"The Psychologist", Academic freedom and censorship, Identity Politics

Class as a “Protected Characteristic”?

The current issue (a ‘…bumper edition…’ according to the managing editor) of The Psychologist[1] is promoting the idea of making social class a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act.  This campaign (surely running close to the wind as regards charity law?) is being promoted on the BPS Twitter account as well. Whether you think that this is a good idea or not, it looks to our eyes that it is feeding directly into the hotbed that is identity politics. As a consequence, the slant and positioning of the BPS cannot be said to reflect any sort of balance scientifically (or politically, for that matter). It also ignores or is ignorant about the considerable social scientific literature, which has informed debate on this contested and contentious issue over many years (I had the good fortune to have a two-year sociology subsidiary as part of my first degree).

Our own experience, as well as that of others, is that the BPS chooses to avoid debating different positions to its own ‘party line’ and either ignores or censors[2] contributions that challenge and offer reasoned critiques. For that reason we feel that the following piece from David Pilgrim deserves to see the light of day. We welcome your comments, especially from those within the BPS who are promulgating this campaign.

Peter Harvey,

Blog Administrator. 


[1]  https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/people-us

[2]  https://bpswatch.com/2021/02/07/david-pilgrims-disappearing-article/

Open commentary on the special issue on ‘Tackling Class-Based Inequalities’ (The PsychologistJuly/August 2022)

David Pilgrim

Introduction

The discipline of psychology is in trouble and so is the British Psychological Society (BPS). Ignoring that current reality in the face of the policy initiative being promoted in the special issue, would be an act of complicity. My response is offered as an invitation to debate the dire state we are in as a discipline, within a neoliberal context in which the authoritarian norms of identity politics are now suffocating freedom of expression.

The topic of inequality has been of professional interest to me for over forty years, during which time I have also been an ambivalent member of the BPS. I have a Masters in sociology, as well as a PhD in social psychology and have many years of experience researching and publishing from the interface between these disciplines. This is reflected in my split career (half the time as a clinical psychologist in the NHS and the other working in health policy research as a jobbing social scientist). My academic focus has largely been in relation to mental health and inequality (e.g. Rogers and Pilgrim, 2020; Rogers and Pilgrim, 2003).

With my interests and mandate duly declared, below I address three main matters: the legitimation crisis of British psychology; the risk of uni-disciplinary knowledge claims and interest work; and the particular risk of psychological reductionism, given the capture of organisations by versions of identity politics. All of these form the embedding context of the campaign to add social class to the list of protected characteristics.  

I finish with some ideas about the modest contribution that psychology might make to our understanding of social class, within the recent constraining norms of identity politics. I also caution against psychologists indulging in identity politics campaigns. In my view, they jeopardise both our individual intellectual curiosity and our collective disciplinary credibility. They close down curiosity and merely demand that we adhere to new moral strictures in an unquestioning manner.

1 The legitimation crisis of British psychology

A view from British psychologists about anything of public policy relevance is being expressed from a position of weak legitimacy for two additive reasons. First, the body claiming to uphold academic values (the BPS) has proved itself to be neither a learned nor a learning organisation. That legitimation crisis has been evidenced by the following:

1 In recent times the BPS has lost one after another elected President and some have tried and failed to correct the evident dysfunction they encountered after their election. In 2020 no less than three departed over a two month period, with two resigning and one being expelled before their period of office was up. The last of these is now taking his case to an Employment Tribunal, which will lead to the inner workings of the BPS being exposed to forensic public scrutiny for the first time. In advance of this case being heard, those of us who have been campaigning to open up the BPS to public scrutiny, will outline their conclusions presently (Pilgrim, 2022a). We have recorded the process of the campaign on a blog and on Twitter, and these can be accessed immediately (BPSWatch.com; FakeBPSCommentary @psychsocwatchuk).

2 In 2020 a major fraud came to light, implicating a former employee. In January 2022 she was sentenced to 28 months in prison for defrauding the Society of over £70,000. She had been imprisoned in the past for a similar offence in two other organization (a total of 17 offences). The BPS appointed her despite this past record noted very publicly in the press. Since the turn of this century, other ‘financial irregularities’ in the Society have been dealt with by internal investigations and staff departures. The BPS membership has been kept in the dark about these events, with no account being offered in The Psychologist of the unfolding drama of the past two years.

3 The Charity Commission has been ‘engaged’ with the Society about its broken complaints process and its lack of adequate governance. However, to date this engagement has not ensured any observable organizational reform of substance. The Commission has received many expressions of concern from BPS members, and this pattern continues as the crisis fails to resolve. A particular challenge we face at present is that the Charity Commission itself has been ineffectual.

4 Whilst fair charges of misgovernance and corruption can be made about the BPS, these accusations have not been addressed publicly, or fairly and squarely, by the leadership of the Society. Instead, legitimate criticisms and queries have been ignored and denied.

5 For a year (between November 2020 and November 2021) the Chief Executive Officer of the Society was suspended in the wake of the fraud investigation noted in 2 above. His Finance Director was also suspended at the same time (November, 2020) but within a month he left to take up a new position at the National Lottery, while still under investigation.

6 Despite all of the above shenanigans, the leadership of the Society has failed to keep its members informed of the crisis. The BPS is allegedly a membership organization, and good practice, according to the Charity Commission, requires transparency and accountability from the Board of Trustees and the Senior Management Team. They have clearly failed in that regard.

7 This organizational turbulence reflects longstanding structural and cultural difficulties in the Society in recent decades.  At the heart of the problem is that the Board of Trustees is riven with conflicts of interest and it has no truly independent members (though some minor tinkering of about this basic fault has now emerged). Since the 1960s it has been a sham of a proper Board of Trustees, expected reasonably under charity law.

Not only but also…..

Even if the BPS were not a case study in organisational dysfunction (which currently it patently is) there is a second source of the legitimation crisis in British psychology, viz: the rise of methodologism in the midst of epistemological incoherence. For the first half of the 20th century, psychologists followed the tradition of British empiricism announced by Ward and Rivers (1904). For the second half it then struggled to adapt to the modish postmodern turn (Kvale, 1992). 

Squaring this circle has been a challenge for the discipline. During the twentieth century, it lurched between a positivist confidence in fact building (from a mixture of experimentalism and the actuarial approach) and a rejection of facts in preference for unending perspectives, narratives, discourses and discourses about discourses in the tradition of Nietzsche (Pilgrim, 2020). This left the discipline in a confused and confusing state, with the BPS tending to describe itself vaguely, but understandably, as a ‘broad church’. It is no longer clear what psychology as a science actually means (e.g. Smedslund, 2016; Snoeyenbos and Putney, 1980).

Today in the corridors of any psychology department that incoherence is apparent and the only remaining rhetoric of justification for a coherent disciplinary character is methodological rigour, with the compatibility of quantitative and qualitative methods being far from self-evident. Beyond ‘methodologism’ or the ‘methodological imperative’ (Gao, 2014) are a legion of psychological theories, some of which are aligned and some of which are totally incommensurable. 

Given this legitimation crisis, why should British psychologists at present have any policy plausibility or inspire public confidence? How can we appeal for the need for participatory democracy, when our own professional and disciplinary body is the very opposite of democratic? Given that those in the BPS, reporting in this special issue class discrimination, are themselves now part of middle class life, what point is exactly being made, beyond virtue signalling and special pleading?  

The meritocratic discourse of equal opportunity is unremarkable across our current political spectrum: who is formally against it in any major political party? Given that doxa in our political class, we tend to find a self-serving trope. We are offered stories of success or exclusion, which tend to centre on the moral virtue of being from a poorer background. However, it is a clouded window into understanding the complexity of social inequality. 

Like many others in my age cohort I came from a working class background and am now middle class. However, my personal experience (or anyone else’s in the same boat) really contributes very little to an understanding of social inequality. To mention it at all brings with it legitimate suspicions of hypocrisy and narcissism. It can have marketing value for multi-millionaire rock stars, who dress the part for their audiences (Womack et al, 2012). Politicians of left and right appeal to our sympathies and votes, when alluding to their humble origins. That same pattern is repeating in professional (note) organisations like the BPS. 

Asking individuals to illuminate societal functioning from their experience generates highly partial, and possibly misleading, forms of sociological understanding (Archer, 2000). Moreover, a transition from working class to middle class life entails accruing cultural power in a new position of influence, even if the cultural field is less powerful than that of the economic sphere (Bourdieu, 1984). To allude to one’s past working class credentials for current ‘street credibility’, as an oppressed person, is a form of having one’s cake and eating it. 

2 The problem of uni-disciplinary knowledge claims and interest work

Even if British psychology were not characterised by the above legitimation crisis, it would still have a remaining challenge. Psychology, like other disciplines, will be prone to oversell its relevance and encourage psychological reductionism in its own ranks, as well as for the publics it appeals to and relies upon for employment and status. The very fact that a ‘special issue’ of The Psychologist about social class was published, indicates the weak a priori authority psychologists have about it, or any other topic which is partially or wholly social, not individual, in character. 

These social phenomena can then become a bolt on consideration, with psychologists looking hither and thither for their special contribution.  This is not to say that psychology has nothing to offer (below I indicate what that is) but the pastiche of knowledge in the discipline of old fashioned positivism (pace Ward and Rivers) and the postmodern preoccupation with perspectives and narratives has led to disciplinary incoherence. What exactly is, or would be, ‘the psychology’ of social class (or any other social topic)? To answer that question, the discipline must first start with a good dose of epistemic humility, about its inner philosophical turmoil, largely un-reflected upon, and its relative ignorance about contributions from other disciplines. 

Moreover, in the latter regard, the forms of psychological insight that have been offered, and importantly have giving due weight to social context, may be little known in the ranks of trained psychologists. After all, ipso facto they are not economists, political scientists or sociologists. Their awareness of the existing and considerable literature in these other disciplines is likely to be absent or incidental. Accordingly, when outside inspiration is conceded by psychologists, then even the basic facts may be sketchy. 

This problem of the sketchy knowledge of psychologists of social and political science, is amplified by the epistemic background of those outside who, have made major contributions already to our understanding of the psychosocial aspects of social class. This has put to shame what psychologists have developed in comparison to date (e.g.Sennett, 2003). 

Moreover, the post-positivist and post-Marxian work of the later Frankfurt School speaks directly to those writing in this special issue (Habermas 1973; Honneth, 2007), while being steeped in sociological sophistication. Broadly those psychosocial insights have been offered by the incorporation of ideas from Weber, Marx and Bourdieu; three key contributors to our understanding of social class, who are not on the undergraduate curriculum in British psychology departments (to my knowledge). Some psychologists may have been blessed already with a ‘sociological imagination’ (Mills, 1959) but if that is the case, their teachers will not typically recognise and encourage its development. 

This is the epistemological context of psychological reductionism and the risks of psychology overselling its relevance, about a topic which has been explored already and over many decades by non-psychologists (Atkinson, 2015). Psychologists are not only ‘late to the show’, there is a risk that the confidence of uni-disciplinary reasoning creates an inflated sense of their own relevance or importance. 

All disciplines are prone to some extent to this mixture of arrogance and ignorance; this is not an accusation about psychology alone. It reflects the self-reinforcing role of the sub-division of intellectual labour in the modern academy, which is now an abiding obstacle to the interdisciplinary cooperation, required pragmatically in order to solve humanity’s considerable current challenges.

3 Psychological reductionism and social phenomena

A focus on protected characteristics brings with it an inherent risk of psychological reductionism. The emphasis will on individual rights and prospective victimhood. That focus became evident in Western cultures after the postmodern turn and was influential beyond psychology as a discipline. For example, the concept of intersectionality developed in the USA, within its own very particular cultural context of individualism, national exceptionalism and the demands of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 

Initially, intersectionality usefully illuminated complex social determinants of oppressions operating in synergy (Bell, 1973; Crenshaw, 1991). This was not reductionist about individuals but argued that overlapping social groupmembership placed some people at particular risk of oppression on average compared to those in other groups. Thus oppression was about supra-personal generative mechanisms in a shared social context and was thus a window into social determinants. 

However, individualism then crept in increasingly, with a shift away from intersecting socio-economic forces towards a kaleidoscope of subjectivities. Oppression then became more and more about individual victimhood and less and less about structural disparities of power and wealth. That alteration of focus, from objective complexity to subjective reporting, was encouraged by liberal third wave feminism and Queer Theory. These displaced the material focus of both old school social science and second wave feminism (Butler, 1990; Rubin, 1992).

