By Ian Hadden
In the Summer, I attended the 2022 annual conference of the International Society of Political Psychology (ISPP). This took place over four days in a very sweaty Athens and was a pretty mad event, with over 850 delegates attending nine parallel sessions at a time. For me there were two standouts.
The first was a ‘commemorating panel’ in honour of Jim Sidanius, of whom, I freely admit, I had never heard. However, with Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington of the LSE as chair I couldn’t miss it, and I now know that Sidanius was a giant of social psychology whose book, Social Dominance, changed her life. This was plenty endorsement for me to buy a second-hand copy (new ones are expensive). Jennifer is an incredibly articulate advocate for people who are living with limited economic resources. She argues that expecting people in these circumstances to adapt their mindsets—like taking a longer-term perspective or adopting a more internal locus of control—entirely misses the point. The reality is, they have a short-term perspective and external locus of control because their daily experience is one of trying to meet their needs when they don’t have enough. To echo Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan of 1992—it’s the environment, stupid. Jennifer points out what might seem obvious to many: people need to have their needs met in a stable way if they are going to have real control over their life circumstances and a future worth investing in.
An unexpected bonus in the Jim Sidanius panel was a talk by Stacey Sinclair, whom I and my very impressive PhD colleague Lewis Doyle have been citing with abandon without realising who she was. Stacey presented her research on how universities’ diversity and inclusion practices can actually accentuate existing racial disparities if the rationale for those practices is instrumental (i.e., to provide educational benefits) rather than as a matter of moral justice. And the sight of an eminent professor trotting down the aisle with a mic for an audience member during the Q&A typified the sheer good-naturedness of the conference.
My other standout was dinner with the members of our symposium on inequalities in educational outcomes. There were five of us, two of whom I knew well—Lewis, and my fantastic supervisor, Matt Easterbrook—and two of whom I didn’t—Anatolia Batruch and Céline Darnon. Initially, however, I experienced a sense of foreboding, as the conversation tunnelled relentlessly into a detailed history of System Justification Theory. “What’s that?”, I wondered as I nodded silently and tried to look intelligent. What will be the next academic rabbit hole they go down about which I know nothing? How long is this dinner? Well, it turned out that my fears were unfounded. We had a tremendous evening with conversation ranging from regional accents (taking in a cross-cultural and class perspective, naturally) to the challenges of recruiting schools for large-scale studies, via tips on layering in cold weather (thank you for the technical follow-up, Anatolia). What an impressive and generous bunch my confrères and consœurs are.
Our symposium had been shunted unceremoniously to the last slot on the last day (a Sunday, to boot), and straw polling confirmed what we already knew—that most people would have cleared off home by then. Our expectations of filling the room to the rafters were low, and were duly met. But the diehards who turned out in support (thank you!) seemed to find what we had to say interesting, and we closed the conference with sweaty hands, glad hearts and plenty of food for thought and action.
Ian Hadden researches how social psychological interventions can reduce group-based educational inequalities in schools. He previously helped public and private sector organisations, including the Department for Education, define and deliver large-scale programmes of change.