Podcast: Catching up with Dr Matthew Adams

A smiling Dr AdamsDr Matthew Adams discusses the role of social sciences at a time of environmental crisis and the strengths of the University’s psychology department.
Matthew also clears up why he’s been posting photos of sheep on Twitter recently.​..

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I graduated in communications studies in the early 90s and then I travelled and eventually undertook a PhD at Nottingham Trent, critically examining the meaning of social change for psychic life and the experience of self. This was part time and self-funded, so I did all sorts of jobs to keep me afloat at various points. Removal man, hospital porter, film props assistant and perhaps best of all administrator for a touring experimental theatre troupe. I also started teaching in the later stages. I did various postdoc research and teaching jobs after that before coming to Brighton as a psychology lecturer about 15 years ago. 

Can you think back even further beyond that then to when you realised that you first had an interest in psychology? It’s not perhaps the kind of subject you’d expect to learn at high school, say, so when did you first become interested in it? 

Actually that desire was sparked most clearly by an A-level in sociology. Psychology wasn’t available then as a subject. So I had an interesting route into psychology. It was only one strand of my undergraduate degree as well and we were taught a unique syllabus, focused on maverick feminist critical and outsider psychology in conjunction with sociology, cultural studies and critical theory. So I studied people like Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers alongside Jean-Paul Sartre,  Herbert Marcuse, Michel Foucault, Melanie Klein, Simone De Beauvoir, all mixed up alongside my own reading. What they had in common, looking back, was a focus on how subjective life and social forces interact. 

Your early research focused on identity and social psychology, predominately, and more recently you’ve moved towards more environmental matters. We’ll move on to that environmental-based work in a minute, but I wonder if you could please summarize if you can the focus of your first book Self and Social Change which was published in 2007…

Yeah. So broadly speaking the book is the story of the psychology of the self in a world that’s changing and increasingly global. I asked what the nature of the self is that lives in a global world of increasingly plural positions. Basically I set out to navigate a path between more voluntarist accounts of social change – we’re all free to be who we want to be – and determinist accounts; we’re all self obsessed or all doomed. In particular I wanted to be able to acknowledge change and account for the ongoing role of power inequality and injustice and impacting on people’s sense of self without resorting to problematic and patronising deficit model. I mean I’m not sure I managed it, but that was the intention. 

Talking of researching the self in a world that is always changing, would you say you are still effectively researching social change, it’s just that now it comes through the filter of the environmental crisis and our attitudes towards nature? 

Absolutely. Dead right. I can see no social change more profound than the ecological crisis. In fact the climate crisis is a social crisis in that it is being caused by social systems and practices and will only be overcome by collective and social change. And it reaches into the heart of psychology – what it means to exist. To be a human on a planetary scale arguably provokes a fundamental existential crisis. And of course psychology in terms of how we deal with the guilt, anxiety, fear, responsibility, work with others etc that the climate crisis provokes. 

We’ll get more into the nitty gritty of that in a minute, but was that move towards the psychology of environmental change and the anxieties around that, was that a conscious one or were you just moving with the dominant overriding anxiety of our age? 

It was actually a very conscious move. At the time I was becoming increasingly specialized in one or two aspects of the study of self and social change, as we are often encouraged to do as academics – kind of create a niche and become experts in increasingly narrow fields. But in doing so I felt like I was losing something, a sense of connection between academic work and wider social problems, which was vital for me. And at the same time the ecological crisis was increasingly troubling me personally. I began to notice the myriad ways in which I and others avoided thinking and talking about it. I just thought I had to start addressing it as an issue for psychology in the social sciences rather than ignoring it. 

It’s a big question, but what do you think fundamentally the role of psychology and perhaps the social sciences in general is at a time of of environmental crisis? 

I think that in answering that question I’d start by not overstating the importance of psychology or the social sciences. But, alongside the arts, journalism, fiction, science, it can help contribute to a culture that more openly discloses and explores the nature of that crisis; what it means to us and how we might begin to meaningfully address it individually and collectively. It can highlight existing and new ways of engaging with each other too, more positively and constructively, including non-human others and the natural world, that are more caring and responsible. 

Going back a few years, in the blurb of your most recent book, which is called ‘Ecological Crisis: Sustainability and the Psychosocial Subject Beyond Behaviour Change’, you wrote: “The challenges posted by the reality of human-caused environmental problems are unprecedented. Understanding how we respond to knowledge of these problems is vital if we are to have a hope of meeting this challenge.” And just picking up on that word hope – that was a few years ago now. How hopeful are you feeling now?

Am I hopeful? Yes, always. I cling to Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci succinct edict. He wrote this in a letter from prison: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, and relatedly, whilst if you’re not angry you’re not paying attention, that anger must be translated into something more positive and constructive for me. The amount of energy – the attempts to grapple and engage with the issues – is growing all the time. And I have to believe that this is all contributing to the possibility of change. The American author Rebecca Solnit writes brilliantly on the nuances of hope. She reminds us that great public moments – protest marches, uprising – ushering in genuine change are not the planting but the harvest of a change in public imagination, and I hang on to that. 

