Reflections on the Vision of Social Psychology
04.11.2015, by Kai Sassenberg in opinion
Report on a Conference by Sandra Obradović & Cathy Nicholson (London School of Economics and Political Science)
We must ask what is the aim of the scientific community. Is it to support or to criticize the social order? Is it to consolidate it or transform it? (Moscovici, 1972)
To celebrate fifty years of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics (LSE), the Department of Social Psychology hosted a conference in early June 2015 re-uniting a cohort of mostly UK based social psychologists, who had taken their careers in various directions and disciplines, to discuss the current standing of the discipline. A range of talks on the history and future of social psychology, the role of research assessment exercises such as the REF (Research Excellence Framework) in the UK, transdiciplinarity and the applicability of our research in the real world were given by key British social psychologists including Dominic Abrams, Rupert Brown, Steve Brown, Helen Haste, Miles Hewstone, Nick Hopkins, Helene Joffe, Patrick Leman, Sonia Livingston, Anthony Manstead, Anne Phoenix, Jonathan Potter, Steve Reicher, Paul Stenner and Christian Tileaga.
This commentary summarises the main points of the conference to share its insights with those who were not present. We hope to invite a larger group of social psychologists to engage with these discussions as to how to keep the vision and dynamic of social psychology alive, to develop it further in an increasingly competitive cross-disciplinary world.
The Past of Social Psychology
One of the biggest themes that resurfaced throughout the two-day conference was the ways in which the discipline has developed along parallel and often conflicting lines where theoretical perspectives and assumptions have given rise to reoccurring debates and discussions. The beginning of the discipline, often discussed in relation to Wundt’s (1832-1920) experimental psychology and Volkerpsychologie, exemplifies the early divides that would mold social psychology into an interdisciplinary and diverse social science. However, the diversity, which marks the discipline from its start, has become a source of innovation that at the end of the 20th century would lead social psychology to become a powerful social science offering sophisticated theoretical insights, methodological pluralism and interdisciplinary work with real, practical relevance. Thus, although the past challenges of social psychology were present at the conference, it was equally clear that as new generations of social psychologist are emerging, there is a greater willingness to put past divisions behind us and explore how we might flourish further to become a relevant, public and contributing science.
The Present of Social Psychology
One of the biggest challenges that face us in the present is the changing landscape of research evaluation, funding opportunities and institutional structures. More specifically, an important topic brought up was the REF (Research Excellence Framework) and what university research assessments of its kind mean for social psychology as a discipline. It was reported that in REF 2014, 16 out of 393 psychological case studies were described as social psychological. The under-representation of social psychology at the last REF was not due to the lack of social psychology work being published in the UK, but rather, the lack of submission to the exercise. Discussions around why this was the case unearthed the vulnerability that this evaluation process can bring to the lives of academics and their departments. The lack of sympathy for qualitative, applied and interdisciplinary work within research assessment exercises was seen as the main threatening element, where social psychological work could be misinterpreted and misunderstood leading to it being ultimately misjudged and undervalued. However, as the panel discussing this topic underlined, it is important not to shy away from this challenge but rather face it head on. It was suggested that becoming panel members on these assessment committees, would sensitise the exercise to a plethora of theoretical and methodological avenues and give us the opportunity to gain control of the process itself.
However, although the assessment of university research output is seen at times as a bizarre exercise emphasising reputation, ranking, resources and the demise of the monograph, it should not be forgotten that there is another important part of our discipline that is central to us all and that is teaching. Social psychologists can find themselves in a double bind where the popularity of the discipline is visible in the amount of students wishing to study it, but through the REF exercise in the UK, funds might not be granted to support these institutions. During an open discussion concluding the first day of the conference, it was suggested that collective action was needed in order to face the challenges in the present. Saadi Lahlou (LSE) suggested working groups could be set up where editors of various journals could meet and create a culture of norms and criteria from which the future of social psychology could be shaped to take into account the internal theoretical inter-disciplinary divergencies alongside the external institutional pressures.
Future Vision of Social Psychology
In the midst of debates about challenges and pressures were voices of optimism and change. A panel member raised the question of how we can revitalise ourselves as well as the public interest in social psychology and many suggestions were offered. It was considered crucial to work collectively towards creating an impact within our institutions, our fields of research as well as our right to be publicly heard and relevant. The expertise that we can offer on social, political, developmental, behavioural and public issues should not be undermined, but celebrated and supported. In addition, it became increasingly clear that there was a need for more opportunities to exchange ideas and debate about our many positionings within the field as despite the divergences that stem from the history of the discipline, our common interest for understanding the social and cultural nature of psychology will continue to unite us to collectively work towards our vision for the future.
As social psychologists, our vision of the discipline is to explore meaningful human activities within social contexts, becoming a science of movement, as Moscovici envisioned in 1972. It was agreed that the heterogeneity of the discipline was a source of innovation, which is visible in the theories, methods, and applications of our knowledge in the real world. However, the danger lies in letting institutional pressures pull us apart. And so we end this commentary with a call for action, as the conference showed a readiness amongst us to collectively pursue a positive and passionate agenda. We hope to see a more proactive international social psychology community, coming together to face the challenges of mainstream psychology and to spread our vision and voice not only amongst us, but also to the public and the wider community.
Acknowledgements: We would like to thank all the conference participants who contributed to the discussion including our faculty - Cathy Campbell, Alex Gillespie, Caroline Howarth, Sandra Jovchelovitch, Ivana Markova, Martin Bauer and Tom Reader.
Moscovici, S. (1972) Theory and society in social psychology. In J. Israel & H. Tajfel (Eds) The Context of Social Psychology: A Critical Assessment. London: Academic Press.