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Critical Psychology:
An Introduction

Part II: Critical Arenas

(Chapters 6-10)


Edited by

Dennis Fox & Isaac Prilleltensky

London: Sage Publications

Copyright notice

Book contents

Publisher-requested copyright notice: "Editorial Arrangement and Preface copyright Dennis Fox and Isaac Prilleltensky 1997. Excerpts reproduced here with permission from the publishers.

"All rights reserved. Users are permitted to view, print and download the material for their own use only. Users may not further reproduce, store in a retrieval system, transmit or utilize in any form or by electronic or any other means, any part of the material without permission in writing from the publishers, Sage Publications Ltd."

See Table of Contents of Second Edition (scheduled for 2009)!


Part I: Critical Overviews


Introducing Critical Psychology: Values, Assumptions and the Status Quo

Isaac Prilleltensky &
Dennis Fox


Repoliticizing the History of Psychology

Benjamin Harris


Qualitative Inquiry in Psychology: A Radical Tradition

Louise H. Kidder &
Michelle Fine


Ethics in Psychology: Cui Bono?

Laura S. Brown


Understanding and Practicing Critical Psychology

David Nightingale &
Tor Neilands

Part II: Critical Arenas


Theories of Personality: Ideology and Beyond

Tod Sloan


Abnormal and Clinical Psychology: The Politics of Madness

Rachel T. Hare-Mustin &
Jeanne Marecek


A Critical Look at Intelligence Research

Zack Z. Cernovsky


Developmental Psychology and its Discontents

Erica Burman


Social Psychology: The Crisis Continues

S. Mark Pancer


Community Psychology: Reclaiming Social Justice

Isaac Prilleltensky &
Geoffrey Nelson


Cross Cultural Psychology: The Frustrated Gadfly's Promises, Potentialities and Failures

Fathali M. Moghaddam &
Charles Studer


Lesbian and Gay Psychology: A Critical Analysis

Celia Kitzinger


Psychology and Law: Justice Diverted

Dennis Fox


Political Psychology: A Critical Perspective

Maritza Montero

Part III: Critical Theories


Feminist Psychology

Sue Wilkinson


Critical Theory, Postmodernism, and Hermeneutics: Insights for Critical Psychology

Frank C. Richardson &
Blaine J. Fowers


Discursive Psychology

Ian Parker

Part IV: Critical Reflections


A Critical Look at Critical Psychology: Elaborating the Questions

Julian Rappaport &
Eric Stewart


Part I

Critical Overviews

Part II

Critical Arenas


Theories of Personality: Ideology and Beyond

Tod Sloan



When the public thinks of psychology, often what comes to mind first is the concept of personality. Likewise, many of psychology's subfields implicitly or explicitly incorporate one personality theory or another. Theories of personality, thus, offer fruitful ground for beginning our critical examination of psychology's substantive areas.

In Chapter 6, Tod Sloan questions mainstream personality theory's basic assumptions. He urges us to examine choices that theorists make concerning how personality is defined, how it develops, what image of the Good Life and the Good Society the theory assumes, and what counts as validating evidence. Like Maritza Montero (Chapter 15), Sloan looks not only at what is present in theories, but also at what is absent. He demonstrates how dominant theories support the societal status quo and how a critical theory of personality can enhance both personal empowerment and social justice.

Sloan explores the central dialectic between self-determination and false consciousness, a topic examined elsewhere by Fathali M. Moghaddam and Charles Studer (Chapter 12) and Dennis Fox (Chapter 14). On one hand, critical psychologists wish to expand people's autonomy. But on the other hand, we cannot ignore cultural ideologies that endorse choices such as frivolous consumerism as a means to personal fulfillment. Sloan's lament that many therapies restore "people to correct functioning within their ideological chains" is echoed in other chapters. The resulting dilemma for practicing critical therapists is not easily resolved.

Whereas traditional personality theories seek either technical control or interpretive understanding, for Sloan a primary concern is emancipation. Sensitive to diversity and social context, a critical personality theory would help change not just persons but societies as well "by showing how personal concerns and social justice are intertwined." Such a theory would be a significant step toward resolving the critical therapist's dilemma.


Abnormal and Clinical Psychology: The Politics of Madness

Rachel T. Hare-Mustin &

Jeanne Marecek



Testing. Attention deficit disorder. Eating disorders. Self-esteem. Diagnosis. Treatment. Cultural sensitivity. DSM. Therapist. These terms are very much a part of our common discourse as abnormal and clinical psychology penetrate culture in countless ways. Reinforced by media portrayals of psychologists as therapists, many people assume that all psychologists are clinicians, and that a clinician's primary job is to "treat" those whose behavior or personality is not "normal." Pressured in many countries by government and insurance company regulations, and influenced by the prestige of medical doctors, many clinicians adopt a medical "disease" model of psychological functioning. In Chapter 7, Rachel T. Hare-Mustin and Jeanne Marecek explore the meanings of these common terms and trends as they dissect the theories and practices of abnormal and clinical psychology.

Using social historical evidence, Hare-Mustin and Marecek show how psychological diagnoses and interventions reinforce unjust social conditions. They analyze the place of values such as autonomy, human diversity, collaboration, and social justice in clinical psychology's discourse and practice. Paralleling arguments made elsewhere in this book, they question mainstream assumptions that norms based on white, middle-class North Americans should apply universally to other populations, and that dominant notions of the Good Life and the Good Society such as rugged individualism are the route to salvation for all.

