Avowing Unemployment: Confessional Jobseeker Interviews and Professional CVs

  • Tom Boland University College Cork
Keywords: Avowal, Confession, CV, Jobseekers, Welfare


While contemporary welfare processes have widely been analysed through the concepts of governmentality and pastoral power, this article diagnoses the dimension of confession or avowal within unemployment, job seeking and CV writing. This argument draws together the threads of Foucault’s work on confession within disciplinary institutions, around sexuality and genealogies of monasticism, adding the insights of writers in ‘economic theology’. Empirically the focus is on UK JobCentrePlus, whose governmentality is traced from laws and regulations, street-level forms, websites and CV advice. From the requirement of avowals of unemployment as a personal fault in interviews to professions of faith in oneself and the labour market, a distinctly confessional practice emerges – with the welfare officer as ‘pastor’ but with the market as the ultimate ‘test’ of worth. Furthermore, the pressure to transform the self through ‘telling the truth’ about oneself is taken as a normalising pressure which extends from the institutions of welfare across the labour market as a whole. In conclusion, the demand for self-transformation and the insistence on tests within modernity is problematised.

Author Biography

Tom Boland, University College Cork
Tom Boland is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University College Cork. His interests span sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy and literary criticism, and he has published journal articles across these disciplines. His main empirical areas of research are the sociology of culture and critique, and the governmentality of welfare and unemployment. His recent monograph, The Spectacle of Critique, was published by Routledge in 2019. This article builds on the analysis of jobseeking and CVs begun in The Reformation of Welfare: The New Faith of the Labour Market co-authored with Ray Griffin, published by Policy Press in 2021.


Agamben, Giorgio, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.

Ajunwa, Ifeoma, and Daniel Greene, "Platforms at Work: Automated Hiring Platforms and Other New Intermediaries in the Organization of Work," in Work and Labor in the Digital Age, ed. Steven Vallas & Anne Kovalainen, 61-91. Bingley: Emerald Publishing, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0277-283320190000033005

Bacchi, Carol, “The Turn to Problematization: Political Implications of Contrasting Interpretive and Poststructural Adaptations,” Open Journal of Political Science 5:1 (2015), 1-12. https://doi.org/10.4236/OJPS.2015.51001

Beatty, Richard, The Perfect Cover Letter. Wiley: New York, 1989.

Beder, Sharon, Selling the work ethic. From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR. New York: Scribe Publications, 2000.

Block, Jay, 101 Best Resumes to Sell yourself. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Boland, Tom, and Ray Griffin, The Reformation of Welfare: The New Faith of the Labour Market. Bristol: Policy Press, 2021.

Boltanski, Luc, and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism [1999]. London, Verso, 2005.

Boltanski, Luc, On Critique: Towards a Sociology of Emancipation. London: Polity Press, 2011.

Bright, Jim, and Joanne Earl, Brilliant CV: What employers want to see and how to say it. London: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Brodkin, Eve, and Gregory Marston, Work and the Welfare State: Street level organizations and Workfare Politics. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2013.

Butler, Judith, The Psychic Life of Power: Essays in Subjection. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Büttgen, Philippe “Foucault’s Concept of Confession,” Foucault Studies 29 (2021), 6-21. https://doi.org/10.22439/fs.vi29.6210

Dean, Mitchel, “Governing the unemployed self in an active society,” Economy and Society 24:4 (1995), 559-583. https://doi.org/10.1080/03085149500000025

Dean, Mitchel, Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern society. London: Sage, 2010.

Dean, Mitchel, The Signature of Power. London: Routledge, 2013.

Dean, Mitchel, “What is Economic Theology? A New Governmental-Political Paradigm?” Theory, Culture & Society 36:3, (2019) 3–26. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276418787622

Department of Work and Pensions, “My Work Plan: What will I do to search for and get work” (2014), WhatDoTheyKnow.com. https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/184115/response/454532/attach/4/WS1%201013.pdf?cookie_passthrough=1 (accessed March 01, 2020).

Department of Work and Pensions, “Work Search Reviews,” ‘JSA, the regulations concerning Mandatory Work Activity’ (2015) [Freedom of Information Request], What Do They Know.com. https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/301001/response/742479/attach/html/3/Work%20Search%20Reviews.pdf.html (accessed March 04, 2020).

