Taking a stand on social issues

Continuing the debate, in letters from our July edition.

Several items included on your June edition’s letters page have moved me to write in. I myself am not a psychologist but an independent mental health commentator; a survivor of the ‘health services’ who has cared long-term for close family members. I am in no doubt about the fact that a lot of what we have had to deal with in our lives has been iatrogenically caused, and that the toll taken by intimate involvement with these two first-degree family members robbed me of my own health.

The letters from Aurora Dunn and Mike Davies demonstrate such misunderstanding of Peter Kinderman’s views and position on such subjects that I feel compelled to comment. The first letter interests me because it seems to imply that it’s possible to be non-political. I don’t believe that it is. Ms Dunn seems to suggest that we should consider restraining ourselves from taking action now because the same ideas will not be popular or, perhaps, even credible in the future. Well, that consideration doesn’t seem to deter anyone else from making claims and forging ahead in the name of science.

I don’t agree with Mr Davies’s insinuation that someone with a strong sense of the social origins of psychological problems – something most laypeople take as read – is in the wrong profession. Indeed, we can all feel some hope when authentic people with palpable integrity and the passion to back it up – like Jamie Hacker Hughes and Peter Kinderman – are elected successively to the BPS’s highest post. But I am frankly disturbed by the openly aggressive tone of his criticism. As disappointed as certain people will always be with election results when the successful candidate is not to their taste, accepting that he or she with the most votes has won is what democracy is all about. Tellingly, Mr Davies’s outburst reaches its climax in the statement ‘it is all our professional lives at stake’. How interesting. This is not about the issues, then… about how we in beleaguered families are enabled to cope, or otherwise; are stigmatised, and so on. It’s about ensuring the continuance of well-paid jobs for psychologists and aiming ‘to influence the government of the value of psychology to society’ (sic).

The type of organisation that Peter Kinderman is eminently qualified to lead should by rights be deeply concerned by such contemporary pressing issues as these, and I know that Peter himself is most definitely someone who lives and works tirelessly in the real world’. He gets himself out there, listens to and collaborates with us in the community, humbly conversing with people from all walks of life – at meetings, in phone conversations, through social media and email. Consequently, he has a lot of support from outside the BPS too. It is surely a strength rather than a weakness that he is someone with the courage of his convictions who yet clearly feels open to learn and modify his views accordingly. I imagine that Peter’s forthright nature and proactive behaviour are partly what appealed to the organisation’s electorate, and I predict that  he will achieve a great deal as President, leaving the BPS in a stronger position by the end of his term.

Nicky Hayward
Bath

 

Reading the June issue of The Psychologist was an unusually emotional experience. Some contributions confirmed powerfully for me just how much our discipline and profession have to offer society, and made me feel proud to be a psychologist. David Harper (‘Beyond individual therapy’), for example, demonstrated clearly just how much we know about the psychological effects of the events and circumstances of people’s lives, and argued persuasively for our duty to intervene at a social level and to ‘speak truth to power’ about the likely psychological impact of policies. Jamie Hacker Hughes’s practical suggestion that media training should form part of all applied postgraduate psychology programmes would be a great start.

Jamie has also said that the place he spent most time as BPS President was Westminster. That strikes me as fitting if our discipline is going to fulfil the mission we espouse on our website, namely to ‘apply psychology for the public good’. Similarly, I was hugely encouraged (as are many others, judging by social media) that our new President, Peter Kinderman, is committed to ensuring that psychology ‘does something useful’ and improves the wellbeing of citizens. Surely that is the ultimate point of all our endeavours, both academic and applied.

I was also heartened to see him promoting a truly psychological approach to human distress rather than, as some have done in the past, ‘jumping ship’ (Harper et al., 2007) to a medicalised understanding or to the somewhat strange notion of ‘abnormal psychology’. Surely the findings of psychology are the findings of psychology, however distressing our experiences. I was therefore somewhat surprised and disheartened to see him criticised for this, for mentioning politics and for (God forbid!) ‘taking an active approach to influencing social issues and policy’. Surely if we believe that psychology has useful insights (and why are we in this business if we don’t?), then we owe it to our fellow citizens to share that knowledge, to do what it says on our tin and ‘apply psychology for the public good’.

