Discover our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine of the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies writes about her current research activity.

Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine

Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine

Hi Silke. What is your current topic of research?

My current project is on the notion of ‘challenging heritage’: I am interested in the ways in which ‘challenging’ or ‘difficult heritage’ is interpreted and managed in different cultural and national contexts. My focus is on the question of how personal and cultural memory relate to each other in modes of engagement framed as affective and experiential encounters with the past, most importantly but not exclusively in (memorial) museums and heritage sites that favour immersive strategies and aim to produce empathy in visitors.

In this context I interrogate preconceived assumptions of what the relationship between affect/emotion, experience and comprehension (and consequently action) is supposed to be; just because we have ‘felt’ and experienced something, does it mean we are any closer to understanding it? Key questions are:

  • the role of interactive media forms (from the oral to the performative and digital) in this process
  • how memory practices and performances are negotiated among groups of stakeholders
  • and how supposedly very different modes of relating to the past (trauma, nostalgia) complement and inform each other in unexpected ways as audiences engage with historical interpretations.

One of my case studies is a comparative analysis of commemorative projects around the First World War Centenary.

Why did you choose this topic?

Living between (at least) two cultures (Silke is originally from Germany, but now lives in South-West London) drew my attention to how collectives relate to shared pasts in very different ways: they do not only choose to remember and forget different bits or tell different stories about shared events, they also have very different modes of engaging with the past.

What excites you about this topic?

Its topicality and relevance to current memory politics, people think of memory as predominantly being about the past but in actual fact the way we relate to the past is mostly about how we want to live in the present.

What is challenging about the research?

The most challenging element of the research I am doing is that it is situated between subject and research areas, which means that I am often trespassing on other people’s turfs. I have to engage with a broad spectrum of research methodologies, increasingly not only quantitative but also qualitative methodologies, so I am constantly forced to step out of my comfort zones.

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

I have worked with practitioners from various walks of life – artists, museum curators, theatre people – in order to get closer to the audiences which have a vested interest in the role cultural memory plays in all our lives. I think my research can offer a self-reflective perspective on the modes of memory we all engage in every day and identify how we can mobilize strong affective responses as catalysts that help to transform unprocessed affect into emotional thought (and when I am very hopeful) also into actions.

What misconceptions are there around your discipline or area of research?

When I tell people that I work on First World War Commemoration they often think that I am a historian and that I actually work on the First World War. Some are rather disappointed to learn that I am first and foremost interested in the way contemporary societies relate to the First World War and how they narrativize the past in the here and now.

My focus on cultural memory is also difficult to explain, most people associate memory with the ability of an individual to recall experiences and events through which they have lived. However, the concept of cultural memory provides a conceptual framework that helps to interrogate how smaller or larger groups (families or nations) ‘remember’ and keep memories alive beyond the lifetime of the actual memory bearers.

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Make fear your friend

This post was contributed by Professor Naz Derakhshan of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences

 

“Fear is often thought of as a negative emotion, but a new idea in psychology suggests that using it the right way can turn it into an incredibly positive force in your life.”

 

So starts a three page health feature article in the February edition of Top Sante. Showcasing the expertise of Birkbeck’s Prof Naz Derakhshan, the article posits that  fear can be turned into a positive force in our lives – all we need to do is listen to it, trust in it, and learn from it. In other words, we need to befriend it.

“Instead of thinking of fear solely as a negative emotion, embrace it as an
important warning system,’ says Professor Derakhshan in the article. “Being afraid of something is a signal that its consequence is important to you so it should be attended to.”
Click below to read the full piece, which includes some handy tips on how to welcome fear as a positive friend in your life, and how to ultimately become its boss.
Make Fear Your Friend - page 1 (article copyright of Top Sante)

Make Fear Your Friend – page 1 (article copyright of Top Sante)

 

Make Fear Your Friend - page 2 (article copyright of Top Sante)

Make Fear Your Friend – page 2 (article copyright of Top Sante)

 

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Empire of Things

The following are two excerpts from Prof Frank Trentmann‘s new book, Empire of Things How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (UK: Allen Lane, 2016; USA: HarperCollins, 2016).

