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Viral language? The discourses of COVID-19

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In this blog, Professor Stephanie Taylor considers the language of COVID-19 and its wider implications.

 In 1978, the critical theorist Susan Sontag wrote about the metaphors of cancer. She argued that the language used to discuss cancer, which at the time was considered an almost untreatable disease, echoed that of the so-called war against communism, centred on the Cold War tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. Later, Sontag extended her original book to note similar trends in the language used to refer to AIDS. 

Few people are now preoccupied with the war against communism but the 'war' metaphors that Sontag noted still persist. For instance, it is usual to refer to people who have cancer as 'brave' and to speak admiringly of how they are 'battling' their illness. Some cancer patients have been critical of such language, noting the implication that their recovery will depend on their own efforts, as if those who eventually die of the disease are somehow at fault because they have failed to fight hard enough. 

Critical discursive psychologists and other discourse analysts approach such metaphors as part of the discourses of cancer, and illness more generally. A dominant discourse, for instance, of illness as conflict, may be superseded over time, although it seldom disappears completely. It remains available to be taken up again in new situations, often carrying an extra authority because it is familiar, as if a lost 'truth' is being recognised. 

Discourses can also alter over time. For example, Shani Orgad (2009) has discussed the changing meanings of surviving and being a survivor. From referring simply to those have not died (for instance, when an inheritance passes to the surviving legatees), being a survivor has come to denote 'a desirable mode of being or identity that people are encourage to comply with and take on'. Orgad notes that the statement 'I'm a survivor' is now likely to be a claim to certain personal qualities, like 'individual strength, bravery, self-sufficiency, and determination'. In this sense, it shifts from referring to a past experience (such as, again, cancer or another illness) to a person's potential for the future.

 The reporting and discussion of COVID-19 of course invite careful attention. The point of interest for discourse researchers, including critical discursive psychologists, is to draw out and make visible the implications of metaphors and the other language that is being used. For example, measures involving distancing and 'lock down' inevitably suggest that the threat comes from those outside, some 'other' people, who are different to 'us'. In the rapidly evolving situation, the people who need to be kept out have been those who are, variously, from Wuhan, all of Mainland China, Northern Italy, all of Europe and now, for Australia and New Zealand, everyone else in the world.

 Sometimes the implications of the language themselves become a point of public debate. UK government ministers are currently having to explain that 'self-isolation' does not mean the complete severing of connection with other people, as if you are on an island ('isola' in Italian). Even the change of preferred name, from coronavirus to COVID-19, seems significant. COVID-19 sounds more scientific. Perhaps it also reduces the status of the virus by implying a succession of earlier forms (1-18?) that may already have been successfully dealt with!

The instruction to 'self-isolate' or 'self-quarantine' emphasises everyone's own responsibility for managing the COVID-19 situation. This is consistent with the prevailing individualist discourses associated with neoliberalism. (Orgad also links the new meanings of 'survivor' to neoliberalism, noting the implication of 'a self-responsible individual with a considerable degree of agency'.) Social theorists and researchers have explored how these discourses operate in multiple contexts so that issues like unemployment, racism and inequality are defined not in social or structural terms but as the personal problems of individuals. 

Yet COVID-19 can also be seen to have challenged such individualist discourses by reminding us that our welfare is linked to other people's. Neoliberalism rests on the logic of the market i.e. that individuals must compete with each other, and the winners will obtain the greatest benefit. But when even the wealthiest and starriest celebrities (Tom Hanks!) have been shown to be vulnerable, we are reminded that winners are still part of a larger society. One person's infection is potentially everyone's problem. We can't get away from each other or, to express the point in another way, we are inevitably connected and interdependent. Perhaps, despite the undoubted threat and difficulties it is causing, COVID-19 will have the positive effect of reminding us that we are social beings and our survival, in any terms, depends on our working together.