Abnormal psychology's role in the oppression of women is one key example. Drawing from the fields of family therapy, feminism, psychoanalysis, and social constructionism, the authors expose clinical psychology's unreflective support of the status quo. Addressing the cultural origins of many so-called disorders, Hare-Mustin and Marecek help us see the connection between lack of political power and problems conventionally (and conveniently) defined as psychological rather than as political or social.


A Critical Look at Intelligence Research

Zack Z. Cernovsky



In Chapter 8, Zack Z. Cernovsky brings up to date the debates over the science and politics of IQ described by Benjamin Harris in Chapter 2. Cernovsky offers the study and measurement of intelligence as a case study of the gap between critique and practice.

Anyone working in clinical settings knows the pervasive use and impact of intelligence tests. Scientific-sounding "Intelligence Quotient" scores are used to expand or limit educational opportunities, place children in special education classes, and justify hiring and firing employees. Policy makers use IQ scores to blame the victim: they point to racially biased results as proof that social interventions fail because "it's all in the genes." Although, as Cernovsky details, there is little scientific basis for measuring intelligence in a valid way, psychologists continue to do so. This causes immense damage to individuals and groups who are stigmatized as intellectually inferior by psychological tests that are given more credibility than they deserve.

A challenge for critical psychologists in clinical settings is to learn how to resist institutional practices perpetuating the use of discriminatory assessment tools. Even when results are used for benevolent purposes in the short run, labels have a life of their own, triggering self-fulfilling prophecies and perpetuating negative stereotypes. Beyond the implications for the individual, psychologists should weigh the moral repercussions of legitimizing definitions and tools that are ultimately oppressive, even when they help individual clients obtain needed services.

Focusing on the pursuit of knowledge, Cernovsky exposes the biases and errors of influential researchers as they collect and interpret their data. As emphasized in other chapters, subjectivity and political interests permeate research -- just as they permeate the public's willingness to accept certain results and reject others. Cernovsky helps us uncover these factors in intelligence research and policy from the days of the eugenics movement, when IQ tests categorized Southern and Eastern European immigrants to North America as feeble minded, to today, when books like The Bell Curve resuscitate racist impulses in an increasingly conservative era.


Developmental Psychology and its Discontents

Erica Burman



An entire lexicon of supposedly benign words makes human development seem independent of social and political context. Terms such as natural, progress, growth, body, health, and evolution make children's "development" look like an unremarkable, universal, inevitable progression. We all have notions -- reinforced by the media and by our own hazy memories of childhood -- of how children are "supposed" to develop. Dominant political forces use these notions to reinforce their own conceptions of childhood and related concepts such as "family values."

In Chapter 9, Erica Burman discusses absences in developmental psychology, such as the absence of social context. As pointed out by Tod Sloan (Chapter 6) and Maritza Montero (Chapter 15), absences are worth noting. They have implications for defining and solving problems. For example, because development is supposedly about innate strives towards maturity, not about power struggles, developmental psychologists overlook power dynamics among parents and children, fathers and mothers, teachers and students, and rich and poor. As in other areas of psychology, the failure to notice that behavior norms are ethnocentric, androcentric, and patriarchal serves the interests of dominant groups. So "instead of poverty, unemployment and frustration," Burman says, "we have evil children, bad mothers, absent fathers and broken homes." Burman shows how popular discourses and metaphors conceal normative prescriptions under the guise of scientific descriptions: what dominant groups prefer as the desirable way to rear children is portrayed as the natural way for everyone to rear children. The consequences are severe for those whose lives do not match dominant cultural expectations.

But few things are "natural" about childrearing practices, most of which are socially constructed and culture-specific. Burman advocates a developmental psychology more sensitive to the needs of children in differing contexts as well as to the needs of their primary caregivers, mothers. Studying children and women in real-life sociopolitical contexts and stopping the export of Anglo and US assumptions to other countries would be crucial steps in the right direction.


Social Psychology: The Crisis Continues

S. Mark Pancer


Many critical psychologists are social psychologists who believe their field fails to take the word "social" seriously. This is especially so in recent years in Europe, as it was in the United States two or three decades ago. Similarly, many chapters in this book are at least partly "social psychological" even when they are not labeled as such: Their authors insist that all behavior must be understood in a social context, paying attention to socioeconomic, historical, and political factors whether the immediate concern is child development, psychotherapy, personality theory, or political behavior. But ironically, unlike the social psychology growing out of sociology, social psychology within psychology has become increasingly asocial, as S. Mark Pancer emphasizes in Chapter 10.

Pancer focuses specifically on mainstream social psychology in North America, which continues to dominate the field despite efforts to devise alternatives. He contrasts the reform-oriented aspirations of social psychology's pioneers with the field's feeble accomplishments. While such key figures as Kurt Lewin strove to make the discipline socially useful, subsequent generations adopted approaches that do little to advance human welfare. Pancer emphasizes that social psychology has become even less social under the increased influence of the "cognitive revolution," a problem identified in Chapters 12 and 14 as well.

A redirected, critical social psychology could help us understand why people acquiesce to conditions of oppression. It could teach us to collaborate with one another. It could discover how to distribute resources fairly and how to share power equally. But the narrow methodologies criticized in this chapter, along with an excessive focus on the psychology of the individual, make these possibilities look rather illusory. It is too early to tell whether the critical social psychology emerging in Europe (e.g., see Chapter 18), or the use of more qualitative and value-explicit approaches (Chapter 3), will enable social psychology to live up to its potential.

Part II

Critical Arenas (Chapters 11-15)

Part III

Critical Theories

Part IV

Critical Reflections

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Page updated June 9, 2008