…and while we’re on The Subject

… of diversity, following last week’s blog about multicultural Camberwell, let’s detour to another type of diversity: diversity in psychology. By that I don’t mean the woeful under-representation of BME academic staff, or the under-performance of some student groups, although both of those are scandals that need addressing. And I am not referring to the psychological study of diverse populations (although a quick plug for Lindsey Cameron and my forthcoming SI “Growing Up With Diversity” – coming in 2017!) No, I am going to talk this week about British psychology’s strange intolerance for divergence, the unusual and the truly innovative. The growing lack of diversity in terms of the discipline of psychology itself. Be in no doubt, British psychology has a real problem with diversity.

Diverse brains

In British psychology a one-size-fits all approach to methodology, topics and curricula is stifling the discipline and stifling its development. Serge Moscovici (whose work was celebrated in a symposium in Paris last week) once said something along the lines that when a discipline becomes obsessed with a specific method or approach over and above the topics or problems it is trying to solve, that discipline is moribund. How true. British psychology has been heading that way for some time and only latterly have organisations like BPS begun to develop a more muscular approach to defend the discipline’s identity. In its desperate panic to project itself as a “proper” science, British psychology, the RAE, REF, and certain funding councils have pushed sub-disciplines like educational, biological and social psychology to the margins.

Exhortations by the recent REF panel, that all forms of psychological research would be valued, were honest, but almost entirely ignored by departments. Perhaps we ought not blame them. The damage started in RAE2001 when, trying to cling on to higher-banded funding, what were deemed to be more “sciencey” areas of the discipline were disproportionately valued over others. And it was compounded in the disastrous RAE2008 (disastrous for psychology, that is) where the psychology panel indulgently sought to assert its intellectual credentials by awarding a lower number of top ratings to outputs than almost any other discipline. By REF2014, even though the panel included highly esteemed, open-minded and qualitative researchers, and even though panel feedback was that outputs from areas like social and developmental psychology tended to perform better than areas like cognitive neuroscience, the damage had been done. Departments submitted social, organisational and forensic psychologists to social policy or health panels, developmental psychologists to the education panel, and clinical psychologists to medicine or allied health panels. Some really daft departments submitted only half their staff and lost a bomb of money. There, in sharp relief, is demonstration of the providence of Moscovici’s prophecy.

Rumour has it that no occupational psychologist was submitted to the REF2014 panel 4. Not one. Think about it. That means that in a nation with a GDP of £2.85 trillion, the 5th largest economy in the world (in 2015 that is), no single psychologist who works with the structures or operations of industry, the public sector or any company of any kind was viewed to have produced research of adequate quality to be included in the psychology panel. Of course, many do great work and were submitted elsewhere. But psychology, the discipline and its research image, didn’t claim a single blade of that “turf” in REF2014. That’s not so much a case of British psychology shooting itself in the foot, as a case of placing one leg in the gun barrel of a Challenger tank and pulling the trigger.

Shoot footA narrow view of the discipline pervades universities. One hears of students being banned from conducting qualitative projects, academics prevented from submitting grant applications (not just stupid, a special kind of stupid), social and clinical psychologists moved to teaching-only contracts, and anything that strays away from a narrow, experimental design getting disparaged and slowly crushed. The disrespect from colleagues in different sub-disciplines is both baffling and appalling. How did we come to this? No discipline, no department, can survive like this. This is the academic equivalent of Trump: a post-truth, no respect, “no experts but me” universe!

But now the good news. Psychology isn’t dead. It’s one of the most popular undergraduate degrees in the UK and, more importantly, psychologists in the US, Europe, and pretty much the entire rest of the world haven’t followed the self-harming, Brexit-style withdrawal from heterogeneity that has happened in the UK. US psychology is thriving and, like it is in Europe, it is a welcoming and broad church. I’m working with US developmentalists in mainstream experimental and “marginal”, qualitative, advocacy science projects. And our work is respected by colleagues from all areas of the discipline and beyond, it’s being used to inform policy, and it is funded.

