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The value of the Silent Generation

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In this week’s social psychology blog, Sue Nieland writes about a category of voters who are usually disregarded in political polls, known as the Silent Generation. She reflects on the political failure to acknowledge their experience and viewpoint, and explains their special importance for her PhD research.

I voted to remain in the EU in 2016, and I am classed as an older citizen. I soon grew tired of the constant clustering together of anyone over 60 as ‘old and voted leave’ as I definitely am not, did not and neither did many of my contemporaries (vote leave, that is). 

Looking at this further when thinking about my  PhD in political psychology, I found that the use of categories to cluster people, whilst convenient, hides some deeper meanings in political decision-making, particularly for the older citizen. Many researchers are busily investigating reasons for the unforeseen outcome of the UK-EU referendum. I wanted to explore how experiences of Europe and our relationship with it influenced the vote. I decided it was particularly important to hear from the voters who have lived the longest and whose experiences include the Second World War and its aftermath. 

Polling data by YouGov, Ipso MORI and Survation clusters voters by age. Survation’s categories are typically 18-24, 25-34 up to 65-74 followed by a final category of 75+. Ipso MORI are similar, featuring 65+ as a final category, or occasionally 75+ depending on the data collection. YouGov use a final 65+ category for most of their survey research. There is therefore a general tendency to cluster everyone over 65 into a single category or occasionally to subdivide them at 75. The message from this is that once you are over 65 years old, you are part of a group spanning possibly 40 years. Your opinion and political choices are no longer important enough to disaggregate further. 

This leads to generalisations around citizen choices. The important one for my PhD is that ‘older people voted to leave the EU’. This, though, may not be an accurate conclusion. Evidence is emerging that whilst someolder people did vote to leave the EU (the so-called Boomers), those older still were more likely to vote to remain. My PhD will explore this in detail, and particularly around the experiences of a unique cohort of people, the Silent Generation, born between 1927 and 1946 – now aged between 73 and 92 years. Participants in this group may remember World War II and its aftermath. They will certainly recall the rise of the European Union and the first referendum in 1975.  Their political decision making will be influenced by experiences that other younger citizens nostalgically refer to (without actually having been there), such as the ‘Blitz spirit’ and war-winning achievements that are often cited as reasons why a hard Brexit will be survivable (even if we have to eat turnips for ten years). 

There are further categories that also diminish the older citizen. The ‘third age’ is used to refer to the active aging, such as those who are still in some way contributing to society or using their retirement productively to continue working, learning or travelling. But there is also the ‘fourth age’, described by Gilleard and Higgs (2010) as a ‘black hole’ into which people who are infirmed and dependent, and (supposedly) of limited societal value, are aggregated. The ‘black hole’ metaphor is well chosen – it can suck those from the third age into it if they are not aging in a way that keeps them away from its edges. 

The Silent Generation received their label  because they tend not to talk about their experience of the Second World War and what came afterwards. But there is an argument that they are silent for other reasons – that their value as citizens and their opinions are not recognised. However, they have a form of ‘situated value’. This was seen recently during the 75thanniversary of the D-Day landings on 6June 2019 when veterans were rolled out to reminisce about their experiences and revisit the horrors of that time, before being rolled back into silence. What was significant, though, about the events of 6 June 2019 is that the veterans were notsilent about the EU and our decision to leave. Some of them expressed regret at the decision to leave the EU in 2016 and the threat that brings to peace that has existed since then. As Will Hutton argued in the Observer just days after the event, there was a ‘disjunction’ between the values held dear by the veterans and Brexit. In his words, ‘it betrayed what they had fought for’ (Hutton, 2019). However, this message is now forgotten, for the value of the Silent Generation was only acknowledged around 6 June 2019 . Politically we have moved on. 

When building my PhD proposal, I believed that I could contribute to ‘giving a voice’ to the Silent Generation.  However, with the benefit of supervision and more reading, I realised that I want to explore this group of people from a dialogical approach, building on the work of Zittoun (2014) and others.  In my PhD, I intend to explore the voices of this generation and their political decision making. I will also investigate the role of nostalgia in politics. One important question will be whether political references to World War II do represent what the war meant to those who experienced it. 

