By Aya Adra
I like to think of the summer of 2014, around the time I was finishing up the second year of my bachelor’s degree, as the period when I started becoming a social psychologist. For a couple of sticky, hot months in Beirut, sitting under a distinctly loud and largely useless fan, I listened to my professor share what seemed like mind-shattering theoretical and empirical knowledge on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Every bit of information that was sprung onto me felt like a revelation – the usual suspects of any Intro to Social Psych class; Milgram, Zimbardo, Asch, and their likes. Every theory, every finding, seemed to explain phenomena I had been witnessing and marvelling at for years. So much so that I went around spraying my newly found discoveries onto friends who were rather unenthused, and claiming with reverberating confidence that the world would be a better place if everyone were mandatorily exposed to social psychological knowledge. It truly felt like I, a biology student who had randomly taken this conveniently timed elective, had finally found the discipline that would equip me to fight for the world I wanted; a just world. On the last day of lectures, in between questions about the final exam’s format and informal feedback on the course, the professor asked us what we thought the main insight of social psychology was – what were we taking home with us, us liberal arts students from across disciplines who would go back to investing in whatever major we had signed up for? After a string of pseudo-sophisticated answers (one of which was very likely mine, although my motivated memory conveniently leaves that out today), the professor concluded the class with his own takeaway; “context matters.”
Six years later, as I enter the final year of my PhD in social psychology, I find myself thinking back at that roasting July morning, and at the promise I thought it offered me; that once I sign my inter-departmental transfer papers, I would be stepping into a field of inquiry investigating how context matters. Today, in the wake a global pandemic exposing the mind-boggling inequality within and between countries, following an unprecedented surge of movements against neoliberalism and austerity that emerged across continents, during an uprising in the United States against structural racism that is resonating in all corners of the planet, I find myself wondering which contexts we, as a discipline, are willing to admit matter.
Back in 2016, I had assumed that no context is too large, too complex, or too unchangeable for us psychologists to engage with. Naturally, that means I believed our list of contexts would include large-scale structures – capitalism, structural racism, structural misogyny, etc. I thought that the quintessential assumption of social psychology was that to change realities on the ground, to improve the lives of people, we need to understand and transform the structures and material relations that surround them. In 2020, I understand that to “psychologise” social issues, to the disappointment of my past self, actually entails the opposite. It involves individualising inherently collective phenomena, by centering a seemingly a-historic, decontextualised, independent subject as the only lens through which the world can be viewed. As Zezran (1994) put it, “in the Psychological society, social conflicts of all kinds are automatically shifted to the level of psychic problems, in order that they can be charged to individuals as private matters” (p.5). And to understand this very phenomenon, I revert back to that mantra I so deeply trust; context matters. This requires me to refuse the belief that psychological knowledge is being produced in some sort of vacuum, shielded by the walls of objective science, separate from the real world – and I am happy to do so. From here, the question becomes, how can the context around psychology shed light on why it is psychologising?
One potential answer lies in the realisation that psychology has been operating within a larger structure; neoliberalism, a political project (Harvey, 2016), economic model (Klein, 2012), and ideological system. An infamous summary of neoliberalism lies in Margret Thatcher’s 1987 question “who is society?” followed by a resounding “there is no such thing!” This worldview, which in no way constitutes a truism – and the dominance of which has led to immeasurable inequality and suffering – seems to be taken up by much of academic psychology today, with our determination to explain the world using the individual as the seemingly uncontested unit of analysis. In an ironic twist, many social psychologists seem to be unable to reflect on their own work, what I thought was the core contribution of their field.
