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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 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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