Frequently Asked Questions
Also: 2004 interview on critical psychology, anarchism, law, and more
should I believe what you say?
blindly accept what anyone has to say! Question authority! Just like
I tell you to!
I'm not really presenting "objective facts."
I'm suspicious of claims to objectivity. Instead,
I offer my interpretation of things, for you to mull over, accept, reject,
modify -- whatever makes sense to you. That's what I do when I write,
when I teach, when I engage in public debate.
I do believe
in trying to be reasonably fair. The arguments I present in
academic papers are supported by the
references I cite, and most of the papers were published in peer-reviewed
academic journals (which may or may not reassure you). My short political
commentaries and similar rants on this site and on my related blog generally don't cite sources, but the facts
and ideas are not hard to track down. In any case, I hope you think
about things for yourself rather than blindly accept my stance on controversial
are your credentials?
are less important than many people think, but since I do think it's fair
to let people know what's relevant to their concerns, I've posted a pdf file with my curriculum vita (a resume with a list of my academic history, articles, etc.).
formal education is in social psychology (B.A. Brooklyn College; M.A.
and Ph.D. Michigan State University). I did postdoctoral work in a
specialty area called "psychology and law" at the University of
Nebraska-Lincoln, after which I was a professor of legal studies and
psychology at what's now called the University of Illinois at
Springfield. I retired early, with the title "associate professor
emeritus, legal studies," and occasionally I teach and do other
temporary part-time academic work. In Fall 2009, armed with a Fulbright
grant, I taught a seminar at Toronto's York University called Psychology and Society in Critical Perspective.
psychology is primarily a research field, though I don't do traditional
empirical research. Also, I've had no training in therapy, I don't do
therapy, I know very little about different therapy approaches. Still,
I am interested in therapy's role in modern society, and psychology's
role more broadly.
I also write about law, I should say I'm not a lawyer. Not that
that makes much difference. Law school teaches how to use the law, not
whether it's worth having. As part of my post-doctoral training
in psychology and law, I took a dozen law school classes. The
process was intellectually fascinating and politically frustrating.
my academic work has addressed interconnections among psychology, values,
justice, social change, and law. With Isaac Prilleltensky, I co-edited
the 1997 book Critical Psychology: An Introduction,
the first critical psychology text designed for ordinary college students; the second edition is now in print. We also co-founded the international
organization RadPsyNet (Radical
Psychology Network). I've published articles
in psychology and psychology/law journals (e.g., American Psychologist, Law and Human Behavior, Behavioral
Sciences and the Law).
me more about your background.
What's all this about
critical psychology? My psych professor never heard of it.
psychology is an effort to challenge forces within mainstream psychology
that help sustain unjust political, economic, and other societal structures.
At least that's the way I look at it; critical psychologists don't all
agree about goals and methods. There's some overlap between critical psychology and radical psychology, which I've recently tried to sort out.
the most difficult things to confront is the belief of most psychologists
that their work is entirely apolitical - they're just trying to help
people. In fact, although they are trying to help people, their work
often embraces assumptions they haven't fully considered.
in the United States, work using a critical psychology framework hasn't
made much of an impression, though significant work by some feminist,
community, and theoretical psychologists is "critical" without using
critical terminology. The minimal impact is not surprising - the US is
the heart of psychology, influencing psychology in the rest of the
world the same way American culture affects other institutions
worldwide. So most psychologists never come across critical psychology
in their training. Although a fair amount of critical material is
published in mainstream journals (even in APA's
American Psychologist), most appears in journals most psychologists
don't read, using language that most psychologists find difficult to
understand. (And the truth is, most psychologists don't do much more
than skim the table of contents of the journals they do receive; there
are too many journals to actually read them all.)
who do come across critical psychology are sympathetic to its goals
but don't see it as a smart career move when trying to get academic
jobs or to fit into a traditional clinical practice.
consider critical psychology less "scientific" by traditional
standards, or think it's too "political." Too many openly endorse
psychology's support for our unsatisfactory status quo.
can I study critical psychology?
There aren't a lot of good answers.
always read on your own. You'll probably have to do that even if you're
a psychology major, because there are very few courses in the subject. The edited book Critical
Psychology: An Introduction is one place to start (there are used copies around - no need to send me royalties!). My articles have a lot of references. Also
useful: RadPsyNet's section on teaching
materials includes some old reading lists.
formal course of study, outside the US there are a few university degree programs
and other institutions with a self-defined critical focus. I don't know
of any in th US, though some universities offer programs with approaches compatible with critical perspectives.
when thinking about graduate school, you can contact professors at
schools that interest you and ask them how students critical of the
mainstream have fared in the past. Get specific! If you already know
you want to do qualitative rather than quantitative research, for
example, ask if the department allows that. If you want to study the
connection between psychology and justice, find out if that fits in to
the department's agenda. And ask professors you communicate with if
they plan to remain at the university for the next few years. Without a
professor or two who support your efforts, jumping through the usual
graduate school hoops may be unbearable.
do have significant numbers of psychologists interested in critical
issues, though they don't always call themselves critical psychologists.