Department of Work and Pensions, “The Initial Work Search Review” (2016), WhatDoTheyKnow.com. https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/324722/response/802576/attach/html/4/Initial%20Work%20Search%20interview.pdf.html (accessed March 03, 2020).

Department of Work and Pensions, “Jobcentre wants Universal Credit claimant's cv” (2017) [Freedom of Information Request], WhatDoTheyKnow.com. https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/420642/response/1014843/attach/html/4/Annex%201.pdf.html (accessed, March 04, 2020).

Department of Work and Pensions, “Diagnosis of claimant capacity and circumstances” (2018), NationalCareersservice.gov.uk. https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/454971/response/1105291/attach/html/7/Diagnosis%20of%20claimant%20capability%20and%20circumstances.pdf.html (accessed March 04, 2020).

Department of Work and Pensions, “Using claimants' own digital device or print-out to provide a CV or work search records” (2019), WhatDoTheyKnow.com. https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/577867/response/1373732/attach/html/2/FOI2019%2019337%20Reply.pdf.html (accessed March 03, 2020).

Department of Work and Pensions, “Chapter 21 - Jobseeker’s Allowance - Labour market questions, special conditions for JSA(Cont) and jobseeking periods” (2020a), gov.uk. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/893675/dmgch21.pdf (Accessed, March 07, 2020).

Department of Work and Pensions, “The Jobseeker’s Agreement” (2020b), WhatDoTheyKnow.com. https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/263193/response/641952/attach/4/JSAg%20guidance.pdf?cookie_passthrough=1 (accessed March 02, 2020).

Department of Work and Pensions, (2020c) “Find a job,”. https://www.gov.uk/find-a-job (accessed March 03, 2020).

Department of Work and Pensions (2020d) “Work Search Reviews,” WhatDoTheyKnow.com. https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/205952/response/514191/attach/5/Annex%201a.pdf (accessed March 02, 2020).

Esping-Andersen, Gosta, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Fejes, Andreas, and Magnus Dahlstedt, The Confessing Society: Foucault, Confession and Practices of Lifelong Learning. London: Routledge, 2013

Fletcher, Del Roy, “Workfare - a Blast from the Past? Contemporary Work Conditionality for the Unemployed in Historical Perspective,” Social Policy and Society, 14:3 (2015), 329-339. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1474746414000232

Fletcher, Del Roy, and John Flint, “Welfare conditionality and social marginality: The folly of the tutelary state?” Critical Social Policy 38:4 (2018), 771–791. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261018317753088

Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: An Introduction. London: Random House LLC, 1978.

Foucault, Michel, "About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self: Two Lectures at Dartmouth," Political Theory 21:2 (1993), 198-227. http://www.jstor.org/stable/191814

Foucault, Michel, “Lives of Infamous Men,” in Power Vol 3, ed. James Faubion, 76-92. New York: The New Press, 2001.

Foucault, Michel, Abnormal: Lectures at the College De France: 1974-1975. London: Verso, 2003.

Foucault, Michel, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College De France, 1981–1982. London: Palgrave, 2005.

Foucault, Michel, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College De France: 1977-1978. London: Palgrave, 2007.

Foucault, Michel, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College De France, 1978–1979. London: Palgrave, 2008.

Foucault, Michel, The Government of the Living: Lectures at the College De France, 1979-1980. London: Palgrave, 2014a.

Foucault, Michel, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The function of Avowal in Justice. Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2014b.

Foucault, Michel, Histoire de la sexualité Vol. 4: Les Aveux de la chair. Paris: Gallimard, 2018.

Frayne, David, The Work Cure: Critical essays on work and wellness. London: PCCS Books, 2019.

Friedli, Lynne and Robert Stearn, “Positive affect as coercive strategy: conditionality, activation and the role of psychology in UK government workfare programmes,” Medical Humanities 41:1 (2015), 40-47. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/medhum-2014-010622

Gershon, Ilana, Down and Out in the New Economy: How people find (or don’t find) work today. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Gershon, Ilana, “Hailing the US job-seeker: origins and neoliberal uses of job applications,” Culture, Theory and Critique 60:1 (2019), 84-97. https://doi.org/10.1080/14735784.2018.1548299

Grey, Christopher, “Career as a project of the self and labour process discipline,” Sociology 28:2 (1997), 479-497. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038594028002007

Greer, Ian, “Welfare reform, precarity and the re-commodification of labour,” Work, Em-ployment and Society 30:1 (2016), 162–173. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017015572578

Grover, Chris, “Violent proletarianisation: Social murder, the reserve army of labour and social security ‘austerity’ in Britain,” Critical Social Policy 39:3 (2019), 335–355. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261018318816932

Hansen, Katherine, and Randall Hansen, Dynamic Cover Letters. Berkeley: Ten speed Press, 1990.

