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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


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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Commemoration and memory

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The OU is celebrating its 50th birthday! This is of course a big event for everyone involved with the university. As the official message puts it, 'In our anniversary year, we will tell our story and create moments that inspire pride, unity and involvement.' This kind of commemoration is also of interest to psychologists, and especially social psychologists, because of the complex connections between remembering and the telling of memories. In this week's blog for DD317 and social psychology, Stephanie Taylor discusses some of the issues involved.

Most people are aware that remembering doesn't operate as a kind of mental 'video replay' of the past. They may have experienced doubt about their own memory of an event like a family party, wondering if they recall the actual occasion or just what they were told about it subsequently. Discursive psychologists are interested in the construction of memories. This is not an argument that all memories are false but a suggestion that two questions need to be asked about anyone's account of what they remember. The first is 'Why are you talking about this (memory) now?' and the second, 'Why are you talking about it in this way?'.

The point of the first question is that a story about the past fulfils functions in the present, for instance, in the case of a commemoration, to inspire pride and encourage unity. The point of the second question is that a story about the past is always just one possible version. There could be a different telling, if only because memory is inevitably partial. Otherwise, as the psychologist Jens Brockmeier has put it, 'completely recalling one's life would take as long as one's life itself' (2002 p.23). Total memory is impossible, so we should recognise that any account of what is remembered is a selective construction, with a purpose.

Unsurprisingly, the OU's commemoration has already prompted discussions about the best stories to be told. What version of the university's history should be presented? Which events and people should be selected for recall? It is all very enjoyable. One of my own top choices would be a story from the valedictory lecture of Steven Rose, the OU's first Professor of Biology. He recalled the first ever OU biology course. Every student was sent, in the post, a package of study materials which contained a live goldfish, to observe, and a pickled sheep's brain, to dissect.

Some serious issues around commemoration were raised at a recent seminar organised by the Culture and Social Psychology (CuSP) group. The occasion was a presentation by Dr John E. Richardson, on his research on the commemoration of the Holocaust. He discussed how the remembering of these horrific events is changing with the passing of time, especially now that few survivors remain to present their own memories. Richardson analysed accounts presented at the UK's Holocaust Memorial Day, showing how the sombre commemorative speeches by contemporary politicians, although respectful, were carefully crafted to fulfil present purposes in line with government and party priorities.

The presentation and the discussion produced strong responses in the seminar audience. One view was that the contemporary speeches were betraying the commemoration of the Holocaust. The discursive explanation of inevitably selective construction seemed inadequate. The seminar even discussed the extreme argument that the commemoration should be discontinued entirely, to prevent its further exploitation. But there is an alternative, more positive conceptualisation that is also informed by social psychology. This involves considering commemoration in terms of sociocultural actions. According to this, the speeches and even the stage managing have value as social practices that acknowledge the past and engage new generations in marking its significance. Viewed in this way, commemoration has many parallels with religious rituals, so it is not a coincidence that it often borrows language and other details from organised religion. The commemorative event as a whole requires individuals to obey rules and limit any claims for personal attention. This interpretation is linked to process psychology. It also takes us back to discursive psychology, but to the first of the two questions, not the second: 'Why are we talking about these memories now?'. The answer, of course, is that we consider that they continue to be so important and the events that they refer to must never be forgotten.

The OU's commemoration is obviously a different set of actions appropriate to a different purpose, although there are also some connections in the value that is being placed on education and understanding. The OU's 50th birthday is about the past and the future, about changes that have occurred (including in teaching materials) and also the values we want to hold onto. We are expecting to hear some good stories about people's memories.


           Jens Brockmeier (2002) Remembering and Forgetting: Narrative as Cultural Memory. Culture & Psychology 8(1): 15-43.


You can read about future CuSP events here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/emergence-a-cusp-meeting-in-collaboration-with-uel-psychology-and-social-change-tickets-53432330539

If you are interested in the Level 3 Social Psychology module, you can find more information on OU websites 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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Olympic medal winning student finds DD317 a golden experience

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This week we resume the DD317 / social psychology blog with a post about a former DD317 student, the Olympian Etienne Stott. Paul Stenner, Professor of Social Psychology at the Open University and DD317 presentation chair, talked to Etienne about the connections between sport, life and social psychology.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing OU Psychology student and Olympic gold medalist Etienne Stott. One of the great things about working at the OU is that we get students from all kinds of backgrounds and with all kinds of different life experiences, but it is not every day that I get to chat to an Olympian. What made this experience even more interesting is that Etienne had recently completed a Level 3 Social Psychology module with which I am involved, namely DD317. In fact, he was quite fired-up about it! So not only did we talk about his winning (with teammate Time Bailie) of a Gold Medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games in the two-man Slalom canoe event, but we also got to discuss how his engagement with social psychology has influenced his way of thinking about key social issues, such as the felt responsibilities of athletes as role models.

As a social psychologist, I’m fascinated by questions like how important the support of a crowd is for a sporting performance, and the extent to which the input of a sport psychologist might genuinely enhance abilities. Also, a few years ago I did some research on the concept of ‘being in the zone’ (or ‘BITZ’) which is closely connected to the idea that under certain conditions a performer can enter a flow state which might further enhance their abilities. It was great to get Etienne’s take on that idea, which, in his case, really came from lived experience.

Finally, as you will see if you watch the interview, Etienne Stott is not all about sport. He has some quite inspiring things to say about world politics, including the need for a more active approach to environmental issues. He makes it quite clear that what he learned on DD317 was extremely useful in helping him articulate a sophisticated perspective, and I’m delighted that he now wants to help spread the word of social psychology. If you’re interested in finding out more, have a listen to the interview here:


You’ll also find at the link above more information about DD317.

If you want to read more about ‘being in the zone’, I thoroughly recommend the following book: https://www.routledge.com/Culture-Identity-and-Intense-Performativity-Being-in-the-Zone/Jordan-McClure-Woodward/p/book/9781138185920

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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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Wake up! Foucault’s warning on fake news

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Saturday, 6 Oct 2018, 07:02

How new is fake news? Is it a feature of a contemporary ‘post truth’ society, or does it have a longer history? A new short film links the phenomenon back to the famous thinker Michel Foucault. In this week’s blog for Advancing social psychology (DD317), Professor Paul Stenner writes about the film, and about the influence of Foucault’s thinking on social psychology.

In partnership with the OU, the BBC have recently been making a series of ‘ideas’ short films. Each is only a few minutes long, and the aim is to get an ‘idea’ across in a quick but effective way. One of the latest of these short films asks how the French polymath Michel Foucault might have responded to the recent phenomenon of ‘fake news’, and to the idea that we now live in a world that is ‘post-truth’. ‘Fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ point to similar things, but the latter is a more academic concept whilst the former is now firmly associated with Donald Trump’s repeated complaint that ‘the media’ is politically motivated to make up negative stories about him. The short film is called Wake up! Foucault’s warning on fake news and it was written and narrated by Angie Hobbs from the University of Sheffield with Paul Stenner (an OU Social Psychologist and current Chair of DD317) and Cristina Chimisso (an OU Philosopher) acting as academic advisors.

Foucault, who died in 1984, is one of the most cited thinkers of the 20th Century. He is difficult to label because his style of thought moved easily across disciplinary boundaries, mixing philosophy, psychology, history and political activism. After his death, his ideas about the relationship between knowledge, power and subjectivity (or sense of self) began to have a big influence on social psychology, and indeed they crop up on various occasions in DD317 Advancing Social Psychology. Instead of assuming that sciences like psychology and economics provide objective truth about the human condition, Foucault created new ways of using historical data to demonstrate that these human sciences emerged under quite specific circumstances as part of new ways of governing and disciplining people. He did not approach these sciences by asking ‘are they true?’ but instead asked ‘what do they do?’ and ‘how do they actually function socially and psychologically?’ If Foucault is right, this means that ‘truth’ cannot easily be separated from ‘power’. Indeed, Foucault thought of them as two sides of the same thing called power/knowledge and he was particularly interested in how power/knowledge shapes people’s sense of self or ‘subjectifies’ them.

