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Social Psychology in a Time of Crisis

I am currently sitting in an empty classroom because, although face to face teaching is not officially suspended until tomorrow, none of my seminar students have turned up. In this rather depressing situation, however, there is much for a psychologist to reflect upon, particularly the process of social influence.

First there is the phenomenon of obedience to authority. In his seminal series of experiments, Milgram (1974) was trying to understand the destructive power of obedience; the tendency of people to do what they are told even when it is morally wrong and they know it to be so. The current situation is different. While it is always important to question science (as anyone who has studied CRI1007) should be well aware!) large scale public health measures have no hope of working unless everyone obeys. Milgram did not just explore how obedient people can be – he also investigated the conditions under which obedience is strongest. One of the factors that enhanced obedience was an aura of scientific authority. Participants were more likely to obey when they were instructed by a person in a white coat, who worked in a smart laboratory in a reputable university and who made reference to science, research and experiments, than when they were confronted by someone in scruffy clothes in a run-down building in a tatty back street. Boris Johnson has a poor record of telling the truth and inspiring trust. It is no coincidence that he is currently delivering his daily briefings flanked by his chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor.

Then there is the phenomenon of panic buying. There is probably a deep-seated evolutionary drive that causes us to hoard food in times of potential shortage. Just as the onset of autumn drives squirrels to bury hazelnuts, so the mention of self-isolation drives humans to buy pasta and tinned tomatoes (or potatoes in the case of one of my elderly relatives). My grandmother, who was her family’s main breadwinner through the Second World War, kept a stash of sugar under her bed until the day she went into a care home. And I guess Freud might have had something to say about the fact that the items we are hoarding most fervently are toilet rolls!

Evolutionary drives are, however, not the whole story and social influences play a part too. We panic buy because everyone else is panic buying. In his research on conformity, Asch (1956) identified two main reasons why people went along with the crowd: some just wanted to fit in and be socially accepted (compliance); others doubted their own judgment and believed that everyone else must be correct (conversion). The latter process is helping to drive the current retail crisis – people think “everyone else is panic buying, so there must be a good reason to do so, so I need to do it too!”

Asch was investigating the influence of majorities but minorities can be influential too, often for similar reasons (Moscovici, 1976). As if we didn’t have enough disease to worry about, I have just passed a screen warning students about outbreaks of mumps in British universities. The reason why mumps is on the rise among students is that 20 years ago, when the current generation of students were babies, a small minority of scientific opinion suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Backed by authoritative sounding research and confident and charismatic individuals, it led parents to doubt mainstream opinion and reject vaccination for their children.

Another topic which has puzzled social psychologists for many years is that of altruism. Are we ever truly, selflessly altruistic? Or are we good to others because it has rewards for us? Looking at the Facebook group for the village where I live, there are some heart-breaking accounts of selfishness over the last few days. The grandmother desperately appealing for Calpol for a 5-month-old baby with chicken pox, because every shop she has tried has been cleared out by panic buyers. And the farm that sells eggs by the side of the road with an honesty box that is now asking customers to phone with orders because someone has stolen all the eggs and all the cash. But there are some lovely examples of altruism too. People offering to shop or collect prescriptions for the elderly and vulnerable. People offering to cook meals for health professionals. People setting up Facebook and WhatsApp groups in order to maintain social contact. And the wonderful woman who offered free mango chutney to anyone in the village, just because she was making a batch and wanted to share the love!

We live in interesting times! Stay safe, keep calm and use this opportunity to read and reflect.

References

Asch, S.E. (1956) Studies of independence and submission to group pressure: 1 A minority of one against a unanimous majority. In Psychological Monographs, 70, (9) (Whole No. 416).

Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper and Row.

Moscovici, S. (1976). Social influence and social change. London: Academic Press.

Visa by Impression, Atavism or Exploitation?

My paper, ‘beyond institutional autonomy: a quadrumvirate interaction theory of civil-military relations’ was accepted for presentation at the 2019 Biennial International Conference of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society scheduled for November 8-10, 2019 at the Hyatt Regency, Reston, Virginia. However, I am unable to attend the conference because I was denied visa at the US Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria. In this entry, I wish to highlight and add my voice to the concerns academics and non-academics, especially those from the ‘Global South’ face in securing visas to enable them attend conferences in the supposed ‘developed world.’ Hence, this entry is a personal reflection on the US visa regime in Nigeria, and its nexus with criminology.

Individual visas are often issued based on the merit of an application and the adequacy of the supporting documents submitted by applicants who are also required to pay certain fees and charges for the application. The issuing authorities would normally consider the criminal background record of an applicant, their previous travel history and the adequacy of funds to cover for the cost of the trip. In some cases, as typical with the US visa regime in Nigeria, applicants are required to present themselves before a consular officer for a visa interview and the decision to issue a visa is at the discretion of the consular officer.