Hansen, Magnus Paulsen, The Moral Economy of Activation: Ideas, Politics and Policies. Bristol: Policy Press, 2019.

Johnson, Judith, The Job Application Handbook: Proven Strategies and Effective Techniques for Selling Yourself to an Employer. Oxford: How to books, 1993.

Kahl, Sigrun, “The religious roots of modern poverty policy: Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed Protestant traditions compared,” European Journal of Sociology 46:1 (2005), 91–126. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003975605000044

Karlsen, Mads Peter, and Kaspar Villadsen, “Confession,” in The Routledge Handbook of Economic Theology, ed. Stefan Schwarzkopf, 36-46. London: Routledge, 2020.

Koopman, Colin, How we became our data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person. Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Miller, Peter, and Nikolas Rose, “Governing Economic Life,” in Foucault's New Domains, ed. Mike Gane and Terry Johnson, 75-13. London: Routledge, 1993.

National Careers Service, “How to fill out an Application form” (2020a), NationalCareersservice.gov.uk. https://nationalcareers.service.gov.uk/careers-advice/application-forms (accessed March 10, 2020).

National Careers Service, ”How to answer common interview questions” (2020b), NationalCareersservice.gov.uk. https://nationalcareers.service.gov.uk/careers-advice/top-10-interview-questions (accessed March 10, 2020).

Pecchenino, Rowena, “Have we cause for despair?” Journal of Behavioural and Experimental Economics 58:3 (2015), 56–62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socec.2015.07.003

Peck, Jamie, and Nik Theodore, Fast Policy: Experimental Statecraft at the Thresholds of Neoliberalism. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Popken, Randall, “The Pedagogical Dissemination of a Genre: The Resume in American Business Discourse Textbooks, 1914–1939,” Journal of Advanced Composition 19:1 (1999), 91–116. https://www.jstor.org/stable/i20866217

Purser, Gretchen, and Brian Hennigan, “Disciples and dreamers: job readiness and the making of the US working class,” Dialectical Anthropology 42:2 (2018), 149–161. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10624-017-9477-2

Rogers, Ruth, “Ethical techniques of the self and the ‘good jobseeker,’” in The Ethics of Welfare: Human Rights, Dependency and Responsibility, ed. Hartley Dean, 155-172. Bristol: Policy Press, 2004.

Rose, Nikolas, Inventing Our Selves. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Sharone, Ofer, Flawed system/Flawed self: Job searching and unemployment experiences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Sharone, Ofer, ”LinkedIn or LinkedOut? How Social Networking Sites are Reshaping the Labor Market," in Emerging Conceptions of Work, Management and the Labor Market, ed. Steven Vallas, 1-31. Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited, 2017.

Standing, Guy, Precariat: The new dangerous Class. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Stimilli, Elettra, "Debt Economy and Faith: Philosophy in the Age of Terror," Diacritics 47:2 (2019), 4-21. http://doi.org/10.1353/dia.2019.0017

Taylor, Chloe, The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault: A genealogy of the ‘Confessing Animal’. London: Routledge, 2008.

Tyler, Imogen, Stigma Machines. London: Zed Books, 2020.

Vallas, Steven, and Angele Christin, “Work and Identity in an Era of Precarious Employment: How Workers Respond to ’Personal Branding‘ Discourse,” Work and Organizations 45:1 (2018), 3-37. https://doi.org/10.1177/0730888417735662

Vallas, Steven and Emily Cummins, “Personal Branding and Identity Norms in the Popular Business Press: Enterprise Culture in an Age of Precarity,” Organization Studies 36:3 (2015), 293–319. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840614563741

Wacquant, Loic, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Weber, Max, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. London: Routledge, 1991.

Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge, 1992.

Weeks, Kathi, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Anti-work politics and post-work imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Yates, Martin, Ultimate CV: Over 100 Winning CVs to help you get the interview and the job. London, Kogan Page, 2015.