Tuesday, 8 May 2012

"Groupthink", Agreement and the Debate of Ideas

Twice in the last week, I've been accused of "Oxford groupthink" because of things I've said regarding the research about children and shared care arrangements after parental separation. In this post, I discuss why it is that I think I am not influenced by my colleagues in the way that "groupthink" implies, and I suggest, as an alternative explanation, that the charge of "groupthink" is designed to discredit a rigorously reached academic consensus that a minority group prefers not to accept.

What Is Groupthink?

It's 60 years since William Whyte Jr coined the term "groupthink", with its (probably intentionally) Orwellian overtones, in an article in Fortune magazine. Whyte acknowledged that groupthink had pejorative connotations, and thought in particular that it went well beyond the normal social pressures to conform with a group. For Whyte, the key was "a rationalized conformity - an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well".

Unsurprisingly, this term caught the attention of scholars. Irving Janis, a psychologist at Yale, published a number of studies including an article called "Groupthink" in the journal Psychology in 1971 and a book called Victims of Groupthink in 1972. In the former, he defined groupthink in this way:

"I use the term groupthink as a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Groupthink is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary George Orwell used in his dismaying world of 1984. In that context, groupthink takes on an invidious connotation. Exactly such a connotation is intended, since the term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures."

Now, there's plenty of debate and criticism about all this (as the discussion on Wiki shows), but the basic ideas seem clear. Groupthink occurs when you have a group of people who, consciously or not, become more interested in agreeing with each other than they are in making an objective assessment. What's more, loyalty to the group overrides individual judgement; dissenters within the group are criticised and censored, and opponents outside the group are stereotyped and demonised.

Am I part of groupthink?

So is this going on amongst the academic community interested in families and the law at Oxford? Anything's possible, I suppose, but I'm not convinced. To start with, I'm just not sure that we see enough of each other. There are nine or ten of us here working in various capacities as tutors and researchers, but I can't recall us all being together at any time. Some of my colleagues here I see once or twice a year (usually at conferences outside Oxford!); one or two I see every few weeks; and the rest I see half a dozen times a year or so.

More interesting, though, is whether we find evidence of pressure to conform. In principle, I'd be surprised to find this since a large part of Oxford's ethos is a commitment to independence of thought. As a tutor of undergraduates, I try never tell my students what they should think about something. In fact, I rarely even tell them what I actually think - I'm more interested in presenting possible arguments to them and playing with the ideas. But is that what we find in the research community?

While accepting that some influences might be very subtle, I honestly can't think of any occasion when I've felt the slightest pressure to agree with any particular view. Even on occasions when I've co-authored with colleagues from Oxford, we often don't agree about everything - we just write about the things that we do agree about. For example, Peter G Harris and I disagree about whether pre-nuptial agreements should be allowed in the law or not. Nonetheless, we have co-authored articles on this issue, pointing out possible problems with giving additional weight to pre-nups.

In fact, a large part of the job of an academic is to subject the thoughts and ideas of other people to critical analysis. As a legal academic, I do this mostly with court judgments, but also with academic writing. For example, my forthcoming book, Ideas and Debates in Family Law, contains criticisms of a number of academics, including some of my Oxford colleagues.

I've also written particularly on the importance of dissenting opinions and counter-thought. My article, "In Defence of Dissent", was focused on the value that minority opinions have in court judgments, and I criticised a number of Supreme Court judges for appearing to 'discipline' one of their colleagues for publicly expressing disagreement with the majority view. However, the same applies in all walks of life, as I said in the article. Obviously we all pick our battles, but I hope that I'm usually willing to say when I disagree with something. (Just ask anyone who goes to Faculty Meetings or conferences with me!) So I think, on the whole, that I'm fairly aware of attempts to influence what I think about things.

There's more, though. The implied description of a so-called Oxford group of academics belies the national and international community of scholars that we work in. I see many of my colleagues from other Universities more often than I see some of my Oxford colleagues - from Exeter, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Cambridge, UCL, KCL, Sussex, Birmingham, Bristol and, internationally, from Melbourne, ANU, Sydney, Otago, Columbia, UBC, Cape Town, Paris... Obviously, these interactions come in different forms, but include lengthy and well established relationships, including plenty of people who are well prepared to tell me that they think I'm wrong, or that they think I've misunderstood something. This happened on a draft of my blog post on shared parenting, in fact. I sent it to a colleague outside Oxford to review it, and was told that something that I had written "went beyond the evidence". When I went back and checked my references, I saw that I had indeed got that point wrong, and it was duly changed before the blog post went live. I hope that my colleagues would always tell me if they thought I was wrong. It doesn't mean I'll agree with them, but I'll think about it some more and decide if they have a valid criticism or not.

The charge of groupthink also belies the sheer amount of time that I spend reading and thinking about cases and academic research. It was all but said to me last week that my views on some of the shared parenting research were based on an inaccurate summary given to me by someone else. That charge is offensive on a number of levels, not least because of the days of my life that I have spent reading vast and often dense reports and articles.

Understanding the Groupthink Attack:

It's possible that, without realising it, I am part of a groupthink culture - but I don't think so. I think, rather, that the charge of groupthink is designed to discredit an established, widely-held and in fact now dominant academic consensus of which I happen to be a part. Looking at a large body of research conducted by many scholars in many countries, I have reached certain conclusions. Those are also the conclusions of many (but not all) of my colleagues, and those conclusions are disliked by certain individuals and organisations because they do not fit with their own views.

However, finding their own views to be in a minority, some of those who disagree with my conclusions feel the need to attack the general consensus. There's nothing wrong with having a general consensus challenged - indeed, it's healthy, and I'm not unhappy about that. But there's some interesting politics when the attack is not about the research that I draw on or the way that I reach my conclusions, but rather on my very integrity as an academic scholar. The charge is that I have failed to make an independent appraisal of the evidence, that my ability to see reality and to exercise moral judgement has been impaired, and therefore that my comments should be disregarded because they are part of an invidious collective view.

In a way, I'm flattered that anyone thinks that what I say is potentially important enough to be worth going to this effort to discredit me. On the other hand, academics trade on our reputations, which is why I've thought it important to take a little time to explain why it is that I think my views are, in fact, my views based on my own analysis of the available evidence. They have been argued about and bounced around with friends and colleagues in Oxford and beyond, but they are, none the less, my views. The fact that many other academics have reached similar conclusions is not evidence of some conspiracy or a lack of ability to think for ourselves, but rather of the fact that there is an established, independently and rigorously reached academic consensus.

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