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Awareness is Good,
but Action is Better

Dennis R. Fox

May 2003

The Counseling Psychologist, 31, 299-304.

Comment on:

Elizabeth M. Vera & Suzette L. Speight (2003)
Multicultural competence, social justice, and counseling psychology: Expanding our roles.
The Counseling Psychologist, 31, 253-272.

This draft document does not exactly match the published version!


Elizabeth M. Vera and Suzette L. Speight (2003) challenge counseling psychologists to sharpen the field's response to social justice. This challenge is part of a broader effort by critical psychologists who believe that mainstream psychology's values, assumptions, and practices reinforce an unjust status quo. Despite persistent resistance to calls for change, the critical agenda can aid practitioners who seek both to help their diverse clients and to try to transform psychology rather than abandon it for settings more conducive to justice-enhancing work.

Elizabeth M. Vera and Suzette L. Speight (2003) challenge counseling psychologists to re-think the assumptions that underlie their research and practice. To better meet their diverse clients' needs, they argue, counseling psychologists should expand their roles to include identifying and even challenging societal causes of personal distress. Their analysis has much in common with other, more general critiques of the linkage between psychology's norms and the perpetuation of injustice and oppression. Indeed, Vera and Speight emphasize that "these are not new ideas" (p. 254) even as they pinpoint how existing efforts to broaden counseling psychology's perspective still fall short.

Although most psychology students do not typically learn of its existence and many working psychologists avoid its implications, there exists within psychology a long tradition charging that the field's business as usual -- research, teaching, consulting, and therapy -- too often reinforces rather than confronts societal institutions that spawn racism, sexism, and other forms of inequality and injustice (Albee, 1982; Caplan and Nelson, 1973; Fox, 1985, 1993; Fox and Prilleltensky, 1997; Hepburn, 2003; Prilleltensky, 1994; Sarason, 1974, 1981; Sloan, 2000; Spence, 1985; Wallach and Wallach, 1983). As psychology's internal critics see it, among other faults mainstream psychology trains practitioners to work too comfortably within government and corporate institutions -- schools, universities, mental hospitals, prisons, factories, armies, health maintenance organizations, and more. Within these institutions, bureaucratic and ideological demands for routinization, categorization, adaptation, pacification, and obfuscation dwarf individual concerns for values such as justice, equality, individuality, and caring. Psychologists, thus, including private therapists presumably relatively free of institutional constraints, and despite good intentions, too often reinforce oppression even when they think they are working to ameliorate its consequences. Making matters worse is that the field's growing public policy role offers societal elites not only the benefits of psychology's scientific expertise but the cover of psychology's perceived legitimacy (Herman, 1995).

One reason for this unsatisfactory situation frequently but not universally acknowledged is that the field's professional norms were established by psychologists whose race, gender, and class homogeneity blinded them to alternatives. Less widely acknowledged are other factors, including insistence on individual-level explanations and interventions, traditional conceptions of objective value-free science, institutional career pressures, and personal commitments to moderate or liberal political reform rather than more far-reaching radical prescriptions (Fox, 1993). Another contributing factor is the common portrayal of psychology's history as the advancement of pure science rather than the reflection of politics, power, and personality (Harris, 1997; Herman, 1995).

In the 1960s and 1970s, when many of today's critical psychologists entered the field, dissemination of critical ideas was most noticeable as part of social psychology's "crisis of confidence" (Pancer, 1997), but it was present in other subspecialties as well. Growing political concerns led many counselors, therapists, researchers, and teachers to consider how their own basic assumptions might contribute to the maintenance of injustice and to complacency about its existence. Eventually, new ethics and training guidelines sought to direct attention to psychological practice's societal impact. New subspecialties grew -- community psychology, psychology and law, and more -- seemingly more open to activist motivation and more committed to identifying and remedying inadequate norms. Psychologists incorporating insights from feminist, Marxist, anarchist, communitarian, and other perspectives increasingly emphasized the understanding, described by Vera and Speight, that American psychology's determined individualist focus, paralleling the broader American capitalist victim-blaming ethos, needed correction by a compensating emphasis on the communal and the mutual (Bakan, 1966; Fox, 1985; Sarason, 1974; Wallach and Wallach, 1983).

Within counseling psychology, too, as Vera and Speight make clear, the broader justice-based ferment stimulated change. The notion of multicultural counseling competencies arose to enable counseling psychologists now more aware of diversity issues to better assist clients from non-dominant population groups. Yet in dissecting the effort to define and assess relevant competencies, Vera and Speight argue quite convincingly that the concept as realized in practice turns out to be inadequate to the task. Merely taking into account cultural or racial or ethnic variability in traditional forms of one-on-one or group therapy is insufficient, perhaps particularly within a broader society that still considers white middle-class values an implicit model for every demographic group as well as every helping professional. Although the array of multicultural competencies was designed to change all that, Vera and Speight point out that its operationalization brought counseling psychologists the appearance of social-justice relevance without ensuring enough of the substance.

