Towards a Critical Prosocial Research Project
Critical applications to the study of prosocial behaviour have so far been limited. This final session briefly looks at two notable examples before focusing on a case study based on a series of studies investigating public responses to information about human rights violations and humanitarian crises. These studies illustrate the different understandings of prosocial behaviour that can result from the application of a critical psychosocial approach.
Reicher, Hopkins, and Levine (2006) looked at public documents to identify arguments used to mobilise Bulgarians against the deportation of the Jews in World War II. They identified three arguments—category inclusion, category norms and category interest. Through these arguments, Bulgarian Jewish citizens were presented as in-group members, deserving of help, and that the in-group would be harmed if Jews were persecuted. As a result, the authors argue, ordinary bystanders were mobilised and actively prevented the deportation of Bulgarian Jews. The importance of Reicher et al.’s work is twofold. First, they move away from explanations based on individual notions of personality traits and heroic behaviour, a strongly represented strand in mainstream psychological research (e.g. Oliner & Oliner, 1998; Monroe, 1986). Second, they provide a striking example of the power of rhetoric and its material impact on prosocial behaviour. Indeed, their work illustrates the intrinsic flexibility and instability of ideologically charged constructs, in this case of ‘nation’, rhetorically evoked to include and thus save Jews, rather than exclude and persecute them as was happening in the rest of Nazi Europe at the time. They thus stress the importance of context, specific histories and ideologies of nationhood in providing powerful rhetorical resources that can be mobilised to promote prosocial behaviour.
A similar conclusion is reached by Stevenson and Manning (2010) who conducted discursive analyses of focus groups with Irish university students on charitable giving. The authors found that national identity was used as a rhetorical resource to account for giving or withholding charity. They too paid attention to the role of socio-historical context on prosocial behaviour to illustrate how Irish national identity was flexibly and strategically used to manage participants’ moral identity in the light of Ireland’s changing international relations. The study’s participants strategically constructed the boundaries of Irishness to include and exclude those in need of help, thus enabling them to negotiate a range of competing moral injunctions. In this way, they managed, on the one hand, to present themselves as generous and not xenophobic. On the other hand, they also warranted their claim that, by prioritising the most deserving, they could better support the most effective appeals. As a critical alternative to mainstream social psychology, Stevenson and Manning move away from individualistic explanations based on personality traits to illustrate how the possibility and desirability of helping behaviour is negotiated ‘by invoking different aspects of the broader historical and economic national context’ (Stevenson & Manning, 2010:255).
Recent studies on public responses to information about human rights violations and humanitarian crises (Seu, 2013, Seu, Flanagan, & Orgad, 2015; Seu, 2015; Seu 2016; Seu and Orgad, 2017) were inductive qualitative investigations of how the fabled ‘ordinary person’ understands, cognitively and emotionally reacts, and responds to information about distant suffering. Because of the paucity of qualitative research on this type of prosocial behaviour, the studies aimed to generate, rather than test, theory. They also embraced complexity and contradiction. The studies showed that information about human rights and humanitarian issues present members of the public with moral and ideological dilemmas (Billig et al., 1988) to be resolved through multilayered, complex responses characterised by contradiction and ambivalence. Of particular relevance is the role played by the socio-cultural landscape in which people operate. For example, individuals’ empathy towards the sufferers was counteracted and sometimes blocked by racist constructions of the ‘Other’, who were at times portrayed as barbaric, uncivilised and intractable, as the next extract from a participant illustrates. The focus group participants were discussing Britain’s moral responsibility for producing and exporting electric batons in the knowledge that they will be used as instruments of torture. Richard is arguing in favour of Britain continuing to do so:
Richard: Yeah, but if they cant buy them anywhere at all, alright, that’s what you’re saying, they’ll find something else. They’ll go back to sticks, or anything.
The negative Other representation is essential in exonerating Britain for selling instruments of torture by suggesting that Britain is only supplying these belligerent countries with more sophisticated means of fighting each other. The statement ‘they’ll find something else’ suggests an intrinsic quality in the other as actively spoiling for a fight. The spatial metaphor ‘they’llgo back to sticks’ means they’ll revert to what they were using before Britain supplied them with better means, but also implies an original sense of backwardness. The powerful image of someone fighting with sticks in the digital era thus adds to the construction of the Other as primitive (Seu, 2013: 118).
Postcolonial discourse also informed some participants’ responses in positioning the western helpers as getting the allegedly underdeveloped sufferers ‘out of the dark ages’ in which they lived. Karen, a participant from a different focus group, is arguing against donating money to Amnesty International through the frequently used account that ‘money won’t help’:
Karen: Money is not going to help. We need people, professional people from overseas, like trained teachers, trained doctors, you know people going there, basically educating those people. Getting it out of them from the dark ages. And then educate them, educating them about the daily, day- to-day life. You know those little things which can sort ofbring them out.
Karen’s approach seems altogether benign and helpful, but at closer scrutiny, it reveals powerful postcolonial undertones. The implied ‘we’ is what ‘those people’ need. Thus, ‘those people’—citizens of the countries where human rights are violated—are constructed as living in the ‘dark ages’, whilst we are the ‘professional people from overseas’. The phrase ‘people from overseas’ is particularly poignant as it evokes the iconic image of Colombo’s ships arriving on the shores of the new world. ‘Getting it out of them from the dark ages’ is equally powerful and leaves no doubt as to how countries where abuses of human rights are committed are constructed. The Other’s position as backward is further elaborated and refined through the infantilising claim that ‘they’ need to be taught by us about ‘the daily, day-to-day life .
