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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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A social psychological view of contemporary workers.

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 July 2017, 11:01

In this week's blog, the module team for Advancing social psychology (DD317) turn their attention to the contemporary experience of work and employment

Earlier this month, a UK government spokesperson talked about the problem of 'bad work' (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-39849571). Matthew Taylor, head of a government review, noted the problems of 'in-work poverty'; insecure employment, often linked to the 'gig economy', and the poor quality experience of workers who don't feel 'engaged' with what they do.

This is just the latest of many criticisms prompted by the changes in work and employment that have taken place in advanced economies like the UK over the last few decades. For example, the boundaries between work and free time are less clearcut than in the past: think of the contrast between 'clocking out' at the end of the working day, as used to be common, and checking email on the commute home and throughout the evening and weekend, as many people do now. Partly as a consequence, working hours are longer. Another change is that more people today work for themselves, freelance or self-employed or running their own businesses. And even workers in conventional employment are nowadays expected to be more responsible, self-managing, innovative, future-focused and, in a word, entrepreneurial.

For social psychologists, these changes raise questions not only about 'good work' but also 'good workers'. We know that work is an important part of people's identities (which is one reason why unemployment can be such a negative experience). People define themselves by what they do and they feel bad if they are not credited with doing it well, or if they are in jobs which don't seem to represent who they are or want to be.

Of course, some of the changes to work and employment may offer improvements, such as more autonomy for workers, greater flexibility in how they manage their own work, and more of the engagement that Mr Taylor is calling for. Nevertheless, many social psychologists take a more critical position, asking questions about the problems and conflicts which might ensue. Are the changes making it more difficult to be a good worker today, especially for certain categories of people? Who do the changes favour and who do they disadvantage? We might speculate that a requirement to be engaged and flexible is more challenging for people who carry heavy responsibilities in their lives outside work, for instance, as parents or carers. As a different point, perhaps a future focus comes more naturally to younger people. On the other hand, responsibility is a quality associated with maturity and therefore perhaps with age.

A further issue to consider is how the changing requirements of work might shape workers themselves. The conventional household arrangement of a (male) breadwinner and a (female) full-time homemaker is now less common, and also less of an ideal. How has its erosion affected parent roles? What are the wider implications for 'normal' gender identities?

Yet another point which interests social psychologists concerns the ways that people re-make themselves in response to changing social demands. Do today's workers discipline themselves to resemble a different ideal of the good worker? Are they learning to be more entrepreneurial? Are they accepting different values, prioritising flexibility over loyalty or creativity over conscientiousness? And if they are, do these changes come at a cost, conflicting perhaps with other values and identities?

These questions are discussed in the new module Advancing social psychology (DD317) in Chapter 10 'New workers as contemporary subjects'.


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Theresa May and chips

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 July 2017, 11:03

This week's blog from the module team of Advancing social psychology (DD317) considers the significance of some of the election news coverage.

As the election campaign progresses, there was extensive coverage this week of the Prime Minister, Theresa May, eating chips in the street (to be precise, fries dipped in ketchup). So what was that all about?

In Chapters 10  and 11of the Advancing social psychology textbook, we discuss the concept of performance. This proposes that in daily life people perform identities through how they speak and move, the appearances they present and the ways they relate to others. To perform an identity successfully, it's usually necessary to conform to an established image by looking and sounding 'right' and generally doing what people expect. This can be difficult. For example, we suggest that a woman Prime Minister might have some problems performing the identity of an authoritative political leader because there are fewer established social expectations attached to that identity for a woman than a man. It's less clear what she should look like or do in order to be a proper Prime Minister.

On the other hand, there are now plenty of expectations about performing the identity of a UK political candidate. You are required to wear a high vis vest and hard hat on a construction site, talk to small children at a primary school, visit an elderly person in sheltered housing, deal cheerfully with a heckler (without hitting them) and eat messy food in public. Perhaps there is a logic to these expectations. They have to be carried out in front of the cameras so they could be seen to demonstrate a relevant political skill: effectively managing the media.

But Theresa May's chip-eating can be understood in another way. There is a vague and unconvincing association of class, as if the PM is identifying with 'ordinary' people who don’t eat anything but chips. (Really?) Forty years ago, the equivalent for Mrs Thatcher was to visit a butcher’s shop during her first election campaign. She bought sausages, a chicken and an enormous quantity of mince. This was an unlikely range of meals for a millionaire household and of course no one really believed that she did her own weekly shopping or cooked the family dinner, yet the event gave an immense boost to her popularity.

Perhaps the point of this, and the chips, is exactly that the politician is doing something that is not her normal behaviour. Is it a rather cruel test, as if the electorate enjoys humiliating the candidate by asking her to do something she may find uncomfortable? (Revenge for all that boring tv coverage?)

More subtly, perhaps this is a test of confidence, requiring the candidate to deal smoothly with an awkward situation. In another piece of media coverage this week, the actress Maxine Peake, a woman from a working class background, referred to the confidence (and likeability) of Old Etonian actors she’d worked with (Guardian 29/04/17). She asked why the state education system doesn't give people 'that sense of entitlement, that you can'. Her comments suggest that confidence is a classed attribute. In other words, it may have become a marker of a certain class identity.

If that’s the case, then performing confidently in an awkward situation might take on an additional meaning. Of course it's silly for these (woman) politicians to pretend that they do their own food shopping or have chips as a meal, but if they can carry off that silly behaviour, without looking uncomfortable, then they will be performing the confident identity that is also associated with the traditional ruling classes. Perhaps they need to accomplish that performance successfully in order to prove that that's where they belong.

There's more discussion of identity and performance in Advancing social psychology (DD317).

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A social psychological view of Brexit

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 July 2017, 11:04

In our continuing series of blogs from the DD317 module team, Eleni Andreouli writes about a social psychological view of Brexit:

It was one of the defining moments of 2016 when British people voted to leave the European Union, against the so called ‘political establishment’. Alongside the election of Donald Trump in the US, Brexit is seen as marking the beginning a new political era in Western democracies. In seeking to explain this ‘political earthquake’, several academics and other analysts have pointed to the rise of the far-right, the growth of populism, authoritarianism and xenophobia, and a more general ‘crisis of democracy’ and of liberalism.

There are certainly many threads on could pick up when discussing what Brexit means, its symbolism and its repercussions. What has become clear is that we need to take into account both social and psychological factors to understand these new political movements. For this, we need social psychology. What concepts could be useful in starting to unpack Brexit politics? These are many, but here are some that are particularly important:

Identity, a central social psychological concept, has been extensively used to understand why some social groups voted for Brexit while others did not. Unsurprisingly, national and European identities have taken centre stage in this discussion, but also the role of class identities, gender and ethnicity has been discussed in some depth.

Similarly, the role of cultural values, for example endorsing more liberal or more communitarian value systems, appears to be central in explaining new political orientations in the Brexit era. Like identity, culture is also an important social psychological concept, developed particularly within cultural and cross-cultural psychology.

Ethnocentrism and prejudice, both established subjects of social psychological study, have also been important for understanding the tensions and challenges arising in the post- EU referendum era in the UK.

Social psychology can further help us understand how new political movements develop and gather momentum. For instance, how did leaving the EU, from a rather marginal issue, become a political cause that could mobilise people? And, equally, how can the surge of pro-European movements, following the Brexit vote, be understood?

To learn more about these topics from an integrated social and psychological perspective, check out our new module DD317 Advancing Social Psychology.


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