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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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Addressing the surprising absence of class: Interdisciplinary research on careers

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The starting point for a research project is often a gap – or more specifically, the recognition that an important topic has not been addressed by previous researchers. In this week's blog, Samantha Evans discusses the surprising absence of class in some psychology research, and how she is addressing this in an interdisciplinary project on classed inequalities in work and careers.

I became interested in social class when I was exploring women’s career development for my MSc. I was actually researching age and gender, but for over half the participants, class was one of the most salient features of their stories, explaining where they started in life, justifying how far they had come and who they were now. What was equally interesting was how, for the other half of participants, class was completely absent from their accounts.

Further investigation has suggested that social class is also absent in the organisational psychology literature  - the branch of social psychology that I had chosen to specialise in. Academics propose many reasons for this – that class is difficult to define; that it may be overlooked in favour of legally protected characteristics such as race or gender, or perhaps is seen as irrelevant and invisible in an increasingly “individualised” workplace. Overall it is a surprising absence, particularly given that social class has a high profile in other disciplines such as sociology, where it is often defined in relation to people’s work and careers. 

As my thinking developed, it became clear to me that class was a matter of understanding not only how the individual is classed, but also the wider context they are in. Thus I decided to explore one particular occupation in-depth to understand how ideas of “getting in” and “getting on” are talked about, and what this then means for people from different social backgrounds. I have chosen to look at museums, partly because I used to work in this field (and this helps with data access), partly because museums are struggling to be more “open to all” and partly because as gatekeepers of our own collective culture, it is arguably important that they do share that role equally.

In the spirit of interdisciplinary research, I am drawing on the writing of Pierre Bourdieu, a sociologist, whose work I believe has a great potential value to organisational psychologists. His theory provides a particular way of looking at the “individual-social interface”, arguing that whilst people are constrained by the “rules” of the particular social contexts (or fields) in which they are positioned (e.g. the field of museums or higher education), they have some flexibility in how to “play the game” depending on their experiences and dispositions. Succeeding in “the game” depends on the capital (economic, social or cultural) that is valued by the field, and the amount and type of this capital that individuals possess. Thus in the museum field for example, having a certain type of cultural capital such as knowledge of art or a PhD, may be valued more highly than PR or marketing know-how, and this in itself is more accessible and attractive to some groups of people rather than others.

Indeed, key to Bourdieu’s theory is the view that “the game” is not objective and natural (as it can seem), but has been socially constructed and privileges some groups and not others. The aim of the researcher is to explore how the field has been constructed, what types of capital are valued and how people from different social backgrounds make sense of this. I am employing critical discourse analysis to do this, using interviews, focus groups, and existing texts. I have phased my data collection, looking firstly at the overall field, and secondly exploring people’s careers at an individual level. I am just embarking on a detailed analysis of the data collected for phase one, so themes and findings are emergent, though initial impressions suggest class is talked about in a number of contradictory ways, whilst  “getting in and on” is talked about mostly as an individual enterprise, both of which tend to obscure the problem of, and solution to, classed inequality. Phase two will explore this in more detail.

The aim is that this approach offers a different way of understanding and addressing classed inequality at work. Thus rather than simply increasing the representation of people from different backgrounds, and hoping for the best, this research will highlight how more structural and cultural features of context need to be addressed (as well as the possible issues of doing so). This could be used to explore other forms of inequality at work and other occupational fields. It is also a potentially useful way to understand your own self at work (perhaps as a social psychologist too!), thinking of the capital that is valued in your chosen field and finding ways to maximise what you have.

Samantha Evans is an Associate Lecturer on DD317 Advancing social psychology. To learn more about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk


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Research on citizenship and political action: Building a new project

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Research topics are attempts to bridge gaps between academia and everyday life, and between theory and action. For Spyridon Logothetis, research is an attempt to bring contemporary contexts into academia and to make our discipline more relevant to our everyday lives. In this blog, he describes how he formulated his interdisciplinary social psychological PhD project on local political action in Greece.

As an undergraduate I always thought that psychology was about individuals, individuals who may be racist, prejudiced, authoritarian and so on. However, by isolating the individual from their social context, I felt that we were missing a large part of the story. In other words, I felt that we chose to discuss social problems only as an extension of problematic individuals. In my opinion, this positioned psychology as a discipline outside the world which it is very much a part of.

Because I was concerned with social issues, I started exploring social psychology in an attempt to address the problems as part of a system rather than as the products of individuals. As I kept reading, I realized that my understanding of the everyday world was also changing.  Now, any news about social and political issues was both an opportunity and a problem: an opportunity to bring a contemporary issue into academia, and a social problem that required a solution through participation in collective action.

When I started to formulate my research project, I asked myself ‘What is interesting here? Why is it interesting for me? Why is it interesting for psychology? How can I address the issue?”. Given my academic background, and because I have been involved in collective action and I come from Greece, a country where politics is never boring, I thought that the best way to combine my everyday life and my academic interests would be by trying to challenge established notions and to situate my research in an everyday contemporary context.

As such, my PhD project will study citizenship from the perspectives of lay political actors, through an examination of local political action in Greece. Recently, in the context of the refugee crisis and the economic crisis, there has been a resurgence in collective action that aims to appropriate space as a means of protest and as a means to make claims visible in the public sphere. Such claims connect with a strand of research that suggests that certain actions, like protesting, occupying space and so on, are a way of performing citizenship.

Contrary to so much social science research that focuses on policies and institutions, or constructs citizenship as belonging to a nation state, my aim with this project is to develop an everyday approach to citizenship, paying particular attention to the role of place for identities and drawing insights from social psychology, geography, anthropology and political science. As you will notice, my project is not restricted to social psychology because I think that many of the answers we seek are not adequately addressed by disciplines in isolation. We should bridge gaps by drawing insights from other disciplines. For example, my project has a specific focus on space and identity, a concept with a long-standing tradition in social geography.

The project will take place in Exarcheia, a neighborhood in Athens. I chose this specific area as it has a tradition of collective action, as well as a strong focus on reclaiming space as both a means of protest and a means of addressing social problems such as inadequate housing. The project is an attempt to examine contemporary issues through a socio-psychological lens. It is also an attempt to situate my research in a way that I can relate to personally and academically. For me, working on something I am genuinely interested in makes a lot of things easier.

The next part of structuring a research project involves choosing your methods. The social sciences have a range of different methods, both quantitative and qualitative. The important question is ‘What do I want to know?’. This question guided my choice. Both quantitative and qualitative methods have their merits as well as their limitations. For example, a questionnaire can cover a range of topics and it can be easily distributed, but it provides only superficial information, reduced to a 1-7 point scale. On the other hand, semi-structured interviews provide in-depth scrutiny of the topic, but they are also time-consuming and limit the project to a small sample size.

