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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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