In the book, which has been released today, Prof Trentmann unfolds the extraordinary history that has shaped our material world, from late Ming China, Renaissance Italy and the British empire to the present. Astonishingly wide-ranging and richly detailed, ‘Empire of Things’ explores how we have come to live with so much more, how this changed the course of history, and the global challenges we face as a result.

EmpireOfThings_MockUp_Front - Copy (2) Introduction

We live surrounded by things. A typical German owns 10,000 objects. In Los Angeles, a middle-class garage often no longer houses a car but several hundred boxes of stuff. The United Kingdom in 2013 was home to 6 billion items of clothing, roughly a hundred per adult; a quarter of these never leave the wardrobe. Of course, people always had things, and used them not only to survive but for ritual, display and fun. But the possessions in a pre-modern village or an indigenous tribe pale when placed next to the growing mountain of things in advanced societies like ours.

This change in accumulation involved a historic shift in humans’ relations with things. In contrast to the pre-modern village, where most goods were passed on and arrived as gifts or with the wedding trousseau, things in modern societies are mainly bought in the marketplace. And they pass through our lives more quickly.

In the last few hundred years, the acquisition, flow and use of things – in short, consumption – has become a defining feature of our lives. It would be a mistake to think people at any time have had a single identity, but there have been periods when certain roles have been dominant, defining a society and its culture. In Europe, the High Middle Ages saw the rise of a ‘chivalrous society’ of knights and serfs.

The Reformation pitched one faith against another. In the nineteenth century, a commercial society gave way to an industrial class society of capitalists and wage workers. Work remains important today, but it defines us far less than in the heyday of the factory and the trade union. Instead of warriors or workers, we are more than ever before consumers.

In the rich world  – and in the developing world increasingly, too  – identities, politics, the economy and the environment are crucially shaped by what and how we consume. Taste, appearance and lifestyle define who we are (or want to be) and how others see us. Politicians treat public services like a supermarket of goods, hoping it will provide citizens with greater choice. Many citizens, in turn, seek to advance social and political causes by using the power of their purse in boycotts and buycotts. Advanced economies live or die by their ability to stimulate and maintain high levels of spending, with the help of advertising, branding and consumer credit. Perhaps the most existential impact is that of our materially intensive lifestyle on the planet. Our lifestyles are fired by fossil fuels. In the twentieth century, carbon emissions per person quadrupled. Today, transport and bigger, more comfortable homes, filled with more appliances, account for just under half of global CO2 emissions. Eating more meat has seriously disturbed the nitrogen cycle. Consumers are even more deeply implicated if the emissions released in the process of making and delivering their things are taken into account. And, at the end of their lives, many broken TVs and computers from Europe end up in countries like Ghana and Nigeria, causing illness and pollution as they are picked apart for precious materials.

How much and what to consume is one of the most urgent but also thorniest questions of our day. This book is a historical contribution to that debate. It tells the story of how we came to live with so much more, and how this has changed the course of history.

Age of Ideologies

She was just nineteen and lucky to be alive. Heidi Simon had been born the year Hitler came to power. Frankfurt am Main, her hometown, was among the cities worst hit by Allied bombing; the 1944 raids killed thousands and left half the population homeless. Now, in 1952, Heidi was one of the winners in an amateur photography competition to celebrate the American Marshall plan. Recovery had barely begun. The entries reflected the harsh realities of post-war Europe: ‘Bread for all’; ‘No more hunger’; ‘New homes’. She scooped one of the top prizes: a Vespa moped plus prize money. The officials at the Ministry for the
Marshall Plan may well have been surprised by her response. She was very happy about winning but, she wrote, to be honest and without trying to sound ‘impertinent’, she wondered whether she could not rather have a Lambretta than a Vespa. For the entire last year she had ‘passionately’ longed for a Lambretta. The Ministry refused and sent her the Vespa.