From then on, social justice became defined by what individuals claimed about themselves. This culminated in our current context of identity politics (Pilgrim, 2022b). These have divided people against one another within an unending personalistic focus on epistemological privilege, self-righteous indignation, ‘calling out’, ‘cancel culture’, special pleading for particular groups and a morass of daily moralisations or ‘moral grandstanding’  (Tosi and Warmke, 2020).

Accordingly, our lives are increasingly governed now by what Loic Wacquant calls the ‘logic of the trial’, where we are all judge and jury but might find ourselves in the dock as well. With social media, this can lead to us being turned upon by the cyber-mob for saying the wrong thing, or even simply saying nothing (e.g. ‘white silence is violence’). Our careers can be ended and anonymous online death threats have become so prevalent that they are now unremarkable (e.g. ‘kill a TERF’).  

Equality and diversity training has become an industry on the back of this self-righteous civil chaos (Pluckrose and Lindsay, 2020; Williams, 2021) and people stopped talking calmly and analytically and began shouting at one another instead (Charles, 2020). Identity politics and their personalistic rationale have given comfort to the paedophile, the white supremacist and the feudal theocrat, not just those on the ‘woke’ left (François, and Godwin,2008; Belew, 2020; Hansen, 2021; O’Carroll, 1980; Sen 2006).

As Nancy Fraser noted in response to this unnerving scenario, there is little point in moralising angrily about what she called ‘parity of participation’ in relation to individuals, unless we also calmly consider and understand their conditions of possibility (i.e. their wider embedding social and economic divisions). This means shifting our focus from individuals to social, and even at times biological, material reality (Fraser, 1999; Flatschart, 2017; Benton, 1991). It also means returning to a supra-personal focus on capitalism, patriarchy and post-colonial legacies as social forces.  

With the emergence and new doxa of identity politics, the duality of social class as both an objective aspect of social ontology and a reported subjective experience explored by Marx, Weber and subsequently in deeper ways by Bourdieu was lost (Marx, 1859/1968; Weber, 1905/2001; Bourdieu, 1987). Suddenly the lop-sided priority was on personal experience and group membership. For identity politics this became the alpha and omega of understanding power. 

Psychological and cultural reductionism then awaits and this might cover up, not just expose, injustices, with policy makers exploiting the unending judgmental relativism of the postmodern era, with its appeal to linguistic variance.  Remember that under Thatcherism we had ‘health variations’ not ‘health inequalities’? Note how Rishi Sunak is being described as coming from a ‘humble background’ in his candidacy to replace Boris Johnson. Words alone are cheap and slippery, when we address social justice today and the postmodern turn is quite rightly also called the ‘linguistic turn’. Accordingly, here is the prescient insight of the humourist Jules Feiffer:

I used to think that I was poor. Then they told me that I wasn’t poor, I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, I was deprived. Then they told me deprived was a bad image, I was underprivileged. Then they told me under-privileged was over-used, I was disadvantaged. I still don’t have a cent but I have a great vocabulary.  (Feiffer, cited in Pilger, 1989)

A narrow preoccupation with protected characteristics and the valorisation of subjective identities and discourse, have encouraged this problem of class being unanchored from its objective context. We can easily forget that although ideas might indeed be causally efficacious, power also resides in the non-discursive realm of material reality (Bhaskar, 1997). The latter refers to our relationship to both nature and social structures.

Policy capture, consumerism and neoliberalism

A loss, or lack, of sophistication about both biological and social ontology has at times left organisations captured by group special pleading. An example here is the controversial emergence of the gender document produced by the BPS, driven by transgender activism. This has fed into the febrile and contested field of policy development about transgender healthcare (Pilgrim, 2021). 

In a similar manner, those aligned with the False Memory Society took charge of the BPS working group on memory and the law (Conway and Pilgrim, 2022). This use of the BPS as a vehicle for policy lobbying is now obvious (including in this case, the use of a special edition of The Psychologist to promote a particular cause). This scenario reflects a combination of weak membership engagement and poor governance at the centre, covered in the first section above. 

Those able and willing to put the hours in to pursue a particular policy goal can readily exploit that unhealthy structure. I have been party to such a capture myself in relation to documents on psychosis and psychiatric diagnosis. So my point here is about process not content. We all may have various preferences and value-judgements in relation to the latter but it is the process of weak democracy and poor governance in the BPS, which is at issue here.

Poor governance has also allowed those leading the organisation to make ex cathedra decisions and statements with no consultation. For example, the President of the BPS announced on social media (Ukraine flag always for now dutifully provided) that ‘we’ had decided to vote to expel Russians from the EPA. Maybe some Russian psychologists were under threat at home and maybe a dialogue with them might have been illuminating. But why bother with that sensitive approach to international dialogue, cooperation and support, which might require the effort of considered negotiations, when virtue signalling online is prioritised? Rapid fire clictivism now dominates civil life replacing proper deliberation about a complex world. As Charles (ibid) says of clictivism, in the vernacular, “it wants to be activism, but it can’t be arsed”.

In our neoliberal context, organisations (such as the BPS) are concerned to appeal to their ‘customers’ in a way that does not damage their income generation but rather improves it. More widely in the market place, the ‘pink pound’, the ‘grey pound’ and the ‘black dollar’ are precious commodities (Goulding, 1999; Matthews and Besemer, 2015; Yewande et al, 2020).

Cable sports channels can safely endorse Black Lives Matter (BLM) and ‘taking the knee’ to ‘root out racism on or off the field’ is a safe piety, which requires no critical analysis of the global soccer industry. The latter has been a place for kleptocrats to launder their money. It is a vehicle for upward social mobility for poor Africans and working class European youngsters. It has been a commercial opportunity to expand the gambling industry, which ruins countless lives. 

None of that complexity, inviting socio-economic analysis, is touched by virtue signalling from the rich and powerful to keep their customers satisfied by the marketing endorsement of BLM. After all, who would be pro-racist or admit to it publicly? Neoliberalism and identity politics fit hand in glove. This context of neoliberalism is an important driver of personalistic reasoning, the displacement of participatory or deliberative democracy by identity politics and the shift to the protected characteristics approach to social justice (Arendt, 2005). 

Apples and oranges

And if we do endorse such a protected characteristic listing of potential victimhood, then more analysis is required, if for no other reason, than it contains apples and oranges, when viewed ontologically not merely epistemologically. Under the current nine point listing two of them are fixed by biological ontology. Our sex is described (not ‘ascribed’) at birth or prenatally and is locked from cradle to grave by our chromosomes. The disadvantage then created by patriarchy, when brought up as a girl, becomes part of social ontology. 

Similarly, when we are born defines immutably the limits of our existence in time. Our life span is limited and so age is a non-discursive matter: we grow older and eventually we die.  That is a biological fact for all living organisms-we cannot talk our way out of this (Callinicos, 1993). On my deathbed, self-identifying as being alive with my last breath will not save me. As with our sex, we cannot defy the material constraints of the natural world by merely making subjective declarations, of the ‘I identify as X’ type. At this point social constructionism becomes a form of social psychosis (Craib, 1997). (The anti-realism of strong social constructionism in British psychology has been explored by Cromby and Nightingale (1999).)

However, elsewhere on the list, biology is still present but it is far less relevant. Other mammals may pair for sexual reproduction but they do not get married. They have no rich view of themselves as having a sexual orientation and your pet dog will have no religious identity or ever become a jihadist (Bentall, 2018). Our capacity for meta-cognitions and meta-statements bequeathed by evolution, given our enlarged cerebrum, affords our capacity to be both moral agents and rule following interdependent beings. Normativity is complex and shifts over time and place but it always exists as a driver of human societies. It is the source of political ideologies, which argue for the retention of current inequalities in a social order, or seek to transform them (Savage, 2000).

Thus, this nine point list contains items which are not ontologically equivalent. Social class if added, like race, is ambiguous because it is both a social ascription experienced personally as a matter of standing, status, honour or self-respect and it is derived from supra-personal socio-economic disparities (Wacquant, 2022 a&b). Psychology potentially has something to say about the former but it might be wise to leave expertise about the latter to social and political scientists and rapidly learn from them about what they already have had to say. 

Does psychology have anything meaningful to say about protected characteristics?

Given my criticisms above, this question remains pertinent. The contributors to the special issue on the one hand confess the ‘scant evidence’ in psychology and yet there is a massive failure (wilful or from ignorance) to concede that other disciplines have already addressed the topic at length. The ambivalence about positivism and perspectivism also is evident. There is angst about being able to measure social class as a fixed variable (the old positivist’s dilemma) but also a discursive focus on the stories that people tell about their lives and their possible identity confusion over time (the postmodern norm). 

These tensions are there too in social and political science more widely, but the difference is that they are directly acknowledged as both a theoretical question and one of methodological options. This has led then to a higher order discussion in sociology about reflexivity (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992; Donati and Archer, 2015). Such a higher order discussion is surely now required in psychology. At present that has started in a very personalistic place, tinged heavily with special pleading, i.e. psychologists reflecting on their own class position over time and talking about access to the discipline. However, this is a start of sorts.

For now, with their angst about measurement on the one hand and story-telling on the other, psychologists still have something to offer, as the contributors to the special issue make clear.  I would add some other opportunities from within. Social psychology has provided some useful material on new social movements, group dynamics and prejudice (e.g. Leyens et al 2000; van Zomeren, 2014).

Evolutionary and cognitive psychology inform us about slow and fast thinking. The latter is part of the current problem of binary reasoning in the dead end of identity politics, with its moral grandstanding (Dutton, 2020). The sub-text of special pleading by the various fractions of identity politics is one of ‘inside good, outside bad’ binary logic: ‘My group and I are virtuous and vulnerable but those outside are bad and guilty, until proven innocent, of victimising me’. 

Binary reasoning begets moral absolutism, which could be a topic of interest for psychologists, as moral philosophers have already noted (Neiman, 2011). The splintering divisions of identity politics ensure hostility not solidarity and these invite psychological description, interpretation and possible explanation, as social psychological phenomena. This might augment, empirically, the arguments made by those such as Neiman cited.

Psychologists might also put their own house in order (from the undergraduate curriculum upwards) about construct clarification and validity, especially in relation to biological and social attributions. For example, in relation to my point about apples and oranges on the nine point list, disability subsumes biological impairment (affecting the functional capability of all animals, not just humans) but also the normative evaluation of those impairments. The ‘social model’ of disability, with its emphasis on enablement and stigma, tends to focus on the social construction of disability but this is a matter of contention. 

Its application to mental health is even more problematic and note that the elephant in the room about the list is that psychiatric patients have their citizenship habitually constrained lawfully and without trial under ‘mental health law’, so called (Pilgrim and Tomasini, 2012). How is the Equality Act relevant to, or compatible with this, routine authoritarian override from agents of the state? Transgender politics are fraught and unresolved, with advocates of sex-based rights complaining about those politics reflecting a patriarchal “men’s movement” (Brunskill-Evans, 2020). Black feminists did not take kindly to the excesses of secessionist black power in the USA, dominated by a form of religious patriarchy (Allen, 1996; Collins, 2006). 

These are some examples, amongst many, of the divisiveness of identity politics and the zero-sum game of competing claims of personal oppression or victimhood. Psychologists may wish to research the character of those claims and the people who are making them. Despite the risk of psychological reductionism, my view is that complex research task warrants more, not less, psychological understanding. However, the latter requires the co-presence of a moderating and genuine sociological imagination. Without that, psychological reductionism will inevitably follow. 

The wide differences of point of view in the current chaos of identity politics and our ‘culture wars’ warrant considered personal exploration. Also surveys by political psychologists might offer information on fluxing views of the popularity of sub-group opinions today. If psychologists are genuinely interested in the topic of living with inequalities then campaigning for one sub-group will overly narrow their intellectual responsibility. 

Class more than the other nine pre-existing protected characteristics is tautologically about inequality (the clue is in the name), though some feminists make a similar argument and designate sex as a class. If the term inherently signals discrepancies of power, wealth, ownership and standing, then surely psychologists should also be interested in the rich and those in the middle, not just the poor and the powerless. For example, the very rich experience and express personal insecurity (Frank, 2008) and even our royals, with or without cynicism, episodically signal their psychological vulnerability. (In Britain in recent times we have witnessed one prince selling the Big Issue and another campaigning about mental health problems.) 

