Social Psychology Section

“Something is happening”: Psychological approaches to understanding the performance of power

by Christine Griffin, University of Bath

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Social psychology has a long tradition of research on the operation of power and its impacts on everyday social interactions, from Jahoda and Lazarsfeld’s community psychology project on the psychological effects of long term unemployment in 1930s Austria (Jahoda et al., 1972); to Michael Billig’s more recent work illuminating the mundane ways in which nationalism and racism are woven into everyday practices such as flag waving (Billig, 1995). Some psychological research has adopted a more explicit focus on power, examining the operation of social relations around gender, sexuality, race and to a lesser extent class (Wilkinson & Kitzinger, 1993; Bhavnani & Phoeniz, 1994; Hodgetts & Griffin, 2015). There has also been important and diverse work on the role of psychology as an institutional practice in the operation of the ‘psy complex’ (Parker, 1994; Rose, 1985).

Recent debates in social psychology have focussed on the ways in which power itself can be conceptualised. Pratto (2015) advocates a concept of power that can be universally applied, resting on the assumption that power can be quantified and measured. For Pratto, power is defined as “the possibility of meeting goals, coupled with recognising survival as the fundamental goal for all living things” (2015, p.1). Pratto does not explore the conditions through which ‘power’ (and indeed ‘goals’) are constituted, as Reicher argues in his commentary on Pratto’s paper, citing the work of Foucault on the constitutive nature of power. For Reicher, Pratto “takes the subject of power for granted...ignor[ing] a wealth of research which shows ... how power constitutes the nature of subjects and, ... how subjects (especially collective subjects – groups) constitute power” (2015, p.1).

I have spent the past 35 years concerned with the ways in which young people engage with relations of power, as these are (re)produced, negotiated, survived – and transformed (Griffin, 1993). I have been influenced by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson’s approach which attempted to develop a ‘symptomatic reading’ within the frame of a ‘conjunctural analysis’ (Hall & Jefferson, 2006).  A ‘symptomatic reading’ understands specific social phenomena as symptomatic of changes in wider society. A conjunctural analysis builds on this by asking “why now?”, analysing (youth sub/cultural) phenomena in relation to the “political, economic and socio-cultural changes of their respective times” (Hall & Jefferson, 2006, p.xiv; see Griffin, 2011).

An appreciation of the operation of power is unavoidable in addressing these questions. So – what are the key political, economic and socio-cultural changes of our times? What Is the “something” that is happening here (to quote Bob Dylan), and what are the psychological, social and cultural impacts of living through this period? I want to explore these questions with reference to young women’s navigation of femininity in contemporary youth drinking cultures.

"Something is happening here”: Young women and the dilemmatic character of contemporary femininity"

Contemporary femininities are shaped by what Rosalind Gill has termed ‘postfeminist sensibility’ based in neoliberal ideology (Gill, 2007; Hall, 2011).  As Nikolas Rose put it:

“Contemporary individuals are incited to live as if making a project of themselves: they are to work on their emotional world, their domestic and conjugal arrangements, their relations with employment and their techniques of sexual pleasure, to develop a ‘style’ of living that will maximise the worth of their existence to themselves”            

(Rose, 1996, p.157, original emphases in italics, added emphasis underlined).

This authentic and fully-realised self should be subject to continual (self-) surveillance, transformation and improvement, in a process that has long formed a central element of normative femininity (Walkerdine, 2003).

Young women are exhorted to be sassy and independent – but not feminist; to be ‘up for it’ and to drink and get drunk alongside young men – but not to ‘drink like men’. They are also called on to look and act as agentically sexy within a pornified night-time economy, but to distance themselves from the troubling figure of the ‘drunken slut’ (Bailey, Grifftin & Shankar, 2015). Traditional gendered and sexualised double standards remain in place, since drinking and being drunk is still viewed as more acceptable for men, and as profoundly unfeminine (De Visser & McDonnell, 2011).

On nights out, young women are expected to wear high heels, short skirts and heavy make-up in a glamorous look that is termed ‘hyper-sexual’ femininity (Evans, Riley & Shankar, 2010). The juxtaposition of hyper-sexual femininity and the culture of intoxication produces a particularly contradictory set of dilemmas for young women (Griffin et al., 2013). Not all young women adopt this hyper-sexual glamorous look, but young working class women are most likely to be viewed in such derogatory terms (Rudolfsdottir & Morgan, 2009).

How power works and the forms it takes are profoundly shaped by the conditions in which power is (re)produced. Pratto’s approach does not enable us to appreciate the dilemmas at the heart of contemporary femininity, especially its illusory quality – the ‘as if’ element. Post-feminism appears to unsettle or even overthrow the contrast between normative feminine respectability as an aspirational category and the ‘sluttish’ agentic sexuality associated with the reviled figure of the slag. Young women are called on to ‘have fun’ as if they are ‘free’ and ‘liberated’ subjects, and as if pervasive sexual double standards have faded away. They are exhorted to enjoy the pleasures of what Angela McRobbie termed ‘the post-feminist masquerade’ within the culture of intoxication as if the risks and dangers associated with being visibly drunk can be dealt with without recourse to feminist critique (McRobbie, 2004gf). However, young women are aware of the illusory nature of this promise of fun and freedom, and they do manage to inhabit this impossible space in which pleasure and danger are locked in a dangerous and alluring embrace (Bailey, Griffin, & Shankar, 2015; Griffin et al., 2013).


The introduction to the power series was written by Nick Hopkins and Karen Douglas (BJSP editors).  Power in Social Psychology: Everywhere yet nowhere.

The third commentary was from David Harper (UEL) titled: Taking power seriously.  This post was published on Tuesday 21th June.

We are keen to promote dialogue within this power debate, so very much encourage you to comment below (when logged in).   You can also tweet us using #spsblog @SocialPsychUK

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