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The Development of
North American Critical Psychology,
Plus Questions About
its Relevance to Israel

Dennis Fox

Behavioral Sciences Department
Ben Gurion University
Beer Sheva, Israel
November 8, 2006

I presented this talk during a 10-week visit to Israel and Palestine, which I describe in more detail on my blog. Following my visit to Ben Gurion University, I visited Birzeit University in Ramallah before returning home.

Most of this paper restates themes addressed elsewhere. The final section on critical psychology's potential relevance to Israel was subsequently incorporated into a 2011 paper, Competing Narratives about Competing Narratives: Psychology and Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.


The term critical psychology is relatively recent, but work within one or another critical psychology tradition in the United States and Canada has proceeded for some time. Indeed, a self-consciously critical psychology followed earlier efforts to make the field more relevant to a range of political concerns. To overgeneralize for a moment, the ultimate goal of many critical psychologists is to see individuals flourish within mutually supportive communities in a just and egalitarian society. To do this, we hope to alter, and to foster, alternatives to, both mainstream psychology's norms and the societal institutions that those norms strengthen.

Well, at least that's my goal. I do think it's widely shared, but it's fair to say critical psychologists vary widely in assumptions and priorities. Indeed, North American critical psychologists have taken three overlapping but conceptually distinguishable approaches. This divergence complicates the task of defining critical psychology beyond a general insistence that mainstream psychology is inherently a political enterprise with a host of negative consequences, and that we should evaluate psychology's theories and practices in terms of whether they maintain an unjust and unsatisfying status quo.

The three idealized critical psychology perspectives, which I'll return to in a few minutes, diverge in history, priorities, potential impact, and style. For now I'll just note that some critical psychologists use psychology's traditional empirical methods to help reduce injustice and advance progressive or radical social change to a greater degree than envisioned by mainstream applied psychologists closer to the liberal-reformist mainstream. Other critical psychologists, more in keeping with the tradition of European critical theory, reject mainstream psychology's positivist and individualist theoretical and empirical underpinnings. And still others primarily challenge psychology's institutional power over mentally troubled individuals whose behavior strikes others as problematic. All three tendencies are reflected in scholarly, political, and organizational work, including that of psychologists who don't use critical psychology terminology. While some psychologists emphasize interconnections among all three, others work primarily or solely within a single track and make little explicit reference to the others.

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So given this divergence, what do North American critical psychologists have in common?

First, we reject mainstream psychology's traditional norms as a legitimate or necessary framework for all psychological work. Although psychology generally portrays itself as advancing through objective, "value-free" science, critical psychologists believe that psychology's values, assumptions, and practices reflect value-laden influences such as the prevailing socioeconomic order, psychologists' political affinities, responses to external pressures, and battles over power, professionalism, and turf. Traditional positivist norms may simply reflect the historical and cultural context that spawned them. For example, the insistence on quantitative rather than qualitative methodology cannot be attributed only to the experiment's supposed superiority; also crucial are factors such as an interest in psychology's being perceived -- and funded -- as a high-status hard science, one that can produce the quantifiable results sought by those who seek not so much to understand behavior as to control it.

Second, we believe that modern society is marked by widespread injustice, inequality, and systemic barriers to both survival and meaning. Frankly, our ultimate goal is to help bring about a radically better world, beyond the limited improvements envisioned by psychological ethics codes that ask psychologists, vaguely, to enhance human wellbeing. Critical psychology imagines what a fundamentally better society might look like and how we might help create it. Thus, our assumptions, conclusions, and speculations take us beyond relatively minor reforms, because more strenuous efforts are needed to expose and oppose injustice, oppression, and other institutional barriers to a meaningful life.

Third, we believe that mainstream psychologists, in the course of their ordinary jobs as therapists, teachers, researchers, and consultants, too often contribute to complacency at one extreme and oppression at the other. This is the case whether they are well-intentioned and "apolitical" helping professionals or, less commonly, conscious agents of social control. Mainstream psychologists, perhaps especially in North America, overemphasize individualism, the narrow pursuit of personal goals, and either adapting to or bypassing societal norms and expectations; they de-emphasize mutuality beyond the family, justice, and the need for institutional change. This emphasis strengthens a status quo that too few psychologists find objectionable, which enables dominant institutions to inculcate a psychologized ideology that encourages widespread belief in unjustified assumptions about human nature. Societal elites may or may not believe the ideology they disseminate; either way it narrows the range of institutional arrangements the society considers possible and desirable and encourages people to accept unjust outcomes.

For an obvious example, a capitalist economic system is justified by the insistence that human beings are inherently selfish, competitive, and accumulative and that people who fall behind have only themselves to blame; people learn to expect the worst from others and from themselves. That Hobbesian view of human nature strengthens a system whose essential principles, procedures, and styles were created by, and for the benefit of, privileged men with substantial property and power.

