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Psychology and history: CuSP viewpoints

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Wednesday, 20 Jan 2021, 13:31

In recent meetings, the Culture and Social Psychology group have been revisiting some of the ‘big debates’ within the psychology discipline. In December 2020, invited by Sebastian Bartos, members discussed the relevance of history to psychology.

Psychology and history have an awkward relationship. Most students will be taught about the history of the discipline as part of a recognised topic ‘Conceptual and Historical Issues in Psychology’, commonly referred to as CHIP - a somewhat dismissive acronym (an Open University CHIP resource can be accessed here https://www.open.edu/openlearn/chip ). One relevant issue is whether psychology should be categorised as a science (the planned topic for another CuSP meeting, in February 2021) in contrast to history, which is generally located with the arts and humanities. A scientific status is often associated with a claim that psychological knowledge is ahistorical and universal, providing once and for all ‘truths’ about people and their behaviour, regardless of ‘who’, ‘where’ or ‘when’. Many psychologists, especially social psychologists, would challenge this, claiming instead knowledge must be contextualised, and what holds for people in one situation may not be ‘true’ for others, in a different place and time.

At the CuSP meeting, academics from the group talked about the relevance of history to their research.

Dr David Jones researches mental health and criminal behaviour. He described how in one research project he found that care for the mentally ill continued to be dominated by the closure of the UK’s asylums (in the 1980s) because new forms of community care variously mirrored or reacted to the earlier provision. In David’s words, the asylums ‘cast a long shadow’, both on understandings and treatments of mental health, and this shadow needed to recognised. 

Read more about David Jones here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/dwj88

Dr David Kaposi is currently re-examining some of the most famous research in the history of psychology, Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience. David pointed out that the relation between psychology and history is further complicated by the need also to consider historiography, the writing of history and, more generally, the forms of record-keeping that conventionally support it. Researchers who use archived material and written accounts need to understand the circumstances and assumptions that shaped what was recorded and also, therefore, what was omitted. It’s not appropriate to treat ‘history’ as a neutral record of the past.

Read more about David Kaposi here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/dk3936

Examples that supported this point were evident in Prof. Peter Hegarty’s discussion of the particular relevance of history to his research on intersex surgery. He noted that over time there have been shifts not only in terminology, with earlier terms now seen as pejorative (e.g. ‘hermaphrodite’), but also in the medical focus brought to intersex (for example, on chromosomes or hormones).

Read more about Peter Hegarty here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/ph8658

Dr Johanna Motzkau offered further examples from her research on children as witnesses, and the extent to which their voices are listened to, and heard. A key premise of her research is that ‘each instant of listening is shaped by and expresses political, social and experiential circumstances, i.e. cultures’ (Motzkau and Lee, 2021). So, again, it is necessary to understand the history of an encounter, including a research encounter, and of the problem being investigated.

Read more about Johanna Motzkau here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/jfm238

Dr Rose Capdevila discussed the more general relevance of history to academic research, including how the values that prevail within a particular period, for instance, in favour of or against competitiveness, or ‘niceness’, or collaboration, will shape the research and its findings. Moreover, history is often linked to memory, and the value we place on remembering the past, including past researchers. Rose quoted Sara Ahmed: ‘Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before.’ (Ahmed, 2017, p.15).

Read more about Rose Capdevila here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/jfm238

Finally, Dr Sebastian Bartos used the lens of psychology to explore people’s personal understanding of history. In the UK, both laws and public opinions on sexuality have changed over the last 50 years. This provides an opportunity to talk to people about historical change they have personally witnessed – and their understating can be surprisingly nuanced.

Read more about Sebastian Bartos here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/sb42739




Sara Ahmed (2017) Living a feminist life. Durham and London: Duke University Press.


Johanna Motzkau and Nick Lee (2021, in development) ‘Cultures of listening: psychology, resonance, justice’

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Sexual Harassment, Psychology and Feminism – A new book

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In a new book, Dr Lisa Lazard from the School of Psychology and Counselling at the Open University explores #MeToo and how women’s assumed empowerment in contemporary culture has shaped understandings of sexual harassment and social responses to it.

This book explores how the phenomenon of sexual harassment has been made sense of and understood, both in psychology and in popular culture, over the last forty years. #MeToo, as the most recent public challenge to sexual harassment, received an extraordinary amount of public support in comparison with how the phenomenon has been treated in the not so distant past. Historically, there have been periods in which sexual harassment, and those who have experienced it, have been trivialised and even vilified. While the support #MeToo received can be seen an evidence of progressive social change, it is also the case that #MeToo highlighted tensions and contradictions in conceptualisations of, and practices around, gender equality.

That so many individuals, particularly women, continue to experience sexual harassment in their everyday lives is, in many ways, surprising because the idea that women are now empowered has become highly visible and taken for granted in contemporary culture. Feminism has become undeniably popular and mainstream over the last decade which has contributed to the impression that gender equality has been achieved. That #MeToo became a viral phenomenon seemed to unsettle ideas of women as empowered sexual subjects and, men as able to easily embrace softer ‘inclusive’ masculinities. #MeToo certainly contrasted with postfeminist ideas which suggest that gender equality has been achieved and as such is no longer needed (McRobbie, 2004; Gill, 2016). These tensions have arisen in contexts heavily shaped by neoliberalism which suggests that individuals are freely choosing subjects who are responsible for their own decisions and the state of their lives. Neoliberal subjects are encouraged to be entrepreneurial and to work on themselves (both at work and in their personal lives) to become ‘better’ – to achieve and succeed (Scharff, 2016).

This book explores the cultural landscapes that have come to shape and frame contemporary resistance to sexual harassment. Using insights from discursive, feminist and intersectional approaches in psychology, the book examines dominant understandings of gendered sexual subjectivities, relationships and notions of equality that are relevant to sexual harassment dynamics and how these intersect with other relationships of power, particularly race and class. A key theme of the book is the examination of persistent longstanding discourses around gendered sexual subjectivities in which women are relatively passive in relation to men as active sexual subjects. These discourses, for example, suggest that men are naturally compelled to seek sex with women. Women, on the other hand, are seen as pursued for sex rather than the pursuers of it. These gendered discourses have been seen to support and enable the sexual harassment of women by men (e.g. Gavey, 2018; Lazard, 2009). The book examines how these ideas co-exist with discourses of women’s empowerment and gender equality in neoliberal contexts and how the ideas shape victimisation and perpetration.

The sexual harassment of women by men has been represented as a particular problem in the workplace, in both psychological research and feminist activism.  Indeed, it was Weinstein’s use of the Hollywood casting couch which prompted actress Alyssa Milano’s Me Too tweet that became the viral hashtag.  Chapter 2 explores how new modes and ideals of work (e.g. working for yourself, entrepreneurship, flexible working) and workers (e.g. autonomous and competent) have shaped how sexual harassment is understood and dealt with. The chapter argues that the widespread traction of #MeToo was supported by neoliberal feminist discourses  in which sexual harassment becomes understood as constraining neoliberal subjects’ ability to achieve, succeed and better themselves.

Chapter 3 discusses the construction of victim identities in feminism activism and popular culture since the 1970s. Victimhood has been much maligned in popular discourse because of its association with powerlessness and passivity. Drawing on media reporting of the sexual harassment of singer Taylor Swift and actress Ashley Judd, this chapter explores how notions of empowerment may offer new possibilities and complexities for positively claiming victim identity. While Chapters 2 to 4 are primarily concerned with the sexual harassment of women, Chapter 5 examines the sexual harassment of men. In Chapter 5, I explore the circumstances in which men are accorded or denied speaking rights as victims. This chapter presents an analysis of media coverage of celebrity men that joined #MeToo as victims. This includes the sexual harassment of the following celebrity cases: Anthony Rapp by Kevin Spacey; Jimmy Bennett by Asia Argento; and Terry Crews by Adam Venit.

The final substantive chapter of the book considers the popularisation of the term ‘sexual predator’ to refer to perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence. Within the sexual predator discourse, sexual offending is treated as symptomatic of individual’s abnormal psychology. These abnormalities are seen as a fixed and stable part of identity (Taylor, 2019). The sexual predator discourse presents barriers to perpetrator speaking rights as well as for being heard. This is explored through the examination of media coverage of celebrity perpetrator apologies for sexual harassment during the galvanisation of #MeToo. The media reporting treated perpetrator explanations as excuse- making and further evidence of individual pathology. The pathologisation of perpetrators provided the basis to dismiss their accounts. The implications that the sexual predator discourse has for intensifying vilification of particular groups (e.g. racial minoritized groups) and for fostering positive social change is discussed.


Gavey, N. (2018). Just sex? The cultural scaffolding of rape. Routledge.

Gill, R. (2016). Post-postfeminism? New feminist visibilities in postfeminist

times. Feminist Media Studies, 16(4), 610–630. https://doi.org/10.1080/


Lazard, L. (2009). Moving past powerlessness? An exploration of the heterosexualisation

of sexual harassment. Psychology of Women Section Review, 11(1), 3–11.

McRobbie, A. (2004). Post-feminism and popular culture. Feminist Media

Studies, 4(3), 255–264. https://doi.org/10.1080/1468077042000309937.

Scharff, C. (2016). The psychic life of neoliberalism: Mapping the contours of

entrepreneurial subjectivity. Theory, Culture and Society, 33(6), 107–122.

Taylor, C. (2019). Foucault, feminism and sex crimes: An anti-carceral analysis.

Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429429866.


Read about Lisa Lazard's work here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/lml279

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New research on creative workers

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Professor Stephanie Taylor introduces a new collection of published research. 

Pathways into Creative Working Lives is a collection of fifteen chapters on new research into the ways that people enter so-called 'creative' work. For more than two decades, policy makers and educationalists have celebrated the ever-expanding range of occupations that make up the global sector of the cultural and creative industries. Over a similar period, the higher education sector has developed more education and training courses for people who aspire to enter creative careers. Some of these courses are presented through art schools, the conventional training places for creative practitioners. Others are linked to new degrees on the creative industries. And in addition to these more formal pathways, many people attempt, with varying success, to turn their personal creative talents and enthusiasms into income-earning jobs. Artists and makers, designers, musicians and performers in different genres and media, writers, curators and many others all attempt monetise their creativity and creative practice, with varied success.

