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John Charles Turner (1947–2011)

by Alex Haslam, Penny Oakes, Steve Reicher and Kate Reynolds

Social science has lost a brilliant scholar who transformed our understanding of mind and behaviour. Emeritus Professor John Charles Turner passed away at age 63. He was Professor of Psychology at The Australian National University since 1990 retiring with Emeritus status in 2008. He served two terms as Head of Department (1991–94 and 1997–99) and also was Dean of Science (1994–96).

Over a 30-year period from the mid-1970s onwards, Turner made an immense contribution to the field of psychology. He is one of very few individuals who have shaped the character of the modern field. Turner applied his brilliance, energy and passion to the intellectual challenge that sits at the heart of social psychology: how do individual minds make possible groups and society, and how does society change individual minds? In these times of intergroup conflict, it is easy to appreciate the role groups and group beliefs play in shaping the world around us.

Social psychology and the social sciences more broadly, though, have struggled to develop a detailed and robust account of how our psychology makes group behaviour possible and the way in which society, culture and groups come to affect the way we think, feel and behave. Over the last century, the answers have been largely unsatisfactory—pointing to the role of early passive socialisation, faulty psychology, simple conformity and peer pressure, or even suggesting that in the group we lose our rationality and are driven by animal instincts and emotion.

Turner’s legacy is that he has given us elaborated theories (social identity theory and self-categorisation theory) to explain and investigate the processes that underpin group life. These theories have wide appeal and are utilised extensively by scholars across a range of disciplines such as politics, economics and management. His book Rediscovering the Social Group, on which he collaborated with his PhD students Michael Hogg, Penny Oakes, Steve Reicher and Margaret Wetherell, is the most highly cited in the field.

Born in South London on 7 September 1947, John was the eldest of eight children, all raised in a small council flat. At the age of 11, he received a scholarship to Wilson’s School in Camberwell, UK (founded in 1615), but at school he was always conscious of the fact that his working-class background set him apart other students. Nevertheless, he excelled at Latin and English and went on to study psychology at the University of Sussex (1965–71).

Again, though, he had difficulty fitting in and dropped out several times, taking on intermittent work sometimes with his father who was a window fixer installing frames in high-rise buildings. On one of these occasions, he got a job in a Fleet Street printing factory, and there his experiences as a trade union organiser played a formative role in shaping his thinking about groups, power and collective behaviour. He saw that groups and group psychology imbued members with a sense of purpose, pride and solidarity. These were the themes that reawakened his academic interests. He returned to university to finish his undergraduate degree and PhD (1971–74) at the University of Bristol where he worked with the late Henri Tajfel to develop social identity theory. Their question was when do members of negatively valued categories—women in a sexist society, black people in a racist society—adapt to oppression and when do they act collectively to challenge it? They saw the answer in the ways that people represent social structure: it is when people see inequality as unavoidable, as illegitimate, and as unstable that they will join together to challenge it. These ideas have generated a whole new psychology of intergroup relations and collective action.

In the early 1980s, Turner left Britain (as he often remarked, a refugee of Thatcherism) to work for a year at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, before moving to Australia in 1983. He worked at Macquarie University in Sydney and then moved to become Head of the School of Psychology at the ANU in Canberra.

In Canberra, John lived for the longest time in Griffith with his then wife Penny and their two girls, Jane and Isobel, both of whom survive him and have an interest in psychology. John loved Canberra and the Australian landscape. A favourite past time was gardening, and he enjoyed visiting and strolling through the Australian National Botanic Gardens. His Latin skills came to the fore in learning the full botanical name for many native species.

During the latter phase of his career in Australia, Turner worked intensively on the development of self-categorisation theory, his analysis of the social mind. A critical insight is that people can define themselves as individuals who are unique and different from others (‘I’ and ‘me’) or as a group member (‘we’ and ‘us’). Those that are similar to ‘us’—ingroup members—are important in clarifying the relevant social norms and influencing our own views. As our definition of ourselves as an ingroup member (group identity) shifts, so too can our views about what is appropriate and acceptable (social norms). The fact that we can include some, or all others, in our own self-concepts reveals we truly are social animals with minds designed for sociality. A large body of research now has demonstrated that this ability to form a sense of ‘we’ is critical for group behaviour such as empathy, helping, trust, cohesion, influence and leadership. In fact, the route to sustainable social and behavioural change (in health, in dysfunctional communities, in the planet’s survival) is through the group, the crafting of relevant identities and associated norms.

As John explained in one of his last major papers, ‘Explaining the nature of power: A three-process theory’, it is through working together in shared identity that we create our own fate. Across a number of projects with various students and colleagues, John radically reshaped our understanding of the nature of the psychological group, the self, social influence, intergroup relations and prejudice, social categorisation, and stereotyping.

There are certainly other individuals who have made exceptional contributions in one or more major areas, but there is not any other researcher who has had such a dramatic impact across so many core areas. It is this range and the character of the impact that makes him one of the leaders of the science.

John was charismatic, passionate and charming. But it is also true that for some John could be difficult to deal with. He believed in getting it right and cared enough to consider and argue his case forcefully. For John, academia was not meant to be a genteel pursuit governed by norms of politeness. It involved a battle of ideas that have real social and political consequences. But perhaps the person who suffered most from this intellectual intensity was John himself. He had a troubled personal life. He found people a source of great joy but also of great pain. In all he was married and divorced three times.

John’s brilliant energy lit up social psychology for nearly 40 years. Although he will be sadly missed by those that knew him and have been inspired by his ideas, there is cause for celebration as he has illuminated the path forward well into the future.

* Originally published: psychology.anu.edu.au/files/Emeritus%20Prof%20John%20Charles%20Turner.pdf.

Citation details

Alex Haslam, Penny Oakes, Steve Reicher and Kate Reynolds, 'Turner, John Charles (1947–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/turner-john-charles-32997/text41123, accessed 24 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

7 September, 1947
London, Middlesex, England

Death

24 July, 2011 (aged 63)

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