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Professors in the School of Psychology and Counselling

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In a series on the research of senior academics in the School of Psychology and Counselling, this week's blog presents some recent publications and other activities of Paul Stenner, Professor of Social Psychology.

This August, Paul Stenner (Professor of Social Psychology, OU) gave the ‘Innovations in Psychology Lecture’ at Aalborg University, Denmark. The ‘Innovations’ lecture series takes over from the former Niels Bohr Lectures in which leading researchers in the field of Cultural Psychology are invited to present their research. The lecture is subsequently published in an edited volume along with a number of commentaries from invited experts. The theme of this year’s event was ‘theorizing liminality: between art and life’, and Paul Stenner talked about the liminal sources of cultural experience. Liminal experience, Paul Stenner argues, is essentially about becoming. It is experience of a significant transformation, from the perspective of those going through that experience, as it is happening. The innovative idea proposed in the lecture is that various forms of cultural experience, including reading novels, watching movies, enjoying sports and participating in religious events, share a common liminal source. Put differently, they are a means for guiding people through a passage from one world to another: a passage in which they may undergo a transformation. From this perspective, cultural artefacts show up as fundamental to human psychology and society, and liminal experience shows up as a crucial factor in human evolution, in personal development through the lifespan, and in social change over historical time. Further details about the event, including access to the lecture itself, are available here:


For psychologists who are readers of German, Paul Stenner has also just published a book chapter on liminality and emotional experience in a German volume on cultural psychology entitled Kulturpsychologie in interdisziplinärer Perspektive: Hans-Kilian-Vorlesungen zur sozial-und kulturwissenschaftlichen Psychologie und integrativen Anthropologie (Psychosozial Verlag, 2019). This book gathers together all the recent invited lectures given as part of the Hans Kilian Lecture Series in Cultural Psychology organised at Bocchum University in Germany. The volume also contains chapters by Mary and Ken Gergen, Jaan Valsiner, David Bloor and others, who also gave Hans Kilian lectures. Details can be found here: https://www.psychosozial-verlag.de/2275

Also newly published is an article by Paul Stenner and the Danish social scientist Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen from the Copenhagen Business School. The paper starts with the observation that managers across many contemporary organisations are nowadays talking more and more about the importance of ‘expecting the unexpected’ and of ‘thinking the impossible’. Alongside this talk we also find a range of techniques and devices which are supposed to encourage and help the workforce to ‘think outside the box’ and to ‘imagine a different future’. Empirically, the paper is based on a study of a range of these management techniques and organisational innovations like ‘future games’ and ‘drama interventions’, which the authors group together as technologies of potentialization. After a detailed analysis of three such potentialization technologies, they propose that these function as immune mechanisms within contemporary welfare states. This involves a careful discussion of the sociological theory of Niklas Luhmann, who proposes that society has something equivalent to an ‘immune system’, and that law is a good example of a social immune mechanism. Potentialization, it is suggested, is taking shape as a new way of immunizing society against its own social structures. Intrigued? An early access version of the article appears in the journal Theory, Culture and Society, as referenced below:

Andersen, Niels, Å and Stenner, Paul (2019). Social immune mechanisms: Luhmann and potentialisation technologies. Theory, Culture & Society (Early Access).

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Artificial Intelligence and rationality as psychological issues

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Thursday, 26 Sep 2019, 16:22

Psychologists are interested in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its possibilities, as discussed, for example, in the Level 2 module Living Psychology. This week there are news reports of successful experiments with the use of AI for medical diagnosis, but also warnings of the potential for ‘spectacular and unpredictable’ failures https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/sep/24/ai-equal-with-human-experts-in-medical-diagnosis-study-finds

In a new psychology blog, Dr Lee Curley discusses the widespread fears of AI as involving the loss of ‘our special human capacity of rationality’.  

Our fear of Artificial Intelligence once related to the terminator and Skynet, but in a time of economic uncertainty and mistrust over how artificial intelligence uses human data on the internet, new fears are more related to employment and human rights. Some people see the development of AI as a process in which we recklessly hand over our special human capacity of rationality to machines, condemning ourselves to low paid jobs, or even unemployment. In this week’s blog, I explain why psychologists are interested in rationality. I present the fable of Prometheus, the great titan who was punished for passing on his godly skill of rational thought. I highlight the lessons that can be learnt from this story when considering potential implications of artificial intelligence.  

Rationality or the ability to integrate information to choose an option with the most utility, is a cognitive ability that may be at the heart of what makes us human: the very meaning of the term Homo sapien even means “wise man”. Rationality has become such as constant in human behaviour that the pillars of society (law, economics and medicine) all assume that decision makers employ rational processes when faced with an option. This blog will delve into how the ancients viewed rationality, how modern cognitive psychologists view the term and how rationality will shape the future.

However, rationality has been studied by more than just cognitive psychologists. Mathematicians, philosophers, social psychologists and psychoanalysts have all studied rationality, each with different viewpoints on rationality and the extent to which humans participate in rational behaviour.   

In Ancient Greece, the world was explained in terms of symbolic entities (gods, deities and titans) that represented observable phenomenon. For instance, Gaia represented the earth, Poseidon the seas, and the almighty Zeus was symbolic of the heavens above. Some of these powerful beings, however, represented very human traits. Prometheus (meaning forethought) and Epimetheus (meaning afterthought) represented the rational and non-rational (or intuitive) part of the human mind, respectively. Once these titans fell out of favour with the Olympians, however, their roles of rationality and intuition fell to the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Prometheus was the champion of thinking ahead and choosing the long term right path, despite the negative short term effects for himself. This is evidenced in the story of Prometheus where he steals fire for the ancient humans, against Zeus’s instructions, and is punished until he is freed by Herakles. Despite the negative ramifications for himself, he metaphorically, and literally, ignites rationality, abstract thought and logic into the minds of Homo sapiens; thus simultaneously making humans more like the deities they worshipped, and the gods less special. The creation of the Prometheus myth shows that rationality is a key aspect of humanity, and that the ancient Greeks were aware of the power of rationality.

During the Renaissance, there was a reawakening of rationality, with mathematical (or normative) concepts, such as probabilities, essential to modern mathematical and psychological theories of rationality being invented. With rationality and probability becoming interlinked, humans were viewed to be “Laplacean demons”. In other words, ‘we’ were viewed to be rational beings, who had unlimited cognitive capacity and were not influenced by the limitations of the mind. In association with this development in rationality and mathematics, institutions such as law, medicine and economics were all developing fields and were influenced by the perspective of the time (i.e., to be human was to be rational).

This was the main viewpoint until the cognitive revolution in psychology and the seminal work of Tversky and Kahneman. They conducted a number of experiments in the 70 and 80’s (and even won a Nobel Prize) for highlighting that although rationality should govern our minds when making decisions, that instead, individuals sometimes deviate from rational principles and make decisions based on intuitive cognitive short-cuts called heuristics (Greek for find or discover). Their research showed that humans are flawed and that we can make biased decisions.

This perspective has dominated the majority of the last 50 years of work in the field of decision science. Contemporary decision scientists, however, see intuitive thought and rationality as brothers (similar to the Greek myths surrounding Prometheus and Epimetheus). The dual process model of decision making suggests that two different modes of cognition (system 1 and system 2) governs our decision making. System one is an intuitive mode of cognition with a plethora of heuristics making up the components of said system. System two on the other hand is the rational part of the mind, which may be unique to humans. System two is believed to be more effortful and conscious than the primitive system one mode of cognition. The modern mind-set of rationality is that it is possible to make rational decisions, but that it is difficult and effortful, thus researchers believe that humans much prefer to default to system one.

This flawed perspective of human rationality has led to rationality, the very essence of humanity, becoming synonymous with artificial intelligence and robotics. Normative (mathematical) models of rationality have been shown not to reflect the entirety of human behaviour, whereas artificial intelligence (AI) may be a new frontier to apply these classical models of decision making. Unlike human beings, artificial intelligence can be programmed to accord with rational principles and statistics.  Therefore, what classically was seen as something unique to humans, the thing that made ‘us’ special, may in the future become a robotic trait. This mirrors Prometheus’s gift to ancient humans which lead to deities becoming less godlike, and humans becoming more like their creators.

Now computers are powerful enough to win against a human at chess, and it is estimated by researchers that AI will exceed human ability in a number of tasks (e.g., language translation) in the next 10 years. It is even believed that by 2053 AI could replicate the abilities of a surgeon. This speculation suggests that the expansion of artificial intelligence into the realms of rationality may cause humans to become obsolete, with more rational, consistent, and efficient computers replacing biased and flawed humans. This could cause a number of occupations traditionally employed by humans to be performed by complex AI.  

Others, such as Peter Fleming, instead argue that AI will cause an increase in poorly paid jobs, as he argues that an important factor in AI being utilised in a profession is, will it be economically viable? Therefore, Fleming suggests that low skilled and low paid jobs will not be replaced. He expands on this point by suggesting that AI that partially automates a job though an app will also reduce the skill required by the employee, thus decreasing the relevant pay required for the service (e.g., Uber driver with app vs. traditional taxi driver that receives training). Furthermore, contrary to contemporary belief, the age of the AI may have a negative effect on human standards of living. Humans, like Prometheus, may suffer the negative consequences of passing on the sacred flames of rationality to an intelligence that ‘we’ created.

In summary, rationality has always been viewed by humans as a god like ability. The story of rationality is the story of humanity, the way we view rationality changes how we view ourselves, and ‘we’ are becoming increasingly closer to mirroring the story of Prometheus and igniting the flame of rationality in non-organic decision makers, and thus decreasing the specialness of humanity. By giving this special ability to AI, we may be condemning ourselves to low paid jobs; or even unemployment. Further bringing to life the story of Prometheus, as the great titan who was punished for passing on to humans his godly skill of rational thought.



If you are interested in artificial intelligence, check the following webpage for more information on Living Psychology (DD210): http://www.open.ac.uk/courses/modules/dd210.

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Children Caring on the Move: Website launched for project looking at separated child migrants care of each other

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Sarah Crafter is pleased to announce the launch of the new website for the ESRC funded project which aims to examine how separated children care for each other as they navigate contradictory, complex, and changeable immigration and welfare systems in England.

It is always very exciting to embark on a new research project. At the beginning there are a flurry of important activities to undertake, such as setting up team meetings, submitting the ethics applications and recruiting for new researchers. However, one of the most exciting elements is seeing the new project website ‘go live’! So it is with a great deal of pleasure that I am sharing the launch of our new project website for ‘Children Caring on the Move’ (CCoM) with you. The website tells you about our project and what it involves, the investigative team and our Advisory group, and some of the news items and resources that we have begun to collate. You can also read my first blog for the project. 

The aim of this research project is to investigate how separated child migrants, and those involved in their care, make sense of, value, and take part in care relationships and caring practices within the immigration-welfare nexus in England. Little is known about how separated children’s care for each other as they navigate contradictory, complex, and changeable immigration and welfare systems. Nor do we know how separated children’s care for each other is understood and treated by relevant adult stakeholders, including social workers, foster carers, educators, youth workers, religious leaders, legal professionals, and policy makers. Placing separated children at its heart, this study asks: What are separated child migrants’ experiences of care and caring for others? How do various economic, social and political factors shape the care priorities of relevant stakeholders? What are the theoretical, policy, and practice implications of varying understandings and practices of care?

