Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jun 18, 2015

Powerful Ideas: Cultural Psychology and the Transformation of Societies

Image of Middle Eastern protest through the streets

By Séamus Power

A review of Culture and Social Change: Transforming Societies through the Power of Ideas. Brady Wagoner, Eric Jensen, and Julian A. Oldmeadow, eds. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. 2012. 358 pp. This review is reprinted from Ethos: Journal for Psychological Anthropology with permission. 

The Arab Spring is perhaps the most noteworthy example of societal unrest during this decade. Governments have been challenged and even overthrown in several North African and Middle Eastern countries. This revolution has also sparked significant reform in both policy and government in some of these nations. The path to democracy in the Egyptian context is not so straightforward. Recent events suggest that one ousted dictator has been replaced by another. Other nations, most notably Syria, descended into a long and protracted civil war. The Arab Spring was not the only major example of civil unrest. The London riots in August 2011 were indicative of poor policy and policing tactics in many areas of London. On a broader European scale, mass protests occurred due to the implementation of austerity policies following economic destabilization, particularly in the Mediterranean countries, including Greece, with some members of the oldest democracy on earth rioting against the State. Hundreds of cities across the world held ‘Occupy Protests’ to make a stand against the powerful 1% who were seen as being unjust in relation to the masses.

Given this turbulent backdrop of the early years of this decade, Culture and Social Change: Transforming society through the power of ideas provides an essential and stunning collection of cultural psychological essays exploring many types of social change. Interestingly, the contributors to this book do not share a common disciplinary background but are drawn from a range of theoretical and methodological orientations. However, this volume is far from a diffuse collection of essays. Rather, all the contributors examine culture and social change within the scope of the basic tenets of the trans-disciplinary subject named Cultural Psychology. This discipline lies at the borderlands between psychology, sociology, and anthropology and begins with the premise that mind and culture co-construct one another. The contributors to this volume apply their range of expertise to the investigation of societal change from the uniting viewpoint that the process and progress of change is different within each specific context: unique cultural psyches create unique cultural contexts and vice versa. This is a specific strength of this volume, as researchers with expertise in different theoretical and methodological tools are joined in their attempt to understand culture and social change from different perspectives and levels of analysis. The format of the book, in the style of contributor followed by commentary, advances Cultural Psychology by purposefully dialoguing psychological approaches with sociological and anthropological level research to develop insights into how powerful ideas, and their communication, can lead to societal change.

Contemporary mainstream psychology often reduces complex societal and cultural level phenomena, such as cultural change, to laboratory experimentation. In this refreshing volume, the editors have assembled a team that improves upon decontextualized experimental results, by reporting evidence in specific real world contexts. As such, the editors make two important points to our understanding of how ideas, and their communication, have the potential to transform cultures and societies. First, each researcher makes clear that the transformation of any society is not a simple matter: it does not occur by the introduction and linear transmission of novel ideas. Rather, cultural and social changes are complex phenomena, steeped in social, historical, economic, political, and cultural factors that are actively transmitted between individuals in different social contexts. This point is made clear in each empirical chapter that effectively illustrates how societal and cultural change can be induced by art criticism (Chapters 5, 12 and 13), technological innovation (Chapter 5), charismatic leadership (Chapters 6 and 7), the dynamics between minority and majority groups (Chapters 2, 3 and 4), scientific progress (Chapters 10 and 11), as well as large scale political ideological change (Chapters 14, 15, 16 and 17).

All these chapters convey the important point that social change is a complicated and dynamic process, informed by cultural, social and historical contexts. Therefore it is not always predictable. However, the cultural psychological theories developed in this book certainly offer the reader useful frameworks to conceptualize the dynamics and directions of cultural change beyond those illustrated by the empirical evidence in this book. For example, the return of military rule in Egypt after the democratic election of the Islamic Brotherhood can be explained through the book’s use of theories of dialogical interactions between groups (particularly chapters 2, 3 and 9). In the contemporary Egyptian context, we can see the dialogic response of the powerful military to the perceived threat from democratically elected groups, by the re-emergence of rule by strict military dictatorship. Indeed, this chimes with the idea that social change is a dialogical process: the actions of one group always force the hand of other. Attempts to produce social change often fail: an insight that is also developed throughout the book.

However, the authors, and the accompanying commentators, make clear a second important point. Cultural Psychology — as a trans-disciplinary mode of inquiry — has a capable set of theories and methodologies that are useful in documenting social and cultural change and generating important insights into this dynamic, dialogical and turbulent process. This book belongs to a series called ‘Advances in Cultural Psychology’, and the genuine advance provided by this edition is the effective merging of insights from experimental social psychology, cultural psychology and cultural sociology.

The lead editor – Professor Brady Wagoner – having completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge, is now developing a Cultural Psychology program at Aalborg University, Denmark. Professor Eric Jensen, who also completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge in Sociology, is now at Warwick University, England. Professor Julian Oldmeadow, an experimental social psychologist, who taught at the Universities of Cambridge, and York, is the third editor, and is now a Professor at the University of Swinburne, in Australia. This inter-disciplinary team has created a unique and fascinating insight into how powerful ideas can transform societies.

