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Social psychology and the (new) norms of working lives

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Tuesday, 18 Jul 2017, 20:19

We live in an ever-changing society and last week a new report focused attention on changes in the way we work. The report Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices is the outcome of a ten month process of consultation and research by a government-appointed group led by Matthew Taylor (no relation) from the Royal Society of Arts https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/reports/good-work-taylor-review-into-modern-working-practices.pdf

Work is relevant to almost everyone's current, past or future life. The Taylor Review is also particularly interesting to social psychologists and other social researchers because of the issues it raises around what is normal and how norms change.

The Taylor Review indicates some of the changes that have taken place in working lives, and some that haven't. One relates to flexibility. The Review suggests that flexible working has become a normal aspect of working life in the UK, and is something to be celebrated:

'Encouraging flexible work is good for everyone and has been shown to have a positive impact on productivity, worker retention and quality of work' (p.14).

It suggests that one reason for the recent rise in self-employment is that people want to be able to work flexibly.

Flexibility sounds good when it refers to a worker being able to choose what work to do and how intensively to do it, but perhaps less so when the flexibility advantages the employer: apparently about half of UK workers are so flexible around working hours that they now work overtime for no pay! So flexibility seems to be a new norm in the double sense of being a description of the behaviour of many, if not most, workers, and also what people accept as necessary, or feel that they should do without question (even when it disadvantages them). In this second sense, 'normal' is a prescriptive term, implying a value judgement.

But these two senses of 'normal' are not always in sync. This can be seen in the example of parents who are also workers. The Review notes that in Britain today 'it has become conventional for both parents of small children to work' (p.97). Yet it also reports that a survey found that '50% of mothers described a negative impact on their opportunity, status or job security' (p.96) as a result of having a baby (i.e. during pregnancy, maternity leave or when they returned to work after maternity leave).

So it's normal for mothers (and fathers) to work, in the sense of this being a common behaviour, but the idea that mothers work doesn't seem to be accepted. There's a disjunction between the behaviour and the idea. Working mothers are still being treated as odd or 'not normal' in that their situations are questioned, made difficult, problematized. This example indicates that ideas and values do not automatically change to reflect what people are doing. Behaviours can continue to be ignored, or treated as abnormal, even when they're common.

Taking this a step further, social psychologists are interested in how ideas and values can drive what people do; in other words, the idea of what is 'normal' can come before the normal behaviour and even produce it. One of the academics who has written about this is Nikolas Rose (http://nikolasrose.com/ ). He has researched how psychologists, and psychiatrists and psychotherapists, have contributed ideas about normal behaviour which have then become a model or rule for how people (try to) live. In response to expert knowledge, people behave as (they think) they should do and/or everyone else does. Following this line of thinking, we could see the Taylor Review as contributing to the (further) normalising of flexible working, and the identity of a flexible worker.

Of course a further point of interest is why some ideas don't become established, that is, why some identities and behaviours are not normalised. For example, why does the identity of 'working mother' (or perhaps a better term would be 'worker-and-mother') remain problematic or 'troubled'? One reason might be because of the persistence and continuing celebration of other identities, like an idealised stay-at-home Mum (probably still associated with an image of 'a normal family'), but that's a point for a different, longer discussion.

The Taylor Review was commissioned by the government. The Review team collected evidence, much of it in the form of submissions volunteered by various organisations and individuals (https://beis.dialogue-app.com/matthew-taylor-review ). On the basis of this evidence, the Review makes recommendations for government action (new legislation; better enforcement of existing legislation etc). It therefore has the delicate task of straddling the two meanings of 'normal', describing 'modern working practices' in the UK, and also pushing to make them what (the Review panel thinks) they should be.

Of course, the Review is not alone in this. It is just one, very interesting example of how political actions (the government commissioning a review, the publication of the report on the review) potentially impact on personal lives in ways that we might not expect. It draws attention to the power of experts, and researchers, as the source of ideas, and the media, as major disseminators of those ideas. Part of its interest for social psychologists is as an example of how the idea of what is normal can impact on our behaviour, and on how we think of ourselves (for example, as normal workers). In short, it is an example of the interface between social context and the individual person, and that is what social psychologists study.

This week's blog has explored some ideas which are discussed in more detail in our new module, Advancing social psychology (DD317). To learn more about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk You can also look at the new Open Learn course course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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