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Critical Psychology:
An Introduction

Part III: Critical Theories

Part IV: Critical Reflections


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 (Chapters 6-10)

Critical Arenas (Chapters 11-15)

Part III

Critical Theories


Feminist Psychology

Sue Wilkinson



Feminist psychology's enormous influence on critical psychology is apparent throughout this book. Feminist psychologists have instigated and maintained much of the critical effort to redirect psychology's theoretical assumptions, research methods, professional practices, and ethical guidelines. But despite feminism's partial success in forcing mainstream psychology to make room for women's perspectives, Sue Wilkinson makes it clear in Chapter 16 that the struggle is far from over.

Wilkinson's identifies a process we have seen earlier: Psychologists seeking fundamental social change establish a new area or perspective within psychology only to see their political goals recede from the new field's concerns (see Chapters 10, 11, and 14). In this case, "although 'psychology of women' was established with clear feminist intentions, a large part of the field is rigidly conventional in its support for the status quo." This dynamic has parallels in the larger society, where movements for social change are often co-opted as they become institutionalized in less confrontational form. Because feminism radically challenges psychology as well as society, it is not surprising that its success has been limited. Nor is it surprising that psychologists seeking liberal reform rather than more significant transformation now dominate the de-politicized field called "psychology of women."

Adding to feminist psychology's difficulties is that its proponents lack consensus on many issues, a situation many readers may find surprising and confusing. Wilkinson evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of competing feminist perspectives, making it clear there is no single correct approach. As we noted in Chapter 1, differing perspectives are common throughout critical psychology. These differences lead to many of the dilemmas critical psychologists confront as we try to determine how best to bring about emancipation and equality.


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

Frank C. Richardson &

Blaine J. Fowers



As critical psychologists we seek social change not only because of our individual moral preferences, political inclinations, or frustrations with institutional norms. Central to critical psychology are theoretical critiques of how mainstream psychology pursues knowledge (see Chapter 5). In Chapter 17, Frank C. Richardson and Blaine J. Fowers explore the strengths and weaknesses of three interrelated perspectives in philosophy and social theory that have implications for a theoretically sound critical psychology. Paralleling what we have seen in earlier chapters, there are contending perspectives rather than a single "correct" approach.

Critical theory shows us how the natural and social sciences have been obsessed with instrumental values of control and domination at the expense of emancipatory values such as justice, mutuality, and autonomy. To promote a just and caring society where conflicting interests can be reconciled peacefully, the critical theorist Habermas proposed a method called the "ideal speech situation." This situation is a model for promoting collaboration and democratic participation, but Richardson and Fowers point to potential drawbacks as well.

Postmodernism arose in reaction to the failings of modern philosophies. Naturalistic approaches, using methods from the natural sciences, fail to capture the essence of human experience. Descriptivist approaches describe people's experiences without acknowledging that describing is inherently subjective. But, the authors maintain, although postmodernism offers suggestions for understanding the human condition, its relativism in terms of values prevents it from improving that condition. Critical psychologists must learn how to value diversity, but not be immobilized by thinking that all moral arguments are equally worthy -- that "everything is relative."

The authors conclude by outlining the hermeneutic or interpretive approach. This method of inquiry is sensitive to cultural context, an important ingredient missing from most modern approaches. According to Richardson and Fowers, hermeneutics is not only a better method of inquiry, but an improved tool for the pursuit of the Good Life and the Good Society.


Discursive Psychology

Ian Parker



It was not too long ago that psychologists used the generic "he" when talking about both men and women. Publication norms still encourage authors to describe research in neat, objective, detached, and sterile fashion, ignoring inevitably messy or subjective aspects. We're not supposed to talk about informal interactions with research participants (usually called "subjects"), or about the social context of the research process. These language norms and restrictions support psychology's image of a value-free science. It is not surprising, thus, that other chapters have emphasized how important it is for critical psychologists to examine terminology, ideology, and other aspects of communication and language use.

