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I read the news today... and watched tv

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

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


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

#MeToo, and more allegations of sexual misconduct:

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

School exam results:

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

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

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


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

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


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Football, love and passion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Safe at home in a place where I belong?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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OU education as a social project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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Good criminal, bad criminal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Social psychology as a social and cultural field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The new normal of working lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Social psychology at the Open University

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

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

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

To learn more about the module, you can watch a video here   https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So now, in autumn, we hope you'll be joining us to explore social psychological issues and debates in our new module, Advancing social psychology (DD317). You can find out more about the module in this video https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk and sample the materials in this Open Learn course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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Pride, social psychology and the contested politics of identity

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

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

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

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

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

The concepts discussed in this week's blog are explored in our new module DD317 Advancing Social Psychology. To learn more about the module, you can watch a video here   https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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Pay inequalities at the BBC - an interdisciplinary postfeminist analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Social psychology and the (new) norms of working lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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