Psychology gets political

One of our Voices In Psychology programme winners, Becky Scott, plots a personal path through the Society’s Annual Conference

In a world where the gap between rich and poor is growing, NHS nurses are using foodbanks and teachers are providing students with clothing, we psychologists must get political. The BPS annual conference on the psychological impact of inequality showcased the growing voice of dissent across our Society, including the BPS’s condemnation of benefits sanctions.

But condemnation is not enough. We need a shift from passive condemnation to real action in order to help people on the ground. With Kafkaesque systems and structures that service-users must navigate, groups such as the BME community, vulnerable people and people with disabilities are pushed towards the margins of society. They become ever more ‘difficult to access’. At the same time, many charitable organisations are not permitted to criticise the government if they are to access desperately needed funds to support individuals.

Working with the public

At the conference session ‘The more we know, the less we fear: the role of public engagement in reducing stigma’, Isobel Pryor presented the Myriad Team’s public engagement work with young people, which has both highlighted career opportunities, and facilitated conversations about mental health through mindfulness. Elizabeth Kirkham considered UK attitudes towards sharing data on mental and physical health, and Stella Chan presented Project Soothe – a bank of soothing imagery sourced from public submissions, for therapeutic application. Caroline Ploetner spoke of the benefits of co-producing research with service-users, from her work into the experience of people with mental health difficulties who are claiming benefits.

My own PhD explores the benefits system in relation to people with mental health difficulties. I spent two years building rapport with my participants and felt that the trust and knowledge gained was hugely beneficial. While we as psychologists often think of ourselves as the experts, we have a lot to learn from our participants through working with them. We hold privilege and power and should use these to amplify the voices of others.

Alternative approaches

Jo Brooks, Chair Elect of the Qualitative Methods in Psychology Section of the BPS, opened the conference session on this theme. While qualitative researchers can sometimes feel they are in a minority within their departments, Brooks said that this is in fact the largest section of the Society. With moves from many journals to no longer accept qualitative research, we must champion the serious and important work we do, united by a slogan borrowed from the disability rights movement – nothing about us, without us

Simon Goodman reported on his discursive research into how the public account for income inequality, finding that these accounts are fraught with dilemmas; inequality is described as unfair but also as motivation for people to do better and thrive in work. Goodman’s discursive approach demonstrated the importance of language and talk, and its potential to lead to change.

Donna Barma presented her work on the Pictor toolkit, a visual elicitation method of qualitative data collection. This toolkit is helping stakeholders to capture the voices of young people with a diagnosis of autism to ensure they can contribute their hopes, goals and wishes to legal processes they are part of. Barma proposed that the Education, Health and Care Plan process to identify needs and support should change to ensure the expression of needs is led by young people in a way that is meaningful to them.

Resistance to change

In the same session, Sarah Riley talked about the development of research into inequality experienced by women in the research excellence framework process. Riley’s presentation demonstrated an important message that would have been of benefit to all conference attendees: where work tasks itself with mobilising social change, there may be strong resistance to that change. When conducting explicitly political work confronting real inequality, resistance is perhaps part of the territory. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t confront these inequalities.

Riley’s talk touched on the critical importance of considering not only the effects of inequality, but also the systemic nature of this inequality. As psychologists we need to have conversations about where inequality comes from and how we can change it. Inequality is not something that appears naturally, with no explanation. Talking about the systemic causes of inequality is essential if psychologists are to truly be activists.

Becky Scott is a PhD student at the University of Huddersfield
Read her winning entry to the Voices in Psychology programme here

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