My aim was to choose an appropriate tool, keeping in mind time constraints, the need to obtain access to participants, ethical issues and other problems. I decided that I will use semi-structured interviews, walking interviews, photo documentation and field notes.  In this particular project, an in-depth examination of people’s rhetorical constructions, supplemented with photographic material, offers a more holistic approach and provides a rich context so that a reader can relate to and understand things in the context they occur.

To sum up, I see the process of structuring a project as similar to building a house. Just as the house requires materials, a worker’s skills and labour, tools etc., the project requires a broad knowledge of the topic and the context in which the research is going to take place, the researcher’s effort, and a methodological toolkit appropriate for the job. Most importantly, it requires dedication, organization and consistent application. However, the outcome is always rewarding and will become a concrete step up to further accomplishments.

This week's blog has explored some ideas which are discussed in more detail in our new module, Advancing social psychology (DD317). 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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New social psychology research on a contemporary subject

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This week's blog reviews a recent success for a newly qualified social psychologist, Dr Marie Paludan. Her work is an interesting example of current interdisciplinary research which has 'real life' significance, and also links to some of the content in our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317).

This week a research student from our OU School of Psychology, Marie Paludan, received the AOUG Chancellor Baroness Boothroyd Award for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, given for a PhD on 'Performing young womanhood in neoliberal Britain: Discursive constructions of new femininities'. To unpack all of that, AOUG is the Association of Open University Graduates (AOUG) and they give a number of awards each year to students who were OU undergraduates, then went on to do PhDs. This award is named after a former Chancellor of the OU, Baroness Boothroyd. I thought it was particularly appropriate that it was the award received by Dr Paludan, because Baroness Boothroyd was the OU's first woman Chancellor and Marie's PhD is about women, specifically young women in England, as the title indicates.

The starting point for Marie's research was the large amount of media attention given to contemporary young women, depicting them on the one hand as 'empowered' (the successful beneficiaries of feminism!) and on the other, as having many problems (e.g. prone to eating disorders, under pressure to look good and be 'sexy', and to be high achievers but not too clever because that puts people off, and to have careers but also make sure they settle down and have children before they get too old – you can probably think of a few more....). Marie wanted to find out how young women confront and manage these ideas about who they are and should be, while living their lives as contemporary young women. This is an interest shared by a number of contemporary academics in different disciplines so there is a fair amount of related research, but none that has exactly the same focus. Marie approached it as a social psychological problem, and more specifically, one in critical discursive psychology. This gave her a particular way of understanding people, and gender.

 As one of her PhD supervisors, I found the research especially interesting because of her research data and methodology. Her chosen approach was discourse analysis, which in psychology is associated with audio data (usually audio-recorded interviews). However, Marie developed the approach further in order to analyse video, specifically vlogs (video logs). If you don't already know about these (I didn't – but I'm quite old), they're the YouTube videos which have made some young people into celebrities, talking about their lives, their tips for make up and so on, all through videos recorded in their bedrooms. In this case, the vlogs were made by young women for an audience of other young women, presenting 'how to' advice on how to manage yourself and your problems (in a way which somehow made the vlogger look as if she didn't have any problems herself).

 So this is a good example of contemporary social psychology research. It began with an issue in society today and looked at other relevant research. It framed the issue as a social psychological problem and adopted an established social psychological approach and method. But it then developed the method further in order to work with a different form of data that was particularly relevant to the issue being studied. If you want to know about Marie's findings, you can obtain the thesis through the OU library. Meanwhile, other students are studying related issues on our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317): new femininities, and masculinities; feminism and post-feminism, critical psychological research, and discourse analysis.

 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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Changing people by changing ideas?

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 22 Sep 2017, 12:21

In this week's blog, Stephanie Taylor considers links between some DD317 themes and a recent news story.

A news story has prompted me to reflect on processes that produce change, an issue relevant to our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317) https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/sep/15/posh-bbc-removes-qualifications-from-cvs-of-job-applicants. The BBC is concerned that its workforce does not sufficiently reflect and represent the class composition of UK society. The organisation has therefore decided to edit the CVs of its job applicants in order to remove details of their schools and universities. The aim is to promote the appointment of candidates from a wider range of social backgrounds in order to make the BBC staff more socioeconomically diverse. (Apparently the proportions of BBC employees who attended private schools, have parents with university degrees or have parents in high-level occupations are all higher than the national average.)

Of course this raises many questions. Is educational background a marker of class? Do elite schools and universities change the class of the people who attend them, or do they accept most of their intake from people who are already privileged? And is this the privilege of having more money, or some other class advantage (for example, based on where people live and their parents' occupations)? Is the BBC's action unfair to people, including some from working class backgrounds, who have worked extra hard to attend elite universities (or send their children to elite schools) precisely to gain some advantage? And do the supposedly elite universities actually provide a better education, or is the HE experience all about the student's own engagement and efforts to learn? For now, I'll put most of those questions aside, although class is a fascinating topic in itself, especially in the UK. What I want to discuss here is the proposed action itself and why it might (or might not) produce change.

The rationale for the BBC's action seems clear. The CV details are assumed to bias recruiters in favour of candidates who have educational backgrounds similar to their own, perpetuating the differences which already exist between the BBC workforce and the wider UK society. But why would this happen? What processes operate to produce such a bias? Like other large organisations, the BBC will certainly have an Equal Opportunities policy and the people who sit on its recruitment panels will be aware that they should be fair and unprejudiced. Presumably most of them embrace these principles and have tried to behave accordingly. Yet the BBC has found that it cannot solve its diversity problem by inviting individual recruiters and panels to pay conscious attention to their choices and decision-making.

One social explanation for the failure is that the recruiters are exhibiting an 'unconscious bias' towards and/or against particular candidates. Psychoanalytic social psychologists (see Block 5 of DD317) might explain this bias in terms of 'the irrational, dynamic force of an unconscious realm, constituting an unknown and directly unknowable intention within the human self' (Kaposi, p.131). In other words, the BBC recruiters may be driven to act unfairly, whatever their good principles and intentions, and without recognising what they are doing.

More generally, social psychologists might consider the bias in terms of a division between 'us' and 'them'. It demonstrates, if you like, a prejudice in favour of the familiar, against 'the other'. We may not intend to favour people who are similar to ourselves, yet we do so because we see them as normal while viewing different people negatively, or even failing to notice them at all. For example, the recruitment panels may not even recognise different applicants as potential BBC recruits, without realising that this 'othering' process is occurring.