 References

Shani Orgad (2009) The Survivor in Contemporary Culture and Public Discourse:  A GenealogyThe Communication Review vol.12 issue 2

Susan Sontag (1978) Illness as Metaphor Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 


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The abolition of 'part-time' education?

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Sunday, 15 Dec 2019, 14:46

In this end-of-year blog, Professor Stephanie Taylor questions whether the label of 'part time' is appropriate for Open University study.

Are you a part-time student? Do you think part-time university education should be abolished? Before you answer those questions, let's consider exactly what we mean by 'part-time'. The Open University has of course been famous for fifty years as a Higher Education provider for part-time students. However, I'd like to question the continuing use of the term 'part-time' to describe the experience of OU study.

One of the starting assumptions of the Open University was that its students had not moved into university education directly from school. Most of them had followed other paths, and in doing so acquired commitments that would compete with their study as a priority. OU students were likely to have partners and children. They probably had jobs and many had previously completed professional training, especially in teaching, nursing and the Armed Forces, so were working their way up career ladders. (The OU was also popular with retired people and they too could be seen to be studying after work, but in their case on the time scale of a lifetime rather than a working week.) The assumption was therefore that for OU students, however committed, their university education would not be their first priority. 

This contrasted with the situation of full-time students who in those distant days mostly had living grants to attend university (!) so could focus on tertiary education as their main occupation. OU study was part-time because it had to wait until other duties had been fulfilled. This was perhaps symbolised by the timing of the BBC radio and television broadcasts that were part of the study material for early students. The OU programmes were initially scheduled at inconvenient times, late night or early morning, and then often pushed even later, for instance to accommodate sports fixtures. The message was clear. Open University study would have to wait until the rest of life had been attended to.

Roll forward to the second decade of the 21st century and the situation of all UK university students has changed. Fees are substantially higher. Full-time university students no longer receive grants. A high proportion of them combine their study with part-time work as they try to limit the debts they are accruing through their student loans. Open University students may also have taken out student loans to cover their higher fees, and they are still likely to be combining their study with employment and caring responsibilities. In addition, an increasing proportion are studying intensively, registering on two or more modules at once in order to complete their degrees quickly. In terms of study hours, the part-time/fulltime distinction therefore seems much less appropriate.

There are other reasons too why today's Open University students have more complicated lives than the 'part-time' students of the past. We live in a society in which life generally is increasingly pressured and unpredictable. In particular, work and employment have become much more precarious with greater numbers of people self-employed or working on short term contracts. Even for those in secure jobs, working hours are often fluid. Many people now do unpaid overtime, for instance, to deal with work emails from home. The neat division between working time and personal time has therefore been eroded. The old image of the part-time student was of someone who could organise their study into their free time after work, using holidays, weekends and evenings. That kind of tidy separation is now difficult. Life has become less about scheduling and more about 'juggling' to do everything at once, somehow. Ironically, this may be a reason why some OU students are actually increasing their study commitment, in order to try to finish their degrees as soon as possible. 'Part-time' is less meaningful when you don't know exactly how much time is ever going to be available.

However, the final reason why I question the term 'part-time study' holds for both past and present day Open University students. Conventional university education took place in a discrete phase of life and functioned as a transition between school and full entry to adulthood. There is a caricature of university students, particularly applied to those of the 1960s and 70s, as rebels who dress badly, party excessively and participate in violent political demonstrations. Although that image is fading, there is still a widespread expectation, or suspicion, that university is a contained time in which young people may challenge social norms before eventually re-joining the mainstream and settling down. But for OU students, university education is inevitably intertwined with their ongoing life experience. It is not a time apart and for this reason, I would argue, it is more likely to have a long-term influential and even transformational effect on students' world views and life practices. Even the decision to begin OU study is an active undertaking rather than just a semi-automatic 'next step'. Once the study is started, the student's multiple commitments inevitably make it more difficult. Completing a degree is likely to involve a significant personal investment. And because the process of studying is not circumscribed, OU education is likely to force re-thinking and re-interpretation, changing students permanently as their learning impacts on all parts of their lives and on who they are. 