That promising reforms fail to deliver significantly improved outcomes should cause as little surprise in psychology as elsewhere. Too often an initial determination to address social injustice remains unfulfilled, thwarted by the difficulty of the task, by mainstream psychology's institutional resistance, and by the traditional settings in which so many psychologists work. In community psychology, for example, although psychologists trying to build a career around social justice can more easily find needed support and positive models than in most other subspecialties, a wide gap remains between the field's transformational rhetoric and the less ambitious work of most community psychologists (Nelson and Prilleltensky, in press; Prilleltensky and Nelson, 1997). Feminist psychology remains intellectually powerful, but its defining political origins have too often been watered down into the blander "psychology of women" or even further into "gender studies" (Wilkinson, 1997). Psychology and law long ago abandoned its founding justice-seeking priority (Fox, 1999).

On the other hand, although some find psychology's limited approach to social justice depressingly timid, others believe it goes too far. Many counseling psychologists, for example, appear reasonably content to maintain a separation between their day jobs and their politics, restricting themselves at work to the traditional assumptions and techniques they learned will ease their clients' immediate distress and enable the relevant institutions to operate undisturbed. To many of them, the push to expand the counseling relationship to include the kinds of activities Vera and Speight describe will seem irrelevant at best. The authors' effort will no doubt confuse or annoy those who wonder if the call for change will someday gain enough momentum to force changes in their practice.

If history is a guide, traditionalists have little to fear. Throughout psychology, norms binding practitioners are often bent and sometimes even broken, but they're rarely completely replaced. Broader academic norms continue to divide human expertise into arbitrary segments, reinforcing public and professional assumptions about what it is that psychologists know and do. Therapists who ignore sociopolitical contexts or don't feel competent to address them will no doubt remain free to conduct business as always, even if they sometimes engage in, even if they believe in, the rhetoric of diversity and justice.

As co-founder and co-coordinator of the decade-old Radical Psychology Network (Fox, 2001), I receive email from psychologists and students around the world who are looking within their chosen field for alternatives that go beyond intellectual awareness and comforting rhetoric. Many came to psychology believing that the discipline can help bring about a better world, only to discover that their goal meshes awkwardly with education and career obligations. Assistant professors wonder how to sustain their real interests while trying to satisfy tenure committees insistent on traditional standards of academic merit. Graduate students agonize about their timid or obstructionist dissertation advisors, their conventional internship placements, and the dismal job prospects not just for psychologists in general but especially for those whose commitment to real-world relevance strikes many search committees as dangerous, naïve, or tiresome. Undergraduates seek advice about where to find a graduate psychology program that would strengthen rather than dampen their passion for social change, or they wonder if they should change majors before it's too late or drop out of school entirely. For all these, greater commitment to social justice within psychology and greater incorporation of justice issues into graduate school curricula would be welcome, even if they would not completely counter professional training's socializing and mainstreaming function (Ehrenfels, in press and discussion at; Illich et al., 1977; Schmidt, 2000).

Based on my anecdotal experience, I expect Vera and Speight's contribution will most likely encourage counseling psychologists, and perhaps especially counseling students, who have discovered for themselves how the field's traditional attention to intrapsychic and interpersonal dynamics and individual adaptation diverts attention from macro-level interventions. Many psychologists amenable to incorporating into their work social justice and social change are unsure whether doing so is legitimate, and equally unsure how to do so, given the marginality of such concerns in traditional training programs and the pressing need to deal with their clients' current distress. They should welcome more specifics about how they might alter their daily practice. Greater dissemination of critical perspectives among counseling psychologists will also help clients who now sometimes search in vain for a treating psychologist self-defined as a critical therapist.

At the same time, it's worth pondering what we should say to future students. Those already enmeshed in psychology will mostly forge ahead within the field, trying to make the profession less destructive even if we conclude we cannot revolutionize it. There is plenty of injustice to fight right in our own backyard. But knowing what we know now -- having learned more than we anticipated during our own college years -- should we encourage students motivated by social justice to enter psychology at all? An undergraduate wondering today how best to facilitate social change tomorrow might find psychology a poor choice compared with politics, law, journalism, and other fields in which a focus on justice can sometimes be made central, or with sociology, anthropology, and other social sciences in which societal context plays a more accepted role, or with social work, a field that, as Vera and Speight note, already offers some of the services that a more justice-focused counseling psychology might make available. Indeed, greater understanding that every profession channels its members' assumptions and goals might persuade would-be activists that on-the-job training in social movement organizing can provide better entrée into politically useful work than years of co-opting graduate school. One unfortunate outcome, of course, would be the reduced presence within psychology of people determined to change it.

Despite this somewhat jaundiced musing, it remains encouraging that critical psychology's recent growth has brought new ideas, new journals and conferences, and new organizations and websites (Fox, 2001). Our position today is slightly less marginal, enough so that one can sometimes sustain a career doing useful critical work, especially outside the United States or in specialties such as community or feminist psychology. Some ideas and approaches even seep into mainstream nooks and crannies. On a political level, critical psychologists too can credibly address important public issues, some of them noted by the authors -- race relations, education, gay rights, and many more. For those for whom abandoning the field is neither possible nor desirable, Vera and Speight (2003) and the larger project of which they are a part offer useful suggestions for making one's way through psychology's thickets. Such efforts are crucial if we are to end psychology's support for an unjust status quo.

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