For example, in their innovative BBC Prison Study experiment, Reicher and Haslam (Chapter 4), challenge the prevailing paradigmatic view that social psychology does not have adequate methods to study the process of change. Their experiment – in the context of a mock prison – was designed to advance Zimbardo’s famous experimental findings concerned with ingroup identification and the abuse of power. In the original study, Zimbardo demonstrated the powerful effect of ingroup membership. He randomly assigned Stanford University students to one of two groups: prisoner or prison guard. The results illustrate how quickly participants adapted to their roles; the guards abused their power and the prisoners were subjugated to negative treatment and felt powerless to change this hierarchy. However, Reicher and Haslam changed the parameters of this experimental design by introducing a skilled trade union worker into the prisoners group who challenges the authoritative dominant prison guard group. Analysis of the discourse between the inmate participants suggests the creation of ‘cognitive alternatives’ or different ways of viewing the world can lead to the possibility of generating change. This is a finding at odds with Zimbardo’s classic and (as Reicher and Haslam argue) pessimistic finding. Therefore, this experimental social psychological procedure shows the importance of power – and ways to challenge powerful dominant groups – in a controlled setting. The exploration of ‘cognitive alternatives’ to generate change is mirrored on a non-experimental level by Moghaddam, Warren and Vance-Cheng (Chapter 5) who describe the role of art and technology in creating different possible worlds. Therefore, an understanding of the generation of these intentional worlds is informed by experimental studies: the analytic power of levels of psychological analysis is obvious throughout this volume.

The concluding chapter offers a model to conceptualize the ways societies and cultures experience change. The authors draw on the wealth of empirical insights reported in the book, to elucidate a fluid model incorporating four interconnected areas of societal and cultural change. First, the authors suggest that communicative processes are important in defining and re-defining social and cultural norms. An example of this is the use of art to question issues concerned with feminism and homosexuality (Chapter 13), so that different cultural norms – different cognitive alternatives – might be generated (Moghaddam et al., Chapter 5). Next, the implementation of these novel and potentially generative ideas can meet resistance by those who are given the task of translating them into practice. This is clear in the military’s response to the coup in Egypt, or the prison guard’s response to their prisoners in the mock prison experiment. Cognitive realities might remain in the realm of thought if groups in any particular context provide too much resistance. Progressing from this, novel ideas and behaviours could potentially come into contact with pre-existing societal norms, publics and those stakeholders who are invested in them. The final step is deliberative processes where stakeholders actively debate and engage with these new ideas, practices, or ways of being.

The cyclical model of societal change is evident here: these ideas might not be adopted, or need modification, and will return to the arena of communicative process to be (re-)elaborated once more. This model is the first step towards articulating a cultural psychological theory that highlights the interconnected, fluid and dialogical process of contextually specific social change. It does not necessarily reflect the theoretical models used by individual authors but instead is developed as an overarching conceptualization of the complex processes of change. The strength of the model has the ability to offer insightful theoretical ways to understand societal change as well as stability.

Its authors suggest that the readers of this volume advance this theoretical model. One method of doing so would be to highlight the role of power dynamics within this cyclical and fluid theory of social change. The power to determine and enforce what ideas and practices are the cultural norm – and whether they should remain so – are often controlled by powerful groups, such as military generals in Egypt. Yet another way society stays the same due to the power of ideas lies not with elites, but with the public. For example, my preliminary doctoral research examines how people in the public eye in the Republic of Ireland understand the causes, consequences and solutions to the economic recession. My initial interview data with investment bankers, economists, T.V. & radio commentators, practitioners, outspoken academics, and journalists, suggests that most influential people in Ireland think the public will repeat the mistake of over-investing in property that was one of the major domestic causes of the fiscal meltdown in the Irish context. The cultural idea that the ownership of property is a quintessential part of Irish identity is more enduring than the economic realities of the financial meltdown. The power of cultural ideas amongst members of the public is the basis of the Irish economy – not the reverse. This provides another example of the power of ideas to infiltrate cultural psyches and keep them the same. The power of elites, as well as enduring cultural psyches maintained by the public, has implications for conceptualizations of power – and the effect it has – on the four stage model of societal change espoused in the final chapter.

The book is a magnificent collection of essays and ideas that may well be powerful enough to transform how social scientists from psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists examine the complicated notions of how societies change and stay the same. I am certainly excited to use the frameworks provided in this collection in my own research into cultural responses to the financial meltdown in Ireland and the European Union.

This review originally appeared as:

Power, S. A. (2014). Powerful Ideas: Cultural Psychology and the Transformation of Societies. Ethos: Journal for Psychological Anthropology. Vol. 42 (2): E6-E9.

Séamus A. Power is a PhD student in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. He has an M.A. in Human Development from the University of Chicago, an M.Phil in Social and Developmental Psychology from the University of Cambridge and a B.Sc. in Applied Psychology from University College Cork. His present cultural psychological research examines the interplay between cultural values and economics. Specifically, he is interested in the societal and cultural effects of the economic recession in EU nations, most notably in Ireland. His publications have been featured in journals including Psychology & SocietyTheory & PsychologyEthosEurope’s Journal of Psychology and Science.  He has forthcoming publications in Culture & Psychology, and Peace & Conflict. He has written about his research on the Irish response to the economic downturn in The Guardian newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter @SeamusAPower.


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