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Changing people by changing ideas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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