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The Suitability of Political Debate
in Psychology

Dennis Fox

PsyPAG Quarterly #45, 15-18

PsyPAG Quarterly is the journal of the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group in the United Kingdom. The editors asked for 600-word responses to the question

"Is the discipline of Psychology a suitable site for Political debate?"

See the 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 or occasion."

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 or dangerous.

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 curiosity.

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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Page updated September 30, 2007