It’s obviously a difficult thing, as you kind of mentioned earlier, for the public to get their head around thinking in geologic time. Are you hopeful that we can achieve that at some point as well, and that we can think kind of almost outside of ourselves and in a more planetary way? 

I think it could happen. Whether there are signs at the moment that it could happen, I’m ambivalent about. There is protests. There are movements. There are attempts. I think what I find most hopeful probably is the fact that science and protest knowledge are on the same page often. And that doesn’t always happen in history. But there’s a great deal of science behind the reality of climate change, so it’s possible. 

Do you see that interdisciplinary approach reflected at an academic level then, even at the university, with different departments working together to try and achieve a greater understanding of this crisis? 

I see lots more papers calling for that kind of dialogue. I’m still not convinced that that dialogue is happening as yet. Certainly in terms of my individual experience with different academics it’s starting to happen but whether it’s happening on the scale necessary to address this as an interdisciplinary problem, I’m still not convinced. 

Does contemplating impending environmental breakdown on a daily basis ever get you down at all? 

That’s a good question. Yes, it can often feel frightening and lonely because it seems like everybody is going about their business regardless. So why am I so worried? But I also recognize that I’m in an extremely privileged position compared to many people on the planet, contemplating breakdown from a position of relative safety and security. I’m fortunate. I don’t forget that. I am also lucky to have a job where I can make connections with others and be part of networks doing similar work and do start to feel like I’m part of a wider community.

And that helps you to feel a bit more reassured?

Exactly, yeah. 

Again this is another big question, but I suppose they are all big questions at this point. How can we continue to find value and meaning in the small things in our lives in the context of this environmental catastrophe?

That’s a great question. I think I’d start by saying the catastrophe is already underway for many across the globe. In that sense it’s experienced slowly – the world isn’t going to end tomorrow. The environmental crisis is an opportunity in a way to consider individually and collectively what we do value and find meaning in and what we want to hang on to in an imagined future. What will that future look like. What must we let go? So those small things you mention are actually essential and ought to be part of those conversations and that imagination. 

This term Anthropocene has come into the public imagination more and more. You’ve done a lot of work on it but you also wrote an article for The Conversation in which you dismissed the term. Just to be clear, the Anthropocene is the proposed name for the geologic epoch that that denotes the impact humans have had on the earth. Could you briefly explain why in that article you dismissed the term? 

So you’ve caught me out for being contradictory. No, it was meant to be provocative. I do actually use the term a lot as shorthand, the idea that one species is changing the planet for the first time in its history helps convey the scale and gravity of the impact of human activity. However, it can also exaggerate our importance as a species, especially in the context of deep time, the Earth’s long history. Part of the wider problem of the environmental crisis I think, which has a clear psychological dimension, is the assumption that humans are somehow superior to and outside of nature. The idea of the Anthropocene can feed into that. Addressing the environmental crisis isn’t about saving the planet. In the long term of deep time it will live on without humans or with humans finding a more sustainable – i.e. responsible to other forms of life – ecological niche. So it’s worth being aware of the potential hubris and arrogance in advancing the Anthropocene as an idea. 

Why do we say save the planet when, as you say, the planet will survive and go on without us whether we’re there or not? Why do we use that phrase do you think? 

I think it’s a reflection of our culture. Without putting too strong an emphasis on it, it’s a culture that we could call human exceptionalist or anthropocentric in that we do focus on humans as the central species and in doing so we exclude more or less all other forms of life as external to the human. So, I think it is become naturalized that we talk of humans and the environment as separate. So we talk about saving the environment or saving the planet without stopping to articulate or try and make sense of our entanglement with all other forms of life on this on this planet. 

People might have seen photos of sheep on your Twitter account recently. I presume this is part of your ongoing work about our relationship with the natural world in some way. Can you explain what that’s about?

Well spotted. Yes, sheep. Well, earlier you mentioned how we can continue to value and find meaning in the small things in our lives in the context of environmental catastrophe. And one of those small things that’s important to me is a connection to nature, something that is commonly claimed we’ve lost or are losing. That’s something that is also claimed is contributing to our inadequate response to that crisis. It’s harder to value what we have no connection with. So a big part of my research and my sense of hope actually is working with individuals and groups who are seeking a reconnection to nature in one form or another. A great example of that is this really popular volunteer shepherding scheme in Brighton and Hove. Local councils – and Brighton and Hove have been at the forefront of this – are increasingly using sheep and other animals to graze land on the urban fringes rather than machinery as a way of encouraging more biodiverse habitats. It’s called conservation grazing, and they rely on volunteers – lookerers as they’re called locally – to help look after the sheep and the scheme has proved exceptionally popular. There’s a waiting list. So working with colleagues at the University of Brighton, James Oberon and a student researcher Sarah Smith over the last two summers, we’ve been interviewing lookerers whilst they undertake a shift. We’ve been finding out what they get out of it, how they engage with the sheep, the landscape, what motivates them to volunteer. It’s been fascinating so far. We’re writing it up at the moment and it’s also a great excuse to explore the green edges of the city. Out in the field in both senses. 

