Explaining the Labour leadership contest using social identity theory

How does a candidate with a policy position that is perceived to be much more extreme than the consensus within a party win a leadership election? Social identity theory – SIT(*) may have the answer.

If the Labour leadership election had been held when the members(-) of the party (the ingroup in SIT terms) perceived the threat from the Conservatives and others of keeping them out of power for a long time was not great, then it is possible that the debate and decision-making process within the party would have been conducted primarily an intragroup contest, as illustrated below.

Labour leadership contest as an intragroup decision

How Labour party MPs thought the leadership contest would be fought

The candidates would have been keen to distinguish themselves from one another and the perceptions of differences between each would have been heightened by debate within the party. However, the likelihood would have been that the candidate who best represented what party members held in common would be seen as most relevant (prototypical) – resulting in a victory for either Burnham or Cooper.

However, these aren’t the circumstances that Labour finds itself in. May’s election results came as a huge shock to many of their members and they trail the Conservatives (the outgroup) by a large margin in the polls nationally. SIT research would suggest that this external threat therefore makes the leadership campaign an intergroup contest instead of an intragroup one. Presumably, the Labour MPs that opposed but lent Jeremy Corbyn their support anyway during the nomination process weren’t SIT aficionados. In such cases, SIT would suggest that the most left-wing of the quartet gains in relevance amongst party members as they are perceived to be the most different to the outgroup.

The Labour leadership contest as an intergroup contest

How the Labour leadership contest has really been fought

So if Jeremy Corbyn does win the contest in a few days time, SIT suggests that it will have been less to do with internal problems of left-wing entryists and rather more to do with external macro-political pressures.



(*) Social Identity Theory was originally developed by Henri Tajfel and others to try to understand why people believe that the social groups they belong to are better than the ones that other people belong to and why enmity often accompanies these beliefs.

(-) By members, I’m including everyone that Labour has decided is eligible to vote in their leadership election.

(+) Diagrams are adapted from page 109 of Psychology in Organizations – The Social Identity Approach (2nd Edition, published 2004) by S. A. Haslam.

What have the psychologists ever done for us?

There’s a wonderfully thought-provoking piece that’s been published on The British Psychological Society’s website in the last few days called “Where is psychology’s non-stick frying pan?“. I’d encourage everyone to read Phil Banyard’s article in full, but if you’re in a hurry, the beginning reads rather like John Cleese’s rant asking “What have the Romans ever done for us” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, only for a large number of examples to be offered.

Roman Road in Nora, Sardinia 2015

One of the roads that the Romans built in Nora, Sardinia

Phil does concede that even if psychologists can’t point to vast numbers of discoveries or inventions like other scientific disciplines, psychology has at least enabled us to explain our existence in non-superstitious and non-religious ways in what has become an increasingly secular world.

It’s not the first time that questions of this kind have been asked about the value of psychology. In 1967, an American social psychologist, Kenneth Ring, concluded that the subject was in intellectual disarray(*) as practitioners appeared to spend most of their efforts devising laboratory experiments that were divorced from any kind of social context, as well as delighting in the publication of counter-intuitive, but trivial, findings. His paper was a precursor to much discussion about a crisis in social psychology, with one of the responses to it being the development of critical social psychology. Unlike the experimental tradition, critical social psychology disciplines all emphasise the importance of creating understandings of individuals situated in their social and historical settings, as well as taking into account the way that other people influence us, our multiple identities and how discourse positions individuals in society(+).

The occupational psychology field isn’t immune to the same kind of challenges. For example, I recently came across a study from the mid 1990s that produced some startlingly counter-intuitive findings about the way salespeople and customers interact. On closer inspection however, the paper described a laboratory experiment where a number of college students role-played at being salespeople and customers for a couple of minutes. So there was no real commerce taking place, the salespeople weren’t salespeople, the customers weren’t really buying anything and the timescale of the interaction was too short to be meaningful. Yet this study had been published by a respected peer reviewed journal and had been subsequently cited by a number of other authors. It’s moments like these where I do have some sympathy with the argument that psychologists really haven’t delivered very much in the way of truly meaningful insights over the last century or so.