Ironically enough, some people are now inclined to blame thinkers like Michel Foucault for eroding the difference between knowledge and power and for ushering in a new world of post-truth in which a new breed of trickster politicians can act as if the truth were whatever they say it is, so long as they repeat it loudly on social media. The short film does entertain this hypothesis, but it also suggests that Foucault, had he lived to witness it, would be highly critical of the notion of the ‘fake news’ of a ‘post-truth’ era, and would assert the truth of the oppressed to those in positions of power, inviting us to ‘wake up’ to the unequal realities of our present moment. To judge for yourself, you can see the short film at https://www.bbc.com/ideas/videos/wake-up-foucaults-warning-on-fake-news/p06gzcn4

Paul Stenner is Professor of Social Psychology at the OU. Find out more about him by clicking the ‘meet the ou experts’ link here: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/tv-radio-events/events/bbc-ideas#meet-the-ou-experts  Paul chairs the new presentation of DD317 Advancing social psychology, starting October 2018. To learn more about DD317, you can 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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I read the news today... and watched tv

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Saturday, 6 Oct 2018, 07:03

The Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317) uses the concerns of contemporary social psychology as a lens for viewing people in their social context, and particularly the context of contemporary British society. As we look ahead to the new presentation of DD317, this week's blog by Stephanie Taylor draws connections between current news stories and some of the module content.


The Windrush scandal is about British citizens from Caribbean backgrounds, and some other parts of the world, who have been wrongly classified as illegal migrants, and in many cases deported. This distressing and disturbing situation has rightly received a lot of media attention. It points to how we understand citizenship, as not only a legal but also a moral and emotional issue. News stories emphasise the length of time that the people  concerned have lived in Britain, the work they have done for British society, and in some cases the government, their family connections and their personal identification as British. All of these points relate to the DD317 topic of citizenship, and to new social psychological approaches which understand citizenship in terms of participation and other social practices.

#MeToo, and more allegations of sexual misconduct:

The twists and turns of the #MeToo story continue. This week they include, in the US, accusations by a young man against one of the first women to 'speak out', and in Scotland, a heated exchange of allegations and denials around the behaviour of a male politician. The #MeToo movement is part of the feminism embraced by a new generation of women. DD317 discusses feminism as an example of activism which challenges inequalities and power imbalances, and therefore has important parallels with other political movements and action against inequality (It is noticeable, for example, that there is now increased publicity for allegations of bullying, whoever these involve.) (Another DD317 topic is cyberbullying). The module also discusses gender, looking at new femininities and masculinities. Another focus is the limitations of considering inequalities in terms of one category only; alongside gender, we need to consider class, race, age... so how can this be managed in academic work?

School exam results:

In a news story that comes up every year, two of the points noted this time round were that in GCSE, boys have 'caught up' with girls, and at A-level, fewer students are studying 'modern European languages' like German. The first again raises gender issues. The second point prompts interesting questions about Britain's future connections to other countries (and of course the B-word, Brexit), and also about what qualifications are expected to be useful when today's school students become tomorrow's aspiring workers. DD317 considers what it means to live in a globalised world. It investigates work and employment, looking at the changing nature of work and the expectations that are likely to be faced by future workers.

And on a lighter note, the Great British Bake-Off:

This year's series continues the formula which lightens so many people's Tuesday evenings, with a few tweaks, like a vegan week. One interest for social psychology is in the programme as an example of 'banal nationalism' (a term from the work of Michael Billig, 1992). GBBO presents us with a positive image of our own society (Hint: the clues are in the words 'Great' and 'British'). There is, first, a wonderfully multicultural mix of people who bring into their cooking the range of food traditions that are firmly part of contemporary British eating. The contestants also represent a variety of social backgrounds and life roles (e.g. a stay-at-home dad) in order to illustrate the ideals of diversity and tolerance that also characterise contemporary British values (we hope). The programme is, however, a contest, celebrating competition. Tolerance stops at the point of judging and each week someone is a loser. They will be hugged before they leave, but they will have to go. Many critical psychologists argue that the 'neoliberal' image of society as a competition between individuals is too widely accepted. DD317 discusses the concept of neoliberalism, and the lone competitor as a model for the person, in life and also in a lot of psychology.


These are just a few of the possible connections (a future blog will look at more). DD317 students are invited to use their independent study time to follow up similar connections between the module content, their lives and the world 'out there', because as social psychological subjects we are not only part of that world but shaped by it. To learn more about DD317, you can 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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Changing our thinking: Process and progress

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Can we break out of established ways of thinking? Are there new ways to understand ourselves in the world? This week's blog for DD317 Advancing social psychology reports on research from psychologists who belong to the Association for Process Thought (APT). As the name suggests, their research begins by looking not at how the world 'is' but at the ongoing processes (actions, movements, change) that make up our social environment. The blog, by Professor Paul Stenner, reports on some of the research presented at the APT's meeting in June 2018.

At this meeting of the Association of Process Thought, there were presentations which all used the concept of process to open up new ways of understanding three very different but important aspects of contemporary life: religion, intimate relationships, and environmental destruction.

The first presentation, by Martin Savransky (Goldsmiths College, University of London), considered how we might understand experiences that are often dismissed as irrational, including religious experiences. The presentation discussed a book by anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann called When God Talks Back, about charismatic evangelists. Rather than focussing on ‘belief’, Luhrmann’s work is consistent with a processual account that concerns the felt reality of religious experience. Through asking her participants how they experience the unseen reality of God, Luhrmann is able to show the relative irrelevance of heady thought in comparison to a slow relationship of feeling, embodied and embedded within practices.  Arguably, this emphasis on process enables a different understanding of religious experience, escaping from the now clichéd and obstructive question of whether God exists.

The second presentation, Process in action: Relational drug use, by Dr Katie Andersen, concerned intimate couple relationships. Again, rather than focussing on what intimacy 'is', the presentation approached intimacy as a set of practices. This opens up possibilities of understanding the significance of movement, space and material objects for relationships. Andersen's research considers how chemical interventions, specifically the use of the drug MDMA, can contribute to the creation of new subjectivities which alter boundaries within the self, between self and other, and between self and world. In a social world where recreational drug use is increasingly prevalent, this possibly contentious research considers how such use might function within contemporary lives.

The third presentation, Bio-semiotics and Integral ecology, was given by Dr John Pickering from the University of Warwick. His concern is the geopolitical reality of our time in which ecological degradation follows the vast and technologically mediated global increase in human numbers, associated with a widening gap between rich and poor, and the ongoing political struggles to control remaining planetary resources, like water. In this context, he suggests, there is a pressing need for new relational and processual modes of thought. He proposes a shift from mechanistic being (mere existence) to organic becoming (productive happening), suggesting that this ushers in a new understanding of the world at all levels, from the workings of the brain and mind, through to the organic interactions animating the minutest portions of life and evolution. His argument is that this kind of radical re-thinking is needed in order to address a problem of such magnitude.

Of course this brief overview of the presentations cannot cover the details of the arguments but it indicates some of the interdisciplinary thinking which is taking forward the field of social psychology.

Our Level 3 module, Advancing social psychology, offers students the opportunity to explore new developments in social psychology, including in their independent study. To learn more about DD317, 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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The state of the NHS: a social psychological view

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Thursday, 12 July 2018, 08:43

As we celebrate the 70th birthday of the NHS, Stephanie Taylor has been watching tv programmes about health. She considers some of the issues confronting the health service and the health of the UK more generally. Are we taking enough care of ourselves? Could we manage without a national health service? Is the NHS a support system for 'us' or for 'them'?

To mark the 70th birthday of the NHS, there have been a number of tv programmes about its achievements and problems. The programmes generally present the stories of people who have turned to healthcare providers and received support, for instance, when babies were born or accidents occurred or serious illness was diagnosed. The message of the programmes is that as a society, we need the National Health Service, but it is struggling because we are making too many demands on it.

