Geoffrey Stephenson 1939-2021

A tribute from Dominic Abrams and Diane Houston.

Professor Geoffrey Stephenson, one of the UK’s foremost applied social psychologists, died peacefully at home on 16 September 2021. 

Geoffrey was born on 16 April 1939, in Hartlepool. Soon after his family moved to Harrogate where his father was a civil servant. Geoffrey was the youngest of three boys in a family of enthusiasts for music, cricket and sailing. After the war they moved to North London and Geoffrey attended Harrow County Grammar School before going to Nottingham University to study Psychology where he completed both his undergraduate degree and PhD. His first lectureship was at Keele University but he moved back to Nottingham in 1965 and was subsequently promoted to a senior lectureship. In 1978 he was offered a Chair and the opportunity to start a new social psychology degree programme at the University of Kent. It was there that, supported by an ESRC programme grant, he laid the foundation of a new Social Psychology Research Unit (SPRU).

Geoffrey was an imaginative and distinguished researcher and an eloquent writer, who played a very significant role in energising and internationalising UK social psychology. A brilliant strategist with a broad perspective, he expanded SPRU to create the Institute of Social and Applied Psychology whilst also establishing Kent’s enduring position as a major base for social psychology in the UK and Europe. Direct academic descendants and collaborators can be found across the world and some are still part of Kent’s research centres for Group Processes and Forensic Psychology. Even after retiring from Kent, Geoffrey continued to work developing collaborations in the area of addiction, with the Promis Recovery Centre and at London South Bank University where he developed and taught a still thriving Masters programme on addiction. 

Geoffrey published influential journal articles and books across a wide span of applied social psychology. From his early work on Bartlett’s theory of remembering, he published his first book on The Development of Conscience (1966), and became fascinated by the role of communication in social perception and judgement. These interests are reflected in his subsequent books The Social Psychology Of Bargaining (1977, with Ian Morley), Industrial Relations (1979), Progress in Applied Social Psychology (1984), the Right to Silence in Criminal Investigations (1984), Environmental Social Psychology (1988), Employment Relations (1992), The Psychology of Criminal Justice (1992), Rights and Risks: The Application of Forensic Psychology (1994), and Investigative and Forensic Decision Making (1996). He also coedited the first European Introduction to Social Psychology (1988). He was fascinated by the way memories are socially constructed and he pioneered work on the questioning and interrogation of children, collaborative testimony among police officers, the effects of the right to silence, witness confidence and jury decision making, intergroup negotiation and group polarisation. His later work introduced social psychological perspectives into theories of addiction and rehabilitation where he also collaborated on developing the first psychometric test for cross-addiction. 

As journal editor, he led the separation of the British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology into two independent journals – launching the British Journal of Social Psychology in 1981, a landmark moment in the growing stature of social psychology in the UK. A decade later, with Jim Orford, he went on to launch the very successful Journal of Community and Applied Psychology, having recruited an impressive combination of distinguished international and early career researchers in the editorial board. In both journals he introduced innovations that were ahead of their time such as special issues and guest editors. He also supervised many PhDs and mentored other junior scholars who went on to have significant careers in academic and applied psychology. In 1988 he was also appointed as chair of the Independent Broadcasting Association’s Advertising Standards Authority. 

From 1984 to 1987 Geoffrey Stephenson was elected as president of the European Association of Experimental Social Psychology (EAESP) and is one of only three British professors to have held that role. EAESP had been created in the 1960s to promote interchange between psychologists working in western and eastern Europe. With Geoffrey’s creative and ambitious stewardship the Association was able to add stronger and more welcoming links to researchers beyond Europe. Most critically, he led the renegotiation of the Association’s publishing contracts, involving some byzantine legal acrobatics (documented in the Association’s 50-year history, pp 24-25) and ultimately setting EAESP on a sound financial footing. 

Geoffrey was greatly liked by leading social psychologists across Europe and America. It wasn’t just his insightful and incisive analysis of social psychology that they warmed to, but his adventurous and sometimes unpredictably exciting approach to life – if something seemed interesting, why not do it? Whether embarking on an academic expedition or a long rambling walk in the country, he loved exploring uncertainty and the thrill of discovery. Often, discussions and planning would take place in the warm embrace of a rural pub, or, when possible, an attractive foreign location, but would invariably be greatly enjoyed by all participants. He was able to combine gravitas and levity, charm and humility at the same time as authority and confidence. 

He would often take on students or opportunities to pursue ideas that seemed speculative or risky, his openness and willingness to do so serving as the motivational springboard that enabled others to see their ambitions through to fruition. He also had a strong sense of justice, and would invariably lend support to those who needed it most. 

Geoffrey will also be remembered by family and friends for his love of his children and grandchildren, his enthusiasm for classical music (he was an excellent violinist and enjoyed choral singing), cricket, sailing (mainly on the Norfolk Broads), country walks with a dog and companions, and his passion for Nottingham Forest football club. He was very partial to a pint of real ale and a publican’s lockdown, or a glass of whisky once night fell. But perhaps most of all he enjoyed the pleasure of convivial company. Over the years, we shared a great many social as well as academic adventures with Geoffrey. Always, entertaining, caring and never judgemental, Geoffrey was a wonderfully generous and fascinating person. He was also a marvellous host and excellent cook. He inspired us and many others to pursue their interests with passion and confidence. We owe a huge amount to him for so enriching our lives both academically and personally. 

Geoffrey married four times, in 1962 to Marguerite with whom he had two children, Lawrence and Katherine, then to Gillian Wade, and in 1988 to Jennie Williams with whom he had a son, David. In the later years of his life Geoffrey was married to Astrid Ryans. By this time he had fully retired and they enjoyed some precious time travelling and enjoying life. Sadly, Geoffrey subsequently developed short- term memory loss and then secondary prostate cancer. Astrid cared for him at home until he died supported by Jennie, David, Katherine and Lawrence.   

A celebration of Geoffrey’s academic career will be held at Kent in Spring 2022. Please contact [email protected] if you would like to be part of this event. 

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