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Professors in the School of Psychology and Counselling

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In a series on the research of senior academics in the School of Psychology and Counselling, this week's blog presents some recent publications and other activities of Paul Stenner, Professor of Social Psychology.

This August, Paul Stenner (Professor of Social Psychology, OU) gave the ‘Innovations in Psychology Lecture’ at Aalborg University, Denmark. The ‘Innovations’ lecture series takes over from the former Niels Bohr Lectures in which leading researchers in the field of Cultural Psychology are invited to present their research. The lecture is subsequently published in an edited volume along with a number of commentaries from invited experts. The theme of this year’s event was ‘theorizing liminality: between art and life’, and Paul Stenner talked about the liminal sources of cultural experience. Liminal experience, Paul Stenner argues, is essentially about becoming. It is experience of a significant transformation, from the perspective of those going through that experience, as it is happening. The innovative idea proposed in the lecture is that various forms of cultural experience, including reading novels, watching movies, enjoying sports and participating in religious events, share a common liminal source. Put differently, they are a means for guiding people through a passage from one world to another: a passage in which they may undergo a transformation. From this perspective, cultural artefacts show up as fundamental to human psychology and society, and liminal experience shows up as a crucial factor in human evolution, in personal development through the lifespan, and in social change over historical time. Further details about the event, including access to the lecture itself, are available here:

https://www.en.aau.dk/events/event/theorizing-liminality--between-art-and-life.cid417177

For psychologists who are readers of German, Paul Stenner has also just published a book chapter on liminality and emotional experience in a German volume on cultural psychology entitled Kulturpsychologie in interdisziplinärer Perspektive: Hans-Kilian-Vorlesungen zur sozial-und kulturwissenschaftlichen Psychologie und integrativen Anthropologie (Psychosozial Verlag, 2019). This book gathers together all the recent invited lectures given as part of the Hans Kilian Lecture Series in Cultural Psychology organised at Bocchum University in Germany. The volume also contains chapters by Mary and Ken Gergen, Jaan Valsiner, David Bloor and others, who also gave Hans Kilian lectures. Details can be found here: https://www.psychosozial-verlag.de/2275

Also newly published is an article by Paul Stenner and the Danish social scientist Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen from the Copenhagen Business School. The paper starts with the observation that managers across many contemporary organisations are nowadays talking more and more about the importance of ‘expecting the unexpected’ and of ‘thinking the impossible’. Alongside this talk we also find a range of techniques and devices which are supposed to encourage and help the workforce to ‘think outside the box’ and to ‘imagine a different future’. Empirically, the paper is based on a study of a range of these management techniques and organisational innovations like ‘future games’ and ‘drama interventions’, which the authors group together as technologies of potentialization. After a detailed analysis of three such potentialization technologies, they propose that these function as immune mechanisms within contemporary welfare states. This involves a careful discussion of the sociological theory of Niklas Luhmann, who proposes that society has something equivalent to an ‘immune system’, and that law is a good example of a social immune mechanism. Potentialization, it is suggested, is taking shape as a new way of immunizing society against its own social structures. Intrigued? An early access version of the article appears in the journal Theory, Culture and Society, as referenced below:


Andersen, Niels, Å and Stenner, Paul (2019). Social immune mechanisms: Luhmann and potentialisation technologies. Theory, Culture & Society (Early Access).


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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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