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'They are us': some responses from social psychologists

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 17 May 2019, 14:46

In this week's blog, Stephanie Taylor discusses some social psychological responses to the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Nine weeks after they occurred, the terrorist attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand receive little media attention. There is still horror about what happened, but it is now combined with people's responses to subsequent awful events, including the April attacks in Sri Lanka. However, the Christchurch attacks continue to be discussed on academic sites, including in psychology publications. This week's blog will focus on some social psychological interpretations of what happened and why.

In the March edition of the journal of the British Psychological Society, The Psychologist, Stephen Reicher, Alex Haslam and Jay Van Bavel analyse the 'manifesto' of the Christchurch killer. They conclude that he was following a form of 'toxic leadership' which they associate with some current heads of state around the world. They draw a contrast with the positive, inclusive leadership presented by the New Zealand Prime Minister. You can read the article here

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/road-christchurch-tale-two-leaderships   

In New Zealand itself, the New Zealand Journal of Psychology produced a Rapid-response issue after the Christchurch terror attacks (The New Zealand Journal of Psychology Vol 48, Issue 1, 2019 (ISSN:1179-7924)). The lead article is by Margaret Wetherell, who worked at the Open University for many years and is an Emerita Professor in our School of Psychology. Professor Wetherell is more cautious than Reicher et al about what social psychology can contribute to our understanding of the attacks. She suggests that many conventional social psychological theories and concepts may be inadequate.

Wetherell's own contribution to the discussion is an exploration of the 'acceptable discourse' and the lines of logic and feeling that appear in public and personal responses. This is more difficult ground for the reader than the previous article because it challenges the ways of thinking, feeling and viewing the world which constitute a shared culture of privilege in the world today: 'the flow of ideology/identity/affect... which authorises and legitimates feelings and actions, and which formulates common sense'. Wetherell's article invites us to consider our own positions in relation to that culture, and the extent to which we either question or support it. You can read the article here https://www.psychology.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/Wetherell-6-9.pdf

Both the articles, by Reicher et al and by Wetherell, refer very positively to the public statements of the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ahern. She received worldwide attention for her inclusive identification with the victims of the attacks: 'They are us'.

Her statements deny any distinction between recent migrants and other New Zealanders, defining the national community, 'us', as united by shared values and aspirations rather than more traditional connections. She emphasised that the newcomers to New Zealand had chosen it as their country.

A similar idea to 'They are us' is repeated in a Facebook post circulated by many New Zealanders: kia kaha This is Not Who We Are! (The Maori words kia kaha mean 'stay strong' and were used by the Maori Battalion during World War 2.) Both Ahern's claim and the kia kaha post are examples of what Michael Billig (1992) called 'banal nationalism': the presentation of a national community to itself. (Previous posts on this blog discuss some British examples.) Billig described this presentation as 'banal' not because it is unimportant but because it reinforces the image of the nation through repeated, everyday acts and references, for instance, to 'we' and 'us' and, here, to New Zealanders as principled, strong and ready to fight for what they believe.

Many of us have felt an intense and positive emotional response to 'They are us' and 'This is Not Who We Are'. Yet it is important to be alert to how similar ideas can be used negatively as well as positively. The same 'common sense' and 'flow of ideology/identity/affect' can be invoked to legitimate very different feelings and actions.

For example, in a world of moving populations, it is obviously good to welcome newcomers. It is good to open the national community to more people than those with 'born and bred' connections of family and history. However, it is perhaps less good to imply that the only people who belong are those with the same values as everyone else, as if living together doesn't require some tolerance of difference. And while 'choice' can be positive, it also suggests that migrants always have alternatives, as if they have shopped selectively for a new country, rather than, in many cases, feeling themselves forced to go wherever they can, for reasons that may or may not be visible to others.