For academic researchers, creative work raises a great many issues, economic, political, ideological and psychological. There is now a substantial literature about the creative industries across several disciplines. The psychology of creativity is a well-established, to some extent separate field, largely concerned with how creativity can be defined, explained and fostered. For social psychologists like me, the focus shifts to the perspective of the workers themselves. Why do they value creativity? What is the shape and nature of a creative working life? indeed, what do its practitioners think that creativity is (Taylor 2019) and why do they persist in the pursuit of creative careers, in the face of well-publicised challenges and difficulties?

The new edited collection addresses these and related issues. The collection developed out of an event for an international research project on creative industries and the digital economy*. Researchers from different countries and disciplines met in Dublin to present their findings on the career pathways and opportunities available to creative workers in different national contexts. We talked about the effects of state-funded projects, old and new expectations, technologies and initiatives to support creative workers, and we considered the barriers to success. The research that was discussed at the event is presented in the thirteen chapters in the body of the new collection.

In the first and final chapters, Susan Luckman and I write as co-editors of the collection. In Chapter 1 'Creative aspiration and the betrayal of promise? The experience of new creative workers', we consider whether higher education offers effective preparation for a creative career. We look at the obstacles encountered by aspiring creative workers and ask what can help or hinder them. In the final Chapter 15, 'New pathways into creative work?' we consider some long-held more general assumptions about how people become workers, and ask what, if anything, makes creative work different. We conclude by turning back to my previous research on the practitioner's own viewpoint (Taylor, 2019), considering how a personal identification as a creative person impacts on the experience of creative work.

* ‘Creative Industries and the Digital Economy as Drivers of EU Integration and Innovation’ (CIDEII) Erasmus+ Jean Monnet Project 2017-2019


Taylor, S. (2019). A participant concept of contemporary creativity. Social Psychology Quarterly, 82(4), 453-472.

Pathways into Creative Working Lives is published by Palgrave Macmillan https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-38246-9 Three of the chapters, including Chapter 1 https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-38246-9_1 and Chapter 15 https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-38246-9_15 are available open access so they can be downloaded directly

Read about Stephanie Taylor's work here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/sjt38



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Madhouse and the Whole Thing There: A PhD Story

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Monday, 7 Sept 2020, 16:53

School academic Dr Simon Clarke, Lecturer in Critical Mental Health, has just successfully completed his second PhD. This is unusual (should we now call him 'Doctor Doctor'?) and the PhD is additionally unusual because it utilises the method of autoethnography. Here Simon demonstrates an autoethnographic approach in a series of short extracts.

It’s the usual routine in my job as a clinical psychologist in the UK National Health Service (NHS), first thing in the morning: drop my bag and coat on the desk; exchange pleasantries with the few team members in this early; turn on the computer; go to the kitchen to make a coffee; check emails (not so bad, but it is still 8am); open the patient data system; swipe my card in the card reader; pick up the to-do list.

First action: respond to the care co-coordinator’s query from yesterday evening. I search for the client on the system. It barely even registers that the client has a vaguely similar name to mine.

Until, emblazoned on the screen, somewhere near the bottom of the returned searches: my name, address and date of birth.

I stare at the screen for a few seconds in wry disbelief. I have been taken back for a moment.


In the car, in the car park, outside the clinic. Privacy needed. I am on my mobile phone to the Data Protection Manager. Yes, that’s right I say. No, I didn’t open the record on the online system. Yes, I know I could lose my job if I did that. I wave nervously as a colleague walks past into the clinic with a client in tow. Yes, I say back to the Data Protection Manager, I was a patient in the 1990s and I now work here for the same mental health service. Yes, I recovered. You haven’t come across this kind of a case before? A pause. OK. Well…how can I get hold of my notes then? I don’t know what’s on the system and I’m concerned that my colleagues could access them. A Subject Access Request? Yes, I would. Very much. Thanks.


The large package, 404 pages, sits with me on the passenger seat all the way home, as if it were a person. When I get home, my wife is waiting for me. I carry the large package to my chest like a baby.

It’s here I tell her, dropping the fat package on the table. We unwrap it together. The A4 cardboard box that was inside the package sits on the table.

Are you going to open it then? She asks.

I’m not sure, I say. I then open the lid and start rifling through the first few pages.

God, there’s so much of it, she says. Her fingers pull out one sheet from the pile – PATIENT PROPERTY LIST. Tears well up in her eyes. It’s like you were going into prison. You were just a kid. A kid scared out your mind.

I’m not ready to read it, I say. I don’t think I can handle it. It was such a shit time. Could you put it back in the box? Maybe I’ll look at it later.


I’m still not sure what I want to do, I tell my PhD supervisor. I think I know what I want my PhD to be about, but I am not sure how to do it. I want to look at psychosis and the experiences of using mental health services, but I don’t think I want to use a conventional psychological approach.

What’s wrong with a conventional psychology approach? He smiles.

I don’t know, I reply, conscious that I might be overstepping a boundary. It’s just…I pause and take a breath. Psychology deals with what it calls empirical ‘data’. Either quantitative or qualitative – it doesn’t matter, the process is the same. There is something that you ‘find’ that is ‘real’ which is more ‘real’ than what you as a ‘subject’ might ‘experience’.

But the more you abstract from the experience, the less real it becomes. Psychology has many layers of this abstraction from the subject of experience – to responses from a questionnaire, to data in a data set, to results from a statistical inquiry. Or themes from an interview – also taken from experience, by a researcher, with their preconceptions and bias, filtered, extrapolated and ultimately fitted into a format consumable for an institutional process, that is often a million miles away from the original experience. Frank (2005) mentions this when he talks about the dangers of chopping up stories into data.

But it’s more than that, I continue. Narrative research reconstructs experience to fit a neat trajectory. All of the messiness is ironed out, all of the uncertainty, and confusion, and pain. The story is presented in a nice, neat linear way: beginning, middle, end. But’s it’s not like that. Not when you go crazy. Maybe not even when you’re sane.

He smiles, and then laughs. So, it’s a question of authenticity then?

I guess so.

Why not do an autoethnography then? He says.

I’m not sure what that is, I reply.

It’s a research method. You use your own experience as data to look at culture, to interrogate.


What’s wrong? Asks my wife.

Nothing, I say. She throws me a look.

I sigh. I’ve finished writing out my experiences and memories as bullet points. I now need to write them up as an autoethnography, as a narrative.

So, what’s the problem?

It’s just…the one perspective seems to rule. I write my experiences down, but what does it matter? So what? Who cares?

She shrugs. Look at other perspectives then. What about your clinical notes?

It’s an interesting idea, I think.


You’re doing a PhD? My mother asks. But don’t you already have one?

I have a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, I say. A DClinPsy. It’s a professional doctorate. This is different. It’s research.

OK, she replies. I don’t think she quite gets it, but I can see she’s intrigued. Why are you doing it?

I guess I’m just interested in things. There are some questions I need to answer. And PhD will give me the research training I need to answer them. Having a PhD will also be good for my career, as well, I end somewhat lamely.

What’s it about? She asks.

I take a deep breath inside – I’m not sure how she will feel about this. It’s about madness, I say. And authenticity. It's about that time when I was in hospital as a teenager. I’m doing something called autoethnography. It’s where you use your own experience. A bit like autobiography, but more focussed.

She is silent for a good few seconds. Her expression is inscrutable.

Did you know I kept a diary of that time? She says. Another pause. Do you want it for your research?

I can’t believe she’s just offered me this. I wasn’t expecting this. I want the diary, but it also feels like quite a responsibility to her. That would be amazing, I say. Are you sure?

Yes, if you think it will help. I haven’t read it since I wrote it, to be honest. I don’t really want to read it.

I don’t really expect her to give me the diary, but on our way out several hours later, she disappears. When she returns, she hands me a blue A4 lined textbook. Here you go, she says. You really think it will help?

I’m sure it will, I say, awed. Thank you.


I sit at the same table as I sat three years’ ago when I first collected my clinical notes. They are on the left; my mother’s diary in the centre; my hand-written recollections of the same events on the right.

And that, I think, is the crux of the matter. Much narrative research in mental health is based on the first-person perspective only, which can, if unchecked, lead down the same back-alley of mainstream psychology in its stubborn refusal to jettison the atomised, individualised self.

The failure of such a self is its inability to acknowledge that we are inescapably and unutterably social, to our very core. Our experience is not our own. For good or for ill, we are what we are to the people who live with us, and who we love, and sometimes who we hate. We are the product of what other people make us to be, and what we make of them.

It’s like Patty Lather (2009) said, “authenticity is much more complicated than singular, transparent, static identity categories assumed to give the writer a particular view” (p. 20).

I think about the people involved in my story: the clinicians who detained me, with all of the best intentions I suspect, but which left me broken and traumatised for many years afterwards; my family, who suffered with me, helpless, but who also contributed, unconsciously and unknowingly, to my distress; my wife, who worked with me to get these experiences down on paper; the therapeutic community, who helped me get my life back; and, finally, my PhD supervisors who guided me and helped me to recognise and give voice to the different people and perspectives around me. My subjectivity is shared amongst them.

And yet… it is a wry irony, and a deep paradox, that, ultimately, the ‘buck stops here’: one person with a pen and a pad, trying to make sense of all of this complexity.

But I don’t think about these complexities too much, just yet. I put pen to pad. I begin to write.


[This blog post contains excerpts from my PhD and from a paper published in Qualitative Research in Psychology. Whilst all the events took place, some dramatic license has been taken with the details for the sake of narrative continuity.]



Clarke, SP 2018 'Madhouse and the whole thing there', Qualitative Research in Psychology, vol 15, no. 2-3, pp. 247-259, DOI: 10.1080/14780887.2018.1429989 

Frank, A 2005, ‘What is dialogical research, and why should we do it?’, Qualitative Health Research, vol. 15, no. 7, pp. 964–74. 

Lather, PA 2009, ‘Against empathy, voice and authenticity’, in AY Jackson & LA Mazzei (eds.), Voice in qualitative inquiry: challenging conventional interpretive, and critical conceptions in qualitative research, Routledge, London, pp. 17–26.


Read about Simon Clarke's work here http://www.open.ac.uk/research/people/spc459



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New understandings of fathers’ experiences of grief and loss following stillbirth and neonatal death

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Sunday, 12 July 2020, 22:47

How do stillbirth and neonatal death affect fathers? Open University academics have reviewed the available research and presented it in a new article. Dr Alison Davies from the School of Psychology and Counselling describes the findings.