 

References

Gilleard, C. and Higgs, P. (2010) Aging without agency: Theorizing the fourth age, Aging and Mental Health, 14:2, pp. 121 – 128

Hutton, W. (2019) ‘These old heroes evoked a glorious shared purpose. It’s now under threat’, The Observer, 9thJune, p. 45

Zittoun, T. (2014) Three dimensions of dialogical movement, New Ideas in Psychology, 22, 99 – 106. 

 

This week’s blog is the first in a new series from PhD students in the School of Psychology and Counselling. Sue Nieland is a member of the School’s staff who is studying for a PhD in social psychology. You can read more about the School and its staff here http://fass.open.ac.uk/psychology

 You can watch a short video about the Level 3 Social Psychology module DD317 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 politicshttp://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0


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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

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/road-christchurch-tale-two-leaderships   

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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The lie of the future?

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A current exhibition, 'The lie of the land', at Milton Keynes Gallery looks at the founding of the city in which the OU is located. Some of the issues raised by the exhibition, about past visions of the future, link to novelty and the classic concept of 'emergence', the focus of a seminar organised by the Culture and Social Psychology group with other social psychologists, from the University of East London. This week's blog for social psychology and DD317 introduces the concept and some related issues.

As the Open University celebrates its 50th anniversary, there is a different kind of commemoration of its location, Milton Keynes, in a new exhibition, 'The lie of the land', at MK Gallery. The exhibition presents changing images of the British landscape, including the development of Milton Keynes as a built environment that was intended to be 'a city greener than the surrounding countryside'. The exhibition includes a short film, co-funded by the Open University, in which the artist Gareth Jones looks back over early plans for the city. He suggests that the optimism which surrounded its original development derived from a combination of two social revolutions, the post-war reforms that established the welfare state as part of a vision of a fairer society, and the events of 1968, including student protests, which are often seen as initiating significant contemporary values and freedoms. Jones shows that many of the original designs for Milton Keynes were never followed through, including a sculpture park, elaborate public playgrounds and a lakeside disco. Other dramatic features that did get built, like an elevated pedestrian tunnel, have subsequently been demolished.

The film prompts reflections on the complex relationship between past and future, such as how earlier futures can disappear or go out of date. (A notable feature of the drawings is the distinctive 70s fashions worn by the 'future' people.) More prosaically, the film reminds us of the difficulty of knowing the future. This is a particular issue for social psychologists because so much of the project of psychology is about attempting to enable prediction, for instance, by tracing cause and effect, modelling processes and outcomes, or examining people and their behaviour in great detail. A major attraction of the discipline is its implied promise to explain us to ourselves and, as a logical extension, offer the possibility of managing the lives ahead of us and reducing our future problems. Yet there are strong arguments, including from some psychologists, that such a project will inevitably fail. Our lives are too complex, there are too many factors in play, any model can only be a simplification.

These issues prompted the Culture and Social Psychology group at the OU, CuSP, to organise a seminar with social psychologists from the University of East London in order to discuss emergence. Emergence was defined by the psychologist G.H.Mead as 'the occurrence of something which is more than the processes which have led up to it and which by its change, continuance or disappearance, adds to later passages a content they would not otherwise have possessed.' Emergence is therefore about novelty, futures and the unpredictable. The specific concerns of the seminar's presenters include emotion, mental health, Brexit and the ways that psychological research can be conducted.

You can find information about CuSP and other events here http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp  http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp

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

You can find information about the exhibition at Milton Keynes Gallery here https://mkgallery.org/


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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:

 https://learn2.open.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=206348&cmid=1252623#omp-id-37296_anchor

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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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 Jul 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 Jun 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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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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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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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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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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Support or something else? Insights from psychoanalysis and social psychology

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 10:59

This week's blog continues our exploration of social psychology in society, looking at a current advertising campaign informed by psychoanalytic or psychosocial social psychology. The blog, by a member of the DD317 module team, explores the psychoanalytic premises of the campaign. It then takes a more critical approach, questioning their implications.

The campaign under discussion is one by an admirable and important charitable organisation. It features a woman turning away from the camera. The top of the poster quotes her: Please don’t worry about it, you guys help people with worse problems than me. Underneath the picture, we read: “We don’t just hear you, we listen”. Thus, what the poster communicates is that the woman (we shall call her Joanne here) who has recently experienced hardship, conveys at face value that she is OK yet deep down that she is not. And the poster also communicates that the charitable organisation will not just hear the superficial talk but actually listen to the deeper message.

