Monday, 28 August 2017

The social psychology of the Hajj

This week, the annual Hajj takes place in Mecca (Makkah) and the other holy places nearby. This Muslim pilgrimage is one of the world’s largest crowd events – the official figure for those attending last year was 1,862,909. The Hajj has been called the world’s ‘global gathering’ because it is a place where Muslims from all over the world come together. The Hajj has also been the scene of a number of tragedies, including the crush in 2015 where over 700 people died at a crossroads near the holy city of Mina.
Despite its global significance and importance to so many people, few psychological studies have been carried out on the Hajj. Most research studies of the events are from medical or engineering perspectives. Hani Alnabulsi, my PhD student, and I recently had a unique opportunity to study the experience and behaviour of the Hajj crowd, through his research on the 2011 and 2012 pilgrimages. As part of his PhD at Sussex, Hani carried out dozens of interviews and surveyed over 1000 pilgrims, all in and around the Grand Mosque, Mecca. This unique data-set allowed us to address a number of important questions on the social psychology of the Hajj for the first time. Hani finished his PhD in 2015, and we are now in the process of writing up the work as journal articles. Here is a summary of some of the key findings.
Inset shows density of 6ppm2 inside the Mosque
How do people feel safe in such dense crowds?
In a first analysis, we looked at predictors of feeling safe in the Hajj crowd, which can reach densities of up to nine people per metre2 near the Ka’aba. We tested the hypothesis that the effect of crowd density on feeling safe would vary depending on whether there is shared social identification in the crowd. Analysis of the data showed that the negative effect of crowd density on reported safety was indeed moderated by social identification with the crowd. Whereas low identifiers reported reduced safety with greater crowd density, high identifiers actually reported increased safety with greater crowd density. Mediation analysis suggested that a reason that some people felt safer was the perception that other crowd members were supportive. We also found that those from Arab countries and Iran felt especially safe at the Hajj compared with pilgrims from other countries. These differences in reported safety across national groups also seemed to be because these groups experienced greater crowd identification and perceived support than other groups.
Psychological changes, including changed attitudes to other social groups
Towards the end of his autobiography, the activist Malcolm X described in compelling terms the revelation he experienced on attending the Hajj:
My pilgrimage broadened my scope. It blessed me with new insight. In two weeks in the Holy Land, I saw what I had never seen in thirty-nine years here in America. I saw all races, all colors, - blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans – in true brotherhood! In unity! … It was in the Holy World that my attitude was changed, by what I experienced there, and by what I witnessed there, in terms of brotherhood – not just brotherhood toward me, but brotherhood between all men, of all nationalities and complexions, who were there. (pp. 478-479, emphasis in original)
His was not a unique experience. A brilliant ‘natural experiment’ carried out by Clingingsmith and colleagues on a large sample of Pakistanis famously showed that participation in the Hajj can lead to both more positive attitudes towards other groups and increased commitment to Muslim identity. In a second analysis, we have been investigating the process underlying these psychological changes. In line with contact theory and the social identity approach, we found that a key mechanism explaining increased positive attitudes to outgroups was identification with the Hajj crowd, which operates like common ingroup identity. In line with a social identity account of identity enactment, we found that the key mechanism explaining enhanced identification was giving social support to others. Our finding that participation in an all-Muslim gathering increases positive views of other groups (including non-Muslims) through crowd identification offers an alternative perspective to claims about the supposed role of such gatherings in encouraging intolerance.
Place, space and the virtuous cycle of cooperation
The requirement to cooperate at Hajj is not only a shared spiritual value, but also a practical necessity due to the high levels of crowd density. In a third analysis, we sought to understand the determinants of cooperation in and around the Grand Mosque during the pilgrimage. In Hani’s interviews, pilgrims described ecstatic experiences on seeing and being close to the Ka’aba. However, precisely because of its spiritual value, many pilgrims seek to be close to the Ka’aba at the same time. This leads to negative (e.g., competitive pushing) as well as positive (e.g., social support) experiences in the Mosque. Our survey analysis found that evidence of help was high across the participants, but was more likely to be reported in the plaza just outside the Mosque than inside the Mosque itself. We also found evidence of what we called a virtuous cycle of cooperation: seeing others in the crowd giving support predicted seeing them as good Muslims which predicted identification with the crowd which itself predicted giving help to others. This predictive pattern occurred in the plaza but not the Mosque itself, and suggests the role of place and space in modulating identity processes.
In the past, where the social psychology of the Hajj has been addressed it has been through concepts such as ‘panic’ and ‘stampede’. However, use of these concepts is not based on systematic study of pilgrims’ behaviour and experience. In addition, such concepts serve to blame the crowd, rather than mismanagement, for disasters. Hani Alnabulsi’s PhD research is the first to bring modern social psychological concepts to the Hajj – in particular the concepts of social identity and group norm. We argue that these concepts will not only provide a more accurate understanding of behaviour at the Hajj, they can also help contribute to a safer Hajj in the future by informing the planning and management of this global gathering.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

How do street actions strengthen social movements?

