Together Apart, the Spin Doctors guide to Social Identity theories?

Written by Barry Morgan on .

Not so much a single book, rather a series of essays by no less than 24 leading researchers in the Social Identity Approach - the latest manifestation of Tjafel & Turners 1979 Social Identity Theory. These 24 writers are led and edited by a quartet of the leading proponents of the craft; Jolanda Jetten, Alexander Haslam and Tegan Cruwys make up the antipodean contingent balanced by Steve Reicher from our shores.

The book (available here as a free download, and also free on Amazon Kindle) focusses on the Covid 19 crisis as viewed through the lens of social identity and makes the sound observation that the writers are both observers and participants in the ongoing crisis. They also make the point that they are writing not in hindsight but in 'real-time' possibly having no idea that several months after writing much of the UK will be in further lockdown.

To make a simplistic summary the message from the authors is that people are the solution rather than the problem as long as they can be united as 'us' or 'we'. Further the point is made that persuasion rather than coercion is the better approach- enforcement is seen as failure. The key therefore is uniting of the people to form a large 'in-group', positioning the political leaders within that group. The threat is then framed as 'the virus' that is a danger to us all and any one individual suffering causes pain to us all.

Several of the authors are members of the UK Governments' Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and as such have helped formulate how the government message is disseminated to the people. Using psychology to guide the people is not new to Covid, it has been used before for example with seat belt wearing, organ donation and pension opting in or out. More specifically contributing essayist Clifford Stott is famed for guiding the policing of football crowds. There can be little doubt that such changes in behaviour are beneficial to society as a whole and are largely uncontested. However, the authors refer to the Behavioural Insights Team (aka the nudge unit) in slightly derogatory terms as dishing out behavioural economics, indeed questioning the very ethics of 'nudging'.

This I find curious because whilst the book is exemplary as a guide to the Social Identity Approach, it goes further in promoting the 'science' of SAGE as the only way forward. There is little discussion of what is contested regarding the treatment of the crisis. I find this odd as early on the book gives a very well balanced argument regarding the wearing of masks, concluding that overall the wearing of masks and the impact on the people is more a question of psychology rather than the simpler yet unproven prevention of biological spread (note also Government policy at that time according to Prof Van Tam). Yet there is no debate in the book regarding the ramifications of the wholesale closing down of sectors of the economy and closure of places of education.

It is this blind adherence to this single approach to the fighting of the virus that I find concerning, the approach of lockdowns and isolation is highly contested. Yet when one considers the non-covid consequences within the NHS in terms of untreated or undiagnosed cancers, strokes and heart problems, one wonders if the approach spares covid victims at the expense of others?

Further the nudge teams are criticised as peddling behavioural economics, the very ethics of the methodology are questioned, there is however no questioning of the ethics of using the social identity approach to herd the people to follow government policy, a policy that is contested in other scientific circles. Economics or cash may be viewed as slightly vulgar but to the self-employed building labourer, the lack of his cash payment at the end of the week has a very real effect upon his ability to feed his family at the weekend. The same applies to hospitality staff etc. often the poorer members of society, indeed such inequality in society features through the book. The point is firmly made that the restrictions place unequal burdens upon society, being under virtual house arrest is quite different in a suburban semi with a garden to being in a 10th floor flat with not even a balcony.

What is alas absent is any form of discussion, that balances the wider psychological effects of the handling of the crisis, against the simple blind adherence to SAGE advice, which appears to be largely lock down until such time as a vaccine arrives. I have already mentioned those left untreated by the NHS, those numbers are probably however dwarfed by those suffering the mental health effects of the chosen 'cure'. Such effects are also physical with increases in suicide, domestic violence, and child abuse. The child abuse is both domestic and institutional as children are deprived of education, further inequalities have arisen, with schools such as my alma mater not missing a single lesson as they were all run online, many others having no interaction whatsoever with their pupils over the period. Universities and the entrance system this year were particularly badly and unequally affected. That is to say nothing of those in care homes many of whom with deteriorating dementia must surely feel hopelessly abandoned in their twilight years?

The unanswered question posed by this volume is, is it ethical to use the science of the social identity approach to pursue a contested government policy? The methodology of the approach has been a proven success given such high levels of adherence to the policy. Perhaps now it will be left to the other branches of psychology and the mental health services to repair the damage caused? Guided by the science, we are now compliantly led to the lived experience of the dystopian future predicted by George Orwell. This is merged with the engineered world described by Aldous Huxley, even casual hanky panky was, and in many areas remains, outlawed.

Finally one often hears that academics exist in a different world that seems to be the case here as in the final pages (of my uncorrected proof copy) Ursula von der Leyen is described as the President of the European Monetary Fund, rather than The President of the European Commission, the antipodean contributors can be forgiven for this, the Europeans certainly not. On the other hand, it could be an indicator that the contributors have observed how ineffectual the EU was in the crisis, the member states behaving as individual national groups rather than a pan-European whole. Indeed, given the travel restrictions imposed and taking the social identity approach, the groupings were national rather than supra-national. I imagine had the Psychology of Brexit and the EU been written by the same team 4 short years ago it would have been the Brexiters that were condemned to the out group, perhaps the social identity psychologists sway in a manner similar to that of politicians?

A recommended read for practitioners and students of social psychology and for those engaged in the perhaps darker areas of propaganda or as it is now more palatably described political science or spin doctoring. Perhaps too a must read as a warning for those mental health professionals that will be busy picking up the pieces long after the virus has died away.