And yet, there is much of value that has come from occupational psychological research. For example graphology and unstructured interviews have been shown to be useless or poor recruitment tools. The development of understandings about how leaders and their followers can become more effective in the workplace have resulted in more profitable organisations. Improved methods of training and development in the workplace have resulted in more competent employees.

While all of these things may not be as immediately tangible as having access to a good non-stick frying pan to use when I want to rustle up my dinner, their importance should not be underestimated.

So what has psychology ever done for you – or what do you wish that it could do?


This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 23rd August 2015.


(*) Ring, K. (1967). Experimental social psychology: some sober questions about some frivolous values, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3, 113-123.

(+) Hollway, W. (2007). Social Psychology: Past and Present. In Hollway, W., Lucey, H. & Phoenix, A. (Eds.), Social Psychology Matters (pp. 1-32). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

On not boiling the ocean

Over the weekend my studies reminded me of a photograph I took last year. It shows two families of elephants trying to cross the Chobe river from Botswana to Namibia. Unfortunately the groups became tangled up, so much trumpeting and manoeuvring was required to ensure that they all crossed successfully. It was an awe-inspiring sight. At one point it looked as if the whole river was boiling, such was the effort being expended by the elephants to stay afloat, keep with their respective families and cross the river at the same time.

Elephants at Chobe 2014The reason I was reminded of this picture was because of the effort I’ve been putting into refining my dissertation topic so that I can produce an interesting, but limited in size, research question. One of the many pieces of advice that we’re given as MSc occupational psychology students is not to be over ambitious with the scope of our research – as less is often more. The topic area I’ve chosen is rather like the first photograph – lots of elephants of different sizes, all swimming around and trying desperately to attract my attention, when what I need is clear sight of a single elephant …

Elephant at Chobe 2014… and preferably, quite a small one.

Young elephant at Chobe 2014Anyway, at the risk of stretching this analogy possibly a little too far, I think I’ve managed to find my elephant. At the moment I’m still not completely sure whether the elephant I’ve found is too big, too small, or just the right size, as it’s still partly hiding behind the bushes of “more research required”, but at least I now have a photograph(*) of it pinned above the desk in my study.


(*) Not really a photograph, but a piece of A4 paper with my provisional research question printed on it in large type. I did say that I’d probably stretched the elephant analogy a little too far …

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 18th August 2015.

The continued resurgence of computer science?

There was some encouraging news for the IT industry in the data released by UCAS today. The number of students accepting places on computer science courses at university has increased by 12% compared to last year’s intake.

In graphical form, the change in the relative numbers of students accepted onto computing courses since 2011 looks like this:

Computer Sciences 2011-2015The figures look encouraging if you only consider the intake over these five years. However, given that there was a decline of 23.3% in the number of computer sciences undergraduates between 2002 and 2012, it’s clear that there’s still a way to go before demand for these skills outstrips supply in what is a growing industry in the UK. Skill shortages are also increased by the limits the current government is imposing on granting visas to non-EU foreign nationals, despite the negative consequences for the economy this policy has.

Spondon in colour 1956: Before the Borrowash bypass

Many of you enjoyed the black and white photographs of the A52 bypass being built through Spondon I posted here a few weeks ago. I’ve also managed to unearth a few colour slides of Spondon in 1956. These were taken before the bypass was built, presumably in late spring / early summer judging by the state of the foliage.

Willowcroft Road 1956Willowcroft Road – with no bridge!

Kirk Leys Avenue 1956The view across Willowcroft Road towards Kirk Leys Avenue

Spondon Methodist Church 1956Spondon Methodist Church

Lodge Lane 1956Lodge Lane

Derby Road 1956Derby Road

I can place the exact location from where the first four of these photographs were taken quite easily. The fifth is a little more puzzling to me. The original slide is labelled Derby Road, but I’m not sure which section it is or the direction that the photograph has been taken towards. My best guess is that it’s facing towards Spondon Garage, taken from around where the Asda roundabout is today. However, there seems to be too many houses on the right hand side of the image for that to be right.

