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So, try to imagine a man driving a motorbike, a 5-year-old standing on the tiny platform between him and the handlebars, a tall toddler standing behind him on the seat, clinging round his neck, and a woman sitting side-saddle behind the baby. Both adults are bent over scrolling on the phone. In the middle of traffic. I see this every day, but a few days back, I saw a toddler playing peek-a-boo with his dad while he was driving. Interestingly, as he struggled to move the baby’s hands away, the man never shifted his eyes away from his phone.
Between the two adults described above, nobody had one good eye on the road. Said plainly, the man was impaired; he drove with one eye, one hand. Look around, so many are. All I could do was laugh. I didn’t find the spectacle funny. I chuckled to myself, mostly about my own helplessness. I feel like there’s nothing I can do about the risk they face, or the danger they place on others. Their kids are at a severe disadvantage, being precociously exposed to such mindlessness. Many of the motorists around here are similarly disabled. It’s a common affliction.
What if the baby decides it’s not time to stop peek-a-boo, as babies do, despite the man using his hand to wave him away in frustration? What if they hit a bump – because he wasn’t looking – and either child slipped? Or, what if some driver is speeds towards you in the exact same scenario? Or, what if either dropped their phone? We know that there is a strong impulse to reach for a falling object – even in traffic. Imagine dropping something that holds great value for you. Would instinct kick in? Could it be worse now since heavy social media usage paves neural pathways of impulsive behaviours?
As I move around on the streets, it’s as if most people have only one hand and one eye on the road. It’s nothing to see someone driving a motorcycle holding their phones to their ear, enthralled in conversation, just one hand guiding their vehicle through torrid traffic and very bumpy roads. Potholes and sewage covers, for example, are regularly too deep to tackle with two wheels, so drivers usually swiftly go around. A quick swerve. What’s more, it’s the normal thing to carry one’s entire family along on these adventure rides. Yet, even with two-to-three generations in tow, I’ve seen drivers driving around with their phone in one hand, dialing, texting or scrolling, lifted so they could see it.
I can count on one hand the number of moto-taxi drivers I’ve had with any hands-free brace to hold the phone as it displays our route. Some, at least, leave their devices in their pockets, and only check-in at stoplights. (I should start mentioning this in my ratings – not just stars.)
Devices? Mobile phones sold in this part of the world have two SIM card slots, but it’s also quite common to see people jostling two phones at a time. Perhaps one for private use, and the other professional, and so forth. It suggests a deeply entrenched mobile phone culture here, now.
In any public space, on any form of transportation, no matter what’s going on, you can look in any given direction and see most people glued to their phones. Alone, with friends, families, co-workers all are online. Face-to-face is never enough. The most distressing is seeing adults snub kids for their phones – or worse get them hooked early and stuff device in their hands, too. What’s a kid supposed to think if mommy and daddy drive while mobile impaired? Yes, kids, it’s not gone unnoticed that parents are spending more time with their phones than their own kids. Even during a commute. Ah, riding with my folks used to be such good quality time.
Smartphones are powerful. So, it comes to no surprise that folks would take to squeezing in every free moment to scroll through social media. If folks aren’t handling it directly, their phones are sitting right there in front of them, the perfect escape for even a moment’s silence, uncertainty, doubt, loneliness, longing, or even curiosity. The mobile provides it all. It has disabled our ability to focus, even when operating heavy machinery.
Why not take time during that long drive to pick and jive with friends on the net? What’s a matter with liking a few of my friends’ Facebook posts at the traffic light? It’s not like my kids have anything interesting to say. I can respond to a few work messages by the time I get to where I’m going; who cares if I slow-up traffic. Oh, let me stop right here, in the middle of the road, to finish this text. This has to be done now; I am unable to refuse. While cruising along, why not just let my friends know that I’m just a few minutes away (even if I’ve already shared my live locations and texted them just as I set off on my way).
Though cognitively we know that we tend to overestimate the things that we can divide our attention between. Vehicles are keenly designed to allow drivers to focus on the road ahead, having a forward-facing display and any needed amenity at one’s fingertips. On two wheels, acceleration and brakes, blinkers and even widely used horns are all there at drivers’ fingertips. Cars compete for the easiest to reach radio, seat, and climate controls. In my last car, I could even do all these things and more from my steering wheel. Yet here, I even seen the biggest, most fully equipped cars being driven around by mobile disabled drivers. These brand-spanking new vehicles come with hands-free technology, but it’s a miss to me as to why there’s no widespread usage of these. Plus, no moto-makers have designed these two-wheelers for one-handed, one-eyed driving.