This, in fact, is a logic which was by and large introduced to the world by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. You say one thing but you actually mean something else – and the psychoanalytically-informed listener understands what that something else is. Why you would not or could not in the first place say what you mean is of course another issue, and the answer depends on the theoretical perspective taken. Freud’s psychoanalysis was distinctive in the sense that he hypothesized sexual and/or aggressive urges which would deep down motivate us to do things, yet which we would not be able to express on the surface. The poster’s message is probably different; although it is not clear why Joanne does not say what she really means to say, there is no suggestion that it would be due to her feelings being unacceptable.

These are big differences, and whilst we would imagine that Joanne will be grateful to the charitable organisation for listening, she would probably find it rather more difficult to come to terms with Freud listening to her and offering explanations in terms of repressed sexual/aggressive urges. In fact, she would probably accuse Freud of merely “listening without trying to help” – that is to say, imposing his silly theoretical agenda on her without being sympathetic.

At the same time, and on a deeper level (if I may…), there is a more disturbing common feature shared by both Freud’s and the charitable organisation’s way of listening.

The message of the poster suggests that an interaction between Joanne and the charitable organisation would look something like this:

Joanne: Please don’t worry about it, you guys should be helping people with worse problems    than me.

Organisation: You mean… “Please help me”…

Joanne: Yes…

Yet this actually contradicts another presumption of the poster, which is that Joanne cannot quite say what her problem is. That is to say, the sequence above is predicated on Joanne being both unable and able to access her genuine state of mind/heart (i.e., that she has lost hope). But why is this plausible? If something keeps Joanne from saying “Please help me” at one moment, why would she simply agree to it a short moment later? If, for whatever reason, Joanne is not able to communicate her true meanings at one moment, would it not be reasonable to assume that she is equally unable to accept them a moment later? So, the interaction would become something like this:

Joanne: Please don’t worry about it, you guys should be helping people with worse problems than me.

Organisation: You mean… “Please help me”…

Joanne: Oh… you are nice. But, no thanks, I really am OK.

or even:

Joanne: Please don’t worry about it, you guys should be helping people with worse problems than me.

Organisation: You mean… “Please help me”…

Joanne: No! Didn't I just say the opposite?!

In these alternative scenarios, based on either Joanne’s consistent inability to articulate what she means, or the fact that what she says on the “surface” actually conveys all that she wishes to say, she is rejecting the organisation’s “listening”. Perhaps she is wrong as to the meaning of her original utterance and the representative of the charitable organisation is right. Yet even this would not alter the fact that there is a certain insistence on the part of the charitable organisation that these hypothetical scenarios convey. In other words, there are certain features that the original campaign poster masks (in its premise that Joanne is first unable then able to access her deeper state of mind, in quick succession).

If we think that in the first instance Joanne is unable to articulate certain feelings, we might as well assume that she will find it equally difficult in the second instance. And if, in fact, this is the case then the charitable organisation’s message potentially becomes less one of benevolent understanding and more one of a possible intrusion.  If this is acceptable, the difference then between the charitable organisation and Freud’s direct descendants is not that the former are benevolent and the latter a bit aggressive and imposing. Inasmuch as something keeps Joanne from speaking her mind, chances are she will find it rather painful if anyone (i.e., the charitable organisation, Freud or even Joanne herself) persuades her to: and she will accordingly resist it. The difference between the charitable organisation and Freudians will be that whilst the former wish to forget that they are actually intrusive in making Joanne think about what she does not want to think about, the latter treat their own aggression as inevitable and try to work/learn with/from it.

 

This week's blog has explored some of the ideas and practices which have entered society by way of psychoanalysis. One of the themes of our new module, Advancing social psychology (DD317), is the impact on society of social psychology and connected theoretical areas, like psychoanalysis. To learn more about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk


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A new issue about stereotypes

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 10:59

Stereotyping is an ongoing social issue, as a glance as recent news headlines will indicate. Numerous stories centre on challenges to the unthinking use of national, racial and ethnic stereotypes, gender stereotypes, stereotypes of victims, voters, people who succeed and people who have problems. Stereotyping is one of the classic concerns of social psychologists, connected to the study of prejudice. But recently the topic has become the focus of disputes within the discipline, given an extra importance because of the social power of social psychological ideas and theory.

In this week’s blog for DD317 Advancing social psychology, John Dixon, Professor of Social Psychology at the Open University, introduces the debate:

The ‘unbearable accuracy’ of stereotypes?

