Saturday, 27 December 2014

Overcrowding at Finsbury Park railway station

The Christmas holidays are a time when many people travel to visit relatives, and so travel hubs can expect to be busy. I was one of those attempting to traverse the country today and became caught up in the overcrowding at Finsbury Park station, London.
Engineering works that had been due to finish on Friday 26th (Boxing Day) overran, leading to the decision taken late yesterday to close King’s Cross station for the whole of 27th December. While Network Rail and others advised travellers to delay their journeys till Sunday or Monday, the other advice was that people travelling into or out of London could use Finsbury Park station instead to catch or leave their East Coast trains to/from the North.
The tube journey to that north London station wasn’t busy. But on arriving at Finsbury Park the crowd was so large that people simply could not get in or out. Hundreds more were queuing outside.
Picture courtesy @samhansford
Inside, hundreds more were stuck between the tube line and the platforms, in an underground tunnel, unable to get onto the platforms which were already full. This large crowd remained in this position, toe-to-toe and shoulder-to-shoulder, quite literally, for about an hour when I was there (around 11am) and maybe some time before that too.
Picture courtesy ‪@jimewing
People alighting from trains coming from the North into Finsbury Park had to struggle through the same tunnel through an extremely dense crowd of people with suitcases, rucksacks and crying babies, including some travellers who we felt particularly sorry for, who had only just arrived in the country.
Eventually, the station was closed so that no more people could enter the crowd, room was made on the platform, and we shuffled forward onto the platform to await a train.
The overcrowding was described as ‘dangerous’, and indeed it was widely stated before the event and in one of the Tannoy announcements that a small station like Finsbury Park simply didn't have anywhere near the capacity to cope with the large number of people who would normally use King’s Cross, one of the largest and busiest stations in the country. It was also fortunate that Arsenal were not playing at home today!
With colleagues, I have looked at the behaviour and experiences of people at a number of large and crowded events. These include Hani Alnabulsi’s work on the 2012 Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where densities averaged 5 people per square metre and at times went as high as 8 people per square metre.
There was also our ESRC-funded study of survivors’ accounts at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster where over 90 people were killed in a crowd crush, and our Leverhulme-funded project on experiences at the Fatboy Slim Beach party in 2002where 250,000 people crowded onto Brighton beach. The beach was 50,605 m2 in size, giving only 0.2 m2 of space per person in this crowd.
In each of these events, the experience of extreme density ranged from annoying, stressful and difficult to frightening and extremely dangerous. Another common feature is that there is often spontaneous self-organization amongst strangers in the crowd. At Hillsborough, people cooperated to pull others from the most dense areas of the crowd. At the Brighton beach party, people made small circles round women so they could have privacy to urinate (since public toilets were massively overwhelmed).
One of the obvious differences between the crowd at an event such as the  Hajj from that at Hillsborough or the Brighton beach party is that whereas the former is planned, expected and routinized, the latter are unexpected and unplanned. This has consequences for how those involved in these events feel about those they think are responsible for managing the event (for example in the Hajj crowd, even as levels of density increased, there was no falling off in levels of satisfaction with the competence of management).
All of these features and others were evident at Finsbury Park today.
First, while many of us expected it to be busy, we were not prepared for such levels of density. It was uncomfortable, annoying, stressful and could have been quite scary for those who are claustrophobic. It was certainly alarming. Anyone could see that it was dangerous, as the crowd was so packed that any movement was very difficult. Any sudden push could have caused some people to be squashed against a wall. As Sartre put it in another context, other people were hell.
Second, despite the irritation and some inconsiderate pushing, people were largely polite and patient. When people tried to get through, they asked others to excuse them and they tried to be careful. Space was made for those exiting and for a mother with a pushchair. People gave each other directions. When someone, just arriving, tried to use the exit route to apparently push in front of this giant crowd-queue, he was rebuked and then  quietly accepted his place at the back. And people talked to the strangers around them, oscillating between being atomized individuals in a physical crowd to social individuals sharing a common experience. They cheered when there was announcement that we would be moving soon. There was a kind of order.
Third, there were complaints about the lack of official organisation and the failure to communicate (What was happening on the platform? Was there a train due in soon?). The role of those with an overview of the event was all the more crucial given the inherently poor back-to-front communication there was in this and all crowds. Part of the danger of crushing was a function of the fact that those coming into the crowd could not see the front and had no idea how dense it was and whether or not other people could move. This is how crowd tragedies occur. Eventually at Finsbury Park, a system was implemented whereby those coming off the trains were allowed to move off the platform and through a narrow channel in the tunnel before those waiting in the tunnel were allowed to move forward onto the platform. The station was then closed, since it was well over capacity (was anyone actually counting?) And eventually the fact of this system was communicated to the waiting crowd.
Communication in a potentially dangerous overcrowded situation is important for at least two reasons, then. First, to be told how long the queuing is expected to last, the reason for the wait and so on reduces some of the stress, anxiety and annoyance that accompanies such experiences. Second, it gives people the information they need to make decisions about moving forward, staying still or trying to leave. If people knew how many others were in front of them, how much space there was on the platform, how long they would be waiting – information which only those managing the station could know – this can facilitate the tendencies to self-organization and order described above.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Intergroup dynamics and the REF