I think psychology has a curious relationship with the concept of ‘care’. In many ways ‘care’ sits at the heart of our psychological needs - to have a sense of inclusion, belonging, trust, growth, achievement, power and control of our lives. Yet there has been little direct conceptualisation within psychology of what it means to care and so the issue is often associated with other aspects of psychology. A good example is Bowlby’s discussion of the relationship between a mother and their infant, which is described as an ‘attachment’, whereby care is implied but not explicitly theorised. Wendy Hollway, a feminist scholar, provides the exception in her book on the ‘Capacity to Care’  which looks at care as both gendered and ethically subjective. She is interested in the psychological capacities to care, proposing that it is a dynamic set of practices that involves both ‘caring for’ and ‘caring about’. Even so, within this text, there is an emphasis on adults providing care and children receiving it. In our project, separated child migrants travel without their kin, and so we are interested in how children care for each other and how children's care for each other is largely absent from adult narratives and the implications this might have on further support, resources, and recognition for different forms of care.

We hope you enjoy the website and join us in following the progress of our project over the next three years

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A PhD in Social Psychology: The Datafication of the Citizen

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Thursday, 29 Aug 2019, 15:01

We continue our series of blogs on the experience of doing a PhD in social psychology. Emma Brice is working on a PhD on ‘The Datafication of the Citizen’. She notes that citizens are becoming increasingly datafied by institutions (corporations and the government). In order to investigate this phenomenon, she will be looking at how individuals, experts, corporations and the UK government talk about data privacy. In this week’s social psychology blog, she discusses a methodological issue.

Last month I attended the mini conference at the OU to talk about what I have learnt this year. I am in my second year (part-time) and this was a good opportunity to present my work so far and meet with other PhD students. The conference was focused on methodological issues, so I spoke about a few stumbling blocks I encountered regarding my focus groups.

My research concerns data privacy. Recent technological developments have increased the amount of personal data that we make available to corporations, the government and other institutions daily, and I am interested in this intense datafication of citizens. As a part of my research I had decided to conduct focus groups to investigate how frequent internet users talk about their privacy. A frequent internet user, for the purpose of my study, is an individual who accesses the internet multiple times daily through different devices. Initially I felt confident about this as I had conducted focus groups before. However, I then realised that according to a recent poll over 90% of the population of the United Kingdom is classified a frequent internet user. How could eight or nine focus groups  possibly represent 90% of the population??

I had impressive goals when I started my research about understanding how ideas about privacy have altered, but now I felt daunted by the task. How could I represent every age, gender, race, upbringing, occupation etc. in my focus groups? It is difficult when you’re speaking to sixty people to say that you are representing the varied population of the entire country. After speaking with my supervisors and other researchers I realised that the answer is that qualitative research  is not about being representative of everyone. I needed to acknowledge as a part of my methodology that, although I have structured my focus groups to be as varied as I can, they are by no means meant to capture a complete cross section of the population. The real value of this qualitative approach is the richness of data rather than  the range or volume of the accounts that are collected. I designed my focus groups  to help me ensure that, as far as possible, I achieved variability in the accounts. This variability is what will enable me to conduct a thorough analysis and hopefully do justice to the people who have taken the time to speak with me.

I have learnt in this past year that that, while it was unnerving to hit a few ‘bumps’, they served to make me feel surer of the validity of my approach. Every research project is imperfect – the important thing is to be aware of its limitations. If I acknowledge and explain in my work why I have made the methodological decisions I have made, then this becomes a feature of the research rather than a flaw. People are always asking me why I am doing my PhD and I have never had a good answer except to say that I am fascinated by my subject and I realise I mustn’t lose sight of that. I have learnt to be kind to myself and give myself the time I would allow others if they were having to face the same task. I imagine all new researchers have lofty goals when we start on this journey but perhaps, we should be all be happy to enjoy our subject and be a brick in the wall that the next person can build upon. 

This week’s blog continues a series from PhD students in the School of Psychology and Counselling. Emma Brice is studying for a PhD in social psychology. You can read more about the School’s social psychology group, CuSP, here http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp

 You can watch a short video about the Level 3 Social Psychology module DD317 here https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1258641

You might also be interested in the Open Learn short course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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Peter Banister: A Tribute

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This week the School of Psychology and Counselling received the sad news of the death of Professor Peter Banister. Peter worked in the Department of Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University and was also an Open University Associate Lecturer for 45 years. Many current and former OU Psychology students will have known him as their tutor and, earlier, as a leader at psychology summer schools. He also supported OU psychology teaching through his involvement with the British Psychological Society. He was President of the Society from 2012-13.

Peter co-edited a key research methods text used by several generations of OU students* and he believed strongly that psychology students should have the opportunity to conduct their own research projects, as on the current module DE300. Since 2017, Peter had been part of the Associate Lecturer team on DD317 Advancing Social Psychology, bringing to this new module his extensive experience of teaching and examining social psychology. (The 2017 module chair for DD317, Stephanie Taylor, had tutored with Peter in the early 1990s – her first employment with the university but he was already an OU veteran.) Typically, Peter undertook the extra responsibility of SISE tutoring for DD317, taking great trouble to assist a student in prison. That is just one small example of his extra contributions as a psychologist and a teacher. 

Peter's AL colleagues have been posting tributes: 'incredibly supportive and kind'; 'the loveliest man, always so calm and such a reliable source of wisdom about all things psychological'; 'a lovely gentleman'; 'I felt privileged to work with someone who brought so much experience in his academic career and BPS work'; 'he will be remembered well'.

The SST Lead for Psychology, Caroline Kelly, describes Peter as a popular and much respected colleague who will be very much missed. Associate Dean Helen Kaye notes that he had an excellent way with students, motivating them and explaining things in a very clear way. Staff Tutor and Senior Lecturer Karen Hagan similarly remembers Peter as very student-focused. She highlights his dedication to supporting each student to achieve their potential and have the best study experience possible. She also recalls his lighter side, citing an occasion when he was attending a meeting remotely and colleagues complained about the amount of background noise during the conference call: Peter admitted, giggling, that he was probably the culprit as he was taking the call while on Brighton beach!

The School sends sympathies to Peter’s family for their loss. They will hold a a private funeral next week, followed by the planting of a tree in Peter’s memory at Indian’s Head Memorial Forest at Dovestone Reservoir, Greenfield, an area that he loved to roam.  There will be a memorial service later in the year to allow us all to join together to celebrate Peter’s life.

  • Peter Banister et al (1997/2011) Qualitative Methods in Psychology: A Research Guide Open University Press

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The value of the Silent Generation

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In this week’s social psychology blog, Sue Nieland writes about a category of voters who are usually disregarded in political polls, known as the Silent Generation. She reflects on the political failure to acknowledge their experience and viewpoint, and explains their special importance for her PhD research.

I voted to remain in the EU in 2016, and I am classed as an older citizen. I soon grew tired of the constant clustering together of anyone over 60 as ‘old and voted leave’ as I definitely am not, did not and neither did many of my contemporaries (vote leave, that is). 

Looking at this further when thinking about my  PhD in political psychology, I found that the use of categories to cluster people, whilst convenient, hides some deeper meanings in political decision-making, particularly for the older citizen. Many researchers are busily investigating reasons for the unforeseen outcome of the UK-EU referendum. I wanted to explore how experiences of Europe and our relationship with it influenced the vote. I decided it was particularly important to hear from the voters who have lived the longest and whose experiences include the Second World War and its aftermath. 

Polling data by YouGov, Ipso MORI and Survation clusters voters by age. Survation’s categories are typically 18-24, 25-34 up to 65-74 followed by a final category of 75+. Ipso MORI are similar, featuring 65+ as a final category, or occasionally 75+ depending on the data collection. YouGov use a final 65+ category for most of their survey research. There is therefore a general tendency to cluster everyone over 65 into a single category or occasionally to subdivide them at 75. The message from this is that once you are over 65 years old, you are part of a group spanning possibly 40 years. Your opinion and political choices are no longer important enough to disaggregate further. 

This leads to generalisations around citizen choices. The important one for my PhD is that ‘older people voted to leave the EU’. This, though, may not be an accurate conclusion. Evidence is emerging that whilst someolder people did vote to leave the EU (the so-called Boomers), those older still were more likely to vote to remain. My PhD will explore this in detail, and particularly around the experiences of a unique cohort of people, the Silent Generation, born between 1927 and 1946 – now aged between 73 and 92 years. Participants in this group may remember World War II and its aftermath. They will certainly recall the rise of the European Union and the first referendum in 1975.  Their political decision making will be influenced by experiences that other younger citizens nostalgically refer to (without actually having been there), such as the ‘Blitz spirit’ and war-winning achievements that are often cited as reasons why a hard Brexit will be survivable (even if we have to eat turnips for ten years). 

There are further categories that also diminish the older citizen. The ‘third age’ is used to refer to the active aging, such as those who are still in some way contributing to society or using their retirement productively to continue working, learning or travelling. But there is also the ‘fourth age’, described by Gilleard and Higgs (2010) as a ‘black hole’ into which people who are infirmed and dependent, and (supposedly) of limited societal value, are aggregated. The ‘black hole’ metaphor is well chosen – it can suck those from the third age into it if they are not aging in a way that keeps them away from its edges. 

The Silent Generation received their label  because they tend not to talk about their experience of the Second World War and what came afterwards. But there is an argument that they are silent for other reasons – that their value as citizens and their opinions are not recognised. However, they have a form of ‘situated value’. This was seen recently during the 75thanniversary of the D-Day landings on 6June 2019 when veterans were rolled out to reminisce about their experiences and revisit the horrors of that time, before being rolled back into silence. What was significant, though, about the events of 6 June 2019 is that the veterans were notsilent about the EU and our decision to leave. Some of them expressed regret at the decision to leave the EU in 2016 and the threat that brings to peace that has existed since then. As Will Hutton argued in the Observer just days after the event, there was a ‘disjunction’ between the values held dear by the veterans and Brexit. In his words, ‘it betrayed what they had fought for’ (Hutton, 2019). However, this message is now forgotten, for the value of the Silent Generation was only acknowledged around 6 June 2019 . Politically we have moved on. 

When building my PhD proposal, I believed that I could contribute to ‘giving a voice’ to the Silent Generation.  However, with the benefit of supervision and more reading, I realised that I want to explore this group of people from a dialogical approach, building on the work of Zittoun (2014) and others.  In my PhD, I intend to explore the voices of this generation and their political decision making. I will also investigate the role of nostalgia in politics. One important question will be whether political references to World War II do represent what the war meant to those who experienced it. 



Gilleard, C. and Higgs, P. (2010) Aging without agency: Theorizing the fourth age, Aging and Mental Health, 14:2, pp. 121 – 128

Hutton, W. (2019) ‘These old heroes evoked a glorious shared purpose. It’s now under threat’, The Observer, 9thJune, p. 45

Zittoun, T. (2014) Three dimensions of dialogical movement, New Ideas in Psychology, 22, 99 – 106. 