In Chapter 18, Ian Parker's central focus is language and meaning. He describes how "discursive psychology" seeks to discover how language "works" by analyzing "discourses" or patterns of meaning. In studying how "forms of language serve social, ideological, and political interests," critical discourse analysts examine how written and verbal texts reveal the subjectivity of their authors -- how the content of what authors write is related to their feelings, thoughts, and place in society. Discourse analysis, then, is the opposite of taking at face value printed or spoken material. In a sense, it tries to perfect the art of suspicion in getting at hidden meanings. Thus, when discourse analysts examine a text, they study the specific ways that the material predisposes readers to a particular interpretation. In this type of research, we can ask questions such as: What are the hidden ideological and political meanings of this text? How do particular discourses clarify or obscure oppressive relationships in society?

Parker distinguishes between a critical approach to discursive psychology and one that is more cognitive. The first, relying heavily on work by Foucault, links psychological discourse with power and ideology. We learn from this tradition the intimate relation between language and politics. The second, relying on Potter and Wetherell, looks at the various and potentially contradictory discourses people use to explain facts and behaviors. This approach is more concerned with how people talk about phenomena, and less concerned about changing society or psychology.

We have seen contending positions within other areas of critical psychology such as feminist psychology (Chapter 16). Parker describes similar tensions within discursive psychology relevant to issues examined earlier in the book, such as psychology's individualistic bias and the use of qualitative methods. Agreeing with the critique of moral relativism expressed by Frank C. Richardson and Blaine J. Fowers in Chapter 17, Parker reminds us that "the fact that we can relativize phenomena does not mean that all explanations or moral positions are equally valid or equally useless."

Parker concludes by making explicit a point that is implicit in several other chapters: "A critical psychology has to be constructed from theoretical resources, life experience and political identities outside the discipline. Only then does it make sense to deconstruct what the discipline does to us and to its other subjects." Using mainstream psychology's own norms and assumptions cannot lead to an adequate critique of the field -- thus the importance of influences such as feminist theory, Marxism, liberation theology, and even utopianism. As psychology becomes more and more specialized, critical psychologists must become generalists, incorporating perspectives ranging from political philosophy to the everyday experience of those who suffer from the status quo and those who seek to change it.

Part IV

Critical Reflections


A Critical Look at Critical Psychology: Elaborating the Questions

Julian Rappaport &

Eric Stewart



We asked Julian Rappaport and Eric Stewart to review the broad field of critical psychology as presented in this book. We asked them to do so critically, and they did. Going beyond the themes and dilemmas noted in Chapter 1 and elsewhere, they point to risks and limitations inherent in critical psychology's theory and practice. Their analysis pushes critical psychology further along by suggesting where we might go from here. No doubt the next edition of this book will benefit from their analysis.

From their perspective as community psychologists, Rappaport and Stewart remind us how important it is to escape the trap of mere intellectualism and stay focused on the real-world consequences of our work. How can we transfer our insights from the academic setting to the community, changing not just the norms of psychologists but the lives of people less privileged than ourselves? At least equally important, how can we incorporate into our work the experiences and insights of those who live in the community, who often differ from us in many significant ways? Sensing that the gap between rhetoric and action is as present in critical psychology as it is in other critical fields, the authors invite us to join community members in social action and to try harder to solicit the participation of those with less privileged backgrounds.

In a field defined by a critical attitude, Rappaport and Stewart caution us not to become elitist and self-righteous. Expanding on this book's emphasis on acknowledging dilemmas, they caution us against too much certainty in our own positions. Comfort with our new conception of psychology can make us stop questioning our own assumptions. The lesson is clear: instead of rushing to confirm our presuppositions we should stop to appreciate the ironies, tensions, and contradictions inherent in our own ideas. We should be explicit about our values and our subjectivity.

Immersion in real life "mid-level" settings is a good antidote to false conceptual dichotomies such as the "individual" and the "social system." Individuals are part of systems and systems are made up of individuals. It makes no sense to talk about people out of context. Conversely, it makes no sense to talk about systems without reference to real people. Critical psychologists wish to recapture the importance of larger social systems -- many would not agree with an exclusive focus on the mid-level structures that Rappaport and Stewart find central. But we should not forget the individual, who remains both the subject of oppression and the hero of emancipation.

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