The search for connectivity with others and the wish to be seen as ‘ordinary’ is common in the super-rich, which is psychologically intriguing and warrants more research. A good role model about being open-minded in our research curiosity was the early work of Marie Jahoda, who included Nazis in her social psychological studies of prejudice. Studying all-comers about living with inequalities is surely our academic duty, which might be clouded and diverted by single issue public policy lobbying. 

Thus there is plenty for psychologists to work with, while retaining their tenuous disciplinary unity with its compromises about methodology. My view though is that before that exercise, psychologists should take a peek into what other disciplines have already achieved in relation to psycho-social insights, so that wheels are not re-invented. More importantly, in this case they may wish to reflect carefully on the risks of being swept along by the current norms of their own wider context, with its confusing wrong turn into the conservative cul-de-sac of identity politics. 

Studying identity politics (or the psychological character of ‘protected characteristics’) on the one hand, and embracing a campaigning loyalty to them as citizens on the other, are different matters. If they become conflated then surely the latter will undermine the former. Empirical detachment is particularly challenging in human science, because we are part of our own embedding context. The task is not impossible but it is difficult. This is the very reason why we need to reflect upon the best way to maximise its limits, when producing knowledge claims and defending respectful free expression about their merits. 

Today self-censorship in the academy has mirrored the wider acceptance of the suppression of freedom of expression, which might create a sense of temporary virtue but is not healthy for either knowledge production or democracy. Reflexivity includes humility, not certainty, and requires us to respect those we do not particularly like, as a focus of our academic curiosity. By contrast, identity politics demands that traditional cautions about ad hominem reasoning are dismissed and then actually inverted, with epistemological privilege, ‘perspectivism’ and the ‘logic of the trial’ now defining legitimacy. If we wish, as citizens, to indulge in identity politics campaigns that is a personal option. However, we do so at our peril, if we also want to retain credibility as human scientists.

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"The Psychologist", Board of Trustees, Governance

In the name of God, go!

David Pilgrim posts….

The BPS surely has reached a point where Cromwell’s advice applies. The leadership needs to go and a new regime installed. Many people in recent times have been perplexed and angry, in equal measure, when trying to hold power to account in the BPS.  Harry Truman may have had a notice on his desk saying ‘The buck stops here’, but that stricture went long ago in modern leadership. We are now in neoliberal narcissistic times. What does ‘taking full responsibility’ actually mean any more in public life? Boris Johnson and Sarb Bajwa seem to me to be peas from the same pod.

Many in Bajwa’s position might have been sacked on the very day that the large fraud under their watch was first exposed, but he was not. The Board of ‘Trustees’ suspended him (along with the Finance Director who smartly jumped ship in a month to be the Finance Director of the National Lottery Community Fund).  But those ‘Trustees’ were culpable in the mismanagement of the fraud and so the survival of Bajwa is only one matter to reflect upon. In the future they may well be subject to legacy liability.

The Board knew of the fraud in January 2020 but the two at the top were not suspended until November. What were the Board doing in all those months? What were the toing and froing Presidents (Murphy and McLaughlin) doing in relation to the material fact of the fraud in that interim period? Whatever it was, the membership was certainly not kept informed. The ever biddable Psychologist retained its complicit silence. A few close onlookers, realising what was happening, were torn between George Orwell and Lewis Carroll for apposite literary allusions.  

Bajwa, with the full confidence of the Board, returned after paid leave for a year.  He defaulted to his old confident ways, aided and abetted now by the ‘election’ of an illegitimate President, who replaced the stitched up and spat out Nigel MacLennan.  The latter being of personal integrity, and seeking proper transparency for members, would not be tolerated for too long, which proved to be the case. The cabal conspired successfully to expel him and this was not the suspended CEO’s responsibility, even if much else was and still is.

More bullshit from the top in 2022

Bajwa’s joint statement with Katherine Carpenter looked to a shiny future, turning their faces in personal convenience away from a dismal past. Truth and reconciliation were clearly not going to be on the cards for them, as that would require a thorough and open historical appraisal of organisational failure.  At this point, once more take your pick between the sense making of Orwell or Carroll. 

The bullshit of their joint piece in (you guessed it) The Psychologist (January 2022: 4-5) is extraordinary even by recent standards in the BPS. They remind us of ‘the importance of placing listening and sharing at the heart of everything we do.’ Really? Keywords recur in management rhetoric today including: ‘challenges’; ‘beating heart’; ‘rainbow spectrum’; ‘broad church’; ‘united mission’; ‘culture of togetherness’ (the clichés just keep on coming and they are all there in this piece ). Somebody actually sits down and writes this drivel – is there a handbook for managers they crib from? But the best is kept till last, given recent events. This appears in print and for the historical record on page 5:

We can commit from the outset, however, always to do our best to communicate openly and transparently, and to be the sharer of good news and bad. This will take courage, but we both believe that by pledging our full accountability to our members, we can only strengthen the trust between us. This is our commitment-please join us!

During the past two years, the public and BPS members have been kept well and truly in the dark or offered YouTube propaganda about the outcome of a show trial. Are we really supposed to believe a single word of that paragraph? Having said this, the word ‘outset’ might signal that this is a new commitment (like a New Year’s resolution). But, if so, are they implying that they have indeed been doing the very opposite until January 1st 2022?

Carpenter is a senior manager in the NHS. If a scandal, of the scale we are facing surrounding the fraud, were to have occurred in her NHS Trust, there would have been a critical incident report made and a look back exercise announced. The BPS though plays by its own rules and these are made up as it goes along by the cabal. They act, not in the interests of members with the long term reputation of the Society in mind, but in their own. This will become clear with a proper historical reckoning, but until then we are all lumbered with self-interested short-termism.

Never mind that a woman with 17 offences and two prison terms behind her was appointed or that her bosses signed off one after another fraudulent claims. The cabal will just carry on and pretend that nothing of importance has happened. No heads need to roll and no statement required. The vague cliché of ‘lessons learned’ will suffice along with a ‘poor me’ plea that this has been a ‘challenging year’. Well, indeed, it has been extremely challenging for members of the BPS and the general public to find out what has gone on  and who has been personally responsible. So ‘challenging for whom and about what?’, we might all well ask. 

Bajwa as a role model of accountability

Talking of past form, Bajwa has been a poor role model for claimed transparency. His modus operandi has been deceptively simple: when people contact him about a matter that is not to his taste, then he simply does not reply to them. We have, on record, several examples of how mails from both individuals and in multi-signed versions have been simply ignored by Bajwa. Before his suspension, David Marks wrote to him about opening up a proper scrutiny of the Eysenck scandal. (This was twenty five years after the BPS were first contacted about the matter by Anthony Pelosi.) Marks was blanked by Bajwa. Three (sic) years later, after the latter had returned to his role, he still did not reply or apologise. He left it to a subordinate, Rachel Scudamore (Orwellian title, ‘Head of Quality Assurance and Standards’) to offer a viewpoint on the matter, using the first person plural in her token apology. Why did Bajwa not personally apologise in the first person singular? The answer seems to be, ‘because he could’.  

What is the point of being the CEO of any organisation if you are not the final resting place of accountability? In my view, Bajwa has brought more shame on an already shameful organisation. These dilettante managers with no respect for academic values are bringing British psychology into disrepute. In a separate blog piece, we will soon revisit how this standard setting of obfuscation and disrespect for members from the top then affects the staff culture in Leicester and will continue to do so unless there is regime change.

What is to be done?

We have been coy on this blog about making concrete suggestions about what should now happen, given that the cabal and its surrounding dysfunctional regime have survived. With an ex-employee in prison after her recent episode of serial offending, and an expelled malcontent President safely dispatched, the dysfunctional system can roll on uninterrupted. It might survive for a while, even though it is in a form of weak special measures from the Charity Commission. However, nothing lasts and the truth of the shameful recent history of the BPS will be told. 

My personal view is this. Bajwa and the Board of Trustees should now resign and the Charity Commission should appoint an administrator to ensure a democratic charity in full legal and regulatory compliance. True, not faux, Trustees would then be present to work at turning around a discredited shambles of an organisation. New managers could then give due respect to the skills and talents of the membership and ensure true not rhetorical transparency. 

To cite it in full, ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.’ Cromwell’s advice remains sound but the shower running the BPS today will probably cling on to power until the Charity Commission or another legal lever will prise them from their bunker.

Board of Trustees, Financial issues, Governance

“A kid in a candy shop” or scapegoat.

Peter Harvey posts…

The above quote is how Viola Sander, until 2020 Executive Assistant to the CEO of the BPS, described her behaviour when she defrauded the BPS of around £70000. So, if a child runs amok in a tempting sweetshop because the fare is “too tempting”, what is the responsibility of the caregiver or the staff? None at all?

Now that (at least some of) the details of the major fraud have emerged (see Leicester Mercury, 8 February 2022), we can be more open about questioning just what has been going on at the BPS. We plan to disclose even more disturbing information about just how dysfunctional the BPS actually is. Amongst the multitude of questions to be raised in this particular instance, I want to focus on three main areas (1) how Ms Sander was selected and appointed; (2) why the oversight of her activities was so defective; (3) the accountability of her managers.

Just to remind you, Viola Sander had form, as the following extract from the Leicester Mercury makes clear

In 1984 she was prosecuted for a dishonesty offence and using ‘a false instrument’ and in 1998 she was given a 12 month suspended sentence for theft from an employer, the court heard.

That sentence was activated the following year, when she committed further thefts as an employee, and was jailed for a total of 15 months.

In 2006 she was given a community order for stealing from an employer.

In July 2014 she was jailed for two years for defrauding Leicester University out of £30,000.

She has 17 previous crimes to her name.

Selection

The post was Executive Assistant to the CEO – an important post, no doubt – but did its filling actually need to be outsourced to an external agency? The bland statement from the President to The Senate (7 February 2022) tells us that

“…the BPS used an external agency to perform reference checks for new employees…”

I can understand why the most senior posts within the BPS might benefit from being able to access a wider range of potential candidates than standard advertising might do, but this is not at that level. Surely, within the BPS administrative structure, there are able and competent managers part of whose job is to select and appoint staff? In addition, it is hard to comprehend why a psychological society with access to many specialists in organisational and occupational psychology as well as to many senior professionals who have extensive experience of selection, failed to use what expertise it has so readily available. Not only will this catastrophic failure have cost a good deal of money (from members’ subscriptions, of course) and caused serious damage the BPS’s reputation, it was quite unnecessary. Who authorised and approved the use of an external agency? Who chose the agency? What tendering and evaluation of the various bids took place? Who oversaw the process and was responsible for signing off the short-list? Did anyone actually check whether admission of previous criminal activity was included in the selection criteria (she is quoted as saying that she never told anyone because no-one asked)? What redress has been sought by the BPS from the agency? And who in the BPS hierarchy has been disciplined for gross negligence? And who, of those clearly accountable within the BPS, is still in post?

Oversight

This heading should be seen as ironical. Again, from the Leicester Mercury

The criminal activity began in August 2018 and continued until it was discovered in January 2020.

and

…a 17-month crime spree, which involved more than 900 fraudulent transactions.

There is reason to believe that the total amount may be higher than £70000 as there are a number of unaccounted for transactions.

From the Leicester Mercury again

Viola Sander’s underhand activity included spending £26,000 on Amazon purchases as well as £1,470 on hairdos at a Nicky Clarke salon and £450 on a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes.

Her taste for the high life also saw her spend £1,981 on taxis, £1,369 at an opticians, £600 on lingerie while also treating herself to trips to Paris and Frankfurt, a cruise, watches, a sofa and other indulgences

Was there no upper limit to expenditure that needed approval from a senior member of staff? Didn’t procedures within the BPS require that any expenditure over £1000 needed prior authorisation? Was there a level within the BPS at which non-compliance with procedures was routine? To say that there was a failure of oversight is something of an understatement. Were full and detailed receipts submitted? Were they elegant forgeries, crude alterations or simply non-existent? And if they were, who at Director level signed them off?  Did no-one smell a rat? Did any junior staff become suspicious? If so, did they feel safe to raise them with those above them? Or did they raise them and they were ignored? Who was Ms Sander ultimately accountable to? Has anyone else within the organisation been disciplined for incompetence?