Scoping reviews are an effective way to map the literature on a particular topic or research area in order to identify key theories, concepts and practices. They help identify gaps in the research, including methodological approaches, and are often used to inform research bids for funding.  Open University academics conducted a scoping review to explore men’s experiences of the loss of their baby in the immediate post-natal period, and their experiences of ongoing support. The aim of this review was to inform future thinking on recommendations, interventions and priorities for new research.

Worldwide, there are over 4 million perinatal deaths each year (the death of a child during pregnancy or in early infancy). 2016 figures for the UK indicate 5544 babies were stillborn or died in the early neonatal period (ONS,2018). Such loss is linked with poor mental health outcomes such as anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  

Until now, most research has focused on the psychological measurement of parental grief. The key outcome of these studies suggests that women experience higher levels of grief than men.  However, these measurement scales have been critiqued for not being sensitive to male forms of expression.

This is generally explained in terms of social and cultural norms that encourage men to internalise their emotions.  Social expectations of ‘being a man’ include not sharing problems or finding ‘masculine’ ways of dealing with problems, such as cutting off from partners or turning to alcohol or substance abuse. Some studies show that fathers’ grief is situated within wider socio-cultural expectations of gender relations, with men internalising their grief in order to ‘be strong’ for their partner.

Other studies, however, point to the importance of paternal identity for men and to the transformative impact of fatherhood on men’s sense of themselves as men. Contemporary fathers are much more likely to participate in obstetric practices such as attending scan, prenatal diagnostic appointments and prenatal classes. These practices encourage an attachment to the unborn infant as well as shaping a prenatal identification as a father, both of which are likely to impact on the intensity of grief experienced.  A source of distress for men is the ambiguity of fatherhood when a baby dies and this is compounded by healthcare providers who are more focused on the mother’s welfare.

This review was guided by the following research questions:

1. The impact of perinatal death for men

2. The meaning of the loss for a father’s sense of identity

3. The extent to which men were able to express grief while supporting their partners, and

4. how men’s experience of grief was mediated by the support and care received by health professionals.

The initial search produced 16,144 records, and this was systematically reduced to 27 studies which met the inclusion criteria. Five main themes were identified: The psychological impact of loss; Claiming paternal identity; Fathers’ expression of grief; Fathers’ support needs; Support and care by professionals.

The review produced the following findings:

  • Men feel pressure to take on a supporter role for their female partner and this may be detrimental to their own health and well-being

  • There is a loss of identity as father after the death of a baby

  • Stillbirth and neonatal death can result in men experiencing disenfranchised grief (a lack of social recognition for their grief)

  • Men are more likely to face challenges to accessing support

  • While the feelings associated with stillbirth and neonatal death are similar for men and women, the expression of these feelings differ – e.g. Men are more likely to use avoidance and coping strategies such as increased alcohol consumption, indicating that men’s health and wellbeing is an important area of research.

  • The lack of knowledge of these issues amongst some health professionals and family members can lead to helplessness, marginalisation and feelings of loneliness during grief.

The review identified the following implications for practice

  • Professionals need to acknowledge paternal loss and the role of men as more than a ‘supportive partner’

  • Health professionals should be encouraged to invite fathers to engage in appropriate rituals to validate feelings and experiences.

There are also implications for future research:

  • Future research should focus on men’s health and well-being rather than using psychological measurements which do not fully capture men’s experiences of loss

Here is the link to the full article:

New understandings of fathers’ experiences of grief and loss following stillbirth and neonatal death: a scoping review (2019-12) 
Jones, Kerry; Robb, Martin; Murphy, Sam and Davies, Alison
Midwifery, 79, Article 102531

You can read more about Alison Davies here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/ad5742

An organisation that provides support related to these issues is  https://www.sands.org.uk/our-work/supporting-parents

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They’re killing my participants!

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Sue Nieland writes about an under-valued group of UK citizens, and the consequences of that undervaluing.

I started my PhD last October with hope, excitement and some disbelief that, after so many years of collecting Masters degrees, I had the opportunity to join the elite group of postgraduate researchers within the OU. I knew it would be a challenging journey with ups and downs, highs and lows, that I would soon lose the star-struck overawed-at-academic-celebrity naivety.  What I wasn’t anticipating, though, is the utter despair just six months on as I watch the government’s policies on COVID-19 kill my participants.

It was always going to be a challenge to undertake my research – into the political decision-making of the oldest of our citizens, those aged over 75 years - because I would be interviewing people who are in the final years of their lives, and who typically have had little opportunity to voice their opinions or views aside from where they might spend their grey pound. Known as the Silent Generation, these are the people whose political opinions are lost within the aggregation of up to forty years of life into the ‘65+’ polling categories, and who have routinely, and inaccurately, been blamed for voting to leave the EU. As research has shown in the last year or so (e.g. Devine, 2019), the older citizens were more likely to vote to Remain in the EU as they experienced life outside of it, prior to 1973, and immediately post-World War II. They experienced those times, rather than reinvented them as subsequent generations have, those who love to draw on and use available political rhetoric of bizarre war metaphors relating to a time they haven’t really a clue about.

As I started to research into the Silent Generation – so called because they quietly get on with life, working hard, and talking little about their experiences – I came across something I had begun to suspect, the insidious arrival of ageism in life’s later years. Married to an older man, I noticed how suddenly he was becoming invisible in the street, how customer service shifted away from really caring what he thought to basically not seeing him. As he said to me before the lockdown, even the chuggers in the high street fail to see him. Constructions of the ‘unproductive and contributing little to society’ ageing population (Swift et al, 2017) homogenised a group of people whose worth has become based on their supposed present and future value as income generators and tax payers, not what they have already experienced and what knowledge and understanding of the world they could share. Despite the efforts to think about older age in two cohorts of active or third agers (Swift et al, 2017; Gilleard and Higgs, 2010) and fourth agers, the oldest and most fragile (Gilleard and Higgs, 2013), society lumps together the over-60s into one polling category, one group measured more by deficit than by value, and more recently, as ‘the vulnerable group’.

Yet when we have an important, patriotic and politically exploitable anniversary of something connected to World War II, the Silent Generation emerge with a type of situated value – they are wheeled out, sometimes literally, to say something about the glorious victory of Great Britain (not the Allies, or those in Europe, Russia, America, Canada and so on without whose help we wouldn’t have prevailed) to the cameras. Often, they say something critical about Brexit which is largely ignored (Hutton, 2019). They are used to make us feel proud of our ‘Blitz spirit’ and never say die attitude, and then they are removed from sight, the medals go back into their storage case, and they go back to the care home or the retirement village. And their voices literally are silenced. With the events of the past few weeks, and the government’s decisions about discharging older people from NHS hospitals to care homes without COVID-19 testing, that silence for many becomes permanent.  

As I write this, the news has announced the knighthood of Captain-now-Colonel Tom Moore following his quite astonishing feat of raising millions of pounds by walking over 100 laps of his extensive garden, with his walking frame, at the age of almost 100 years old. Politicians, celebrities, the public and the media quite justifiably appreciated this effort, and suddenly an older member of our society is celebrated. But Colonel Tom is appreciated because he has perceived value, he is doing something, contrasted with the citizens in our care homes, or those sent from NHS beds into care homes to die. They had no perceived value, and if anything were just in the way, not recognised as being worthy of proper medical care because the beds were most useful to the younger, more valuable members of society. Colonel Tom could have been one of those – but because he has a family, a large property and a degree of financial independence, he is protected. We now know that thousands weren’t.

If the policy to discharge elderly COVID-19 patients to care homes to free up NHS beds was a mistake, a tragic error during ‘unprecedented times’, then perhaps some forgiveness towards policy makers could be forthcoming. But increasingly it seems that this was not a mistake, it was an intentional, planned policy to avoid the sort of images coming from Italy of an overwhelmed health service. Together with special adviser rhetoric from Dominic Cummings – now widely reported – that the loss of a few old people was acceptable to keep the economy going in his belief that ‘herd immunity’ was the best strategy, it can only be assumed that this was the plan all along.

What does this mean for my research? If anything, it has made the research more important than ever. The Silent Generation isn’t just an abstract numerical category of people – they are a unique cohort who have experienced the world of war, political change and upheaval and the emergence of the European Union. When they are gone, so much will have gone with them. Almost certainly thousands have gone as a result of the virus and the actions (or inaction) of our government. All I can hope is that, if a time ever returns when I can sit in a room face to face with a person in their eighties or nineties, there will be survivors to talk to. Right now, I can’t be sure that will be the case.

I was prompted to write this after attending a CuSP meeting and hearing colleagues talk about the work of Mary Douglas in ‘Purity and Danger’ and how she talks about ‘dirt’, how this is ‘matter out of place’ and how the appreciation of something as ‘dirt’ depends on where it is located.  Subsequent authors have used this to explore social ‘dirt’, such as homeless people being ‘matter out of place’ (Berganini, 2019). As I was listening, I could see how those very sick, elderly people who were transferred out of hospital to care homes were ‘matter out of place’. They were occupying space needed for more valuable others, and were therefore ejected, becoming, if you like both social ‘dirt’ and medical ‘dirt’. The shame this brings on our society, and our politicians’ decision making since February, is almost too much to bear.




Berganini, S. (2019) Neoliberal dirt: Homelessness, stigma, and social services in Fort Collins, Florida, Unpublised MA thesis, Colorado State University.

Devine, K. (2019) ‘Not all the over-65s are in favour of Brexit – Britain’s wartime generation are almost as pro-EU as millennials’, LSE Europe Politics and Policy, at https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2019/03/21/not-all-the-over-65s-are-in-favour-of-brexit-britains-wartime-generation-are-almost-as-pro-eu-as-millennials/ (accessed 10th June 2020)

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

Gilleard, C. and Higgs. P. (2013) The fourth age and the concept of a ‘social imaginary’: A theoretical excursus, Journal of Aging Studies, 27, pp. 368 – 376.

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

Swift, H.J., Abrams, D., Lamont, R.A. and Drury, L. (2017) The risks of ageism model: How ageism and negative attitudes towards age can be a barrier to active aging, Social Issues and Policy Review, 11, 1, pp. 195 – 231.  


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George Floyd: The Shameful Psychosocial Dynamics of ‘Race’, Violence and Hatred

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Dr David Jones writes about the dynamics of shame, hatred and fear that have been repeatedly noted, yet still continue.

