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Research on citizenship and political action: Building a new project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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