Somewhat differently, there continue to be many more light-hearted television programmes about the UK's health which focus on personal responsibility. Adopting a 'before and after' format, these usually begin by introducing a group of participants with a current or potential health problem that is linked to bad lifestyle choices  – going to the pub instead of the gym, eating takeaways instead of home cooking, using the cooler bin of your fridge for chocolate bars instead of vegetables. The programme's experts examine the participants, collecting statistics and conducting medical tests (blood samples tend to feature heavily). The participants then change their behaviours and are judged to have improved their health. At the end of the programme, they promise to persist with the healthier choices. They leave, looking forward to a problem-free future.

The clear message of the second group of programmes is that people should take more responsibility for maintaining their own good health. This might seem entirely compatible with the valuing of the NHS – by looking after ourselves, we will make fewer claims on already overstretched health care providers. The idea that health problems are a consequence of individual wrong decisions and actions can even seem encouraging, because it suggests that each of us has control and can avoid the need for care, if we live properly.

However, this focus on the individual has some less positive implications, as many social psychologists would note. It suggests fault, as if people only ever get ill because they haven't made the necessary effort (not so!). The focus also closes down any consideration of larger-scale factors that might impact on people's health, such as poverty and overwork, or the increasing air pollution which is almost unavoidable in many parts of the UK. And of course the focus also avoids difficult discussions of why seemingly rational people might make bad 'choices', as in the complex problems of substance abuse and addiction.

More subtly, the emphasis on individual responsibility normalises independence, as if a claim on other people is something shameful, to be avoided. (It is interesting and ironic to note here that people who are celebrated as successful 'individuals' almost inevitably mark their celebrity, wealth and political power by surrounding themselves with supporters, such as servants, bodyguards and admirers – for these 'top' people, dependence is apparently not a problem!)

The general stigmatisation of need and dependence is the reason that so many people attempt to manage in difficult circumstances without help, determined not to be 'a burden'. Yet everyone requires support sometimes, and not only when they are ill, or at the very beginning and end of their lives. Indeed, there is a persuasive argument that no one can be entirely self-sufficient. Even those of us who might claim to be 'free' of personal ties of family and friendship are dependent on the complex interconnections that maintain markets, and keep society functioning.  

This is why social psychologists insist on the importance of looking at people in context, not as detached individuals. A social psychological interest extends beyond interpersonal contacts and linked activities to the shared ideas and values that enable all of us to communicate (and disagree). The same ideas make sense of who we are and what we do.

So what does this kind of approach indicate about the NHS? There seem to be two conflicting ideas in play. The first is that the NHS is the safety net that is required when normal life is interrupted, because people have been exceptionally unfortunate or, in many cases, because they have not taken enough responsibility for themselves. This view invites us to see NHS users as other people, because we all like to think of ourselves as responsible, and lucky. The second interpretation is that in the NHS today we can see all the care needs of our society exposed and brought together to be dealt with by a single institution, including needs which originate, for example, in an economy which excludes many people from the steady employment and secure housing which would enable them to live 'well'. In this second view, the NHS users are ourselves, all of us, because it is in the NHS that we see our real nature as human beings, as inevitably interconnected and in different ways dependent on each other.  

This blog refers to ideas discussed in DD317 Advancing social psychology, an interdisciplinary Level 3 module. 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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Football, love and passion

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Monday, 11 June 2018, 08:55

In the week that sees the first fixtures in the FIFA World Cup, some of us are fully focused on football and some of us are ... not so much. In this week's Open University social psychology blog, David Kaposi, a DD317 author and member of presentation team, reflects on the meanings of football, past and present, and why they might have changed.

These are the days of obligation. We are all supposed to have a team – however weak our connection to it – a team to announce, a team to follow, a team to love. Whether you like it or not, are male or not, interested or, in fact, not, you cannot escape from the question “What’s your team?”, ”Who do you support?”. You are of course, allowed not to answer, and if you don't no further judgment will be pronounced but there will be a momentary silence. You will understand what that means. It's not a crime, of course. It is just, you know, curious.

The oppressive reality of what has become present day football, much like the weather (but, then, who has ever asked anyone whether they support summer or winter?), is inescapable. You will enjoy the World Cup! Even if you don't enjoy it then you will follow it, and if you don't follow it then you will at least know about it.

How has this come about? Because, some of us still faintly recall, it was not always like this. There was a time when football belonged to some people, much like cricket or collecting stamps. The people football belonged to were not particularly glamorous and the accusation of hooliganism or barbarism was never very distant from the discourses around football.  “You throw a ball and twenty-two men start running around it after it. What is there to like about that?”, as a family friend used to ask every Sunday.

And if football lovers could always offer ripostes like “Football players are privileged interpreters of communities around the world” (Menotti, manager) or “Everything  I know about morality and obligation, I owe to football” (Camus, goalkeeper), there was also the feeling that stamp collectors too must have these kinds of justifications to comfort themselves with.

So, what happened? In place of anything resembling an analysis, I offer two observations.

I once met a man, dressed in red. He professed himself to be a Manchester United supporter, indeed he said he “LOVED Man United”. I used to know a thing or two about United so I engaged him along these lines in a relatively short conversation. At the end of it we had established that he had no knowledge of any recent scores, let alone actual games, and he had no clue who his team would be taking on in the near future either. All that was left was the love.

Of love, of course, we have plenty. That, and passion. There are constant reminders of them in the hype around football, but one also cannot escape the feeling that even before the propaganda of love and passion, there actually was love and passion in football. Yet somehow, the words came to replace and in fact destroy what they were supposed to merely report. Is this a lesson about the destructive power of discourse, as if all the exaggerated talk eventually killed the real sentiment?

This capacity of words to take over something else brings me to my second observation. This was a short comment I overheard from the then-manager of Arsenal FC, Arsene Wenger: “It is difficult to play football”, he opined, “when the opponent does not want to.” Those following football used to get amused/irritated by such remarks from Wenger, inevitably offered following a 0-0 draw against Blackburn. He was just whingeing, trying to find excuses, they would say. Yet whatever language game Wenger was playing after disappointing results, his critics or commentators were attempting the self-same thing. What was wilfully ignored was that having exactly eleven blokes on one side and eleven blokes on the other no longer in itself constitutes fairness. It also does not constitute a level playing field, where the possibility of a good competitive game would solely depend on Blackburn’s intention to play football (or not).

Blackburn did not destroy the game. What did destroy it (or, at any rate, the feelings with which the game has traditionally been imbued) was not Blackburn’s intention on the pitch but the financial reality of obscene inequality off it. The rest is… noise.

This week's blog has links to ideas discussed in the new module Advancing social psychology (DD317), an interdisciplinary Level 3 module for people studying psychology qualifications or interested in psychology and social issues. 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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Safe at home in a place where I belong?

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In a new blog for DD317 Advancing social psychology, Stephanie Taylor discusses social research findings about place and belonging. She considers the connections we draw between feeling at home and feeling safe and suggests that these contribute to the continuing strong emotions around the Grenfell tower tragedy. Stephanie will be speaking about place, belonging and identity at an event for the London Festival of Architecture on Wednesday 6th June 2018 https://www.adamarchitecture.com/press/identity-and-the-identifiable-debate,-6th-june-2018-in-london.htm

 I recently had a conversation with a woman who is planning to move permanently to a country that she knows well but has previously visited only for finite periods. Of course this major life change has not been easy to arrange, but she was confident that the red tape will be dealt with within a few months, and she will then migrate permanently. ‘So’ I asked ‘will that feel like leaving home or going home?’ ‘Going home’ she said confidently, and talked positively about the climate and lifestyle of the new country, the ways that people interact there, and the particular apartment she will live in. She feels that all of these match who she is ,so she will belong there.

