New 'poets of the crowd'

‘Protest: Stories of Resistance’ is a new book published by Comma Press, with writers and academics re-imagining key moments from history. We meet one of the contributors, Professor Stephen D. Reicher.

Whatever happened to British protest? For a nation that brought the world Chartism, the Suffragettes, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and so many other grassroots social movements, Britain rarely celebrates its long, great tradition of people power.

In this collection, edited by Ra Page, 20 authors have assembled to re-imagine key moments of British protest, from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to the anti-Iraq War demo of 2003. Written in close consultation with historians, sociologists, psychologists and eyewitnesses – who also contribute afterwords – these stories follow fictional characters caught up in real-life struggles, offering a street-level perspective on the noble art of resistance.

One of those academics is Professor Stephen D. Reicher, from the University of St Andrews, who worked with Jhalak Prize winner Jacob Ross for a story about the New Cross Fire and the Brixton Riots, called 'Bed 45'. Emily Hutchinson, Associate Editor for Books, asked him some questions.

How did you come to be involved in this book?

Very simply: I was asked! And since, by happy chance, I was asked to comment on a story relating to an event I had participated in (the march following the New Cross Fife in 1981), and which had a huge effect precisely at the time that I was developing my ideas on crowd psychology, then it was very easy to say yes.

Having read the accounts through the ages, how has the way crowds come together to protest changed over time?

In many ways. Over the years developing media (newspapers, radio, television, the internet, smartphones) have radically altered how people know of events and can coordinate with each other in response. The nature of the legal framework, of transportation systems, the organisation of public space (remember that Haussman rebuilt Paris after 1848 in order to make building barricades more difficult) – all these are critical. But that doesn’t mean that there is no continuity in crowd psychology. The point is not to substitute context – including history – for psychology. It is to ask how the two articulate and to develop a psychology which helps explain how history shapes action.

Did reading the fictional accounts of the real life events give you any new insights into human behaviour?

I find the notion of two cultures – science and the arts – deeply damaging. We can both learn from each other. First, as scientists, we are storytellers. Yes, we tell stories based on evidence, but we still have much to learn about how to construct a narrative that engages, enthralls and educates people. Second, novelists have a skill in relating the structure of experience – in conveying qualia. And, oddly, experience is something academic psychology rarely addresses. Factors and variables that shape thought, feeling and action, yes. The nature of experience? On the whole, no. In that sense I found the book very valuable in populating (to use Mick Billig’s term) what we study. 

So how could the arts and psychology come together to advance our understanding of human behaviour (and perhaps our understanding of how we can use that to improve how we operate as a society)?

Here are two concrete suggestions. First, I have long thought of inviting storytellers to contribute to our methods courses at undergraduate level and particularly at postgraduate level. They can help train our students in narrative devices and how to write well. Second, perhaps we could have resident novelists in our universities who could work with us to write books that truly bring our work to life. Certainly I have dreamt of writing a novel on the crowd to present an alternative perspective. After all, when it comes to classic crowd theory – the notion of the mad mob – Emile Zola was as important as Gustave Le Bon. Zola’s Germinal led him to be dubbed ‘the poet of the crowd’. Perhaps a new, less pathologising and more empowering, crowd psychology needs a new Germinal.

-       Find out more / buy the book

-       Listen to editor Ra Page discuss the project on Radio 4

-       Read our report from Professor Reicher’s recent public lecture. A transcript / podcast from his Latitude Festival appearance for us, on ‘The Rules of Unruliness’, is due in the coming weeks.

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