on the ground care staff?


ash said...

Have you seen the German film that's based on the Stamford Prison Experiment? it's well worth a watch (Das Experiment- subtitled).

There's a lot of it which is taken directly from accounts of the real experiement, although the ending is different to make it more interesting for cinema... wont' give it away... but it's a very clever, sinister film.

Contemplative Activist said...

I haven't seen it, but it sounds really interesting. Apparently, a new one is being made atm.

If you're interested, the Lucifer Effect is a really fascinating book. A lot of information about the experiment which wasn't published before is in there - its a full account, and you really get the impression that Zimbardo is disturbed and unsettled in writing about it. He says he aborted a previous edition of the book, but was pushed to write it given Abu Ghraib and similar.