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In Dialogue with Professor Paul Stenner about his Talk at the OPRC Launch Event

The Experience of Time in Pandemics and Beyond: Views from an Open Psychology

Eka: What’s this talk all about, Paul?

Paul: In this talk I’m trying to make sense of how we experience time, and why that matters to us. Time is quite difficult to get your head around, but I have a hunch that the way time is thought about is central to human psychology. Time is a kind of ‘key’ that can open the door to many longstanding problems in our discipline. Lots of people, from many perspectives, are thinking about time right now, and partly that’s because we’re living through a pandemic. For most of us, the pandemic ‘interrupted’ the future we were previously aiming at. You might say that it has given us a fresh encounter with time.

Eka: Interesting, that sounds like something a lot of people can relate to. How did you get interested in this topic?

Paul: Yes, I think many people can relate to this on a quite personal level. And beyond the pandemic, there is a lot of anxiety about the future right now, on both an individual and a societal level. I got interested in this a few years back when thinking about politics. For example, back in the times of Tony Blair and then Barack Obama I remember observing how many of their speeches referred to time. They’d say how all of us need to be agile and adaptable if our societies are to keep up tomorrow with today’s fast-moving present, and not get left behind economically, technologically and so forth. If you think about it psychologically, this puts a lot of stress upon the present, and calls on citizens to deal with a lot of instability and uncertainty about their future. I remember thinking: no wonder this theme of the left behind became such a big issue during Brexit! And then, after having been ‘stuck’ in the long ‘transition phase’ of Brexit, along came the pandemic! So, yes, I think a lot of people can relate to this.

Eka: For sure, these are big events that affected everyone in the UK. So how do you research something like this, and specifically, how do you research it in relation to psychological science?

Paul: My work on it up to now has been what I’d call ‘meta-psychological’, though I’ve collected some qualitative and some Q methodological data (watch this space!). For sure, psychologists have studied time perception and time experience in various ways through the years, but not quite in the way I am proposing, and it’s hard to translate these issues into experimental set-ups with measurable variables without losing the meaning. It’s also not as accessible as you might think to qualitative research. I’m a strong believer in the importance of theoretical psychology and have just finished a stint as President of the International Society for Theoretical Psychology (so I’ll give that society a ‘plug’ here!). Also, as you’ll see in the talk, it can also be valuable to return to the history of psychology, not least because important founders like William James and G.H. Mead were also philosophers and were fascinated with questions of time. We still have a lot to learn from them. The first issue is how best to frame the problem theoretically, and that’s what I try to do in the talk.

Eka: That’s great, but why is that important?

Paul: Because I think our capacity to imagine a future that connects our present to our past is fundamental to our well-being. That imaginative capacity can be really challenged when we live through crises of various sorts. Also, in the talk I show how drawing attention to time gives us insight into how the arts can function to guide and amplify our sense-making when we go through challenging times. And if you’re interested in learning more about this, I’ve just published a paper with Tania Zittoun in an American Psychological Association journal called the Review of General Psychology. The paper is called Vygotsky’s Tragedy: Hamlet and the psychology of art, and it shows how art functions as a ‘technology of feeling’ during crises and other liminal experiences. We also need better ways of collectively working out what sort of future we want because humanity has some difficult times in over the next few decades. In fact – another ‘plug’ –  I’ve got a chapter which develops some of these ideas in a Routledge book that came out just this month called Global Pandemics and Epistemic Crises in Psychology: A socio-philosophical approach (edited by Martin Dege and Irene Strasser).

Eka: So, what’s next in this line of research?

Paul: As a senior academic I’m always encouraging my colleagues to make clear research plans, but to be honest, planning out my future doesn’t come easily to me. It might tell you something about my personal psychology, but if I knew exactly what I will be researching in the future, I wouldn’t have the heart to do it. But, of course, plan we must! And joking aside, I’m working with some colleagues on identifying some of the impacts the pandemic has had, and is having, on social systems like schools, health services and businesses, and – in particular – how the pandemic is encouraging social systems to communicate differently about the future. There is an increasing tendency, for example, for organisations to want to keep the future open (engaging in flexible partnerships rather than formal contracts, and more generally learning to ‘expect the unexpected’). Another project is to examine how and why cinema plays such an important psychological and social role in encouraging us to think differently about time.

Eka: Thank you Paul for these very thought provoking insights.

Please see below the original blog about Paul’s talk and the link to the recorded talk.

References:

Zittoun, T. and Stenner, P. (2021) Vygotsky’s Tragedy: Hamlet and the Psychology of Art.Review of General Psychology, 25(3): 223-238. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F10892680211013293 Available at https://journals.sagepub.com/toc/rgpa/25/3

Stenner, P. (2021) ‘The Psychology of Global Crisis Through the Lens of Liminal Experience: Stuck in the Middle with SARS-CoV-2. In Martin Dege and Irene Strasser (Eds) Global Pandemics and Epistemic Crises in Psychology: A socio-philosophical approach. Routledge.

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