 For all of these reasons, I suggest that OU study is more demanding, more important and more life-changing than the conventional alternative. It deserves a description that acknowledges its specialness, to other people and to the students themselves. Education with the Open University is not 'part-time' but 'part of life'. Congratulations for committing to it and for being an OU student.


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Professors in the School of Psychology and Counselling

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In a series on the research of senior academics in the School of Psychology and Counselling, Stephanie Taylor, Professor of Social Psychology, discusses some of her recent publications and other activities.

This autumn, my main research activity has been the development of my new book Pathways into Creative Working Lives. I'm co-editing this international collection with Susan Luckman from the University of South Australia, as the final part of our work on an EU-funded project. Since the late 1980s there has been increasing recognition of the economic and social importance of a global creative sector, often referred to as the cultural and creative industries (CCI). Different definitions of the CCI encompass different occupations, but a central assumption is that the sector's workers are looking for the kind of satisfaction and fulfilment that is more conventionally associated with the creative arts than 'ordinary' work. Many of these workers are graduates from art schools. Some have decided to develop a career from a longstanding personal interest in performance or craft or other forms of 'making'. The new international collection discusses the significance of this way of thinking about work, and the experience of curators, writers, artists, actors, media workers, designers and craft workers from across the world. 

For Susan and myself, the process of assembling the collection began with a seminar we held in Dublin in June 2018. We invited the seminar participants and other academics with related interests to develop proposals, then chapters. We've provided feedback at each stage and we've also co-authored our own two chapters. The publishers have now sent the whole collection out to other academics for feedback, and we expect to do further revisions in response to their comments. This is an example of how academic publications are developed and refined collaboratively. The collection will be published in our new Palgrave series, 'Creative Working Lives' and we are also looking for other books to develop for the series. 

 I met up with Susan and some of the collection contributors at the Re-Futuring Creative Economies conference in Leicester in September. My own conference paper focused on my special interest in the social psychology of creativity. I've just completed a new article for a special issue on that topic in the US journal Social Psychology Quarterly. My article 'A practitioner concept of contemporary creativity' analyses interviews from a research project with maker artists that was conducted in Milton Keynes, where the OU is located. I wanted to look at the way that these practitioners understand creativity, and how that is not necessarily the same as the way that academics conceptualise it. In another article, published in the journal Feminism & Psychologyin August, Marie Paludan and I look at the particular views of women maker-artists.

Alongside these writing projects, I've been busy co-organising events at which colleagues can present their research. This is part of my role as a co-Director of CuSP, the Culture and Social Psychology collaboration in the School of Psychology and Counselling http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp. One of these was a workshop on qualitative analysis that we held at the OU on 21st November. Research students from the School and other parts of the university discussed examples of research data to explore the possibilities and limitations of qualitative data analysis. I've also been assisting with the university's preparation for REF2021.

There's been quite a lot of overlap between all these activities and my main teaching work this autumn as I have been overseeing the marking of End of Module Assignments for the postgraduate module Evaluating Psychology: Research and PracticeDD803 http://www.open.ac.uk/postgraduate/modules/dd803 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPrLk1zMC0c  The final tasks for these students was to conduct a critical review of psychology research on a selected topic, then present the findings in formats for different audiences, such as a news article for the general public or a podcast for a charity.  

As this account indicates, a great deal of my work has involved reading, reviewing and communicating. That extends into the work I do for this School blog - inviting, editing and posting contributions. And alongside all of it, I'm always looking ahead, talking about possibilities with colleagues at the OU and elsewhere, thinking about new ideas I've encountered in my reading, making notes and tentative plans for the next step in my research.