I am a white, middle class some might say (well my students anyway), ageing, male. I wasn’t always middle class, I’m from working class stock. I’m a university lecturer now but wasn’t always. I spent 30 years in the police service in a small, ethnically diverse, county in England. I didn’t consider myself a racist when I was in the police service and I don’t consider myself a racist now. Nobody has called me a racist to my face, so why the title? It’s how I’m constantly labelled. Every time someone says the police are racist or the police are institutionally racist, they are stating that about me. Just because I have left the police organisation doesn’t change who I am, my beliefs or my values. So, if the police are racist, then by default, I must be.
I’m not suggesting that some police officers are not racist, of course some are. Nor am I denying that there has been and probably still is some form of institutional racism within the police service, perhaps as a whole or perhaps at a more localised or departmental level. But bad apples and poorly thought-out, naïve or even reckless policies, strategies and procedures are not enough to explain what is going on in policing and policing of ethnic minority groups in particular. I’m talking about policing in this country, not across the pond where policing is very different in so many ways that it is hard to even suggest a realistic comparison. That of course is the first problem, what happens in the United States of America is immediately translated into what happens here.
As a lecturer, I constantly hear from students and read students’ work about the racist and brutal police, often interchanging commentary from the United States with commentary here in the United Kingdom, whilst also failing to recognise that there is different policing in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Institutional racism, as defined by Macpherson, is now part of the lexicon, but it no longer has the meaning Macpherson gave it, it is now just another way of saying the police are and every police officer is racist. Some students on finding out that I was a police officer show an instant dislike and distrust of me and sometimes it can take the whole three years to gain their trust, if at all. Students have been known to request a different dissertation supervisor, despite the fact that their research subject is in policing. This is not a complaint, just a statement of facts, painful as it is.
As I try to make sense of it all, I have so many unanswered questions. What is exactly going on? What is causing this conflict between the police and ethnic minority groups? Why is there a conflict, why is there distrust? More importantly, how can it be fixed? Some of the answers may lay in what the police are asked to do, or at least think they are asked to do. Reiner suggests that policing is about regulating social conflict, but which conflict and whose conflict is it? Other authors have suggested that the police are simply a means to allow the rich and privileged to maintain power. There may be some merit in the argument, but most policing seems to take place in areas of deprivation where the disadvantaged are committing crimes against the disadvantaged. The rich and powerful of course commit crimes but they are nowhere near as tangible or easy to deal with. One the problems might be that the rich and powerful are not particularly visible to policing but the disadvantaged are.
Maybe some of the answers lay in notions of stereotyping, sometimes even unconsciously. Experience or narratives of experiences cause a wariness, even a different stance to one people might normally assume. Being thumped on the nose by a drunk, does tend to make a person wary of the next drunk they encounter. So, could stereotyping be a problem on both sides of the divide? My dissertation student that didn’t want me as a supervisor was later to reveal experiences of racist abuse aimed at the police officers she went out on patrol with. Policing is dominated by white males and despite recruitment drives to address the ethnicity gap, this really hasn’t been that successful. If it was meant to help solve a problem, it hasn’t.
I get the sense though that the problem is much deeper routed than policing. Policing and the problems of policing is just a sub plot in a much wider issue of a divided society and one that is in constant conflict with itself. If the police are guilty of racism, then it is society that has caused this. Our society’s values, our society’s beliefs. An unequal society where the poorest suffer the most and the rich get richer regardless. A society where we are all equal but only because someone somewhere said so at some time, it is not reality. I think of Merton’s ‘American Dream’, I don’t buy into the whole concept, but there is something about not having opportunities, equally when I think of Lea and Young and the concept of relative deprivation, whilst not explaining all crime, it has some merit in that notion that the disenfranchised have no voice.