Accountability

Someone in the BPS was managerially responsible for this employee – she reported to someone. Someone in the BPS was responsible for scrutinising receipts and expenses claims. Someone in the BPS was responsible for the day-to-day monitoring of finances. Someone in the BPS has the responsibility to ensure the financial probity of the organisation.  Who set up and monitored the financial controls and procedures? We understand that there had been a previous recent (unconnected) fraud following which strict financial controls were put in place. Were these followed or was there a culture of non-compliance? Would it be too much to suggest that the ultimate financial management the organisation starts with the Director of Finance (DoF)? The CEO and DoF were suspended after the discovery of the fraud. However, the DoF left soon after that as reported by the Third Sector 

“…it was revealed that the charity’s chief executive, Sarb Bajwa, was on “extended leave”, according to the charity, and its director of finance and resources, Harnish Hadani, resigned in December 2020 to start a new role.

Note that the resignation of the DoF took place whilst he was suspended. So one of the key individuals who would be able to throw some light onto this murky affair is not available for comment. This is particularly important as his Linkedin page records that, during his time as Executive Director of Finance and Resources at the BPS, he was responsible for  

“…finance, human resources, facilities and procurement.”

We believe that he is currently CFO/Finance Director of the National Lottery Community Fund.

But others must take their share of responsibility too. These are the Trustees. One of the key tasks of Trustees of a charity is 

As a trustee you must take steps to make sure that your charity’s money is safe, properly used and accounted for. Every trustee has to do this. Even if your charity has an expert to manage its finances, you are still responsible for overseeing your charity’s money

So however much they might want to distance themselves, each and every one of the Trustees in post during the time of the fraud bears some responsibility.

We have identified in other posts (see here and here) the significant failure of the BPS to ensure the true independence of Trustees. The Board, as currently constituted, is simply made up of members with multiple roles in the BPS and long-serving BPS junkies. I would suggest that a truly independent Board with expertise and insights into the actual management of a large organisation and with nothing to lose by rocking the boat, might have avoided this scandalAnd note that the proposal for three new trustees outlined in the Charter changes goes nowhere near far enough to remedy this problem.

This is a shameful and sorry reflection on the British Psychological Society.  And we need to remember that the Vice-President (President during the time of fraud), in his resignation letter, stated that he had 

“… repeatedly raised concerns about aspects of the management of the Society and inadequacies in the oversight the Board has provided.”

and, further

“I believe this has also been evidenced in the failure to communicate openly with members or staff about the issue of irregular expenses payments made to a former member of staff and the serious inadequacies of financial controls that were identified in the subsequent external investigation…”

The President-Elect (who could not possibly have been involved in this), who set out his stall to change and reform matters, was cruelly hounded out of his elected position and publicly vilified. This dysfunctional and misgoverned Society needs radical reform which won’t happen either by glossing over past problems or by aspirational Pollyanna statements (see here). In their joint statement to the membership, the President and the recently returned CEO stated

“…we will need to be open, flexible, and reflective to meet these challenges. We can commit from the outset, however, always to do our best to communicate openly and transparently, and to be the sharer of good news and bad.”

If we are to take this seriously then they can start by being open and transparent about all of what has gone on with this case. And despite the continued references to the “…last twelve months..” we would remind you that many of the problems identified here have existed for years and remain unexamined and unacknowledged. Perhaps now would be good time to put these claims of openness to the test.

Board of Trustees, Governance

THE ONGOING CONFLICTS OF INTEREST AT THE CENTRE OF THE BRITISH PSYCHOLOGICAL SOCIETY – AN OPEN LETTER 

David Pilgrim has sent this letter to the President, the SMT, the editor of The Psychologist and to various journalists who have an interest in what is going on in the BPS. He has also sent it to the Charity Commission.

To whom it may concern

The incipient reform (in January 2022) of the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the British Psychological Society (BPS), to now include three properly independent members, is welcomed. It is a reactive signal that all is not well with the structure at the centre of a putative learned body and registered charity. 

Sadly it does not go far enough, if the BPS is to regain and retain public trust and that of its members. Many have been trying, and failing, to make this point about the needed radical root and branch reform of the governance of the Society in recent times. They have been ignored or dismissed as malcontents.  A large fraud now subject to sentencing in the Crown Court, and the disappearance of three Presidents (one expelled and two resigned over a two month period in 2021) are symptomatic of the most recent crisis in a long troubled organisation.

The culture of misgovernance, which has enabled both financial wrongdoing and policy capture, has been afforded by a blatant structural problem, dating back to the Royal Charter of 1965. At that time a BoT was required, but its precise membership not defined a priori. In 1987 a second bite of the cherry was offered but not taken, when the Royal Charter was revised. This has meant that for over fifty years the Society has been run by a BoT with no public involvement and where conflicts of interest have been inherent: we have had faux-Trustees not the real thing. To date the BoT has been constituted wholly from within the BPS, with external scrutiny being missing completely.

Any good charity knows that they should appoint Trustees, who are fully independent of the workings of the organisation (and the people involved as employees or volunteers). A Trustee should be defined by their ability to walk away from the role, with no personal disadvantage (of money, status, personal goals or cognitive/political interests). Given that under current arrangements all of the Trustees have conflicts of interest, then this criterion of independence has failed continually. The incumbents, as appointees from Boards and other sub-systems, should be accountable to Trustees not be Trustees themselves. The Presidential triumvirate is an important democratic counter-balance, but note that even this is from the membership not the general public.

Until the BoT is reformed fully in line with this point of best practice about Trustee independence, recommended by the Charity Commission, then the cultural legacy of poor governance and its adverse consequences are likely to persist. This and related points will be discussed at length in a book soon to appear, which I am editing: The Crisis of British Psychology: A Case Study in Organisational Dysfunction (Phoenix Press). 

Sincerely

Dr David Pilgrim 

"The Psychologist", Academic freedom and censorship, Board of Trustees, Ethics, Governance

Is an authentic history of the BPS possible?

This post has been modified to include an addendum (shown after the references) to include feedback received since the original posting = Blog Administrator (8 January 2022).

David Pilgrim posts….

During 2021 the large fraud in the BPS was dismissed as a minor footnote in the Society’s accounts. Three elected Presidents disappeared over a two month period. Two resigned and another was expelled after a kangaroo court and a rigged appeal. In the interim period between the latter two events, he was publicly disparaged in a YouTube video. 

For most of the year the CEO was suspended in the wake of the fraud. A temporary President was drafted in, with the help of a contrived illegitimate election, to bolster the diminishing credibility of the Board of Trustees. The Psychologist played its faithful role, as ‘the magazine of the British Psychological Society’, in what it reported and, more importantly, what it did not.

In the midst of these political events, poorly explored in public, there was another that went under the radar.  An over-worked and under-paid part time archivist, in the History of Psychology Centre (HoPC) resigned, leaving it with no academic director or archiving staff and an uncertain future. Although the HoPC is not the singular route to build up a history of British psychology, it is fairly important. Accordingly, its sustainability, as a vaunted part of the BPS, is crucial for scholarly activity both inside and outside the Society. 

The SMT have done little or nothing to protect it in recent years. Their mind has probably been elsewhere, managing the crisis they both inherited and amplified. One tactical option they seem to have chosen is to suppress history and to be evasive about their own detailed accountability. If that interpretation is correct then their motivation to support a proper history, especially recent history, will be weak or absent.

Whatever else we might say about the BPS, it is not a learning organisation. That aspiration would entail organisational norms, which celebrated transparency and honest reflection about current problems and their antecedents. Many of the postings on this blog have explored failures of probity and the evasion of learning from them on the part of the SMT and Board of Trustees. Here I want to just focus on the possibility of a history of the BPS.

Celebratory and critical histories

Until the middle of the 20th century, British psychology was expanding slowly and loosening itself from the constraints of both medicine and philosophy. Early historical accounts, such as that of my old teacher, Lesley Hearnshaw, paid little critical attention to the Society and focused mainly on epistemological tensions (Hearnshaw, 1964). His task was empirical: map out what could be discerned to date about theory and findings, within the strengths and weaknesses of the British empiricist tradition. A critical take on that history awaited (cf. Pilgrim and Patel, 2015).

At that juncture, some early signs of malaise had to be acknowledged during historical uncovering. Hearnshaw was a friend of Cyril Burt and began to write a celebratory history of his work after his death in 1971. As the proofs were being prepared, accusations were emerging of Burt falsifying data and people. Hearnshaw had, as an old fashioned honest scholar, to re-write his ending. Hagiography had to be replaced with Burt being damned with faint praise. He had been President of the BPS (1941-1943). He was the trusty servant of the eugenic tradition developed by Pearson and Spearman at University College London. He was the main man in the mid-20th century.. He was a public intellectual promoting an elitist eugenic view of human nature and he was not challenged by his peers of the time (Chamarette, 2019). At that time he was Mr British Psychology.

Burt succeeded Spearman as Professor of Psychology at University College in 1932. He always maintained the Spearman-Pearson position on ‘innate general cognitive ability’, which could be ‘objectively determined and measured’ (Burt, 1909). After the Second World War, he shaped the structure of British schooling and his advice to policy makers was well received in his Eugenics Society lecture (Burt, 1946).

Hearnshaw sadly had to record Burt’s fall from grace for the first time, leaving others to squabble over the best post-mortem (Hearnshaw, 1979; cf. Mackintosh, 1995).  These efforts reflected efforts to respect the Popperian hope that science is self-correcting, via falsification and open contestation about findings and interpretation. In recent years, psychology in Britain and elsewhere has faced two challenges in this regard. The first is the replication crisis and the second relates to cheating; at times in psychology and other disciplines these have overlapped. 

The Burt scandal reflected badly not only on British eugenics and British psychology but also on the BPS itself, given his past Presidential role. The force of eugenic psychology meant that ideology preceded findings; Hearnshaw used the phrase accurately from logical philosophy of Burt ‘begging the question’ (Pilgrim, 2008). Findings were co-opted selectively and then massaged (or invented) to maintain a pre-existing ideological position. This drama has repeated recently in the critique of Burt’s student, Hans Eysenck. 

At the time of writing I understand that this matter is being reviewed by a group in the Society.  Eysenck’s implausible findings about cancer and personality were reviewed by King’s College (KCL). Eysenck successfully courted funding from the tobacco companies. In exchange he offered them the comforting theory that cancer-proneness and addictive tendencies were inherited. The narrative of these coming together to account for lung cancer incidence could then displace the idea that big business was encouraging addiction for profit and was the source of a major public health problem. Favourable research might augment cigarette marketing.

In 2019 the KCL review* of Eysenck’s work concluded that it was ‘unsafe’ and incompatible with expectations of good clinical research. Criticisms of this work had been known since the 1990s and eventually lobbying from those like Anthony Pelosi prompted the KCL review and the incipient look back from the BPS (Pelosi, 2019).  

An organisation without a memory?

Will the BPS be forced to deal (eventually) with the Eysenck question, as they had in days gone by to deal with Burt and his dubious findings? The jury is out for now, but the following might be relevant to note. The editor of the Journal of Health Psychology, David Marks, wrote to Sarb Bajwa in November 2018 asking for the BPS to take its responsibilities seriously about Eysenck, and received no reply. 

Three years of radio silence later and after a prompt, Marks still had no reply from the CEO but he did get a response from Rachel Scudamore (‘Head of Quality Assurance and Standards’) apologising for Bajwa’s inaction. She opted to use the first person plural to avoid a third person accusation of her manager. 

Why Bajwa did not reply apologetically himself is not known. However, it was a time when those at the centre of the BPS would quite often fail to reply to concerns. (We have reported this norm of contempt from the centre in previous postings, often about very serious matters.) One manifestation of secrecy at the centre of the BPS has been a casual indifference to membership inquiries and concerns. 

As is often the case with scenarios like this, when trying to communicate with the powers that be in the BPS, we enter an Alice in Wonderland World, while being asked to take those leading the Society seriously. Credulousness is demanded in the face of the incredible material facts. The BPS until proved otherwise, is a self-deceiving and secretive bureaucracy. For now, with its governance unreformed and a cabal culture normalised, it is an organisation without a memory (cf. Donaldson, 2002).

This much we can say

In light of the above we can see a pattern of a rhetoric of history being taken seriously, alongside evasiveness in practice about any meaningful historical reflection. The HoPC has great rhetorical value for the BPS: just go onto the website and see it there as a key advertising feature for an alleged learned body. For now, like with much that is claimed from the cabal, this is bullshit. 

