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   Keynote Address: Yes We Can!

Social Psychologist Stephen Reicher (University of St Andrews, UK) was among the keynote speakers who inspired SPSSI members with his talk on the social psychology of resistance and collective action. Here, he touches on his conference address and what we can do to continue advancing psychology in the public interest.

You have one tough newsletter editor.

A while back Janice wrote to me asking for a piece which did three things. The first, was to summarize the themes of my keynote in Charlotte. The second was to discuss the ways I have sought to use my work to inform policy. The third was to reflect on how best we can communicate our work both to academic and to broader audiences.

Oh yes, and all that in a couple of pages or so. I was immediately reminded of Mark Twain who was once asked to produce an essay of 300 words in 3 days. His response was effectively, “300 words? 30 days! 3 days? 3,000 words.”

Anyway, as I drove into work this morning, pondering on what to write, I heard a piece on the radio about how “the people’s voice” project—in which famous actors speak the words of famous and less famous folk who sought to change their world—was coming from the US to the UK. The project, which many of you will know, originated in Howard Zinn’s magisterial People’s History of the United States. The book is a compelling example of “history from below”—a history which brings out the contribution of ordinary people from under the accumulated weight of tales concerning kings and queens, the “great” and the “good.” But the unspoken premise is that ordinary people make history to the extent that they act together. It is collectively that the masses can shape their fate and that of others. As the old Trades Union slogan has it, the power of the powerless lies in their combination.

So Zinn’s history, and the people’s voice, is made up of tales of social movements and collective actions, of demonstrations and strikes and boycotts and riots, of people combining to contest oppression and to claim their rights and to refuse their humiliations. It is above all a crowd history.

And that is precisely why, throughout history, those who seek to preserve our unjust and unequal world as it is have sought to discredit crowds, crowd action, and collectivity more generally. Moreover, psychology and psychologists have been a key part of that enterprise. From the work of Gustave Le Bon and his notion of mindless mobs, to the countless ways in which contemporary researchers argue that groups diminish us intellectually and morally, there has always been a raging chorus chanting the refrain that the seat of humanity lies in the lone individual and that the more we get together the less we become.

That was brought home to me in my first year as a student after we occupied the University administration building in order to demand nursery facilities that would improve educational access for women. The Principal came to a meeting and portrayed us in pure Le Bonian terms as an emotional and irrational mass. It was what motivated me to study groups and crowds. In recent times it has motivated me—along with many colleagues, notably Alex Haslam—to challenge the huge “conformity bias” in social psychology which suggests that human beings are somehow programmed to follow orders and that they are particularly prone to do so in the mass.

Our work has sought to show three things. First, even those foundational studies which are used in the textbooks to illustrate our conformist tendencies—the Asch studies, Milgram’s “Obedience” research, Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Study—when re-examined carefully show remarkable degrees of resistance to influence and to authority. What is more, even when we look at the most oppressive circumstances imaginable—prisons, gulags, death camps—we always find people resisting. And, critically, that resistance is always made possible by being collective.

Second, where we find progressive social change, it is never handed away by the benevolence of the dominant group (as mainstream research on intergroup inequality seems to suggest), but rather it occurs when the subordinate group bands together to challenge their situation. Certainly, in response to their challenge some who have privilege may break away and agitate for change. Certainly also, the privileged party may legislate in recognition of the facts which the oppressed have established on the ground. But slavery was ultimately abolished less because of white reformers than because of slave revolts. Civil Rights was legislated less because of the Kennedys than because of civil rights agitation and urban unrest. If, as psychologists we want to study how to reduce prejudice we should focus our studies on how to increase collective action.

Third, then, by participating in such actions, people’s humanity is not diminished. It is enhanced. Thus, as people come to define themselves in terms of membership of a collective movement, so their concerns shift from petty day-to-day matters to the fate of the group as a whole. Equally, shared membership in a movement leads to a sense of connection and intimacy and mutual support amongst those involved. It leads to organization and coordination and so empowers people to achieve their collective goals. It leads to what we have called “collective self-realization” (a concept which has echoes of Maslow’s self-actualisation) which is the source of much of the passion, the joy, the “effervescence,” of crowds. All in all, it is only in the group that people gain social agency—a far cry from the traditional notion that we lose our agency in the mass.