As I write this I am conscious that I have commentated on a very emotive subject particularly at this time. As I watch the events unfold in America, I fear the worst, action followed by reaction. Both becoming increasingly violent and I see the possibility of it happening in this country. I fear that the term ‘police racism’ will become another convenient label. Convenient in the sense that the problems are seen solely as that of policing. If we examine it through a different lens though, we might just find that policing is simply part of the whole rotten tree, society. Fix society and you fix policing. If the label racist fits, it fits the society we live in.
Pride as a movement in the UK but also across the world signals a history of struggles for LGBTQ+ community and their recognition of their civil rights. A long journey fraught with difficulties from decriminalisation to legalisation and the eventual acceptance of equal civil rights. The movement is generational, and in its long history revealed the way social reactions mark our relationship to morality, prejudice, criminalisation and the recognition of individual rights. In the midst of this struggle, which is ongoing, some people lost their lives, others fell compelled to end theirs whilst others suffer social humiliation, given one of the many colourful pejoratives the English language reserved for whose accused or suspected for being homosexuals.
This blog will focus on one of the elements that demonstrates the relationship between the group of people identified homosexual and the law. In sociological terms, marginalised groups, has a meaning and signals how social exclusion operates against some groups of people, in these case homosexuals but it does apply to any group. These groups face a “sharper end” of the law, that presumably is equal to all. This is the fallacy of the law; that there are no inherent unfairness or injustice in laws. The contention for marginalised groups is that there are presumptions in the law on purported normality that disallows them to engage fully with the wider community in some cases forced to live a life that leads all the way to segregation.
Take for example “entrapment”. Originally the practice was used by law enforcement officers to identify counterfeit money, later to investigate the sales of untaxed tobacco or the use of unlicensed taxis. The investigation in law allows for the protection of the public, non uniform officers to pose as customers in order to reveal criminalities that occur in the dark corners of society. The focus predominantly was to protect consumers and the treasury from unpaid tax. So, from that how did the law enforcement officers use it to arrest homosexuals? It is interesting to note we can separate the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit of the law. This distinction is an important one criminologically whilst for the law enforcement agencies evidently there is no such distinction.
The most recent celebrity case led to the arrest of George Michael in Los Angeles, US; the operation led to the outing of the artist and his conviction. As a practice across many years, entrapment played a significant part in the way numerous homosexuals found themselves arrested given a criminal record, loss of employment and in some cases ending up in prison. It is important to note that prior to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, the biggest sexual crime in England and Wales was that of homosexuality (recorded as indecency or buggery). It took decades for that statistic to change, although historically remains still the highest category.
The practice of entrapment employed by the police demonstrates the uphill struggle the LGBTQ+ community faced. Not only they had to deal with social repulsion of the wider community that detested, both their practices and their existence, but also with public officials who used entrapment to criminalise them. This was happening whilst the professionals were divided about the origins of homosexual “anomaly” and how to deal with it, the practice of entrapment added new convictions and supplied more humiliation to those arrested. For the record, the criminological community was split along theoretical lines on this; the classicists such as Bentham argued for the decriminalisation of sodomy whilst the positivists namely Lombroso considered homosexuals to be in the class of moral criminals (one of the worst because they are undeterred) .
The issue however is neither theoretical, nor conceptual; for those who were aware of their sexuality it was real and pressing. During the post WWII civil rights movement, people started taking note of individual differences and how these should be protected by privacy laws allowing those who do not meet the prescribed “normal” lifestyles to be allowed to live. It emerged that people who were successful in their professional lives, like Alan Turing, John Forbes Nash Jr, John Gielgud etc etc, found themselves facing criminal procedures, following string operations from the police. This injustice became more and more evident raising the profile of the change in the law but also in the social attitudes.
In 2001 Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead addressed the issue of entrapment head on. In his judgement in Regina v Looseley:
“It is simply not acceptable that the state through its agents should lure its citizens into committing acts forbidden by the law and then seek to prosecute them for doing so. That would be entrapment. That would be a misuse of state power, and an abuse of the process of the courts. The unattractive consequences, frightening and sinister in extreme cases, which state conduct of this nature could have are obvious. The role of the courts is to stand between the state and its citizens and make sure this does not happen.”