I was interested in her response because it confirmed findings from research I conducted two decades ago*, about home and identification with place. The research indicated that people construct an image of home selectively, through what they value or indeed notice about where they live, or would like to live. My research participants talked about the place where they belonged, or wanted to belong. It could be the interior of a house or flat, a street, neighbourhood, town or city, or a particular landscape or part of the world. ‘Place’ is a fluid concept, referring to any or indeed all of these, and this fluidity enabled the participants to interpret a current or ideal place of residence as home, to identify with features which matched who they felt themselves to be, or wanted to be.

Our thoughts and feelings about belonging are based in part on a shared cultural or discursive resource which I call the ‘born and bred’ narrative. This is the familiar idea that each of us is linked through birth and family to an original place (literally, a place of ‘origin’). We are defined by this place and have a permanent claim on it. Logically, of course, places change, people move and this kind of connection through long-term and generational residence is unusual, especially in contemporary affluent societies like the UK. However, people often continue to claim it and may try to pin down the place by researching their family histories. In my research, even though only a few participants continued to live where they had grown up, I found that they invoked the born and bred narrative in their constructions of home and belonging. For example, they might emphasise that they had lived in their current place of residence for a long time, and they had important memories attached to it. They might explain their feeling of belonging by linking the place to the past, for example, through their memories of childhood, or distant family connections, or  by emphasising some similarity to their childhood or family home. A number planned to move ‘back’ to the childhood place at some later point in their lives.

 But the selective interpretation in this ‘identity work’ inevitably has its limits. The participants’ accounts emphasised personal connections, but belonging in a place is also social, requiring some recognition and acceptance by other people. The woman who is changing country will almost certainly find her status challenged. People will note her accent or refer to her recent arrival. Her status as a newcomer may be invoked in trivial disagreements (‘we don’t do things like that’). More seriously, people’s claims to belong can be contested by the actions of others. This can occur in small ways. For example, when new neighbours interrupt local routines, perhaps by making noise or dropping rubbish, longer term residents may feel that their claims on a place are not being respected, as if they no longer belong. More seriously, crime, and especially crime against the person, like mugging, is an enormous threat to belonging. People who live in areas of rising crime are likely to feel that they are being ‘driven out’, because ultimately one of the most important associations of home and belonging is being in a place that is safe.

These connections have appeared with particular poignancy in the recent testimonials to people who died in the Grenfell tower fire. At the Grenfell inquiry, relatives and friends have been talking about the victims, and have referred again and again to the length of those people’s residence, in the tower itself, in the North Kensington neighbourhood, in London and Britain. The testimonials have emphasised that the victims were people who felt they belonged, locally and nationally, and were also recognised by others to belong, as valued citizens and members of the community. The testimonials are statements of loss and tributes to the personal qualities of the people who were lost, and also a protest at the betrayal that the fire involved. These victims were people at home, where they belonged and should have been safe. The failures that enabled the fire to kill them are therefore additionally a failure to respect the important personal and social values attached to home, so ultimately a threat to all of our claims to belong.


* S.Taylor (2010) Narratives of identity and place London Routledge / Psychology Press. ISBN-10: 0415480477 /13: 978-0415480475


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

Stephanie Taylor will be talking about identification with place on Wednesday 6th June 2018 at an event for the London Festival of Architecture https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/identity-the-identifiable-tickets-45967899224 and https://www.adamarchitecture.com/press/identity-and-the-identifiable-debate,-6th-june-2018-in-london.htm

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OU education as a social project

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In this week's blog for DD317 Advancing social psychology, Stephanie Taylor and colleagues from the School of Psychology examine education through a 'social' lens, setting out some of the issues (and making a few links to DD317 material).

Psychologists have always been closely engaged with the study of education, developing theory and practice around teaching and learning at all levels, from early child development to tertiary and lifelong education. To reduce this to an individual 'teacher' and 'learner' is too simple. Psychologists would draw attention to the relevance of technologies, contexts, practices and relationships. Of course a technology can be as simple as a chalkboard or as complex as a piece of customised software but it is always utilised within a context, as part of a practice, and social psychologists in particular would point out the social nature of those practices. The social is relevant in many ways, from the original motivation for learning at all, to the associations it may carry, to the implications for our identities and for society generally.

It is easy to recognise that people want to learn, especially as adults, because of the value attached to it in society. There is the conventional status of being an educated person, well-qualified, perhaps a graduate. There is also the notion that learning is a form of personal development (DD317 students might recognise the new version of this associated with 'entrepreneurship', discussed by Rosalind Gill in Block 4) and of growth – most of us would associate education with the acquiring of new maturity. This also explains some of the difficulties of learning and education. In an interview for DD317, Ian Burkitt discusses an issue faced by people studying nursing. Part of their learning involved the taking up of the new professional identity, and this could entail losses as well as gains. A similar, painful story was told by the eminent US political and social activist, Bella Abzug. She said that when she crossed the stage at her graduation, she felt that she had simultaneously fulfilled her father's ambition for her to succeed, and also made herself into someone so different from him (a working class immigrant) that she had partly severed their connection.

The associations of learning are particularly strong for adults. Few of us can escape from the memories of school, positive and negative. It's no coincidence that many people who study as adults prefer to do so in a context as different as possible from their early education. If you have bad memories of school, then even small details like addressing the tutor by their first name (instead of 'Miss' or 'Sir') or using different technologies (a computer instead of a pen) can help make your educational experience different. But there will probably also be points when the experience returns, positively or negative, and that, again, is addressed by social educational practices. The concept of scaffolding, born out of the work of Vygotsky but more deeply explored by another great psychologist, Jerome Bruner, has shown psychologists how people can be enabled to fulfil their educational potentials in ways that they never thought possible. Scaffolding refers to a process where the learner is actively supported by a teacher or peer so that they achieve their goal much more quickly than if they learned unassisted. In the OU, we do this by generating teaching activities and interactive materials that encourage learners to take steps towards solving a critical problem. The whole 'OU system' is a complex form of teaching developed to help students maintain their goals, find solutions and stay motivated.

I have already mentioned society as shaping the values we attach to learning and education. Academics who take a critical approach, considering power and inequalities, would point to additional social connections. First, it has long been recognised that education has an economic value for society, because of the specific skills acquired through education and training, and also the more general capacity for learning that will enable educated people to adapt to change and acquire new skills. (This is of course particularly relevant given the current rate of technological change: the IT skills acquired by students today will soon be outdated, but the experience and confidence in relation to IT should make it easier for them to tackle the next round of new developments.)

A second point here is that education can help people to participate in society (DD317 students will note the connection to Block 3!). There are strong arguments, for example, from the work of the philosopher and psychologist John Dewey and the sociologist Craig Calhoun, that education prepares people to engage critically in the public sphere and thereby to challenge injustices in society. For these reasons, it can be argued that education is a social good (like clean air) that benefits society generally and therefore should be paid for by society, through taxes, rather than by individuals. In Calhoun's words, a university has a public mission and historical purpose ‘to educate citizens in general, to share knowledge, to distribute it as widely as possible, and to produce it in accord with publicly articulated purposes (as well as on the assumption of eventual public benefit)’ (Calhoun 2006: 19). 

To some extent, that argument has lost acceptance in recent years, especially in relation to university tuition fees, but it remains powerful. For example, it underpins most discussions about pre-school and school education, through the logic that society 'needs' children to be literate, numerate and otherwise appropriately skilled. There is also a related argument about socialization, often raised in relation to religious schools, which again points to the role education is assumed to have in preparing people to live in society, in that case, by making them aware of the shared society and history, teaching respect and appropriate behaviours, and so on.

Even to write about these ideas is to court controversy because they are so deeply embedded in both 'common sense' and bitterly contested arguments. To discuss them is also to recognise the interconnections of the social and the personal – we cannot put aside social meanings because they are part of our own meanings and feelings and the way we make sense of our individual lives, as critical discursive psychologists would note. For OU academics and students, the issues are particularly close because of our shared educational project. The OU is its own social space, a society within a society, with all the pleasure and possibility of society generally, and the excitement of challenge and conflict.