The current global attention being brought to the problems of ‘race’ and criminal justice by the callous killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, prompts me to write as a white academic who has struggled to write about ‘race’.  I actually struggled to write that first sentence;  I really wanted to precede ‘callous’ with something like ‘inexplicable’, or ‘shocking’. Yet I could not quite do that, as the killing was horrific but in many ways not shocking or inexplicable. It has happened far too many times before for us to seek that comfort.  And the inability of many of us to really think about this shameful topic is perhaps the most difficult and hideous thing we have to think about now. 

In 2008, I published a book that set out to use ‘psychosocial perspectives’ to ‘understanding criminal behaviour’. It had no section discussing the role that ‘race’ played in the criminal justice system, indeed  barely any mention of the topic. I think that I believed that to refer to ‘race’ was somehow dangerous. It was perhaps a shameful topic and one I was not qualified to write about because I am white. The recently published 2ndedition of the book has a chapter devoted to ‘race’.  What changed over the ten year period that ‘allowed’ or ‘prompted’ me to write a chapter on ‘‘race’ and crime’’?  The honest answer, I think, is that I spent substantial parts of that period teaching  psychosocial perspectives on criminal behaviour to students at the University of East London, the vast majority of whom were ‘black’ or other minority. I would sometimes be the only white person in the room and it was this perspective, alongside their kind curiosity, that helped me to think about what it is to be white and how ‘race’ is, at the very least, every bit as much my responsibility to think and write about as theirs.  The facts of the over-representation of black people amongst criminal justice statistics about victims, perpetrators,  stop and search, miscarriages of justice, incarceration, and police brutality are overwhelming, despite the supposedly colour-blind nature of much social science enquiry. Post-colonial claims like Biko Agozoni’s  (2003) accusation that social science, and criminology in particular, are through their obfuscations,  simply tools of colonialism,  look difficult to entirely refute.

I am drawn back to my feeling a lack of surprise at the killing of George Floyd. I began the book chapter on ‘’Race’ and crime’ with the killing in 2016 of Philando Castile by a police officer in Minnesota, a town only about 150 miles north of Minneapolis. Castile was driving with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds and her 4 year old daughter, when they were pulled over as his brake light was supposedly not working. The casual racism of the traffic stop was to be overshadowed by the subsequent events that were captured on film  - on the dashcam of the police car as well as the mobile phone footage taken by Reynolds herself.  Officer Yanez requests to see Castile’s licence and insurance. Castile hands over his licence and calmly and politely informs the officer that he has a gun in his glove compartment (as he is licenced to do). Within seconds Officer Yanez, somehow in a fog of anxiety, fear and hatred fires seven bullets and kills Castile. If the killing is not dreadful enough, the  reaction of Diamond Reynold surely adds to the dismay. Her icy calm demeanour as she tried to contain the anxiety of the police and her daughter – despite her horror at having her boyfriend shot dead besides her  - is testimony to her fear  that she and her daughter are still in grave danger. She is then handcuffed as if she were a perpetrator in such a way that she cannot comfort her daughter who is confused and terrified. Officer Yanez was tried for manslaughter and his verdict of not guilty sparked widespread protest (Jones 2020).

I put this scene near the beginning of the chapter as it seemed to distil something that demands to be understood. It was difficult to view the footage of this killing without feeling a profound sense of upset and anger. At the same time, it also highlighted the importance of trying to think about the dynamics of fear, panic and hatred that have seemed to grip Officer Yanez. It was impossible to imagine that race had not inflamed the encounter, or to avoid the thought that Castile was shot in a fog of anxiety and confusion because he was black. Just as it is impossible to imagine that George Floyd might have been killed the way that he was had he been white.  

I will not attempt to summarise the book chapter here, beyond saying that to understand the dynamics of race, it is necessary to think through the fog created by the shameful  history of European colonisation and slavery and the power of the Americanisation of those dynamics. One striking finding for me was the sheer quality and prescience of the work of the American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), the first black person to be awarded a doctorate at Harvard. His work includes his 1899 study The Philadelphia Negro: A social study. He examined the problems suffered by a largely black neighbourhood of Philadelphia notorious for crime and its poverty. His meticulous study emphasised that you could not understand the contemporary dynamics of poverty, crime, educational failure, familial dysfunction and civic organisation without understanding the historical impacts of slavery, and the psychosocial dynamics created by those in the US. In later work, he wrote about the ’disastrous effects’’ that cultures of slavery had on those doing the dominating. Overall, he presents a brilliant psychosocial analysis and we can wonder why his work is not more celebrated (Morris 2015). Again, of course the problem is really that we don’t have to wonder too much. 

It is fitting to finish with the words of Du Bois as he, in a moving  reflexive piece,  describes his own feelings of torment provoked by living in a society dominated by white people’s precarious feelings of superiority, that lead them to view the very being of a black person as ‘a problem’.  Du Bois describes how he was able to use his feelings of anger and of contempt at this situation to drive his distinguished career.  For those without the advantages that he had, however: 

their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, ‘Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?’ The "shades of the prison-house" closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above (Du Bois 1903 p1-2;  Chapter 1, Of our spiritual Strivings.)

The fact that this was written over 100 years ago might be reason to celebrate the work of W. E. Du Bois, but also to lament the fact that the same dynamics of shame, hatred and fear have been allowed to continue and that we should have any need for a slogan like ‘Black lives matter’. Far too often to be black, and particularly young, male and black, and growing up in London, Minneapolis, Philadelphia or Paris can mean living amidst the debris of the legacy of colonisation and slavery as well as being subject to the anxieties and projections of the culture that surrounds us all. 


Agozoni, B. (2003) Counter-Culture Criminology: A critique of Imperialist Reason.  London: Pluto Press. 

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1899) The Philadelphia Negro:  A Social Study.The University of Pennsylvania Press: Pennsylvania 

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903)  The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches.AC McClurg: Chicago

Jones, D.W. (2020) Understanding Criminal Behaviour: Psychosocial Perspectives on Criminality and Violence..Abingdon: Routledge

Morris, A (2015) The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology.University of California: Oaklands


Read about David Jones here:http://www.open.ac.uk/people/dwj88
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The Covid-19 pandemic as a liminal hotspot

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A new paper by Paul Stenner and David Kaposi reflects on the Covid-19 pandemic and the special difficulties that it poses for thinking about the future. Here, David Kaposi presents an abridged version of the paper. He begins by considering the Queen's recent address to the nation:

While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed - and that success will belong to every one of us… We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again. (5th April, 2020)

Queen Elizabeth II here shows that it requires no special expertise, social psychological or philosophical, to conceptualise this phase of global pandemic and ‘lockdown’ as a period of suspended normality. Surely an essential characteristic of such a state of suspension is that it will end, that we will overcome? Following the lockdown, ‘we will meet again’. But how do we think about this period of suspended life? Here the event is simply positioned in-between a stable past (A) and a stable future (B). This suspension may be global in scope, and last longer than hoped, but nevertheless – to use a metaphor that has recently proliferated – we are invited to think of the suspension as an instance in which life has pressedpause. The suspension will pass and a ‘new normal’ will return. The suspension is thus figured merely as an element in an ordinary narrative sequence (or in the narrative sequence of the ordinary). 

Yet, in attempting to reassure us by assimilating the current period into a larger narrative sequence in which ‘we’ll meet again’, the Queen’s speech cannot help ‘raising’ the more disturbing spectre of what it is reassuring us against – the possibility of ‘us not meeting again’, either because ‘we’ are dead, or because ‘we' are not we anymore. The current events actually have the power to transform us beyond recognition. Together, the two seeming solidities explicitly invoked by the Queen serve as the frame for this unstable chasm that threatens the now. They draw attention away from the chasm as if ‘we’ must notlook down into it.

In our paper, we argue, the words of the Monarch notwithstanding, that we do need to look down into the chasm. It is important to grant the phase of transition the dignity of its own reality, because to create our future it is essential that we engage with what happens in the transitional chasm itself: the unsettling force of this in-between, the suspension of the norms that hitherto had constituted us. To this end, our paper proposes that we should recognise the worldwide pandemic and subsequent lockdown as liminal events. 

Understood in this way, the pause cannot be equated with something familiar like the pausing of a song we have been listening to. Instead, we need to understand how it can be that the song that plays after the pause may be different from what was playing before. And furthermore, we may find that the song we thought was playing before the pause may turn out to have been an entirely different one.  We need to understand how a liminal event inaugurates a period of radical uncertainty which can disrupt and re-order expectations of the future, re-configure memories of the past, and thereby transform the very seat of reality: the present.

And what are the human capacities required to deal with such radical uncertainty? Uncertainty and paradox (where our lives no longer conform to the past nor yet to the future) engender a phase of anxiety: we shift from rumination and no engagement with action, to attempts to escape into unthought solutions. Our paper argues that, on the contrary, what is required to shift from paradox to pattern change is a zone where thought meets reality, and where action is imaginative and thought is creative.

What was unsayable at the time the Queen spoke (and our paper was originally written) was that the lockdown, to point to just one obvious aspect, will not simply go away now that it has entered our lives. Naturally, the first weeks were dominated by the idea that the lockdownwill one day be lifted – yet this expectation already strikes us today as coming from a different world. On one level, we now know that distancing measures will be revoked, then re-introduced, maybe here and maybe there. The blanket ‘all or nothing’ approach will be replaced by a new rhythm and precision. Yet this will not simply be a matter of political measures. A previously more or less unknown entity has now entered our political, social and personal realities and is interacting with them in ways we have even not begun to understand. What it makes of us will depend upon what we will make of it. And this will require the blend of ideals and practicality that underpin creative thought and imaginative action. 

The original paper Virus ante portas:  the Covid-19 pandemic as a liminal hotspot' by Paul Stenner and David Kaposi will be published here(https://diecisiete.org/ Full publication details will be available on ORO, the Open University research depository

You can read about David Kaposi's research here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/dk3936

You can read about Paul Stenner's research here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/ps7476

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Professor Marcia Worrell - A tribute

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It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Professor Marcia Worrell, who died on the morning of April 14th, 2020. Marcia was a great inspiration to all who knew her. Her kindness, intelligence and devotion to justice and equality in the face of exploitation will be sorely missed by all. She was the daughter of parents who came to England from the Caribbean, and the sister of an older brother, Floyd and a younger brother, Ian, whose children (Leah and Dylan) Marcia was particularly close to. She had a large loving family across the UK, Caribbean and the United States. Starting in 1985, she completed an undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Reading. She then went on to complete a Doctorate at the Open University under the supervision of Wendy Stainton Rogers in what was then the Department of Health and Social Welfare. Alongside her PhD research on child abuse and neglect (which used qualitative methods to deal both sensitively and practically with the ethical, psychological, legal, social and political complexities of this challenging topic) she also acted as a researcher and course team member on a range of innovative courses on child protection. Her whole-hearted commitment to education was clear throughout her career, and she was a long-term accredited member of what is now the Higher Education Academy. 