This was the most damming condemnation of the practice of entrapment and a vindication for all those who faced prosecution as the unintended consequence of the practise. For the record, in 2017 under the Policing and Crime Act, included the “Alan Turing law” that pardoned men who were cautioned or convicted for historical homosexual acts. The amnesty received mixed reviews and some of those who could apply for denied doing so because that would require admission of wrongdoing. The struggle continues…
Regina v Looseley, 2001 https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200102/ldjudgmt/jd011025/loose-1.htm
I heard on the news a week or so ago that an investigation by ITV news had found that the majority of NHS Trusts have not completed full risk assessments on BAME staff. Considering that BAME groups are impacted disproportionately by COVID-19 I have to ask why? And, probably more importantly, now that the issue has been raised, what are the government doing to make sure that the risk assessments are carried out? Since I heard about it I’ve seen no response, so I guess I can answer my own question ‘nothing’.
But then maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, I read an article on Racism and the Rule of Law and you can’t but be appalled by the number of recommendations from various inquiries and reviews that have failed to be acted upon. The problem is that the action requires more than just the eloquently spoken or written word; to put it very bluntly and maybe crudely, ‘put your money where your mouth is’. It is easy to state that this is wrong or that is wrong in our institutions, the term ‘institutional racism’ trots off the tongue, seized upon by the wronged and more worryingly banded about by the societal racists of the elite who are only too willing to blame someone else. In thinking about this I wonder whether when we use the term racism, we are all talking the same language. The ‘deniable’ racism is easy to identify, ‘we don’t use that sort of language anymore’, ‘we no longer put those signs in our windows’, we have laws that say you can’t act in that way. ‘Actually, I’m not a racist’. But the statistics don’t lie, they can be bent, manipulated to some extent to favour one argument or another but there are some very basic inescapable facts, BAME groups are over represented in the wrong areas of our society and under represented in the right areas. And most of this I dare say does not owe itself to ‘deniable’ racism, it’s more than that, it’s embedded in our society, it’s not institutional racism, it’s societal racism and it’s hidden. The problem with societal racism is that we only see the positive attributes of people that are like us and we promote those that excel in showing those attributes. Hence, we have the elite in business and government that are not ‘deniable’ racists but nonetheless are the epitome of, and lead a racist society.
I want to return to the idea of ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ mantra. They say money makes the world go around, I’m not sure that is entirely true, but it certainly goes a long way to getting things done and conversely the lack of it ensures that nothing happens or in some cases that good things come to an end. A prime example is the austerity measures put in place in 2010 that saw budgets to government agencies and funding to councils cut significantly. Those that suffered were the most deprived. Even worse, was the fact that funding for youth projects in inner cities suffered and those initiatives that were aimed at reducing violent crime amongst young people ground to a halt. Policing saw huge cuts and with it the withdrawal of neighbourhood policing. This link to communities was severed and any good work that was going on was quickly undone. That doesn’t explain all that is wrong with policing, but it certainly doesn’t help in building bridges. Who in their right mind would embark upon fiscal policies with no regard to such outcomes, our elected government did. If we think now about the so-called return to normality post the Covid-19 pandemic, which caring company or institution would suggest that the most impacted by the virus should continue or return to work, or study, or any other activity, without considering their specific risks and needs? Probably those that have more concern for the bottom line than peoples’ lives. ‘I’m alright Jack’ comes to mind or at least I want to make sure I am.
In thinking about policies, procedures, risk assessments or recommendations, managers have an eye to finance. In the NHS, the day to day business still has to happen, in policing, incidents still need to be attended to, so where is the money to do the extra? Everything comes at a cost and every recommendation in every review will cost something. The NHS risk assessments will cost money. The question is whether government and all of us in society really believe that ‘black lives matter’. If we do, then then it’s time to acknowledge the type of society we live in and who we really are and for government to ‘put the money where its mouth is’ so that the recommendations can be acted on. Or of course, we could just have another review and ‘Jack’ will do very nicely out of that as well thank you.
The weekend just gone has mirrored many weekends we have experienced in lockdown: glorious sunshine, hot temperatures, and longing to spend time with family and friends! However this weekend marked the beginning of an attempt at normalcy for our household, as we spent the weekend in London serving hotdogs, burgers, ice creams and cold drinks to park visitors. Something we have done year on year, summer after summer, weekend after weekend: yet this weekend was remarkably different. Therefore the notion that we can return to normalcy soon, doesn’t seem to be ringing true.