Social psychologists who work in a discursive tradition might look here at the ideas and images which are dominant in society. Who do we associate with particular roles, like news reporter or tv presenter? There is quite a range of people already working in these jobs but you can probably identify some categories who don't seem to 'fit'. (Hint: think age, accent, disability, level of education, style of dress, and also your general idea of who is, and isn't, attractive.) If recruiters look for a candidate who 'seems right', they are likely to appoint someone who corresponds to the dominant image, with the consequence that the workforce overall does not change. There may be an additional pressure or tendency towards more conventional, even outdated selections because the dominant image is somewhat caricatured or clichéd. For example, a recent appeal for amateur radio presenters found that many of the applicants were trying to sound like broadcasters of the past rather than the present. (In that case, the judging panel rejected them for being too old-fashioned!)

How, then, can we escape the circularity of like recruiting like? What action can be taken to challenge privilege and promote change? One answer is to work at the social and cultural level to alter currently dominant ideas and images. This may seem particularly appropriate for the BBC. On the one hand, it supposedly represents our society in all its diversity (as the British Broadcasting Corporation). On the other, it is an important contributor to the culture of that society through its programmes and associated activities. By putting 'different' people in visible roles it can break down 'us' and 'them' divisions, reducing the gap between the dominant images and the reality of British society today. And yet... Despite its special opportunities to influence what we think of as 'normal', the BBC has apparently not managed to produce change within its own current workforce, or at least the ones who do the recruiting. What has been the obstacle? Why have they continued to 'other' most of their fellow Britons? The proposed new measures will almost certainly be criticised as 'red tape' and bureaucracy, but it will be interesting to see if they produce changes that this important cultural industry could not achieve in other ways.  

Reference

Dávid Kaposi (2017) 'Understanding conflict and violence: a psychoanalytic approach to social psychology' in E.Andreouli and S.Taylor (eds) Advancing social psychology Milton Keynes: The Open University.


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


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Social psychology at the Open University

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The Open University has a long history of innovative work in social psychology, including through its Level 3 social psychology modules. Many of the textbooks from earlier modules have become teaching 'classics', used in universities worldwide. We've called our newest module, DD317, Advancing social psychology because we want to convey the dynamic nature of the discipline, moving into new areas of theory and research, often informed by contributions from other disciplines.

This new module, DD317, is the teaching 'voice' of the large social psychology research group in the OU's School of Psychology. It includes the research of the academics who produced the module – Eleni Andreouli, David Kaposi, Rachel Manning, Paul Stenner and Stephanie Taylor – and also contributions from other social psychologists in the School - Rose Capdevila, Johanna Motzkau, and our Emeritus Professors, Wendy Hollway and Margaret Wetherell. You can look us up on the School of Psychology website http://fass.open.ac.uk/psychology . In addition, of course, the module presents theory and research from academics in many other universities in the UK and elsewhere.

As we move into DD317's first presentation, we'll continue this blog to update you on new developments in social psychology at the OU, including the publications and research activities of the module team and our colleagues. So keep checking the blog. And for all of you who have registered for the new module, good luck and enjoy your studies!

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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Here we go....new beginnings, and their social meanings

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As we reach September, the DD317 module team reflect on autumn, the new academic year and – at last – the launch of our module.

We began this DD317 blog in spring, a time of new beginnings. Now it’s September and nearly autumn, simultaneously an end time, for the summer, and also another beginning, for the new academic year. This is an example of how ‘facts’ (e.g. about the time of year) depend on the social context. Workers in some parts of society, like hospitality industries, are probably starting to relax, anticipating a quieter time for a few months, whereas academics, like the DD317 module team, are taking a deep breath, opening their new diaries and looking forward to work. We are very pleased to be starting the module.

Social researchers explore the meanings of situations, events and people. There are many traditional ideas and images attached to autumn, from the benign (harvest fruit, changing leaves) to the slightly depressing (falling temperatures and lengthening nights). In addition, of course we now live in an advertising year which from here on moves us through Halloween, Christmas and New Year, Valentine’s Day, Easter and summer holidays: you can probably think of a few more marker points to add in. Narrative and discursive social psychologists might discuss this as the dominant narrative of the contemporary year. Its trajectory can be drawn as a line of peaks and falls, each associated with encouragements to do certain things: dress up, celebrate and indulge in rich food, or diet and get fit; spend money or economize; go out or stay home; socialize or be solitary.

Why does this matter? It seems trivial but has wider implications. On one scale, the encouragements are linked to commercial ventures, for instance, to sell us chocolate and gym memberships. If too few of us buy winter clothes or summer holidays, then businesses will be threatened. So there are economic interests in our compliance with seasonally appropriate behaviour, and power struggles around the associations of the year (think of the increased media focus on Black Friday as a day in the US shopping year which is perhaps being imported to the UK).

On the personal and individual level that interests psychologists, we are influenced by the social year and our social context in ways that go beyond simple ‘choices’. We will find it difficult, if not impossible, to separate ourselves from the events and activities of this social year. We probably shape our own lives to it, organising ourselves to act in seasonally appropriate ways, for instance, to be convivial at New Year and active during the summer. In addition, we experience the trajectory of the social year emotionally, including through feelings of failure at non-compliance (such as the well-known patterns of holiday and festive season depression). We also experience conflict on an individual level, for example, when at particular points in the year (holidays, Christmas) spending money we can't afford can seem to be simultaneously the right and wrong thing to do.

In short, we are social beings and social subjects, disciplining or governing ourselves to comply with social norms and also being shaped by society in our most personal experiences. Yet we are not the same. Each of us is distinctive and able (we feel) to make choices. Society is complex precisely because people do not all obediently walk in step, doing the same things at the same time. This is the paradox of social psychology and one of its most interesting debates. In DD317, we call it the ‘social-individual interface'. We explore its manifestations and implications around a wide range of issues.  

So now, in autumn, we hope you'll be joining us to explore social psychological issues and debates in our new module, Advancing social psychology (DD317). You can find out more about the module in this video https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk and sample the materials in this Open Learn 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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Pride, social psychology and the contested politics of identity

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This week's blog for Advancing social psychology, DD317, by Eleni Andreouli, discusses the politics of Pride and some of the questions that social psychologists bring to LGBTQ issues and contested identities.

Since June, hundreds of Pride events have been taking place across the UK (see Stonewall’s website for information). These events commemorate the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York City, which were incited by a police raid of Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, and which until today serve as a symbol in the LGBTQ rights movement. This year, Pride also coincides with the 50-year anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

Pride is a celebration of difference, as is evidenced in the party atmosphere and the colourful rainbow flags of these events. More importantly, Pride is a loud call for social recognition. It makes otherwise minoritized identities (gay, trans, bi etc.) visible and present. The parades in central public spaces and streets (such as London’s Oxford Street) are an example of this increased, albeit brief, visibility.

