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Madhouse and the Whole Thing There: A PhD Story

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Monday, 7 Sep 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.]

 

REFERENCES

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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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 

http://www.open.ac.uk/people/dwj88

 

References

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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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. 

 

References

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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