The casual use of censorship by the cabal and the biddable role of The Psychologist reflect a disdain for academic freedom. Even if the HoPC were to be rescued from its near oblivion, what chance it developing and defending a critical, rather than a sycophantic and celebratory, history of the BPS? Will the SMT bother to finance such an academically independent Centre? Alternatively, will they continue to let it wither on the vine, while retaining its vacuous image cynically on the website? The BPS has huge reserves, some of which are being squandered on a poorly justified ‘Change Programme’ to the tune of (at least) £6 million. ‘Spare some change for the HoPC, governor?’ ‘Sorry mate, busy spending it elsewhere.’

As for the Eysenck review, we are all curious to watch its development. Though never given a Fellowship of the BPS, his leading role in British psychology has to be acknowledged by friend and foe alike. After his death in 1997 an annual memorial lecture was set up in his honour in the Society. It sits proudly in celebration of the British eugenic tradition, alongside the Spearman Medal. 

Some have already queried the point of mulling over Eysenck’s flawed work (maybe like digging up Cromwell’s body and chopping off his head during The Restoration in 1661) (Hall and Scarnà, 2019). However, if the BPS cannot pronounce on the integrity of Eysenck’s work then who else can? Maybe the review of these alleged sins of the past is a convenient diversion from those of the present. Either way, his own words might be an ethical guide:

I always felt that a scientist owes the world only one thing, and that is the truth as he (sic) sees it. If the truth contradicts deeply held beliefs, that is too bad. Tact and diplomacy are fine in international relations, in politics, perhaps even in business; in science only one thing matters, and that is the facts. (Eysenck, 1990: 229)

The KCL reviewers were unimpressed by the facts he favoured. At the time of writing, fourteen retractions from journals have been recorded of Eysenck’s work. His critics trace problems going back to just after the Second World War. Their vulnerability lies in Eysenck’s eugenic thought, repeating the problem of his mentor. A contradiction of his approach was that he was both a methodological behaviourist and a biogenetic ideologue. His cancer work reflected that: heredity accounted for causes but the treatment of patients warranted CBT (behaviour therapy was its ‘first wave’.) 

How the BPS review of Eysenck’s work exactly came into being, and who was chosen to be part of it, remains a mystery. As with much that goes on in the BPS we will never know. Groups emerge by grace and favour and a tap on the shoulder to candidates who will not rock the boat.  Given the preference of the CEO and the illegitimate President to look forwards, Pollyanna fashion, and never backwards, the prospect of an honest history of the BPS in the recent past looks slim indeed (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-35/january-2022/president-and-chief-executive).

Conclusion

The Burt and Eysenck examples show that historical clarifications, guided by Popperian criteria of scientific correction and probity, are not easy, but they are at least possible in an open democratic society. Sadly it looks as though currently the BPS does not have the intellectual culture to deliver the same expectation. Toxic managerialism and a lack of independent trustees (a structural fault traceable to 1965 and not rectified when the opportunity arose in 1988) have suppressed, rather than celebrated, the obligation to learn from experience in the public interest. 

Anti-intellectualism, censorship, secrecy, PR, spin, impression management and rigged expulsions and elections, for now dominate the decision-making priorities of the leadership. As a consequence, bullshit constantly displaces implausible claims of transparency. Maybe we will have to look outside for an authentic historical reckoning. It may have to come from the courts and investigative journalists. 

References

Burt, C.L. (1946) Intelligence and fertility. Eugenics Society Occasional Papers Number 2.

Burt, C.L. (1909) Experimental tests of general intelligence. British Journal of Psychology III 94-107.

Chamarette, M. (2019) Psychologists as public intellectuals: Cyril Burt at the BBC in the 1930s. Stories of Psychology Meeting organised by the History of Psychology Centre, November 7th.

Donaldson, L. (2002) An organisation with a memory. Clinical Medicine 2, 5, 524-7.

Eysenck, H.J. (1990) Rebel With A Cause London: Transaction

Hall, J. and Scarnà, A. (2019) An aggravating controversialist or ahead of his time? The Psychologist November, 32, 5.

Hearnshaw, L.S. (1979) Cyril Burt: Psychologist Icatha NY: Cornell University Press.

Hearnshaw, L.S. (1964) A Short History of British Psychology London: Methuen.

Pelosi, A.J. (2019). Personality and fatal diseases: revisiting a scientific scandal. Journal of Health Psychology, 24(4), 421-439

Pilgrim, D. (2008) The eugenic legacy in psychology and psychiatry. International Journal of Social Psychiatry 54, 3, 272-284.

Pilgrim, D. and Patel, N. (2015) The emergence of clinical psychology in the British post-war context. In J. Hall, D. Pilgrim and G. Turpin (eds) Clinical Psychology in Britain: Historical Perspectives HoPC Monograph No 2. Leicester: BPS.

Mackintosh, N.J. (ed) (1995) Cyril Burt: Fraud or Framed? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

* The Institute of Psychiatry, where Eysenck worked, was subsumed into KCL in 1997, hence that College of the University of London now being the academic ‘owner’ of his legacy. 

Addendum

This post has prompted email feedback from colleagues. I am grateful to them for the following minor corrections and their invited clarifications.

1. The archivist who resigned in 2021 was now, I understand, full-time not part-time. She left behind an assistant to work on her own in Leicester. To date the review group, set up three years ago to reinvigorate the HoPC still has had no formal commitment from the CEO or SMT to support an academic director, who would be guaranteed full autonomy in their role. To my knowledge no meeting has taken place in the interim between the Chair of the review group and the CEO. I understand from anonymous sources that a consultant may be imported temporarily to advise on archiving. However, I have been unable to confirm this possibility and its source, if any, in SMT decision making. (A theme on this blog is the arcane nature of decision making at the centre of the BPS.) We would of course welcome a full and clear update from the CEO or the ‘Director of Knowledge and Insight’ about their intentions about the ailing HoPC. I would put a very low probability of this happening, as the SMT have opted for a wilful and consistent policy of non-engagement with us. I have also sent a letter about my concerns about the HoPC to the ‘Director of Knowledge and Insight’ (copying to the CEO). Based on past trends, there is little likelihood that I will receive a reply. Currently I am Honorary General Secretary of the History and Philosophy Section but I sent my letter in a personal capacity. The Section will of course be taking all of the above matters seriously in relation to the vulnerability of the HoPC now and its future prospects.

2. The Spearman Medal has now been abandoned by the BPS in the face of criticisms about its eugenic roots. It was awarded finally in 2020 but, note, was only set up in 1962. The latter date reflects a mainstream commitment to the eugenic tradition in British psychology well after the Second World War. The British Eugenics Society changed its name to the Galton Institute in 1989. This euphemistic naming and the current rationale for the Institute can be found on its website. In 2020 University College London, removed the names of Galton and Pearson from its rooms and buildings.

"The Psychologist", Board of Trustees, Governance

More bullshit about a shiny new future

David Pilgrim posts….

Readers of The Psychologist (first edition of the New Year) may or may not be inspired by the joint piece from Katherine Carpenter (BPS President) and Sarb Bajwa (BPS CEO), who are offering to lead us into a shiny new future. Your credulity is likely to rely on your answers to two starting questions. First, do you believe that the future of any system can be invented without reference to the reality of its past? Second, do you have grounds for trusting those currently leading the Society? My view is that both invite a negative response and here is why.

The future detached from the past

In open systems (and all human systems are open systems) future predictions are difficult. Nothing can be ruled out or ruled in for certain, apart from our individual deaths. However, systems theorists making this point (e.g. Bateson, 1972; Wilden, 1972) also recognise that there are ‘patterns that connect through time’. We can only make sense of the present by a careful description and appraisal of the past. If we do not, then we do so at our peril. The well-known cliché and truism is the adage from George Santayana, that “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” An equally relevant insight came from George Orwell in 1984: “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.” In this case, those controlling the present are silencing the past and imagining a future that ipso facto cannot be gainsaid.

The piece from Carpenter and Bajwa was accompanied by a reassuring photograph of them side by side. This must be a very recent snap, because the CEO has just returned to his office after a year’s suspension, in the wake of the large fraud being investigated internally, and externally by the Leicestershire police. For those still in the dark, the initial magistrate’s hearing of the ex-employee is in January. The progress of the case will be tracked by journalists but an account in The Psychologist is probably unlikely.

Carpenter, was installed to replace the stitched up and spat out President Elect, Nigel MacLennan, during Bajwa’s paid absence. So this new alliance at the top of the organisation has leapt into action quickly to make the best of a bad job. Remember that Carpenter’s election debarred the membership voting for any of their peers as is the norm; only those on the Board of Trustees (BoT) or Senate could be candidates. The BoT just made this rule up to suit themselves at the time. In my view, and that of many now, Carpenter is an illegitimate President.

Maybe this sounds harsh or unfair, until we place the joint statement in a wider historical context; the very exercise being avoided by the two sources of central power in the Society, for now. It is silent about the details of both the current political mess and its relevant antecedents. The usual vague statements about shared difficulties in recent times are there. It is true that we have all been in the same Covid-19 boat, even if some of us have had a better cabin or window seat. But what about the political meltdown of 2020? Did we all just imagine it?  Carpenter and Bajwa are coy about this, so this is what happened, for the understandably uninformed. 

Bajwa was suspended and then returned after 12 months (sic). The BoT fully supported his return in November. However, note carefully, the Board are not independent Trustees. Since 1965 the latter status has been totally absent in the BPS. That is (one reason) why the Charity Commission remain ‘engaged’ with the BPS , though the former are being slow in their efforts and the latter seem to be oblivious to the moral and legal implications of their non-compliance to date.  The BoT are, though, accountable for their responsibilities in relation to financial probity, so the fraud must have been an unnerving scenario for them. Even resigning is not an answer because Trustees still have a ‘legacy liability’. Leaving the sinking ship is not a personal solution for Trustees, even if it may have a protective value for employees who have moved on.

With regard to the elephant in the room of independence, those involved in a charitable organization (as employees or volunteers) should be accountable to Trustees. Instead, in the BPS the ‘Trustees’ are appointed from within the organization or (in the case of the Presidential triumvirate elected but from the membership not the external public). Thus they may be Trustees, as self-defined since 1965 in the Royal Charter of the Society, but they are not properly independent and so they cannot offer impartial oversight, in accordance with expectations of good governance in a charity today.   

Even for well-intentioned people, of good faith, in the BPS these faux-trustees will inevitably have conflicts of interest. The latter are endemic to the culture of the BPS. An independent Trustee, in any charity, is one who is able to walk away from the role with no personal implications for their income, career or vested interests. This basic expectation is missing in the BPS and it has had, and continues to have, dysfunctional consequences. 

Untrustworthy leaders

Thus a structural flaw inherited from 1965 has now afforded a dysfunctional leadership culture. This well predated the additional dynamics triggered by the installation of a highly paid Senior Management Team after 2018. It is tempting to reduce the recent crisis to its appearance. Yes some of them are carpetbaggers with little or no historical understanding of British psychology or academic values.  They may well flit in and out of the Society. Yes, they indulged in arm wrestling with the BoT about who was running the BPS, that is until the meltdown created by the fraud. Then they had to spin their way out of the problem together. Yes, they colluded with the BoT in a kangaroo court to ruin the career of an honest man trying to deal with the misgovernance he had correctly identified. The scapegoating of the whistle blower Nigel MacLennan, on trumped up charges, served to create an ephemeral moment of seeming unity at the top.

All of this is true. If it is not true then a full and frank account from the SMT or BoT for the membership would be most welcomed and we will post it on this blog. However, the systemic problem in the BPS (Bateson’s ‘pattern that connects through time’) predates 2018. If a determined historian, forensic accountant or investigative journalist were to try to describe events in their entirety in the Society in the past 30 years, they would be considerably challenged for two reasons. 

First, a letter of permission would be required to access all the minutes of all the Boards (but especially the BoT). Second, and of more relevance, if that permission were granted they would find minutes that were skeletal, with important information absent or massaged to create the correct impression. This is not just about post hoc redactions. It is also what was chosen by those at meetings to record. Most readers will have witnessed the ‘this is not for minuting’ moment in many meetings in their careers. However, that tendency will have been in overdrive in the past decades of the BPS for its leaders to maintain, albeit implausibly, a ‘problem what problem?’ stance for so long.