The politics of Pride are, however, more complicated than what a simple minority/majority schema suggests. While Pride has gone a long way to bring LGBTQ issues to the mainstream, critics argue that it promotes a narrow vision of liberal tolerance and that it commercialises and, ultimately, de-politicises struggles for recognition and equality.

Pride is clearly an example of the contested politics of identity; a politics, that is, of making rights claims on the basis of a shared identity which has been historically oppressed. Identity is of course a central social psychological concept and many social psychologists have studied how identities become the source for political action. Social psychologists have also alerted us to the danger of essentialising identities, that is, approaching identities as fixed, singular and mutually exclusive. Taking what is called an ‘intersectionality’ approach, social psychologists have studied not only how groups act on the basis of a shared identity, but also how identities mutually constitute each other to produce complex subjectivities and intermingling communities.

The concepts discussed in this week's blog are explored in our new module DD317 Advancing Social Psychology. 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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Pay inequalities at the BBC - an interdisciplinary postfeminist analysis

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A recently published report has revealed huge discrepancies in the salaries of presenters at the BBC. The highest paid men earn far more than the highest paid women, and there appear to be significant salary differences even between men and women doing the same jobs. In response, more than 40 women who work for the BBC have sent an open letter of protest to the director general, Tony Hall.

This week's blog by Stephanie Taylor considers the BBC situation using a concept proposed in a recent academic article. The concept of a 'postfeminist sensibility' draws on the social psychological approaches of discourse analysis and critical discursive psychology. It is an example of the interdisciplinary academic work which is a feature of our new Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317).

The row over BBC salaries has attracted a lot of media attention, perhaps because it concerns (other) media workers. The situation can be seen as an example of the phenomenon of a 'postfeminist sensibility', discussed in a new academic journal article:

Rosalind Gill, Elisabeth K. Kelan and Christina M. Scharff (2017) 'A Postfeminist Sensibility at Work' Gender, Work and Organisation Vol. 24 No. 3 May 2017

This relatively new concept is also an example of interdisciplinary research which brings together ideas from social psychology with other disciplines, in this case, media studies, organisation studies and gender studies.

The authors of the article define a 'postfeminist sensibility' as an observable pattern that they have identified in different contexts. The pattern comprises 'discursive moves', such as arguments, and 'repertoires' or groups of ideas, related to gender inequalities in workplaces. In a variety of work situations, the authors found that similar explanations are presented to justify or gloss over gender inequalities. The pattern has four parts.

The first part is 'the allocation of gender inequalities to the past' (Gill et al., 2017, p.232). This occurs when people talk about inequalities as part of history, as if they are not relevant to working life today, even when they are observably part of that life. At the BBC, this can be seen in the director general's letter to the women presenters. He claims that the problem of unequal pay is already being addressed – the only issue, apparently, is that the change is happening too slowly, so the priority now is to 'accelerate' the equalising which is underway. Hall is presenting a progress narrative, as if improvement over time is inevitable. Interestingly, the women presenters also invoke the past, criticising the pay gap on the grounds that we live in an 'age of equality'. This, too, suggests that the pay gap is an unfortunate hangover from an earlier historical period. There is agreement that it has no place in today's world. [But in response we might ask: Really? Are inequalities steadily closing? Is progress inevitable, or might inequalities be an all too normal aspect of contemporary life, and perhaps even getting worse?]

The second part of the pattern of a 'postfeminist sensibility' is that gender inequalities are allocated to 'other countries and contexts' (p.232). In this situation, there is indignation that the inequalities have been revealed at the BBC. BBC women presenters point out that they have campaigned against the gender pay gap for years. They assert that they love the BBC and what it stands for. This draws a line between 'them' (other people, who tolerate inequality) and 'us' (enlightened civilised people who don't). It's almost as if the unequal pay is a mistake which has been exposed and of course must now be corrected! [But what are the 'other' contexts where inequalities would seem less surprising? Perhaps a more constructive line of investigation would be to look for similarities between those other contexts and the BBC.]

The third part of the pattern is that women are portrayed as 'the advantaged sex'. In the BBC situation, this appears, for example, in a protest from a male actor. He says that men need to receive higher salaries in order to support their wives and children. His argument of course rests on the assumption that women are never breadwinners, supporting their own families and partners (male or female). It also implies that childcare is a woman's task and responsibility. [No comment... sigh]

The fourth and final part of the pattern of a 'postfeminist sensibility’ is what the article's authors call 'acceptance of the status quo' (p.232). This appears, for example, in references to 'just' how things are, or in no reference at all, because a feature of the current situation seems inescapably obvious – as if the world can never change. Some of the points taken for granted in the BBC situation are that presenters are not paid on a scale, according to their roles (like nurses, teachers, other public service workers...) but instead are rewarded as individuals, and that every salary to have been revealed is a huge multiple of the National Minimum Wage (about £14,600 p.a.) or even the National Living Wage (about £15,600). You can probably think of others.

The discussion could continue but hopefully it has shown how the concept of  'postfeminist sensibility' is useful as a lens for viewing a situation of gender inequality. You might like to think about it in relation to other situations, or read the full article.

The first author of the article, Rosalind Gill, discusses postfeminism in an interview on our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). The module also covers discourse analysis and critical discursive psychology as research approaches.

To learn more about the module Advancing social psychology (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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Social psychology and the (new) norms of working lives

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Tuesday, 18 Jul 2017, 20:19

We live in an ever-changing society and last week a new report focused attention on changes in the way we work. The report Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices is the outcome of a ten month process of consultation and research by a government-appointed group led by Matthew Taylor (no relation) from the Royal Society of Arts https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/reports/good-work-taylor-review-into-modern-working-practices.pdf

Work is relevant to almost everyone's current, past or future life. The Taylor Review is also particularly interesting to social psychologists and other social researchers because of the issues it raises around what is normal and how norms change.

The Taylor Review indicates some of the changes that have taken place in working lives, and some that haven't. One relates to flexibility. The Review suggests that flexible working has become a normal aspect of working life in the UK, and is something to be celebrated:

'Encouraging flexible work is good for everyone and has been shown to have a positive impact on productivity, worker retention and quality of work' (p.14).

It suggests that one reason for the recent rise in self-employment is that people want to be able to work flexibly.

Flexibility sounds good when it refers to a worker being able to choose what work to do and how intensively to do it, but perhaps less so when the flexibility advantages the employer: apparently about half of UK workers are so flexible around working hours that they now work overtime for no pay! So flexibility seems to be a new norm in the double sense of being a description of the behaviour of many, if not most, workers, and also what people accept as necessary, or feel that they should do without question (even when it disadvantages them). In this second sense, 'normal' is a prescriptive term, implying a value judgement.