Psychological research on stereotyping suggests that many negative beliefs we hold about members of other groups are false. They are the product of biases, preconceptions and other forms of faulty thinking.  In other words, they are expressions of prejudice. Over the last decade or so, however, this view has been increasingly challenged by a tradition of work on the so-called ‘unbearable accuracy of stereotyping’. According to Lee Jussim and colleagues (2009), we may find it uncomfortable to accept that many  negative stereotypes about ethnic, racial and gender differences are true; however, growing evidence suggests that such stereotypes often do reflect the objective characteristics and behaviours of target groups. As you can imagine, this claim has sparked a heated debate, raising questions about the ethics and politics of stereotype accuracy research and about the assumptions it makes about the relationship between social perception and social reality. For example:

  • Is it possible to establish ‘value free’ and objective criteria through which we can assess the accuracy of stereotypes?

  • Are stereotypes not in the eye of the beholder, reflecting particular interpretations of others’ behaviours?

  • Is the project of measuring stereotype accuracy ethical, given its potential to justify discrimination against others?

These are some of the issues discussed by John Dixon, Professor of Social Psychology at the Open University, in a paper recently published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

Dixon, J. (2017). ‘Thinking ill of others without sufficient warrant’? Transcending the accuracy-inaccuracy dualism in prejudice and stereotyping research. British Journal of Social Psychology. doi:10.1111/bjso.12181. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/doi/10.1111/bjso.12181/full

 

You can read more about the social and political power of psychology in our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). You can watch a video on the module here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk


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Is Theresa May leading the UK into a liminal hot spot?

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:00

This week's blog is from Professor Paul Stenner, a member of the DD317 production team. He introduces a new social psychological concept which may offer some insights to the current Prime Minister.

On the 17th January this year Theresa May gave a long-awaited speech about how her government plan to manage Brexit. She announced 12 upbeat objectives, but she also said that these are to be realized in what she called a ‘phased approach’, which will mean a more or less lengthy period of interim arrangements that we will be obliged to work with until, for example, a new legal framework for financial services is established. In the middle of the speech she made the following interesting remark about her interim phase:

‘By this I do not mean that we will seek some form of unlimited transitional status in which we find ourselves stuck forever in some kind of permanent political purgatory. That would not be good for Britain.’ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-brexit-speech-latest-no-long-lasting-transitional-deal-eu-european-union-trade-deals-a7531286.html

This is a good example of one of the many ways in which Theresa May has tried to reassure the public by presenting herself as a strong and stable leader, committed to pursuing the interests of the country as a whole. For the same reason she stated quite emphatically on several occasions that she would not call a ‘snap’ election because of its likely de-stabilizing effects. When she broke her word on this in April, and left the country just 6 weeks to prepare for the election on June 8th, this was because she felt certain she would secure a landslide victory for the Conservatives. Instead she lost her majority along with much of her credibility. More importantly, however, she has increased the likelihood that the Brexit negotiations will approximate her scenario of ‘permanent political purgatory’.      

In fact, this scenario that Theresa May called ‘unlimited transitional status’ is not just a rhetorical gesture that works to scare people into supporting government policies. It is actually quite a good description of a very real phenomenon that can play itself out at numerous levels and scales, from micro level interpersonal dynamics, through institutions, all the way to the macro level of large-scale historical events.

The expression I’ve coined to get at this social psychological idea is the ‘liminal hotspot’. The value of the concept of liminal hotspots is that it illuminates common features in settings that might otherwise appear unconnected. Johanna Motzkau, Monica Greco and myself recently edited a Special Issue of Theory and Psychology on the topic of liminal hotspots (published in April, 2017). In the Special Issue, the concept is applied to a variety of situations including cyber-bullying, social work with young drug users, romantic relationships and even the Kiev uprising of 2013/14.

In anthropology, the word liminal is used to name the middle phase of what Arnold van Gennep called a ‘rite of passage’.  Gennep showed that rites of passage have three phases: first the ‘rites of separation’ which separate people from their previous role and identity niche, and third the ‘rites of incoporation’ where the new status is ceremonially conferred and recognized. The liminal phase is the second or middle phase: a phase of transition. It is an unusual phase in which the normal rules and expectations that limit what people can feel, say and do are temporarily suspended. Victor Turner called this a ‘betwixt and between’ phase because people going through a liminal transition are no longer what they were, but not yet what they will become. Liminal transitions can be of enormous social psychological importance because they are situations in which people become something different, and hence begin to acquire new forms of subjectivity and know-how appropriate to new roles and social identities. But this transitional phase is also a limited phase in the sense that it ends with some sort of re-entry into social and psychological business-as-usual. We are interested in what happens when the transitional status is, to use Theresa May’s word, ‘unlimited’.

