OU blog

Personal Blogs

Picture of Stephanie Taylor

Culture, art and a social psychological issue

Visible to anyone in the world

A new BBC series on the arts of Oceania is a useful reminder of issues around culture and, perhaps less obviously, different theories about the nature of people. The Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317) discusses culture, including the sometimes problematic assumptions that derive from classic psychological studies of 'other' people that were conducted in countries under European colonial rule. The BBC series aims to avoid these assumptions but still raises issues that are interesting to consider. In this week's blog for DD317, Stephanie Taylor reflects on culture, art and individuals.

One recent programme in the BBC series on Oceanic art followed Yolngu Aboriginal people from Northern Australia as they made a traditional musical instrument, a yidaki (often referred to as a didgeridoo). The instrument is a long wooden tube and the making process began with a group of people searching in the forest for a suitable tree to carve it from. One man explained their belief that the yidaki in a certain sense already exists and is calling to the searchers to be found. He also said that they needed to find a tree which had been eaten out by termites and the film showed him hitting at trunks with a machete, to check whether they had a hollow sound. The search therefore seemed to combine a kind of thinking that might be associated with a traditional cultural belief (the yidaki calling out), with a more pragmatic evidence-based practice (testing for a hollow trunk).  The latter might be dismissed simply as common sense but it also derives from experimental science and can be understood as part of the culture that dominates contemporary Western societies, including Australia and the UK.

Both these examples of culture, the Yolngu Aboriginal and the contemporary Western, combine a way of thinking with ways of living and doing things. In that sense, the two cultures appear equivalent and it can be argued that the Yolngu Aboriginal people, as 21st century Australians, belong to both. Certainly the programme shows the yidaki-makers comfortably combining old and new, for example, when they use modern tools but traditional colours and designs in the making process. However, in Western societies there is a general tendency to attribute a lower status to traditional cultures and even to assume that these are what the term 'culture' refers to. One reason is that Western societies value innovation whereas traditional cultures, by definition, are assumed to resist change, holding onto the past. Cultural 'authenticity' is often assumed to depend on a lack of innovation. This can create a kind of trap for indigenous people, as if they must choose between living separately from contemporary society, in order to preserve their culture, or else abandon that culture completely.

In addition, 'culture' is often associated with determination, as if the people who belong to a traditional culture maintain their ways of thinking and living without reflection or choice; there is an assumption that they simply think and do what the culture dictates. Culture is also linked to a lack of individuality, whereas Western societies tend to prioritise individual rationality and autonomy. Yet these associations and assumptions can be questioned. Western societies do possess a culture of their own, as already noted, and this includes 'common sense' ideas which are usually accepted without question; Western people do not always act rationally or autonomously. On the other hand, it is entirely possible for people of a non-Western culture to respect tradition and collective values with awareness and full understanding of possible alternatives. (Indeed, the 'preservation' of a traditional culture can become a political strategy by which powerful individuals manage an entirely contemporary conflict, for example, around the rights of women or the possession of property – but that is a subject for another discussion.)

These points are of particular interest in relation to the yidaki makers because of the significance for art. The Western image of the artist is of an individual, possibly working within a particular period or school but ultimately transcending it. His work is his own - the image is masculine, even if all the artists are not. The work he produces is identified with his name, and usually marked with it. But if an artist belongs to a traditional culture, there is a tendency for the artistic practice or process of making not to be attributed to individual intention or decision or vision. Instead, the 'art' is seen merely as the expression of the culture. The work is not identified with the maker. The image of the individual artist is replaced by the image of the cultural representative.

This way of thinking about traditional art has of course been challenged. As just one example, the work of Aboriginal artists is now credited to individual makers as well as the traditional culture they identify with. However, similar problematic assumptions continue to be extended in subtle but definite ways to other artists who are marginalised within larger Western societies. For example, Black artists can find that their work is viewed mainly as a statement of their colour or ethnicity, and then potentially dismissed as political rather than artistic, as Sonia Boyce has discussed recently with reference to UK art in the 1950s https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/jul/30/whoever-heard-of-a-black-artist-britains-hidden-art-history Similarly, the US artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was deeply frustrated that his work referring to race, and racism, carried a diminished status, as if he had produced it almost instinctively, as an expression of his cultural experience. And women artists can find that their work is categorised in a similar way, so that references, for example, to sexuality or maternal feelings are reduced to a kind of outpouring of womanness and therefore a lesser achievement than the supposedly more considered work of male artists.

 

This blog has moved some distance from the conventional concerns of social psychology but shows some of the new directions opening up in the field. Social psychologists at the OU have formed a new research group, CuSP (Culture and Social Psychology) http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp. DD317 presents some alternative theories of culture and of the extent to which we operate, in art or in life, as original individuals or representatives of our society and culture(s). To learn more about DD317, 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


Permalink
Share post
Picture of Stephanie Taylor

Social psychology as a social and cultural field

Visible to anyone in the world
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


Permalink
Share post
Picture of Stephanie Taylor

Changing people by changing ideas?