References

Stephanie Taylor (2019) A Participant Concept of Contemporary Creativity Social Psychology Quarterly 82(4):453-472

https://doi.org/10.1177/0190272519882400

Stephanie Taylor and Marie Paludan (2019) Transcending utility? The gendered conflicts of a contemporary creative identification Feminism & Psychology   https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0959353519864390

Stephanie Taylor and Susan Luckman (forthcoming) Pathways into Contemporary Creative Work Palgrave Macmillan.

Stephanie Taylor's home page is 

http://www.open.ac.uk/socialsciences/staff/people-profile.php?name=Stephanie_Taylor

 


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The new normal of working lives

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In this week's blog, Stephanie Taylor introduces a new interdisciplinary collection of research The new normal of working lives: critical studies in contemporary work and employment, co-edited by Stephanie Taylor and Susan Luckman for Palgrave Macmillan (2018). She discusses some of the issues it raises for social psychologists and other social researchers, concerning a contemporary worker subject.

 News about changes to work tend to focus on technological developments, such as the likely effects of robotics. But working lives have already changed greatly in recent decades, and not only because of technology. ‘New work’ is discussed in an academic collection to be published in January 2018,  The new normal of working lives: critical studies in contemporary work and employment, edited by myself and Susan Luckman.

The collection brings together research conducted by academics from different disciplines, including cultural and media studies, sociology and psychology. A number of the papers were originally presented in a conference stream (at the WORK2015 conference http://www.utu.fi/en/units/tcls/sites/work2015/Pages/home.aspx ) entitled ‘Reconceptualising work’. That topic and the title of the collection indicate some of the key questions addressed. What changes have occurred in the way we think about work? What aspects of work that previously might have received more attention have now come to be taken for granted as normal and unremarkable? Following from that, how are people changing themselves to manage this ‘new normal’ and become the kind of worker that's required today?

Although the collection discusses many kinds of new work, some common themes emerge. Most of the workers who were studied have high ambitions. They want to do satisfying and personally meaningful work which pays a good income, and they want to combine this with a rich personal and family life. The privileged, or lucky, can arrange their lives to achieve that. However, for the majority of the workers discussed in the collection, having everything is not attainable, or at least (as they see it) not yet.

The collection suggests that whether people today are employed by an organisation or work for themselves, they operate to a great extent as ‘loners’ rather than as part of a collective. They accept individual responsibility,  for solving problems and meeting deadlines, for acquiring qualifications and updating their technological skills, and often for paying for their workplaces and equipment. Some of them have taken over work that was previously the responsibility of governments and the public sector, such as the provision of care for the elderly. Some of them are making new jobs out of activities often regarded as hobbies, like computer gaming or blogging or vlogging. Many of them bring their personal selves into their work, utilising their enthusiasms (for instance, for the gaming) or their private experiences (in the blogging and vlogging).

They also give up their personal time. They accept very long working days, disciplining themselves to work more hours with less ‘down time’. They work evenings and weekends, and in transit between home and work. They are seldom off duty so accept the breakdown of barriers between work and private life. Many of them use their homes as their workplaces, especially as a way of managing caring responsibilities.

All of this inevitably creates problems. Many of the workers don’t earn much, especially for the effort and the long hours they put in. Yet they apparently accept the difficulties as necessary. In the most extreme situations they manage by hoping for better lives in the future, even when there seems little reason to expect improvement, and sometimes when their current actions (for instance, incurring debts while working unpaid) will almost certainly create extra problems in the future.

Taken together, the collection therefore presents a picture of difficulties but also optimism, of dedication but also great expectations. It suggests that contemporary workers discipline themselves to be extremely hardworking and tolerant of difficulties, to prioritise their jobs over their private lives, to accept disappointment and limited rewards but also remain ambitious and optimistic. Is this a sustainable ideal, or even one that can be achieved? Whose interests does it serve? What is required to make yourself into this new worker? And is this the kind of person we should be aspiring to become?

To learn more about the module DD317 Advancing social psychology, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk

 


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