Events such as the murder of Theo van Gogh and the attacks of 11 September do not sufficiently explain the sharp tone of the Dutch integration debate. The importance of sociopsychological processes for the occurrence of major social change is underestimated, says Prof. Tom Postmes. Postmes is professor in Social Psychology at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences of the University of Groningen.
It’s often thought that dramatic changes have dramatic causes, and that only threats from outside, tensions between groups and decisive leaders would be able to initiate social change. That’s just a partial analysis, states Tom Postmes. ‘Change can just as well come from below. Social Psychology can help to chart the exact causes.’
The lightning fast secularization in the Netherlands shows that major social change can occur without a shock from outside, according to Postmes. Another example is the fact that women are now choosing to have fewer children even though prosperity has grown and they would actually be able to support more children. An important explanation for this social change is the shift in norms regarding the family and children. Changing communication patterns are at the root of this, according to Postmes.
Postmes’s research concentrates on the strong influence that social consensus has on behaviour. Such as on student attitudes towards immigrants in which, preceding a group discussion, the attitudes of the students were charted. Various group discussions were then organized, guided by carefully trained and instructed actors. If they ensured that the discussion ended with a difference in opinion, then the students did not behave in a more hostile way towards immigrants. However, if the discussion began with a difference of opinion but ended in consensus, then the students did become more hostile.
Tom Postmes: ‘We like to think of ourselves as independent individuals, but we’re always searching for social conventions, for norms to identify with. That explains that the ideas we have, for example about immigrants, are not created by the arguments we hear but by a social consensus with people in our immediate vicinity.’
Our penchant for consensus is clearly visible in the social debate about a multicultural society. Research by the Social and Cultural Planning Office of the Netherlands (SCP) has revealed that the Dutch in recent years have become more tolerant of immigrants, according to Postmes. At the same time, the tone of the integration debate has become more negative. Postmes: ‘The silent majority is allowing itself to be silenced by a vocal minority. And it’s so easy to break that consensus idea – you just have to stand up and say that you don’t agree with the xenophobia that is dominating the debate. That’s how to break the consensus.’
There’s still a lot of confusion about the cause of social change. Social Psychology can create clarity, thinks Postmes. ‘Politicians would be able to benefit from insights from Social Psychology and policymakers would also be able to learn something. They often try very hard to change things from the outside, for example with information campaigns or tax measures. I want to stand in society and investigate what really does set change in motion.’
Tom Postmes (1969) was awarded his PhD by the University of Amsterdam (1997) and worked there as a lecturer. In 2001 he moved to the University of Exeter, where he became a professor in 2004. He has won several international prizes, including research fellowships from the KNAW (1998) and the British ESRC (2003). The majority of his 100 or more publications have appeared in renowned international journals. Postmes became professor of Social Psychology at the University of Groningen in February 2008. On January 27 2009 he held his inaugural lecture with te title ‘Understanding how groups form and societies transform: Communication, identity and social reality’.
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