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Dame Stephanie Shirley’s Psychological Adjustments Essay

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Updated: Jul 4th, 2021


Researchers have pointed out the difficulty of understanding people’s psychological evolution or changes throughout time. However, they say that the best way to get an in-depth view into their lives is to select a sample of research participants, analyse them over time and make observations about their mental changes. Stemming from this recommendation, this paper evaluates the psychological adjustments that Dame Stephanie Shirley made after she witnessed persecution in Germany and fled to England. Three themes emerged: trauma, “self” in a social context, attitudes and persuasion. These core issues of her psychological growth stem from her view of life, which is largely influenced by her childhood experiences fleeing from Germany in the Hitler period when Jews were the targets of religious persecution and her move to England, where she lives as a refugee. In this analysis, her views on life are explored relative to how they affect her psychological well-being.


At the core of modern developmental psychology is the need to understand the influences that shape people’s psychological and physical growth (Capdvila, Dixon & Briggs 2015). A significant proportion of studies that have explored this subject have focused on understanding what people can do at different stages of development (from infancy to adulthood) (Blijd-Hoogewys & Van Geert 2016). Many research studies that have adopted this analytical perspective have mainly investigated adolescent and adult behaviours as the main developmental stages requiring careful attention (Buil et al., 2015). These two groups of respondents undergo different changes throughout their lives, but developmental psychologists have always paid attention to their motivations or influences (Stotz 2014; Buil et al. 2015).

Broadly, the above-mentioned steps of understanding human cognitive processes have prompted researchers to think about human development in blocks of time or in distinct stages (Buil et al., 2015). This analytical perspective creates the view that development is a gradual process with a smooth trajectory that starts from infancy and ends in old age. Although it is difficult to understand people’s evolution or changes throughout time, researchers such as Schuhmacher and Kärtner (2015) argue that the best way to get an in-depth view into their lives is to select a sample of research participants, analyse them over time and make observations about their behavioural changes. This process explains one of the key pillars of psychology, which is helping people to understand moments of transition in their lifetime. This field of psychology shows that moments of human transition are influenced by three guises: actor, agent and author (De la Sablonnière 2017). These factors have the capability of influencing psychological growth throughout a person’s lifespan, from the time they are children up to the time they become adults.

According to Capdvila, Dixon and Briggs (2015), transition in human life is one way of looking at stability and change. Practical assessments of the transition from childhood to adulthood, relative to the influences that come in life to shape the process, have been implemented through a reflection process that strives to help people think about their lives from when they were children into the adulthood stage (and all the changes that may have influenced the same process). In such a system, people are often encouraged to understand the role of friends, family, colleagues and other people who hold influential positions in their lives. Such exercises have been a central thread in lifespan developmental psychology, and many theorists who have discussed or investigated this subject have devoted their time to understand the interaction between stability and change (Stotz 2014). From this process, there is a common assumption in developmental psychology, which posits that what happens in a person’s childhood has a significant impact on their adult life.

This paper is a thematic analysis of an audio clip from an interview conducted by the Oral History of British Science on Dame Stephanie Shirley, who is a Jewish refugee living in England. Based on a review of the interview transcript, three themes emerged: trauma, self in a social context, attitudes and persuasion. In the analysis, her experiences were explored relative to how they affected her psychological well-being and view of life. The review was mostly rooted in her position as a victim and a witness of the atrocities that happened to the Jews when they were fleeing from Hitler in 1940 Germany. Key sections of this paper provide evidence of the presence of the above-mentioned themes. Before delving into the details surrounding their emergence, the following section of this report explains the methods used to conduct the study.


The thematic analysis method was used to conduct the research and analyse the respondents’ views. It is one of the most commonly used techniques in qualitative studies (Morrison et al., 2014; Mabuza et al., 2014; Hammond, Crowther & Drummond, 2017). The technique helped the researcher to pinpoint, examine and record patterns of analysis in the interview. It centred on the codification of data because pieces of information that formed a common pattern were assigned a common code for purposes of identification and analysis (Kalénine & Buxbaum 2016; Sweeney et al. 2013). Six phases were used to carry out the review. They included familiarisation with the data, generation of codes, looking for common themes within the codes, cross-checking the themes for consistency, naming the themes and developing the final analysis (Sweeney et al., 2013).

Reflexivity, which is a key component of many qualitative studies, was also part of the research investigation. Here, it was established that the research question impacted the results of the coding process because it was mostly fixated on psychological issues. Therefore, only themes and patterns of analysis with psychological connotations were included in the coding process. The criterion for including quotes in the study was also informed by the researcher’s quest to highlight statements that were impactful or directly related to the themes identified.

Comparatively, adherence to ethical principles was relevant to the pre-existing data because credit was given to the original authors of the interview (Oral History of British Science), and the revelation of personal information relating to the participant was done consensually (informed consent). To improve the credibility and reliability of the findings, the transparency of the information presented in this report was assessed using the member-check technique, where the final data were compared to the information presented in the interview transcripts for consistency.


The three major themes that emerged in the study are highlighted below.