For some context: my partner works in/runs a takeaway kiosk by a park in London. It has been closed during lockdown, but re-opened this weekend. This time last year, there were 3, sometimes 4 members of staff (including myself in the summer and on weekends when an extra pair of hands are required), serving customers and giving directions to residents, visitors and tourists of London. This year, there is my partner and I: in a 4metre kiosk it is not possible to safely maintain a 2metre distance so the other members of staff are left waiting until it is safe and viable for them to come to work. They know this, and are happy with the decision as in times like these, safety should be at the forefront of all decisions.
And the added safety precautions are what makes this weekend so unrecognisable at the little kiosk in London (albeit rightly so). It is and has always been a cash business: cash is quicker to process, easier to return should it be required and safer with regards to checking for counterfeit (no issues of hacking machines or someone using stolen cards). In line with the current climate, the decision was made to try and move to contactless payments in order to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. This in itself was hassle and problematic, but I shall not bore you with those details. Alas the machine is here, and off we go. But it requires a steady 4G signal, which by a park is hit and miss, it also disconnects when it has not been used for periods of 30minutes, which happened frequently over the weekend, and there is a minimum spend in order to make the interest rate/payment of the machine justifiable. It is also slow when customer’s contactless does not work, in which case they have to hold and touch the machine, which then results in us having to clean down the machine after this has happened before we can move on to the next transaction, which is certainly not quicker than cash. And whilst most customers I must say have been patient and understanding, this has resulted in several getting quite verbal at the time it is taking to serve them (we are talking a matter of minutes instead of what used to be seconds with cash).
The differences are not just with the use of card, but also how the hot food is done (my area of expertise). Usually customers could apply their own sauces, but now in order to prevent lots of people touching the various sauces on offer and potentially spreading anything, it is left to me to apply. This has resulted in a whole host of comments relating to being stingy with sauces: ‘I know times are hard but come on’, or ‘I actually want to be able to taste the mustard’. I, personally, like to drown food in sauce, no actually mayo, not that fussed about other sauces. However my partner is the complete opposite, the smallest most pathetic amount of sauce you could imagine: that is what he applies to his food! But it is safer and easier to apply too little and add more than the other way, so I am justified in using a little amount of sauce! It has nothing to do with what the sauce costs! Grrrrrr! Cold drinks used to be placed on the top counter, which customers could take themselves, and then once all their selected items have been placed on top, we would charge them and handle the money. Now at the risk of people touching and then returning the item (which results in us having to clean down the bottle or can, slowing everything down), we are asking for money first: which people apparently are not pleased about. They want to feel how cold the drink is: it has come out of the fridge, which it has been in overnight and business is so slow the drinks are not being re-stocked: so trust me it is cold! (Face hitting emoji!)
All in all, it was a stressful weekend, when the amount of customers we served should not have meant it was stressful. I do not mind change and I appreciate that the changes in place are needed to keep everyone safer, which is fine. But things will be slower, things will be different. The media has pushed at the 15th June to resemble something we recognise as ‘normal’: but I do not think this is the case. ‘Normal’ whatever that really means, will not return and maybe this is not such a bad thing. But I will be grateful when it is safe again for customers to apply their own blooming sauces!
This lockdown has certainly given us time to think and perhaps reflect on a variety of topics and situations. I’ve shared a few thoughts below and I wonder just how many are universal in some way.
I need to ensure I have a structure to my day and week. I think we all need some sort of structure to our lives and that structure is often given to us by work and perhaps other sociable events such as going to the gym or going to a coffee shop. It may be that the weekly shopping provides us with an anchor, Saturday may be a shopping day or religion might dictate a visit to a place of worship on a particular day. At times I’ve found myself getting confused about what day it is, Groundhog Day, I think. However, for the most part, I think I’ve got it sorted out. My wife and I discuss our schedule every morning over a cup of coffee. We have sorted out a routine of work, daily chores, fun bits and exercise.
My willpower is tested but I can be determined. I have never been a heavy drinker, the occasional binge, yes but then who hasn’t? It is however, quite easy to slip into the habit of having a glass or two of wine in the evening, every evening and perhaps a gin and tonic or two. I can’t go anywhere so thinking about having to drive the next day is not an issue. It’s not until you start totting up the consumption that you realise maybe you might have to reign this in. ‘School nights’ are back again, no drinking in the week. I make up for it at the weekend though.