And things are changing in the UK too. The future is not bleak. At IoPPN our size and stature means we have psychiatrists, neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, policy researchers, social scientists all working together to solve problems: no barring of qualitative research or alternative and marginal perspectives – we do what we need to answer the big questions. And research funders are showing a more enlightened approach to meaningful innovation and inter-disciplinarity. We need REF2020 (or 2021… my money’s on either 2022 or not at all) to catch up with that change. Arguably REF2014 had caught up – it was many psychology departments, those in the discipline themselves, who didn’t have the courage or vision to pursue what the science should be. And for those lacking in imagination here’s my suggestion: there should be a place for us all – majorities, minorities, normative and non-normative, neuroscientists, social, cognitive, developmental, biological and critical psychologists, clinicians, qualitative researchers, statisticians. I became an academic because I like ideas: not just my own ideas, but respecting, understanding, sometimes disagreeing with and sometimes being persuaded by those that are different from my own. We work better together and more productively when we embrace and learn from others. That is the point and value of diversity.

Camberwell Beauty

The Camberwell Beauty butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) got its name in 1749 when two were spotted near to Cold Harbour Lane in Camberwell. Its rather beautiful, but rare. In 1749 affluent Londoners were flocking to Camberwell for its clean air and wide open spaces. That has changed somewhat and I’d wager that the present urban environment in Camberwell isn’t so conducive to lepidoptera (look it up). Still, the world changes and, if it didn’t, it would be a very dull place.

Camberwell 1749 Camberwell Beauty

Eighteenth Century Camberwell (looks like fun!); The Camberwell Beauty butterfly

Today, there are at least two Britains, probably many, many more. (There are at least two Americas too; but let’s not talk any more about that this week!) And since social scientists love to categorise, and in fact we all do, let’s start with just two – a simple, binary distinction. First, we have the chocolate box ideal – rolling chalky hills, warm beer, Red Admirals in an English country garden, Horlicks, brambling, jam-making, hearty country folk, dog fighting in rural barns… You get the picture, but if not, here’s the Lego-free Daily Mail to help you out (yeah, like Dacre cares about Lego – prosecute the bastard!) For many it is a Britain in need of protection and preservation.

That Britain offers its royal subjects a warm and cosy feeling, and travel agents who market it around the world probably do so because they believe tourists (foreigners, aliens) think all British people live in Downtown Abbey. Is that a good premise for marketing? It’s a view that in many ways depends on the absence of a Theory of Mind, and even chimpanzees can do that. Do you really think Italians believe they live a country where everyone lives in an amphitheatre and eats either spaghetti or pizza? No, it is a caricature. But it probably works for some tourists – those on bus tours following a flag around Trafalgar Square. They’d be better off going to Disneyland. And, for the Brits, it’s a convenient means of internal control for a society to feast, for a while, on its own fat.

Second there is a very different, modern, urban, gritty, and diverse Britain. I say modern, but diversity of sorts has always existed in cities. There has always been immigration, there has always been change. In fact, I believe that while there is an instinctive human wariness of the unfamiliar (outsiders, change) this is balanced by an instinctive curiosity, altruism and openness.

With openness comes opportunity. That’s what attracts immigrants to London: not just the Syrians, the Afghans and Somalis who are fleeing awful conditions (and who contribute so much to our economy and society). It attracts the Russian and Chinese billionaires, the artists and the scientists. I don’t think many of these aspire to become serving staff in Downtown Abbey. And it is equally marketable and arguably, more successfully so, than the non-existent chocolate box ideal.

Since moving to the IoPPN I’d go so far as to say I love modern Camberwell. Of course there are downsides. But the richness of the tapestry inspires. I live in Buckinghamshire, in many ways the opposite, and the countryside is great too. I am lucky to have two worlds. But that countryside is nothing like the chocolate box ideal. That ideal is imagined and to see it as anything more damages just as much as it may appeal as a tourist attraction. We need to remember that. That past is a different country, and so is the future. Clinging on to the non-existent idyll is like sex with your ex: you can forego the hard work in setting up a relationship and kid yourself that the ideal once existed, but in the morning you remember why they became your ex in the first place. And the more you cling on, the more you invest, the further you self-harm and miss the opportunities for real change and growth. You ransom the future to keep the fantasy alive.

AC Boxing Club

Ironically, the Camberwell Beauty butterfly is not a British native. It is an immigrant from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia where it breeds, and commutes (migrates) during the summer. A mural of the butterfly adorns the Lynn AC Boxing Club building (formerly a public library and baths) on Wells Way. It is part of the past and part of the future; it is very much a Camberwell Beauty. Oh, and in America it is known as the “Mourning Cloak” butterfly. But as I said, let’s not talk about that this week…