Thursday, 30 August 2012

Panic @ LondonMet University

It has been officially announced today after some speculation that the UK border Agency has revoked London Metropolitan University's licence to teach and recruit non EU students, meaning that up to 2600 students now face the prospect of quickly trying to find a new course at another University, or facing the prospect of being deported within 60 days if they can't. An interview with one of the students affected reports that people are panicking over this news. I will resist entering into a semantic debate over use of the term 'panic' (as I normally do on this blog). Instead I can see why the anxiety, uncertainty, and perhaps anger that these students are no doubt feeling could be described as panic. They have been woefully let down by this decision and have every right to feel aggrieved.

It looks like this situation may have deep roots. For instance, there was a serious financial crisis in 2009 when it emerged that LondonMet had received over £36m from the UK funding council for students that did not complete, and was told to pay it back. It looks like sloppy record keeping has continued, which is the main reason the UK Border Agency has given for revoking the license, as LondonMet did not do adequate checks on the student's eligibility to study there. Therefore, it looks London Met management need to take some responsibility for this situation, as they took their eye off the ball, and have been recently focussing on schemes to privatise services at the University instead. However, it also looks like an incredibly cynical move by the government to please the right of the Tory party by claiming they are doing something to tackle immigration figures. This will have little to no effect on net immigration and merely panders to a deeply unpleasant ideological (and nonsensical) view that somehow our current economic problems will be solved by cutting down on people entering the country.

 I was a lecturer in the Psychology Department at LondonMet for 4 years until October last year, and left with a lot of happy memories of the staff and students there, who were easily LondonMet's best resource. LondonMet used to advertise itself as a beacon for widening participation, and had a well-earned reputation for providing working-class kids from London with a university education that they would not otherwise get. A statistic that is often used, is that there are more Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students at London Met, than the whole of the Russell Group of Universities (the top tier, such as Oxbridge, etc) put together. I was often inspired by the commitment and passion of the students there, both in the classroom and outside. I remember doing a lecture on crowd behaviour there the day before the 2009 G20 protests, and made a flippant comment about how I expected to see them there taking field notes. Sure enough, I spotted a few inside the Police kettle outside the Bank of England the following day. A member of the support staff in my department even found himself caught up in the Police operation against the climate camp the same evening after going down to have a look and getting friendly with a protestor!

I think both LondonMet management & the governement both need to take responsibility for this situation, but it is ultimately the students who will suffer most from this decision, which is grossly unfair, and not in their, or London Met's best interests. It also sends out a very bad mesage about the state of higher education to all the legitimate foreign students who want to come and study in the UK, and will do lasting damage to the image of British Universities.

See the London Met Unison statement on the crisis for more details, and the blog of London Met's Unison Chair.

Update 5/9/2012:

Here's a Video of LondonMet students protesting outside the Home Office in London today, and the Education Activist Netowrk is asking people to download the following message of support, take a photo, and e-mail it to them at My cats agreed to do it after some persuasion;


Friday, 24 August 2012

Rush-hour pandemonium in NYC?

The BBC is reporting today's fatal shooting incident in New York, US with the rather dramatic title of 'Rush-hour pandemonium in NYC' for their link to video footage of the story. I went to Wikkipedia to remind myself of the origins of the word 'pandemonium', and apparently it's from Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. It's in Hell where the demons live and is a very noisy and chaotic place (picture below). It also provides a helpful quote from the Boston 2004 Globe;
'Whenever you have violent pandemonium, there's the overwhelming possibility for panic and tragedy'.

So, one may perhaps assume that the footage would have scenes of mayhem, stampedes & the usual stereotypical panicked behaviours that are implied by such a definition. However, the aerial footage shows people calmly waiting on the edge of the Police cordon. An interview with an eye-witness does report that people scatterred and ran for cover when they heard the gunshots, but he also states that it was all over in 10 seconds when the Police apprehended the suspect, and he stayed around to see what was going on for about 5 minutes, rather than fleeing the area in terror.

To me, these accounts are better described as momentary flight from a clear and present danger, that ends once the threat is over, and terms like 'pandemonium' are neither accurate nor useful in the reporting of such incidents, and merely serve to further sensationalise crowd responses to danger.     

Monday, 20 August 2012

'The riots in their own words' documentary

There are 2 interesting programs about last year's riots in England available on the BBC iPlayer. One looks at events from the perspectives of The Rioters, and the other looks at The Police views. When doing research on contentious matters that involve conflict between 2 sides, it's always a good idea to look at both sides, to try and get a more balanced view, and so the BBC is to be commended for doing that. Both show  interesting and sometimes powerful accounts from people involved from both sides, and are well worth watching.