There is evidence that recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, which saw a mass mobilization of white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan, and Nazis have served to embolden and strengthen these groups, who are now ‘bursting with confidence’. The Vice documentary, filmed among the groups as the events took place, showed how the aim of the mobilization was to build the movement psychologically:
‘that camaraderie is and trust is built on activism, and that is one of the tactics we’re adopting’ (‘Unite the Right’ organizer quoted in Vice documentary)
The documentary also showed how the participants felt about and interpreted their mobilization. They took encouragement from the sheer fact of organizing together, being on the streets in such numbers, from imposing themselves on their opponents in this ‘liberal’ town, in expressing themselves:
‘This is the largest nationalist rally in over two decades in the United States. It’s been incredibly exciting… We’re going to keep having a good time and keep fighting.’ (‘Unite the Right’ organizer quoted in Vice documentary)
They were empowered to such a degree that they felt confident there were would be more such events in the near future and that these would escalate, both qualitatively and quantitatively:
‘I think it’s going to be difficult to top, but we’re up to the challenge… I think a lot more people are going to die before we’re done here.’ (‘Unite the Right’ organizer quoted in Vice documentary)
Recent social psychology research can explain how this strengthening process operates in social movements, and can also predict when and how it spreads to individuals and groups not physically present on the mobilization but who feel the same way as the marchers. Most of this research so far has been carried out on campaign groups and issues very different in political content from the fascist-type mobilization in Charlottesville: student fees protesters, Occupy supporters, environmental activists, and so on. But in terms of process, there are key concepts and explanatory principles that can be carried across.
Salience and match of self-categorization are two key concepts here. Based on self-categorization theory, research shows that, in different contexts, we can define ourselves in terms of personal characteristics (our personal identity) but also in terms of shared category memberships (collective or social identity). If our social identity is salient, and if it corresponds to the identity of those involved in the mobilization, then intergroup emotions theory would suggest that we will get emotional (and other) benefits from the event in the same way as the participants themselves.
What are these emotional and other benefits of collective action? Work on appraisal in collective action suggests that, for those who identify with the group, the perception of our group taking action enhances our collective efficacy – our belief in our capacity to act. Seeing social support in our group taking action tells us that we will have social support for further action.
But what is the nature of this action? Does just any collective action have these empowering effects for participants and their supporters? Other research shows that it is specifically collective actions which enact identity which have this effect. We call these forms of action collective self-objectification. By turning the subjective (ideas) into something objective (hard reality), such action operates for participants as tangible evidence of their group’s enhanced agency relative to other groups, and hence is experienced as empowering.
This was clearly going on in Charlottesville, where what was previously limited to an online network now manifested itself physically. To ‘own’ the streets, to be able to shout anti-Semitic slogans, to intimidate the ‘liberals’ and ‘racial’ groups who wanted to remove the statue of General Lee – all these were ways of enacting identity and, as such, imposing a particular definition of the world on opponents. These activities therefore empowered participants, or, in more conventional psychological language, increased their collective efficacy.
From efficacy there may be just a short step to gaining legitimacy. In their BBC prison study, Reicher and Haslam showed that the prisoners turned to tyranny when it was seen to be able to operate when a more democratic system was not. Practical adequacy – the perceived ability of an organization to put its beliefs into practice – increases the extent to which it is seen as a legitimate political force by others. We have recently investigated this in the context of the student movement in Chile, where the main predictor of non-participants' belief that the students’ protest action was legitimate was the perceived efficacy of the movement.
So what is the solution? The collective action literature points to the role of success or failure in increasing or reducing further mobilization. In psychological terms, success for a social movement is again action which realizes the identity – collective self-objectification – whereas failure is the enactment of the opponent’s identity and the negation of one’s own.
In our field-world and interviews and in our current experiments, we found that those actions that realized the participants’ shared identity were particularly rewarding and increased intentions to take part in further collective action, whereas those actions that ended in failure of collective self-objectification led to demoralization and reduced intentions to act. This was particularly the case for those with relatively little experience of protest. It would apply, for example, to the wider population of neophyte sympathisers that the fascist groups attempt to inspire through their shows of strength and identity enactment.
In history, the street violence of Kristallnacht sparked a further rise in anti-Semitic attacks and consolidated the rise of the Nazis in Germany; and events such as the 1936 battle of Cable Street, actions by the 43 group after the second world war, and the 1977 battle of Lewisham set fascism back as a movement. Put simply, controlling the streets builds the movement and getting them off the streets works in defeating that movement.
Of course non-violent tactics also work – my own PhD research examined how one predominantly non-violent direct action campaign had great success in making road-building seen as a political issue and in problematizing the then government’s road-building programme. But pure pacifism relies on a humanism which, if the opponents do not share – if the opponents regard us as less than human – will lead to our defeat not theirs.