This week’s blog is the first in a new series from PhD students in the School of Psychology and Counselling. Sue Nieland is a member of the School’s staff who is studying for a PhD in social psychology. You can read more about the School and its staff here http://fass.open.ac.uk/psychology

 You can watch a short video about the Level 3 Social Psychology module DD317 here https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1258641

You might also be interested in the Open Learn short course DD317_1 Social psychology and politicshttp://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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A PhD in Psychology?

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Last week Stephanie Taylor attended the PhD student conference for the School of Psychology and Counselling at the Open University. 

Academic study implies a trajectory. First you study one module, then another, until eventually you’ve completed a qualification – probably a BA or BSc. At that point, most people have fulfilled their study goals. However it’s possible that you want to obtain a higher qualification or perhaps you just like studying. If so, you might go on to do a postgraduate degree, like a Masters. Again, this is a natural stopping point but a few people will decide to do more study and register for a ‘research degree’ like a PhD. ‘PhD’ is an abbreviation for Doctor of Philosophy but the title is rather misleading because the research can be in any academic area, including psychology. Doing a PhD is less like a next step than a whole new life project, usually connected to an academic career. 

On the 17th of July, some of the PhD students in the School of Psychology and Counselling met for their annual conference. The students include current members of the Open University staff and they were joined by other academics from the School. The topic for the day was ‘“What I have learnt this year”: Reflecting on the process and method of research’. The aim was to talk about some of the realities of psychology research, including the insights and problems that only emerge when you’re actually working on a project. 

Of course all psychology students learn about research – about literature reviews and project design; ethics and informed consent; data collection and then the analysis of data to produce findings. However, the conference unpicked some finer details and more complex issues. Here are some examples.

A literature review leads the researcher to reconsider their initial concepts, and then to rethink the whole project and research question, almost amounting to starting again.

The researcher finds that the political situation they’re studying is changing faster than they can make plans to investigate it.

A research topic turns out to concern everybody, leaving the researcher unsure about the basis for selecting the sample of participants.

A research topic is so sensitive that the participants reject all the available terminology for describing it, because every alternative is offensive to someone.

Running a focus group becomes a worrying prospect because opinions on the topic turn out to be so polarised that the participants will almost certainly disagree vehemently.

A participant gives consent to be interviewed but then ‘doesn’t play’, arriving for the interview as arranged but challenging the researcher’s competence and the whole project and refusing to answer any of the questions. 

Each situation was discussed at length, referring to the experience of everyone attending. The day confirmed that research planning is necessary but research practice also requires skills that are only gradually acquired. The conference was an opportunity to consider problems that hadn’t been planned for and questions that had no straightforward answers. One of the OU’s senior professors used to say that after completing a PhD, the student would be able to see how the project could have been conducted more smoothly. But, he went on, that retrospective insight is irrelevant; the point of conducting original research is, by definition, to do something that hasn’t been attempted before, so there will always be new problems for which you’ll need to find new solutions. And that was what the conference was about!

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'They are us': some responses from social psychologists

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 17 May 2019, 14:46

In this week's blog, Stephanie Taylor discusses some social psychological responses to the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Nine weeks after they occurred, the terrorist attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand receive little media attention. There is still horror about what happened, but it is now combined with people's responses to subsequent awful events, including the April attacks in Sri Lanka. However, the Christchurch attacks continue to be discussed on academic sites, including in psychology publications. This week's blog will focus on some social psychological interpretations of what happened and why.

In the March edition of the journal of the British Psychological Society, The Psychologist, Stephen Reicher, Alex Haslam and Jay Van Bavel analyse the 'manifesto' of the Christchurch killer. They conclude that he was following a form of 'toxic leadership' which they associate with some current heads of state around the world. They draw a contrast with the positive, inclusive leadership presented by the New Zealand Prime Minister. You can read the article here


In New Zealand itself, the New Zealand Journal of Psychology produced a Rapid-response issue after the Christchurch terror attacks (The New Zealand Journal of Psychology Vol 48, Issue 1, 2019 (ISSN:1179-7924)). The lead article is by Margaret Wetherell, who worked at the Open University for many years and is an Emerita Professor in our School of Psychology. Professor Wetherell is more cautious than Reicher et al about what social psychology can contribute to our understanding of the attacks. She suggests that many conventional social psychological theories and concepts may be inadequate.

Wetherell's own contribution to the discussion is an exploration of the 'acceptable discourse' and the lines of logic and feeling that appear in public and personal responses. This is more difficult ground for the reader than the previous article because it challenges the ways of thinking, feeling and viewing the world which constitute a shared culture of privilege in the world today: 'the flow of ideology/identity/affect... which authorises and legitimates feelings and actions, and which formulates common sense'. Wetherell's article invites us to consider our own positions in relation to that culture, and the extent to which we either question or support it. You can read the article here https://www.psychology.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/Wetherell-6-9.pdf

Both the articles, by Reicher et al and by Wetherell, refer very positively to the public statements of the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ahern. She received worldwide attention for her inclusive identification with the victims of the attacks: 'They are us'.

Her statements deny any distinction between recent migrants and other New Zealanders, defining the national community, 'us', as united by shared values and aspirations rather than more traditional connections. She emphasised that the newcomers to New Zealand had chosen it as their country.

A similar idea to 'They are us' is repeated in a Facebook post circulated by many New Zealanders: kia kaha This is Not Who We Are! (The Maori words kia kaha mean 'stay strong' and were used by the Maori Battalion during World War 2.) Both Ahern's claim and the kia kaha post are examples of what Michael Billig (1992) called 'banal nationalism': the presentation of a national community to itself. (Previous posts on this blog discuss some British examples.) Billig described this presentation as 'banal' not because it is unimportant but because it reinforces the image of the nation through repeated, everyday acts and references, for instance, to 'we' and 'us' and, here, to New Zealanders as principled, strong and ready to fight for what they believe.

Many of us have felt an intense and positive emotional response to 'They are us' and 'This is Not Who We Are'. Yet it is important to be alert to how similar ideas can be used negatively as well as positively. The same 'common sense' and 'flow of ideology/identity/affect' can be invoked to legitimate very different feelings and actions.

For example, in a world of moving populations, it is obviously good to welcome newcomers. It is good to open the national community to more people than those with 'born and bred' connections of family and history. However, it is perhaps less good to imply that the only people who belong are those with the same values as everyone else, as if living together doesn't require some tolerance of difference. And while 'choice' can be positive, it also suggests that migrants always have alternatives, as if they have shopped selectively for a new country, rather than, in many cases, feeling themselves forced to go wherever they can, for reasons that may or may not be visible to others.

Social psychologists who study citizenship increasingly define it in terms of what citizens do rather than what they are. (This is a topic in the module Advancing Social Psychology DD317, in Block 3 by Rachel Manning, Eleni Andreouli and Debra Gray.) The interest is in the practices which make people part of the national society, rather than the laws which entitle them to passports. Again, this way of thinking is potentially both positive and negative. In the UK, it is invoked positively in campaigns that highlight how immigrants and refugees contribute to British society. However, a more problematic aspect appears in the case of Shamima Begum whose British citizenship was revoked because she joined Islamic State. If good citizenly behaviour should entitle people to official citizenship status (although it doesn't, in many cases), the logical converse is that bad behaviour becomes an excuse to exclude people from the national community. Yet every society has always had its dissenters and lawbreakers, as well as frankly unpleasant people, and sometimes we may find ourselves counted in the 'bad' category.  Our differences will require discussion and an attempt to understand what may at first seem incomprehensible. The negotiation will be laborious, and never completed but it is also necessary, because 'us' and 'them' are never entirely separate.

You can find information about social psychology at the Open University in the website for the Culture and Social Psychology (CuSP) research group http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp

The Level 3 module Advancing Social Psychology (DD317) is introduced here https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1258641

You might also be interested in the Open Learn short course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0


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Spring as a time of hope, or not?

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In this week's social psychology blog, Stephanie Taylor looks ahead to the UK holiday weekend and considers the meanings of Easter and futures, and reasons to be cheerful, or not.

Today people in the UK will be looking forward to the Easter weekend with various expectations. For some, it is a holiday, although Bank Holidays are perhaps less relevant now that so many workers are self-employed. For them, and for others like OU students, Easter may appear as exactly the opposite, that is, an opportunity to do extra work. For some people, Easter is important as a major Christian festival. But perhaps the strongest associations of this long weekend are with the beginning of spring as a season of fertility and growth, symbolised by all those eggs and rabbits.

These associations offer different possibilities for constructing time, and where we are in relation to it. Think about the UK calendar year, with its attached commercial messages. It begins with a noticeable proliferation of tv programmes and articles about losing weight and abandoning bad habits. January is presented as the month in which to live healthily, perhaps by abstaining from alcohol (Dry January), and giving up meat (Veganuary). Shop displays and advertisements feature sports clothes and special offers on gym membership, so this is all about looking ahead and making an effort now in order to improve ourselves later. Then in February the health priorities are replaced in the lead up to Valentine's Day which is, supposedly, a time not only for love and romance but also chocolate, champagne and meals out. The focus shifts abruptly from the future back to now, to enjoyment of the moment - or perhaps, for people whose experience doesn't fit the shiny image, to a feeling of disappointment and even failure.

Immediately after February 14th, supermarkets replace displays of chocolate hearts with chocolate eggs as we reach the current point in the year, the lead up to Easter. Shopping wise, there is also pressure to buy new clothes, outdoor furniture and seasonal food - the first asparagus and, if you've forgotten about Veganuary, spring lamb. Again, we are positioned in the present, supposedly enjoying ourselves, but we are also looking ahead to future pleasures, including a fantasy of a summer which is based more on other countries than the UK. Directly after the Easter holiday, we can expect the future focus to become stronger, with a renewed emphasis on healthy living as everyone is encouraged to lose weight in preparation for summer holidays at the beach.

All of this is completely familiar and might seem amusingly trivial. However, it indicates how our experience of the supposedly 'natural' passing of time, including seasonal change, is shaped by the society and culture. For social psychologists who utilise analytic approaches like thematic and discursive analysis, one interest in this kind of teasing out of meanings is their link to values and priorities, to what is right and wrong, and what needs to be acted upon. The cycle of months and activities emphasises ongoing life, comforting us with its seemingly reliable repetition. More linear constructions can position us at an endpoint. For example, the current news stories about Brexit present the UK as straggling towards the finish, of membership of the EU or just the attempt to relinquish it, and possibly the collapse of the whole political system which enabled the referendum in the first place.

