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In Dialogue with Dr Sandra Obradovic about her Talk at the OPRC Launch Event

Past, Present and Future: How We Use History to Make Sense of Politics

Sue: What is this talk all about?

Sandra: The talk is about a few different research projects that I have been involved in that broadly focus on examining the relationship between history and group identities. More specifically, the different projects each explore how people draw on history when they talk about their national ingroup, how they use history to represent their group in a positive light, but also how they express nostalgia for a particular (and seemingly lost) history.

Sue: How did you get interested in this topic?

Sandra: I’ve always been very interested in how people informally name-drop historical events, figures or places when they are talking about things happening in the present in a particular group context. People draw on history to justify, or challenge, political changes, they draw parallels between the past and the present to make a point about how things have changed (for better or for worse) for a group. All of these ways of evoking history when making arguments or when justifying particular ideas means history can have a strategic function for groups. We see this the most clearly when we think about how it is evoked by political leaders, but we ourselves engage in this kind of talk all the time as well. To me, this topic is interesting because I see history as the ‘stuff’ of cultural or national groups, the imagined space where the origins of who we are, our beliefs, values and practices, are located. And because it’s history (and in the past) it’s also something that has the potential to be changed and manipulated for different purposes. 

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

Sandra: There are different ways that you can research this topic, and in my own work I’ve used a few different kinds of methods. For more in-depth understandings of how people mobilise history in talk I have opted for qualitative methods, including interviews and focus groups. Focus groups have been particularly useful because you can really see the dynamic and interactive ways in which people together construct representations of history and make them relevant to the present, but it also gives you an opportunity to look at disagreements and tensions. Specifically, when you are researching more critical or contentious historical events (like a war). In these contexts, participants are faced with the challenges of addressing difficult elements of the past while simultaneously protecting themselves from the negative implications that ‘bad histories’ have for their ingroup.  In other work I have combined open-ended responses with quantitative measures. It really depends on what your research question is. In my research on nostalgia, we combined open-ended responses that tapped into what people were nostalgic for about the past, with quantitative measures of ingroup identity, political ideology and other variables. By developing categories from the open-ended responses we were then able to examine their relationship to our key variables. For example, we found that people who tended to express a nostalgia for a time when their country was more powerful and influential in the world, identified the most with the ingroup identity. In contrast, people who outright rejected the prompt to express nostalgia, were those who identified the least with the ingroup identity.

Sue: Why are those results important?

Sandra: These results are important when we think about how history becomes linked with ingroup belonging. History is never a neutral story about fact, but it’s a strategic account of events and people which aims to tell a story about the ingroup that is positive and usually morally righteous. However, this doesn’t mean that that story is inclusive, and we often see different social groups being left out in significant ways from the telling of history. in other words, there are multiple version of history that exist, but which one becomes dominant depends on which group is in a position to get their version accepted as ‘truth’. So for those people in our study who rejected expressing nostalgia about the past, they probably felt that this past didn’t reflect them, and so they didn’t feel like a part of the group the history was attached to. Similarly, in the qualitative study I mentioned, history became a resource for challenging political change, which meant it provided political arguments with legitimacy. This in turn can have implications when people are asked to vote in a referendum or an election. Does the change align with our (positive) history or does it threaten it? and similarly, if I do think the past used to be better, how can political change restore it for me?

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

Sandra: We’ve been doing a lot of work to tease out the different parts of the process that links history, psychology and politics, and the next step will be to put some of this research to the test in terms of the implications they might carry for political attitudes and behaviours. We have started looking at this, but ideally we would be carrying out some experiments next and to examine the impact that different versions of history have on the political preferences of individuals.

Sue: Thank you so much for taking time out from your very research, it’s fascinating!

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

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