This snapshot of young Heidi Simon, tucked away in the German federal archives, is a reminder of how the large forces of history intersect with the material lives and dreams of ordinary people. The Marshall Plan was a critical moment in the reconstruction of Europe and the advancing Cold War divide between East and West, but its recipients were far from passive. Heidi’s outspoken desire for a particularly stylish consumer good in the midst of rubble also challenges the conventional idea that consumer society was the product of galloping growth in the age of affluence, the mid-1950s to 1973. It jars with the sometimes instinctive assumption that people turn to goods only for identity, communication or sheer fun after they have fulfilled their basic needs for food, shelter, security and health.

It is no coincidence that this psychological model of the ‘hierarchy of needs’, initially proposed by the American Abraham Maslow in 1943, gained in popularity just as affluence began to spread. According to this theory, Heidi Simon should have asked to trade in the Vespa for bricks and mortar and perhaps some savings bonds, rather than hoping for an upgrade to the 123cc Lambretta with its sleek single-piece tubular frame.

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CEO rewards – More does not equal better

This post has been contributed by Dr Almuth McDowall, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Organisational Psychology, with input from Paul Hajduk from PayData, Jonny Gifford from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), Dr Zara Whysall from Lane4 and Dr Duncan Jackson from Birkbeck. It builds on a recent practitioner report Almuth and colleagues produced for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (The power and pitfalls of executive reward: a behavioural perspective)

CEO

The size of the packet

Chief executive officer (CEO) pay is a serious topic which requires serious and well-informed debate. In one way or another the size and makeup of CEO rewards affects everybody – either because it can be seen as part of the trend for wealth to be increasing concentrated in the hands of the few, or because the measures that drive the package do not necessarily serve the best interests of society as a whole.

The average UK CEO wage packet is now around the £5million per annum – imagine 100,000 £50 bank notes lined up neatly in a row to get an idea of what this means in reality. We witnessed ‘fat cat Tuesday’ in the first week of January; when CEOs had earned the average UK workers’ salary in just 22 hours.

Are CEOs worth the money?

The notion of the ‘fat cat’ and unfair pay gaps has been vehemently disputed as ‘pub economics’ by the Adam Smith Institute’s director Sam Bowman. The argument runs that organisations need to be profitable to survive so they can make a contribution to a nation’s economy; and that the value of a CEO is hard to quantify in an absolute sense.

Clearly, organisations need to be effective to survive. It is also arguable that the figurehead at the top contributes the most to the long-term success of the organisation. The symbolic value of the person at the top is great, and can make or break corporate success hence CEOs should be rewarded proportionally to their input. But does proportion equate to 180 times the average workers’ salary?

How can we explain the growth in CEO rewards?

In our report, Paul Hajduk of Paydata undertook a robust analysis of pay trends over the last few years. He set out to test whether the rise in CEO pay could be explained in the context of UK wealth creation. Yes, there is a widening gap between rich and poor, however the number of people in the 1 million plus earnings bracket has remained relatively stable. CEO rewards continue to grow, quite out of proportion to the rate of growth of high pay generally and also to the rather unsteady growth of the UK economy. So the growth in CEO rewards cannot be accounted for by wealth increase per se, can it be justified in terms of increased organisational performance? Apparently not. An interesting paper reveals that organisations with particularly highly paid CEOs are unlikely to be in the top 10 percent of high performing organisations [WSJ, 2015].

Paul says: “There would appear to be little to support the argument that high CEO pay growth is justified by how their role is often positioned, which is as wealth generating entrepreneurs. Yes, they may lose their job if things do not go well but they rarely lose much of their own money. We have yet so see if clawbacks built into reward arrangements will be truly effective in creating significant downside risk in CEO reward packages”.

This leads to the wider question of how organisational performance is benchmarked.

What is the link between CEO rewards and organisational performance?

