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Confronting Psychology's Power

Comment on Prilleltensky

Journal of Community Psychology, 2008, 36, 232-237

Presentation to Colloquium on

Power, Well-Being and Psychopolitical Validity:
Creating an Agenda for Change

Department of Human and Organizational Development
Peabody College of Vanderbilt University
Nashville, TN

March 21, 2003

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,

Time is short and the suffering vast.... If we continue to use our limited community psychology resources only to ameliorate conditions and to tend to the wounded, who will work to transform the very conditions that create exploitation and distress in the first place? (p. ).

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?

The questions:

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?

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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?

Isaac's framework is exceedingly useful as a means of generating ideas, assessing the adequacy of power-related research and interventions, and directing attention to neglected areas. It is useful despite its somewhat arbitrary details, and we should be wary of endless debates over flexible specifics. For example, Isaac's definition of power refers to the tripartite power to strive for wellness, to oppress, and to resist oppression and pursue liberation. These all make sense, but could easily be reworked into a two-part definition without losing explanatory power: the power to strive for wellness, and, because the other two appear to be mirror images, the power to oppress or resist oppression. Or we could add something like the power to foster equality, or make other terminology adjustments. Similarly, referring to power as the ability and opportunity to fulfill or obstruct personal, relational, or collective needs builds on Isaac's three-value model (Prilleltensky, 1997). But although that model has already proven useful, its specifics too are adaptable. For example, adding the middle relational category to the age-old division of values and needs into the individual and the community offers practical direction for psychologists focused on mid-level interactions, but doesn't seem absolutely necessary for theoretical harmony. A parallel point: Isaac's emphasis on addressing all three levels in a balanced way complements centuries of philosophical musing on the individual/society divide as well as psychological thinking about the importance of institutional change to better balance "the duality of human existence" (Bakan, 1966; see also Fox, 1985, 1993a, for applicability of anarchist theory to the autonomy/community relationship).

I'm not at all suggesting we should spend endless time trying to nail down theoretical niceties. To the contrary, Isaac's proposed theoretical framework will prove exceedingly constructive just as it is, in large part precisely because it is built on a large supportive literature. That's what makes it so significant, and what gives it psychopolitical validity.

2. In what way is the notion of "psychopolitical validity" most useful?

Is psychopolitical validity proposed as an addition to other forms of validity, so that (for example) research that is psychopolitically invalid should be rejected by funding sources, dissertation committees, journal editors, etc? Or is the goal simply a less formal reminder to researchers, teachers, consultants, and the like to keep in mind the psychology and politics of power? If the latter, does using the technical term "validity" stand in the way of adoption beyond the relatively narrow segment of psychologists already attuned to issues of power? Are some phenomena unrelated to power worth studying? Might formal insistence on psychopolitical validity simply cause those with other priorities to add a pro forma paragraph to their research proposals that treats the subject superficially, offering the appearance of psychopolitical relevance without the reality?

3. How might an analysis of power apply to community psychology's own institutions?

More than in many other fields, in community psychology there is great awareness of, and formal opposition to, abuses of power facilitated by sexism, racism, homophobia, class inequality, and other similar forms of oppression and privilege. Do community psychology's institutions -- graduate school, professional organizations, conferences, journals, etc. -- live up to the field's ideals? Are they open to the kind of changes community psychologists advocate for other institutions? How do community psychology's professors mesh their own ideals with typical academic and career pressures? Can graduate students easily pursue innovative and potentially transformative research and action and survive their training with dignity intact, or are their concerns channeled and dampened by stultifying professional and academic norms (Ehrenfels, in press, discussion; Illich et al., 1977; Schmidt, 2000)?

4. Is redirecting community psychology the most effective way to bring about transformative social change, or is success more likely to come outside psychology?

Psychologists already working in the field have many reasons to stick to what they're doing, both personal (changing careers isn't all that easy) and political (psychology uses its power to sustain an unjust status quo, so confronting that power remains important). But should students who want to change the world study something else instead? Indeed, given the common moderating effects of any professional education (Schmidt, 2000), might would-be activists do better to drop out of school entirely and simply sign on to one or another political activist group?

5. Might more research aimed at understanding the mechanisms of oppression and liberation help oppressors more than liberators?