Marcia acquired her first permanent lectureship in 1992 at the University of Bedfordshire (formerly the University of Luton) where she helped to set up the first British Psychological Society (BPS) accredited qualification at that University. During this phase she also became a core member of the Beryl Curt Collective, contributing to the landmark 1994 book Textuality and tectonics: troubling social and psychological science(Open University Press). This wasa radical group of psychologists who articulated an innovative critical approach to psychology. As part of Beryl, she drew upon her own research to show how problems that are typically theorised and tackled at the individual level are in fact related to broader ‘cultural tectonics’ which shape and give rise to the discursive practices through which issues like child abuse and neglect are made sense of and acted upon. 

In 2004 she moved to the University of Roehampton, where she took up the role of Programme Convenor for Psychology in 2007. During that time she also served on the BPS Research Board and chaired the Board of the Children’s Legal Centre. She was awarded a joint Roehampton Teaching Fellowship (2010-2013) in recognition of her work on learning and teaching in higher education. Marcia was an educational innovator, initiating and putting into practice students-as-partners learning approaches even before these were fully recognised as excellent practice in the HE sector. One example of this was how she personally encouraged and supported final year UG students in organising and presenting at their very own academic conference, a concept which was subsequently taken up in other departments and institutions. 

Marcia was also a long-standing committee member, and Chair, of the Psychology of Women (latterly, the Psychology of Women and Equalities) Section of the British Psychological Society, leading the celebrations for the Section’s 30thanniversary. Marcia engaged in political activism in her international work including in South Africa and, notably, in Cambodia where she was part of a development to set up the first Psychology Masters Programme in the country. Staff and graduates of the programme remember her with great fondness.

Her final role was a Professorship at the University of West London where – in addition to her formal responsibilities - she was a central part of the establishment of The London Policing Research Network which aimed to ensure that wide-reaching decisions regarding police practice are informed by up to date, relevant research. Marcia helped to initiate and drive forward a culture shift which will transform police education in the Metropolitan Police Service ensuring that the values she espoused will be ingrained in future policing in London. 

 In acquiring this Chair, Marcia became one of the small number of black women Professors in the UK. Life was not always easy for her, but she confronted friction with the help of a wonderfully honed wicked sense of humour, and she rarely lost the glint in her eye. Amidst all this work, she never ceased to be there for her family and friends when needed. Her friends, colleagues and students will miss her unique combination of generosity, determination, and joy. All who knew her well were touched by her dynamic social presence, joyful laughter and by her unbreakable larger-than-life heart. It seems that until the end she never asked what others can do for her, but what she can do for others. There will not be another Marcia Worrell, but her example will continue to inspire generations of caring, intelligent and politically engaged psychologists and practitioners to come. 


Paul Stenner, Lindsay O’Dell, Rose Capdevila, Wendy Stainton Rogers, Orly Klein, Sharon Cahill, Gina Pauli, Angel Chater.

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Thoughts for the times on virus and loss

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Life during the current Covid-19 crisis situation has been compared to the experience of being at war. For a better understanding of lockdown and its associated anxieties, Dr David Kaposi, a senior lecturer in the School and a psychodynamic psychotherapist, looks back to Sigmund Freud's response to World War 1, and forward to the challenge the current crisis is posing to psychotherapy – and to our lives.

Through that transformative week when those of us who are in the UK were first strongly advised to work from home and only to meet with “essential contacts” (16 March), then saw the schools closed (20 March), then pubs, gyms, restaurants and all social venues (21 March)… when we thus recognised that the current lockdown would be inevitable – I could not help recalling Freud’s reaction to the First World War:

“In the confusion of wartime in which we are caught up, relying as we must on one-sided information, standing too close to the great changes that have already taken place or are beginning to, and without the glimmering of the future that is being shaped, we ourselves are at a loss as to the significance of the impressions which press in upon us and as to the value of the judgments which we form. We cannot but feel that no event has ever destroyed so much that is precious in the common possessions of humanity, confused so many of the clearest intelligences, or so thoroughly debased what is highest.” (Freud, 1915/2001, p. 275.)

As we know, Freud’s concern and practical business was the taming of humanity's wild spirits in the therapy room, to ensure the triumph of the healthy, the ethical and the relational. The triumph of peace. What is more, at this point in his life, not only is he optimistic about achieving such outcomes but also, after a decade in the wilderness, he has followers, their numbers gradually building across the globe. His work is being vindicated not just by his success in turning his patients’ “hysterical misery into common unhappiness” but by psychoanalysis becoming a worldwide movement (Freud and Breuer, 1895/2001, p. 38).

Yet when five months after the outbreak of the war he looks at the devastation, he feels compelled to declare repeatedly: we did not see this coming; we don’t know what’s going on.

I recalled Freud’s poignant confession, this pronouncement of his own limitations at the precise point when he had good personal and professional reasons not to feel limited, because what seems to me the vast, overwhelming psychological characteristic of our present situation is that we did not see it coming. Not when it was in Wuhan, not when it was in Italy, not when it was in Brighton. Or perhaps we did 'know' but did not realise what we would have to reckon with. So why should we assume, even when it has reached into our own houses, that we now do know what’s going on?

To take the example of Freud’s own profession, counselling and psychotherapy, there is hardly any trace of previous thinking or preparation for the wholesale change that occurred pretty much overnight, to move all therapy sessions online. Professional bodies offered no guidelines or warnings for their members. They made no reference whatsoever to a coming change which will profoundly alter our profession. On Monday morning (16 March), online therapy (or 'Skype therapy', as it was known back in those ancient times) was still what it had been for the past decade or so: a marginal phenomenon that was hardly mentioned (let alone taught) in professional training and existed mostly as an occasional substitute for the “real thing”. By the afternoon, online therapy (mostly via Zoom, as Skype all of a sudden seems to have proved less than ideal for therapy purposes) had pretty much become the sole medium for therapeutic activities. As a result, the transition to what is a massive change in the therapeutic setting, and as such with equally massive consequences, has been done in a breath-taking haste and without proper discussion with clients.

Needless to say, the present crisis has political, and ideological, aspects. The “Keep calm and carry on” attitude was, after all, official policy, until its likely horrific consequences had become public knowledge. Yet, another aspect of the crisis may once again go back to Freud and the tradition that has evolved from his work.

I think that the staggering degree to which we have been unprepared to think about the coronavirus crisis is because it is to do with death, and death around us on a mass scale. It may also come to be about our own death, or the imminent and sudden death of a loved one we have not been prepared to lose. And it already means the death of our way of life, the way we were used to living our lives.

The First World War prompted Freud’s first engagement with mourning what we have lost, a psychoanalytic theme that Melanie Klein subsequently positioned at the centre of our psychic life. When the baby starts to realise that they are they and we are us, the baby realises that the thing s/he loves and hates is one and the same thing – the object of love can be damaged and lost. This realisation is possible/manageable and can be sustained if there is some capacity to restore and recover and build up everything again inside the baby’s mind. However, if the person possesses no such capacity (yet), the response may be denial (i.e., “I did not lose it”) or omnipotent control (i.e., “I can bring it back to life whenever I want to”). With those responses, reality is not faced with sadness, sorrow and perhaps hope; instead, there is a (doomed) attempt to triumph over it in manic excitement. 

Today, there is a lot of anxiety around. People are suddenly facing a loss that was denied up to a very short time ago, and they don’t know what to do. Certainly, other people very quickly volunteer to tell them what to do. The advice will perhaps come across as helpful, yet what needs to be considered is whether it is an authentic engagement with a problem, or a manic response that continues to be based on denial and omnipotence. This is a very delicate question, but my hunch is that there can be no helpful response which does not take account of the fact that the author themselves did not see this crisis coming. Any helpful response needs to start with our looking into the mirror, and reckoning not just with the sorrow and sadness that loss entails (Melanie Klein), but with the utter and complete denial that was our own initial response. Otherwise, what appears and is surely intended as helpful support will merely exploit and even ultimately increase the anxiety, rather than genuinely alleviating it.

When encountering the burgeoning genre of “how to survive the lockdown” or even “how to thrive in a lockdown” guides, I therefore feel we need to consider this. Therapeutic support is genuinely needed, and rather basic therapeutic support is genuinely needed, on a vast scale as we suddenly cannot escape loss. We are locked in with it, so to say. Support therefore needs to be offered. Yet it will be no real support if it does not acknowledge in some form its own profound limitations: we did not see it coming (either) and we do not really know what’s going on (either). What we can help with is not by creating the utterly false illusion that we know how to survive such lockdowns, but by preparing ourselves and others to finally look this unexpected and unprecedented loss in the eye.


Relevant literature:

Freud, S. (1915/2001) ‘Thoughts for the times of war and death’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 14.London: Vintage, pp. 273-300.

Freud, S. (1917/2001) ‘Mourning and melancholia’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 14.London: Vintage, pp. 237-258.

Klein, M. (1935/1998) ‘A contribution to the genesis of manic-depressive states’, in Love,Guilt and Reparation, and Other Works 1921-1945. London: Vintage, pp. 262-289.

Klein, M. (1940/1998) ‘Mourning and its relation to manic-depressive states’, in Love, Guiltand Reparation, and Other Works 1921-1945. London: Vintage, pp. 344-369.

David Kaposi’s psychotherapy practice website can be found here.

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The importance of art and film for psychology

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Monday, 30 Mar 2020, 22:38

A new publication from the School of Psychology and Counselling challenges psychologists to take art and film seriously, especially during times of crisis when people go through 'liminal experiences'. 

The article is the result of a collaboration between Professor Paul Stenner from the Open University and Professor Tania Zittoun from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The online first version has just appeared in the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. 

Tania Zittoun is well known for her work on how people use 'symbolic resources' - such as films and novels - to help them through difficult times of transition, and the paper integrates her approach with Paul Stenner's recent work on liminal experiences. These are experiences during which transformative events can leave those going through them in an 'in-between' phase in which they are no longer what they were (in the past) but not yet what they may become (in the future). In such situations people are, in short, suspended between worlds. These experiences can vary from being limited to the individual (e.g. loosing a job at a crucial moment, suffering an intimate bereavement) to society level phenomena (as many from the UK experienced during the height of uncertainty around Brexit), and they can even be global - as shown by the disruptive and transformative effect of the current corona-virus pandemic.    

