Critical Alternatives

Castree’s subsequent description of what is ‘screened out’ that is important to a critical social science applies equally to critical social psychology, ‘a focus on power inequalities, violence, and struggle among different constituencies— and much of what preoccupies the humanities—such as the ideas of duty, care, respect, responsibility, rights, faith, cruelty, beauty, and so on’ (Castree, 2014, p. 11) and, we might add, the potential for radical social change (de la Sablonniere, Bourgeois, & Najih, 2013). For a straightforward perspective in which ‘the social’ is bolted on to individual variables, a goal might be to try to rearrange some of those variables, but the wider configuration of ‘the social’ is not itself in question. From a critical social psychological perspective, ‘if we aspire to build a sustainable society we have to transform social relations, instead of making the existing ones sustainable’ (Uzzell & Rathzel, 2009, p. 345). There is clearly work to be done in highlighting existing scholarship that better fits the bill of critical social psychology and in pointing to the potential for further developments. One notable direction in a critical and social orientation to ecological degradation has been what might be broadly referred to as a ‘soft’ cultural emphasis: the role of conventions, narrative frames, discourses—that make what we say and do intelligible and legitimate (e.g., Kurz, Donaghue, Rapley, & Walker, 2005; Lakoff, 2010).[1] Hanson- Easey et al. (2015, p. 217) claim, for example, that there is still plenty of scope for communication research to ‘fruitfully examine the discursive building blocks underpinning taken-for-granted ways of talking about climate change’.

A number of studies integrate a discursive focus with attention to embodied, affective and interpersonal dynamics—another point of entry for a contemporary critical social psychological approach. Research inspired by psychoanalysis, for example, suggests that when we are confronted with information about anthropogenic ecological degradation, rather than developing a clear-cut ‘pro-environmental’ attitude and rationally deciding what action we can take on this basis, the uncomfortable emotional response triggers more complex psychological dynamics—referred to, following psychoanalysis, as defence mechanisms (Lertzman, 2012; Weintrobe, 2013). What is potentially fascinating for critical social psychology in this context is the apparent social character of defence mechanisms—internal and interpersonal conversations and silences and gestures that follow the contours of a cultural ‘stock’ of prescribed narratives and amount to shared denial strategies (Billig, 1999; Norgaard, 2011).

Qualitative empirical work built on this premise, still relatively scarce, has utilized psychoanalytic conceptualizations of defence mechanisms more or less explicitly in exploring how culturally contingent media discourses, public discussion and everyday talk are drawn upon to make sense of the idea of climate change (e.g., Becken, 2007; Dickinson, Robbins, & Lumsdon, 2010; Norgaard, 2011; Stoll-Kleemann, O’Riordan, & Jaeger, 2001; Whitmarsh, 2008). Suggested interventions here take the form of the conditions in which denial might be challenged and/or in which alternative narratives might flourish—such as encouraging the development of supportive, conducive environments in which anxieties are collectively confronted as a basis for change (Macy, 2013; Randall, 2009; Rustin, 2013). A willingness to ask radical questions about the stories we tell ourselves is appealing to critical social psychology, and there is plenty of scope for more creative and constructive work here. However, it is perhaps to be expected in a context of ‘ideological occlusion’, to borrow Kidner’s term (2001), that alternative narrative formations might often seem provisional or opaque, a point we return to below. Nonetheless, there are numerous examples of creative and social engagement with these issues.[2]

Other work identifies ‘soft’ obstacles to change in the ‘regime resistance’ of key players in governments and corporations (Geels, 2014): ‘policymakers and incumbent firms can be conceptualized as often forming a core alliance at the regime level, oriented towards maintaining the status quo’ (2014, p. 26). These alliances are ‘soft’ in that they are facilitated by interpersonal networks and social and cultural capital. They are forged in shared spaces, regular proximity, mutual interests, worldviews and experiences. They are made possible by positions of authority, access to media and dissemination. Analysis of the promulgation of strategic ‘denialism’, which perpetually unsettles anthropogenic climate change as a ‘fact’ and/or a problem, and/or as a problem ‘we’ can do anything about, supports the notion of ‘regime resistance’ (e.g., McCright & Dunlap, 2011).

Regime resistance also relies on the ‘harder’ material configuration of financial and capital support, technology and personnel and, lest we forget, physical force and incarceration (Geels, 2014; Klein, 2014; Urry, 2013). Further analyses of the ‘hard’, material ‘barriers’ to change include the complex assemblages of extraction industries, production processes and transport infrastructure that make ‘individual’ activities such as household energy consumption possible (Ropke, 2009; Shove & Walker, 2014). Shove is a leading proponent of a social practice approach, which asserts that the basic unit of analysis in addressing human responses to ecological crisis is not individual behaviour but social practices (Shove, 2010). Social practices are reflected in individual behaviour (cycling, driving, showering etc.) but they are made possible only by the contemporaneous integration of material infrastructure, social conven?tions and bodily competence (Shove, Pantzar, & Watson, 2012). The latter are practical orientations to the world, embodied in learnt habits, which are derived from and maintained by a social and material web of what is possible, doable and sayable. For Shove and colleagues, social practices are the site of social reproduction and potential change and should, therefore, be the focus of analysis and intervention.

Geels’ analysis addresses important social dynamics that even supposedly hybrid models often leave out—dynamics that are central to perpetuating the practices of elite minorities. For Geels, the source of inaction in the context of ecological crisis is not (primarily) reluctant or ambivalent citizen-consumers (though these are symptoms of the situation described) but the ‘active resistance by incumbent regime actors’ to fundamental change (Geels, 2014, p. 21). The approaches touched upon here are starting points for a radical departure from what are conventionally understood to be ‘barriers’ but also question the object they are supposedly obstructing—‘sustainable behaviour’. These accounts do not focus on the individual actor or household, more or less willing and able to act sustainably, but an interconnected set of social practices in which everyday individual behaviour is enmeshed. The metaphor of ‘barriers’ is in fact stretched to breaking point—combinations of material infrastructure, convention and embodied competencies permit and make possible human activity as much as they block and obscure. The problem, in the context of ecological degradation, is that these assemblages create high carbon ‘path dependency’ (Shove & Walker, 2014) that recruits elites and the rest of us in different but complimentary ways. One future direction for critical social psychology is to contribute to this multi-layered analysis.

  • [1] Here, I follow Dougland Hines general distinction: ‘on the one hand ... people tend to be more focussedon the technical or ’hard’ end, rather than cultural or ’soft’ end, of the mess we are talking about’ (Hine& Graugaard, 2011). He rightly claimed, in 2011, that the ‘soft’ end is relatively neglected. While‘techno-fix’ frames might still dominate research and policy agendas, as I argue here, there has been a shiftto acknowledge the ‘softer’ end, noticeable since that date. The distinction is an explanatory device. I amnot suggesting that the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ can be easily separated or even identified in practice.
  • [2] See for example the RSA’s seven dimensions of climate change project; Carbon Conversations; the Dark MountainProject; and Mediating Change
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