Social psychologists who study citizenship increasingly define it in terms of what citizens do rather than what they are. (This is a topic in the module Advancing Social Psychology DD317, in Block 3 by Rachel Manning, Eleni Andreouli and Debra Gray.) The interest is in the practices which make people part of the national society, rather than the laws which entitle them to passports. Again, this way of thinking is potentially both positive and negative. In the UK, it is invoked positively in campaigns that highlight how immigrants and refugees contribute to British society. However, a more problematic aspect appears in the case of Shamima Begum whose British citizenship was revoked because she joined Islamic State. If good citizenly behaviour should entitle people to official citizenship status (although it doesn't, in many cases), the logical converse is that bad behaviour becomes an excuse to exclude people from the national community. Yet every society has always had its dissenters and lawbreakers, as well as frankly unpleasant people, and sometimes we may find ourselves counted in the 'bad' category.  Our differences will require discussion and an attempt to understand what may at first seem incomprehensible. The negotiation will be laborious, and never completed but it is also necessary, because 'us' and 'them' are never entirely separate.

You can find information about social psychology at the Open University in the website for the Culture and Social Psychology (CuSP) research group http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp

The Level 3 module Advancing Social Psychology (DD317) is introduced 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 politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0


 


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Spring as a time of hope, or not?

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In this week's social psychology blog, Stephanie Taylor looks ahead to the UK holiday weekend and considers the meanings of Easter and futures, and reasons to be cheerful, or not.

Today people in the UK will be looking forward to the Easter weekend with various expectations. For some, it is a holiday, although Bank Holidays are perhaps less relevant now that so many workers are self-employed. For them, and for others like OU students, Easter may appear as exactly the opposite, that is, an opportunity to do extra work. For some people, Easter is important as a major Christian festival. But perhaps the strongest associations of this long weekend are with the beginning of spring as a season of fertility and growth, symbolised by all those eggs and rabbits.

These associations offer different possibilities for constructing time, and where we are in relation to it. Think about the UK calendar year, with its attached commercial messages. It begins with a noticeable proliferation of tv programmes and articles about losing weight and abandoning bad habits. January is presented as the month in which to live healthily, perhaps by abstaining from alcohol (Dry January), and giving up meat (Veganuary). Shop displays and advertisements feature sports clothes and special offers on gym membership, so this is all about looking ahead and making an effort now in order to improve ourselves later. Then in February the health priorities are replaced in the lead up to Valentine's Day which is, supposedly, a time not only for love and romance but also chocolate, champagne and meals out. The focus shifts abruptly from the future back to now, to enjoyment of the moment - or perhaps, for people whose experience doesn't fit the shiny image, to a feeling of disappointment and even failure.

Immediately after February 14th, supermarkets replace displays of chocolate hearts with chocolate eggs as we reach the current point in the year, the lead up to Easter. Shopping wise, there is also pressure to buy new clothes, outdoor furniture and seasonal food - the first asparagus and, if you've forgotten about Veganuary, spring lamb. Again, we are positioned in the present, supposedly enjoying ourselves, but we are also looking ahead to future pleasures, including a fantasy of a summer which is based more on other countries than the UK. Directly after the Easter holiday, we can expect the future focus to become stronger, with a renewed emphasis on healthy living as everyone is encouraged to lose weight in preparation for summer holidays at the beach.

All of this is completely familiar and might seem amusingly trivial. However, it indicates how our experience of the supposedly 'natural' passing of time, including seasonal change, is shaped by the society and culture. For social psychologists who utilise analytic approaches like thematic and discursive analysis, one interest in this kind of teasing out of meanings is their link to values and priorities, to what is right and wrong, and what needs to be acted upon. The cycle of months and activities emphasises ongoing life, comforting us with its seemingly reliable repetition. More linear constructions can position us at an endpoint. For example, the current news stories about Brexit present the UK as straggling towards the finish, of membership of the EU or just the attempt to relinquish it, and possibly the collapse of the whole political system which enabled the referendum in the first place.