The sociologist Arpad Szakolczai – who has an article in our Special Issue - has shown that the concept of liminality has particular relevance in today’s unpredictable world, where it often tends to become permanent. Building on this work, we argue that rather than being purely a stage of transition, it is possible to get 'stuck' in liminality. Indeed, in many societies, a temporary phase of transition from one stable circle of activity to another is becoming less and less likely, and liminality is the norm.

What we call ‘liminal hotspots’ can be glossed as occasions in which people feel caught in a transition that has become permanent and uncertainty and tension acquire enduring qualities.

Might Theresa May be leading our country into just such a liminal hotspot?

More about liminal hotspots can be found in a recent interview I gave with Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist Read the full interview.

You can read more about the social and political power of psychology in our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). You can watch a video on the module here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk

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Illness, disability, welfare and psychology – a critical social view

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:00

This week’s blog is from Prof John Cromby, one of the social psychologists whose work is discussed in our new module, Advancing social psychology (DD317). John presents a critical view of a current social issue to show how psychological knowledge can be used politically.

The government are cutting benefit payments to people who are ill and who have disabilities. For over a year now, the journalist Frances Ryan has been documenting the frequently devastating effects of these cuts upon the lives of vulnerable people – see here, for just some of the many instances she has uncovered.

Since 2008 we have repeatedly been told that these cuts are necessary because we can no longer afford ‘profligate’ welfare spending. We have been told that it was this spending – and not the hundreds of billions we paid to bail out the banks – that created the UK’s current spending deficit. Ministers have made speeches that distinguish between ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’, and suggested that there are many families where three entire generations have never worked. These speeches imply that all those who claim benefits are cheats, living off the hard work of others.

The truth, as usual, is more complex. Research funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation failed to find any evidence for entrenched inter-generational cultures of welfare dependency. Some benefits help keep people in work, or out of hospital, and this generates savings elsewhere. The government’s own figures show that, in 2016-16, benefit overpayments due to either fraud or error were estimated at £3.1billion. This was just 1.8% of total government spending on benefits – and was offset by an estimated 1% in underpayments. By comparison, in the same year tax evasion is estimated to have cost the government £36billion. And in any case, cutting welfare budgets is not the only way to balance the books. So removing benefits from ill and disabled people is an ideological choice – not an economic necessity.

Broadly speaking, psychology is being used in two kinds of ways to make this ideological choice seem more acceptable. I have already touched upon the first: to create social identities that pit those in work against those who claim benefits. Elements of the media have furthered this psychological project by producing and broadcasting what are widely called ‘poverty porn’ programmes.

The second way in which psychology is being used to make this ideological choice seem more reasonable is by shaping the experiences of benefit claimants themselves. Strategies have included relatively obvious changes such as replacing sick notes with ‘fit notes’. But they have also included more subtle changes with no overt political agenda, such as requiring benefit claimants to undergo personality testing. As Martin Willis and I show in our paper (Cromby and Willis 2013) this apparently innocuous initiative can in fact be seen as an instrument of political power – one that is all the more effective for being difficult to recognise.


You can read more about the social and political power of psychology in our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317). You can watch a video on the module here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk

 

Reference

Cromby, J. and Willis, M. (2013) ‘Nudging into subjectification: governmentality and psychometrics’, Critical Social Policy, vol. 2, no. 34, pp. 241–59.


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A social psychological view of contemporary workers.

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:01

In this week's blog, the module team for Advancing social psychology (DD317) turn their attention to the contemporary experience of work and employment

Earlier this month, a UK government spokesperson talked about the problem of 'bad work' (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-39849571). Matthew Taylor, head of a government review, noted the problems of 'in-work poverty'; insecure employment, often linked to the 'gig economy', and the poor quality experience of workers who don't feel 'engaged' with what they do.