These various ideas are highly consequential, and over the years we have tried to implement them in various domains. One example concerns the ways that crowds are policed. The notion that people are irrational and always at least potentially violent in large gatherings has long informed policing strategies. It has led to repressive approaches which carry the danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The notion that crowds are dangerous places increasingly limits participation to those “street fighting men” who relish a good confrontation. Additionally, the increasing limits set on people once they assemble—and the denial of lawful rights—can enrage even the most placid citizen.


Police and crowds interact in the theatre district.       

Accordingly, along with my colleague Clifford Stott, we have sought to transform the principles and practice of public order policing. Our starting point is that the police should start by asking how they can facilitate, not how they can prevent crowd action. And, if some in the crowd do become violent, they should develop training, tactics, and technologies which allow them to clearly differentiate between those involved and others with more peaceful aims. We do not suggest that this will avoid all conflict, especially where protestors seek to challenge existing laws. But we do claim that in many settings it will make collective participation more attractive for people and police alike, it will enhance a participatory democracy and it will allow more people to hone their sense of what is possible in the world through coming together in the crowd. In Britain and across Europe, our approach is beginning to bear fruit.

Another example concerns the way that mass emergencies are managed. In this domain both the professional and the popular imagination is dominated by the widely diffused notion of panic. What Hollywood disaster movie would be complete without, at one point or another, people (principally women) running around wildly, their hands waving in the air and shrieking at the top of their voices? We all know of stories where the mass stampeded, blocked the exits and so perished when rational thought would have allowed them to get away.

The problem is that these stories (like the film images) are based more in fiction than in fact and that they are highly misleading. What generally happens in emergencies is that shared danger leads to the emergence of a shared sense of collective identity. This then leads to the forms of solidarity and mutual support that have been described above. When people die, it is often because they were helping others, even strangers, rather than trampling them.

With another long-time colleague, John Drury, and alongside others besides, we have been drawing on these ideas to rethink the notion of resilience in emergencies. Traditionally, resilience was largely seen as the extent to which emergency services can intervene when tragedy strikes. According to this view, the helpless public, rendered even more helpless by panic, relies upon the help of professionals to save them. The danger is that this leads such professionals to ignore or even disrupt the ways in which victims help themselves and each other. We suggest that, instead, resilience be seen in terms of the self-organization of the public. The role of government and emergency services is to encourage and to facilitate such self-organization rather than substitute for it. The public are not just the victims. They are the first responders. Once again, this type of approach is gaining increasing traction in the UK and also the US.

So far I have sketched out the core ideas of my keynote. I have also outlined some of the ways that we are trying to put our ideas into practice. It remains for me to say just a few words about communication. Often, this is seen as a question of technique—how to design your powerpoint, give your speech or whatever. Well of course it is in part. Mumbling at your shoes never helps. But I think it is much more a question of attitude.

Psychology often feels threatened as a science. As a result we feel we have to prove our credentials, not least by adopting the external signs of scientific rigor. Central to this is a claim to objectivity. We cannot be seen to be enthusiastic or excited by what we are doing because that would show us to be partisan. And so we present ourselves and our work in as cold a manner as possible. The last thing we want to be accused of is being rhetorical. But of course this is a style like any other. It is a rhetoric. A rhetoric of boredom.


A protest against government policy on overseas
student fees in 1979. London School of Economics.

I think this is very damaging. Of course we must be rigorous in how we conduct our research and we must be willing to abandon cherished ideas (or accept unwelcome ones) if the evidence requires it. But what we research is very different. There is nothing “objective” about the issues that we choose to address and the topics to which we devote our life’s work. What is more, however rigorous the manner in which we arrive at answers, they will still matter little if the original questions are uninteresting. Equally, others are unlikely to be interested in our answers unless we persuade them that our questions matter.

In this regard, communication depends upon being passionate. It starts from getting people to care about the things we are doing and to want to know the answers. Part of that is inevitably personal. If we can convey both why we care and that we care, we are more likely to carry others with us. And, in the end, if you do truly care about the issues, you are less likely to publish for the sake of publishing. You will care more for the truth. You will be more objective.

In brief, good communication and good science is passionate science. It is science about things that matter to us. And recovering the people’s voice, changing our views of the crowds in which they express it, is something that I think does matter.

That’s it, Janice. I have done what you asked. I may have gone a little overlength, but I hope you won’t be too hard on me.

—Stephen Reicher

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