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Here we go....new beginnings, and their social meanings

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As we reach September, the DD317 module team reflect on autumn, the new academic year and – at last – the launch of our module.

We began this DD317 blog in spring, a time of new beginnings. Now it’s September and nearly autumn, simultaneously an end time, for the summer, and also another beginning, for the new academic year. This is an example of how ‘facts’ (e.g. about the time of year) depend on the social context. Workers in some parts of society, like hospitality industries, are probably starting to relax, anticipating a quieter time for a few months, whereas academics, like the DD317 module team, are taking a deep breath, opening their new diaries and looking forward to work. We are very pleased to be starting the module.

Social researchers explore the meanings of situations, events and people. There are many traditional ideas and images attached to autumn, from the benign (harvest fruit, changing leaves) to the slightly depressing (falling temperatures and lengthening nights). In addition, of course we now live in an advertising year which from here on moves us through Halloween, Christmas and New Year, Valentine’s Day, Easter and summer holidays: you can probably think of a few more marker points to add in. Narrative and discursive social psychologists might discuss this as the dominant narrative of the contemporary year. Its trajectory can be drawn as a line of peaks and falls, each associated with encouragements to do certain things: dress up, celebrate and indulge in rich food, or diet and get fit; spend money or economize; go out or stay home; socialize or be solitary.

Why does this matter? It seems trivial but has wider implications. On one scale, the encouragements are linked to commercial ventures, for instance, to sell us chocolate and gym memberships. If too few of us buy winter clothes or summer holidays, then businesses will be threatened. So there are economic interests in our compliance with seasonally appropriate behaviour, and power struggles around the associations of the year (think of the increased media focus on Black Friday as a day in the US shopping year which is perhaps being imported to the UK).

On the personal and individual level that interests psychologists, we are influenced by the social year and our social context in ways that go beyond simple ‘choices’. We will find it difficult, if not impossible, to separate ourselves from the events and activities of this social year. We probably shape our own lives to it, organising ourselves to act in seasonally appropriate ways, for instance, to be convivial at New Year and active during the summer. In addition, we experience the trajectory of the social year emotionally, including through feelings of failure at non-compliance (such as the well-known patterns of holiday and festive season depression). We also experience conflict on an individual level, for example, when at particular points in the year (holidays, Christmas) spending money we can't afford can seem to be simultaneously the right and wrong thing to do.

In short, we are social beings and social subjects, disciplining or governing ourselves to comply with social norms and also being shaped by society in our most personal experiences. Yet we are not the same. Each of us is distinctive and able (we feel) to make choices. Society is complex precisely because people do not all obediently walk in step, doing the same things at the same time. This is the paradox of social psychology and one of its most interesting debates. In DD317, we call it the ‘social-individual interface'. We explore its manifestations and implications around a wide range of issues.  

So now, in autumn, we hope you'll be joining us to explore social psychological issues and debates in our new module, Advancing social psychology (DD317). You can find out more about the module in this video https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk and sample the materials in this Open Learn 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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