But these two senses of 'normal' are not always in sync. This can be seen in the example of parents who are also workers. The Review notes that in Britain today 'it has become conventional for both parents of small children to work' (p.97). Yet it also reports that a survey found that '50% of mothers described a negative impact on their opportunity, status or job security' (p.96) as a result of having a baby (i.e. during pregnancy, maternity leave or when they returned to work after maternity leave).

So it's normal for mothers (and fathers) to work, in the sense of this being a common behaviour, but the idea that mothers work doesn't seem to be accepted. There's a disjunction between the behaviour and the idea. Working mothers are still being treated as odd or 'not normal' in that their situations are questioned, made difficult, problematized. This example indicates that ideas and values do not automatically change to reflect what people are doing. Behaviours can continue to be ignored, or treated as abnormal, even when they're common.

Taking this a step further, social psychologists are interested in how ideas and values can drive what people do; in other words, the idea of what is 'normal' can come before the normal behaviour and even produce it. One of the academics who has written about this is Nikolas Rose (http://nikolasrose.com/ ). He has researched how psychologists, and psychiatrists and psychotherapists, have contributed ideas about normal behaviour which have then become a model or rule for how people (try to) live. In response to expert knowledge, people behave as (they think) they should do and/or everyone else does. Following this line of thinking, we could see the Taylor Review as contributing to the (further) normalising of flexible working, and the identity of a flexible worker.

Of course a further point of interest is why some ideas don't become established, that is, why some identities and behaviours are not normalised. For example, why does the identity of 'working mother' (or perhaps a better term would be 'worker-and-mother') remain problematic or 'troubled'? One reason might be because of the persistence and continuing celebration of other identities, like an idealised stay-at-home Mum (probably still associated with an image of 'a normal family'), but that's a point for a different, longer discussion.

The Taylor Review was commissioned by the government. The Review team collected evidence, much of it in the form of submissions volunteered by various organisations and individuals (https://beis.dialogue-app.com/matthew-taylor-review ). On the basis of this evidence, the Review makes recommendations for government action (new legislation; better enforcement of existing legislation etc). It therefore has the delicate task of straddling the two meanings of 'normal', describing 'modern working practices' in the UK, and also pushing to make them what (the Review panel thinks) they should be.

Of course, the Review is not alone in this. It is just one, very interesting example of how political actions (the government commissioning a review, the publication of the report on the review) potentially impact on personal lives in ways that we might not expect. It draws attention to the power of experts, and researchers, as the source of ideas, and the media, as major disseminators of those ideas. Part of its interest for social psychologists is as an example of how the idea of what is normal can impact on our behaviour, and on how we think of ourselves (for example, as normal workers). In short, it is an example of the interface between social context and the individual person, and that is what social psychologists study.

This week's blog has explored some ideas which are discussed in more detail in our new module, Advancing social psychology (DD317). 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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Support or something else? Insights from psychoanalysis and social psychology

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 10:59

This week's blog continues our exploration of social psychology in society, looking at a current advertising campaign informed by psychoanalytic or psychosocial social psychology. The blog, by a member of the DD317 module team, explores the psychoanalytic premises of the campaign. It then takes a more critical approach, questioning their implications.

The campaign under discussion is one by an admirable and important charitable organisation. It features a woman turning away from the camera. The top of the poster quotes her: Please don’t worry about it, you guys help people with worse problems than me. Underneath the picture, we read: “We don’t just hear you, we listen”. Thus, what the poster communicates is that the woman (we shall call her Joanne here) who has recently experienced hardship, conveys at face value that she is OK yet deep down that she is not. And the poster also communicates that the charitable organisation will not just hear the superficial talk but actually listen to the deeper message.

This, in fact, is a logic which was by and large introduced to the world by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. You say one thing but you actually mean something else – and the psychoanalytically-informed listener understands what that something else is. Why you would not or could not in the first place say what you mean is of course another issue, and the answer depends on the theoretical perspective taken. Freud’s psychoanalysis was distinctive in the sense that he hypothesized sexual and/or aggressive urges which would deep down motivate us to do things, yet which we would not be able to express on the surface. The poster’s message is probably different; although it is not clear why Joanne does not say what she really means to say, there is no suggestion that it would be due to her feelings being unacceptable.

These are big differences, and whilst we would imagine that Joanne will be grateful to the charitable organisation for listening, she would probably find it rather more difficult to come to terms with Freud listening to her and offering explanations in terms of repressed sexual/aggressive urges. In fact, she would probably accuse Freud of merely “listening without trying to help” – that is to say, imposing his silly theoretical agenda on her without being sympathetic.

At the same time, and on a deeper level (if I may…), there is a more disturbing common feature shared by both Freud’s and the charitable organisation’s way of listening.

The message of the poster suggests that an interaction between Joanne and the charitable organisation would look something like this:

Joanne: Please don’t worry about it, you guys should be helping people with worse problems    than me.

Organisation: You mean… “Please help me”…

Joanne: Yes…

Yet this actually contradicts another presumption of the poster, which is that Joanne cannot quite say what her problem is. That is to say, the sequence above is predicated on Joanne being both unable and able to access her genuine state of mind/heart (i.e., that she has lost hope). But why is this plausible? If something keeps Joanne from saying “Please help me” at one moment, why would she simply agree to it a short moment later? If, for whatever reason, Joanne is not able to communicate her true meanings at one moment, would it not be reasonable to assume that she is equally unable to accept them a moment later? So, the interaction would become something like this:

Joanne: Please don’t worry about it, you guys should be helping people with worse problems than me.

Organisation: You mean… “Please help me”…

Joanne: Oh… you are nice. But, no thanks, I really am OK.

or even:

Joanne: Please don’t worry about it, you guys should be helping people with worse problems than me.

Organisation: You mean… “Please help me”…

Joanne: No! Didn't I just say the opposite?!

In these alternative scenarios, based on either Joanne’s consistent inability to articulate what she means, or the fact that what she says on the “surface” actually conveys all that she wishes to say, she is rejecting the organisation’s “listening”. Perhaps she is wrong as to the meaning of her original utterance and the representative of the charitable organisation is right. Yet even this would not alter the fact that there is a certain insistence on the part of the charitable organisation that these hypothetical scenarios convey. In other words, there are certain features that the original campaign poster masks (in its premise that Joanne is first unable then able to access her deeper state of mind, in quick succession).

If we think that in the first instance Joanne is unable to articulate certain feelings, we might as well assume that she will find it equally difficult in the second instance. And if, in fact, this is the case then the charitable organisation’s message potentially becomes less one of benevolent understanding and more one of a possible intrusion.  If this is acceptable, the difference then between the charitable organisation and Freud’s direct descendants is not that the former are benevolent and the latter a bit aggressive and imposing. Inasmuch as something keeps Joanne from speaking her mind, chances are she will find it rather painful if anyone (i.e., the charitable organisation, Freud or even Joanne herself) persuades her to: and she will accordingly resist it. The difference between the charitable organisation and Freudians will be that whilst the former wish to forget that they are actually intrusive in making Joanne think about what she does not want to think about, the latter treat their own aggression as inevitable and try to work/learn with/from it.

