We're all progressives now?
AQR members did well at the MRS Conference this year, not least Peter Totman who, though his presentation didn't unleash the torrent of questions he expected, was put forward for best paper.
Peter Totman's presentation, Identity Politics, The Populism No One is Talking About was nominated for best presentation at Impact 2020. The presentation had a real challenge: are we examining our own prejudices?
We wanted to know a little more about what was behind Peter's thinking and so tracked him down and off we went to Totman HQ, virtually, of course.
What was your starting point, Peter?
So, I start from the basis that we're all partial, or biased in some way. It's inevitable. Whether it's a cognitive bias, or a social bias, we all have them. And I'm really interested, concerned actually, that as professional researchers, we don't test our assumptions about the world.
For example, I imagine the vast majority of insight people who voted, voted to Remain in the EU. Like most knowledge workers clustered in urban areas with European colleagues, we typically hold 'progressive' mind-sets.
We respect people committed to social justice. We value diversity and have policies to support it.
But one of the things I've done, through government work, is spend a lot of time with other points of view, especially among Brexit voters. And it's caused me to question myself and my own blind spots.
So the question isn't if you're biased, but just how biased you are?
Yes. But, it's incredibly difficult to notice your own blind spots, of course. I'm no different. But as researchers who claim to offer insight and clarity, do we examine the assumptions we hold? What happens when we encounter views which challenge the metropolitan norms of diversity or political correctness? Are we, in practice, intolerant of dissent? Of people who don't, for example, worship at the altar of diversity?
How did you manage to nail this?
To try and do this, I wanted to compare two political positions or ideologies. One is what you'd recognise as mainstream populism, which identifies a contrast or antagonism between 'the people' and 'the other', where the other could be bankers, foreigners, bureaucrats or elites in general.
It often trades on concerns about being left behind or the loss of national or local identity. The other is identity politics, which identifies a contrast between certain gender, cultural or racial groups and those who are 'privileged' (typically male or white privilege).
Typically, these groups are mutually intolerant, especially around issues of diversity or immigration. But I wanted to explore that.
And how did you do it?
I ran three groups, all in the UK, although I'm pretty sure the findings would apply to the US and Anglosphere as a whole. They were with populists, what you could call 'identatrians', feminists, and with (mostly black) social activists.
I thought about running conflict groups, but I backed off. This was because it became clear to me that there was a basic difference in world view that would be insurmountable (despite shared psychological underpinnings). I felt that both sides would be looking to validate their own position and would have too much at stake to build bridges.
Were there any findings that leapt out at you?
Two things really came through for me. The first was that both groups get a powerful sense of meaning and belonging from the views they hold. For a feminist: "You are not alone in (the struggle) women across the world in same boat but also women just across the street". For a populist: "You do think 'traditional values are dead' but we are the silent majority". These are common psychological needs, but deeply divided states. Both types of people were nervous about potentially meeting one another.
The second was that identarians have a rich ideology to support them and their thinking, under the banner of social justice. Populists lack this, their ideology is often thin, or lacking articulation.
A recent article in The Times highlighted the difference in populism on both sides of the Pond. What I found interesting from research I am doing is that it has identified a degree of unity that I thought we'd lost during Brexit, but I think finding an identity politics on the virus is hard. I suspect that the difference between the UK and the US is affected by contrasting leadership styles and, of course, we have the NHS.
How was giving the presentation?
I was nervous. I followed Paddy Loughlin, who was emboldening everyone to fight climate change, So I was concerned it might come across a bit depressing. I mostly let people's words and quotations do the talking.
I think I could have been more challenging, really getting people to practice being appreciative of other points of view. I thought the presentation would unleash a torrent of questions. In practice, the reception was polite: I thought a bit neutral, but then I got nominated for best presentation.
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, June 2020
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2020