Political psychology, political events and multilateralism
By Kesi Mahendran, Chair of the Political Psychology Section
04 October 2022
The year 2022, which is already drawing to a close, has been yet another where people living in the UK have become swept up in unprecedented events. Mikhail Bakhtin, when developing his idealism and ontology, proposed that ‘being is an event’ – rather than overly situate individuals within societies, communities, or national histories, he understood the self as having three components: I-for-myself, I-for-the-Other, the-Other-for-Me. He fully understood the extent to which events shape our lives. Yet there was always an intrapsychic I-for-myself[i].
The death of Queen Elizabeth II (21 April 1926 – 8 September 2022), has caught the imaginative sympathies of the public. Historians such as David Olusoga are already heralding a post-Elizabethan age as an age of reckoning with Britain’s colonial past. This death, and the variety of collective and individual reactions to it, are an example of how people take historical events into their own lives, weaving them with their autobiographical narratives.
For political psychologists, 2022 has been an opportunity to attend in-person conferences with a renewed appreciation of the benefits that such dialogue and exchanges can bring. The Political Psychology Section held its first annual meeting since the pandemic, in Liverpool on 5 April, entitled ‘The New Dynamics of Democracy’. This one-day event was hosted by Steve Flatt, who alongside running his working practice, and being a member of the section committee has written against empathy and for a renewed appreciation of compassion for the 'Other'.
The gathering was redesigned to combine the annual business meeting with an opportunity to hear from other political psychologists at all stages of their careers, from Masters-level students to early career colleagues to established professors such as Molly Andrews and Corinne Squire, who gave two keynotes around the national premiere of the film The Persuasive Power of Political Narratives. The film is freely available on Youtube; do take a moment to check it out, it is thought-provoking and a valuable teaching resource for those of you introducing political psychology to your students.
There is no doubt that our section is growing thanks to your engagement as members. Political psychology is growing across the world, and there are now Asian-Pacific Networks of Political Psychologists, the Iberian Latin American Political Psychology Association, and European and national-level political psychology associations. There is a variety of journals such as Brazil's Journal of Political Psychology and a Spanish language Political Psychology journal.
Many of this international community met at the major conference, which creates an opportunity for political psychologists to gather together: the International Society of Political Psychology (ISPP) Meeting. Held in-person in Athens and attracting more than 700 delegates, ISPP 2022 saw the international premiere of the aforementioned film in a well-received panel on narrative psychology.
As the new Chair of the Political Psychology Section, I am decidedly optimistic about the distinctiveness of political psychology’s transdisciplinary contribution as it works across psychology and political science. Yet equally, when listening to the keynote talks at ISPP Athens, I was fascinated to see that all of these were given by political scientists, most of whom were deeply engaged with psychoanalytical concepts, routed in a series of assumptions about intrapsychic dynamics. Does the move towards psychodynamic concepts risk depoliticisation? Is there a difference between Freudian intrapsychic dynamics and Bakhtin’s self-other dynamics? There is a real need for political psychologists, trained within psychology to engage with these developments.
One psychologist, who is challenging potential depoliticisation of psychological phenomena is Sanah Ahson. Her recent article has received a great deal of attention. She explains, ‘I’ve seen first-hand how we are failing people by locating their problems within them as some kind of mental disorder or psychological issue, and thereby depoliticising their distress’.
Political psychology continues to combine rich theoretical developments with an abductive ability to respond to the very real events that shape our lives, such as the current cost of living crisis and the challenges many individuals, families and communities are facing. Therefore, in 2023 we look forward to welcoming you at the next annual meeting, a one-day event to debate new directions in political psychology and its theoretical underpinnings.
We will also be holding a nested BPS conference within the European Congress of Psychology (ECP), which takes place in Brighton on 3-6 July. It is well worth submitting an abstract for this conference, not only will you be able to meet other members of this section but you will be able to meet and connect with an international community of psychologists with different interests and specialisms.
As a final comment, 2022 also saw the death of another political leader who had a seismic effect on international relations and geopolitics. There is no doubt that we all live in a post-Soviet age, more open, but also more conflictual. Mikhail Gorbachev (2 March 1931 – 30 August 2022), the architect of Perestroika (Russian for restructuring) employed an implicitly political psychological level to create the conditions for Glasnost (Russian for openness).
He had imagined he was responding to a desire for greater transparency and in a fascinating Storyville documentary Gorbachev.Heaven - currently available on BBC I-player - he admits that Glasnost was too ambitious. Gorbachev had imagined the Soviet Union would stay together, that a desire for independence would not go so far as to collapse the Union. In the event, Gorbachev resigned, the Soviet Union collapsed and over recent years to the present, nationalism has been on the rise.
Yet Vladimir Putin is today mobilising the post-imperial melancholia felt by Russians’ nostalgia for a greater Soviet age. It may perhaps be the case over the next twenty years that, within the Russian Federation, there will be a reappraisal of Mikhail Gorbachev and the contribution he made to Russia and geopolitical stability.
We may return to his political psychology to consider how we can understand and attune between extreme narratives to foreground transnational freedoms and the benefits of multilateralism. Whatever the geopolitical events that 2023 brings, stay in touch with us and let us know your news.
[i] Mahendran, K., English, A., & Nieland, S. (2021). Populism versus the people: How citizen's social representations of home destabilize national populism's territorial vision. Journal of Theoretical Social Psychology, 5(2), 146-158.
Article from the Political Psychology Section Autumn 2022 Bulletin