Never was this character of our discipline so clear as it has been since the beginning of the year 2020. While a global pandemic has been forcing to the forefront a devastating range of systemic failures leading to extremely disproportionate effects along all sorts of demographic lines, the first twenty Covid-related preprints were centering constructs such as self-control, risk perceptions, and honesty-humility to supposedly shed light on the “kinds of people” who are more or less likely to adhere to isolation policies or more or less likely to hoard items in supermarkets. They were looking into ways to “nudge” people into complying with governmental recommendations, and exploring meditation as a potential buffer to Covid-19-related stress. No work seemed interested in investigating the role of financial vulnerabilities in predicting who simply cannot, as directed by many on social media, “stay the fuck home.” No researchers were asking why people are hoarding, not because of some inherent trait that makes them less “moral,” but perhaps because of societal configurations that have consistently raised generations of individualistic, competitive subjects, alienated from their communities. No one was asking why folks, in many parts of the world, are not listening to their governments, not because of a lack of fit between the framings of campaign slogans and citizens, but because of years of erosion of trust in institutions and politicians, following massive corruption and widespread injustice. No one was looking into how this god-awful moment for us as a species, instead of being “treated” with meditation, could potentially radicalise us and push us to practice truly transformational politics. The common underlying peculiarity of this first sprout of rushed research was its total dismissal of “context matters,” and its sweeping assumption that for psychologists to contribute in any positive way to the pandemic, was for them to investigate individuals, while treating the visibly rotting social order as an uncriticisable given.
Now, a few weeks into the pandemic, following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, psychologists are back at it; rehashing research on inclusion, diversity, and implicit prejudice and its role as a basis for police bias training. While most of us seem happy to concede that racism is systemic, when we are called on (or not) to advance knowledge that could aid the dismantling of racist structures, we once again seem to forgo the need to discuss these structures, and instead put forth the idea that this very social issue is operating in the independent minds of police officers.
This is additionally terrifying, given that our research feeds into delusional and extremely dangerous narratives; that our economic system is not up for discussion, but that some folks are inherently hoarders, and that the institution of the police is not up for discussion, but there are bad apples within the force. Today’s psychological subject is as much of a fiction as the concept of an angry, aggressive person shoving people left and right to get the last roll of toilet paper, operating within a society that has offered them every reason to cooperate, or a rogue, racist police officer, operating within an establishment that is genuinely meant to “protect and serve.” This has very real effects; it seeps back into public rhetoric and informs policy debates. Our dismissal of the fact that context matters, informed by a world which pushes us to believe that it does not, informs our research, which then feeds into this same world’s narrative.
To be sure, these failures of social psychology have not gone unnoticed. They have led to a divergence of research traditions within the field, and the establishment of critical sub-disciplines. On the first, at the very least, one can mention the major distinction between “psychological social psychology” or “mainstream psychology” – the subject of the current text, and “psychological sociology” or “critical psychology” – a multi-faceted status-quo-resisting tide that emerged in reaction to the mainstream in the 1970s, during what has been termed “the crisis in Social Psychology” (Brown & Locke, 2008). On the second, one can think of sub-fields like liberation psychology or community psychology, which are fundamentally committed to investigating the social and political contexts within which individuals lie. These counter-currents exist, and they are producing important research that addresses some of the foundational shortcomings of mainstream psychology. That said, the mainstream is alive and well, and still takes up the uncontested majority of curricula, funding, and public attention associated with social psychology. For those of us who have been trained in the mainstream, and still find ourselves in its departments, amongst its proponents, and amidst its conferences, it is our responsibility to address the many elephants in the room. It is our responsibility to push for conversations about revamping our assumptions and habits. It is our responsibility to organise a systematic change in the research norms, methods, and incentive structures that hamper our ability to produce sound and useful research.
So, where does one, six years after having decided to become a social psychologist, go from here? My sense – or hope, is that the two-word axiom which I thought characterised the field provides a good starting point. First, it pushes us to examine how our own assumptions are shaped by what is around us, and second, it enables us (reenables us, perhaps) to shape the sorts of questions we engage in and the ways we choose to do so. This requires us not to only do research that can be comfortably published in high-end journals, but to engage with questions that dare to challenge what has been painted as inevitable, both within our field and in the world. Both of these exercises are way beyond the scope of this text, and of any one researcher’s ability – they can only be achieved, as social psychology had me believe, by our collective effort at changing our context, which matters.
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