I’m not risk adverse, I just like to think I’m logical. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist or in fact any scientist to work out that the government (particularly a Conservative government) would not enforce the cessation of most business in the country without a very, very, very good reason. Stay in has been the mantra and of course we all know how difficult it is and we all know that as usual, the most vulnerable in society have been hit the hardest by this pandemic. Logic dictates, well at least to me, that going out to any store anywhere carries a risk. Some risks are necessary, for instance a trip to the chemist to pick up a prescription, but a trip to a DIY store, really? I’m sorry but given the risks, I think it’s a no brainer. Not only do I not want to catch the virus, but I would be distraught if I thought that through my own selfishness I had passed it onto someone else.
I never really thought about all those people that are truly special. We clap every week for the carers and the NHS and all those involved who are truly remarkable. I do ask myself though, would I want to turn up to work in a supermarket? Would I want to be out delivering parcels or the post? Would I be a NHS volunteer? Would I be happy working on public transport or emptying dust bins? There are so many people doing ordinary, even mundane jobs and volunteering roles that I now appreciate more than ever. And I would go far as to say I am humbled by what they do and continue to do despite the risks.
I appreciate the world around me. Not being able to go out and socialise in some way, be that work, or friends or family has provided more time for other activities. Our walks to the next village and back on roads devoid of most traffic has revealed an astonishing array of wildlife to be gazed upon and appreciated. That is of course if you’re not gasping for breath following a walk up a steep hill (well I call it steep but in a car its barely noticeable).
Some things don’t change. I’ve also noticed the gate to the footpath across the fields near our house has gone. A heavy wooden gate which, apparently has been stolen. On our walks we have noticed the increased number of cyclists whizzing along the road. Most give a wide birth, but some don’t seem to have a care for others, one nearly colliding with us as he flew around the corner. It seems with the reduction of cars; the idiotic driver has now given way to the idiotic cyclist.
What will a ‘new normal’ look like. At some stage we will get back to normal but its difficult to contemplate when that will be and what it will look like. Maybe getting back to the old normal is not what is needed. I’m trying to envisage how I will make changes in consideration of what I have learnt during this lockdown. What changes will you make?
“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” This quote allegedly belongs to A. Einstein who imagined a grim day in the aftermath of a world war among nations who carried nuclear arms.
It is part of human curiosity to imagine beyond the current as to let the mind to wonder on the aftermath of this unique international lockdown! Thoughts wonder on some prosaic elements of the lockdown and to wonder the side effects on our psyche. Obviously as I do not have a vast epidemiological knowledge, I can only consider what I know from previous health scares.
The previous large-scale health scare was in the 1980s. I still remember the horrible ad with the carved headstone that read AIDS. One word that scared so many people then. People were told to practice safe sex and to avoid sharing needles. People became worried and at the time an HIV diagnoses was a death sentence. Images of people suffering Kaposi’s sarcoma began to surface in what became more than a global epidemic; it became a test in our compassion. Early on, gay people reported discrimination, victimisation and eventual, vilification. It took some mobilisation from the gay community and the death of some famous people to turn the tide of misconceptions, before we turned the tide of the disease. At this stage, HIV is not a death sentence and people who are in receipt of medical attention can live full and long lives.
It is interesting to consider how we will react to the easing of the restrictions and the ushering on a new age. In some Asian countries, since SARS in 2003 some people wear face masks and gloves. Will that become part of our attire and will it be part of professional wear beyond the health care professions? If this becomes a condition, how many people will comply, and what will happen to those who will defy them.
We currently talk about resilience and the war spirit (a very British motif) but is this the same for all? This is not a lockdown on equal terms. There are people in isolation in mansions, whilst some others share rooms or even beds with people, they would rather they did not. At the same time, we talk about resilience, all domestic violence charities speak of a surge in calls that have reached crisis levels. “Social distancing” has entered the lexicon of our everyday, but there are people who simply cannot cope. One of the effects the day after, will be several people who will be left quite traumatised. Some may develop an aversion to people and large crowds so it will be interesting to investigate if agoraphobia will surge in years to come.
