Confronting Psychology's Power
Comment on Prilleltensky
Journal of Community Psychology, 2008, 36, 232-237
Isaac Prilleltensky (in press) directly challenges community psychologists: Put up or shut up. Well, maybe not "shut up," exactly -- he's too polite for that. But Isaac's growing frustration with community psychology in particular and psychology more generally has reached the point where he insists, with some urgency,
He's right , of course.
Still, this effort to redirect the field's priorities -- to move from amelioration to transformation, from awareness to action -- will discomfort not just those who suspect the critical psychology agenda is more political than scientific but also some whose essential agreement with Isaac's overall framework and goals is masked by the heavy demands of their day-to-day jobs or studies. I don't think Isaac enjoys making people uncomfortable; I know he works hard to make his analyses and prescriptions palatable. But making people uncomfortable is not all bad. For one thing, every revolutionary endeavor causes the kind of discomfort that is necessary for change, though it doesn't guarantee it. For another, suspicion about critical psychology's open political commitments can, at times, lead to parallel suspicion about mainstream psychology's more hidden version.
The more important question raised by Isaac's latest article -- "The Role of Power in Wellness, Oppression, and Liberation: The Promise of Psychopolitical Validity" -- is not whether the effort is "too political" or whether its theoretical framework is sufficiently rigorous, but whether it will succeed. Will Isaac's attempt help transform community psychology and maybe even psychology more generally? Or, after appropriate accolades, will most psychologists shunt it aside like they have so many other efforts to move psychology from complacency and complicity through awareness to action?
A decade ago, Isaac and I organized a conversation hour at the annual American Psychological Association convention called "Will Psychology Pay Attention to its Own Radical Critics?" (Fox and Prilleltensky, 1993). Why? We were both already aware that in our own initial efforts to focus on psychology's support for an unjust status quo (Fox, 1985, 1993b; Prilleltensky, 1989, 1990) we routinely cited efforts by older or more established psychologists whose work prefigured, and thus helped legitimize, our own (e.g., Albee, 1982; Caplan, and Nelson, 1973; Sarason, 1981). Indeed, many of the articles upon which we relied were published, somewhat incongruously, in the American Psychological Association's primary journal, American Psychologist (see list of critical articles published in AP). Dissatisfaction with what seemed our likely fate -- publication in prestigious journals, congratulatory letters, citation by others coming after us, but not much institutional change -- stimulated our interest in mulling this over with others who wanted not just to publish but to make a difference.
That 1993 APA session became the founding meeting of the Radical Psychology Network. Since then, RadPsyNet has had a newsletter, journal, website, listservs, and more, offering networking and moral support to more than 300 psychologists, especially graduate students, in more than three dozen countries (Fox, 2001). It also helped spur on the nascent North American critical psychology movement (Fox and Prilleltensky, 1997; Sloan, 2000). Yet despite all this activity -- new organizations and websites and journals and conferences, even a few critical psychology degree programs outside the United States -- it's important to keep in mind that psychology's vast mainstream still pays little attention to its own radical critics.
Although critical psychology's critique has generated useful work in a number of subdisciplines, community psychology -- as Isaac implicitly acknowledges here and elsewhere -- is probably its most natural home. As I read Isaac's latest effort to push community psychology even further into critical work, several questions come to mind, generally related to an overriding one: Will community psychology prove more open than mainstream psychology to the insights of critical work?
These questions are worth pondering as part of our effort to make community psychology more politically aware and politically effective. Of course, each question generates others.
1. How perfect must the theoretical framework be to usefully oppose unjust power?
2. In what way is the notion of "psychopolitical validity" most useful?
3. How might an analysis of power apply to community psychology's own institutions?
4. Is redirecting community psychology the most effective way to bring about transformative social change, or is success more likely to come outside psychology?
5. Might more research aimed at understanding the mechanisms of oppression and liberation help oppressors more than liberators?
6. How can critical psychologists move beyond critique to action?
Where Do We Go From Here?
Isaac Prilleltensky's article is most important for its careful blending of literatures that point to the neglected role of power in community psychology research. He notes that the psychology and politics of power have generally been treated separately, though this is only partly the case. It is especially so in traditional research that applies supposedly "value-free" techniques to various dynamics of power. Social psychology in particular has done its best to depoliticize politically crucial issues at the individual/society interface. However, there are many exceptions, a number of which Isaac notes in passing. Politically tinged psychological work has addressed facets of power, oppression, liberation, obedience, ideology, repression, justice, legitimacy, competition, and other important topics, using a wide range of styles, concepts, and intellectual traditions (e.g., Cohen, 1989; Fox, 1999; Fromm, 1955; Jost and Major, 2001; Kelman and Hamilton, 1989; Kohn, 1986; Lerner, 1986; Martín-Baró, 1994; Reich, 1942; Sarason, 1976; Wachtel, 1983). Similarly, political theory has widely incorporated relevant psychological concepts: for example, alienation and false consciousness (Marx, 1963), black rage (Grier and Cobbs, 1968), the hidden injuries of class (Sennett and Cobb, 1972), and blaming the victim (1971). Fortunately, psychologists aiming for social justice already have much ammunition. We don't have to start from scratch.
What Isaac does here is not so much make links between psychology and politics that have previously gone unnoticed but organize those links in a manner likely to be useful to community psychologists seeking practical ways to proceed. The proposed framework can help direct work aimed at institutional change in the larger society -- "to create spaces in communities, government, clinics, schools, families, workplaces, classrooms, and society at large where this delicate balance among personal, relational, and collective needs can be pursued" (Prilleltensky, in press). But to succeed, as Isaac Prilleltensky well recognizes -- to create a Ph.D. in social change -- we first need institutional change within community psychology itself.
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some political, most not
Page updated February 21, 2008