Whether we examine the official accounts of the old oligarchy running the BPS (e.g. The Psychologist, 2017; The Psychologist, 2006) or the SMT driven-impression management more recently (to ‘control the narrative’) there has been no bad news forthcoming. When it has been hinted at, it has either been diversionary (e.g. forget the mess we created and look at our shared victimhood about Covid-19) or so vague that it is meaningless.

For example, when in that ill-advised performance Carol McGuinness read out the disparagement of Nigel MacLennan in advance of his appeal, there were vague allusions to a challenging year and being at a cross-roads. This YouTube clip available to the general public, link conveniently provided by the ever-biddable editor of The Psychologist, was an extraordinary exercise in bullshit. 

Did McGuinness tell us why the year had been challenging? No. Did she tell us what the directions on the signpost said? No. Did she tell us the relevant substance about why MacLennan has been expelled? No. Did she mention that the BPS was facing a scandal about a large fraud? No. Did she explain just how the BoT was going to respond properly and in good faith to the requests for governance change from the Charity Commission? No. Did she explain why it was worth spending £6 million on an ill-formulated ‘Change Programme’, installed without full consultation by the SMT? No. Did she mention the NCVO observation about a toxic culture in the BPS? No. Did she mention the resignation of David Murphy and his concerns about governance and finance? No. The BPS lost three elected Presidents in a period of two months in 2021, making Oscar Wilde’s comments on losing two parents a lesser joke in comparison. The list of silences goes on and on.

This context of obfuscation provides ordinary members with few grounds for vertical trust in the BPS. It is important to contrast that problem with horizontal trust. Those in say local branches or Sections tend to develop good collegial relationships with their volunteer peers and they have to suffer little or no bullshit from one another. That horizontal trust might even at times tempt some sub-systems to break away from the main body (see my conclusions below).

Bullshit then is everything that is said and not said for the powerful to remain in power. What chance then our imaginary researcher being able to grasp the recent historical picture of how the BPS has functioned at the centre in the past few decades? This question has both an empirical aspect, with its implied methodological challenge, and an ethical one about the emergence of a longstanding culture of amorality at the centre of the BPS. 

The History of Psychology Centre

If you go on to the BPS website one of the little boxes you can open is about the History of Psychology Centre. This is a personal interest (I am a past Chair of the History & Philosophy Section and its current Honorary Secretary). In that Section we are keen to encourage a serious (i.e. bullshit- free) interest in the history of British psychology and the BPS. That part of the website has many gaps and there is clearly still much un-archived material. This is not the fault of the few people doing the archiving to date, who have been over-worked and underpaid.

If we dig deeper we find a concern about political and budgetary priorities in the BPS. The Centre has struggled on for years now with a part-time archivist, technically challenged by a transitional period between hard copy and digital material to deal with. The BoT (via the Research Board) has done absolutely nothing to reinvigorate the Centre and the SMT have ignored it as a political priority. It needs more than one full time archivist and an academic director, whose role independence is guaranteed in advance. (Given the compromised role of the editor of The Psychologist, this should stand as a warning about the need for an arms-length approach to a scholarly history of the Society.) 

This point about reinvigorating the Centre and its guaranteed academic protection has been made several times from those of us in the History & Philosophy Section to no avail. The Centre remains in a parlous state (the part-time archivist has recently left and not been replaced). Compare the lack of funding of the Centre with other BoT preferences, such as the controversial £6 million change programme, paid lawyers to advise on the expulsion of critics or the campaign to regain registration powers by encouraging new members in the mental health workforce, who are not psychology graduates. The costs noted here are direct (large amounts of the members’ subscriptions or the Society’s reserves) and indirect (the transactional time involved for all concerned). The History of Psychology Centre has been ignored as an organizational priority in this context of tellingly preferred projects.

A final ideological reflection

Here is a final summary thought then on the ideological point I am making here. This is gleaned from what is called, in the technical jargon of philosophy, an ‘omissive critique’ (Pilgrim, 2020). Why do we ask some questions but not others? Why do we invest time, effort and money on some goals and policies but not others? Why do we support and enlarge this part of the organizational structure but not that part? Turning that skeptical reflection on what has been happening in the BPS, and which priorities its leaders have emphasized at the expense of others, the shiny vision from Katherine Carpenter and Sarb Bajwa bears legitimate scrutiny. 

They are part of a cabal that for now is letting the History of Psychology Centre wither on the vine, while retaining it on the website for its semiotic value of creating the impression of a learned society. They have other pressing priorities, willfully ignoring the advice of Santayana and evading the foreboding view of Orwell. They want us to look forwards not back, because that is politically expedient to preserve the status quo for those enjoying power in a purported learned Society with diminishing credibility. Moreover, the BPS seems to be incapable for now of being a learningorganization. 

A learning organization requires honesty not bullshit, and candour about past failures (Sheaff and Pilgrim, 2006). It has to be ‘an organization with a memory’, not one of conveniently contrived amnesia and the crude escapism about imagined futures.  Without this honest reckoning about the past, the BPS will be in terminal decline as a credible body, claiming to represent British psychology in its disciplinary and professional forms.  

In 2000 many in the Division of Occupational Psychology  left the Society to form the Association of Business Psychologists (renamed ‘Psychology’ in 2003). In 2017 disaffected members in the Division of Clinical Psychology left to form the Association of Clinical Psychologists.  Both groups were tired of dealing with an arcane bureaucracy, with its self-interested leadership, which had lost its way and was insensitive to the needs of its members. That fractious fracturing may be the harbinger of a dark future for the Society, no matter what the illegitimate President and the returning CEO are saying in their Pollyanna piece in the New Year of 2022.  

Bateson, G. (1972) Steps To An Ecology of Mind San Francisco: Chandler.

Pilgrim, D. (2020) Critical Realism for Psychologists London: Routledge.

Sheaff, R. and Pilgrim, D. (2006) Can learning organisations survive in the newer NHS? Implementation Science 1, 27.

The Psychologist (2022) Joint statement to the BPS membership from the President-Elect Katherine Carpenter and the CEO, Sarb Bajwa. January 4-5.

The Psychologist (2017) Always cheerful and positive. Carole Allan’s appreciation for the British Psychological Society’s retiring Chief Executive. November, 30, 2.

The Psychologist (2006) Double top – Ray Miller in discussion with Tim Cornford: The Society’s new President in discussion with the Chief Executive. How do their roles work together, and where do they see the Society going? April, 19, 20-21.

Wilden, A. (1972) System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange London: Tavistock.

Board of Trustees, Governance

A Tale of Two Societies

Peter Harvey posts….

Not only am I am member of the BPS (at least for the time being), I am also an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS).  This latter organisation has been through something of a crisis in recent years, not dissimilar to that experienced by the BPS. What is striking, however, is the way in what each body has managed these, most particularly in terms of openness, transparency and honesty: regular readers of our blog will not be surprised that these words are not applicable to the BPS but they characterise the RPS’s approach. To illustrate this, I have (with permission) extracted parts of the recent address [I have a full copy which I will forward if you contact the blog] given by the President of the RPS, Simon Hill, Hon FRPS.

Early on, he says that he has something of great importance to discuss…

This is something that has plagued the RPS for many years yet is vital to the successful continuance and sustainability of the RPS … and that is its governance. 

Events that took place two years ago, in the run-up to our 2019 Trustee election, forced a re-evaluation of our model of governance. These events have, for the past two years, been the ‘elephant in the room’ at Board of Trustee meetings. I intend to use this, my first President’s Address, to finally set free the elephant so that the new Board can, unencumbered, deliver on its purposes. 

And so, to the elephant. At our AGM in September 2019 the RPS reached a low point in its delivery of effective governance with the conclusion of an election that, to many, appeared compromised and fundamentally flawed. A President Elect and a Treasurer were appointed, each from a field of only one candidate (not the best demonstration of democracy in action); three Trustees were appointed from what appeared, to many, to be a cohort of four candidates campaigning on a single ticket and utilising what was considered to be inappropriate use of RPS media channels.

Now, whilst there are differences in the detail, the broad summary rings familiar bells to those of us in the BPS. But what a difference in the open and upfront manner in which the problem is stated – no flannel, weasel words, bullshit or management-speak. How very different to the recent pronouncement from those at the top of the BPS.

He continues..

Such was member dissatisfaction with the 2019 election that an independent inquiry was commissioned to consider the election process and to ensure a more democratic process for future Trustee elections. The inquiry was undertaken by Michael King, a retired solicitor and former partner with our lawyers Stone King LLP. Michael has more than 40 years’ experience of charity law and was a founder member of the Charity Law Association. 

Michael published his report on 5 January 2020. This became the Society’s Ecclesiastes 8:6 moment and the Board of Trustees had to seize that moment. The King Report presented the Board with the time and the place to change the model of governance at the RPS and prevent a repeat of the shortcomings of the 2019 election by the crafting of a new set of by-laws which would establish a more relevant and transparent model of governance.

There are two important matters to note in these two short paragraphs. First, that the enquiry was set up quickly, reported back equally quickly and was made available to membership in full. Second, everything is out in the open – who was commissioned, their background and qualifications – as well the wide availability of the report. Although the BPS did commission a report from the NCVO, it was not completed and the NCVO withdrew prematurely, citing issues of psychological safety for it staff [see here]. And we had to find out about both the consultation itself as well as its demise from the media, not from the BPS directly. We are already seeing marked differences in how these two organisations responded. To give this some context, the RPS (although some 50 years older than the BPS) is much smaller (membership of around 10 700 as opposed to over 65 0000 and less asset-rich (£6.5m as opposed to over £21m) but it still managed to target resources, time and energy into the resolution of its problems. In addition, and like the BPS, it is dependent on volunteers to ensure that the organisation actually functions. So a smaller, less wealthy organisation than ours gets it right – why couldn’t we?

One of the major shortcomings of the BPS that we have identified is the total lack of independence of the Board of Trustees. Below is a somewhat lengthy extract from Simon’s Hill’s address – its length necessitated by the essential detail contained within it.

Our new model of governance ensures that a Nominations Committee will now and in future oversee the formation of our Board of Trustees. 

I will return briefly to morals and ethics before I finish this address but, before then, I would like to put some numbers to the process that we have followed. Not only are these numbers interesting in themselves but they serve to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Trustee recruitment process our Nominations Committee have designed. 

When the advertisement was posted for potential Trustee candidates we received more than 50 expressions of interest. However, some of those expressions came from members who, while having in mind the very best interests of the RPS, had perhaps not fully grasped the personal challenges, the political complexities, and the onerous responsibilities of a Trustee role. At an online candidate briefing held on 24 July 2021, I gave an overview of the challenges facing the Board of Trustees and the RPS as a whole. I also outlined how I would like the Board to function during the period of my presidency. 

Over the past two years the Board has experienced seven resignations – two Presidents, two Elected Trustees, two Co-opted Trustees and, most recently, our Treasurer John Miskelly, to whom we owe a great debt of thanks for the work he has done on taking control of the financial health of the RPS. To find ways in which we can improve our Trustee experience, we completed a ‘reflective review’ of our processes, achievements and shortcomings. This was very ably led by our CEO, Evan Dawson, with whom I have a rewarding and enjoyable working relationship. The turbulence experienced by the Board and, albeit to a lesser extent, by the RPS between September 2019 and September 2021 is, I suggest, a direct consequence of the flawed election of 2019 and for that reason I shared the insights from this reflective review with our Trustee candidates. Following that candidate briefing, 16 of the original 50 expressions of interest translated into formal applications submitted to the Nominations Committee. This committee operates completely independently of the Board of Trustees. It carried out a skills and experience review of the 16 candidates, evaluating their applications against a matrix of requirements deemed essential to the effective performance of a Board of Trustees and, thus, to the provision of good governance. 

Nine of the 16 candidates were recommended by the Nominations Committee and seven others were invited to stand as independent candidates. It is important to note that the recommendation of the Nominations Committee is not an indication of the personal ability or suitability of one candidate over another, it is simply an indication to the electorate – the members – that, in the opinion of the Nominations Committee, “those recommended candidates possess the skill, experience, independence, knowledge and diversity necessary to provide appropriate governance to the RPS”. All nine recommended candidates (including five existing Trustees, four of whom were on short term co-option) and one ‘independent’ candidate confirmed their intention to stand for election. This gave members a field of ten candidates from which to elect six Trustees. Each of the ten candidates stood on an ‘individual’ ticket and their only promotion was a personal statement published online and in the Candidate Prospectus. 

