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Social psychology and politics
Social psychology and politics

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1 Social psychology and the study of politics

In 2016, there were numerous political changes across the globe, contradicting assumptions about the political world that many people may have taken for granted. For example, in the United Kingdom, this could be seen in the ‘Brexit’ vote (i.e. the referendum vote in favour of Britain leaving the European Union) and, in the USA, in the unexpected election of Donald Trump as President. These are not just changes to political worlds; they also represent profound changes to psychological and social worlds: to how people see themselves in relation to others. For instance, the vote to leave the European Union not only caused political rifts in the UK, but also redefined relationships between families and friends (e.g. see the Guardian’s article: Families divided by Brexit [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , 2016); a good reminder of how the ‘personal’ is also ‘political’ and vice versa.

Social psychology attempts to understand such political events by asking fundamental questions about how and why people engage with political processes and structures. Why do people vote the way they do? Why do some people become activists, while others do not get involved? What is the appeal of the political ideologies to which some devote their lives? How do people understand politics in an everyday sense?

The answers to these questions can be quite different depending on what social psychological approach you take. For some social psychologists, the answers lie within the individual, e.g. as part of their personality. Others, however, look for answers at the group level, or their social identity, e.g. in the ways in which identities are related to the groups to which people feel they belong. And finally, some take a more sociocultural perspective, looking at the ways in which politics relates to broader cultures and discourses that construct social worlds and determine the possibilities for political action. In the following three sections you will examine examples from each of these different social psychological approaches – i.e. personality, social identity, and social constructionist approaches – and how they can be used to help better understand the political. Each of these approaches is also covered in the Open University course DD317 Advancing social psychology.