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Towards Transformative Social Interventions

Comment on a Chapter by
Geoffrey Nelson and Isaac Prilleltensky

Dennis Fox


Geoffrey Nelson and Isaac Prilleltensky's 2005 book, Community Psychology: In Pursuit of Liberation and Well-being (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), incorporated invited commentaries on individual chapters, including mine on their chapter about Social Interventions. This updated version will appear in the 2010 edition.

The most useful contribution of this useful chapter on Social Interventions is its discussion of dilemmas facing community psychologists who work within governmental agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and social movement organizations. As Geoffrey Nelson and Isaac Prilleltensky point out, every choice forces one to navigate through difficult circumstances. Those who are determined to spend a lifetime fostering social change and advancing social justice must determine for themselves how to retain their motivation beyond the exciting cause of the moment. Burn-out is a serious problem.

Not all roads raise the same hurdles, however. My own experiences in the United States make me especially skeptical about working in government. Up to a point, Nelson and Prilleltensky share this caution; even as they highlight examples of using one's government position to advance socially useful work, they remind us that most reforms don't go nearly far enough and that government is by nature conservative. Yet, perhaps reflecting their own dilemma posed by seeking to guide students in useful yet practical directions, they are much more encouraging than I could be. So I urge students to contemplate this route carefully. Caution is important even for the many in the US who will work in the new administration of Barack Obama only to discover several years down the road that fundamental transformation is not the kind of change any government can facilitate.

Although it is sometimes possible to do useful work inside the belly of the beast, and although government involvement may seem necessary to sustain comprehensive social interventions aimed at changing "values, policies, programs, distribution of resources, power differentials and cultural norms" (p. ), pressure to avoid challenging the underlying system -- as Nelson and Prilleltensky point out -- is often overwhelming. Too often, rather than opposing globalization and other elite-driven programs designed to reshape the world to meet corporate needs, governments serve the same interests, perhaps reducing corporate damage but never threatening corporate power. Too often, government dampens popular support for change by supplying the appearance of justice rather than the reality (Fox, 1999). Even the tools we think will help us transform society often turn out to be less adequate than we hope. A bulwark of state control, law more often inhibits social change than advances it (Fox, 1993, 1999; see law schools explicitly focused on justice.)

Thus, although Nelson and Prilleltensky note the risk of co-optation for those who work in social movements, the risk is much greater for those in government, where lifetime careers can be destroyed if one pushes the boundaries too far and where the attractions of climbing a career ladder "inside the loop" dampen reformist zeal. Change advocates inside government too often find themselves pushing for policies that, while tolerable or even humane, have little transformative potential. So although I appreciate the authors' optimism about using government against itself, and although I'd rather have government agencies filled with do-gooders than automatons, more attention should be paid to bureaucratic imperatives that make transformative efforts unlikely to succeed. In my view, not every project that's socially useful leads to useful social change.

There are three additional problems with government efforts to ameliorate social problems -- the first, somewhat ironically, with efforts that actually provide needed services. Community psychologist Seymour Sarason (1976) warned more than three decades ago that programs advanced by modern centralized states often damage two important values congruent with those advanced by Nelson and Prilleltensky: personal autonomy and psychological sense of community. Because the impetus for change comes from outside, community members direct their attention and expectations to external authorities rather than to themselves and their peers; this fosters dependency and apathy rather than liberation and participation. In this sense, thus, there's another dilemma for those who work inside government: how to provide services and meet important needs while also enhancing, rather than inhibiting, people's ability to work with others. Sarason urged community psychologists to pay more attention to this "anarchist insight," and indeed community psychologists should find much of interest in anarchist suspicion of centralized authority (Fox, 1985).

Second, emphasizing the kinds of social change possible within traditional governments and advanced by traditionally pragmatic policy-oriented NGOs can lead to an unnecessarily restricted vision of what transformative change might mean. For example, in the top half of Table 8.1, the "insider" goals identified as transformative (progressive taxation, universal health insurance, and the like) are designed to make our current system more bearable (more fair and less destructive), not to replace the system with a fundamentally better one. If accomplished, these changes would ease injustice and make life measurably better - people might be "happier," as this chapter's preliminary exercise suggests -- but they would also leave intact the underlying system of corporate and state power.

The third problem with government work is that emphasizing program evaluation and similar roles as key to instigating change leads to an exaggerated belief that injustice exists because of bad data rather than elite power. Demonstrating to authorities, for example, that inequality leads to ill health is unlikely to persuade them to create an egalitarian society. Although more data always seem useful, the lack of data is rarely the most crucial barrier to resolving our most serious societal problems (Fox, 1991). Data gathering and dissemination are necessary for effective amelioration, but we shouldn't expect them to lead to transformation unless government authorities have first been forced to embrace transformation for other, more political, reasons.

So what's a budding transformational community psychologist to do?

If community psychology is -- or is trying to be -- a psychology of liberation, then we have to acknowledge government as a central source of injustice. Governments do react to pressure for change, but rarely generate their own. It's our job to help create that pressure. Thus, social movement organizations of the kind this chapter describes are the most important element in building strains to the boiling point, at which time government is more likely to respond regardless of whether its agencies are filled with do-gooders or automatons. Our dilemma is how to practice this kind of from-the-bottom politics effectively and honestly, without overwhelming our audience, burning ourselves out, or accepting invitations to become rock-no-boat insiders beholden to governments or large nongovernmental funding sources.

Fortunately, social movement activists have generated a large literature on how to analyze the sources of oppression and injustice, mobilize resources, raise consciousness, and in many other ways work more effectively. In addition to the sources cited in the chapter, especially useful is the pamphlet Principles for Promoting Social Change (undated) written by peace psychologist Neil Wollman and others and published by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, a long-established organization of liberal psychologists. Wollman and others also have material on the website of RadPsyNet: The Radical Psychology Network, which Isaac Prilleltensky and I co-founded in 1993 to foster interaction among psychologists and psychology students who want to make transformational change a reality. A useful book focused on how social movements can counter globalization is Globalization From Below: The Power of Solidarity (Brecher, Costello, & Smith, 2000).

Nelson and Prilleltensky remind us that successful social movements have altered the course of history. Indeed, government endorsement of social interventions most often comes in response to persistent popular pressure. Fortunately, working toward building that pressure often provides movement participants with the satisfaction of doing the right thing while enabling them to meet others with similar values, share their useful skills and learn new ones, and build a values-based life. It's not all drudgery! Although we should keep in mind the potential drawbacks that the authors note -- internal contradictions, insularity, narrowed focus and the like -- movement organizers increasingly acknowledge and try to deal with such drawbacks. The most significant role community psychologists can play may be "entering into alliances with community-based groups engaged in campaigns against some form of injustice[,]... sharing one's resources and expertise and accepting their leadership" (Steinitz & Mishler, 2009, p. 407).

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Brecher, J., Costello, T., & Smith, B. (2000). Globalization from below: The power of solidarity. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

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

Fox, D. R. (1991). Social science's limited role in resolving psycholegal social problems. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 17, 117-124.

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.

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

Steinitz, V., & Mishler, E. G. (2009). Critical psychology and the politics of resistance. In D. Fox, I. Prilleltensky, & S. Austin (Eds.), Critical psychology: An introduction (2nd ed.) (pp. 390-409). London: Sage.

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