In 2019, slightly more than 900 Members (representing 8% of the membership) voted in the election. This year, almost 1,700 members (representing 16% of our slightly lower total membership) voted in the election. I believe this doubling of member engagement is a direct consequence of a more ethical and transparent Trustee recruitment and election process, together with the more effective communication that the RPS is now having with its members. 

I have not come across such a thorough process anywhere else, and, as far as I am concerned, it represents a model that all charities should follow. I need hardly add that the BPS’s processes bear absolutely no resemblance to this.

The last extract is more contemplative but equally relevant:

Earlier in this address, I said I would return to the subject of morals and ethics so, to conclude, I invite you to contemplate how a model of ethical governance may be distilled down to four essential moral principles: 

  • beneficence (do good)
  • nonmaleficence (do not harm)
  • autonomy (control by the individual)  
  • justice (fairness) 

Good governance is fundamental to the long-term success of all organisations. Charities, like the RPS, are no exception to this rule. Good governance promotes a culture where all efforts are channelled to fulfilling the charity’s ‘mission’ and the Good Governance Steering Group (a collaboration ofUK charity organisations) publishes the Charity Governance Code which has six ‘pillars’ that support an organisational mission. These pillars are: 

  • leadership
  • board effectiveness
  • integrity
  • openness and accountability
  • decision-making, risk and control
  • equality, diversity and inclusion.

That seems to be a good place to end, with a plea to those charged at the top levels of the BPS with the responsibilities of good governance to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest what I have described. Following the model outlined here would surely address the many and profound challenges that the BPS currently faces.

Governance

The abuse of history and the BPS bullshit generator

David Pilgrim posts

Those in charge of the BPS bullshit generator have recently had to put in an extra shift. This was necessitated by a report in the press, citing evidence from the BPS’ own membership survey. An article in Third Sector (October 21st 2021), from Stephen Delahunty, was entitled: “Report finds ‘endemic’ lack of trust between staff and members of the British Psychological Society”.

The piece goes on: 

‘’….The summary findings from the Members Network Review, which was conducted by consultancy Korn Ferry and has been seen by Third Sector, also identified a tension between the ‘corporate mindset’ of BPS staff and the values members believe the society should hold…..The review, shared with members two months after the President-Elect’s dismissal, concluded there was an ‘endemic’ lack of trust and respect between staff and members and said members had a ‘lack of access to timely and accurate financial information’. Decision-making was deemed to be ‘unclear’ and stakeholders on all sides felt there was a culture of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Among the other key findings were that ‘membership does not necessarily represent good value for money” and there was a ‘lack of transparency and clarity around how the membership fees get spent’. The review recommends changes to the charity’s operating model that include addressing the need for direct communication with members, refresher and induction training on the requirements of volunteers and the roles of BPS staff, and clarifying the arrangements for decision-making and key processes.”

That final sentence covers a multitude of sins about organisational dysfunction and misgovernance, which this blog has persisted in reporting. They were also the reason that Nigel MacLennan was stitched up and thrown out. For our efforts, we have either been flatly ignored (publicly) by the cabal or told in emails to us that we are being ‘inflammatory’ or bullying to BPS staff. We are prepared for the prospect of being disciplined for breaking the code of conduct, the cabal selectively uses for its own ends. Expelled or not our protests will persist. 

It is the leadership of the BPS that has brought the Society into disrepute and maybe terminal decline. It is not us and it was certainly not Nigel MacLennan. Maybe there is a dedicated ‘shooting the messenger team’ that operates in the bullshit department. Another door might be marked ‘Spin and censorship’. The imagination runs riot about this Orwellian dystopia in Leicester.

Like all good journalists, Delanhunty asked ‘the BPS’ for their view, and this is what they came back withhe goes on:

“The charity said it had received ‘many positive comments’ from members in the full report but did not respond to a request to share it. A BPS spokesperson said: ‘It is important to highlight that many of the issues discussed in this report are systemic and historic in nature. This means they are the consequence of many individual decisions, taken over many years, by many different people, often with the best of intentions. It is also important to highlight that many of these issues have their roots in the past, and that the BPS is resolved to address and has already addressed many of them through our change programme. This is not to diminish the importance of the comments reflected here, but instead to reiterate what we see as the society’s genuine commitment to improving the experience of all our members. We are working closely with members and our representative senate to address many of the issues and create a force of change for the greater good.’”

Here are a few comments in response to the above. First, why was the full report not shared with the membership? Second, why did it take a journalist to place the report in the context of the current organisational crisis? The leadership, alongside the complicit silent pages in The Psychologist, have ensured that information management is guided by the need to keep the BPS membership and the general public in the dark. Many of you will know the old joke about that particular ‘mushroom’ management policy. 

Third, and my main point here, how is history being invoked now, for rhetorical purposes, by the cabal? What exactly is that history, and can someone point to where it has been written, other than on this blog, with our persistent willingness to talk of all things past and present of relevance to the current crisis? The answer to this question is that it is a history suppressed. 

Neither the old oligarchs, nor the ‘BPS junkies’ (The Psychologist, 2006) with their shamelessly recycled names, nor the list of now silent Presidents and Honorary General Secretaries (sinecures accepted gratefully of course) of the past have ever bothered to write that history authentically. This is for one very good reason: they have all been complicit, in ways large or small, in the emergence of the recent crisis. With one or two notable exceptions, it is noticeable that a long roll call of past Presidents has failed to intervene to halt the Society’s downward spiral recently. Their silence has been both deafening and telling.

Misgovernance and corruption have come from somewhere and that somewhere is the past, especially since 1988. That story should be fully told but those responsible for the organisational meltdown now evident are understandably very coy. As for them all being ‘well intentioned’, how on earth, empirically, does the ‘BPS spokesperson’ (no name as usual) know that to be true? Maybe the full story in its gory technicolour might let others make that judgment. If this history was merely ‘systemic’ then were no moral agents involved in the story, with their particular vested interests and nameable careerist intentions? The word ‘systemic’ has become a code for ‘nobody is to blame’ so no detailed truths or moral reckoning are required. As usual the BPS bullshit generator offers us more questions than answers.

The abuse of history

Our stance towards history is politically important. Those managing the present and shaping the future will tend to ignore those aspects of history that do not suit their interests, while invoking history, in a celebratory manner, when it is convenient contingently. A problem the current cabal have is that they are either ignorant of history or they know of it but recognise the inconvenience it creates for their current regime of power. 

For example, Katherine Carpenter has simply gone for ignoring it and exhorting the membership to look forward to a brighter future. As the illegitimate President Elect, whose installation was contrived by the cabal’s invented election strictures, this stance is perfectly understandable. Some in the cabal (the non-psychologists) will know little if anything of the history of the BPS. Why should they, as none of us can know everything? However, that ignorance is also a very good reason for us not to have confidence in them knowing what they are doing with the fate of the BPS. Fools may well have rushed in where angels would have feared to tread. Having said this, it is inconceivable that some of them (the CEO and the Finance Director especially) were not aware that they came to the BPS in the wake of frauds in the recent past. A previous CEO and a previous Finance Director had left in suspicious circumstances and yet again the membership had been denied an honest explanation about these departures. 

Drawing a line under the past: ‘that will do nicely’

The truism that ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’, is one relevant literary allusion for us to think about here (Hartley, 1953), but so is another – ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’ (Faulkner, 1951). I favour the latter over the former in this instance for a simple reason. Managers love to ‘draw a line under the past’, just in case old skeletons might trouble career prospects in the present. That was then and this is now, so no critical reflection or inquiry is required. From financial corruption to sexual exploitation, managers are keen to resort to covering up the past, and avoiding being tainted by it by simply incanting and repeating ‘that was then and this is now’. For example, see this preferred self-protective contortion in the statements from the BBC management in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal breaking (Greer and McLaughlin, 2015).

Most of the people of relevance to the story of misgovernance since the late 1980s are still alive and their reputations have been polished often by their ‘long term service’ in the BPS. More than that, if we look at the very recent past (a good starting point is 2018 when the SMT were appointed) then it is astoundingly audacious for ‘the BPS spokesperson’ to try and blag their way out of telling the truth, the whole truth, about the current crisis, using history as an excuse. This is bovine ordure extraordinaire.

This is the score. In 2018 the current carpetbaggers on the SMT were appointed. All of them are still in post apart from the Finance Director, who bailed out of the crisis in December 2020. He is now working for the National Lottery. The CEO was put on gardening leave for nearly a year and has just returned to his day job with the full backing of the Board of Trustees. Why it took so long to make a decision I suspect will be kept from the membership.  With or without that current vote of confidence about his return, the historical details about his responsibilities and that of the now departed Finance Director await scrutiny in a transparent public context. As for the ‘Trustees’ past and present, their legacy liability remains.

Turning to those non-independent and appointed ‘Trustees’, they too, by and large, are exactly the same people, who were around during the crisis coming to light. Two Presidents (they were elected from the membership) resigned, within two months in 2020. Why did the rest of the Board not follow suit? If David Murphy’s concerns were so grave about governance and finance, it is relevant to ask why others on the Board remained and were happy to collude with a strategy of silence to keep the membership in a state of ignorance. What stance did they take about the stitch up of the expelled President Elect, Nigel MacLennan? Moreover, where were the Board when the SMT were appointed? Were due HR processes observed and were ‘Trustees’ party to those appointments?

So all this blather about ‘history’ and the problem being ‘systemic’ is just that-blather. Studying history and studying it properly is a form of truth seeking. Using history as a tactical avoidance of current political responsibility is morally reprehensible. The BPS bullshit generator on this particular occasion is really insulting the intelligence of the membership. But do the cabal care? Probably not.

References

Faulkner, W. (1951) Requiem for a Nun New York: Random House.

Greer, C. and McLaughlin, E. (2015) In D. Whyte (ed) How Corrupt is Britain? London: Pluto.

Hartley, L.P. (1953) The Go-Between London: Hamish Hamilton.

The Psychologist (2006) Double top – Ray Miller in discussion with Tim Cornford: The Society’s new President in discussion with the Chief Executive. How do their roles work together, and where do they see the Society going? April, 19, 20-21.

Change Programme, Financial issues, Governance

Carpetbaggers and their customers

David Pilgrim posts…

BPS bullshit has features that illustrate the phenomenon more generally, but are also peculiar to it as a case study in collective deceit and inauthenticity (Christensen, et al, 2019; Frankfurt, 2005). The general features include an indifference to the truth and a concerted effort to massage reality in favour of those in power. The specific features include the recurring silence in the pages of The Psychologist about any news that might expose the grubby crisis in the Society, as well as video propaganda from the Board of Trustees about the President Elect, who they stitched up and spat out. Latterly this BPS bullshit has been joined by Pollyanna blandishments about a new dawn from the illegitimately elected new President Elect, which makes no allusion at all to the wreckage of the past.

Keeping the customers satisfied…..

Recently members (note notionally they are still members), received this in their inbox from ‘the BPS’:

Important information about our new Customer Relationship Management system

We’re getting in touch to let you know that our new Customer Relationship Management system will be launching on Monday 25 October.

This will allow you to manage your membership from one self-service portal on our website, and help us to provide you with a better customer service experience.

To make the change happen, we need to transfer data from our current database across to the new system.

To ensure that this process goes smoothly, from 4pm on Tuesday 12 October there will be some things that you’ll be unable to do within your account.

As you may have seen, we’ve been reaching out to members asking you to update your contact details ahead of the switchover. From 4pm on 12 October, you’ll be able to log in to your account and access the BPS website as normal, but you won’t be able to update details such as your email address, contact details and password.

We will also be unable to take any online subscription payments during this period, while we make sure that our finance infrastructure is integrated with the new system.

For our online communities, events platforms, BPS Learn and our online shop, you will be able to log in with your existing details and access their features as normal, but you won’t be able to update your details within them.

We’re sorry for the inconvenience of a restricted service over the coming days and the short notice about the freeze period. If you have any concerns about how this might affect your membership, or any urgent issues created by the limited functionality, please get in touch with our customer support team at 
info@bps.org.uk or by calling 0116 2549568.

