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In Dialogue with Dr Kesi Mahendran about her talk at the OPRC Launch Event

Can the Public Rule the World? From Personal Narratives to Transglobal Public Dialogue on Human Mobility

Sue: Hello Kesi, please tell me, what’s this talk all about?

Kesi: The talk is really about the public’s capacities. When we say the public it is quite different than saying participants or individuals. The public refers to how we acts as individuals when we have a sense of responsibility towards others. Hannah Arendt called this an enlarged mentality and John Dewey called it public capacity. The approach we take combines social representations and dialogical psychology to understand the public’s multivoiced capacities. The work we do within the Public Dialogue Psychology Collaboratory https://www.publicdialoguepsychologycolab.co.uk/  aims to help the public move from public opinion to public dialogue. The talk shows the public’s capacities in relation to the rise of populism, our sense of home, sovereignty and european citizenship and migration

Sue: How did you get interested in this topic?

Kesi: I think it started when I was working within the Scottish Government. I am became aware of how Ministers and policy-makers needed to understand what the public thought about things in a quick accessible way. They tended to use social attitude surveys and sometimes public opinion polls. However public opinion polls are very often developed by the media or large consortia with vested interests. I knew that social psychologists had been responsible for the very concept of ‘public opinion’ and ‘attitude’ so I wanted to develop new psychological methods for working systematically with the public, not as individuals but when they were acting with this enlarged mentality. The sorts of methods that the public and political decision-makers would respect and understand.

Sue: How do you research something like this, and specifically, how do you research it in relation to psychological science?

Kesi: We use a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. Together with technicians within the Open University we have developed interactive on-line mapping tools.  These really do enable the public to rule the world using the cursor on their laptop they draw lines on an image of the globe. These lines represent borders and they can choose to draw no lines or as many as they would like. It is fascinating how many people draw no lines at all and explain they believe in one world. Before that they are asked a whole series of questions including open sentence completion questions such as ‘the world is….’ And ‘I am a part of ….’. All participants who take part in studies within PDPC (our collaboratory) are also asked questions about their degree of migration-mobility and this is organised into ten positions. Sue Nieland is currently using stimulus-based interview techniques to work with the Silent Generation, those over 80 who have a long history of political decision-making. The work we do within PDPC is mostly combining social and political psychology and it is growing in popularity amongst psychology students and specialists. I am the new Chair of the British Psychological Society Political Psychology Section and we are always looking for new members!

Sue: Why are those results important?

Kesi: The results show that people’s judgements on vexed phenomena, such as migration, our relationship with the European Union, sovereignty, global citizenship and other international relations issues, can be sophisticated and nuanced. There are risks to democracy if the public are reduced to simple and divisive binaries because of an over reliance on attitude surveys and public opinion polling. Populism relies very heavily on us and them binaries and the UK in particular became very divided during the UK-EU Referendum and, as Anthony English is showing in his work on dialogue sustainment in polarized contexts, it still hasn’t entirely recovered.  So it is important to produce knowledge which reveals what the public are capable of when the conditions are right.

Sue: What’s next in this line of research?

Kesi: Good question! The main activity for the next year or so is writing a book entitled The Migrating Self which will be published with Routledge. I am really enjoying writing that and consolidating the empirical studies we have been doing over the last fifteen years into what I hope is an engaging new psychology of migration and the public.

Sue: Thank you, Kesi, for your insights and thought provoking research, it’s been a pleasure.

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

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