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Working the Difference

Science, Spirit, and the Spread of Motivational Interviewing


Working the Difference

Science, Spirit, and the Spread of Motivational Interviewing


A history of motivational interviewing and what its rise reveals about how cultural forms emerge and spread.

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a professional practice, a behavioral therapy, and a self-professed conversation style that encourages clients to talk themselves into change. Originally developed to treat alcoholics, MI quickly spread into a variety of professional fields including corrections, medicine, and sanitation. In Working the Difference, E. Summerson Carr focuses on the training and dissemination of MI to explore how cultural forms—and particularly forms of expertise—emerge and spread. The result is a compelling analysis of the American preoccupations at MI’s core, from democratic autonomy and freedom of speech to Protestant ethics and American pragmatism.

304 pages | 23 halftones, 9 tables | 6 x 9

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Psychology: General Psychology

Religion: American Religions

Sociology: General Sociology, Occupations, Professions, Work


Working the Difference is a tour de force in the study of language and culture and an acute analysis of the compulsive force of contradictions at the heart of American normative ideals. Writing with beauty, clarity, and a seductive blend of modesty and sass, Carr has proven herself once again to be one of the most cogent and creative thinkers in anthropology. Working the Difference is unsettling in the best possible way."

Danilyn Rutherford, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research

“With boldness and ambition, Carr fixes the lens of linguistic anthropology on the helping professions, moving in scalewise analytic fashion from training sessions in small rooms to the worldwide adoption of a communicative technology for effecting behavioral change. Her elucidation of ideological and rhetorical strategies for the neutralization of difference is a highly illuminating contribution to the understanding of scalar dynamics in the dissemination of innovation.”

Richard Bauman, Indiana University

“In this fascinating study, Carr explains how motivational interviewing is transforming fields like social work by changing how professionals talk to their clients. An accomplished scholar of expertise as an interactional process—as something done rather than owned—Carr shows how MI adopters relearn how to speak even while dancing around the idea that MI requires expertise to perform. This exemplary study brings paradox and contradiction to the fore, revealing how invocations of science coexist with appeals to faith in the rhetoric of professionalism today.”

Steven Epstein, Northwestern University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Motivating Americans, Defusing Difference
Chapter 1 American Democracy (Or, How to Direct Autonomous Subjects)
Chapter 2 American Rhetoric: Therapeutic Performance and the Poetics of Behavior Change
Chapter 3 American Spirit: Presence, Profit, and Professional Reenchantment
Chapter 4 American Science: Faith and the Spirited Economy of Evidence-Based Practice
Chapter 5 American Pragmatism: Learning to Work the Difference (Or, the Life and Death of MI)
Conclusion: Dealing with Difference and the Movement of Method
Appendix: Some Notes on the Study of (In)experts
Works Cited

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