These two examples illustrate the negotiated and dilemmatic nature of prosocial behaviour and its embeddedness in culture, exemplified starkly by the processes through which people decide who is deserving (or not) of humanitarian help (Seu, 2016). Neoliberalism, consumerism and material considerations seem to mediate particularly strongly people’s decision-making and attitudes. See, for example, the next two extracts from two participants in the same group:
Nelson; I mean everyone always wants something more. Like, there’s always something you want so I mean I was thinking like before, to be honest, I was looking at eBay and some stuff I want and I was thinking, ‘I wish I could just have it’, like not have to think about (it) [...] and I mean it’s all well and good saying ‘donate ?2 a month’ but I’d rather save that little bit just so I can go and get something I want and even when I get that there’s something else I want. There’s always going to be something everyone wants. [...] it all boils down to money at the end of the day. Neville: If that’s what you’ve earned your money for, you’ve gone out and worked hard enough and that’s something that you’ve set your mind on, a goal, you’ve given yourself a goal, I want to get an iPod, it costs ?2001 will work and save my money to get what I desire. If you can do that then you should do it happily. It’s not someone else’s choice to say, ‘no, with that money that you’ve just raised you should go and give it to somebody else’.
Nelson starts by constructing human being as intrinsically greedy and acquisitive. Presenting these as universally applicable and acceptable truths about human beings obscures the ideological nature of Nelson’s position and normalises it. The neoliberal principle underpinning this storyline is spelled out by Nelson in his counter-argumentation with me: it is OK to want things but one has to work hard for them and, conversely, it’s wrong to get something for nothing. Neoliberalism has been broadly defined as the generalisation of the market logic beyond the sphere of commercial exchange (Chouliaraki, 2013), through which the moral primacy of ‘public good’ is replaced by the prioritising of the individual and its gratification. A neoliberal discourse is also active in Neville’s contribution which praises individual enterprise and values personal gratification, mixed with the therapeutic regime of self-management, self-governance, ‘responsibilisation’ and agency. Thus, Neville’s account mixes principles of work ethics with psychological ideas of ‘self-realisation’, through which working hard, saving and buying an i-pod are construed as self-enhancing ‘goal setting’. Through this both Nelson and Neville can resist the moral demand from humanitarian agencies to give their money to needy others. The liberal principle of the individual right to choose is pivotal in this counterargument.
The same materialistic motives are, perhaps unsurprisingly, attributed to NGOs and rhetorically used to resist their appeals The next two extracts come from one of the studies on human rights, from two different focus groups:
Trudy; I don’t see... anywhere here does it say ‘if anyone wants to go out there and help the needy people; if you want to send donations of old clothes or anything like that. No, it’s hard cash. That’s what they want.
Neil: Sometimes in fact I actually keep these (appeals), I actually put them in
files somewhere... I get ten or twelve everyday from a variety oforganisa- tions or people asking for credit cards or pizzas or whatever, it goes in the same thing though, it’s junk mail you didn’t ask for. (Seu, 2011:153-154)
The same principle, that ‘it all boils down to money’, perhaps in a seemingly contradictory way, seems to fuel a backlash and resentment towards NGOs when they are perceived to be primarily interested in extracting money from people (Seu, 2011) and to operate as a business, rather than as ‘good Samaritans’ (Seu et al., 2015). The main characteristic of the good Samaritan model of humanitarian workers is that they are perceived to be selfless, quintessentially altruist and with no ulterior or materialistic motive—just wanting to help suffering others because they are ‘good people’. In opposition to this, considered by the British public as the ‘true spirit’ or humanitarian and charitable behaviour, people expressed passionate animosity against NGOs when they were perceived to operate as business:
Keith: They (NGOs) are advertising to get your money. It’s like a car, or something. They’re advertising for you to go and buy that car. I think they’re advertising for money, really. That’s it.
Bruna: So it’s like a business?
UM: I think so personally. It is a business. I think it is a business.
Furthermore, the studies show the importance of socio-cultural factors in relation to the wider context of media saturation and information fatigue. For example, although people still respond empathetically to images of suffering children, they also feel resentment and resistance to what is perceived as a manipulative use of children in NGO communications and appeals (Seu, 2015).
These examples illustrate the importance of local and geopolitical contexts, of contradiction and ambivalence, and the plasticity and instability of prosocial behaviour. It suggests that prosocial behaviour is always discursively mediated by ideology and constructed through available cultural resources.
Similar to Stevenson and Manning (2010), these studies also employed discursive analyses to identify rhetorical resources used by members of the public to justify their own inaction or their proactive responses. The studies identified patterns of explanations operating as a ‘web of passivity’ (Seu, 2013). The strands of this discursive web were made of socially and culturally accepted justifications of non-action which varied from banal lamentations of lack of time and resources (‘We don’t have time, if we had the time we could sit down, think about it and come to a conclusion, but in the Western world time is becoming more and more a precious resource’), to sophisticated accounts of participants’ cognitive-emotional reactions informed by specialist bodies of knowledge, including psychology and psychoanalysis (‘I read it but you just feel like it’s kind of shield I’ve got up....it’s like a defence mechanism ).
The explanations give a flavour of what is the current ‘societal tilt’ (Staub, 1989, 1993, 2003) towards human rights and humanitarian issues and are a demonstration of the urgent need for social psychology to engage more actively with the messiness of moral dilemmas and to counteract the culturally embedded discourses justifying passivity. Ignoring the complexities of prosocial behaviour can give only partial and potentially myopic insights into how people decide when, whom and how to help others in need. On the other hand, a critical engagement that takes into account cultural and ideological factors is more likely to make social psychological insights into prosocial behaviour applicable and relevant to real-life situations.