Craig Calhoun (2006) 'The University and the Public Good' Thesis Eleven Volume: 84 issue: 1, page(s): 7-43  Issue published: February 1, 2006  https://doi.org/10.1177/0725513606060516


Some of the content of this blog has links to our OU module DD317 Advancing social psychology. You can find more information about the module on OU websites and you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk

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Good criminal, bad criminal?

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This week's blog for Advancing social psychology (DD317) considers the relevance of a key psychological concept, the essential person, for a recent tv series about the new face of international crime.

A recent BBC drama depicted the takeover of global crime networks by new 'Harvard-educated', business-focussed criminals. It was about how the graceless thugs who have previously run profitable markets in drugs and trafficked sex slaves, are being deposed by smooth, good looking men (they were all men) in suits. The older generation of criminals were presented as emotionally volatile and extreme, so finally less effective than their smoother and more controlled successors.

The series was gripping, although it could of course be criticised (for example, for the 'us'/ 'them' depictions of particular nationalities, and also for the representations of women, who mostly accepted the role of obedient helpmate). My interest here is in how the drama centred on one of the most enduring ideas bridging psychology and common sense, that of the essential person.

A simple, seemingly logical idea is that people have an essential character that they express through their actions. In other words, there is a causal relationship between the actor and the action – good people do good things, bad people bad, so a good person can be trusted to behave well, and a bad person will never be reliable. Most people would consider that account of the essential person over-simple, but for social psychologists working In a discursive and narrative tradition, the interest is not in the 'truth' but in how the idea itself persists and has consequences.  

For example, the idea of the essential person underlies the continual search for evidence, formal and informal. Cvs and other records, appraisals and psychology tests, and our own 'gut feelings' – all of them are valued for what they supposedly reveal about a person's essence, because this is assumed to predict future behaviour. Is this someone to be trusted and to deal with in the future?

It is also an assumption that carries huge emotional or affective loading, as can be seen in everyday arguments about motive and intention, even in trivial situations. Think of the indignation that people express when they think that their actions have led to their being 'wrongly' understood. Think of their strong need to explain that what actually happened was not what they wanted or intended: 'Do you really believe I'm the kind of person who would do that on purpose?' The causal link has been broken so a convincing argument must be made to reclaim a positive essential character.

Oddly enough, this defence is often made through reference to previous good behaviour, returning yet again to the idea of essential character and attempting to re-establish the causal link that has been broken ('he gave a lot of money to charity'). Most of us are accustomed to talking about ourselves and telling the circumstances and events which 'explain' who we are so we can adapt that narrative account to a particular purpose, such as an interview for a new job, and we can also invoke it to defend our essential good character if it seems to be threatened.

We use the idea of the essential person even though, ironically, we are also very ready to question it. For instance, we probably accept that appearances can be misleading, that the inner essence can be masked by a lying exterior. It's easy to believe that a charismatic, apparently honest politician can turn out to be 'rotten to the core' or, perhaps less frequently, that someone unprepossessing can be a 'rough diamond' with a 'heart of gold'. However, we tend to reserve particular indignation for people who do bad things and confuse the connection between character and behaviour, as with formerly respected ('good') celebrities who end up discredited or even in jail. Perhaps this explains the force of the tv series. The new global 'mafia' were shown as misleading us about their essential characters. They look better than the old-style criminals but actually carry out even worse crimes because they are more effective and powerful as a result of their business training.

Many other points could be made about the series. (For instance, it was definitely exciting, and well-acted. It was well-researched but, at a time when so many legitimate businesses do not seem to be functioning very well, we could ask if it overstates the capabilities and threat of those Harvard-educated criminals.) The focus of this blog has been that, first, it centred on questions which are central to psychology, including the nature of the person and its connection to behaviour, and second, how those questions are not only 'academic' but also part of our everyday sense-making around both fiction and fact.

Critiques of the concept of the essential person are discussed in the Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317). ADD 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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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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Things and words: a critical discursive approach to new technologies

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In this week's blog, Stephanie Taylor reviews an interesting new book and presents a view of new technologies that is informed by critical discursive psychology.

In a season when people are acquiring lots of things, as gifts and in New Year sales, I have enjoyed reading a new book on 'The Internet of Things' by Mercedes Bunz and Graham Meikle (Polity, 2018). The authors are particularly interested in things that have sensors (like the location device on a smartphone) and can be connected together in networks. The book is therefore about new technologies, but ones which are becoming increasingly common.

'The Internet of Things' is not a psychological text but it includes research using Critical Discourse Analysis, an approach which of course has parallels with discursive and discourse analytic approaches in social psychology. In addition, the book interested me because it presents some examples of how people's engagement with the material world is shaped by the kind of social knowledge that discursive researchers might discuss as 'discourses' or 'repertoires' or 'resources', and also examples of how that knowledge changes

Discursive research is often criticised for just being about words, that is, for not taking account of the material world, or bodies, or emotion, or other aspects of our lives and contexts which are supposedly extra-discursive. The counter-argument is that by analysing words and language discursive researchers can explore the social knowledge and meanings which structure our experience, including our engagement with the 'things' of the material world: 'there is no neat separation between the meanings in language and in the social world more generally' (Taylor, 2013, p.78). However, discursive researchers are also interested in other evidence of social meanings, such as what people do and how they interact. Bunz and Meikle offer a number of entertaining, and disturbing, examples of how we interact with technological 'things', and how new interactions are shaped by older meanings.

It seems clear that when approaching wholly new things and situations, people draw on existing ideas or resources. For instance, when they (we) receive spoken instructions from a thing, like a car satnav system, they respond as if they are hearing the voice of a person. In some cases, the satnav becomes an authority who must be obeyed, like an army officer or an old-style school teacher. Bunz and Meikle describe situations in which drivers followed (faulty) satnav instructions to drive hundreds of miles away from their route, or off the road, up a mountainside, into the side of a house or even the sea. (Why is it always so cheering to read about technology that goes wrong?)

In other cases, people's social knowledge prompts them to challenge or resist what the voice is telling them. The voice of a supermarket's self-scanning checkout device apparently annoyed some customers so much that they reverted to shoplifting, presumably to get back at the device. Moreover, the gender of a device voice invokes social prejudices so that a male voice giving instructions is heard as authoritative but a female voice is 'irritating', unless its messages 'signal a lower status in the relationship with the speaker' (p.65). In short, we cannot escape our (sexist) social knowledge, however sophisticated the new technology.

However, 'The Internet of Things' also indicates that social knowledge changes. New technologies eventually give rise to different meanings and ways of acting in the world. For example, many people now use health-tracking devices to monitor their own physical activity and food intake and sleep patterns. The devices also produce user data which has a commercial value, yet people seem unworried by the implications for their privacy. The new social knowledge involved is, first, the way of thinking about ourselves that the devices promote -  in Bunz and Meikle's words, as 'a competitive individual engaged in a continuous series of struggles and challenges' (p.103) – and second, the view of self-monitoring and recording, as 'natural' rather than, say, as intrusive surveillance.

Like everyone else, I will probably step up my self-monitoring in January as part of a New Year resolution, possibly with the help of a monitoring device. 'The Internet of Things' is a useful reminder that we are all social beings and nothing, however technologically sophisticated, is so new that it supersedes its social context.

Some of the content of this blog has links to our new OU module DD317 Advancing social psychology. You can find more information about the module on OU websites and you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk


Mercedes Bunz and Graham Meikle (2018) The Internet of Things Cambridge: Polity

Stephanie Taylor (2013) What is Discourse Analysis? London: Bloomsbury.

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The new normal of working lives

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In this week's blog, Stephanie Taylor introduces a new interdisciplinary collection of research The new normal of working lives: critical studies in contemporary work and employment, co-edited by Stephanie Taylor and Susan Luckman for Palgrave Macmillan (2018). She discusses some of the issues it raises for social psychologists and other social researchers, concerning a contemporary worker subject.

