Bristol 1970s-1980s


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Bristol. Very frequently in scientific work a particular department, centre or place becomes pivotal –associated with an important transition in thinking or with exciting new developments and breakthroughs. Such prominence can be quite transient, sometimes lasting for only for a few years, dependent on a particular combination of people and the Zeitgeist. The people and the Zeitgeist move on but nostalgia remains about these high points and heydays. In European social psychology and particularly British social psychology, Bristol University and the social psychological research conducted in the Psychology Department at Bristol in the 1970s and early 1980s has this reputation. These were the years in which Henri Tajfel was the Professor of Social Psychology. During these years a genuinely different European social psychology emerged first as a manifesto worked out in the early 1970s by a group of scholars across Europe with Moscovici in Paris and Tajfel in Bristol as prime movers. European social psychology was to be a more politically engaged and critical discipline and these ideals were realised in the stream of research from Bristol in the 1970s and 1980s on social identity theory and the study of intergroup relations and group process. Social identity theory remains one of the core theoretical frameworks of social psychology and still inspires a great deal of research today.

Tajfel was a larger than life character and one of the most important intellectuals in the history of social psychology. He was someone with the energy and passion (and connections across Europe and in the USA) needed to gather together a highly productive group of students, research fellows and co-workers and inspire them to be creative. Everyone who was anyone in social psychology seemed to pass through Bristol in those years. Tajfel entertained a constant stream of eminent visitors from the States and elsewhere and as a PhD student at Bristol in the late 70s, my no doubt rather rosy memory is of large informal dinners at Tajfel's house which turned into impromptu seminars, with Tajfel presiding, goading and challenging and enjoying the cut and thrust as he turned over idea after idea for critical examination. The Bristol research group was not an easy environment, particularly for women, yet many of the current generation of British social psychologists were educated there and owe it an enormous debt. It created an academic network that persisted after Tajfel died in 1981 and the group dispersed. Tajfel included among the first generation of his students, for instance, Michael Billig, John Turner, Howard Giles, Rupert Brown, Richard Eiser, Colin Fraser and Glynis Breakwell and these academics in turn educated the next generation of social psychology researchers. In this way the memory of a place and the conditions which created an intellectual framework carried on. Written by: Margaret Wetherell