The new paper, however, does not simply argue that film and other symbolic resources can be helpful to people going through important changes. It also shows that films and art-works more generally can contain valuable insights for all who are interested in psychology

Stenner and Zittoun approach these two related issues in an innovative way through a socio-cultural analysis of a major film: Inception (directed by Christopher Nolan). Their analysis shows how the film stimulates and draws upon imagination just at the moment that it is most needed, due to the way in which transformative experiences can erode the difference between reality and appearance. A person's capacity to imagine a new future is most needed precisely when their future is cast into doubt, and their capacity to re-imagine the past is most needed when a gulf seems to separate what they were from what they now are. But how can psychology - which tends to start with an assumed distinction between objective fact and subjective fancy - cope with these high levels of contingency and uncertainty that are so characteristic of liminal occasions?  

The article shows how Nolan's movie - and art more generally - works dynamically with tensions between fact and fiction, taking these as part of experience, and - if all goes well - providing a space for re-imagining collective and individual existence. Art alone is, of course, not enough: but it can play a vital role. In other recent publications and talks, Professor Stenner has shown how comparable findings extend also to novels (like the Magic Mountain) and plays (like Hamlet), and Professor Zittoun has written extensively on the nature of the imagination.


Stenner, P and Zittoun, T (2020) On taking a leap of faith. Art, Imagination and liminal experiences. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. March, online first.

Stenner, P. and Greco, M. (2018). On The Magic Mountain: The novel as liminal affective technology. International Political Anthropology, 11(1): 43-60.

 Zittoun, T and Gillespie, A. (2016). Imagination in human and cultural development. London: Routledge.

You can read more details about the paper here: https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fteo0000148

 An interview with Paul Stenner from The Psychologist in which he talks about the concept of 'liminal hotspots' can be accessed here: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-31/march-2018/incitement-become-different-can-be-both-thrilling-and-terrifying

"This incitement to 'become different' can be both thrilling and terrifying" | The Psychologist

Talk to me about circles. The German poet Rilke, who was a bit of genius, wrote ‘I live my life in ever widening circles’. I think we all ‘move in circles’… within circles of friends and acquaintances, and between cycles of activity and routine that more or less repeat, like having breakfast, travelling to work, writing a report, trying to persuade our kids to do their homework.




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Viral language? The discourses of COVID-19

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In this blog, Professor Stephanie Taylor considers the language of COVID-19 and its wider implications.

 In 1978, the critical theorist Susan Sontag wrote about the metaphors of cancer. She argued that the language used to discuss cancer, which at the time was considered an almost untreatable disease, echoed that of the so-called war against communism, centred on the Cold War tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. Later, Sontag extended her original book to note similar trends in the language used to refer to AIDS. 

Few people are now preoccupied with the war against communism but the 'war' metaphors that Sontag noted still persist. For instance, it is usual to refer to people who have cancer as 'brave' and to speak admiringly of how they are 'battling' their illness. Some cancer patients have been critical of such language, noting the implication that their recovery will depend on their own efforts, as if those who eventually die of the disease are somehow at fault because they have failed to fight hard enough. 

Critical discursive psychologists and other discourse analysts approach such metaphors as part of the discourses of cancer, and illness more generally. A dominant discourse, for instance, of illness as conflict, may be superseded over time, although it seldom disappears completely. It remains available to be taken up again in new situations, often carrying an extra authority because it is familiar, as if a lost 'truth' is being recognised. 

Discourses can also alter over time. For example, Shani Orgad (2009) has discussed the changing meanings of surviving and being a survivor. From referring simply to those have not died (for instance, when an inheritance passes to the surviving legatees), being a survivor has come to denote 'a desirable mode of being or identity that people are encourage to comply with and take on'. Orgad notes that the statement 'I'm a survivor' is now likely to be a claim to certain personal qualities, like 'individual strength, bravery, self-sufficiency, and determination'. In this sense, it shifts from referring to a past experience (such as, again, cancer or another illness) to a person's potential for the future.

 The reporting and discussion of COVID-19 of course invite careful attention. The point of interest for discourse researchers, including critical discursive psychologists, is to draw out and make visible the implications of metaphors and the other language that is being used. For example, measures involving distancing and 'lock down' inevitably suggest that the threat comes from those outside, some 'other' people, who are different to 'us'. In the rapidly evolving situation, the people who need to be kept out have been those who are, variously, from Wuhan, all of Mainland China, Northern Italy, all of Europe and now, for Australia and New Zealand, everyone else in the world.

 Sometimes the implications of the language themselves become a point of public debate. UK government ministers are currently having to explain that 'self-isolation' does not mean the complete severing of connection with other people, as if you are on an island ('isola' in Italian). Even the change of preferred name, from coronavirus to COVID-19, seems significant. COVID-19 sounds more scientific. Perhaps it also reduces the status of the virus by implying a succession of earlier forms (1-18?) that may already have been successfully dealt with!

The instruction to 'self-isolate' or 'self-quarantine' emphasises everyone's own responsibility for managing the COVID-19 situation. This is consistent with the prevailing individualist discourses associated with neoliberalism. (Orgad also links the new meanings of 'survivor' to neoliberalism, noting the implication of 'a self-responsible individual with a considerable degree of agency'.) Social theorists and researchers have explored how these discourses operate in multiple contexts so that issues like unemployment, racism and inequality are defined not in social or structural terms but as the personal problems of individuals. 

Yet COVID-19 can also be seen to have challenged such individualist discourses by reminding us that our welfare is linked to other people's. Neoliberalism rests on the logic of the market i.e. that individuals must compete with each other, and the winners will obtain the greatest benefit. But when even the wealthiest and starriest celebrities (Tom Hanks!) have been shown to be vulnerable, we are reminded that winners are still part of a larger society. One person's infection is potentially everyone's problem. We can't get away from each other or, to express the point in another way, we are inevitably connected and interdependent. Perhaps, despite the undoubted threat and difficulties it is causing, COVID-19 will have the positive effect of reminding us that we are social beings and our survival, in any terms, depends on our working together.


Shani Orgad (2009) The Survivor in Contemporary Culture and Public Discourse:  A GenealogyThe Communication Review vol.12 issue 2

Susan Sontag (1978) Illness as Metaphor Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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Researching the problems of listening, hearing and voice

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The Culture and Social Psychology group (CuSP) in the OU’s School of Psychology and Counselling spearheads a distinctive and innovative approach to the psychological as materially embodied, culturally mediated, and embedded in social practices. CuSP's focus is on social and cultural psychological research into emergent and liminal cultural and political issues. CuSP research is providing new empirical insight into processes of gendered and political subjectivity, the navigation of boundaries (e.g. identities of place, gender, sexuality), emotional dynamics and affective relationships (including group conflicts), contemporary governance through self (work, media, migration) and the power dynamics and phenomenology of health concerns, including real-world applications and impacts. In addition, a number of members are internationally recognised for their methodological expertise and innovation.

A recent CuSP meeting discussed two new pieces of writing by group members. Each output centres, in rather different ways, on problems connected to listening, hearing and voice.

Dr Lisa Lazard presented a chapter on The Sexual Harassment of Hollywood Men, to be part of her new book Predator and Prey? Sexual Harassment, Psychology and Feminism under Neoliberalism. The chapter discusses a recent development in the #MeToo movement, the publicising of men’s accounts of sexual victimisation. The chapter discusses the significance of these different voices, of victims who are male, not female. Will hearing their accounts force people in our predominantly heterosexual culture to reconsider established ideas? Will there be an erosion of an old binary by which men are positioned as active and women as passive or constrained? Dr Lazard argues that the vulnerabilities and power relations involved are more complex.

You can read more about Dr Lazard’s research on her webpage http://fass.open.ac.uk/people/lml279  

Dr Johanna Motzkau presented a new article on her research into why child victims of sexual exploitation are so frequently not heard, even when they speak out. The article, by Johanna Motzkau and Nick Lee, is titled Cultures of listening: psychology, resonance, justice. It reviews social and psychological theories which consider how communication is shaped by power relations that determine who will be listened to, and heard. This is, of course, particularly relevant to child protection, including the many horrific cases in which the victims of organised groups of abusers had repeatedly asked for help but, somehow, not been heard. The paper argues that the necessary response is not to blame the professional front line workers involved but to challenge the cultures in which they must operate. We need to develop different, more open listening practices to be receptive to what has previously, too often, gone unheard.

You can read more about Dr Motzkau’s work on her webpage http://fass.open.ac.uk/people/jfm238

You can learn more about the Culture and Social Psychology collaboration, CuSP, on this webpage http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp  which also contains details of some future events.


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The abolition of 'part-time' education?

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Sunday, 15 Dec 2019, 14:46

In this end-of-year blog, Professor Stephanie Taylor questions whether the label of 'part time' is appropriate for Open University study.

Are you a part-time student? Do you think part-time university education should be abolished? Before you answer those questions, let's consider exactly what we mean by 'part-time'. The Open University has of course been famous for fifty years as a Higher Education provider for part-time students. However, I'd like to question the continuing use of the term 'part-time' to describe the experience of OU study.

One of the starting assumptions of the Open University was that its students had not moved into university education directly from school. Most of them had followed other paths, and in doing so acquired commitments that would compete with their study as a priority. OU students were likely to have partners and children. They probably had jobs and many had previously completed professional training, especially in teaching, nursing and the Armed Forces, so were working their way up career ladders. (The OU was also popular with retired people and they too could be seen to be studying after work, but in their case on the time scale of a lifetime rather than a working week.) The assumption was therefore that for OU students, however committed, their university education would not be their first priority. 

This contrasted with the situation of full-time students who in those distant days mostly had living grants to attend university (!) so could focus on tertiary education as their main occupation. OU study was part-time because it had to wait until other duties had been fulfilled. This was perhaps symbolised by the timing of the BBC radio and television broadcasts that were part of the study material for early students. The OU programmes were initially scheduled at inconvenient times, late night or early morning, and then often pushed even later, for instance to accommodate sports fixtures. The message was clear. Open University study would have to wait until the rest of life had been attended to.