And what do your takeaways from that tell you, then? If you were to sum up what the lookerers were telling you about the value of going out and doing that work, what would you say 

I’d hesitate for now, at the moment, because we haven’t analysed the data fully, but what I see there is a really interesting connection to the animals, to the sheep, a sense of care and duty and responsibility, and also a sense of a reconnection to nature not just to the sheep but the natural landscape. So a greater noticing of the places in which people live and a real cherishing of that. But also lots of novel and complex social relations, so with dog walkers and members of the public, other species that appear on the land as well.

And I presume that you do buy into that idea that a greater connection to the natural world can help us come to terms with thinking outside of ourselves as humans?

I think it’s complex. Culture gets in the way and mediates that relationship. But basically yes I do. I think there is a profound potential power in experiences in nature.

Okay. And maybe we’ll come onto that a bit later when you talk about your favourite places in Sussex. So onto teaching now, and your teaching methods. You say that you like to teach psychology is a subject that has direct personal relevance to your students. How do you go about making it relevant to each student with their unique backgrounds and experience? That sounds like quite quite a challenge. 

It’s quite a challenge but it mainly occurs to me through conversation and dialogue. That’s when you get to know genuinely where a student’s coming from. So I ask students about their own experience and I try to make them feel that their own background and perspective is important. Psychology is not an abstract science. When it comes to psychology there’s no better raw material than people’s own experiences. 

And when you say it’s not an abstract science, is that a common misconception do you think? 

Well the history of psychology is a history of a kind of battle between its attempts to be recognized as a science and others recognizing it as something more artistic or nuanced. Yeah, there is a common misconception that it is somehow a white coats scientific endeavour. Why would I would not dismiss the idea of it being a science, humans studying humans is always going to be a complex affair.

So you think students sometimes come into the course with that misconception that then then you try and put them straight I suppose with your teaching method? 

Werll, they undertake research methods and that can feel more scientific I suppose. But yeah what we certainly do is try and encourage a broader understanding of psychology that’s directly relevant to people’s lives so that can be scientific in that sense but can also be it can also be a different kind of endeavour; political, historical, sociological sometimes. 

So, in their work would they be encouraged to bring in incidents and anecdotes and memories from their own lives?

Absolutely. So that’s what we would encourage and that can be difficult when we’re teaching things like mental health and distress, for example, so we have to have boundaries and we have to be careful. But yeah absolutely, it’s the case that people’s own experiences are directly relevant to the subjects that you studying in psychology.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of teaching in your view? 

It’s group teaching because that’s where a conversation and dialogue can happen. The best learning for me is where students become comfortable enough to consider difficult questions together, equipped with what they’re learning through reading and engagement with ideas. And for me also when teaching subjects they’re unlikely to have come across before. I find that rewarding, when they connect to their wider experience. And I love it when students engage with these kinds of topics, and a light goes on. Eco-psychology and the psychology of human-animal relations are recent examples I’ve been involved in. 

Is the work that you mentioned earlier about the environment being worked into the curriculum or do you have more plans for that? 

Absolutely it’s worked into the curriculum. So if we’re talking about Introduction to Psychology now, then relationship between humans and nature is now an introductory topic. But I also run a specialist module in the final year that engages with these kinds of issues in more depth.

What do you think the psychology department at the university does best? 

We do lots of things really well. But I think we are brilliant – my colleagues are brilliant – at encouraging our psychologists, are budding psychologists, to think critically and compassionately about the world around them. To use psychology as a way of offering multiple, often novel, perspectives on the problems we face in the world as individuals. 

So we’re now going to move on some quick fire personal questions that we ask all of our interview subjects. So to start off what is your favourite place in Sussex? 

That’s tough because there are so many. Right now I’d go for Hollingbury hill fort. It’s in the middle of a public golf course off the Ditchling Road but it’s an ancient spot and I think it’s a bit special. 

And can you describe your perfect weekend? 

Probably a bike ride with my partner and kids between Brighton Marina and Saltdean with a café built in. Maybe then meet up with friends on the beach for a quick dip, dog walk up to the aforementioned hill fort, iff I could squeeze it in a game of tennis somewhere along the way, and maybe an hour or two with friends in a pub somewhere like The Basketmakers.

What are you currently reading watching or listening to? 

Well I love all three of those things. I love new music. I can’t stop listening to new music, especially New Zealand singer-songwriter Aldous Harding. She’s fantastic and eccentric. I love new Brighton band Penelope Isles. Their first album Until the Tide Creeps In is wonderful. In terms of reading, I’m reading the novel Lanny by Max Porter. It’s a very strange wonderful tale of an English village. In terms of watching I just finished watching Stranger Things Series three. It’s great to have something to watch with my kids and we love it. 

Who are your five fantasy dinner guests, alive or dead? 

That’s a tough one. I mean I’m kind of tempted to go for temporary political heroes like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Caroline Lucas or Jess Phillips. But, let’s get the Beatles back together for one last time and maybe we’ll offer up the other seat in some kind of global lottery. 

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