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About the psychology of politics
The phrase 'the psychology of politics' will not mean much to many people. For some, it may suggest the psychological study of individual politicians and their careers, or of how political negotiation processes are influenced by the personalities of those involved, and by the relationships between them. These are important topics in political psychology, but there is a much wider claim to be made for this relatively recent area of inquiry. Psychology has valuable contributions to make across the whole field of political studies. Many of the major problems in politics cannot be well understood unless their psychological dimensions are studied in depth. There are psychological questions at the heart of fundamental elements of politics:
Democracy: why we citizens want it, what it demands of us psychologically, and how we may fall short of meeting those demands.
Leaders: how their personalities, and their relationships with the public, shape their leadership.
Nation states: how they figure in our experience, and how we identify (or not) with them.
Ideologies: why they can have influence beyond reason.
Political violence: how individuals get involved in terrorism and other forms of violent coercion.
Inequalities: what impact they have on who we are.
Major problems of the day - geo-political conflicts, delusion and denial in political discourse, polarisation, the climate crisis, and global demographic shifts - play out through these core elements and the psychological processes associated with them. There are also specific areas of psychological expertise which are necessary in the study of contemporary problems, e.g. climate psychology.
In the work presented on this website, I have approached this very broad field of study with a focus on the emotions involved, and on the patterns of unconscious psychic activity which are the substrate of our emotional life. Why this focus on emotion and the unconscious? Because these are the concerns of psychoanalysis, which is the tradition within psychology on which I draw in studying politics. Despite its imperfections, the psychoanalytic tradition offers the most profound and complex ways of understanding the mind. It is poorly understood by many academics (including some psychologists), partly because of its own esoteric language. Also, its explorations of the irrational in human behaviour have not fitted well with the rationalistic bias of much social science (which has been especially marked in political science). Its origins in the clinical practice of psychoanalytic therapy mean that it has an evidence base in qualitative data, unlike the quantitative and statistically-processed data which predominates in academic psychology.
However, in recent decades the growing interest in emotion across the social sciences has meant there is now more readiness amongst academics to consider what psychoanalysis has to offer, and psychoanalytic psychology is increasingly contributing to the growing field of political psychology. Overall, though, psychoanalysis is still a minority approach in the field, and to date it has been a marginal presence at annual conferences of the International Society of Political Psychology, and in the ISPP's journal Political Psychology. Instead, many of its contributions appear in a wide range of journals and books, sometimes linked to related research agendas in sociology or cultural studies, or to the interdisciplinary field of psychoanalytic studies.
Politics in its contexts
Whatever kind of psychology is used to understand politics, it needs to be integrated with other disciplinary perspectives. Politics being fundamental to human society, the effort to understand it must involve psychology (and politics itself as an academic discipline) working alongside all the other social science and humanities (SSH) disciplines. For political psychology, the aim is to understand the parts played in politics by the interactions between the internal worlds of individuals and the external world. In academic language, the psychology of politics is, or should be, a psychosocial project, which involves combining psychological with societal perspectives.
This involves going outside psychology, and also outside the direct study of politics itself, to include some consideration of its social and cultural contexts, and their histories. Of particular importance is the domain of popular culture, not only in its traditional core of sport, music and entertainment, but also in the development of consumer culture, and in the rise of 'therapeutic' culture with its emphasis on feeling. Many people live their lives with much more awareness of their involvement in and attachment to these areas than they feel for politics. Yet politics and popular culture are not clearly separate domains. Both are areas in which we align or identify ourselves with social groups, and so find collective identities, as well as expressing ourselves individually. Moreover, popular culture and politics are becoming intertwined, as part of a very broad cultural shift which has meant that many previously separated areas of life now overlap or seep into each other.
Consequently, some of the articles listed on this site are contributions to general psychosocial thinking, not specifically about politics, and some are explorations of popular culture. And amongst those pieces which are directly focussed on political topics, there are some recurrent themes (though they are not always explicitly developed): the dynamics of authority; the emotional public sphere, and within it different modalities of containment, and levels of emotional capital; ideologies as states of mind; and the importance of dignity and humiliation in many political choices. I hope that the observations and analyses presented in these writings are somewhere of help in making sense of the problems they address.
Of course, every academic study of politics has its own politics. Here, apart from some earlier works where other influences can be seen, the guiding political light is a kind of heterodox social-democratic liberalism, focussed on distributive justice and collective security.
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