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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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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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