In the current context of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), there are some similarities between how academics react to the pressures of the REF and how crowds respond to novel, pressurised situations.
I find it interesting that, unlike other ‘human sciences’, psychology is somewhat fragmented. As an example, biological psychology and social psychology are so different in their subject matter, assumptions and methods that they hardly appear to be part of the same discipline. And social psychology itself is often characterized by differences and deep disagreements over its proper subject matter (cognition? talk?) and appropriate theoretical framework (social identity? social cognition?).
These within-discipline differences become more or less salient according to context. For example, in the departments I have studied and worked in, I have noticed that the arguments about what psychology is and should be are often most evident – most argued over – when the different groups are together in the same place to hear a guest speaker identifiable with one branch or another. In other settings – for example when the same people in the same department come together in a departmental meeting to discuss their teaching and administration – these differences of perspective on the nature of psychology are often less evident, and we think and act as a single group.
In the current context of the REF, psychology departments are being pulled in both directions – towards fragmentation and towards unity – and the process resembles in some ways the changes in group identity and alliance – the intergroup dynamics – I have observed elsewhere.

The REF context and intergroup dynamics

One of the things to understand about the REF is that, in common with other drives towards measurement in the Higher Education sector, it encourages a greater emphasis than in the past on ‘outputs’. When I got my first research funding, some years ago, the purpose of the work I was to undertake, I imagined, was to produce findings that would increase knowledge and develop theory. That is a traditional view of the nature of academic research. But it is not the way that we are encouraged to think about our research activity now.
Irrespective of actual scientific contribution, research grants now need to produce outputs. What are outputs? They are measurable and hence publicly verifiable products of the research. The problem is how we define a valuable output. Not all products of research fit the bill, if we use metrics such as journal impact factors. Journal articles count as outputs but not all journal articles are equally valued. Even among all those journals that are peer reviewed in the same subject, such as psychology, some have better impact factors than others. An impact factor is a calculation of the journal’s citation rate, but there are different reasons why one journal has a higher average citation rate than another journal. So, this leaves psychology in a situation whereby some journals are ranked better than others, if we are to use journal impact factors.

Journal impact factors are divisive

It is well known that social psychology journals have lower impact factors than psychiatry and neuroscience journals. It is also well known that this difference is partly a function of different publishing schedules for different (sub-)disciplines, and the size of the readership or access to the journal, rather than a reflection of the scientific worth of different kinds of research. The current REF guidelines tell us that journal impact factors will not be used to evaluate outputs, but there is a lot of doubt about this pledge. The idea that value depends on a journal’s impact factor is persistent.
One thing the emphasis on impact factors has meant in my own university (and I know we are not unusual, as I have heard the same thing from others) is that social psychologists are encouraged to publish in general psychology journals or those from other branches of psychology. This may actually be a good thing. However, any implication that social psychology journals are inferior, and that publications in these journals are less worthy, does not seem such a good idea – either for the morale of researchers or for the development of knowledge.
The second consequence of this unevenness in the measured value of journals is not simply in terms of presentation but in terms of content. One psychology department I know of was advised that they shouldn’t bother with a social psychology group at all, but instead should invest in more fMRI-based researchers. This puts some branches of psychology at risk. The other problem with this sort of approach is, taken to its logical conclusion, leaves psychology not looking too good relative to other sciences. Given the relevance, for receiving government funding, of being a STEM discipline, arbitrary rankings can therefore have serious consequences for the future of psychology as a field.

Pressure from the REF can be a unifying factor

However, in this topsy-turvy world, where measurement is to some extent driving the phenomenon it is meant to measure, there is also a sense in which psychologists from the different areas of the discipline are all in the same boat. At a departmental level, there is a shared cynicism about the REF, about all the extra work involved, and about the pressure on us all to maximize our outputs to meet the 2014 deadline. It is something we complain about together and commiserate collectively in the tea-room. In this context, therefore, the social world is clearly organized not in terms of different groups of psychologists with different ideas about the nature of psychology, but in terms of psychology departments and the government, with senior management mediating between the two.

This is not to say that there are not salient REF-related differences within departments, for someone in the department has to make sure that everyone else is ‘REF-ready’, and in effect to represent the REF to the rest of us and the rest of us to the REF. On occasions, when I have criticised the REF (and the RAE before it), I have been reminded by colleagues that to simply ignore it would be suicidal for a department because of the funding that is bound up with it, and that we must therefore ‘play the game’. To maintain within-group morale, in the pressurised climate of the REF, psychologists should reassure their colleagues that they think their work is valued - over and above their REF rating. One of the findings that has come out of my research on people in stressful situations (mass emergencies) is that the group is a key source of survival and recovery through the social support it offers its members.

(A version of this article was originally published in the BPS Wessex Psychologist Bulletin, No. 8, Spring 2013.)