The most important news story this Easter is probably the current protests initiated by Extinction Rebellion 'against the criminal inaction on the climate and ecological crisis'. As thousands of people demonstrate in London and other cities, we might feel that we occupy several conflicting positions in time, simultaneously. The protesters are challenging the optimism of spring, pointing to ongoing degradation of the environment rather than seasonal renewal. They are not alone in being concerned. For instance, many of the people who are staying at home this weekend to work on their gardens and allotments might also feel that this spring is not the same new beginning as the cycle implies, because of ominous signs like rising temperatures and other strange weather patterns, and the declining numbers of bees and other familiar insects. So where are we all positioned now? Are we winding down to an end, of many aspects of the natural environment, of thousands of species, and of the way we currently occupy the planet, because more and more places are becoming unliveable? These are the threats, quite literally of the end of life as we know it. Yet the climate change protests themselves might be viewed as a new beginning, as action that will produce real responses on a sufficient scale to be effective, by social actors who have previously not engaged with the issue (it is interesting, for example, to see the Governor of the Bank of England warning business of the money losses that climate change involves). So now, in springtime, these protests themselves are perhaps our strongest reason for optimism and the hope of new beginnings. Happy Easter!

This week's blog has links to ideas discussed in the module Advancing social psychology (DD317). For more information about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

To find out more about social psychology at the Open University http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp  http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp

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The lie of the future?

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A current exhibition, 'The lie of the land', at Milton Keynes Gallery looks at the founding of the city in which the OU is located. Some of the issues raised by the exhibition, about past visions of the future, link to novelty and the classic concept of 'emergence', the focus of a seminar organised by the Culture and Social Psychology group with other social psychologists, from the University of East London. This week's blog for social psychology and DD317 introduces the concept and some related issues.

As the Open University celebrates its 50th anniversary, there is a different kind of commemoration of its location, Milton Keynes, in a new exhibition, 'The lie of the land', at MK Gallery. The exhibition presents changing images of the British landscape, including the development of Milton Keynes as a built environment that was intended to be 'a city greener than the surrounding countryside'. The exhibition includes a short film, co-funded by the Open University, in which the artist Gareth Jones looks back over early plans for the city. He suggests that the optimism which surrounded its original development derived from a combination of two social revolutions, the post-war reforms that established the welfare state as part of a vision of a fairer society, and the events of 1968, including student protests, which are often seen as initiating significant contemporary values and freedoms. Jones shows that many of the original designs for Milton Keynes were never followed through, including a sculpture park, elaborate public playgrounds and a lakeside disco. Other dramatic features that did get built, like an elevated pedestrian tunnel, have subsequently been demolished.

The film prompts reflections on the complex relationship between past and future, such as how earlier futures can disappear or go out of date. (A notable feature of the drawings is the distinctive 70s fashions worn by the 'future' people.) More prosaically, the film reminds us of the difficulty of knowing the future. This is a particular issue for social psychologists because so much of the project of psychology is about attempting to enable prediction, for instance, by tracing cause and effect, modelling processes and outcomes, or examining people and their behaviour in great detail. A major attraction of the discipline is its implied promise to explain us to ourselves and, as a logical extension, offer the possibility of managing the lives ahead of us and reducing our future problems. Yet there are strong arguments, including from some psychologists, that such a project will inevitably fail. Our lives are too complex, there are too many factors in play, any model can only be a simplification.

These issues prompted the Culture and Social Psychology group at the OU, CuSP, to organise a seminar with social psychologists from the University of East London in order to discuss emergence. Emergence was defined by the psychologist G.H.Mead as 'the occurrence of something which is more than the processes which have led up to it and which by its change, continuance or disappearance, adds to later passages a content they would not otherwise have possessed.' Emergence is therefore about novelty, futures and the unpredictable. The specific concerns of the seminar's presenters include emotion, mental health, Brexit and the ways that psychological research can be conducted.

You can find information about CuSP and other events here http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp  http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp

This week's blog has links to ideas discussed in the new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). For more information about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

You can find information about the exhibition at Milton Keynes Gallery here https://mkgallery.org/

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Commemoration and memory

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The OU is celebrating its 50th birthday! This is of course a big event for everyone involved with the university. As the official message puts it, 'In our anniversary year, we will tell our story and create moments that inspire pride, unity and involvement.' This kind of commemoration is also of interest to psychologists, and especially social psychologists, because of the complex connections between remembering and the telling of memories. In this week's blog for DD317 and social psychology, Stephanie Taylor discusses some of the issues involved.

Most people are aware that remembering doesn't operate as a kind of mental 'video replay' of the past. They may have experienced doubt about their own memory of an event like a family party, wondering if they recall the actual occasion or just what they were told about it subsequently. Discursive psychologists are interested in the construction of memories. This is not an argument that all memories are false but a suggestion that two questions need to be asked about anyone's account of what they remember. The first is 'Why are you talking about this (memory) now?' and the second, 'Why are you talking about it in this way?'.

The point of the first question is that a story about the past fulfils functions in the present, for instance, in the case of a commemoration, to inspire pride and encourage unity. The point of the second question is that a story about the past is always just one possible version. There could be a different telling, if only because memory is inevitably partial. Otherwise, as the psychologist Jens Brockmeier has put it, 'completely recalling one's life would take as long as one's life itself' (2002 p.23). Total memory is impossible, so we should recognise that any account of what is remembered is a selective construction, with a purpose.

Unsurprisingly, the OU's commemoration has already prompted discussions about the best stories to be told. What version of the university's history should be presented? Which events and people should be selected for recall? It is all very enjoyable. One of my own top choices would be a story from the valedictory lecture of Steven Rose, the OU's first Professor of Biology. He recalled the first ever OU biology course. Every student was sent, in the post, a package of study materials which contained a live goldfish, to observe, and a pickled sheep's brain, to dissect.

Some serious issues around commemoration were raised at a recent seminar organised by the Culture and Social Psychology (CuSP) group. The occasion was a presentation by Dr John E. Richardson, on his research on the commemoration of the Holocaust. He discussed how the remembering of these horrific events is changing with the passing of time, especially now that few survivors remain to present their own memories. Richardson analysed accounts presented at the UK's Holocaust Memorial Day, showing how the sombre commemorative speeches by contemporary politicians, although respectful, were carefully crafted to fulfil present purposes in line with government and party priorities.

The presentation and the discussion produced strong responses in the seminar audience. One view was that the contemporary speeches were betraying the commemoration of the Holocaust. The discursive explanation of inevitably selective construction seemed inadequate. The seminar even discussed the extreme argument that the commemoration should be discontinued entirely, to prevent its further exploitation. But there is an alternative, more positive conceptualisation that is also informed by social psychology. This involves considering commemoration in terms of sociocultural actions. According to this, the speeches and even the stage managing have value as social practices that acknowledge the past and engage new generations in marking its significance. Viewed in this way, commemoration has many parallels with religious rituals, so it is not a coincidence that it often borrows language and other details from organised religion. The commemorative event as a whole requires individuals to obey rules and limit any claims for personal attention. This interpretation is linked to process psychology. It also takes us back to discursive psychology, but to the first of the two questions, not the second: 'Why are we talking about these memories now?'. The answer, of course, is that we consider that they continue to be so important and the events that they refer to must never be forgotten.

The OU's commemoration is obviously a different set of actions appropriate to a different purpose, although there are also some connections in the value that is being placed on education and understanding. The OU's 50th birthday is about the past and the future, about changes that have occurred (including in teaching materials) and also the values we want to hold onto. We are expecting to hear some good stories about people's memories.


           Jens Brockmeier (2002) Remembering and Forgetting: Narrative as Cultural Memory. Culture & Psychology 8(1): 15-43.


You can read about future CuSP events here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/emergence-a-cusp-meeting-in-collaboration-with-uel-psychology-and-social-change-tickets-53432330539

If you are interested in the Level 3 Social Psychology module, you can find more information on OU websites and you can do this short course available on Open Learn: DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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Olympic medal winning student finds DD317 a golden experience

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This week we resume the DD317 / social psychology blog with a post about a former DD317 student, the Olympian Etienne Stott. Paul Stenner, Professor of Social Psychology at the Open University and DD317 presentation chair, talked to Etienne about the connections between sport, life and social psychology.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing OU Psychology student and Olympic gold medalist Etienne Stott. One of the great things about working at the OU is that we get students from all kinds of backgrounds and with all kinds of different life experiences, but it is not every day that I get to chat to an Olympian. What made this experience even more interesting is that Etienne had recently completed a Level 3 Social Psychology module with which I am involved, namely DD317. In fact, he was quite fired-up about it! So not only did we talk about his winning (with teammate Time Bailie) of a Gold Medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games in the two-man Slalom canoe event, but we also got to discuss how his engagement with social psychology has influenced his way of thinking about key social issues, such as the felt responsibilities of athletes as role models.

As a social psychologist, I’m fascinated by questions like how important the support of a crowd is for a sporting performance, and the extent to which the input of a sport psychologist might genuinely enhance abilities. Also, a few years ago I did some research on the concept of ‘being in the zone’ (or ‘BITZ’) which is closely connected to the idea that under certain conditions a performer can enter a flow state which might further enhance their abilities. It was great to get Etienne’s take on that idea, which, in his case, really came from lived experience.

Finally, as you will see if you watch the interview, Etienne Stott is not all about sport. He has some quite inspiring things to say about world politics, including the need for a more active approach to environmental issues. He makes it quite clear that what he learned on DD317 was extremely useful in helping him articulate a sophisticated perspective, and I’m delighted that he now wants to help spread the word of social psychology. If you’re interested in finding out more, have a listen to the interview here:


You’ll also find at the link above more information about DD317.

If you want to read more about ‘being in the zone’, I thoroughly recommend the following book: https://www.routledge.com/Culture-Identity-and-Intense-Performativity-Being-in-the-Zone/Jordan-McClure-Woodward/p/book/9781138185920

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Andrea Levy at the Open University

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 15 Feb 2019, 16:50

Stephanie Taylor writes about the author Andrea Levy.

Andrea Levy who died this week, has been deservedly celebrated in a number of articles and obituaries. She is probably best known as the author of the prize-winning novel 'Small Island'. Open University students may also be aware that she received an OU honorary doctorate, awarded in March 2014, and I am writing now to recall her acceptance of the degree. The speech she gave was very warmly received and it reminded me of another of her novels 'Fruit of the Lemon' which is built up as a succession of distinctive British and Caribbean voices.

In the speech, Andrea Levy introduced the voice of her mother, Amy, a teacher who came to the UK in 1948 with a secret ambition to attend university here. However, Amy's initial experience was more about the closing down, not opening up, of opportunities because her Jamaican teaching qualifications were not recognised. She obtained other work and eventually did enter tertiary study, at the OU. In those pre-computer days, some course material was broadcast, usually late in the evening. Levy described her younger self coming in to see what her mother was doing, and finding her watching 'some hairy man' lecturing on tv. (At this point in the speech, everyone in the hall automatically looked at the bearded PVC who was chairing the ceremony. He blushed.) Levy went on to describe how her mother persevered with her studies and eventually completed her degree, becoming one of the OU's first graduates. The conclusion of the speech was enacted as a conversation between mother and daughter, in their respective Jamaican and British accents. The daughter announced that she was accepting this honorary doctorate in memory of her mother, then voiced the imagined Amy's indignant response: 'So they're giving it without you doing any of the work!'.