 

This week's blog has explored some of the ideas and practices which have entered society by way of psychoanalysis. One of the themes of our new module, Advancing social psychology (DD317), is the impact on society of social psychology and connected theoretical areas, like psychoanalysis. To learn more about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk


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A new issue about stereotypes

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 10:59

Stereotyping is an ongoing social issue, as a glance as recent news headlines will indicate. Numerous stories centre on challenges to the unthinking use of national, racial and ethnic stereotypes, gender stereotypes, stereotypes of victims, voters, people who succeed and people who have problems. Stereotyping is one of the classic concerns of social psychologists, connected to the study of prejudice. But recently the topic has become the focus of disputes within the discipline, given an extra importance because of the social power of social psychological ideas and theory.

In this week’s blog for DD317 Advancing social psychology, John Dixon, Professor of Social Psychology at the Open University, introduces the debate:

The ‘unbearable accuracy’ of stereotypes?

Psychological research on stereotyping suggests that many negative beliefs we hold about members of other groups are false. They are the product of biases, preconceptions and other forms of faulty thinking.  In other words, they are expressions of prejudice. Over the last decade or so, however, this view has been increasingly challenged by a tradition of work on the so-called ‘unbearable accuracy of stereotyping’. According to Lee Jussim and colleagues (2009), we may find it uncomfortable to accept that many  negative stereotypes about ethnic, racial and gender differences are true; however, growing evidence suggests that such stereotypes often do reflect the objective characteristics and behaviours of target groups. As you can imagine, this claim has sparked a heated debate, raising questions about the ethics and politics of stereotype accuracy research and about the assumptions it makes about the relationship between social perception and social reality. For example:

  • Is it possible to establish ‘value free’ and objective criteria through which we can assess the accuracy of stereotypes?

  • Are stereotypes not in the eye of the beholder, reflecting particular interpretations of others’ behaviours?

  • Is the project of measuring stereotype accuracy ethical, given its potential to justify discrimination against others?

These are some of the issues discussed by John Dixon, Professor of Social Psychology at the Open University, in a paper recently published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

Dixon, J. (2017). ‘Thinking ill of others without sufficient warrant’? Transcending the accuracy-inaccuracy dualism in prejudice and stereotyping research. British Journal of Social Psychology. doi:10.1111/bjso.12181. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/doi/10.1111/bjso.12181/full

 

You can read more about the social and political power of psychology in our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). You can watch a video on the module here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk


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Is Theresa May leading the UK into a liminal hot spot?

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:00

This week's blog is from Professor Paul Stenner, a member of the DD317 production team. He introduces a new social psychological concept which may offer some insights to the current Prime Minister.

On the 17th January this year Theresa May gave a long-awaited speech about how her government plan to manage Brexit. She announced 12 upbeat objectives, but she also said that these are to be realized in what she called a ‘phased approach’, which will mean a more or less lengthy period of interim arrangements that we will be obliged to work with until, for example, a new legal framework for financial services is established. In the middle of the speech she made the following interesting remark about her interim phase:

‘By this I do not mean that we will seek some form of unlimited transitional status in which we find ourselves stuck forever in some kind of permanent political purgatory. That would not be good for Britain.’ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-brexit-speech-latest-no-long-lasting-transitional-deal-eu-european-union-trade-deals-a7531286.html

This is a good example of one of the many ways in which Theresa May has tried to reassure the public by presenting herself as a strong and stable leader, committed to pursuing the interests of the country as a whole. For the same reason she stated quite emphatically on several occasions that she would not call a ‘snap’ election because of its likely de-stabilizing effects. When she broke her word on this in April, and left the country just 6 weeks to prepare for the election on June 8th, this was because she felt certain she would secure a landslide victory for the Conservatives. Instead she lost her majority along with much of her credibility. More importantly, however, she has increased the likelihood that the Brexit negotiations will approximate her scenario of ‘permanent political purgatory’.      

In fact, this scenario that Theresa May called ‘unlimited transitional status’ is not just a rhetorical gesture that works to scare people into supporting government policies. It is actually quite a good description of a very real phenomenon that can play itself out at numerous levels and scales, from micro level interpersonal dynamics, through institutions, all the way to the macro level of large-scale historical events.

The expression I’ve coined to get at this social psychological idea is the ‘liminal hotspot’. The value of the concept of liminal hotspots is that it illuminates common features in settings that might otherwise appear unconnected. Johanna Motzkau, Monica Greco and myself recently edited a Special Issue of Theory and Psychology on the topic of liminal hotspots (published in April, 2017). In the Special Issue, the concept is applied to a variety of situations including cyber-bullying, social work with young drug users, romantic relationships and even the Kiev uprising of 2013/14.

In anthropology, the word liminal is used to name the middle phase of what Arnold van Gennep called a ‘rite of passage’.  Gennep showed that rites of passage have three phases: first the ‘rites of separation’ which separate people from their previous role and identity niche, and third the ‘rites of incoporation’ where the new status is ceremonially conferred and recognized. The liminal phase is the second or middle phase: a phase of transition. It is an unusual phase in which the normal rules and expectations that limit what people can feel, say and do are temporarily suspended. Victor Turner called this a ‘betwixt and between’ phase because people going through a liminal transition are no longer what they were, but not yet what they will become. Liminal transitions can be of enormous social psychological importance because they are situations in which people become something different, and hence begin to acquire new forms of subjectivity and know-how appropriate to new roles and social identities. But this transitional phase is also a limited phase in the sense that it ends with some sort of re-entry into social and psychological business-as-usual. We are interested in what happens when the transitional status is, to use Theresa May’s word, ‘unlimited’.

The sociologist Arpad Szakolczai – who has an article in our Special Issue - has shown that the concept of liminality has particular relevance in today’s unpredictable world, where it often tends to become permanent. Building on this work, we argue that rather than being purely a stage of transition, it is possible to get 'stuck' in liminality. Indeed, in many societies, a temporary phase of transition from one stable circle of activity to another is becoming less and less likely, and liminality is the norm.

What we call ‘liminal hotspots’ can be glossed as occasions in which people feel caught in a transition that has become permanent and uncertainty and tension acquire enduring qualities.

Might Theresa May be leading our country into just such a liminal hotspot?

More about liminal hotspots can be found in a recent interview I gave with Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist Read the full interview.

You can read more about the social and political power of psychology in our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). You can watch a video on the module here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk

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Illness, disability, welfare and psychology – a critical social view

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:00

This week’s blog is from Prof John Cromby, one of the social psychologists whose work is discussed in our new module, Advancing social psychology (DD317). John presents a critical view of a current social issue to show how psychological knowledge can be used politically.

