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Revisiting ‘In Dialogue with Dr Karen Hagan about her Talk at the OPRC Launch Event’

Blogs from the ‘In Dialogue’ series are attracting a lot of attention. In case you missed this, below is the blog about Karen’s talk: Critical and Discursive Psychological Approaches to Bullying’

Sue: What’s this talk all about?

Karen: It’s about how and why bullying TALK works.  It explores the meaning-making that is constructed and transmitted in bullying and abusive talk, particularly in relation to interlocutors’ positions of power.  Understanding talk as action is at the core of this work.  Talk is not simply a means to communicate or represent something that is already out there.  It actually continuously constructs or reconstructs the way we understand and position ourselves and each other.  Of course, it does this by building on existing ways of talking, such as stereotypes, in society.  

Much of what we say seems to be done without deliberation.  For example, everyday language often uses stereotypes as if they are ‘natural’.  Interestingly, one aspect of bullying talk is that it may even defend against criticism of reckless use of stereotypes that instrumentally serve the constructions of unjust power relations.  Such defensive talk functions effectively to prevent deeper reflection and deny others dignity or compassion.  

It may seem strange that I say ‘the talk’ does this or that.  I am favouring the talk rather than the person as my focus.  This may appear to detract from individual responsibility for bullying talk or its consequences.  That is definitely not my intention.   My work on bullying aims to enhance awareness of, and thus responsibility for, bullying.  Psychological research on bullying suggests responsibility lies at a deeper level.  The gift of responsibility lies in our capacities for self-awareness, reflective thought and intersubjective compassion.  Subsequently, to develop these capacities is to develop more creative and compassionate possibilities in constructing relations in talk.  

Sue: How did you get interested in this topic?

Karen: All relationships and interactions involve some ‘power’ relationship.  Each interaction is incredibly complex in terms of power relations … and power relations are not all negative.  However, I became interested in the abuse of power in relationships when various interests and experiences (professional and personal) all seemed to take me to the same place in psychology.  I noticed patterns in bullying, manipulative, and abusive talk in close relationships, in organisations, in youth cultures and in politics.  I also noticed the harmful impacts of such patterns.

Bullying, coercive control and abusive behaviour causes huge suffering to individuals and society.  It fills our prisons, our hospitals, our GP surgeries, it creates great sadness and fear, and it destroys lives.  I think the work to support survivors or targets of bullying and abuse is incredibly important.  However, my main concern is to understand perpetration and the act of abuse.  How is it created?  How and why does it harm targets, perpetrators themselves and the wider society?  If we can understand how/why people bully and abuse then it may be easier to reduce, or even prevent, harm in the first place. 

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

Karen: We need specific approaches to examine how power relations are constructed in bullying talk.   This is not the sort of question that can be answered solely in a lab or by questionnaires.  Luckily, I met Professor Margie Wetherell through my work in The Open University.   Supervising the early stages of my PhD, she helped me to develop skills and knowledge in Critical Discursive Psychology.  I originally used this theoretical and methodological approach to analyse how power relations are constructed between parents and professionals during children’s autism assessments. 

Sue: Why are those results important?

Karen: In that instance, the research was not about bullying.  However, parents felt hurt through the process even though professionals were genuinely wanting to help them.  They felt disempowered, threatened and discouraged, during a time of intense emotional investment.  The construction and performance of power through language can be complex and insidious, impactful beyond deliberate intention and difficult to detect or resist.  Because manipulation and bullying, abuse and coercive control are so prevalent, and carry the potential for such profound harm to individuals, groups and society, it is essential that deep understanding of the issues are developed, and meaningful interventions introduced at the earliest opportunities.

Karen: At the moment I’m running a series of 6 workshops on bullying in a school in Belfast.  The pupils are exploring how bullying works, its impact and how it may be resisted.  They are teaching me a lot!!  The workshops have been approved by the British Psychological Society for Career and Personal Development so the pupils can get recognition for all their hard work!  I hope to develop some useful applications, with young people particularly, in the future.

Sue: Thanks you so much for discussing this fascinating subject with us.

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

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