The audience at the ceremony loved the speech. It made us all laugh, it showed that the brilliant writer was also a highly skilled performer, with superb comic timing, and every OU graduate appreciated the recognition of their own hard work to complete a degree. We were also privileged to experience an original piece of Levy's writing. The backgrounding of the story and the small imagined dialogue connected her and us, now and then, the ways that family and society encircle our own life experiences. We were lucky to be there! 

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Culture, art and a social psychological issue

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A new BBC series on the arts of Oceania is a useful reminder of issues around culture and, perhaps less obviously, different theories about the nature of people. The Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317) discusses culture, including the sometimes problematic assumptions that derive from classic psychological studies of 'other' people that were conducted in countries under European colonial rule. The BBC series aims to avoid these assumptions but still raises issues that are interesting to consider. In this week's blog for DD317, Stephanie Taylor reflects on culture, art and individuals.

One recent programme in the BBC series on Oceanic art followed Yolngu Aboriginal people from Northern Australia as they made a traditional musical instrument, a yidaki (often referred to as a didgeridoo). The instrument is a long wooden tube and the making process began with a group of people searching in the forest for a suitable tree to carve it from. One man explained their belief that the yidaki in a certain sense already exists and is calling to the searchers to be found. He also said that they needed to find a tree which had been eaten out by termites and the film showed him hitting at trunks with a machete, to check whether they had a hollow sound. The search therefore seemed to combine a kind of thinking that might be associated with a traditional cultural belief (the yidaki calling out), with a more pragmatic evidence-based practice (testing for a hollow trunk).  The latter might be dismissed simply as common sense but it also derives from experimental science and can be understood as part of the culture that dominates contemporary Western societies, including Australia and the UK.

Both these examples of culture, the Yolngu Aboriginal and the contemporary Western, combine a way of thinking with ways of living and doing things. In that sense, the two cultures appear equivalent and it can be argued that the Yolngu Aboriginal people, as 21st century Australians, belong to both. Certainly the programme shows the yidaki-makers comfortably combining old and new, for example, when they use modern tools but traditional colours and designs in the making process. However, in Western societies there is a general tendency to attribute a lower status to traditional cultures and even to assume that these are what the term 'culture' refers to. One reason is that Western societies value innovation whereas traditional cultures, by definition, are assumed to resist change, holding onto the past. Cultural 'authenticity' is often assumed to depend on a lack of innovation. This can create a kind of trap for indigenous people, as if they must choose between living separately from contemporary society, in order to preserve their culture, or else abandon that culture completely.

In addition, 'culture' is often associated with determination, as if the people who belong to a traditional culture maintain their ways of thinking and living without reflection or choice; there is an assumption that they simply think and do what the culture dictates. Culture is also linked to a lack of individuality, whereas Western societies tend to prioritise individual rationality and autonomy. Yet these associations and assumptions can be questioned. Western societies do possess a culture of their own, as already noted, and this includes 'common sense' ideas which are usually accepted without question; Western people do not always act rationally or autonomously. On the other hand, it is entirely possible for people of a non-Western culture to respect tradition and collective values with awareness and full understanding of possible alternatives. (Indeed, the 'preservation' of a traditional culture can become a political strategy by which powerful individuals manage an entirely contemporary conflict, for example, around the rights of women or the possession of property – but that is a subject for another discussion.)

These points are of particular interest in relation to the yidaki makers because of the significance for art. The Western image of the artist is of an individual, possibly working within a particular period or school but ultimately transcending it. His work is his own - the image is masculine, even if all the artists are not. The work he produces is identified with his name, and usually marked with it. But if an artist belongs to a traditional culture, there is a tendency for the artistic practice or process of making not to be attributed to individual intention or decision or vision. Instead, the 'art' is seen merely as the expression of the culture. The work is not identified with the maker. The image of the individual artist is replaced by the image of the cultural representative.

This way of thinking about traditional art has of course been challenged. As just one example, the work of Aboriginal artists is now credited to individual makers as well as the traditional culture they identify with. However, similar problematic assumptions continue to be extended in subtle but definite ways to other artists who are marginalised within larger Western societies. For example, Black artists can find that their work is viewed mainly as a statement of their colour or ethnicity, and then potentially dismissed as political rather than artistic, as Sonia Boyce has discussed recently with reference to UK art in the 1950s https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/jul/30/whoever-heard-of-a-black-artist-britains-hidden-art-history Similarly, the US artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was deeply frustrated that his work referring to race, and racism, carried a diminished status, as if he had produced it almost instinctively, as an expression of his cultural experience. And women artists can find that their work is categorised in a similar way, so that references, for example, to sexuality or maternal feelings are reduced to a kind of outpouring of womanness and therefore a lesser achievement than the supposedly more considered work of male artists.


This blog has moved some distance from the conventional concerns of social psychology but shows some of the new directions opening up in the field. Social psychologists at the OU have formed a new research group, CuSP (Culture and Social Psychology) http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp. DD317 presents some alternative theories of culture and of the extent to which we operate, in art or in life, as original individuals or representatives of our society and culture(s). To learn more about DD317, you can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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Wake up! Foucault’s warning on fake news

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Saturday, 6 Oct 2018, 07:02

How new is fake news? Is it a feature of a contemporary ‘post truth’ society, or does it have a longer history? A new short film links the phenomenon back to the famous thinker Michel Foucault. In this week’s blog for Advancing social psychology (DD317), Professor Paul Stenner writes about the film, and about the influence of Foucault’s thinking on social psychology.

In partnership with the OU, the BBC have recently been making a series of ‘ideas’ short films. Each is only a few minutes long, and the aim is to get an ‘idea’ across in a quick but effective way. One of the latest of these short films asks how the French polymath Michel Foucault might have responded to the recent phenomenon of ‘fake news’, and to the idea that we now live in a world that is ‘post-truth’. ‘Fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ point to similar things, but the latter is a more academic concept whilst the former is now firmly associated with Donald Trump’s repeated complaint that ‘the media’ is politically motivated to make up negative stories about him. The short film is called Wake up! Foucault’s warning on fake news and it was written and narrated by Angie Hobbs from the University of Sheffield with Paul Stenner (an OU Social Psychologist and current Chair of DD317) and Cristina Chimisso (an OU Philosopher) acting as academic advisors.

Foucault, who died in 1984, is one of the most cited thinkers of the 20th Century. He is difficult to label because his style of thought moved easily across disciplinary boundaries, mixing philosophy, psychology, history and political activism. After his death, his ideas about the relationship between knowledge, power and subjectivity (or sense of self) began to have a big influence on social psychology, and indeed they crop up on various occasions in DD317 Advancing Social Psychology. Instead of assuming that sciences like psychology and economics provide objective truth about the human condition, Foucault created new ways of using historical data to demonstrate that these human sciences emerged under quite specific circumstances as part of new ways of governing and disciplining people. He did not approach these sciences by asking ‘are they true?’ but instead asked ‘what do they do?’ and ‘how do they actually function socially and psychologically?’ If Foucault is right, this means that ‘truth’ cannot easily be separated from ‘power’. Indeed, Foucault thought of them as two sides of the same thing called power/knowledge and he was particularly interested in how power/knowledge shapes people’s sense of self or ‘subjectifies’ them.

Ironically enough, some people are now inclined to blame thinkers like Michel Foucault for eroding the difference between knowledge and power and for ushering in a new world of post-truth in which a new breed of trickster politicians can act as if the truth were whatever they say it is, so long as they repeat it loudly on social media. The short film does entertain this hypothesis, but it also suggests that Foucault, had he lived to witness it, would be highly critical of the notion of the ‘fake news’ of a ‘post-truth’ era, and would assert the truth of the oppressed to those in positions of power, inviting us to ‘wake up’ to the unequal realities of our present moment. To judge for yourself, you can see the short film at https://www.bbc.com/ideas/videos/wake-up-foucaults-warning-on-fake-news/p06gzcn4

Paul Stenner is Professor of Social Psychology at the OU. Find out more about him by clicking the ‘meet the ou experts’ link here: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/tv-radio-events/events/bbc-ideas#meet-the-ou-experts  Paul chairs the new presentation of DD317 Advancing social psychology, starting October 2018. To learn more about DD317, you can look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0


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I read the news today... and watched tv

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Saturday, 6 Oct 2018, 07:03

The Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317) uses the concerns of contemporary social psychology as a lens for viewing people in their social context, and particularly the context of contemporary British society. As we look ahead to the new presentation of DD317, this week's blog by Stephanie Taylor draws connections between current news stories and some of the module content.


The Windrush scandal is about British citizens from Caribbean backgrounds, and some other parts of the world, who have been wrongly classified as illegal migrants, and in many cases deported. This distressing and disturbing situation has rightly received a lot of media attention. It points to how we understand citizenship, as not only a legal but also a moral and emotional issue. News stories emphasise the length of time that the people  concerned have lived in Britain, the work they have done for British society, and in some cases the government, their family connections and their personal identification as British. All of these points relate to the DD317 topic of citizenship, and to new social psychological approaches which understand citizenship in terms of participation and other social practices.

#MeToo, and more allegations of sexual misconduct:

The twists and turns of the #MeToo story continue. This week they include, in the US, accusations by a young man against one of the first women to 'speak out', and in Scotland, a heated exchange of allegations and denials around the behaviour of a male politician. The #MeToo movement is part of the feminism embraced by a new generation of women. DD317 discusses feminism as an example of activism which challenges inequalities and power imbalances, and therefore has important parallels with other political movements and action against inequality (It is noticeable, for example, that there is now increased publicity for allegations of bullying, whoever these involve.) (Another DD317 topic is cyberbullying). The module also discusses gender, looking at new femininities and masculinities. Another focus is the limitations of considering inequalities in terms of one category only; alongside gender, we need to consider class, race, age... so how can this be managed in academic work?

School exam results:

In a news story that comes up every year, two of the points noted this time round were that in GCSE, boys have 'caught up' with girls, and at A-level, fewer students are studying 'modern European languages' like German. The first again raises gender issues. The second point prompts interesting questions about Britain's future connections to other countries (and of course the B-word, Brexit), and also about what qualifications are expected to be useful when today's school students become tomorrow's aspiring workers. DD317 considers what it means to live in a globalised world. It investigates work and employment, looking at the changing nature of work and the expectations that are likely to be faced by future workers.

And on a lighter note, the Great British Bake-Off:

This year's series continues the formula which lightens so many people's Tuesday evenings, with a few tweaks, like a vegan week. One interest for social psychology is in the programme as an example of 'banal nationalism' (a term from the work of Michael Billig, 1992). GBBO presents us with a positive image of our own society (Hint: the clues are in the words 'Great' and 'British'). There is, first, a wonderfully multicultural mix of people who bring into their cooking the range of food traditions that are firmly part of contemporary British eating. The contestants also represent a variety of social backgrounds and life roles (e.g. a stay-at-home dad) in order to illustrate the ideals of diversity and tolerance that also characterise contemporary British values (we hope). The programme is, however, a contest, celebrating competition. Tolerance stops at the point of judging and each week someone is a loser. They will be hugged before they leave, but they will have to go. Many critical psychologists argue that the 'neoliberal' image of society as a competition between individuals is too widely accepted. DD317 discusses the concept of neoliberalism, and the lone competitor as a model for the person, in life and also in a lot of psychology.