The government are cutting benefit payments to people who are ill and who have disabilities. For over a year now, the journalist Frances Ryan has been documenting the frequently devastating effects of these cuts upon the lives of vulnerable people – see here, for just some of the many instances she has uncovered.

Since 2008 we have repeatedly been told that these cuts are necessary because we can no longer afford ‘profligate’ welfare spending. We have been told that it was this spending – and not the hundreds of billions we paid to bail out the banks – that created the UK’s current spending deficit. Ministers have made speeches that distinguish between ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’, and suggested that there are many families where three entire generations have never worked. These speeches imply that all those who claim benefits are cheats, living off the hard work of others.

The truth, as usual, is more complex. Research funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation failed to find any evidence for entrenched inter-generational cultures of welfare dependency. Some benefits help keep people in work, or out of hospital, and this generates savings elsewhere. The government’s own figures show that, in 2016-16, benefit overpayments due to either fraud or error were estimated at £3.1billion. This was just 1.8% of total government spending on benefits – and was offset by an estimated 1% in underpayments. By comparison, in the same year tax evasion is estimated to have cost the government £36billion. And in any case, cutting welfare budgets is not the only way to balance the books. So removing benefits from ill and disabled people is an ideological choice – not an economic necessity.

Broadly speaking, psychology is being used in two kinds of ways to make this ideological choice seem more acceptable. I have already touched upon the first: to create social identities that pit those in work against those who claim benefits. Elements of the media have furthered this psychological project by producing and broadcasting what are widely called ‘poverty porn’ programmes.

The second way in which psychology is being used to make this ideological choice seem more reasonable is by shaping the experiences of benefit claimants themselves. Strategies have included relatively obvious changes such as replacing sick notes with ‘fit notes’. But they have also included more subtle changes with no overt political agenda, such as requiring benefit claimants to undergo personality testing. As Martin Willis and I show in our paper (Cromby and Willis 2013) this apparently innocuous initiative can in fact be seen as an instrument of political power – one that is all the more effective for being difficult to recognise.


You can read more about the social and political power of psychology in our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). You can watch a video on the module here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk

 

Reference

Cromby, J. and Willis, M. (2013) ‘Nudging into subjectification: governmentality and psychometrics’, Critical Social Policy, vol. 2, no. 34, pp. 241–59.


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A social psychological view of contemporary workers.

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 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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A social psychological view of voting

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:02

In this week's blog, the module team for Advancing social psychology (DD317) offer some timely social psychological reflections on voting in elections.

Undoubtedly, voting is a very important form of political action. It is one of the principal ways that citizens voice their political views and participate in the processes of democratic governance.

Voting can signify agreement with the way things are, or alternatively it can be a sign of protest against the status quo. For example, the Brexit vote, which was a surprise to many, can be said to symbolize dissatisfaction with the political establishment. On the other hand, the recent vote for Emmanuel Macron in France illustrates that French voters showed a preference for established centre politics as opposed to the far-right politics of Marine Le Pen and the Front National.

How can we understand how people vote? Given the failure of recent polling to predict electoral results (such as Brexit and the 2015 general elections in the UK), it appears that voting behaviours can be quite complicated.

From a social psychological perspective, we can approach voting in terms of the kinds of groups that people are affiliated with. For example, if someone identifies as a socialist, they are likely to support the Labour Party in the UK. If on the other hand, they identify as a social conservative, they would be more likely to support the Conservative Party. The role of identities in political action, and particularly identities that are politicized (such as activist identities), is examined in detail in work in the social identity theory tradition, for example in the social identity model of collective action, which is discussed in DD317.

Other social psychological work can also be very useful for understanding voting and political behavior more generally. For example, social constructionist approaches, such as social representations theory and discursive psychology, examine the ways that citizens construct knowledge about their social and political worlds and how this ‘common sense’ knowledge is connected to the history, politics and culture of particular communities. Such approaches also emphasise the ideological underpinnings of what we can call ‘common sense’. They suggest that common sense is not neutral and a-political but that it is ideological and consequential. Gaining a deep understanding of how people think about politics, not just their attitudes to specific issues, can give us insights into their political orientations and voting behaviours.

Social psychologists would also note that voting is a form of action, and interaction. It is one of the actions associated with citizenship, along with carrying a particular passport and paying taxes to a national government. It can therefore be understood as a way of enacting or performing citizenship, a form of belonging associated with the nation. The academic theorist Benedict Anderson described a nation as an 'imagined community' because its citizens feel that they belong together, as a community, yet there are too many of them to be personally acquainted: the community can't be directly experienced but only imagined. Voting is an individual action that is meaningful because the voter imagines many other individuals voting at the same time, participating in the same election. Obviously it wouldn't be an election if there was only one voter! The action of voting therefore reinforces the imagined community and idea of the nation, even though there is disagreement about who should win the election.

In addition, we may also note the social psychological significance of the role and perception of political leaders. Contests are not always as much about individuals as in the case of the US or the French election, yet personality is inevitably an element of any election contest. In fact, in the present British election arguments abound that the decisive factor might prove to be the perceived difference in the personality of the party leaders – all the policy details will pale in contrast. Thus, there exists a “special relationship” between voters and leaders. Leaders often embody idealized or wished-for aspects of voters’ selves. The “care” the leaders profess with regard to those who are to be governed is not completely unlike that of caregivers in a family.

Finally, the recent US presidential election and the UK referendum raised some other thorny issues about the relationship between social psychology and voting. There has been a lot of discussion about the involvement of certain companies who specialise in using psychological knowledge of personality profiles to predict and influence various online behaviours and preferences. Some of these companies focus explicitly on steering the outcome of elections by using psychological knowledge to influence how, and indeed whether, people vote. A common strategy is to send messages designed to tap into individual emotional dispositions, playing to voters’ hopes, fears, desires and prejudices. This controversial idea of using social psychology as a means not just to describe, but to deliberately shape and change people’s opinions and conduct is addressed in DD317 under the label of ‘humaneering’.  This humaneering mission of social psychology raises many ethical and political issues, especially when such companies are funded by powerful and rich individuals seeking to manipulate elections for their own profit. Should social psychologists let their knowledge become a tool for such manipulation, and if not, how should they resist?   

 

To learn more about how you can use social psychology to understand voting and political action, check out our new module DD317 Advancing Social Psychology.


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Doctor Who Part 2: Social psychology and psychoanalysis

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:02

Our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317) introduces psychoanalysis as a distinctive social psychological approach. What insights can it offer? As an example, a member of the DD317 module team continues a previous discussion of Doctor Who by offering a psychoanalytic interpretation of one particular episode.