Roll forward to the second decade of the 21st century and the situation of all UK university students has changed. Fees are substantially higher. Full-time university students no longer receive grants. A high proportion of them combine their study with part-time work as they try to limit the debts they are accruing through their student loans. Open University students may also have taken out student loans to cover their higher fees, and they are still likely to be combining their study with employment and caring responsibilities. In addition, an increasing proportion are studying intensively, registering on two or more modules at once in order to complete their degrees quickly. In terms of study hours, the part-time/fulltime distinction therefore seems much less appropriate.

There are other reasons too why today's Open University students have more complicated lives than the 'part-time' students of the past. We live in a society in which life generally is increasingly pressured and unpredictable. In particular, work and employment have become much more precarious with greater numbers of people self-employed or working on short term contracts. Even for those in secure jobs, working hours are often fluid. Many people now do unpaid overtime, for instance, to deal with work emails from home. The neat division between working time and personal time has therefore been eroded. The old image of the part-time student was of someone who could organise their study into their free time after work, using holidays, weekends and evenings. That kind of tidy separation is now difficult. Life has become less about scheduling and more about 'juggling' to do everything at once, somehow. Ironically, this may be a reason why some OU students are actually increasing their study commitment, in order to try to finish their degrees as soon as possible. 'Part-time' is less meaningful when you don't know exactly how much time is ever going to be available.

However, the final reason why I question the term 'part-time study' holds for both past and present day Open University students. Conventional university education took place in a discrete phase of life and functioned as a transition between school and full entry to adulthood. There is a caricature of university students, particularly applied to those of the 1960s and 70s, as rebels who dress badly, party excessively and participate in violent political demonstrations. Although that image is fading, there is still a widespread expectation, or suspicion, that university is a contained time in which young people may challenge social norms before eventually re-joining the mainstream and settling down. But for OU students, university education is inevitably intertwined with their ongoing life experience. It is not a time apart and for this reason, I would argue, it is more likely to have a long-term influential and even transformational effect on students' world views and life practices. Even the decision to begin OU study is an active undertaking rather than just a semi-automatic 'next step'. Once the study is started, the student's multiple commitments inevitably make it more difficult. Completing a degree is likely to involve a significant personal investment. And because the process of studying is not circumscribed, OU education is likely to force re-thinking and re-interpretation, changing students permanently as their learning impacts on all parts of their lives and on who they are. 

 For all of these reasons, I suggest that OU study is more demanding, more important and more life-changing than the conventional alternative. It deserves a description that acknowledges its specialness, to other people and to the students themselves. Education with the Open University is not 'part-time' but 'part of life'. Congratulations for committing to it and for being an OU student.

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Psychosocial Studies and Criminology: A new book

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Dr David Jones, from the School of Psychology and Counselling, explains how the cross-disciplinary field of psychosocial studies makes a special contribution to criminology, going beyond either psychological or sociological accounts of criminal behaviour. The second edition of his book, Understanding Criminal Behaviour: Psychosocial Perspectives on Criminality and Violence (2019), is published by Routledge.

I wrote the first edition of Understanding Criminal Behaviour  as there seemed to be such a significant gap between the literature that was being produced within the discipline of criminology and the psychological theories that could be applied to criminal behaviour. The effort to build a version of criminology that was shaped within the field of ‘psychosocial studies’ is a response to the problem created by that chasm. I have felt that the project to understand criminal behaviour and its causes has been too long damaged by the failure to fully integrate the emotional, psychological, social and cultural influences on people’s behaviour.  The publication of the 2ndedition is perhaps some testament to the interest in the area. The new edition has wholly new chapters on what I call ‘public violence/ that includes acts of extremist terror and on ‘race’ and crime

The need for such an approach emerges in part from the shape of the criminology discipline as it came to be dominated by sociological thinking, emphasising the socially structured inequalities as the chief causes of crime. Rejection of psychological theorisation was part of this political standpoint. Meanwhile, much academic psychology did little to construct dialogue. Psychology’s focus on the individual appeared to consist of a circular exercise of blaming the criminal for their own criminal propensities. Few psychologists engaged with criminological theory, and the discipline of psychology was dominated by methodological concern to mimic the success of the natural sciences and study people using experimental methods. Questions about the messy lives of those who end up on the wrong side of the law, and how they got there, do not lend themselves well to the methods of experiment and the laboratory.   

Psychosocial Studies began to emerge as a distinct disciplinary area in the late 1980s (albeit with a longer intellectual history) growing from dissatisfaction with mainstream sociology that was viewed as unable to sufficiently engage with the world of subjectivity and agency and also with the discipline of psychology to engage with the significance of the social and cultural domains. It can now best be described as a cross-disciplinaryfield of enquiry that recognises the immanent connections between social and cultural conditions and the ‘internal’ world of the individual. 

There are two outstanding reasons to take forward a psychosocialcriminology. The first is straightforward; there is clearly something lacking in any study of human behaviour that excludes the subjective world of experience. The widely acknowledged impasse in which criminology has found itself is suggestive of that problem (eg, Young 1999). The second is more pressing and contemporary; the functioning of human societies, particularly as they developed within a western context, have become, over the last several centuries, more dependent on the engagement of individuals in the worlds of emotion in order to function.

In order to understand how‘society’ is functioning it is necessary to understand the inevitable interactions between social structures and the subjective and agentive worlds of individuals. Following profound changes in the relationship of the individual to the social world, we have moved towards social conditions in which an understanding of the often reciprocal relationship between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ has become more prominent. 

These shifts can be described in a number of ways but,  have been described most helpfully by Norbert Elias, mainly through his considerable text The Civilising Process (1939/1994) as he traced the evolution of human western societies since the middle ages. He argues that western civilisation has to be understood as emerging from the development of the modern state as it demanded ever more of its citizens to control the expression of emotion and behaviour. A prominent manifestation of this process was the means through which western nation-statesgradually monopolised the right of violence by restricting its legal use to their own military and police forces,  thus usurping that right from its citizens. 

In partthis was organised through the development and extension of the criminal justice system and the associated systems of policing and control. Far more substantially, according to Elias, this was accomplished through various means that have encouraged the individual to internalise social inhibitions and to take control of their own behaviour.  An important mechanism for this control is the development of the capacity to reflect on ourselves and thus regulate our own behaviour.  This capacity for control has most obviously been brought about through the use of familial relationships to transmit ever more intensive practices that demand that behaviour bereflected upon and thus controlled (Wouters 1999).  

An underlying argument of this book is that shame has been used as a crucialmechanism through which behaviour is regulated; an ever more important social force that directs and inhibits human social behaviour that can also be highly provocative of violence. In particular shame, amalgamated with issues of identity, underlies a great deal of gendered violence. Of course, shame as a hidden and intimate emotion presents major challenges for conventional methods of enquiry. 

At the same time, an extremely important dimension of the social changes wrought over the past several centuries, that have facilitated these moves, has been the influence of what Jurgen Habermas (1962/1989) termed the ‘public sphere’. He identified this as an abstract space that opened up between various influential groups from around the dawn of the 18thcentury beginning in Europe. Whilst changes in government and the economy were vital, it was the development of forms of public media (originally in the form of the printing press) that was to eventually allow for messages to be transmitted across the globe about how people should behave and be. The public sphere was to have profound implications for how individuals were to relate to another and for the development of individuals’ identities. 

Whilst this occurred initially across western countries, it has impacted on individuals across the world, as the influence of the public sphere has spread across the globe (Malouff 1996). As a number of commentators have argued, following in the work of Foucault (1967), the development of psychiatry and associated mental health services has been a key force in western societies’ demands for particular forms of subjectivity and control. Thus as the requirement that individuals develop the capacity to reflect upon and direct their own lives and behaviour has increased, so too have the various mental health services grown to support these developments  (Rose 1989). 

There are therefore three outstanding issues that have emerged from these historical processes, that are significant for this book: 

Western societies have put increasing emphasis on childhood as a key period in life when children have to internalise the mores, expectations and, values of the culture. This increase is signalled by the length and intensity of formal education and in the emphasis placed on families to provide a foundational and nurturing experience. As we will see a propensity towards criminality and particularly violence is often associated with what are understood to be unsatisfactory early experiences in families. 

The past 200 hundred years have witnessed an explosion of interest in, and the significance of, the ‘mental health’ of the population. Most obvious symptoms of this shift have been the emergence and growth of the various psychological and psychiatric professions. Meanwhile, the criminal justice system has become interlinked, albeit uneasily, with concerns of mental health. We can see this relationship develop over the past couple of centuries as courts at different times have recognised forms of mental disorder that might be associated with types of offending and people fitting those categories began to be treated differently. Contemporary surveys of prison populations suggest that large proportions of inmates can be identified with suffering from a significant form of mental disorder.   

The influence of the public sphere on individual identity has become a more pressing feature of everyday experience. The influence of the public sphere means that we are no longer negotiating our identities solely through our relationships with those individuals and communities who live around us, but with the more global forces of the public sphere. 

As a discipline,criminology has not been engaging in a sustained way with these key issues. The aversion to psychological theorisation has stymied the capacity of the discipline to engage with such highly significant issues. A psychosocial approach is therefore required and this book is offered as a contribution to that end. 

Dr David Jones is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology and Counselling. He is currently working on a new module called ‘Exploring Mental Health and Counselling’ (D241) that is due to run from October 2020 . You can read more about his research and teaching here 




Elias, N (1994/1939) The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigation.  Trans Edmund Jephcott. Blackwell: Oxford.

Foucault, M. (1967)  Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.Translated by Richard Howard. Tavistock Publications: London

Habermas, J. [1962] 1989. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An

Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. translated by Thomas Burger with the

assistance of Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Jones, D W. (2020) Understanding Criminal Behaviour: Psychosocial Perspectives on Criminality and Violence.Routledge: Abingdon

Maalouf, A. (1996)  In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong.  Trans. Barbara Bray New York: Arcade Publishing.

Rose, N. (1989)  Governing the soul: the shaping of the private self.  Routledge: London.

Wouters, C. (1999) ‘Changing patterns of social controls and self-controls.’ Brit. Journal  of Criminology 39 (3) 416-432

Young, J. (1999) The Exclusive Society: Social Exclusion, Crime and Difference in Late Moderntiy.  Sage: London.

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Professors in the School of Psychology and Counselling

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In a series on the research of senior academics in the School of Psychology and Counselling, Stephanie Taylor, Professor of Social Psychology, discusses some of her recent publications and other activities.

