'Our diversity is our strength’
When did you first realise you wanted to be a social psychologist?
I was part-way through a Year 3 undergraduate module called Understanding and Improving Intergroup Relations by the late, great Professor Ed Cairns, when a friend told me she was planning to apply for a PhD. I asked her about the PhD programme, what it means and how you apply; as a first-generation university student, this was all new to me. I remember looking through the list of available projects and seeing that Ed was seeking a PhD student to examine The micro-ecology of religious segregation in Northern Ireland. At the time I was really enjoying Ed’s classes… he was an inspiration. When reading the project description, I was excited by the idea of having the opportunity to work with him on a three-year project. I met with Ed to ask his advice about applying and his question to me was ‘What did I give you in your essay?’. When I responded with ‘82 per cent’, he said ‘OK, you can apply’. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Was this choice of topic influenced by your time growing up in Northern Ireland?
It’s really only in the last five or so years that I have reflected on what it was like growing up in Northern Ireland and how this has influenced the types of research questions I am driven to explore. During my childhood and teenage years, Northern Ireland was relatively peaceful compared to previous decades, and yet social divisions, bomb scares and an ‘us v them’ mentality were a part of everyday life. It wasn’t until I took Ed’s module, during my Psychology degree at Ulster University, that I developed an interest in intergroup relations. And now, living outside of Northern Ireland and going back almost as an ‘outsider’, I can more clearly see the ways in which the conflict permeates society. Don’t get me wrong, Northern Ireland has changed a lot, and for the better, but there is still a lot to do to counteract the legacy of the ‘troubles’ and move towards a shared future.
Do you think most social psychologists have a personal reason for their choice of research topic?
I don’t know about most but for sure, some of us are motivated to research the issues that have directly affected our lives or the lives of those around us. This can be seen amongst many of social psychology’s ‘greats’. And yet, the research that we chose to undertake is undoubtedly influenced by a wide range of factors; our interests, our experiences and the inspiration of others as well as the publication and funding landscape, to name just some.
The reality is that all of us bring our personal experiences and values to our research in one way or another. This does not make us any less of a scientist. Rather, as scientists we have a duty to be open and reflective about our research practices and motivations. Social psychologists have a long legacy of doing just that.
That’s interesting, that reflectiveness… I suppose several of the ‘big name casualties’ when it comes to the so-called replication crisis have been from social psychology.
Social psychology has made and will continue to make powerful contributions to scientific knowledge, policy and practice. But yes, from the outside, social psychology can look fractured and in crisis; are we failing to be methodologically rigorous? Are our classic studies and theories struggling to stand the test of time? In our pursuit for social justice, are we biased in the questions we ask and the approaches we use? Critical evaluation of ourselves as researchers, our positionality, and the ways in which we answer our research questions is vital for scientific progress. But in doing so, it’s important that we do not forget our contributions and our potential.
Do you think social psychology is changing?
I think the face of it certainly is, and for the better.
Our diversity is our strength; from the theoretical to the methodological, from the positivist to the interpretivist, from the neuro to the narrative. Together, we have the ability to provide scientifically robust answers to the biggest challenges facing society. The discipline and the modern world need social psychology more than ever. Climate change, ethnic tensions, protest, human rights violations, education inequalities, politics, poverty. Need I say more?
I suppose the question is whether that word is getting out there.
As social psychologists, we have a lot to offer but we often shy away from the public sphere. And yet, there is something really special about the work that we do. It provides us with a lens in which we can better understand the social world, enabling us to challenge social inequalities, fight for social justice and, if we start to get a better handle on getting our voices out there, truly making the world a better place. We are not a social psychology in crisis, we are a social psychology that has the power to make a difference. Here’s to all of the social psychologists out there past, present and future. Get your voice out there and share your research with the world.
In terms of your own research, what do you see as the key to improving intergroup relations?
Facilitating intergroup contact is important, but more is needed. For me, encouraging people to get together, to discuss differences, and embrace and celebrate what makes us who we are, is key. This, however, is much easier said than done, particularly when faced with the everyday and harsh realities of intergroup conflict and social injustices. Even getting people to interact in the first place can be a huge challenge, and yet we know that meaningful interactions help reduce prejudice. Here, our schools and teachers can be really powerful; encouraging future generations to challenge stereotypes, learn about and embrace differences, and to recognise and challenge societal injustice.
Where next for your research?
I am lucky to have really excellent doctoral researchers, Master’s students, undergraduate students, and collaborators to have the pleasure of working alongside. We have lots of exciting ongoing projects. One thing I am keen to explore more is how we encourage people to engage in intergroup interactions in the first place. Watch this space!
Do you try to put this kind of psychological theory into practice in your own social interactions? If so, do you think you’re successful?
That’s a good question. I think I am more observant and aware of what is happening around me than I used to be. I don’t get much opportunity to put intergroup contact theory into practice, but I do try to use these approaches in my classes to encourage students from different contexts to come together and share their experiences.
The Society’s theme for this year  is ‘From poverty to flourishing’. Can you think of ways the Section can help move us in that direction?
In recent years, our Section has been advocating for the BPS to tackle politically relevant issues, and we are fully supportive of the 2020 priority. We will be raising awarenes.
- Dr McKeown Jones also introduces a special archive collection here.
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