These are just a few of the possible connections (a future blog will look at more). DD317 students are invited to use their independent study time to follow up similar connections between the module content, their lives and the world 'out there', because as social psychological subjects we are not only part of that world but shaped by it. To learn more about DD317, you can look at the new Open Learn course course

DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0


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Changing our thinking: Process and progress

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Can we break out of established ways of thinking? Are there new ways to understand ourselves in the world? This week's blog for DD317 Advancing social psychology reports on research from psychologists who belong to the Association for Process Thought (APT). As the name suggests, their research begins by looking not at how the world 'is' but at the ongoing processes (actions, movements, change) that make up our social environment. The blog, by Professor Paul Stenner, reports on some of the research presented at the APT's meeting in June 2018.

At this meeting of the Association of Process Thought, there were presentations which all used the concept of process to open up new ways of understanding three very different but important aspects of contemporary life: religion, intimate relationships, and environmental destruction.

The first presentation, by Martin Savransky (Goldsmiths College, University of London), considered how we might understand experiences that are often dismissed as irrational, including religious experiences. The presentation discussed a book by anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann called When God Talks Back, about charismatic evangelists. Rather than focussing on ‘belief’, Luhrmann’s work is consistent with a processual account that concerns the felt reality of religious experience. Through asking her participants how they experience the unseen reality of God, Luhrmann is able to show the relative irrelevance of heady thought in comparison to a slow relationship of feeling, embodied and embedded within practices.  Arguably, this emphasis on process enables a different understanding of religious experience, escaping from the now clichéd and obstructive question of whether God exists.

The second presentation, Process in action: Relational drug use, by Dr Katie Andersen, concerned intimate couple relationships. Again, rather than focussing on what intimacy 'is', the presentation approached intimacy as a set of practices. This opens up possibilities of understanding the significance of movement, space and material objects for relationships. Andersen's research considers how chemical interventions, specifically the use of the drug MDMA, can contribute to the creation of new subjectivities which alter boundaries within the self, between self and other, and between self and world. In a social world where recreational drug use is increasingly prevalent, this possibly contentious research considers how such use might function within contemporary lives.

The third presentation, Bio-semiotics and Integral ecology, was given by Dr John Pickering from the University of Warwick. His concern is the geopolitical reality of our time in which ecological degradation follows the vast and technologically mediated global increase in human numbers, associated with a widening gap between rich and poor, and the ongoing political struggles to control remaining planetary resources, like water. In this context, he suggests, there is a pressing need for new relational and processual modes of thought. He proposes a shift from mechanistic being (mere existence) to organic becoming (productive happening), suggesting that this ushers in a new understanding of the world at all levels, from the workings of the brain and mind, through to the organic interactions animating the minutest portions of life and evolution. His argument is that this kind of radical re-thinking is needed in order to address a problem of such magnitude.

Of course this brief overview of the presentations cannot cover the details of the arguments but it indicates some of the interdisciplinary thinking which is taking forward the field of social psychology.

Our Level 3 module, Advancing social psychology, offers students the opportunity to explore new developments in social psychology, including in their independent study. To learn more about DD317, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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The state of the NHS: a social psychological view

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Thursday, 12 Jul 2018, 08:43

As we celebrate the 70th birthday of the NHS, Stephanie Taylor has been watching tv programmes about health. She considers some of the issues confronting the health service and the health of the UK more generally. Are we taking enough care of ourselves? Could we manage without a national health service? Is the NHS a support system for 'us' or for 'them'?

To mark the 70th birthday of the NHS, there have been a number of tv programmes about its achievements and problems. The programmes generally present the stories of people who have turned to healthcare providers and received support, for instance, when babies were born or accidents occurred or serious illness was diagnosed. The message of the programmes is that as a society, we need the National Health Service, but it is struggling because we are making too many demands on it.

Somewhat differently, there continue to be many more light-hearted television programmes about the UK's health which focus on personal responsibility. Adopting a 'before and after' format, these usually begin by introducing a group of participants with a current or potential health problem that is linked to bad lifestyle choices  – going to the pub instead of the gym, eating takeaways instead of home cooking, using the cooler bin of your fridge for chocolate bars instead of vegetables. The programme's experts examine the participants, collecting statistics and conducting medical tests (blood samples tend to feature heavily). The participants then change their behaviours and are judged to have improved their health. At the end of the programme, they promise to persist with the healthier choices. They leave, looking forward to a problem-free future.

The clear message of the second group of programmes is that people should take more responsibility for maintaining their own good health. This might seem entirely compatible with the valuing of the NHS – by looking after ourselves, we will make fewer claims on already overstretched health care providers. The idea that health problems are a consequence of individual wrong decisions and actions can even seem encouraging, because it suggests that each of us has control and can avoid the need for care, if we live properly.

However, this focus on the individual has some less positive implications, as many social psychologists would note. It suggests fault, as if people only ever get ill because they haven't made the necessary effort (not so!). The focus also closes down any consideration of larger-scale factors that might impact on people's health, such as poverty and overwork, or the increasing air pollution which is almost unavoidable in many parts of the UK. And of course the focus also avoids difficult discussions of why seemingly rational people might make bad 'choices', as in the complex problems of substance abuse and addiction.

More subtly, the emphasis on individual responsibility normalises independence, as if a claim on other people is something shameful, to be avoided. (It is interesting and ironic to note here that people who are celebrated as successful 'individuals' almost inevitably mark their celebrity, wealth and political power by surrounding themselves with supporters, such as servants, bodyguards and admirers – for these 'top' people, dependence is apparently not a problem!)

The general stigmatisation of need and dependence is the reason that so many people attempt to manage in difficult circumstances without help, determined not to be 'a burden'. Yet everyone requires support sometimes, and not only when they are ill, or at the very beginning and end of their lives. Indeed, there is a persuasive argument that no one can be entirely self-sufficient. Even those of us who might claim to be 'free' of personal ties of family and friendship are dependent on the complex interconnections that maintain markets, and keep society functioning.  

This is why social psychologists insist on the importance of looking at people in context, not as detached individuals. A social psychological interest extends beyond interpersonal contacts and linked activities to the shared ideas and values that enable all of us to communicate (and disagree). The same ideas make sense of who we are and what we do.

So what does this kind of approach indicate about the NHS? There seem to be two conflicting ideas in play. The first is that the NHS is the safety net that is required when normal life is interrupted, because people have been exceptionally unfortunate or, in many cases, because they have not taken enough responsibility for themselves. This view invites us to see NHS users as other people, because we all like to think of ourselves as responsible, and lucky. The second interpretation is that in the NHS today we can see all the care needs of our society exposed and brought together to be dealt with by a single institution, including needs which originate, for example, in an economy which excludes many people from the steady employment and secure housing which would enable them to live 'well'. In this second view, the NHS users are ourselves, all of us, because it is in the NHS that we see our real nature as human beings, as inevitably interconnected and in different ways dependent on each other.  

This blog refers to ideas discussed in DD317 Advancing social psychology, an interdisciplinary Level 3 module. To learn more about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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Football, love and passion

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Monday, 11 Jun 2018, 08:55

In the week that sees the first fixtures in the FIFA World Cup, some of us are fully focused on football and some of us are ... not so much. In this week's Open University social psychology blog, David Kaposi, a DD317 author and member of presentation team, reflects on the meanings of football, past and present, and why they might have changed.

These are the days of obligation. We are all supposed to have a team – however weak our connection to it – a team to announce, a team to follow, a team to love. Whether you like it or not, are male or not, interested or, in fact, not, you cannot escape from the question “What’s your team?”, ”Who do you support?”. You are of course, allowed not to answer, and if you don't no further judgment will be pronounced but there will be a momentary silence. You will understand what that means. It's not a crime, of course. It is just, you know, curious.

The oppressive reality of what has become present day football, much like the weather (but, then, who has ever asked anyone whether they support summer or winter?), is inescapable. You will enjoy the World Cup! Even if you don't enjoy it then you will follow it, and if you don't follow it then you will at least know about it.

How has this come about? Because, some of us still faintly recall, it was not always like this. There was a time when football belonged to some people, much like cricket or collecting stamps. The people football belonged to were not particularly glamorous and the accusation of hooliganism or barbarism was never very distant from the discourses around football.  “You throw a ball and twenty-two men start running around it after it. What is there to like about that?”, as a family friend used to ask every Sunday.

And if football lovers could always offer ripostes like “Football players are privileged interpreters of communities around the world” (Menotti, manager) or “Everything  I know about morality and obligation, I owe to football” (Camus, goalkeeper), there was also the feeling that stamp collectors too must have these kinds of justifications to comfort themselves with.

So, what happened? In place of anything resembling an analysis, I offer two observations.

I once met a man, dressed in red. He professed himself to be a Manchester United supporter, indeed he said he “LOVED Man United”. I used to know a thing or two about United so I engaged him along these lines in a relatively short conversation. At the end of it we had established that he had no knowledge of any recent scores, let alone actual games, and he had no clue who his team would be taking on in the near future either. All that was left was the love.

Of love, of course, we have plenty. That, and passion. There are constant reminders of them in the hype around football, but one also cannot escape the feeling that even before the propaganda of love and passion, there actually was love and passion in football. Yet somehow, the words came to replace and in fact destroy what they were supposed to merely report. Is this a lesson about the destructive power of discourse, as if all the exaggerated talk eventually killed the real sentiment?

This capacity of words to take over something else brings me to my second observation. This was a short comment I overheard from the then-manager of Arsenal FC, Arsene Wenger: “It is difficult to play football”, he opined, “when the opponent does not want to.” Those following football used to get amused/irritated by such remarks from Wenger, inevitably offered following a 0-0 draw against Blackburn. He was just whingeing, trying to find excuses, they would say. Yet whatever language game Wenger was playing after disappointing results, his critics or commentators were attempting the self-same thing. What was wilfully ignored was that having exactly eleven blokes on one side and eleven blokes on the other no longer in itself constitutes fairness. It also does not constitute a level playing field, where the possibility of a good competitive game would solely depend on Blackburn’s intention to play football (or not).

Blackburn did not destroy the game. What did destroy it (or, at any rate, the feelings with which the game has traditionally been imbued) was not Blackburn’s intention on the pitch but the financial reality of obscene inequality off it. The rest is… noise.

This week's blog has links to ideas discussed in the new module Advancing social psychology (DD317), an interdisciplinary Level 3 module for people studying psychology qualifications or interested in psychology and social issues. For more information about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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Safe at home in a place where I belong?