This autumn, my main research activity has been the development of my new book Pathways into Creative Working Lives. I'm co-editing this international collection with Susan Luckman from the University of South Australia, as the final part of our work on an EU-funded project. Since the late 1980s there has been increasing recognition of the economic and social importance of a global creative sector, often referred to as the cultural and creative industries (CCI). Different definitions of the CCI encompass different occupations, but a central assumption is that the sector's workers are looking for the kind of satisfaction and fulfilment that is more conventionally associated with the creative arts than 'ordinary' work. Many of these workers are graduates from art schools. Some have decided to develop a career from a longstanding personal interest in performance or craft or other forms of 'making'. The new international collection discusses the significance of this way of thinking about work, and the experience of curators, writers, artists, actors, media workers, designers and craft workers from across the world. 

For Susan and myself, the process of assembling the collection began with a seminar we held in Dublin in June 2018. We invited the seminar participants and other academics with related interests to develop proposals, then chapters. We've provided feedback at each stage and we've also co-authored our own two chapters. The publishers have now sent the whole collection out to other academics for feedback, and we expect to do further revisions in response to their comments. This is an example of how academic publications are developed and refined collaboratively. The collection will be published in our new Palgrave series, 'Creative Working Lives' and we are also looking for other books to develop for the series. 

 I met up with Susan and some of the collection contributors at the Re-Futuring Creative Economies conference in Leicester in September. My own conference paper focused on my special interest in the social psychology of creativity. I've just completed a new article for a special issue on that topic in the US journal Social Psychology Quarterly. My article 'A practitioner concept of contemporary creativity' analyses interviews from a research project with maker artists that was conducted in Milton Keynes, where the OU is located. I wanted to look at the way that these practitioners understand creativity, and how that is not necessarily the same as the way that academics conceptualise it. In another article, published in the journal Feminism & Psychologyin August, Marie Paludan and I look at the particular views of women maker-artists.

Alongside these writing projects, I've been busy co-organising events at which colleagues can present their research. This is part of my role as a co-Director of CuSP, the Culture and Social Psychology collaboration in the School of Psychology and Counselling http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp. One of these was a workshop on qualitative analysis that we held at the OU on 21st November. Research students from the School and other parts of the university discussed examples of research data to explore the possibilities and limitations of qualitative data analysis. I've also been assisting with the university's preparation for REF2021.

There's been quite a lot of overlap between all these activities and my main teaching work this autumn as I have been overseeing the marking of End of Module Assignments for the postgraduate module Evaluating Psychology: Research and PracticeDD803 http://www.open.ac.uk/postgraduate/modules/dd803 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPrLk1zMC0c  The final tasks for these students was to conduct a critical review of psychology research on a selected topic, then present the findings in formats for different audiences, such as a news article for the general public or a podcast for a charity.  

As this account indicates, a great deal of my work has involved reading, reviewing and communicating. That extends into the work I do for this School blog - inviting, editing and posting contributions. And alongside all of it, I'm always looking ahead, talking about possibilities with colleagues at the OU and elsewhere, thinking about new ideas I've encountered in my reading, making notes and tentative plans for the next step in my research.


Stephanie Taylor (2019) A Participant Concept of Contemporary Creativity Social Psychology Quarterly 82(4):453-472


Stephanie Taylor and Marie Paludan (2019) Transcending utility? The gendered conflicts of a contemporary creative identification Feminism & Psychology   https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0959353519864390

Stephanie Taylor and Susan Luckman (forthcoming) Pathways into Contemporary Creative Work Palgrave Macmillan.

Stephanie Taylor's home page is 



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Children on the move: Unsettling narratives of care, childhood, and the migration ‘crisis’: A joint symposium between the Open University and UCL

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Dr. Sarah Crafter is working in collaboration with a team at UCL on an International Symposium focusing on the ways in which care, childhood and migration are conceptualised and how these have important implications for the provision of, and access to, necessary resources, infrastructures and relationships of care. They are inviting expressions of interest from established and early career scholars, doctoral students, activists and artists who are interested in taking part in this event.

13th March 2020

University College London (UK)

 Most children who migrate globally, with family members or separately, do so in a context where migration is increasingly framed as a political and existential crisis. Such crisis narratives often serve as justifications for rising xenophobic nationalism, enhanced border securitisation and hostile environments in receiving countries. As a result, migration regimes often set limits on care entitlements and children experience processes of everyday bordering in their encounters with education, health, social care, and even humanitarian groups as they seek care for themselves and to provide care to others. In popular discourse and much academic scholarship, migration is treated more generally as a crisis for children, viewed as essentially traumatising because of assumptions that 'good childhoods' are sedentary periods of dependency on local kin. Yet, migration scholarship makes clear that mobility is a part of the human condition, and that it is the conditions under which such movement is controlled, disciplined, and framed that cause politicised precarity for forced migrants. Equally, some children's movements, particularly those involved in South-South migration, continue to be rendered invisible both within and beyond crisis narratives, and those silent stories are also of interest. Indeed, their invisibility raises questions about when and why children's movement is or is not conceptualised and constituted as a 'crisis', by and for whom, and with what effect.

 The ways in which care, childhood and migration are conceptualised have important implications for the provision of, and access to, necessary resources, infrastructures and relationships of care. This one-day, inter-disciplinary and international symposium aims to unsettle the assumptions highlighted above through discussion of the following questions:

  • How is care recognised, understood, constrained, fractured, and practiced in the context of a multiplicity of "migration crisis" narratives?
  • How do diverse global understandings of care and childhood come into contact, conflict with, and/or amplify each other and "migration crisis" narratives?
  • What are the diverse and diffuse effects of the intersections of care, childhood, and "migration crisis" narratives for children and young people living migrating in and through diverse global contexts? 

We are inviting expressions of interest from established and early career scholars, doctoral students, activists and artists who are interested in taking part in this event. The symposium will be limited to a small group of participants and organised around a series of pre-circulated papers from invited presenters. Participants will be asked to read these nine short papers in advance of the symposium. The papers will serve as provocations for dialogue among all participants, with the aims of critically engaging with current debates on children, migration and care and generating new intellectual thinking in the field.

There will be opportunities for all participants to contribute to a variety of publications following the symposium e.g., edited book,  a series of short ‘talking head’ videos, short blogs and think pieces.

 The event is free and refreshments will be provided throughout the day (although travel and any accommodation costs will need to be met by participants). We will also have some bursaries available for those who do not have access to other sources of funding, with priority for activists, early career scholars, and those from the global south. Please indicate on your EOI if you are applying for a bursary.

 This symposium is convened by Rachel Rosen, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, and Elaine Chase (University College London) and Sarah Crafter (Open University), and is part of the organisers’ broader research agendas including the ESRC-funded Children Caring on the Move project. The symposium is funded by UCL Grand Challenge of Justice and Equality and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the Open University. 


If you would like to take part in this event as an active participant, please send a short statement of no more than 500 words outlining your interest in the themes of the symposium and what you feel you can contribute to the discussion.  Please send your EOI to Sayani Mitra (sayani.mitra@open.ac.uk) by 15th December 2019. We will contact you shortly after the closing date if you have been selected to participate

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An issue of ‘bad’ participant interviews

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Marianna Latif is working on a PhD on migrant fatherhood and use of symbolic resources. In this week’s social psychology blog, she discusses a methodological issue related to participant interviews.

Interviewing in qualitative research is one of the most common way of gathering data. As a qualitative researcher you think carefully about what it is you want to explore, then try to reflect it in your research questions. You come up with some particularly insightful interview questions that will help you explore your topic area, get Ethics approval and you can finally approach potential research participants. The pilot interviews go well, you might want to tweak a question or two, but that’s what the pilots are for. Subsequent interviews produce interesting data relevant to your research question and you can see your interviewing skills growing.

But then comes the interview that is different – you can tell right from the beginning that your participant is not acting in the way you came to expect. Perhaps they keep talking over you, interrupting you every time you try to ask a question, or they are being dismissive. They may be critical of the topic you are exploring or your approach to it. They may express views that are offensive: racist, sexist or homophobic. It is possible that they are using the interview as an opportunity to air their frustrations which they could not otherwise express. After all, you guaranteed their anonymity and they feel this is their chance to say things that they can normally share with only a very few people and certainly not in public. But what do you do in such situation to protect yourself emotionally (such experience can be very upsetting) and how do you deal with the resulting data?

When this happened to me in a face to face interview, my initial reaction was to walk away and destroy the data. I didn’t do either. Although I felt the participants hijacked my interview to push their own agenda, I was also very aware that my participants are from a very hard to reach migrant community. On reflection, I felt that their data must be included in the study, because these particular points of view are valid to them and, ultimately, may be felt more widely within their group. I did not like it, but it did not mean the data was not important.

For me as a researcher this was a rather uncomfortable position. Not least because I wondered whether I did something that invited this kind of response. I wondered whether I was somewhat complicit in this situation, after all, I decided not to challenge these views in the interview as they were not always directly relevant to my research questions, although that fact alone made the subsequent data analysis more interesting. Or was it because we shared the same cultural background, perhaps they felt I would understand or even share their views? Perhaps there was a gender power play which sometimes comes up when female researcher works with male participants. These are really important points to consider, but care needs to be taken not to over-analyse them.

What I found most helpful was keeping a reflexive diary – a completely private, very loosely structured account of each interview, outlining not so much the content but my impressions, observations and feelings about the encounter. I write my thoughts right after each interview, while the whole experience is fresh in my mind and return to them later, often several times throughout the study. It has become an invaluable tool for me – not only it allows me to consider my own reactions in a critical, yet reflective way, but it also brings some transparency into the research process and subsequent analysis.

All participants come to an interview with an agenda of their own – they agreed to participate in the research because they feel they have something to contribute. They give up their time as well as their opinions and that must be respected. As researchers, we are inextricably a part of the resulting discourse, we help create it by our questions, the way we ask them, how we follow up and what we follow up on, the rapport we develop with the participants, the values that we implicitly bring with us. For me, this has really brought he issue of reflexivity to the forefront of my research work.

Having experienced this with a couple of my participants, I concluded that there really is no such thing as a bad interview, because there is always something to be discovered. However, I am still undecided whether what I learned in those difficult interviews outweighs the discomfort I experienced on personal level as a result of this experience. I suspect I will be continuing this reflective journey long after my theses is submitted.

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

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

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Professors in the School of Psychology and Counselling

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

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


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

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

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

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Artificial Intelligence and rationality as psychological issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A PhD in Social Psychology: The Datafication of the Citizen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peter Banister: A Tribute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The value of the Silent Generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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A PhD in Psychology?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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