Any help you can give me in working out where the final slide was taken from would be appreciated!

Mind your language

I mentioned in my last post that I was knee deep in reading for my dissertation proposal. I’m still knee deep, but the ideas are starting to become a little better formed now. One thing I can confidently say is that all of the questions I’m interested in researching involve understanding the way that language is used in the context of business to business selling – something I’ve been involved with for most of my professional career. This means that I’ll almost certainly be using a qualitative methodology, one of the many variants of discourse analysis, to undertake my empirical research into the topic. This is not the conclusion that I wanted to come to, based on my past experience of how much time qualitative projects consume!

As part of my undergraduate degree, I undertook two full-scale psychology projects. One of these was an experiment, which gratifyingly gave me and my partner in crime two significant and one insignificant result after the stats had been crunched. As far as I was concerned, this kind of ‘split decision’ was brilliant as you can learn just as much, if not more, from experimental results that don’t conform to your expectations. It also makes producing an interesting write-up straightforward, particularly if you follow the standard psychological report-writing conventions. In the grand scheme of things, it really didn’t take that much effort to produce something that I was happy with.

The other project was a qualitative one requiring the use of critical discourse analysis. For all kinds of reasons (transcribing interview data is one – I figured out that I can only manage this at a rate of about 16 hours of effort for 45 minutes of data), this type of research takes far, far longer to do well. Probably the most challenging part of a qualitative project is interpreting the data. With experimental research, there’s usually only one (correct!) way you can crunch the data through a stats software package. With data from a discourse analysis project, there are endless ways to analyse how the participants are using language to take positions to either justify themselves or to blame others. Analysis is hard work, and crucially, you also have to consider the way that your own experiences and interests influence your conclusions. The researcher is explicitly present in the data, rather than a factor that has been assumed to be ‘controlled out’ through good experimental design.

If you’ve had experience of quantitative and qualitative research, which do you prefer – and is it the same approach that you feel gives you the greatest insight? For my own part, I certainly prefer quantitative research from the point of view of simplicity, but the insight that rich, qualitative data gives is often worth the effort.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 5th August 2015.

Never auto-renew your car insurance with Allianz (or with anyone else, probably)

Martin Lewis over at moneysavingexpert.com offers this excellent advice when it comes to car insurance:

Never auto-renew. Loyalty is expensive

Nothing better illustrates car insurers preying on loyal customers than Sarah Cooper’s tweet. “My car insurance renewal is £1,200. New policy with same company is £690. How do they justify this?” They don’t. They just do it.

I’ve had my car insurance renewal notice from Allianz today. Comparing it with last year’s premium, they want an additional 51%! Nothing has changed – except that I’ve had another claim free year, bringing my total to 10. A quick check of a couple of price comparison websites showed that for the same cover the cheapest quotation was around £15 less than I’d paid this year, with 10s of quotations clustered around £10-£20 more expensive than last year. There were three or four (out of a hundred or so) that were more expensive than the Allianz renewal, but they were offering free unicorns as well. (OK, I’m fibbing about the unicorns).

I rang Allianz up. I was calm. I politely explained the situation. I was reasonable and persuasive. I asked that they considered renewing my policy at around the same price as last year, or perhaps on or around the median quotation I’d found for this year.

Their call handler was lovely, but her response was:

We don’t price match sir. I could re-quote you, but the result would be the same.

They wouldn’t budge by even a penny. I hate being taken for a fool and her excuses became less and less convincing as I suggested that they were guilty of sharp practice. I’ve cancelled my policy with them and I’ll do everything I possibly can do to make sure that I don’t use Allianz again any time soon.

So if customer loyalty is as worthless as it appears to be from this example, I wonder why so many software companies are marketing customer experience management and customer loyalty solutions?

Perhaps they’d be better off trying to sell customer disloyalty solutions instead.

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