This is just the latest of many criticisms prompted by the changes in work and employment that have taken place in advanced economies like the UK over the last few decades. For example, the boundaries between work and free time are less clearcut than in the past: think of the contrast between 'clocking out' at the end of the working day, as used to be common, and checking email on the commute home and throughout the evening and weekend, as many people do now. Partly as a consequence, working hours are longer. Another change is that more people today work for themselves, freelance or self-employed or running their own businesses. And even workers in conventional employment are nowadays expected to be more responsible, self-managing, innovative, future-focused and, in a word, entrepreneurial.

For social psychologists, these changes raise questions not only about 'good work' but also 'good workers'. We know that work is an important part of people's identities (which is one reason why unemployment can be such a negative experience). People define themselves by what they do and they feel bad if they are not credited with doing it well, or if they are in jobs which don't seem to represent who they are or want to be.

Of course, some of the changes to work and employment may offer improvements, such as more autonomy for workers, greater flexibility in how they manage their own work, and more of the engagement that Mr Taylor is calling for. Nevertheless, many social psychologists take a more critical position, asking questions about the problems and conflicts which might ensue. Are the changes making it more difficult to be a good worker today, especially for certain categories of people? Who do the changes favour and who do they disadvantage? We might speculate that a requirement to be engaged and flexible is more challenging for people who carry heavy responsibilities in their lives outside work, for instance, as parents or carers. As a different point, perhaps a future focus comes more naturally to younger people. On the other hand, responsibility is a quality associated with maturity and therefore perhaps with age.

A further issue to consider is how the changing requirements of work might shape workers themselves. The conventional household arrangement of a (male) breadwinner and a (female) full-time homemaker is now less common, and also less of an ideal. How has its erosion affected parent roles? What are the wider implications for 'normal' gender identities?

Yet another point which interests social psychologists concerns the ways that people re-make themselves in response to changing social demands. Do today's workers discipline themselves to resemble a different ideal of the good worker? Are they learning to be more entrepreneurial? Are they accepting different values, prioritising flexibility over loyalty or creativity over conscientiousness? And if they are, do these changes come at a cost, conflicting perhaps with other values and identities?

These questions are discussed in the new module Advancing social psychology (DD317) in Chapter 10 'New workers as contemporary subjects'.

 


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A social psychological view of voting

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:02

In this week's blog, the module team for Advancing social psychology (DD317) offer some timely social psychological reflections on voting in elections.

Undoubtedly, voting is a very important form of political action. It is one of the principal ways that citizens voice their political views and participate in the processes of democratic governance.

Voting can signify agreement with the way things are, or alternatively it can be a sign of protest against the status quo. For example, the Brexit vote, which was a surprise to many, can be said to symbolize dissatisfaction with the political establishment. On the other hand, the recent vote for Emmanuel Macron in France illustrates that French voters showed a preference for established centre politics as opposed to the far-right politics of Marine Le Pen and the Front National.

How can we understand how people vote? Given the failure of recent polling to predict electoral results (such as Brexit and the 2015 general elections in the UK), it appears that voting behaviours can be quite complicated.

From a social psychological perspective, we can approach voting in terms of the kinds of groups that people are affiliated with. For example, if someone identifies as a socialist, they are likely to support the Labour Party in the UK. If on the other hand, they identify as a social conservative, they would be more likely to support the Conservative Party. The role of identities in political action, and particularly identities that are politicized (such as activist identities), is examined in detail in work in the social identity theory tradition, for example in the social identity model of collective action, which is discussed in DD317.

Other social psychological work can also be very useful for understanding voting and political behavior more generally. For example, social constructionist approaches, such as social representations theory and discursive psychology, examine the ways that citizens construct knowledge about their social and political worlds and how this ‘common sense’ knowledge is connected to the history, politics and culture of particular communities. Such approaches also emphasise the ideological underpinnings of what we can call ‘common sense’. They suggest that common sense is not neutral and a-political but that it is ideological and consequential. Gaining a deep understanding of how people think about politics, not just their attitudes to specific issues, can give us insights into their political orientations and voting behaviours.

Social psychologists would also note that voting is a form of action, and interaction. It is one of the actions associated with citizenship, along with carrying a particular passport and paying taxes to a national government. It can therefore be understood as a way of enacting or performing citizenship, a form of belonging associated with the nation. The academic theorist Benedict Anderson described a nation as an 'imagined community' because its citizens feel that they belong together, as a community, yet there are too many of them to be personally acquainted: the community can't be directly experienced but only imagined. Voting is an individual action that is meaningful because the voter imagines many other individuals voting at the same time, participating in the same election. Obviously it wouldn't be an election if there was only one voter! The action of voting therefore reinforces the imagined community and idea of the nation, even though there is disagreement about who should win the election.

