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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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