In one of my exercise walks. I was observing the following scene. Grandparents waving at their children and grandchildren from a distance. The little ones have been told not to approach the others. You could see the uneasiness of contactless interaction. It was like a rehearsal from an Ibsen play; distant and emotionally frigid. If this takes a few more months, will the little ones behave differently when these restrictions are lifted? We forget that we are social animals and although we do not consciously sniff each other like dogs, we find the scent of each other quite affirming for our interactions. Smell is one of the senses that has the longest memory and our proximity to a person is to reinforce that closeness.
People can talk on social media, use webcams and their phones to be together. This is an important lifeline for those fortunate to use technology, but no one can reach the level of intimacy that comes from a hug, the touch on the skin, the warmth of the body that reassures. This was what I missed when my grandparents died, the ability to touch them, even for the last time.
If we are to come out of social distancing, only to go into social isolation, then the disease will have managed something that previous epidemics did not; to alter the way we socialise, the way we express our humanity. If fear of the contagion makes us withdrawn and depressed, then we will suffer a different kind of death; that of what makes us human.
During the early stages of the austerity we saw the recurrence of xenophobia and nationalism across Europe. This was expected and sociologically seemed to move the general discussions about migration in rather negative terms. In the days before the lockdown people from the Asian community already reported instances of abusive behaviour. It will be very interesting to see how people will react to one another once the restrictions are lifted. Will we be prepared to accept or reject people different from ourselves?
In the meantime, whilst doctors will be reassessing the global data the pandemic will leave behind, the rest of us will be left to wonder. Ultimately for every country the strength of healthcare and social systems will inevitably be evaluated. Countries will be judged, and questions will be asked and rightfully so. Once we burry our dead, we must hold people to account. This however should not be driven by finding a scapegoat but so we can make the most of it for the future. Only if we prepare to see the disease globally, we can make good use of knowledge and advance our understanding of the medicine.
So maybe, instead of recriminations, when we come outside from our confinement, we connect with our empathy and address the social inequalities that made so many people around us, vulnerable to this and many other diseases.
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.
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.
A Spoken Word poem for young people everywhere, esp Youth in Asia, who may never know WE LIVED before smartphones…and live to tell about it.
Walk down the street.
Find my way.
Go someplace I had previously been.
Go someplace I had previously not been.
Meet friends at a specific time and place.
Meet new people.
Meet new people without suspicion.
Strike up a conversation with a stranger.
Make myself known to a previously unknown person.
Now, everything and everyone unknown is literally described as ‘weird’.
Eat in a restaurant by myself.
Pay attention to the waiter.
Wait for my order to arrive.
Sit with others.
Listen to the sound of silence.
Listen to music.
Listen to a whole album.
Listen to the cityscape.
Overhear others’ conversations in public.
Watch kids play.
See the same picture in the same spot.
Read a book.
Read a long article.
Read liner notes.
I used to be able to stand at a urinal and focus on what I was doing,
Not feeling bored,
Not feeling the need to respond to anything that urgently.
Nothing could be so urgent that I could not, as the Brits say, ‘take a wee’.
Wait at a traffic light.
Wait for a friend at a pre-determined place and time.
Wait for my turn.
Wait for a meal I ordered to arrive.
Wait in an office for my appointment.
Wait in line.
Wait for anything!
I used to appreciate the downtime of waiting.
Now waiting fuels FOMO.
I used to enjoy people watching…
Now I just watch people on their phones.
It’s genuine anxiety.
Walk from point A to B.
I used to could walk between two known points without having to mark the moment with a post.
Now I can’t walk down the hall,
Or through the house or even to the toilet without checking my phone.
I avoid eye contact with strangers.
Anyone I don’t already know is strange.
I used to could muscle through this awkwardness.
Have a conversation.
A friend and I recently lamented about how you used to could have a conversation and
Even figure out a specific thing that you couldn’t immediately recall…
Just by talking.
I also appreciate the examples we discussed.
Say you wanted to mention a world leader but couldn’t immediately remember their name. What would you do before?
Rattle off the few facts you could recall and in so doing you’d jog your memory.
Who was the 43rd US president?
If you didn’t immediately recall his name,
You might have recalled that the current one is often called “45” since
Many folks avoid calling his name.
You know Obama was before him, therefore he must’ve been number “44.”
You know Obama inherited a crap economy and several unjust wars,
Including the cultural war against Islam. And
That this was even one of the coded racial slurs used against him: “A Muslim.”