In addition, we may also note the social psychological significance of the role and perception of political leaders. Contests are not always as much about individuals as in the case of the US or the French election, yet personality is inevitably an element of any election contest. In fact, in the present British election arguments abound that the decisive factor might prove to be the perceived difference in the personality of the party leaders – all the policy details will pale in contrast. Thus, there exists a “special relationship” between voters and leaders. Leaders often embody idealized or wished-for aspects of voters’ selves. The “care” the leaders profess with regard to those who are to be governed is not completely unlike that of caregivers in a family.

Finally, the recent US presidential election and the UK referendum raised some other thorny issues about the relationship between social psychology and voting. There has been a lot of discussion about the involvement of certain companies who specialise in using psychological knowledge of personality profiles to predict and influence various online behaviours and preferences. Some of these companies focus explicitly on steering the outcome of elections by using psychological knowledge to influence how, and indeed whether, people vote. A common strategy is to send messages designed to tap into individual emotional dispositions, playing to voters’ hopes, fears, desires and prejudices. This controversial idea of using social psychology as a means not just to describe, but to deliberately shape and change people’s opinions and conduct is addressed in DD317 under the label of ‘humaneering’.  This humaneering mission of social psychology raises many ethical and political issues, especially when such companies are funded by powerful and rich individuals seeking to manipulate elections for their own profit. Should social psychologists let their knowledge become a tool for such manipulation, and if not, how should they resist?   

 

To learn more about how you can use social psychology to understand voting and political action, check out our new module DD317 Advancing Social Psychology.


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Doctor Who Part 2: Social psychology and psychoanalysis

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:02

Our new module Advancing social psychology (DD317) introduces psychoanalysis as a distinctive social psychological approach. What insights can it offer? As an example, a member of the DD317 module team continues a previous discussion of Doctor Who by offering a psychoanalytic interpretation of one particular episode.

An earlier entry on this blog pondered some of the social psychological angles from which to shed some light on the unique cultural phenomenon that is Doctor Who. Yet, given that the longest-running science fiction series in the world embodies an almost Shakespearian quality of engaging many people on many levels, some further thoughts might be welcome. Here I utilise the psychoanalytic distinction between fantasising (in the sense of conscious daydreaming) and unconscious phantasies that result from our inability to tackle some real (and really frightening) emotional dilemmas.

The relevance of this distinction to Doctor Who occurred to me during the Matt Smith era, when I was watching the episode Night Terrors. As I recall, the episode featured the Doctor receiving a psychic message whilst being out and about at the edge of the universe. He takes the message, “Please save me from the monsters!”, with utmost seriousness. It is, he says, only some enormous scare that would make a message like that be delivered that far. It then turns out that the message in question was written by an eight-year-old child by the name of George, who, despite living amidst the mundane surroundings of a British estate, is convinced there are monsters living in his cupboard. Whilst we (but not the Doctor, of course) all know that this is completely impossible, we are also not utterly surprised when the Doctor’s two companions, Amy and Rory, disappear into the cupboard to be chased by some freakish looking giant dolls with a lovely chuckle and a not-so-lovely lethal embrace.

Now these dolls are monsters and the thrill of the episode may be attributed to their monstrous attributes. Yet, as we subsequently learn in the episode, they are mere products of the child’s phantasy. The child, you see, is not quite what he seems to be. As the Doctor figures out, he is a Tenza child, an empathic and otherwise benevolent alien who needs a host family to survive. George’s “parents” on the estate, Alex and Clare, were not able to have a child of their own – yet they really wanted one. This is what the Tenza creature could sense and it then turned itself into the embodiment of Alex and Clare’s wish: George. Using a “perception filter”, he made Alex and Clare believe that he was really their biological son and forget that they never had one, that Clare was never pregnant (this is what the Doctor spots when looking at family photographs!) and the likes.

What no magic can achieve, though, is to assuage George’s (i.e., the Tenza creature’s) profound fear that his hoax will one day come to light and he will then be got rid of. His way of coping with his fear is to put it in the cupboard. Yet, as you may suspect by now, this strategy rather backfired as it gradually transformed the cupboard into the giant container of all sorts of monsters and evils – some of whom are right now chasing Amy and Rory!