Most organisations benchmark CEO success against hard measures such as profitability and productivity, the bulk of research in the field also concerns itself with financial indicators. Far fewer organisations use non-financial metrics such as staff health, safety or engagement measures in their annual reporting. However, it is important to consider the human aspects of performance and their link to organisational outcomes. One US study considered the characteristic of the CEOs of US basketball teams and the link to measures as wide ranging as external team reputation, winnings and fan attendance at matches (Resick, Whitman, Weingarden and Hiller, 2009). There is a shortage of parallel evidence in a business context which considers the relationship between differentiated measures of CEO performance, and the scope of their impact on organisations such as their members, including intangible assets such as motivation and engagement.

Are our reward structures creating the wrong kind of CEOs, or are our CEOs creating the wrong kinds of rewards?

Dr Zara Whysall from Lane4 says: “Our work with a range of organisations has shown that reward practice in organisations lacks an evidence-base, CEO reward practice appears no different. People tend to overestimate the motivating force of money in particular where rewards are delayed and not immediate, and we also do not pay enough attention to non-financial rewards and the impact they have an on organisation’s culture and ethos.”

There have been several high profile instances of rather dysfunctional examples of CEO stewardship particularly in the financial sector. It is therefore important to try and understand the influence CEOs have. Research shows us that powerful CEOs are good at negotiating rewards and clever at shining the spotlight on favourable indicators [Morse et al., 2014].

Time for a change?

There is a strong case for change in executive reward practice given that the justification for the maintaining the current status quo is at best dubious. However, the research detailed in our report shows that barriers are ingrained and institutionalised. Whilst there is body of people who support change and who state openly that the UK (and the world?) needs more considered, innovative and ethical CEOs in the future, there is less consensus on how such change can be brought about.

The vision for the future

London docklandsGiven the lack of evidence to support the ever escalating size of senior rewards, CEO salaries should be a smaller multiple of average earnings, with smaller bonus packages, and reduced long term incentives such as performance share schemes. But is it a more pressing question that in order for change to happen we need different people at the top?

There is the argument that any capping of rewards policy changes will negatively impact organisations’ ability to recruit and retain the quality of people needed to position themselves positively in the global market place. To counter this, it is informative to compare and contrast CEO reward in the most successful mission-led businesses. When profit distribution moves from being the primary motive the CEO reward package loses, in most cases, most of the upside variable pay elements and share-based pay disappears altogether. And yet these businesses attract and retain very able leaders who are maybe motivated by things other than the size of their reward package.

A fundamental shift in leadership practice might need to accompany these reward changes. There is ample evidence that shared leadership is better than top centric leadership [Wang et al., 2014]. It is also a fact that diversity at top levels does not mirror society at large. Only radical revision of selection, talent management and reward processes and structures will change the current status quo. Our report makes distinct recommendations for how to put this into practice.

But are our recommendations radical enough, or should we start again with a blank slate? Dr Almuth McDowall says: “This has been a fascinating and complex research project which we hope will offer a rich springboard for debate. There appears a cautious consensus that change is needed, yet a certain reluctance to challenge the current status quo. Do read our report, and let us know – are our recommendations radical enough?”

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References

  • Morse, A., Nanda, V., & Seru, A. (2014). Compensation Rigging by Powerful CEOs: A Reply and Cross-Sectional Evidence. Critical Finance Review, Vol. 3 No. 1, pp. 153-190.
  • Resick, C. J., Whitman, D. S., Weingarden, S. M., & Hiller, N. J. (2009). The bright-side and the dark-side of CEO personality: examining core self-evaluations, narcissism, transformational leadership, and strategic influence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(6), 1365.
  • Wall Street Journal (2015) How much the best-performance and worst-performance CEOs got paid. 25th June 2015
  • Wang, D, Waldman, D. A. and Zhang, Z. (2014) A meta-analysis of shared leadership and team effectiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 99 No. 2, pp.181 -199
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