 News about changes to work tend to focus on technological developments, such as the likely effects of robotics. But working lives have already changed greatly in recent decades, and not only because of technology. ‘New work’ is discussed in an academic collection to be published in January 2018,  The new normal of working lives: critical studies in contemporary work and employment, edited by myself and Susan Luckman.

The collection brings together research conducted by academics from different disciplines, including cultural and media studies, sociology and psychology. A number of the papers were originally presented in a conference stream (at the WORK2015 conference http://www.utu.fi/en/units/tcls/sites/work2015/Pages/home.aspx ) entitled ‘Reconceptualising work’. That topic and the title of the collection indicate some of the key questions addressed. What changes have occurred in the way we think about work? What aspects of work that previously might have received more attention have now come to be taken for granted as normal and unremarkable? Following from that, how are people changing themselves to manage this ‘new normal’ and become the kind of worker that's required today?

Although the collection discusses many kinds of new work, some common themes emerge. Most of the workers who were studied have high ambitions. They want to do satisfying and personally meaningful work which pays a good income, and they want to combine this with a rich personal and family life. The privileged, or lucky, can arrange their lives to achieve that. However, for the majority of the workers discussed in the collection, having everything is not attainable, or at least (as they see it) not yet.

The collection suggests that whether people today are employed by an organisation or work for themselves, they operate to a great extent as ‘loners’ rather than as part of a collective. They accept individual responsibility,  for solving problems and meeting deadlines, for acquiring qualifications and updating their technological skills, and often for paying for their workplaces and equipment. Some of them have taken over work that was previously the responsibility of governments and the public sector, such as the provision of care for the elderly. Some of them are making new jobs out of activities often regarded as hobbies, like computer gaming or blogging or vlogging. Many of them bring their personal selves into their work, utilising their enthusiasms (for instance, for the gaming) or their private experiences (in the blogging and vlogging).

They also give up their personal time. They accept very long working days, disciplining themselves to work more hours with less ‘down time’. They work evenings and weekends, and in transit between home and work. They are seldom off duty so accept the breakdown of barriers between work and private life. Many of them use their homes as their workplaces, especially as a way of managing caring responsibilities.

All of this inevitably creates problems. Many of the workers don’t earn much, especially for the effort and the long hours they put in. Yet they apparently accept the difficulties as necessary. In the most extreme situations they manage by hoping for better lives in the future, even when there seems little reason to expect improvement, and sometimes when their current actions (for instance, incurring debts while working unpaid) will almost certainly create extra problems in the future.

Taken together, the collection therefore presents a picture of difficulties but also optimism, of dedication but also great expectations. It suggests that contemporary workers discipline themselves to be extremely hardworking and tolerant of difficulties, to prioritise their jobs over their private lives, to accept disappointment and limited rewards but also remain ambitious and optimistic. Is this a sustainable ideal, or even one that can be achieved? Whose interests does it serve? What is required to make yourself into this new worker? And is this the kind of person we should be aspiring to become?

To learn more about the module DD317 Advancing social psychology, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk


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Addressing the surprising absence of class: Interdisciplinary research on careers

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The starting point for a research project is often a gap – or more specifically, the recognition that an important topic has not been addressed by previous researchers. In this week's blog, Samantha Evans discusses the surprising absence of class in some psychology research, and how she is addressing this in an interdisciplinary project on classed inequalities in work and careers.

I became interested in social class when I was exploring women’s career development for my MSc. I was actually researching age and gender, but for over half the participants, class was one of the most salient features of their stories, explaining where they started in life, justifying how far they had come and who they were now. What was equally interesting was how, for the other half of participants, class was completely absent from their accounts.

Further investigation has suggested that social class is also absent in the organisational psychology literature  - the branch of social psychology that I had chosen to specialise in. Academics propose many reasons for this – that class is difficult to define; that it may be overlooked in favour of legally protected characteristics such as race or gender, or perhaps is seen as irrelevant and invisible in an increasingly “individualised” workplace. Overall it is a surprising absence, particularly given that social class has a high profile in other disciplines such as sociology, where it is often defined in relation to people’s work and careers. 

As my thinking developed, it became clear to me that class was a matter of understanding not only how the individual is classed, but also the wider context they are in. Thus I decided to explore one particular occupation in-depth to understand how ideas of “getting in” and “getting on” are talked about, and what this then means for people from different social backgrounds. I have chosen to look at museums, partly because I used to work in this field (and this helps with data access), partly because museums are struggling to be more “open to all” and partly because as gatekeepers of our own collective culture, it is arguably important that they do share that role equally.

In the spirit of interdisciplinary research, I am drawing on the writing of Pierre Bourdieu, a sociologist, whose work I believe has a great potential value to organisational psychologists. His theory provides a particular way of looking at the “individual-social interface”, arguing that whilst people are constrained by the “rules” of the particular social contexts (or fields) in which they are positioned (e.g. the field of museums or higher education), they have some flexibility in how to “play the game” depending on their experiences and dispositions. Succeeding in “the game” depends on the capital (economic, social or cultural) that is valued by the field, and the amount and type of this capital that individuals possess. Thus in the museum field for example, having a certain type of cultural capital such as knowledge of art or a PhD, may be valued more highly than PR or marketing know-how, and this in itself is more accessible and attractive to some groups of people rather than others.

Indeed, key to Bourdieu’s theory is the view that “the game” is not objective and natural (as it can seem), but has been socially constructed and privileges some groups and not others. The aim of the researcher is to explore how the field has been constructed, what types of capital are valued and how people from different social backgrounds make sense of this. I am employing critical discourse analysis to do this, using interviews, focus groups, and existing texts. I have phased my data collection, looking firstly at the overall field, and secondly exploring people’s careers at an individual level. I am just embarking on a detailed analysis of the data collected for phase one, so themes and findings are emergent, though initial impressions suggest class is talked about in a number of contradictory ways, whilst  “getting in and on” is talked about mostly as an individual enterprise, both of which tend to obscure the problem of, and solution to, classed inequality. Phase two will explore this in more detail.

The aim is that this approach offers a different way of understanding and addressing classed inequality at work. Thus rather than simply increasing the representation of people from different backgrounds, and hoping for the best, this research will highlight how more structural and cultural features of context need to be addressed (as well as the possible issues of doing so). This could be used to explore other forms of inequality at work and other occupational fields. It is also a potentially useful way to understand your own self at work (perhaps as a social psychologist too!), thinking of the capital that is valued in your chosen field and finding ways to maximise what you have.

Samantha Evans is an Associate Lecturer on DD317 Advancing social psychology. To learn more about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk

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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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New social psychology research on a contemporary subject

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This week's blog reviews a recent success for a newly qualified social psychologist, Dr Marie Paludan. Her work is an interesting example of current interdisciplinary research which has 'real life' significance, and also links to some of the content in our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317).

This week a research student from our OU School of Psychology, Marie Paludan, received the AOUG Chancellor Baroness Boothroyd Award for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, given for a PhD on 'Performing young womanhood in neoliberal Britain: Discursive constructions of new femininities'. To unpack all of that, AOUG is the Association of Open University Graduates (AOUG) and they give a number of awards each year to students who were OU undergraduates, then went on to do PhDs. This award is named after a former Chancellor of the OU, Baroness Boothroyd. I thought it was particularly appropriate that it was the award received by Dr Paludan, because Baroness Boothroyd was the OU's first woman Chancellor and Marie's PhD is about women, specifically young women in England, as the title indicates.

