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Radicalizing Organized Psychology

Dennis R. Fox & Isaac Prilleltensky


Critical Issues Group at conference of the Society for Community Research and Action, Chicago.

Here is the original proposal for a "critical issue group" that met at the 1994 SCRA (Division 27) meeting in Chicago. Another outlet for a bit of rabble-rousing.

A short summary of the session written by Eliot Levine was published in RadPsyNews #10.

Radicalizing Organized Psychology:
A Critical Issue for Empowerment and Social Change

Proposed Critical Issues Group

The Society for Community Research and Action is perhaps the APA division with the highest percentage of members whose political views are further to the left than psychology's liberal mainstream. In interacting with other elements of organized psychology, community psychologists frequently find themselves advocating positions on public policy that, by mainstream standards, are perceived (often rightly so) as radical. Yet the ability of psychologists with views critical of the mainstream to influence organized psychology remains limited. Even within community psychology, repeated calls for a return to the critical perspective with which the field began are heard often enough to remind us that nonmainstream views and practices are difficult to maintain over time.

In addition to considering significant problems within the communities we typically study, it is worth spending some time considering organized psychology as a community. How can community psychologists work to turn the institutions of psychology in a direction more critical of the status quo of society and the status quo of psychology? How can we find, and work more effectively with, like-minded psychologists throughout APA and beyond?

Efforts to develop answers to questions such as these should be of particular interest to groups such as Community Psychology that seek to mobilize support for effective social change. For that purpose, we propose a Critical Issues Group at the Fifth Biennial Convention that focuses directly on the question of how to go about radicalizing organized psychology.

The two facilitators (a social psychologist and a community psychologist) are the founders and coordinators of the Radical Psychology Network. This Network grew out of a Division 27-cosponsored Conversation Hour at the 1993 APA convention in Toronto. It has since grown in size, linking more than a hundred psychologists and others in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. The group publishes a quarterly newsletter, RadPsyNews. It also sponsors an Internet email discussion list and gopher/World Wide Web server that allows nonmembers access to the group's resources.

In developing their critique of organized psychology's approach to social problems, RadPsyNet's members seek to clarify what they mean by the term "radical." The use of that term in psychology has had a variety of meanings. Member concerns include the practical implications of common therapeutic practices, the public policy efforts of APA and its individual divisions, and the development of a theoretical defense of widespread social change based on the data and theory generated by decades of work in psychology. Some members of the Network embrace leftist political analyses; others describe themselves as feminists; still others insist their views "are so reasonable that they are not radical at all."

Not surprisingly, the response of mainstream psychologists has generally ranged from hostility to ambivalence. More often than might be expected, however, elements of the radical agenda are embraced outright by a number of respected psychologists, particularly community psychologists. Some have worked for decades within organized psychology, gradually becoming disenchanted with the field's close ties to an unsatisfactory status quo.

That the response is at least sometimes ambivalent or even supportive raises significant questions worth discussing at a Critical Issues Group brainstorming session: To what degree are liberal psychologists in the mainstream of organized psychology actually sympathetic to radical goals even if not to radical methods or styles? If radical efforts had more chance of success, would liberals sign on in larger numbers? And if the answer is yes, how can radical psychologists transform such potential sympathy into actual support? In a practical sense, how would greater support for radical perspectives affect the work of psychologists? Ultimately, can community psychologists find a way to work with other critical psychologists in different divisions in order to reframe the social problems we confront in our work and in our political lives?

As an outgrowth of the brainstorming session, we hope to turn in the plan formulation meeting to a focused discussion of how to go about raising these issues in APA as a whole. An initial goal might be to plan several activities for the APA convention in August. For example, just as individual divisions publish lists of divisional events, we might decide to distribute a list of substantive sessions (from many divisions) that focus on alternative perspectives in psychology. Such cross-divisional efforts can lead to subsequent efforts to write material for a wide variety of psychology journals, newsletters, and edited volumes. Issues of training in psychology should also be addressed, with the goal of increasing the exposure of psychology students to critical views. In general, planning should focus both on potentially useful scholarly activities and on practical issues of advocacy within APA and in the larger society.

Community psychologists should be in the forefront of efforts by psychologists to rethink social change. Exposure of community psychologists to the Radical Psychology Network's work's would advance the cause of the Network. It would also advance community psychology by reducing divisional isolation and enhancing multi-faceted approaches. Such a task is crucial for psychology to make a greater contribution to progressive social change.


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Page updated September 30, 2007