The most important news story this Easter is probably the current protests initiated by Extinction Rebellion 'against the criminal inaction on the climate and ecological crisis'. As thousands of people demonstrate in London and other cities, we might feel that we occupy several conflicting positions in time, simultaneously. The protesters are challenging the optimism of spring, pointing to ongoing degradation of the environment rather than seasonal renewal. They are not alone in being concerned. For instance, many of the people who are staying at home this weekend to work on their gardens and allotments might also feel that this spring is not the same new beginning as the cycle implies, because of ominous signs like rising temperatures and other strange weather patterns, and the declining numbers of bees and other familiar insects. So where are we all positioned now? Are we winding down to an end, of many aspects of the natural environment, of thousands of species, and of the way we currently occupy the planet, because more and more places are becoming unliveable? These are the threats, quite literally of the end of life as we know it. Yet the climate change protests themselves might be viewed as a new beginning, as action that will produce real responses on a sufficient scale to be effective, by social actors who have previously not engaged with the issue (it is interesting, for example, to see the Governor of the Bank of England warning business of the money losses that climate change involves). So now, in springtime, these protests themselves are perhaps our strongest reason for optimism and the hope of new beginnings. Happy Easter!

This week's blog has links to ideas discussed in the 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

To find out more about social psychology at the Open University http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp  http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp

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The lie of the future?

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A current exhibition, 'The lie of the land', at Milton Keynes Gallery looks at the founding of the city in which the OU is located. Some of the issues raised by the exhibition, about past visions of the future, link to novelty and the classic concept of 'emergence', the focus of a seminar organised by the Culture and Social Psychology group with other social psychologists, from the University of East London. This week's blog for social psychology and DD317 introduces the concept and some related issues.

As the Open University celebrates its 50th anniversary, there is a different kind of commemoration of its location, Milton Keynes, in a new exhibition, 'The lie of the land', at MK Gallery. The exhibition presents changing images of the British landscape, including the development of Milton Keynes as a built environment that was intended to be 'a city greener than the surrounding countryside'. The exhibition includes a short film, co-funded by the Open University, in which the artist Gareth Jones looks back over early plans for the city. He suggests that the optimism which surrounded its original development derived from a combination of two social revolutions, the post-war reforms that established the welfare state as part of a vision of a fairer society, and the events of 1968, including student protests, which are often seen as initiating significant contemporary values and freedoms. Jones shows that many of the original designs for Milton Keynes were never followed through, including a sculpture park, elaborate public playgrounds and a lakeside disco. Other dramatic features that did get built, like an elevated pedestrian tunnel, have subsequently been demolished.

The film prompts reflections on the complex relationship between past and future, such as how earlier futures can disappear or go out of date. (A notable feature of the drawings is the distinctive 70s fashions worn by the 'future' people.) More prosaically, the film reminds us of the difficulty of knowing the future. This is a particular issue for social psychologists because so much of the project of psychology is about attempting to enable prediction, for instance, by tracing cause and effect, modelling processes and outcomes, or examining people and their behaviour in great detail. A major attraction of the discipline is its implied promise to explain us to ourselves and, as a logical extension, offer the possibility of managing the lives ahead of us and reducing our future problems. Yet there are strong arguments, including from some psychologists, that such a project will inevitably fail. Our lives are too complex, there are too many factors in play, any model can only be a simplification.

These issues prompted the Culture and Social Psychology group at the OU, CuSP, to organise a seminar with social psychologists from the University of East London in order to discuss emergence. Emergence was defined by the psychologist G.H.Mead as 'the occurrence of something which is more than the processes which have led up to it and which by its change, continuance or disappearance, adds to later passages a content they would not otherwise have possessed.' Emergence is therefore about novelty, futures and the unpredictable. The specific concerns of the seminar's presenters include emotion, mental health, Brexit and the ways that psychological research can be conducted.

You can find information about CuSP and other events here http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp  http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp

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

You can find information about the exhibition at Milton Keynes Gallery here https://mkgallery.org/


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Culture, art and a social psychological issue

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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


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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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