Putting these facts together,
You’d quickly arrive at Dubya! And
His whole warmongering cabinet. And
Condi Rice. And
That whole process might have taken a full minute,
But so would pulling up 43’s name on the Google.
This way, however, you haven’t lost the flow of conversation nor the productive energy produced between two people when they talk.
(It’s called ‘limbic resonance’, BTW).
Yeah, I used to be able to recall things…
Many more things about the world without my mobile phone.
Allow my mind to wander.
Entertain myself with my own thoughts.
Think new things.
Think differently just by thinking through a topic.
I used to know things.
Know answers that weren’t presented to me as search results.
I used to trust my own knowledge.
I used to be able to be present, enjoying my own company,
Appreciating the wisdom that comes with the mental downtime.
Never the fear of missing out,
Allowing myself time to reflect.
It is in reflection that wisdom is born.
Now, most of us just spend our time simply doing:
Surfing, scrolling, liking, dissing, posting, sharing and the like.
Even on a wondrous occasion, many of us would rather be on our phones.
Not just sharing the wonderful occasion –
Watching an insanely beautiful landscape through our tiny screens,
Phubbing the people we’re actually with,
Reducing a wondrous experience to a well-crafted selfie –
But just making sure we’re not missing out on something rather mundane happening back home.
I used to could be in the world.
Now, I’m just in cyberspace.
I used to be wiser.
Research methods taught for undergraduate students is like asking a young person to eat their greens; fraught with difficulties. The prospect of engaging with active research seems distant, and the philosophical concepts underneath it, seem convoluted and far too complex. After all, at some point each of us struggled with inductive/deductive reasoning, whilst appreciating the difference between epistemology over methodology…and don’t get me stated on the ontology and if it is socially proscribed or not…minefield. It is through time, and plenty of trial and error efforts, that a mechanism is developed to deliver complex information in any “palatable” format!
There are pedagogic arguments here, for and against, the development of disentangling theoretical conventions, especially to those who hear these concepts for the first time. I feel a sense of deep history when I ask students “to observe” much like Popper argued in The Logic of Scientific Discovery when he builds up the connection between theory and observational testing.
So, we try to come to terms with the conceptual challenges and piqued their understanding, only to be confronted with the way those concepts correlate to our understanding of reality. This ability to vocalise social reality and conditions around us, is paramount, on demonstrating our understanding of social scientific enquiry. This is quite a difficult process that we acquire slowly, painfully and possibly one of the reasons people find it frustrating. In observational reality, notwithstanding experimentation, the subjectivity of reality makes us nervous as to the contentions we are about to make.
A prime skill at higher education, among all of us who have read or are reading for a degree, is the ability to contextualise personal reality, utilising evidence logically and adapting them to theoretical conventions. In this vein, whether we are talking about the environment, social deprivation, government accountability and so on, the process upon which we explore them follows the same conventions of scholarship and investigation. The arguments constructed are evidence based and focused on the subject rather than the feelings we have on each matter.
This is a position, academics contemplate when talking to an academic audience and then must transfer the same position in conversation or when talking to a lay audience. The language may change ever so slightly, and we are mindful of the jargon that we may use but ultimately we represent the case for whatever issue, using the same processes, regardless of the audience.
Academic opinion is not merely an expert opinion, it is a viewpoint, that if done following all academic conventions, should represent factual knowledge, up to date, with a degree of accuracy. This is not a matter of opinion; it is a way of practice. Which makes non-academic rebuttals problematic. The current prevailing approach is to present everything as a matter of opinion, where each position is presented equally, regardless of the preparation, authority or knowledge embedded to each. This balanced social approach has been exasperated with the onset of social media and the way we consume information. The problem is when an academic who presents a theoretical model is confronted with an opinion that lacks knowledge or evidence. The age-old problem of conflating knowledge with information.
This is aggravated when a climatologist is confronted by a climate change denier, a criminologist is faced with a law and order enthusiast (reminiscing the good-old days) or an economist presenting the argument for remain, shouted down by a journalist with little knowledge of finance. We are at an interesting crossroad, after all the facts and figures at our fingertips, it seems the argument goes to whoever shouts the loudest.
Popper K., (1959/2002), The Logic of Scientific Discovery, tr. from the German Routledge, London