The theme of trauma was predominant in the interview because it appeared throughout the entire transcript. However, the first part of the transcript contained the highest concentration of this theme because it outlined the interviewee’s narrations about her escape from persecution. In more direct terms, the respondent gave accounts of how she was traumatised by the escape from Germany. For example, in line 4 of the interview transcript, the author described the journey from Vienna as being traumatic. In the same context, in lines 9 and 10, she gave accounts of how some people would travel from Germany to deliver children to England and go back again to “almost certain death.” Additionally, in line 10, she says this journey was fairly traumatic. Again, to support the theme of trauma that emerged during the interview, lines 26 and 27 of the transcript give accounts of how Shirley believed the experiences she went through met the threshold of a traumatic childhood experience. In line 27, she also explains how the trauma affected her perspective on life. Comprehensively, trauma was a key theme in the analysis.

Self in a Social Context

The theme of self in a social context also emerged in the transcript. It manifested in the interviewee’s transformation and societal placement after she fled from Germany. Shirley said that her experience as a refugee helped her become more appreciative of what goes on around her and made her develop a new sense of patriotism towards Britain because it accommodated her at a time when she needed help the most. In lines 29 and 30 of the interview transcript, she alluded to this fact by saying she believes that each day has its unique challenges and dynamics that have to be appreciated. At the same time, she said that the experiences she went through helped her to embrace change. This assertion highlights the theme of “self” in a social context because it explains how Shirley perceives her life within the wider context of societal influences. Consequently, in lines 37 and 38, the respondent acknowledges that her life was saved (not by relatives) by society. In this regard, she started to appreciate life in a way that only a refugee could. In line with this reasoning, Shirley says that she has learnt to live life in a way that is worth saving. Compared to the work of Nyqvist et al. (2016), this view shows that the conception of “self” in a social context was also a major theme in the study.

Attitudes and Persuasion

The theme of attitudes and persuasion also emerged during the interview because there were several instances where the respondent explained her feelings and thoughts about people and situations. For example, in lines 14 and 15, she said, “there was a little boy called Peter, who kept being sick; and the train was stopping and starting all the time.” This sentence describes a compassionate side of her. She went on to describe how they slept on corrugated pieces of sheets and papers on the floor and narrated a fond memory of losing her doll. Based on these assertions, the theme of attitudes and persuasion was prevalent in at least 50% of the interview because Shirley constantly described how the train ride was horrific and how people made sacrifices to assist the children and those that we’re unable to help themselves. The themes of attitudes and persuasion underpin these actions, but a general list of the overall themes and codes appears in the appendix section.


The above section of the analysis shows that the themes of “self” in a social context, trauma, attitudes and persuasion were the main ones that emerged in the interview. Besides trauma, the themes of “self” in a social context and human attitudes/persuasion have been highlighted by researchers such as Galatzer-Levy et al. (2017) as being common areas of study in psychology. For example, the theme of attitudes and persuasion has been highlighted by Dorrington et al. (2014) and Kleim et al. (2013) when they said it describes how human beings are persuaded to think or believe in people or things. Relative to this understanding, Repke and Benet-Martínez (2017) also say that it describes how human emotions affect their attitudes and how people could be persuaded to believe in different things. This view has a strong impact in the field of social psychology and has been used by researchers to understand how ambivalence and resistance affect human behaviours (Kleim et al., 2013). Its influence on people who have traumatic experiences is also common, and that is why it features in Shirley’s narration of her traumatic experiences.

The theme of attitudes and persuasion has a strong connection with the second theme identified in the study, which is trauma. Lassemo et al. (2017) describe it as that which occurs in somebody’s mind because of significant adverse events. Often, it leads to overwhelming stress that would make it difficult for a person to cope, but this outcome is not the case with Shirley because she coped by appreciating life even more than she did before. This is why she said that she is appreciative of Britain because it gave her a home when no one else did. Trauma tends to have such effects on people, and although it has a negative connotation, people’s reactions to it vary. This was the case with Shirley because not everybody who experiences trauma becomes psychologically scarred. Relative to this assertion, Dorrington et al. (2014) say that while some people may develop post-traumatic stress disorders, protective factors cause variations in such outcomes. Temperamental and environmental issues tend to form most protective agents that cause variations in outcomes. In Sheryl’s case, environmental factors emerged as having the greatest effect on how she coped with her childhood.

Lastly, the theme of “self” in a social context draws attention to Shirley’s ability to not only be aware of her surroundings and existence but also to develop a cognitive and emotional understanding of the idea of “self.” In line with this theme, Proulx et al. (2016) say that the concept of “self” is ubiquitous in everyday life. Additionally, the experiences outlined by Shirley in the interview show that she recognises the social context in which self-thoughts arise. Her comprehension of life aligns with the views of Lodder et al. (2016) and Thagard and Wood (2015), who say that people who are aware of their own personal existence understand that their view of life is affected by the social context in which self-thoughts arise.


Themes and Codes.

Codes Theme
T1 Trauma
T2 “Self” in a social context
T3 Attitudes and persuasion

Reference List

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