This coming Thursday we are celebrating the career of Professor Rupert Brown with a special colloquium. Rupert joined the recently unified department of Psychology at Sussex in 2004 and has since been an essential figure for the School both in terms of his academic work as well as his involvement in the coordination of our REF2014 submission as Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange. For the last three years, he’s been writing a biography of Henri Tajfel, one of the most influential European social psychologists of the 20th Century
Rupert’s relationship with Sussex dates back to the late 1970s when he joined the social psychology group, then within the School of Social Sciences, on a temporary contract. When he returned almost 30 years later from the University of Kent, where he had been Head of Department, a few things had changed. Most notably, the three psychology groups, which until that time had been spread across campus, had merged into one single department within the School of Life Sciences. It was precisely this union that attracted Rupert. Kent was a smaller department largely dominated by social psychology, and he liked the idea of working in a more diverse department: “it was part of being in a much broader intellectual environment which I found stimulating,” Rupert explains.
When the department of Psychology became an independent School ten years ago, Rupert took up the role of Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange. “Being the DRaKE here for four years was great, mainly because it brought me in contact with everyone in the School,” he tells me. However, the job didn’t come without challenges and he and Pete Clifton, then Head of School, had some very distressing conversations with colleagues in the lead up to the REF2014 submission. In the end, their efforts paid off and Psychology at Sussex was recognised as one of the top 10 School of Psychology in the UK in the last REF.
For the last three years, Rupert has been a Leverhulme Senior Research Fellow, which has enabled him to devote time to research the life of Henri Tajfel. The idea of writing Tajfel’s biography started 20 years ago, but the pressing responsibilities of academic life prevented Rupert from taking up this project until recently. Tajfel was his PhD supervisor and Rupert had always found him fascinating: “he had all sorts of flaws and was a hopeless PhD supervisor, but he was also a genuinely inspirational man.” Five years ago, Rupert was awarded the Tajfel Medal by the European Association of Social Psychology, and the idea resurrected: “I realised that if I was going to do it, I ought to get going with it because a number of the key informants about his life, his widow, some of his very elderly colleagues, some of the French orphans he cared for after the war, they were all in their 80 and 90s, and I couldn’t afford to hang about.”
The book deals with Tajfel’s life from his birth in Poland to his academic career as a social psychologist, but it also details how Tajfel’s ideas evolved from his early studies on perception through to his latest studies on intergroup relations. This was a new experience for Rupert, who had to learn new research methods and become a biographer, interviewing people about events that took place several decades ago, diving into archives where he discovered new details of Tajfel’s life in Poland and France, and looking into more controversial areas of Tajfel’s life, including his inappropriate behaviour towards women. The work was very much like that of a detective and Rupert has made a number of discoveries about Tajfel’s family in Poland and his life during the war and after. However, the most interesting aspect of the book, which makes it very different from conventional biographies, is the time that Rupert spends in explaining how some of Tajfel’s experiments actually worked.
For example, Tajfel argued that when you superimpose a category on otherwise neutral stimuli, it is functional for the mind to make the differences between the categories seem a bit sharper so that we can make faster decisions. In an experiment, Tajfel gave participants cardboard sheets with various lines of different lengths and asked them to estimate how many centimetres long the lines were. In some of the conditions he labelled the short lines A and long lines B; when he did that, people exaggerated the differences between the A-lines and the B-lines by making the short lines shorter and the long lines longer. “Well, take this same idea and call these white faces and black faces” explains Rupert, “and from there you can get into stereotyping, prejudice, and all the other things he was always interested in.”
Intergroup relations, prejudice and social perception have also been the centre of Rupert’s research activity, but his interests have evolved since his return to Sussex. In the late 00s the University organised a research ‘speed dating’ event for people with similar research interests, which had been previously collated by the Research Office: “The bell would ring and you had to go to the next table, you sat down and opposite you would be another colleague, and you had five minutes to introduce each other and to tell each other what you were about.” As a result of this evening, Rupert met a colleague in Law who was interested in hate crime, which matched his own interest in prejudice. She retired not long after that, but Rupert began working with her successor, Mark Walters with whom he started the Sussex Hate Crime Project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. In the same evening, he also met Michael Collyer (Geography) and Linda Morrice (Education), which led to collaborating on an ESRC project on refugee resettlement, studying how these refugees managed to adapt to life in the UK and how their host communities adapted to them in the first five years after their resettlement.
Listening Rupert talk about Tajfel’s experiments or his own research, it is easy to appreciate how passionate he is about his work, but also his ability to make complicated topics easy. “I always loved teaching, I love the big set-piece lectures, but the teaching I really liked best was in small groups,” he says “when you get a really lively group, who are interested and ask awkward questions and spark each other, that genuinely turns the teaching session into something quite stimulating.”
He is, nevertheless, looking forward to retirement and spending more time with his grandchildren. His involvement with refugees will also continue as a volunteer with a charity in Canterbury helping a Syrian refugee family to resettle in the UK. From everyone from the School, we wish him the best in this new phase of his life.