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Senior Scholar Interview - Christopher Cohrs

Posted by Emma O'Dwyer •

This is the first in a series of interviews with senior scholars in political psychology, which aims to be a source of guidance and inspiration for junior scholars just starting out on their careers.

Our first interviewee is Christopher Cohrs, a professor of psychology at Jacobs University, Bremen and a current member of the ISPP governing council. His research interests include prejudice and intergroup relations, ideology and political attitudes and social psychological peace research. He has published widely on these issues in journals such as the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the European Journal of Social Psychology, Peace and Conflict and Political Psychology. With Johanna Vollhardt, in 2012 he founded an open-access journal, the Journal of Social and Political Psychology.


What led you to become a political psychologist?

The question presumes that I “am” a political psychologist… I might be, but whether I consider myself as one always depends on the context. Usually I would prefer seeing myself as a social psychologist with a strong interest in socio-political issues.

I was already interested in understanding socio-political issues (including environmental issues) before I started studying psychology at university. During my studies, I co-organized a couple of student-initiated psychology courses on socio-political issues. However, the decisive factor was that when I was about to work on my thesis (beginning of 1999), the Kosovo war was prepared and then launched. So I decided to do my thesis on people’s attitudes toward the Kosovo war and investigated possible reasons why people supported the war. Since then, I really focused on research on socio-political issues, such as patriotism, right-wing extremism, and war.

What is your greatest source of inspiration?

Once in a while, I come across great and inspiring books or articles that really stand out because they are very different from most others and question the seemingly obvious. These include, for example, Herman and Chomsky’s (1988) “Manufacturing consent”, and more recently Mick Billig’s (2011, 2012) articles in the British Journal of Social Psychology. Also my wife, Chaitali, is a great source of inspiration to me. Like the authors mentioned, she also challenges implicit assumptions and makes me see things from a different perspective.

Is there anything that you wish you knew before you became a leading scholar in the field?

I would not consider myself a leading scholar in the field, but I cannot think of anything I would have wished to know before I became who I am now. One always learns.

Give us one book and one movie that you would recommend to all junior scholars who are working on or aiming to engage with the field of political psychology.

I would rather hope, with Mick Billig, that young scholars “will read what we have not told them to read” and “think what we have not trained them to think”. For films, check out http://www.filmsforaction.org/walloffilms/. One documentary that I found particularly powerful is “We Feed the World”. In terms of novels and movies related to political psychology, I enjoyed reading “Snow” by Orhan Pamuk and watching “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days”.

Why is political psychology important?

Good question! For me it would be important if it contributed to dealing better with pressing socio-political issues. With its position between psychology and political science it is better suited than many other fields, and thus a good start. It is less in danger of either psychologizing problems or ignoring psychological factors at all.

What is the most important challenge/s that political psychology is facing today?

One danger is that political psychology is developing into a self-referential system concerned primarily with promoting its own professionalism. I don’t really care much about distinctions between different sub-disciplines and the formation of a “political psychology brand”. Rather, I think that a focus on addressing socio-political issues would be more important, regardless of disciplinary background.

The process of professionalization also seems to carry with it problems related to internationalization and an overemphasis on mainstream methodologies and theories. In order not to threaten “professionalism”, internationalization is welcome as long as it complies with the established and familiar policies and practices. And the same is true for methodological and theoretical approaches. This is not grounded in intellectually sound reasons, but driven by political-economic forces in the Anglo-American academic system.

On a related note, I was very inspired by a talk I saw on the Internet by Larry Lessig on scientific publishing and open access. This actually motivated me to start (with Johanna Vollhardt from Clark University) an international peer-reviewed open-access journal: the Journal of Social and Political Psychology (see http://jspp.psychopen.eu/). JSPP aims to address some of the problems mentioned above. However, there are still many challenges.

What advice would you give to junior scholars in political psychology?

Be skeptical and critical of advice that you receive and question why that kind of advice is given to you. And try to focus on things you are really interested in and passionate about. The field of political psychology offers many such possibilities.

What is your opinion on social media? How can junior scholars make use of the new technological advances in order to promote their interest in political psychology?

Perhaps first it should be clear what the purpose is. For example, what would be the reason for “promoting their interest in political psychology”? To advance one’s career? To make connections with other young scholars? To inform the public better about political psychology? To contribute to addressing socio-political issues? To get input from others? My guess is there are a variety of different purposes that are of different degrees of importance for different people.

Personally, I think social media can be particularly useful if they succeed in building bridges to other sections of society outside the academic world, in ways that contribute to empowering the readers of academic work and not just to market and popularize research.

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