Look through faculty lists, look at the courses they teach, email them,
email their students. Find out if professors are involved in off-campus
justice organizations. Grad school takes forever. Do some research before
consideration: Think hard about which area of psychology you'll
specialize in. Adopting critical approaches in community
is sometimes easier, because community psychology claims to be
psychology's liberal-activist wing. There's very little room in social
psychology, though; despite the subject matter, traditional methods and
assumptions rule. Clinical psychology also is usually difficult for
students conscious of the shortcomings of individual solutions to
can I get a job doing critical psychology?
question also has no good answer. I never found one myself, at least
not in a psychology department. I ended up in an interdisciplinary
legal studies department with an "affiliation" in psychology. In
general, interdisciplinary departments are reasonable options partly
because your peers won't have as many preconceived notions about
exactly what you should be doing.
you want a job in a mainstream psychology department - the most hostile
place for critical psychologists - you'll have to do the kind of
research in graduate school that gives you traditional credentials (I
didn't). Some people can retain a critical edge through years of grad
school and then job hunting and then trying to get tenure. Some people
never quite get back to their early critical interests, or persuade
themselves they've gotten over being young and impractical. It's a
risk. But again, this is often more manageable in community or
theoretical psychology than in other specialties. (I say a little more
about this in the context of the politics of psychology.)
academia, if you train in clinical psychology you can open your own
practice offering any kind of therapy you want. There's a market for
feminist therapists, for example. Remember, though, that
critical-minded clinical psychology students often become frustrated
with what they have to put up with both in grad school and on the job.
a good resource, regardless of where you end up: Applying
Critical Psychology in Diverse Settings, from Doing Psychology
Critically: Making a Difference in Diverse Settings (Isaac Prilleltensky
& Geoff Nelson)
can I find other critical psychologists?
participate in email lists, look for the names of critical
psychologists at conferences, and network in other ways. Don't be shy!
Most academics love it when people approach them about their work, and
critical psychologists in particular are often both surprised and
pleased to come across students who are exploring approaches that the
mainstream considers marginal. If you read a book or article you like,
email the author. Submit essays to critical psychology journals, even
as a student. The critical psychology world is a small one -- jump in!
just selfish, immature jerks who just want to do their own thing?
them. "Anarchism" can become an excuse to be obnoxious. But
it's not a requirement.
Although there are many takes on anarchism,
what's been especially important for me is its examination of the
relationship between the individual and the larger society. Aiming to
create egalitarian communties without hierarchy and oppression, many
anarchists seek "communal individuality" -- a society in which
individuality flourishes within a supportive self-managed community.
Despite the public image, most anarchists are not against organization.
They are, indeed, trying to create well-functioning non-hierarchical
some people think I too am just a selfish, immature jerk.
does anarchism have to do with psychology?
lot of anarchists are suspicious of psychology because they're aware of
the discipline's role in individualizing problems and solutions and,
thus, turning people away from systemic analysis and solutions. In a
2011 paper I tried to explain why anarchists might still find psychology of use, or at least parts of psychology.
early interest in social psychology made me think about how "the
person" and "the setting" interact to influence behavior, an
interaction that seems to me directly relevant to achieving communal
individuality. I was not surprised to learn that psychologists such as
Erich Fromm, Paul Goodman, Abe Maslow, Seymour Sarason, and Noam
Chomsky had found anarchist theory useful. Anarchism's questions, it
turns out, are as much psychological as political or philosophical
(which may just be another way of saying that much of what we think of
as psychological is also political). Of interest: The journal Social Anarchism is edited by a social psychologist, Howard Ehrlich.
debate the virtues of government control versus free-market capitalism.
Anarchists propose another option: restructuring institutions and
communities so that decisions are made by the people they affect,
without resort to external state or corporate rule. Of course, all this
requires figuring out what might work and experimenting with various
that kind of utopian?
Let's not knock utopia. It's better than what we've got!
for nonutopians, anarchism directs attention to the downside of state
control, formal legal systems, corporate power, and other destructive
forms of authority, including those common in interpersonal power
dynamics. It highlights the dangers of expanding government power even
for left or progressive ends. It asks good questions about things we
too often take for granted.
let's not settle just yet for anarchist questions while giving up on
anarchist society. The essence of anarchism is very practical even if
it's often pretty uncoordinated. Fortunately, there are past and
current examples of anarchist and anarchist-compatible efforts:
intentional communities, worker-controlled workplaces, alternative
institutions such as food and bike co-ops, organizing networks and
own introduction to anarchism came just before and during the 1970s
movement against nuclear power, which was organized essentially on the
same anarchist principles as the more recent anti-globalization
movement -- for example, decentalized decisionmaking,
consensus-seeking, and direct action rather than appeals to authority.
So there are aleady many models to build on.
with their black masks? What are they hiding?
don't own black masks. For some who do, as during anti-globalization
demonstrations, it's partly a means of finding one another, partly to attract notice in larger crowds, and partly a means
of protection. They know
the cops are watching. With cameras.
notable historical exceptions, few anarchists have been violent against
other people. These days, some engage in minor vandalism and property
destruction, most often targeting corporate symbols like McDonald's.
Others disagree about whether such activity is a useful tactic or an
unfortunate diversion from the larger message. Many anarchists are
pacifists even when engaged in direct action, and some are religiously
motivated as well. There's no party line.
Are you serious when
you say law does more harm than good?