Anne Cooke
Salomons Centre for Applied Psychology
Canterbury Christ Church University

Reference
Harper, D., Cromby, J., Reavey, P. et al. (2007). Don’t jump ship! New approaches in teaching mental health to undergraduates. The Psychologist, 20, 302–304.

 

Mike Davies (Letters, June 2016) calls for BPS President Peter Kinderman to be ‘impeached’ for repeating an anecdote about Margaret Thatcher. He claims that Kinderman spreads his ideas by intimidation, then threatens Kinderman with sanctions simply for recounting an amusing personal episode. In the same issue, another letter urges extreme caution about Kinderman’s suggestion that psychology engage more with policy. Both letters seemingly reflect the view that psychology should somehow be neutral, value-free and disengaged from politics. There are at least three reasons why this view is mistaken.

First, psychology studies people, and people (including all psychologists themselves) are already ethical, moral and political, already driven by values and guided by principles. Second, psychology is already being (mis)used as a tool of political policy in the work of the Behavioural Insights Team or ‘nudge unit’ (Cromby & Willis, 2014). Third, if we don’t engage with politics and policy, we won’t purge psychology of their influence anyway: we will simply blind ourselves to their effects.

For these reasons, arguing that psychology should not engage with political policy is itself a profoundly political act.

Dr John Cromby
University of Leicester

Reference
Cromby, J. & Willis, M.E.H. (2014). Nudging into subjectification: Governmentality and psychometrics. Critical Social Policy, 34(2), 241–259.

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Comments

I whole-heartedly agree with Nicky's, Anne's and John's responses to Aurora Dunn's and Mike Davies' letters in June's Psychologist. I have been deeply troubled about the fact that there may be more psychologists who think psychology is a-political and unable to ethically navigate the minefields that acting within society entails. I was outraged by the discriminatory language Mike used to express himself. Whilst I don't believe in 'tit for tat' and attempt to think things through compassionately, I do believe Mike has contravened the BPS 2009 Code of Ethics and Conduct with words I'd rather not repeat they are that offensive. What are the social processes involved in being disrespectful towards professional colleagues? I have to believe that Mike would not hold the same attitudes towards service users, carers, members of the public. However, if 'our own' think and act like this, we have a long way to go in helping society embrace more helpful attitudes.

I'd like to add my voice to those supporting the way in which Jamie Hacker Hughes and Peter Kinderman are taking the Society/discipline forward - i.e.in a politically-engaged and socially-relevant way. I was one of a generation of (now) 50-somethings and 60-somethings who were alienated by the hostility we experienced in trying to set up first the Psychology of Women Section and then the Lesbian & Gay Psychology (now Psychology of Sexualities) Section and frustrated by the Society's failure to support progressive social change (e.g. marriage equality). This was repeatedly underpinned by claims that psychology is a value-free, objective science - completely uniformed by the (then) growing field of social studies of science. A number of us effectively 'jumped ship' from psychology to sociology or multidisciplinary social science departments. It is heartening to feel as though our 'home' discipline is finally evolving in a way that might actually include us - and even value our unashamedly 'political' research and practice.

Thank you.
Obviously, I agree.
I would just add, however, as someone who believes passionately in science, that my vision of psychological science includes an awareness of our values, our moral compass, and our place in society, as well as the benefits of structured observation and cool logic. I would also say that, for me, psychology includes, as its subject matter, the psychology of progressive social change. We, as psychologists, must observe and analyse social dynamics. And, today more than ever, we need to study and comment upon the phenomena of hatred, xenophobia, divisiveness and fearful anger that seem to characterise our politics in a neo-liberal world.
So I agree... not just because it's important for psychology to support progressive social change, but because we would be abandoning the core of our discipline if we walked away from the most important themes of our age.
And... thank you... of course your Society will include and welcome you... and welcome back !