of Political Debate
PsyPAG Quarterly #45, 15-18
the journal of the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group in the
United Kingdom. The editors asked for 600-word responses to the question
the discipline of Psychology a suitable site for Political debate?"
rest of the responses.
My dictionary defines "suitable" thus: "of the
right type or quality for a particular purpose or occasion." The
question posed -- "Is the discipline of Psychology a suitable site
for Political debate?" -- requires considering that debate's "purpose
If your goal is to build a traditional career, the answer is usually
"No." Students will discover an unpleasant truth: most future
bosses and colleagues won't consider your insistence on psychology's relevance
to oppression or capitalism appropriate for a new hire who might corrupt
impressionable undergraduates. They'll dismiss you as either immature
If you do find a job, the gatekeepers who define "suitability"
won't disappear. To them, a science committed to objective inquiry might
address the psychology of politics, if your research generates impressive
statistics. But making psychology itself an arena of political debate
violates the myth that science is objective rather than passionate.
As for the politics of the discipline of psychology -- well, that's best
left to sociologists.
On the other hand, raising political issues is essential if your "purpose
or occasion" is to examine how psychology's assumptions and practices
affect, and are affected by, societal forces. To investigate how an
unjust status quo is maintained -- and how to change it -- you cannot
help but notice human psychology's relevance. Pointing that out, and proposing
values you think psychologists should embrace, may piss off the wrong
people, but it's the honest thing to do.
There are ways to straddle a middle ground, at least until tenure provides
somewhat more protection:
1. Address political issues as a small part of your work, spending the
bulk of your time doing empirical research on traditional topics.
Once you succeed on the mainstream's own terms, you have some leeway
to raise political questions on the side -- you've demonstrated that
your political critique isn't based simply on an inability to follow
the rules. Of course, it's pretty time-consuming to produce impressive
empirical research and also do serious critical work. You may give up,
especially if you find the traditional work boring or useless. But who
said being critical was going to be easy?
2. Do conventional empirical research on politically tinged topics.
The acceptability of qualitative research has increased, but a nice,
neat experimental manipulation demonstrating some dynamic of oppression
impresses mainstreamers, especially if published in a prestigious journal.
The same is sometimes true for review articles or essays. In both cases,
you have to tone down the language to get past reviewers, but if you
write a book, you're allowed to admit in the preface that your research
was motivated by deep political concerns rather than simple scientific
3. Find a niche that tolerates political motives and alternative methods.
This is more easily done in specializations like community or feminist
psychology, which began as attacks on societal institutions. Although
both fields have gone more mainstream, psychologists who see themselves
as advocates may still find a home. Outside North America, critical
psychology itself is growing, with journals, degree programs , and conferences.
You might make a career publishing in non-mainstream journals. That's
a good option for some, though marginal to psychology's core.
4. Find a niche outside psychology, perhaps an interdisciplinary department
less concerned about psychology's status mania.
This option, however, marginalizes the political debate even further.
Psychology plays a key role in the mechanisms of power. Psychologists
who object to how societal institutions use their power will find a way
to ask uncomfortable questions. Proceed carefully. Find others to work
with -- in collaboration there is strength.
But in any case, proceed.
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Politics and Academic Life
Suggestions for the Curious Social Psychology Student