Given this, one would expect that the consular officer would in the least, view/review the supporting documents of an applicant, in addition to asking some pertinent questions. The rationale being that the US visa web-application platform does not provide a link/option for submitting the supporting system prior to the interview. However, this was not the case when I was denied a visa. In fact, the interview barely lasted two minutes, and the following was the ‘interview’ conversation I had with the male consular officer:

Why do you want to go to Reston Virginia? To attend a conference.

What do you intend to do in the conference? I will be presenting a paper, a theory from my PhD research.

Who would pay for the conference and travel fee? The conference organisers and (he interjects with the next question, but I told him I still have another source of income, but he replied saying I had told him enough and that I should answer the next question).

What is your highest academic qualification? A PhD from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, I just concluded last December.

What do you do for a living? I just concluded a Postdoctoral Fellowship with the University of Stellenbosch and I have just accepted an appointment with the University of Jos as a Lecturer.

Do you have a family? Yes, a wife and a child, and we are expecting another.

For how long have you been married? 3 years

How old is your child? 1 year and 8 months

What does your wife do for a living? She is a housewife, she looks after the family

Are you travelling alone? Yeah (At this point, he faced his computer keyboard, typed some few words, then turned to me and told me, unfortunately we cannot issue you the visa while handing over a pre-printed form containing the reasons for visa denials).

From this ‘interview’ conversation, two things stood out for me. One is the fact that the consular officer made his decisions without viewing or considering any of my supporting documents and the second was the question, what did I do, say, or answer wrongly?

In terms of the latter, I found nothing wrong with my responses, but I found a huge systemic fault with regards to the former. The internet is rife with complaints from individuals, organisations and recently countries accusing the US of implementing a harsh visa regime which deliberately frustrates and traumatises visa applicants. My web application process in Nigeria is nothing short of this, in fact, I thought it was easier to make heaven than to obtain the US visa from Nigeria.

Having carefully thought about the visa regime in the light of my ‘interview,’ I concluded that the US visa regime is anachronistically atavistic, an exploitative business strategy, or both. My opinion is simply that I was denied visa not because of my responses to the questions but because the consular officer found a questionable impression through observing my face as he had not viewed or considered my supporting documents. For this, I appreciate Cesare Lombroso and one needs not be a Criminologist before knowing that facial impression and appearance are never better yardstick than considering the merits of the supporting documents.

A fair and equitable visa system will consider the merit of an application, the travel history of an applicant (which I have a reasonable one), whether the supporting documents are convincing, the criminal record background, purpose of travel, sufficiency of funds, and the existence of a strong tie with one’s origin. However, this was not the case, and this led me to the business exploitation opinion.

Customarily, when one pays for a service, the norm is to provide quality and effective service worth the value of the money paid or promised, anything short of this is clear exploitation – unfortunately, this is how the US visa regime operates in Nigeria. On the day of my interview, there were at least seventy (70) persons queuing up for theirs early in the morning, but it is not my intention to analyse how much income the US derives from this.

Your Name Is Not BAME

My name is Tré Ventour and I am the Students’ Union’s Vice President BME Sabbatical Officer. When I’ve asked students what BME stands for, most have been clueless – Black Minority Ethnic. The same could be said for BAME – Black Asian Minority Ethnic. I was elected to represent ethnic minority students. But I’ve been asking myself how much longer will this 47% be an ethnic minority? At Northampton, they will soon be the majority. This 14,000-student university in which nearly 7000 fit into this BME box.

Pigeon-holed. To be put into a box. I don’t like to think in boxes. I try not to think in labels but in this world, it’s naive to be colourblind. In the education sector, in this day and age, especially at Northampton, to not see race is to ignore the experiences of nearly 7,000 students – nearly 7,000 stories about potential hate crimes, and what about BAME members of staff? We must see race. We must see sex, class, and gender (all genders).

To be colourblind is to live life high on privilege – to exist without the consequences of hate crime. Some people live with racism, sexism and / or homophobia all their lives.

Many say “there’s one race, the human race.” That may be true but how comfortable must you be in your existence to come to that notion? And then push that notion on those who experience racism on a daily basis.

When I’ve spoken to students about BAME or ethnic minority, they say “Just call me by my name.” Students are flesh and bone, more than acronyms. And I do what they tell me to do (in a manner of speaking / within reason). I’m not Vice President, I’m not Mr Ventour; I am Tré and I am here to help students, to represent students (of colour) – more so Black students that look at White authority and see invader. Who I have heard compare university to apartheid South Africa – one in, one out – to a Zimbabwe under British rule – De Beers, Rhodes and racism. Fear and exclusion.

Call them minorities, call them BME, call them BAME. Yet, this acronym just seems like coded language for Black. And at Northampton, when people say BME or BAME, they mean Black students, so just say what you mean, “Black.”

And if these labels, if these pigeon-hole terms help Higher Education solve issues like attainment perhaps it’s worth it. But what I can say is that not all Black experiences are the same. To be a Black British student is not the same as to be a Black international from Africa, the EU or elsewhere.

But to be a person of colour in this country is to be immigrant, British or otherwise. To be overly polite. To be overly grateful or gracious. To be a good immigrant.

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