We’ll be in touch again soon with details on how to register for the new portal – thank you for your continued support and understanding while we make this change.”

Fascinating and unnerving stuff

This is fascinating and unnerving stuff. Who are the ‘we’? Why are ‘we’ sort of apologising for an inconvenience? Does this imply members habitually understand and appreciate what ‘convenience’ means? Is membership democracy now defined merely by technical efficiency in a digital system? ‘We’ are ‘reaching out’ (Four Tops style) to members but is this for a hand of friendship or cooperation or opinion or compliance? Will democracy and the individual member’s quality of life be enhanced by their new opportunity to ‘manage’ their membership “…from one self-service portal on our website, and help us to provide you with a better customer service experience…”

Well that all sounds very considerate and ‘customer focused’. We are all now used to this stuff from our dealings with any company or utility in our lives.  ‘Is it OK if I call you David?’ from the phone operative you have never met and never will, in a brief encounter of the commercial kind. I am sure that the junior employees, unnamed in the team, just like underpaid phone operatives, are good people committed to their work. But what is the ideological function of creating this illusion of person-centredness, today, in the organisational car crash of the BPS run by a ruthless cabal? 

The latter have, in their wisdom, asserted their mandate to call members ‘customers’. This is politically disruptive because it turns the historical assumption of collective decision making, and the possibility of eventual membership democracy (still woefully unfulfilled), into a system of atomised consumers. That shift of organisational ideology seals off the membership from having a collective voice. It is one of many aspects now of the members being kept in the dark, reinforcing a tradition already established in a more amateurish way by the old oligarchy. The New Public Management model now puts the seal on that process and gives it a plausible gloss.

The tone of the citation above is a mixture of assured declaration (there is no alternative – this is the way things run nowadays in the BPS, take it or leave it) and ingratiation. It is also both informal in style and totally impersonal. No author is attached and no named source of the policy is identified.  

Whether members make complaints or try to actually engage with employees of the BPS about a serious matter, the typical experience is one of mystification. Communications are unsigned or the person (sometimes simply using their first name) replies on behalf of a ‘team’. The rationale for a reply and the policies or procedures governing them may have no transparent source. 

There is a semblance of friendliness above from the ‘team’ but no clear grounds for establishing actual personal trust, in an objective context, in which the trustworthiness of what is happening at the centre of the BPS is now under such strain. Do ordinary employees (just like ordinary members) really appreciate the trouble the Society is now in? Why are members and employees not talking about the crisis openly? Is that from genuine ignorance, whistling in the dark or fiddling while Rome burns? 

Atomised consumers, personal ‘journeys’ and nervous birds scattering

Some members may wonder why the strategic rhetoric of a ‘journey’ has been so close to the heart of the leadership of the BPS in recent years. One answer is that such a comforting narrative diverts our attention from the pressing need for deliberative membership democracy. Pollyanna vagueness ensures that critical reflection is not required. We all just need to get on board the management-inspired ‘member journey’ train. All happily chugging along in our personally booked seats, there will be no chatter about power, mismanagement and corruption. If this interpretation is in doubt simply read this: The BPS Member Journey. <br/>Co-creating a better future for Psychology — The Social Kinetic. On it we are told that this is “…an ambitious design thinking journey (sic) across the 4 Nations of the UK. Together with The British Psychological Society and its members we co-produced the future vision, plan and roadmap. From Cyber to clinical psychologists – students to influencers…”

The role of the paid consultancy, Social Kinetic, warrants a separate post but my focus here is on the ideology of atomised individualism of the ‘member journey’.  Note the singularity of the ‘member’ – not even a greengrocer’s apostrophe is present to raise a smile. Those individuals are offered a sunny uplands view from the BPS train driven by the cabal. A PhD in critical discourse analysis is waiting in the wings about this online piece. 

One ‘graduate’ tells us anonymously that the “…BPS now really feels so responsive, creative, inclusive and proactive that it’s starting to feel as if being a member is a necessity. And that’s the way it should be. It finally feels like this is really going to happen…” The heartfelt gushing enthusiasm of this statement is clear. However, reading and re-reading it, I have absolutely no idea about what it actually means, especially given the context of the serious BPS crisis. How is the statement at all feasible in reality, given the broken complaints system and policy capture we have demonstrated on this blog?

The (then) BPS Policy Director Katherine Scott (pictured but not named on the Social Kinetic online posting) explains, ‘Its such an important thing for us to bring together our members to co-create solutions and think about the future of the BPS’. Co-creation itself has an ambiguous legitimacy today. The good news is that it entails ‘customer’ involvement. The bad news is that the managers remain in charge and they can selectively attend to the interpretation of the outcome of that involvement (Alford, 2009).

In the context of the current crisis, we would be wise to take all of this management meringue about ‘customers’, ‘journeys’ and ‘co-creation’ with a large pinch of salt. Katherine Scott (The Psychologist, July 2020), in an interview with the editor Jon Sutton, gazed sagely into the future about the direction of the Society. Within months the CEO (just before he was suspended) was announcing that Scott was moving on to work for Lego, to build a different future there (co-created or not). 

The phrase co-creation shows the shallowness of its meaning when we consider the refusal of the BPS to produce a new version to the law and memory report. That was certainly not co-created with the legions of survivors of sexual abuse in our mental health system (Pilgrim, 2018). Instead, the much-needed revisions and updating were halted (despite significant agreement within the working group) on the spurious grounds that consensus could not be reached. Thus the narrow interests of one academic group excluded the wider voice from survivors and those working with them.


A  number of senior managers in the BPS have bailed out in the past two years. This mirrored the disappearance over just a two month period of three elected Presidents.  Also the Finance Director, Harnish Hadani (now in the same role in the National Lottery Community Fund), departed quickly in the heat of the crisis (December 2020).  Hadani failed to prevent the large alleged fraud, which is still awaiting its court hearing but was conceded de facto in the accounts reported at the recent BPS AGM and not even noted as ‘alleged’. In part this may have been a function of his lack of experience of working in the charity sector and his weak appreciation of its notorious vulnerability for financial corruption. Ironically he was appointed in part to deal with the aftershock of a pre-existing fraud in the Society. How many members, I wonder, were aware of that past misdemeanour? (As a technical aside of relevance to public information and trust, the National Lottery, unlike the BPS, does not come within the regulatory scrutiny of the Charity Commission, but instead of the Gambling Commission.)  

Just how many other senior employees now might scatter, like nervous birds, will become evident in the coming months. Their culpability in the crisis might well be protected by the corporate liability of their ex-employer. However, that cover will not be offered to the Board of Trustees (BoT), who as non-employees, present or past, will retain a legacy liability for any misgovernance or corruption that took place under their watch. The clue is in the word ‘Trustee’.

A change of heart not millions misspent

The BPS does not need a multi-million pound ‘Change Programme’, with its ersatz trappings of commercial efficiency, but a genuine change of heart. Such an exercise in truth and reconciliation would be materially inexpensive but personally painful for the recent cabal and the oligarchs of the past. By contrast, ordinary employees and ordinary members have nothing to lose but their current illusion of shared friendliness. At the end of the process, they may find ways of really trusting one another.

Informality is often a tactical part of the con trick of bullshit; ingratiation is a common disarming component of impression management (Goffman, 1959). When mixed with anonymity and other forms of vagueness, the trick is complete. The current offer of a ‘better customer service experience’ is part of a bigger neoliberal cliché, which is pulling the wool over our eyes to disguise profits in big business and the hidden self-serving abuse of managerial power in both the public and charity sectors. In the case of the BPS, we have been turning this topic over in various posts, but this one allows me to revisit briefly the character of the cabal.

The mystifying shenanigans at the centre of the BPS in the past few decades have intensified since the current Senior Management Team (SMT) joined the system in 2018. Because they have refused at all costs to wash their dirty linen in public, any historian of the Society may need to wait a while for the facts to come out. We are doing our best to tell the story that the SMT, the BoT and the editor of The Psychologist do not want the ‘customers’ to hear or see. However, we, like others, have been kept in the dark, despite our amateur sleuthing with a torch. Journalists and litigants hereafter will open up the can for the worms to slither out, but that full slimy technicolour spectacle is to yet come.

What we can say about the cabal, with its habitual secrecy and ‘damage limitation’ modus operandi, is that it is not a monolith. The key BoT meeting in November 2020, with its heavily redacted minutes illustrates this cultural complexity. The CEO was suspended but this was not a unanimous decision. Some Trustees complained about the process of the meeting. So, the older oligarchs were factionalised, with some supporting the power of the SMT and the £6 million ‘Change Programme’, with its hollow rationale and mysterious or absent performance indicators. We are left wondering what differentiated the ‘pro’ from the ‘anti’ Trustee sub-groups. We wait to hear in our perplexed darkness. 

Postmodern carpetbaggers and their allies

I mentioned the here today gone tomorrow senior managers. They are today’s version of carpetbaggers. Most are not psychologists, so they have no respect or affection for, or understanding of, the discipline. Most have passed quite quickly through management roles elsewhere. For example, although the current Deputy CEO, Diane Ashby, is noted on the BPS website for working at Marks & Spencer and the Body Shop, there is a coyness about her role in other ‘change programmes’, when working for Southern Water and West Sussex County Council. 

A further sub-plot in the recent shenanigans relates to HR processes and their failure to head off incompetence or corruption. Were they applied properly and transparently, when the SMT (and, note, their administrative support staff) were all appointed? Were Trustees properly involved with these appointments? Again the future historian may well have something to tell us when the courts, employment tribunals and curious journalists have elicited the answers to these questions.

And although some in the cabal have actually been psychology graduates, this has not guaranteed their loyalty to the long-term integrity of the discipline, as they have got sucked in to political short-termism. It has certainly not ensured their commitment to academic freedom or transparency, or a prioritisation of accountability for their fellow BPS members. They have just become incorporated, wittingly or unwittingly, into the BPS bullshit generator.  

From NHS CEOs and over-paid University Vice-Chancellors to footballers kissing their shirt badge when scoring a goal, knowing their agent has just fixed a more lucrative deal with another club, money and power today encourage short term faux-loyalty and hypocrisy. Non-disclosure agreements with pay-offs are part of the picture; again the history of the BPS told in the future may have something on this topic. Carpetbaggers now come in so many postmodern guises, with their own particular tricky rhetorical skills. Their ‘customers’ are not well served by their antics.

Alford, J. (2009) Engaging Public Sector Clients: From Service Delivery to Coproduction. London: Palgrave.

Christensen LT, Kärreman D, Rasche A. (2019) Bullshit and organization studies. Organization Studies. 40(10):1587-1600. 

Frankfurt, H. (2005) On Bullshit Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life New York: Overlook Press. 

Pilgrim, D. (2018) Child Sexual Abuse: Moral Panic or State of Denial? London: Routledge.

Blog Administrator’s note; This is a revised version of the original post.

Board of Trustees, Change Programme, Financial issues, Governance

15 questions about the Change Programme

BPSWatch received the following letter from a counselling psychologist and BPS member. The letter is signed but published anonymously.

Dear BPSWatch,

I am no expert in Change programmes, but I have some common sense observations and questions.  Does anyone outside the BPS SMT know the answers to any of the questions?

1.      So … “The objective of the Change Programme is to deliver the scope agreed by the Board of Trustees at their meeting in June 2019, on time and within budget.”  This is a completely useless response when what the Board of Trustees decided in that meeting is kept secret.  It is highly disrespectful to members.

2.      Have the consultants being used for the change programme changed?  If so when did that happen?  For what reason? And who made the decision to use the first and then switch to the second?

3.      There is a rumour that someone on the BPS SMT has a social relationship with the CEO of Social Kinetic. Is that true?  If so, was this considered as a potential conflict of interest in the appointment?

4.      Did the BPS seek advice from their own expert Occupational Psychologists on the Change Programme?

5.      What was the procurement process?

6.      What is the vision for the change programme?

7.      What are the specific objectives?

8.      What are the outcome measures for each objective?

9.      How were the objectives going to be achieved?

10.   What is the oversight management plan?

11.   How would progress be communicated to the SMT, Trustees and Members?

12.   How were those involved assessed for their competence to deliver the programme?

13.   What was the plan to monitor change communication effectiveness?

14.   Is progress so far considered good value?

15.   Why is there not a document available for members explaining all this?

The best change that I can think of right now would be to have transparency, and open, clear communication from the BPS.

Yours sincerely.