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In a new blog for DD317 Advancing social psychology, Stephanie Taylor discusses social research findings about place and belonging. She considers the connections we draw between feeling at home and feeling safe and suggests that these contribute to the continuing strong emotions around the Grenfell tower tragedy. Stephanie will be speaking about place, belonging and identity at an event for the London Festival of Architecture on Wednesday 6th June 2018 https://www.adamarchitecture.com/press/identity-and-the-identifiable-debate,-6th-june-2018-in-london.htm

 I recently had a conversation with a woman who is planning to move permanently to a country that she knows well but has previously visited only for finite periods. Of course this major life change has not been easy to arrange, but she was confident that the red tape will be dealt with within a few months, and she will then migrate permanently. ‘So’ I asked ‘will that feel like leaving home or going home?’ ‘Going home’ she said confidently, and talked positively about the climate and lifestyle of the new country, the ways that people interact there, and the particular apartment she will live in. She feels that all of these match who she is ,so she will belong there.

I was interested in her response because it confirmed findings from research I conducted two decades ago*, about home and identification with place. The research indicated that people construct an image of home selectively, through what they value or indeed notice about where they live, or would like to live. My research participants talked about the place where they belonged, or wanted to belong. It could be the interior of a house or flat, a street, neighbourhood, town or city, or a particular landscape or part of the world. ‘Place’ is a fluid concept, referring to any or indeed all of these, and this fluidity enabled the participants to interpret a current or ideal place of residence as home, to identify with features which matched who they felt themselves to be, or wanted to be.

Our thoughts and feelings about belonging are based in part on a shared cultural or discursive resource which I call the ‘born and bred’ narrative. This is the familiar idea that each of us is linked through birth and family to an original place (literally, a place of ‘origin’). We are defined by this place and have a permanent claim on it. Logically, of course, places change, people move and this kind of connection through long-term and generational residence is unusual, especially in contemporary affluent societies like the UK. However, people often continue to claim it and may try to pin down the place by researching their family histories. In my research, even though only a few participants continued to live where they had grown up, I found that they invoked the born and bred narrative in their constructions of home and belonging. For example, they might emphasise that they had lived in their current place of residence for a long time, and they had important memories attached to it. They might explain their feeling of belonging by linking the place to the past, for example, through their memories of childhood, or distant family connections, or  by emphasising some similarity to their childhood or family home. A number planned to move ‘back’ to the childhood place at some later point in their lives.

 But the selective interpretation in this ‘identity work’ inevitably has its limits. The participants’ accounts emphasised personal connections, but belonging in a place is also social, requiring some recognition and acceptance by other people. The woman who is changing country will almost certainly find her status challenged. People will note her accent or refer to her recent arrival. Her status as a newcomer may be invoked in trivial disagreements (‘we don’t do things like that’). More seriously, people’s claims to belong can be contested by the actions of others. This can occur in small ways. For example, when new neighbours interrupt local routines, perhaps by making noise or dropping rubbish, longer term residents may feel that their claims on a place are not being respected, as if they no longer belong. More seriously, crime, and especially crime against the person, like mugging, is an enormous threat to belonging. People who live in areas of rising crime are likely to feel that they are being ‘driven out’, because ultimately one of the most important associations of home and belonging is being in a place that is safe.

These connections have appeared with particular poignancy in the recent testimonials to people who died in the Grenfell tower fire. At the Grenfell inquiry, relatives and friends have been talking about the victims, and have referred again and again to the length of those people’s residence, in the tower itself, in the North Kensington neighbourhood, in London and Britain. The testimonials have emphasised that the victims were people who felt they belonged, locally and nationally, and were also recognised by others to belong, as valued citizens and members of the community. The testimonials are statements of loss and tributes to the personal qualities of the people who were lost, and also a protest at the betrayal that the fire involved. These victims were people at home, where they belonged and should have been safe. The failures that enabled the fire to kill them are therefore additionally a failure to respect the important personal and social values attached to home, so ultimately a threat to all of our claims to belong.


* S.Taylor (2010) Narratives of identity and place London Routledge / Psychology Press. ISBN-10: 0415480477 /13: 978-0415480475


This week's blog has links to ideas discussed in the new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). For more information about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

Stephanie Taylor will be talking about identification with place on Wednesday 6th June 2018 at an event for the London Festival of Architecture https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/identity-the-identifiable-tickets-45967899224 and https://www.adamarchitecture.com/press/identity-and-the-identifiable-debate,-6th-june-2018-in-london.htm

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OU education as a social project

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In this week's blog for DD317 Advancing social psychology, Stephanie Taylor and colleagues from the School of Psychology examine education through a 'social' lens, setting out some of the issues (and making a few links to DD317 material).

Psychologists have always been closely engaged with the study of education, developing theory and practice around teaching and learning at all levels, from early child development to tertiary and lifelong education. To reduce this to an individual 'teacher' and 'learner' is too simple. Psychologists would draw attention to the relevance of technologies, contexts, practices and relationships. Of course a technology can be as simple as a chalkboard or as complex as a piece of customised software but it is always utilised within a context, as part of a practice, and social psychologists in particular would point out the social nature of those practices. The social is relevant in many ways, from the original motivation for learning at all, to the associations it may carry, to the implications for our identities and for society generally.

It is easy to recognise that people want to learn, especially as adults, because of the value attached to it in society. There is the conventional status of being an educated person, well-qualified, perhaps a graduate. There is also the notion that learning is a form of personal development (DD317 students might recognise the new version of this associated with 'entrepreneurship', discussed by Rosalind Gill in Block 4) and of growth – most of us would associate education with the acquiring of new maturity. This also explains some of the difficulties of learning and education. In an interview for DD317, Ian Burkitt discusses an issue faced by people studying nursing. Part of their learning involved the taking up of the new professional identity, and this could entail losses as well as gains. A similar, painful story was told by the eminent US political and social activist, Bella Abzug. She said that when she crossed the stage at her graduation, she felt that she had simultaneously fulfilled her father's ambition for her to succeed, and also made herself into someone so different from him (a working class immigrant) that she had partly severed their connection.

The associations of learning are particularly strong for adults. Few of us can escape from the memories of school, positive and negative. It's no coincidence that many people who study as adults prefer to do so in a context as different as possible from their early education. If you have bad memories of school, then even small details like addressing the tutor by their first name (instead of 'Miss' or 'Sir') or using different technologies (a computer instead of a pen) can help make your educational experience different. But there will probably also be points when the experience returns, positively or negative, and that, again, is addressed by social educational practices. The concept of scaffolding, born out of the work of Vygotsky but more deeply explored by another great psychologist, Jerome Bruner, has shown psychologists how people can be enabled to fulfil their educational potentials in ways that they never thought possible. Scaffolding refers to a process where the learner is actively supported by a teacher or peer so that they achieve their goal much more quickly than if they learned unassisted. In the OU, we do this by generating teaching activities and interactive materials that encourage learners to take steps towards solving a critical problem. The whole 'OU system' is a complex form of teaching developed to help students maintain their goals, find solutions and stay motivated.

I have already mentioned society as shaping the values we attach to learning and education. Academics who take a critical approach, considering power and inequalities, would point to additional social connections. First, it has long been recognised that education has an economic value for society, because of the specific skills acquired through education and training, and also the more general capacity for learning that will enable educated people to adapt to change and acquire new skills. (This is of course particularly relevant given the current rate of technological change: the IT skills acquired by students today will soon be outdated, but the experience and confidence in relation to IT should make it easier for them to tackle the next round of new developments.)

A second point here is that education can help people to participate in society (DD317 students will note the connection to Block 3!). There are strong arguments, for example, from the work of the philosopher and psychologist John Dewey and the sociologist Craig Calhoun, that education prepares people to engage critically in the public sphere and thereby to challenge injustices in society. For these reasons, it can be argued that education is a social good (like clean air) that benefits society generally and therefore should be paid for by society, through taxes, rather than by individuals. In Calhoun's words, a university has a public mission and historical purpose ‘to educate citizens in general, to share knowledge, to distribute it as widely as possible, and to produce it in accord with publicly articulated purposes (as well as on the assumption of eventual public benefit)’ (Calhoun 2006: 19). 

To some extent, that argument has lost acceptance in recent years, especially in relation to university tuition fees, but it remains powerful. For example, it underpins most discussions about pre-school and school education, through the logic that society 'needs' children to be literate, numerate and otherwise appropriately skilled. There is also a related argument about socialization, often raised in relation to religious schools, which again points to the role education is assumed to have in preparing people to live in society, in that case, by making them aware of the shared society and history, teaching respect and appropriate behaviours, and so on.

Even to write about these ideas is to court controversy because they are so deeply embedded in both 'common sense' and bitterly contested arguments. To discuss them is also to recognise the interconnections of the social and the personal – we cannot put aside social meanings because they are part of our own meanings and feelings and the way we make sense of our individual lives, as critical discursive psychologists would note. For OU academics and students, the issues are particularly close because of our shared educational project. The OU is its own social space, a society within a society, with all the pleasure and possibility of society generally, and the excitement of challenge and conflict.


Craig Calhoun (2006) 'The University and the Public Good' Thesis Eleven Volume: 84 issue: 1, page(s): 7-43  Issue published: February 1, 2006  https://doi.org/10.1177/0725513606060516


Some of the content of this blog has links to our OU module DD317 Advancing social psychology. You can find more information about the module on OU websites and you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk

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Good criminal, bad criminal?

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This week's blog for Advancing social psychology (DD317) considers the relevance of a key psychological concept, the essential person, for a recent tv series about the new face of international crime.

A recent BBC drama depicted the takeover of global crime networks by new 'Harvard-educated', business-focussed criminals. It was about how the graceless thugs who have previously run profitable markets in drugs and trafficked sex slaves, are being deposed by smooth, good looking men (they were all men) in suits. The older generation of criminals were presented as emotionally volatile and extreme, so finally less effective than their smoother and more controlled successors.

The series was gripping, although it could of course be criticised (for example, for the 'us'/ 'them' depictions of particular nationalities, and also for the representations of women, who mostly accepted the role of obedient helpmate). My interest here is in how the drama centred on one of the most enduring ideas bridging psychology and common sense, that of the essential person.

A simple, seemingly logical idea is that people have an essential character that they express through their actions. In other words, there is a causal relationship between the actor and the action – good people do good things, bad people bad, so a good person can be trusted to behave well, and a bad person will never be reliable. Most people would consider that account of the essential person over-simple, but for social psychologists working In a discursive and narrative tradition, the interest is not in the 'truth' but in how the idea itself persists and has consequences.  

For example, the idea of the essential person underlies the continual search for evidence, formal and informal. Cvs and other records, appraisals and psychology tests, and our own 'gut feelings' – all of them are valued for what they supposedly reveal about a person's essence, because this is assumed to predict future behaviour. Is this someone to be trusted and to deal with in the future?

It is also an assumption that carries huge emotional or affective loading, as can be seen in everyday arguments about motive and intention, even in trivial situations. Think of the indignation that people express when they think that their actions have led to their being 'wrongly' understood. Think of their strong need to explain that what actually happened was not what they wanted or intended: 'Do you really believe I'm the kind of person who would do that on purpose?' The causal link has been broken so a convincing argument must be made to reclaim a positive essential character.

Oddly enough, this defence is often made through reference to previous good behaviour, returning yet again to the idea of essential character and attempting to re-establish the causal link that has been broken ('he gave a lot of money to charity'). Most of us are accustomed to talking about ourselves and telling the circumstances and events which 'explain' who we are so we can adapt that narrative account to a particular purpose, such as an interview for a new job, and we can also invoke it to defend our essential good character if it seems to be threatened.