The starting point for Marie's research was the large amount of media attention given to contemporary young women, depicting them on the one hand as 'empowered' (the successful beneficiaries of feminism!) and on the other, as having many problems (e.g. prone to eating disorders, under pressure to look good and be 'sexy', and to be high achievers but not too clever because that puts people off, and to have careers but also make sure they settle down and have children before they get too old – you can probably think of a few more....). Marie wanted to find out how young women confront and manage these ideas about who they are and should be, while living their lives as contemporary young women. This is an interest shared by a number of contemporary academics in different disciplines so there is a fair amount of related research, but none that has exactly the same focus. Marie approached it as a social psychological problem, and more specifically, one in critical discursive psychology. This gave her a particular way of understanding people, and gender.

 As one of her PhD supervisors, I found the research especially interesting because of her research data and methodology. Her chosen approach was discourse analysis, which in psychology is associated with audio data (usually audio-recorded interviews). However, Marie developed the approach further in order to analyse video, specifically vlogs (video logs). If you don't already know about these (I didn't – but I'm quite old), they're the YouTube videos which have made some young people into celebrities, talking about their lives, their tips for make up and so on, all through videos recorded in their bedrooms. In this case, the vlogs were made by young women for an audience of other young women, presenting 'how to' advice on how to manage yourself and your problems (in a way which somehow made the vlogger look as if she didn't have any problems herself).

 So this is a good example of contemporary social psychology research. It began with an issue in society today and looked at other relevant research. It framed the issue as a social psychological problem and adopted an established social psychological approach and method. But it then developed the method further in order to work with a different form of data that was particularly relevant to the issue being studied. If you want to know about Marie's findings, you can obtain the thesis through the OU library. Meanwhile, other students are studying related issues on our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317): new femininities, and masculinities; feminism and post-feminism, critical psychological research, and discourse analysis.

 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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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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Social psychology at the Open University

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The Open University has a long history of innovative work in social psychology, including through its Level 3 social psychology modules. Many of the textbooks from earlier modules have become teaching 'classics', used in universities worldwide. We've called our newest module, DD317, Advancing social psychology because we want to convey the dynamic nature of the discipline, moving into new areas of theory and research, often informed by contributions from other disciplines.

This new module, DD317, is the teaching 'voice' of the large social psychology research group in the OU's School of Psychology. It includes the research of the academics who produced the module – Eleni Andreouli, David Kaposi, Rachel Manning, Paul Stenner and Stephanie Taylor – and also contributions from other social psychologists in the School - Rose Capdevila, Johanna Motzkau, and our Emeritus Professors, Wendy Hollway and Margaret Wetherell. You can look us up on the School of Psychology website http://fass.open.ac.uk/psychology . In addition, of course, the module presents theory and research from academics in many other universities in the UK and elsewhere.

As we move into DD317's first presentation, we'll continue this blog to update you on new developments in social psychology at the OU, including the publications and research activities of the module team and our colleagues. So keep checking the blog. And for all of you who have registered for the new module, good luck and enjoy your studies!

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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Here we go....new beginnings, and their social meanings

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As we reach September, the DD317 module team reflect on autumn, the new academic year and – at last – the launch of our module.

We began this DD317 blog in spring, a time of new beginnings. Now it’s September and nearly autumn, simultaneously an end time, for the summer, and also another beginning, for the new academic year. This is an example of how ‘facts’ (e.g. about the time of year) depend on the social context. Workers in some parts of society, like hospitality industries, are probably starting to relax, anticipating a quieter time for a few months, whereas academics, like the DD317 module team, are taking a deep breath, opening their new diaries and looking forward to work. We are very pleased to be starting the module.

Social researchers explore the meanings of situations, events and people. There are many traditional ideas and images attached to autumn, from the benign (harvest fruit, changing leaves) to the slightly depressing (falling temperatures and lengthening nights). In addition, of course we now live in an advertising year which from here on moves us through Halloween, Christmas and New Year, Valentine’s Day, Easter and summer holidays: you can probably think of a few more marker points to add in. Narrative and discursive social psychologists might discuss this as the dominant narrative of the contemporary year. Its trajectory can be drawn as a line of peaks and falls, each associated with encouragements to do certain things: dress up, celebrate and indulge in rich food, or diet and get fit; spend money or economize; go out or stay home; socialize or be solitary.

Why does this matter? It seems trivial but has wider implications. On one scale, the encouragements are linked to commercial ventures, for instance, to sell us chocolate and gym memberships. If too few of us buy winter clothes or summer holidays, then businesses will be threatened. So there are economic interests in our compliance with seasonally appropriate behaviour, and power struggles around the associations of the year (think of the increased media focus on Black Friday as a day in the US shopping year which is perhaps being imported to the UK).

On the personal and individual level that interests psychologists, we are influenced by the social year and our social context in ways that go beyond simple ‘choices’. We will find it difficult, if not impossible, to separate ourselves from the events and activities of this social year. We probably shape our own lives to it, organising ourselves to act in seasonally appropriate ways, for instance, to be convivial at New Year and active during the summer. In addition, we experience the trajectory of the social year emotionally, including through feelings of failure at non-compliance (such as the well-known patterns of holiday and festive season depression). We also experience conflict on an individual level, for example, when at particular points in the year (holidays, Christmas) spending money we can't afford can seem to be simultaneously the right and wrong thing to do.

In short, we are social beings and social subjects, disciplining or governing ourselves to comply with social norms and also being shaped by society in our most personal experiences. Yet we are not the same. Each of us is distinctive and able (we feel) to make choices. Society is complex precisely because people do not all obediently walk in step, doing the same things at the same time. This is the paradox of social psychology and one of its most interesting debates. In DD317, we call it the ‘social-individual interface'. We explore its manifestations and implications around a wide range of issues.  

So now, in autumn, we hope you'll be joining us to explore social psychological issues and debates in our new module, Advancing social psychology (DD317). You can find out more about the module in this video https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk and sample the materials in this Open Learn 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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Pride, social psychology and the contested politics of identity

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This week's blog for Advancing social psychology, DD317, by Eleni Andreouli, discusses the politics of Pride and some of the questions that social psychologists bring to LGBTQ issues and contested identities.

Since June, hundreds of Pride events have been taking place across the UK (see Stonewall’s website for information). These events commemorate the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York City, which were incited by a police raid of Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, and which until today serve as a symbol in the LGBTQ rights movement. This year, Pride also coincides with the 50-year anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

Pride is a celebration of difference, as is evidenced in the party atmosphere and the colourful rainbow flags of these events. More importantly, Pride is a loud call for social recognition. It makes otherwise minoritized identities (gay, trans, bi etc.) visible and present. The parades in central public spaces and streets (such as London’s Oxford Street) are an example of this increased, albeit brief, visibility.

The politics of Pride are, however, more complicated than what a simple minority/majority schema suggests. While Pride has gone a long way to bring LGBTQ issues to the mainstream, critics argue that it promotes a narrow vision of liberal tolerance and that it commercialises and, ultimately, de-politicises struggles for recognition and equality.

Pride is clearly an example of the contested politics of identity; a politics, that is, of making rights claims on the basis of a shared identity which has been historically oppressed. Identity is of course a central social psychological concept and many social psychologists have studied how identities become the source for political action. Social psychologists have also alerted us to the danger of essentialising identities, that is, approaching identities as fixed, singular and mutually exclusive. Taking what is called an ‘intersectionality’ approach, social psychologists have studied not only how groups act on the basis of a shared identity, but also how identities mutually constitute each other to produce complex subjectivities and intermingling communities.

The concepts discussed in this week's blog are explored in our new module DD317 Advancing Social Psychology. 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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Pay inequalities at the BBC - an interdisciplinary postfeminist analysis

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A recently published report has revealed huge discrepancies in the salaries of presenters at the BBC. The highest paid men earn far more than the highest paid women, and there appear to be significant salary differences even between men and women doing the same jobs. In response, more than 40 women who work for the BBC have sent an open letter of protest to the director general, Tony Hall.

This week's blog by Stephanie Taylor considers the BBC situation using a concept proposed in a recent academic article. The concept of a 'postfeminist sensibility' draws on the social psychological approaches of discourse analysis and critical discursive psychology. It is an example of the interdisciplinary academic work which is a feature of our new Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317).

