Life & Culture

From rock stars to group dynamics

In his latest Jewniversity column, David Edmonds examines the work of Michael Billig


Hedgehogs, it seems to me, are more likely to become famous than foxes.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided thinkers into two broad types. There were the hedgehogs — who know one big thing — and foxes who know lots of things. Hedgehog academics — who come up with one bold original idea — often become famous. Fox academics struggle to achieve the same prominence, even when they deserve it.

Michael Billig is a fox who should be far better known. A social scientist polymath, he’s written on a dizzying array of topics: Freud and the unconscious, language and rhetoric, discrimination, fascism, nationalism, academic prose, the royal family, laughter (writing that book was miserable, he says), even rock and roll Jews (writing that book was “a pleasure”). Why so many topics? “I have a low threshold of boredom”.

He began his studies as an undergraduate at Bristol University, studying psychology and philosophy. He found the psychology tedious until midway through his degree Bristol appointed a charismatic new professor, a Polish-born Jew and Holocaust survivor, Henri Tajfel. Tajfel became Britain’s greatest social psychologist and Billig played a pivotal role in the design of his most famous experiment, the Minimal Group Paradigm.

Tajfel wanted to see how easily humans could be divided into groups and how their group identity could lead them to discriminate against other groups. Billig devised the means to test this. School kids were asked for their views on a variety of paintings and then told that on this basis they were either in the Kandinsky group or the Klee group. In fact, this was a ruse: they were split up entirely at random. They were later given some money to distribute amongst all those who’d taken part in the experiment. Tajfel and Billig discovered that the kids gave more money to people in their own group than to those in the other group.

Bristol had become a centre for social psychology, but Billig didn’t hang around. He moved to Birmingham University and then to Loughborough. Throughout his career he kept up a steady stream of publications. If there’s a thread that unites his research, it’s that he has the skill of identifying the norms and practices that are so entrenched in our lives that the rest of us barely notice them. He brings them to the surface. He makes the invisible visible. His book on nationalism, for example, details the numerous subtle processes through which the nation state perpetuates itself— at the end of the TV news the newsreader goes to ‘the weather’. We are shown the map of only one part of the world — the UK and Northern Ireland. We’d only start spotting all the ways our national identity is reinforced if they were removed.

It’s hard to fit Professor Billig’s book on rock and roll Jews into any wider pattern: it was the indulging of a passion. The book’s origins lay in the preparations for his daughter’s bat mitzvah. Billig decided to compile a tape of rock music for the occasion and thought it appropriate to seek out Jewish composers. It was then that he realised that so many of his favourite songs had Jewish connections. The book ended up focusing on the sometimes fraught relationship between two hyphenated groups, Jewish-Americans and African-Americans.

Michael Billig was born in 1947 into a middle-class family, although three grandparents were part of the late 19th Century wave of immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. Michael’s father was a doctor as was his aunt Hannah. If you visit Cable Street in East London you’ll find a blue plaque honouring Hannah. ‘The Angel of Cable’ attended to countless numbers of injured people during the blitz, even after she herself was injured.

As a young man, Billig rebelled against his strict religious upbringing, but after his kids were born decided he wanted them to have some knowledge of Jewish tradition. He now lives in Nottingham and is a member of the local liberal synagogue. He regards himself as very much a Jewish thinker, bringing an outsider’s perspective to our way of life. It’s no coincidence, he says, that almost all the writers he’s most been influenced by — Freud, Wittgenstein, Popper and Arendt — have been Jewish.

His latest book is about how some great thinkers in psychology make use of examples to illustrate their theses. It once again takes him off in a new direction. You can’t keep a good fox down.


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