How can psychology generate effective tools designed to combat oppression and enhance liberation without unintentionally aiding power holders who might use those same tools to dampen opposition and maintain the status quo? After all, they run government and corporate institutions with huge resources to counter anything we come up with. And they hire a lot of psychologists.

6. How can critical psychologists move beyond critique to action?

Community and other psychologists have tried for many years to direct attention to the issues Isaac raises here. How can we ensure that this time the outcome will go beyond applause and lip service? Which institutional practices must we reform? Which institutions must we replace? How will we get the power to make the changes we want?

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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Bakan, D. (1966). The duality of human existence: An essay on psychology and religion. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Caplan, N., & Nelson, S. (1973). On being useful: The nature and consequences of psychological research on social problems. American Psychologist, 28, 199-211.

Cohen, R. L. (1989). Fabrications of justice. Social Justice Research, 3, 31-46.

Ehrenfels, J. W. (in press). Fireflies in the shadow of the sun. Salt Lake City: American Book Publishing Group.

Fox, D. R. (1985). Psychology, ideology, utopia, and the commons. American Psychologist, 40, 48-58.

Fox, D. R. (1993a). The autonomy-community balance and the equity-law distinction: Anarchy's task for psychological jurisprudence. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 11, 97-109.

Fox, D. R. (1993b). Psychological jurisprudence and radical social change. American Psychologist, 48, 234-241.

Fox, D. R. (1999). Psycholegal scholarship's contribution to false consciousness about injustice. Law and Human Behavior, 23, 9-30.

Fox, D. (2001). Organizing critical psychologists: The RadPsyNet experience. Radical Psychology Journal. []

Fox, D. R., & Prilleltensky, I. (1993, August). Will Psychology Pay Attention to its Own Radical Critics? Conversation hour conducted at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Toronto.

Fox, D., & Prilleltensky, I. (Eds.). (1997). Critical psychology: An introduction. London: Sage.

Fromm, E. (1955). The sane society. New York: Fawcett.

Grier, W., & Cobbs, P. (1968). Black rage. New York: Basic.

Illich, I., Zola, I. K., McKnight, J., Caplan, J., & Shaiken, H. (1977). Disabling professions. London: Marion Boyars.

Kelman, H. C., & Hamilton, V. L. (1989). Crimes of obedience: Toward a social psychology of authority and obedience. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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Jost, J. T., & Major, B. (2001). The psychology of legitimacy: Emerging perspectives on ideology, justice, and intergroup relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lerner, M. (1986). Surplus powerlessness: The psychodydynamics of everyday life . . . and the psychology of individual and social transformation. Oakland, CA: Institute for Labor and Mental Health.

Martín-Baró, I. (1994). Writings for a liberation psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Marx, K. (1963). Early writings. Translated/edited by T. B. Bottomore. London: Watts.

Prilleltensky, I. (1989). Psychology and the status quo. American Psychologist, 44, 795-802.

Prilleltensky, I. (1990). Enhancing the social ethics of psychology: Toward a psychology at the service of social change. Canadian Psychology, 31, 310-319.

Prilleltensky, I. (1997). Values, assumptions, and practices: Assessing the moral implications of psychological discourse and action. American Psychologist, 47, 517-535.

Prilleltensky, I. (in press). The Role of Power in Wellness, Oppression, and Liberation: The Promise of Psychopolitical Validity. Journal of Community Psychology.

Reich, W. (1970). The mass psychology of fascism. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux [Original work published 1942]

Ryan, W. (1971). Blaming the victim. New York: Vintage.

Sarason, S. B. (1976). Community psychology and the anarchist insight. American Journal of Community Psychology, 4, 243-261.

Sarason, S. B. (1981). Psychology misdirected. New York: Free Press.

Schmidt, J. (2000). Disciplined minds: A critical look at salaried professionals and the soul-battering system that shapes their lives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Sennett, R., & Cobb, J. (1972). The hidden injuries of class. New York: Vintage Press.

Sloan, T. (Ed.). (2000). Critical psychology: Voices for change. Hampshire, England: Macmillan Press.

Wachtel, P. L. (1983). The poverty of affluence: A psychological portrait of the American way of life. New York: Free Press.

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