We use the idea of the essential person even though, ironically, we are also very ready to question it. For instance, we probably accept that appearances can be misleading, that the inner essence can be masked by a lying exterior. It's easy to believe that a charismatic, apparently honest politician can turn out to be 'rotten to the core' or, perhaps less frequently, that someone unprepossessing can be a 'rough diamond' with a 'heart of gold'. However, we tend to reserve particular indignation for people who do bad things and confuse the connection between character and behaviour, as with formerly respected ('good') celebrities who end up discredited or even in jail. Perhaps this explains the force of the tv series. The new global 'mafia' were shown as misleading us about their essential characters. They look better than the old-style criminals but actually carry out even worse crimes because they are more effective and powerful as a result of their business training.

Many other points could be made about the series. (For instance, it was definitely exciting, and well-acted. It was well-researched but, at a time when so many legitimate businesses do not seem to be functioning very well, we could ask if it overstates the capabilities and threat of those Harvard-educated criminals.) The focus of this blog has been that, first, it centred on questions which are central to psychology, including the nature of the person and its connection to behaviour, and second, how those questions are not only 'academic' but also part of our everyday sense-making around both fiction and fact.

Critiques of the concept of the essential person are discussed in the Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317). ADD learn more about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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Social psychology as a social and cultural field

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 26 Jan 2018, 14:43

This week's blog for DD317, Advancing social psychology, introduces a new academic group in the School of Psychology and explains why its members see society and culture as central concerns for psychology.

Social psychologists in the School of psychology at the OU have formed a new group to promote their shared interests. The group is to be called CUSP which stands for 'Culture and Social Psychology'. Culture and society might seem surprising foci for psychologists – shouldn't they just be looking at people? But in the group's view, people are always in society – whether we think of that as the micro- or local level of being with other people, perhaps interacting one to one, or, alternatively, as referring to a larger scale context of more complex interconnections. Social situations vary in scale and kind, and nowadays, of course, they include virtual interactions, for instance, on social media.

Society is important for the research of CUSP academics engaged in some very different projects. For example, they examine society in terms of groups, and particularly the 'us' vs 'them' groups invoked in discussions of migration, or sectarian tensions. Their research addresses high profile social issues, like sexual harassment. And recently they have been studying Brexit, viewing it as an issue for British society, and the societies of other member-states of the EU, and also an issue for a European society (though of course some people would question whether that last version of society actually exists, while others would claim it as an important context of their experience). 

For CUSP academics, culture generally refers to knowledge and practices which have developed over time, persist into new situations and also change. Most people have a fairly clear idea of what constitutes a family, for example, and the roles of family members, like parents and children – but what cultural change is involved when, say, children in multilingual families take on the role of interpreting for their parents? Or when a child's peer interactions take place on social media so that, suddenly, an enormous audience of strangers may be influencing their self-image and confidence? What 'culture of silence' is operating in situations when young people who are 'at risk' can call for help but somehow go unheard? How are work cultures, and working lives, changing in the era of the gig economy when 'work' can refer to a job lasting a few hours, made available through an app, rather than a permanent contract with an employer? And what is the relationship of knowledge and practices to the things, or artefacts, associated with a particular culture?

CUSP's interest in culture is therefore not a reference to art, music and literature (sometimes distinguished as 'high culture') although those can also be of interest, for example, because of their relevance to the identities of groups in society. Similarly, cultural artefacts like books, film and photos can be intimately linked to history and our view of what happened in the past, remotely and recently. For example, if one picture can tell a story, as the saying goes, there can be questions about WHAT story is being promoted by a particularly vivid image (like a child in a war zone), and who has made the decision that we will see it, and what interests are attached to our acceptance of that story and not a different version. So culture becomes linked to power and to values, including who or what is (accepted as) good or right or important. These are all concerns for CUSP academics.

You can read about the work of the School’s social psychologists on our webpage. We teach it in our new Level 3 module DD317 Advancing social psychology. To learn more about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk and you can do this short course available on Open Learn: DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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Things and words: a critical discursive approach to new technologies

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In this week's blog, Stephanie Taylor reviews an interesting new book and presents a view of new technologies that is informed by critical discursive psychology.

In a season when people are acquiring lots of things, as gifts and in New Year sales, I have enjoyed reading a new book on 'The Internet of Things' by Mercedes Bunz and Graham Meikle (Polity, 2018). The authors are particularly interested in things that have sensors (like the location device on a smartphone) and can be connected together in networks. The book is therefore about new technologies, but ones which are becoming increasingly common.

'The Internet of Things' is not a psychological text but it includes research using Critical Discourse Analysis, an approach which of course has parallels with discursive and discourse analytic approaches in social psychology. In addition, the book interested me because it presents some examples of how people's engagement with the material world is shaped by the kind of social knowledge that discursive researchers might discuss as 'discourses' or 'repertoires' or 'resources', and also examples of how that knowledge changes

Discursive research is often criticised for just being about words, that is, for not taking account of the material world, or bodies, or emotion, or other aspects of our lives and contexts which are supposedly extra-discursive. The counter-argument is that by analysing words and language discursive researchers can explore the social knowledge and meanings which structure our experience, including our engagement with the 'things' of the material world: 'there is no neat separation between the meanings in language and in the social world more generally' (Taylor, 2013, p.78). However, discursive researchers are also interested in other evidence of social meanings, such as what people do and how they interact. Bunz and Meikle offer a number of entertaining, and disturbing, examples of how we interact with technological 'things', and how new interactions are shaped by older meanings.

It seems clear that when approaching wholly new things and situations, people draw on existing ideas or resources. For instance, when they (we) receive spoken instructions from a thing, like a car satnav system, they respond as if they are hearing the voice of a person. In some cases, the satnav becomes an authority who must be obeyed, like an army officer or an old-style school teacher. Bunz and Meikle describe situations in which drivers followed (faulty) satnav instructions to drive hundreds of miles away from their route, or off the road, up a mountainside, into the side of a house or even the sea. (Why is it always so cheering to read about technology that goes wrong?)

In other cases, people's social knowledge prompts them to challenge or resist what the voice is telling them. The voice of a supermarket's self-scanning checkout device apparently annoyed some customers so much that they reverted to shoplifting, presumably to get back at the device. Moreover, the gender of a device voice invokes social prejudices so that a male voice giving instructions is heard as authoritative but a female voice is 'irritating', unless its messages 'signal a lower status in the relationship with the speaker' (p.65). In short, we cannot escape our (sexist) social knowledge, however sophisticated the new technology.

However, 'The Internet of Things' also indicates that social knowledge changes. New technologies eventually give rise to different meanings and ways of acting in the world. For example, many people now use health-tracking devices to monitor their own physical activity and food intake and sleep patterns. The devices also produce user data which has a commercial value, yet people seem unworried by the implications for their privacy. The new social knowledge involved is, first, the way of thinking about ourselves that the devices promote -  in Bunz and Meikle's words, as 'a competitive individual engaged in a continuous series of struggles and challenges' (p.103) – and second, the view of self-monitoring and recording, as 'natural' rather than, say, as intrusive surveillance.

Like everyone else, I will probably step up my self-monitoring in January as part of a New Year resolution, possibly with the help of a monitoring device. 'The Internet of Things' is a useful reminder that we are all social beings and nothing, however technologically sophisticated, is so new that it supersedes its social context.

Some of the content of this blog has links to our new OU module DD317 Advancing social psychology. You can find more information about the module on OU websites and you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk


Mercedes Bunz and Graham Meikle (2018) The Internet of Things Cambridge: Polity

Stephanie Taylor (2013) What is Discourse Analysis? London: Bloomsbury.

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The new normal of working lives

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In this week's blog, Stephanie Taylor introduces a new interdisciplinary collection of research The new normal of working lives: critical studies in contemporary work and employment, co-edited by Stephanie Taylor and Susan Luckman for Palgrave Macmillan (2018). She discusses some of the issues it raises for social psychologists and other social researchers, concerning a contemporary worker subject.

 News about changes to work tend to focus on technological developments, such as the likely effects of robotics. But working lives have already changed greatly in recent decades, and not only because of technology. ‘New work’ is discussed in an academic collection to be published in January 2018,  The new normal of working lives: critical studies in contemporary work and employment, edited by myself and Susan Luckman.

The collection brings together research conducted by academics from different disciplines, including cultural and media studies, sociology and psychology. A number of the papers were originally presented in a conference stream (at the WORK2015 conference http://www.utu.fi/en/units/tcls/sites/work2015/Pages/home.aspx ) entitled ‘Reconceptualising work’. That topic and the title of the collection indicate some of the key questions addressed. What changes have occurred in the way we think about work? What aspects of work that previously might have received more attention have now come to be taken for granted as normal and unremarkable? Following from that, how are people changing themselves to manage this ‘new normal’ and become the kind of worker that's required today?

Although the collection discusses many kinds of new work, some common themes emerge. Most of the workers who were studied have high ambitions. They want to do satisfying and personally meaningful work which pays a good income, and they want to combine this with a rich personal and family life. The privileged, or lucky, can arrange their lives to achieve that. However, for the majority of the workers discussed in the collection, having everything is not attainable, or at least (as they see it) not yet.

The collection suggests that whether people today are employed by an organisation or work for themselves, they operate to a great extent as ‘loners’ rather than as part of a collective. They accept individual responsibility,  for solving problems and meeting deadlines, for acquiring qualifications and updating their technological skills, and often for paying for their workplaces and equipment. Some of them have taken over work that was previously the responsibility of governments and the public sector, such as the provision of care for the elderly. Some of them are making new jobs out of activities often regarded as hobbies, like computer gaming or blogging or vlogging. Many of them bring their personal selves into their work, utilising their enthusiasms (for instance, for the gaming) or their private experiences (in the blogging and vlogging).

They also give up their personal time. They accept very long working days, disciplining themselves to work more hours with less ‘down time’. They work evenings and weekends, and in transit between home and work. They are seldom off duty so accept the breakdown of barriers between work and private life. Many of them use their homes as their workplaces, especially as a way of managing caring responsibilities.

All of this inevitably creates problems. Many of the workers don’t earn much, especially for the effort and the long hours they put in. Yet they apparently accept the difficulties as necessary. In the most extreme situations they manage by hoping for better lives in the future, even when there seems little reason to expect improvement, and sometimes when their current actions (for instance, incurring debts while working unpaid) will almost certainly create extra problems in the future.

Taken together, the collection therefore presents a picture of difficulties but also optimism, of dedication but also great expectations. It suggests that contemporary workers discipline themselves to be extremely hardworking and tolerant of difficulties, to prioritise their jobs over their private lives, to accept disappointment and limited rewards but also remain ambitious and optimistic. Is this a sustainable ideal, or even one that can be achieved? Whose interests does it serve? What is required to make yourself into this new worker? And is this the kind of person we should be aspiring to become?

To learn more about the module DD317 Advancing social psychology, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk


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