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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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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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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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