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Culture and Social Change: Transforming Society Through the Power of Ideas

reviewed by Clarence Joldersma - March 29, 2013

coverTitle: Culture and Social Change: Transforming Society Through the Power of Ideas
Author(s): Brady Wagoner, Eric Jensen, & Julian A. Oldmeadow (eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 161735757X, Pages: 358, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

How does society transform? The editors of the volume Culture & Social Change tackle this issue through a series of threaded discussions engaged by multiple authors. Although not quite a paradigm shift, the book attempts to transform psychology by embracing a deliberate dialogue with sociology, history, linguistics and anthropology. The book is at once discussion about social change and an argument for doing psychology differently—getting out of the laboratory and into the streets. It includes interesting discussions about humor, crowds, science, art, democracy, metaphors, social capital, climate change, and normal science, with examples of social change from the UK, India, Brazil, South Africa, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, the USA, Bolivia, and Estonia. The book will appeal to a broad range of readers, including education practitioners and theorists interested in social transformation.

The book is organized around “target chapters” setting the lead for a topic and “linked commentaries” (p. 7) extending that discussion. It is structured around three broad topics, “Collective Action in Context” (Part I: Chapters Two – Five), “Communicating Change” (Part II: Chapters Six – Eleven), and “Societies in Transition” (Part III: Chapters Twelve – Seventeen). Each part deals with a different aspect of social change and introduces a new set of illustrations of how one might do cultural psychology. Although the 18 chapters involve 24 authors, the book has a substantive coherence, certainly more than is typical for edited volumes.

In Part I, the authors of target Chapter Two, “The Psychology of Collective Action,” develop an “elaborated social identity model” to conceptualize the context and social relations of crowds to explain crowd behavior in less de-individualized ways. The linked commentary chapter extends and modifies this analysis by developing a tri-part model of the social act of protest (crowd, authority, contentious issues) to argue for the importance of the role of the authority’s response in understanding crowd behavior. Target Chapter Four reports on a prison simulation study to illustrate the importance of leadership in mobilizing seemingly powerless groups to reimagine their social identity for possible action. The linked commentary extends this thread by thinking particularly about change in non-western settings, including particularly the role of art and technology in national change. These two sub-threads constitute explorations of how “social groups mobilize themselves to effect change” (p. 7), focusing on the psychology of such mobilizations. This is not a comprehensive conceptualization of collective action, but instead two interesting, related threads of that topic.

Part II, which shifts the topic to communication and language, includes three target chapters and three linked commentaries. Target Chapter Six, “Metaphors and Stories…,” illustrates how story-telling and metaphor are used to promote or resist change, arguing that their non-cognitive content helps activate shared emotions and memories which are essential for social transformation. The linked commentary extends this thread by questioning the canonical view of language in psychology—processing propositional content. Target Chapter Eight develops a “neo-diffusionist perspective” on how certain cultural ideas can be socially transformative by diffusing through society, often being passed along through joint activities of people at work. The linked commentary addresses the theory of diffusionism as it developed historically in anthropology, arguing for a dialogical theory of communication that grounds the possibility of the diffusion of cultural ideas through a society. Target Chapter Ten picks up the thread of “communicating change” by arguing that scientific controversies such as embryo research or genetically modified crops promote democratic participation because they uncover dissent and contestation over meaning. The linked commentary uses climate science as the example to argue that not all scientific dissent is equal, but that scientists might have consensus without agreement in the larger public. These three sub-threads are connected to show “the role of various communication processes in canalizing social change…” (p. 7), signaling the core of the book’s subtitle, namely, the role of ideas in catalyzing social transformation. Again, rather than being comprehensive, the three sub-threads weave an indicative picture of this theme.

Part III is also includes three target chapters and three commentaries. Target Chapter Twelve examines the role of humor (satire, irony) in social resistance, illustrated by a Saudi television episode, “Terrorist Academy” and by Bill Maher’s infamous remarks about cowardliness after the September 11 attacks, suggesting that irony can address otherwise politically taboo subjects. The linked commentary examines the role of humor in art, arguing that ironic humor can create social change by creating community amongst otherwise unconnected people, thereby reordering possible power dynamics. Target Chapter Fourteen, using Boliva as an example, develops Bourdieu’s concept of social capital to include the novel idea of “stretching social capital” as a way to model successful social change—through it local communities on the margins can reach into spaces of political power. The linked commentary extends the discussion of social capital by suggesting that stretching social capital is a form of representation and thus social influence. Target Chapter Sixteen develops Bourdieu’s idea of habitus to conceptualize people’s identity (re)construction in a changing society, using post-socialist Ukraine as a case study. The linked commentary enriches the idea of habitus by understanding it as an emergent property of social systems that in part constitutes a contextual societal field guiding individuals in that society. These threads “further develop theoretical and methodological tools to describe and explain large-scale social change” (p. 7). In particular, this section illustrates how social psychology might employ concepts from sociology to enrich psychology and bring it into the streets of society.

As a set of threaded discussions, the book illustrates well new ideas in cultural psychology. However, the editors’ attempt in the concluding chapter (18) to distill a theory of social change from the previous discussions falls short and seems misplaced. Instead, the book’s threads are better read as substantive illustrations of the possibilities of cultural psychology to address the important, real-world issue of how to conceptualize social change. Rather than a new theory of social change, the book’s considerable strength is demonstrating the conceptual power of its new perspective.

Although illustrative, the topic of social change is not merely exemplifying. Instead, the topic is strategic, for two reasons. First, it brings psychology out of the lab and into the streets. If one had been brought up on a steady diet of traditional cognitive science, with its inward-looking understanding of the human psyche, the book’s approach is jarring if not heretical. It allows new insights into, say, understanding crowd behavior and composition, including its transformations in the face of reactions by opposing police.  Second, the book’s topic brings a non-traditional psychological perspective to social change discussions. For example, the idea of “stretching social capital” is an original and worthwhile contribution to the conversation about how marginalized groups might deliberately contribute to desirable social change.

For these reasons and more, this book will be engaging for many theorists in education and outside of it.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 29, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17071, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 8:57:05 AM

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About the Author
  • Clarence Joldersma
    Calvin College
    E-mail Author
    CLARENCE JOLDERSMA (Ph.D., OISE, University of Toronto) is Professor of Education at Calvin College. He is a philosopher of education trained in cognitive science with broad interests in social change. His research includes social justice, sustainability, and neuroscience in connection to education. Recent publications include “Education: Understanding, Ethics, and the call to Justice,” Studies in Philosophy and Education (2011) and “Neuroscience, Education, and a Radical Embodiment Model of Mind and Cognition” Philosophy of Education Society 2013 (forthcoming).
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