So what exactly is my point with all this?... It is that the Doctor’s realisation that as the monster dolls are actually arising out of George’s fear they will only be pacified if George faces up to his fears is essentially a psychoanalytic insight. For the fear and its objects (i.e., WHAT or WHO George is afraid of) will indeed become fantastic if banished to phantasy. They will grow out of all proportions and acquire all sorts of characteristics they would never have in broad daylight. And when George becomes able to open his eyes and replace the frightful magical mantra (“Please save me from the monsters”) that reached the Doctor at the other end of the universe with the action of facing up to those phantasy monsters – they immediately disappear.

What does not disappear, of course, is George’s original fear of abandonment. And even without being coloured by his fearful phantasy, that is no small issue either (after all, if it was, it would not have had to be pushed into the cupboard!).  As Alex and Clare were tricked into “adopting” the non-human creature George originally was (or still is?), how will they react on learning this? We have recovered from the relief of Amy and Rory surviving the doll scare, but we suddenly focus on George. His feelings are no longer banished from consciousness and therefore phantastically frightening. But recovering them into conscious thought also exposes him to the original fear, and indeed some frightening reality, that he couldn't previously face. What is now in the open is that he is not a human but a Tenza, as is the prospect that he was originally defending himself against: that upon learning this and realising they have been tricked, Alex and Clare will show him the door.

How does the episode end? We all know how. The common family history which Alex, Clare and George have shared proves stronger than blood. Alex and Clare's original wish has really made the Tenza creature into George and they would never ever contemplate giving up this George, their son.

Look up more information about our new  Level 3 module Advancing social psychology (DD317) (which unfortunately doesn't feature Doctor Who)


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Social psychology and 'Doctor Who'

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:04

In our continuing series of blogs from the production team of the new module Advancing Social Psychology (DD317), Stephanie Taylor brings a social psychological perspective to 'Doctor Who'.


There's a new series of 'Doctor Who' so we're off again in the TARDIS with a different woman companion, played by the wonderful Pearl Mackie, and the same old superior Doctor (check the comments on male-female relationships in the earlier DD317 blog on Vogue magazine).  But I do like watching Peter Capaldi and I enjoy the series enough to keep dipping in.

The new companion, Bill Potts, has had quite a hard life but she's been liberated by education (a point for all OU students to note, although be reassured that the Doctor is not typical of OU tutors). We're told that she wants to travel to the future and her journey In the first full episode, to an Earth colony on another planet, raises some interesting questions about how we imagine future worlds. There's a clear message that improved technology is not enough to make life good. Social psychologists would agree with that. We reject the idea that technological developments dictate how society will change (the idea known as technological determinism), arguing instead for a more complex interplay between the technological and the social.

Like all the Doctor's woman companions, Bill Potts is presented as an ordinary contemporary woman and, like the others, it's noticeable how free she is. These women may have their problems – Bill has to serve chips in the university cafe – but they tend to dress as they want, follow their lives and loves as they choose, and of course go wherever they want in the TARDIS, leaving other responsibilities behind, including the job in the cafe.

This fits with a common narrative of gender, that people today have left behind the constraints of past gendered roles, and that women in particular are now confident and empowered. But narratives can be widely accepted without necessarily being accurate. In DD317 we approach this one critically. We present the work of social psychologists of gender who question the supposed freedoms of women, and men, in the UK today. This is part of the discussion of New femininities and masculinities in Block 4 Contemporary social psychological subjects.

The Doctor Who writers generally suggest that the Doctor's companions take a distinctive, and superior, 21st century world view wherever and whenever they travel, although they may empathise with people from other times. It's as if the high point of human understanding has been reached right now, in the present day. The people of today, represented by the companions, are normal and everyone else in time and the universe is 'other'.

Social psychologists point out that the concept of the 'other' is subtle but important, and dangerous. By emphasising the normality of 'us' and the strangeness of 'them' (and on Doctor Who yes, they do often look quite strange), the concept encourages a blindness, and deafness, to 'their' point of view, and their possible protests about how they're being treated by 'us'. The 'other' is part of a way of thinking associated with cultural encounters through the ages, including in situations of war and colonialism, and it can become a justification for contemporary inequalities and divided societies, two major concerns for social psychologists, as we discuss in DD317 in Block 2 New encounters across cultures in a globalised world.

And there's so much more to be said about 'Doctor Who'. Watch this space for the next episode of this discussion.


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