The current issue (a ‘…bumper edition…’ according to the managing editor) of The Psychologist 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 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.
Open commentary on the special issue on ‘Tackling Class-Based Inequalities’ (The PsychologistJuly/August 2022)
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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