An earlier entry on this blog pondered some of the social psychological angles from which to shed some light on the unique cultural phenomenon that is Doctor Who. Yet, given that the longest-running science fiction series in the world embodies an almost Shakespearian quality of engaging many people on many levels, some further thoughts might be welcome. Here I utilise the psychoanalytic distinction between fantasising (in the sense of conscious daydreaming) and unconscious phantasies that result from our inability to tackle some real (and really frightening) emotional dilemmas.

The relevance of this distinction to Doctor Who occurred to me during the Matt Smith era, when I was watching the episode Night Terrors. As I recall, the episode featured the Doctor receiving a psychic message whilst being out and about at the edge of the universe. He takes the message, “Please save me from the monsters!”, with utmost seriousness. It is, he says, only some enormous scare that would make a message like that be delivered that far. It then turns out that the message in question was written by an eight-year-old child by the name of George, who, despite living amidst the mundane surroundings of a British estate, is convinced there are monsters living in his cupboard. Whilst we (but not the Doctor, of course) all know that this is completely impossible, we are also not utterly surprised when the Doctor’s two companions, Amy and Rory, disappear into the cupboard to be chased by some freakish looking giant dolls with a lovely chuckle and a not-so-lovely lethal embrace.

Now these dolls are monsters and the thrill of the episode may be attributed to their monstrous attributes. Yet, as we subsequently learn in the episode, they are mere products of the child’s phantasy. The child, you see, is not quite what he seems to be. As the Doctor figures out, he is a Tenza child, an empathic and otherwise benevolent alien who needs a host family to survive. George’s “parents” on the estate, Alex and Clare, were not able to have a child of their own – yet they really wanted one. This is what the Tenza creature could sense and it then turned itself into the embodiment of Alex and Clare’s wish: George. Using a “perception filter”, he made Alex and Clare believe that he was really their biological son and forget that they never had one, that Clare was never pregnant (this is what the Doctor spots when looking at family photographs!) and the likes.

What no magic can achieve, though, is to assuage George’s (i.e., the Tenza creature’s) profound fear that his hoax will one day come to light and he will then be got rid of. His way of coping with his fear is to put it in the cupboard. Yet, as you may suspect by now, this strategy rather backfired as it gradually transformed the cupboard into the giant container of all sorts of monsters and evils – some of whom are right now chasing Amy and Rory!

So what exactly is my point with all this?... It is that the Doctor’s realisation that as the monster dolls are actually arising out of George’s fear they will only be pacified if George faces up to his fears is essentially a psychoanalytic insight. For the fear and its objects (i.e., WHAT or WHO George is afraid of) will indeed become fantastic if banished to phantasy. They will grow out of all proportions and acquire all sorts of characteristics they would never have in broad daylight. And when George becomes able to open his eyes and replace the frightful magical mantra (“Please save me from the monsters”) that reached the Doctor at the other end of the universe with the action of facing up to those phantasy monsters – they immediately disappear.

What does not disappear, of course, is George’s original fear of abandonment. And even without being coloured by his fearful phantasy, that is no small issue either (after all, if it was, it would not have had to be pushed into the cupboard!).  As Alex and Clare were tricked into “adopting” the non-human creature George originally was (or still is?), how will they react on learning this? We have recovered from the relief of Amy and Rory surviving the doll scare, but we suddenly focus on George. His feelings are no longer banished from consciousness and therefore phantastically frightening. But recovering them into conscious thought also exposes him to the original fear, and indeed some frightening reality, that he couldn't previously face. What is now in the open is that he is not a human but a Tenza, as is the prospect that he was originally defending himself against: that upon learning this and realising they have been tricked, Alex and Clare will show him the door.

How does the episode end? We all know how. The common family history which Alex, Clare and George have shared proves stronger than blood. Alex and Clare's original wish has really made the Tenza creature into George and they would never ever contemplate giving up this George, their son.

Look up more information about our new  Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317) (which unfortunately doesn't feature Doctor Who)


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Theresa May and chips

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 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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Social psychology and 'Doctor Who'

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

In our continuing series of blogs from the production team of the new module Advancing Social Psychology (DD317), Stephanie Taylor brings a social psychological perspective to 'Doctor Who'.


There's a new series of 'Doctor Who' so we're off again in the TARDIS with a different woman companion, played by the wonderful Pearl Mackie, and the same old superior Doctor (check the comments on male-female relationships in the earlier DD317 blog on Vogue magazine).  But I do like watching Peter Capaldi and I enjoy the series enough to keep dipping in.

The new companion, Bill Potts, has had quite a hard life but she's been liberated by education (a point for all OU students to note, although be reassured that the Doctor is not typical of OU tutors). We're told that she wants to travel to the future and her journey In the first full episode, to an Earth colony on another planet, raises some interesting questions about how we imagine future worlds. There's a clear message that improved technology is not enough to make life good. Social psychologists would agree with that. We reject the idea that technological developments dictate how society will change (the idea known as technological determinism), arguing instead for a more complex interplay between the technological and the social.

Like all the Doctor's woman companions, Bill Potts is presented as an ordinary contemporary woman and, like the others, it's noticeable how free she is. These women may have their problems – Bill has to serve chips in the university cafe – but they tend to dress as they want, follow their lives and loves as they choose, and of course go wherever they want in the TARDIS, leaving other responsibilities behind, including the job in the cafe.

This fits with a common narrative of gender, that people today have left behind the constraints of past gendered roles, and that women in particular are now confident and empowered. But narratives can be widely accepted without necessarily being accurate. In DD317 we approach this one critically. We present the work of social psychologists of gender who question the supposed freedoms of women, and men, in the UK today. This is part of the discussion of New femininities and masculinities in Block 4 Contemporary social psychological subjects.

The Doctor Who writers generally suggest that the Doctor's companions take a distinctive, and superior, 21st century world view wherever and whenever they travel, although they may empathise with people from other times. It's as if the high point of human understanding has been reached right now, in the present day. The people of today, represented by the companions, are normal and everyone else in time and the universe is 'other'.

Social psychologists point out that the concept of the 'other' is subtle but important, and dangerous. By emphasising the normality of 'us' and the strangeness of 'them' (and on Doctor Who yes, they do often look quite strange), the concept encourages a blindness, and deafness, to 'their' point of view, and their possible protests about how they're being treated by 'us'. The 'other' is part of a way of thinking associated with cultural encounters through the ages, including in situations of war and colonialism, and it can become a justification for contemporary inequalities and divided societies, two major concerns for social psychologists, as we discuss in DD317 in Block 2 New encounters across cultures in a globalised world.

And there's so much more to be said about 'Doctor Who'. Watch this space for the next episode of this discussion.


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A social psychological view of Brexit

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 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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