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 22 Sep 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.  

Reference

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


Permalink
Share post
Picture of Stephanie Taylor

Social psychology and 'Doctor Who'

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:04

In our continuing series of blogs from the production team of the new module Advancing Social Psychology (DD317), Stephanie Taylor brings a social psychological perspective to 'Doctor Who'.


There's a new series of 'Doctor Who' so we're off again in the TARDIS with a different woman companion, played by the wonderful Pearl Mackie, and the same old superior Doctor (check the comments on male-female relationships in the earlier DD317 blog on Vogue magazine).  But I do like watching Peter Capaldi and I enjoy the series enough to keep dipping in.

The new companion, Bill Potts, has had quite a hard life but she's been liberated by education (a point for all OU students to note, although be reassured that the Doctor is not typical of OU tutors). We're told that she wants to travel to the future and her journey In the first full episode, to an Earth colony on another planet, raises some interesting questions about how we imagine future worlds. There's a clear message that improved technology is not enough to make life good. Social psychologists would agree with that. We reject the idea that technological developments dictate how society will change (the idea known as technological determinism), arguing instead for a more complex interplay between the technological and the social.

Like all the Doctor's woman companions, Bill Potts is presented as an ordinary contemporary woman and, like the others, it's noticeable how free she is. These women may have their problems – Bill has to serve chips in the university cafe – but they tend to dress as they want, follow their lives and loves as they choose, and of course go wherever they want in the TARDIS, leaving other responsibilities behind, including the job in the cafe.

This fits with a common narrative of gender, that people today have left behind the constraints of past gendered roles, and that women in particular are now confident and empowered. But narratives can be widely accepted without necessarily being accurate. In DD317 we approach this one critically. We present the work of social psychologists of gender who question the supposed freedoms of women, and men, in the UK today. This is part of the discussion of New femininities and masculinities in Block 4 Contemporary social psychological subjects.

The Doctor Who writers generally suggest that the Doctor's companions take a distinctive, and superior, 21st century world view wherever and whenever they travel, although they may empathise with people from other times. It's as if the high point of human understanding has been reached right now, in the present day. The people of today, represented by the companions, are normal and everyone else in time and the universe is 'other'.

Social psychologists point out that the concept of the 'other' is subtle but important, and dangerous. By emphasising the normality of 'us' and the strangeness of 'them' (and on Doctor Who yes, they do often look quite strange), the concept encourages a blindness, and deafness, to 'their' point of view, and their possible protests about how they're being treated by 'us'. The 'other' is part of a way of thinking associated with cultural encounters through the ages, including in situations of war and colonialism, and it can become a justification for contemporary inequalities and divided societies, two major concerns for social psychologists, as we discuss in DD317 in Block 2 New encounters across cultures in a globalised world.

And there's so much more to be said about 'Doctor Who'. Watch this space for the next episode of this discussion.


Permalink
Share post
Picture of Stephanie Taylor

A social psychological view of Brexit

Visible to anyone in the world
Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:04

In our continuing series of blogs from the DD317 module team, Eleni Andreouli writes about a social psychological view of Brexit:

It was one of the defining moments of 2016 when British people voted to leave the European Union, against the so called ‘political establishment’. Alongside the election of Donald Trump in the US, Brexit is seen as marking the beginning a new political era in Western democracies. In seeking to explain this ‘political earthquake’, several academics and other analysts have pointed to the rise of the far-right, the growth of populism, authoritarianism and xenophobia, and a more general ‘crisis of democracy’ and of liberalism.

There are certainly many threads on could pick up when discussing what Brexit means, its symbolism and its repercussions. What has become clear is that we need to take into account both social and psychological factors to understand these new political movements. For this, we need social psychology. What concepts could be useful in starting to unpack Brexit politics? These are many, but here are some that are particularly important:

Identity, a central social psychological concept, has been extensively used to understand why some social groups voted for Brexit while others did not. Unsurprisingly, national and European identities have taken centre stage in this discussion, but also the role of class identities, gender and ethnicity has been discussed in some depth.

Similarly, the role of cultural values, for example endorsing more liberal or more communitarian value systems, appears to be central in explaining new political orientations in the Brexit era. Like identity, culture is also an important social psychological concept, developed particularly within cultural and cross-cultural psychology.

Ethnocentrism and prejudice, both established subjects of social psychological study, have also been important for understanding the tensions and challenges arising in the post- EU referendum era in the UK.

Social psychology can further help us understand how new political movements develop and gather momentum. For instance, how did leaving the EU, from a rather marginal issue, become a political cause that could mobilise people? And, equally, how can the surge of pro-European movements, following the Brexit vote, be understood?

To learn more about these topics from an integrated social and psychological perspective, check out our new module DD317 Advancing Social Psychology.

 


Permalink
Share post

This blog might contain posts that are only visible to logged-in users, or where only logged-in users can comment. If you have an account on the system, please log in for full access.

Total visits to this blog: 47636