There’s too much from me to comment on in detail, but one thing I saw was interesting. In the one that looked at The Rioters, there was an interview with a woman who was involved in the initial rioting in Tottenham on the Saturday after Mark Duggan was killed. She was quite open about how she had no problem about people fighting the Police, but said she and others physically prevented people from looting her local pet shop and Doctor's surgery. To me, this shows how rioters are often selective in the targets they choose to attack, and show the myth of a 'mindless mob out of control'. There were many different crowds involved in the August 2011 riots, with differing motivations, but they roughly fall into three broad areas: a) crowds that wanted to stand their ground and fight the Police, b) crowds that took advantage of the Police being tied down elsewhere to engage in looting of goods they wanted, and c) crowds that came in from outside an area who then attacked commercial properties indiscriminately (as they were not from that community and saw all shops in the vicinity as a legitimate target). Failing to consider these differences (and the wider social context in which the riots occurred), results in an over-simplistic analysis of what happened (or even no analysis at all!), and risks failure in understanding how the riots developed and escalated as they did.

For an in-depth and detailed analysis of what happened in the riots, check out the excellent book  Mad mobs and Englishmen, available on Kindle, and the following article looks at how statistics were often misreported during the riots. Finally, the Press Office at London Metropolitan University put out a Press Release I wrote at the time of the riots, arguing for a more objective & less emotive analysis of what was going on.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Crowd support for Team GB at the Olympics

Now that the Olympics have finished, the British media is having a field day analysing the success of Team GB, who exceeded expectations by coming 3rd in the medal table. A constant theme I heard when British medal winners were interviewed, was how they felt the crowd was a major factor in their success. It's often a common sense cliche that the home team has an advantage because of the support they get from the crowd, but in this case the successful athletes certainly feel it helped them. Early psychological research into social facilitation argued for the benefits that audiences can have on performance, but subsequent findings have argued that it can be a more complicated picture than that. What's important is not just the audience per se, as the relationship that the perfomer has with their audience is crucial. So the crowd in the Olympic stadium cheering on the team GB athletes may well have helped push themselves enough to do better than they might have done had the Olympics been elsewhere. My 5 year old daughter certainly thought that I helped Mo Farah win Gold with my support for him during the 10000m final, although I'm not sure if he could have heard me shouting at the TV in a hotel room in Dublin! For anyone who didn't see the BBC presenters getting equally excited when he won the 5000m, you can see it here.*

A recent book edited by Jetten et al (2011) provides a wealth of evidence for the positive benefits that crowds and collectives can have, and reflects a growing trend in Social Psychology away from early approaches that tended to assume that being in collectives necessarily means a deterioration in performance and decision-making. I do hope that the more positive coverage that crowds have received over the last 2 weeks results in more balanced coverage of other crowd events in future, but I won't hold my breath!

Jetten, J., Haslam, C.& Haslam, S.A. (Eds.) (2011). The social cure: Identity, health and well-being. Psychology Press, Hove, UK.

* BTW a hilarious web-site has been set up as a tribute to Mo Farah;

My favourite image is the one below- he's so scared of the Teletubbies, his name's reversed!

Friday, 10 August 2012

Keep Calm & Carry on history

I recently found a web-site that details the historical context behind the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters that have become very popular in the UK ;

Apparently the posters were produced by the British Government in WW2 and would have been distributed on the eve of a German invasion in an attempt to prevent mass panic in the British population. As the invasion never happened, the posters were never published, but some originals were recently found and publicly released.  They became an instant hit and perhaps inevitably inspired a whole range of spoof images, my favourite of which is below. I find them quite endearing as I think they represent a quintessentially 'stiff upper lip' approach to adversity which was part of British culture at the time. It also makes me smile to think that officials at the Ministry of Information (responsible for British propaganda during WW2) thought that if the nation was facing imminent catastrophe, seeing this poster would help the public keep calm. I'm not at all a fan of approaches that assume mass panic, but if one was going to buy into a 'panic model' (as I'm sure officials at the MoI did), then surely it would take more than a mere poster to stop people panicking!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Occupied Times

Interesting article by Cliff Stott & John Drury on the ideological positions behind representations of crowd behaviour in social discourse. Printed in Occupied Times, a free, not-for-profit newspaper born out of the #Occupy movement, that's 'dedicated to sociopolitical, economic and environmental justice'.