The row over BBC salaries has attracted a lot of media attention, perhaps because it concerns (other) media workers. The situation can be seen as an example of the phenomenon of a 'postfeminist sensibility', discussed in a new academic journal article:

Rosalind Gill, Elisabeth K. Kelan and Christina M. Scharff (2017) 'A Postfeminist Sensibility at Work' Gender, Work and Organisation Vol. 24 No. 3 May 2017

This relatively new concept is also an example of interdisciplinary research which brings together ideas from social psychology with other disciplines, in this case, media studies, organisation studies and gender studies.

The authors of the article define a 'postfeminist sensibility' as an observable pattern that they have identified in different contexts. The pattern comprises 'discursive moves', such as arguments, and 'repertoires' or groups of ideas, related to gender inequalities in workplaces. In a variety of work situations, the authors found that similar explanations are presented to justify or gloss over gender inequalities. The pattern has four parts.

The first part is 'the allocation of gender inequalities to the past' (Gill et al., 2017, p.232). This occurs when people talk about inequalities as part of history, as if they are not relevant to working life today, even when they are observably part of that life. At the BBC, this can be seen in the director general's letter to the women presenters. He claims that the problem of unequal pay is already being addressed – the only issue, apparently, is that the change is happening too slowly, so the priority now is to 'accelerate' the equalising which is underway. Hall is presenting a progress narrative, as if improvement over time is inevitable. Interestingly, the women presenters also invoke the past, criticising the pay gap on the grounds that we live in an 'age of equality'. This, too, suggests that the pay gap is an unfortunate hangover from an earlier historical period. There is agreement that it has no place in today's world. [But in response we might ask: Really? Are inequalities steadily closing? Is progress inevitable, or might inequalities be an all too normal aspect of contemporary life, and perhaps even getting worse?]

The second part of the pattern of a 'postfeminist sensibility' is that gender inequalities are allocated to 'other countries and contexts' (p.232). In this situation, there is indignation that the inequalities have been revealed at the BBC. BBC women presenters point out that they have campaigned against the gender pay gap for years. They assert that they love the BBC and what it stands for. This draws a line between 'them' (other people, who tolerate inequality) and 'us' (enlightened civilised people who don't). It's almost as if the unequal pay is a mistake which has been exposed and of course must now be corrected! [But what are the 'other' contexts where inequalities would seem less surprising? Perhaps a more constructive line of investigation would be to look for similarities between those other contexts and the BBC.]

The third part of the pattern is that women are portrayed as 'the advantaged sex'. In the BBC situation, this appears, for example, in a protest from a male actor. He says that men need to receive higher salaries in order to support their wives and children. His argument of course rests on the assumption that women are never breadwinners, supporting their own families and partners (male or female). It also implies that childcare is a woman's task and responsibility. [No comment... sigh]

The fourth and final part of the pattern of a 'postfeminist sensibility’ is what the article's authors call 'acceptance of the status quo' (p.232). This appears, for example, in references to 'just' how things are, or in no reference at all, because a feature of the current situation seems inescapably obvious – as if the world can never change. Some of the points taken for granted in the BBC situation are that presenters are not paid on a scale, according to their roles (like nurses, teachers, other public service workers...) but instead are rewarded as individuals, and that every salary to have been revealed is a huge multiple of the National Minimum Wage (about £14,600 p.a.) or even the National Living Wage (about £15,600). You can probably think of others.

The discussion could continue but hopefully it has shown how the concept of  'postfeminist sensibility' is useful as a lens for viewing a situation of gender inequality. You might like to think about it in relation to other situations, or read the full article.

The first author of the article, Rosalind Gill, discusses postfeminism in an interview on our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). The module also covers discourse analysis and critical discursive psychology as research approaches.

To learn more about the module Advancing social psychology (DD317), 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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Social psychology and the (new) norms of working lives

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Tuesday, 18 July 2017, 20:19

We live in an ever-changing society and last week a new report focused attention on changes in the way we work. The report Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices is the outcome of a ten month process of consultation and research by a government-appointed group led by Matthew Taylor (no relation) from the Royal Society of Arts https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/reports/good-work-taylor-review-into-modern-working-practices.pdf

Work is relevant to almost everyone's current, past or future life. The Taylor Review is also particularly interesting to social psychologists and other social researchers because of the issues it raises around what is normal and how norms change.

The Taylor Review indicates some of the changes that have taken place in working lives, and some that haven't. One relates to flexibility. The Review suggests that flexible working has become a normal aspect of working life in the UK, and is something to be celebrated:

'Encouraging flexible work is good for everyone and has been shown to have a positive impact on productivity, worker retention and quality of work' (p.14).

It suggests that one reason for the recent rise in self-employment is that people want to be able to work flexibly.

Flexibility sounds good when it refers to a worker being able to choose what work to do and how intensively to do it, but perhaps less so when the flexibility advantages the employer: apparently about half of UK workers are so flexible around working hours that they now work overtime for no pay! So flexibility seems to be a new norm in the double sense of being a description of the behaviour of many, if not most, workers, and also what people accept as necessary, or feel that they should do without question (even when it disadvantages them). In this second sense, 'normal' is a prescriptive term, implying a value judgement.

But these two senses of 'normal' are not always in sync. This can be seen in the example of parents who are also workers. The Review notes that in Britain today 'it has become conventional for both parents of small children to work' (p.97). Yet it also reports that a survey found that '50% of mothers described a negative impact on their opportunity, status or job security' (p.96) as a result of having a baby (i.e. during pregnancy, maternity leave or when they returned to work after maternity leave).

So it's normal for mothers (and fathers) to work, in the sense of this being a common behaviour, but the idea that mothers work doesn't seem to be accepted. There's a disjunction between the behaviour and the idea. Working mothers are still being treated as odd or 'not normal' in that their situations are questioned, made difficult, problematized. This example indicates that ideas and values do not automatically change to reflect what people are doing. Behaviours can continue to be ignored, or treated as abnormal, even when they're common.

Taking this a step further, social psychologists are interested in how ideas and values can drive what people do; in other words, the idea of what is 'normal' can come before the normal behaviour and even produce it. One of the academics who has written about this is Nikolas Rose (http://nikolasrose.com/ ). He has researched how psychologists, and psychiatrists and psychotherapists, have contributed ideas about normal behaviour which have then become a model or rule for how people (try to) live. In response to expert knowledge, people behave as (they think) they should do and/or everyone else does. Following this line of thinking, we could see the Taylor Review as contributing to the (further) normalising of flexible working, and the identity of a flexible worker.

Of course a further point of interest is why some ideas don't become established, that is, why some identities and behaviours are not normalised. For example, why does the identity of 'working mother' (or perhaps a better term would be 'worker-and-mother') remain problematic or 'troubled'? One reason might be because of the persistence and continuing celebration of other identities, like an idealised stay-at-home Mum (probably still associated with an image of 'a normal family'), but that's a point for a different, longer discussion.

The Taylor Review was commissioned by the government. The Review team collected evidence, much of it in the form of submissions volunteered by various organisations and individuals (https://beis.dialogue-app.com/matthew-taylor-review ). On the basis of this evidence, the Review makes recommendations for government action (new legislation; better enforcement of existing legislation etc). It therefore has the delicate task of straddling the two meanings of 'normal', describing 'modern working practices' in the UK, and also pushing to make them what (the Review panel thinks) they should be.

Of course, the Review is not alone in this. It is just one, very interesting example of how political actions (the government commissioning a review, the publication of the report on the review) potentially impact on personal lives in ways that we might not expect. It draws attention to the power of experts, and researchers, as the source of ideas, and the media, as major disseminators of those ideas. Part of its interest for social psychologists is as an example of how the idea of what is normal can impact on our behaviour, and on how we think of ourselves (for example, as normal workers). In short, it is an example of the interface between social context and the individual person, and that is what social psychologists study.

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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