Much of my own work has focused on the relatively new specialty area called "psychology and law" or psycholegal studies. One of my concerns has been that mainstream psycholegal researchers too readily aim to help legal authorities do their jobs more effectively when they should, in my view, challenge that work instead. Thus, mainstream psychologists in this and other subfields advise legislators, political leaders, and judges on public policy issues, write books encouraging individualist rather than communal problem-solving, help pacify dissatisfied workers, prisoners, and others with limited power, and use psychological principles to facilitate advertising and other means of keeping the public focused on consumerism, competition, career, fashion, and other individualist pursuits. Revolutionizing psychology itself is a challenge, but the real goal is to revolutionize society.

Mainstream psychology and critical psychology often differ, thus, in their level of analysis. For example, by reducing widespread job or relationship difficulties to "manageable" personal problems, traditional psychotherapy diverts energy and legitimacy from efforts to transform work, community, or societal institutions. It reinforces the false hope that we can determine our own outcomes if we simply work hard to find the socially appropriate individual solution. Equally troubling, psychology itself is a dominant institution with its own oppressive history, often stemming from norms that demand or facilitate measurement, categorization, manipulation, and control. So critical psychology aims not just to transform society but to transform psychology itself, replacing its norms with emancipatory alternatives.

Despite what I think of as general themes common among critical psychologists, the presence of three co-existing tracks raises a number of issues. It's not clear that all three can proceed in theoretical, organizational, and political harmony. Perhaps "critical psychology" is too vague a term to be useful. We might really talk instead of "critical psychologies."

Critical psychologists who primarily seek significant, even transformational, social change are perhaps the closest to psychology's conventional liberal mainstream. They often use quantitative methodology despite their suspicion of it, at times re-conceived but sometimes in conventional ways, generating data to identify injustice, inequality, and oppression, and they suggest and test interventions designed to help transform individuals, communities, and societies. They push psychology to look outside the laboratory and beyond the individual, taking to heart many of the criticisms raised during social psychology's 1960s-era "crisis of confidence." Expanding on the earlier tradition embodied by Kurt Lewin, they embrace action research and community interventions, and use qualitative as well as quantitative methodology. Many gravitate away from social psychology or counseling psychology's conventions toward newer realms such as community psychology, the branch of mainstream north American psychology that most explicitly seeks community and social change. Many define themselves as feminist therapists or researchers. Some model their efforts on the liberation psychology of Salvadoran social psychologist Ignacio Martin-Baro and on other attempts to put psychology on the side of liberation and justice.

This activist critical psychology has managed to create some space for itself within academia. For example, Vanderbilt University's Peabody College has an interdisciplinary doctoral program in Community Research and Action, which expanded from a more traditional community psychology department. It is now, essentially, a doctoral program in how to create community-based social change. Similarly, the University of California-Santa Cruz social psychology doctoral program focuses explicitly on social justice. In programs such as these, critical psychologists try to expand mainstream psychology's liberal boundaries. Leading North American psychologists who have bridged this liberal-radical divide include influential elder statesmen like Seymour Sarason and the late George Albee. Today the most active self-defined critical-community psychologist is probably Isaac Prilleltensky, now Dean of Education at the University of Miami, with whom I co-edited Critical Psychology: An Introduction a decade ago.

Also at Miami is Etiony Aldarondo, whose edited book coming out in January, Advancing Social Justice through Clinical Practice, captures the flavor of this approach as well as its multidisciplinary character. Aldarondo explains that the book focuses on

disseminating the insights of clinicians and trainers who have been making a deliberate effort to address both individual suffering and social inequities fueling this suffering. Writing from various vantage points within the system of mental health care in the United States, these authors aim to rekindle a reformist spirit, long present in our professions, while offering an array of conceptual and practical tools for the development of social justice oriented therapeutic practices. (Aldarondo, 2007)

It's not surprising that critical psychologists who make more conscious use of the European critical theory tradition have had less influence in North America than in the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe. North American psychology in general is also theory-driven less than elsewhere. There are exceptions, of course, critical psychologists such as E. E. Sampson, Phil Cushman, and Tod Sloan who have pushed toward more theoretically sophisticated critiques of psychology's individualist and positivist assumptions and whose work is often compatible with traditions such as radical psychoanalysis and with earlier efforts by Erich Fromm and others to explore the impact of socioeconomic conditions on psychological development (Aldarondo. 2007). Duquesne University's psychology department emphasizes "psychology as a positive response to the challenges of the 21st century -- a response which includes existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, depth psychology, feminism, critical theory and post-structuralism." Graduate students at Duquesne organized the second North American critical psychology conference in 2005. The third was organized last spring by students in York University's History and Theory of Psychology Program in Toronto. Those students work with Thomas Teo, whose website notes he is "reconstructing the history of psychology as the history of the critique of psychology, the history of philosophical psychology in the 19th century, and the history and theory of racism in psychology and the social sciences from a scientific, political, social, and developmental point of view."

The third critical psychology approach is the effort to challenge mainstream psychology's power over the lives of individuals, particularly but not only mentally troubled individuals. The movement to rid psychology and psychiatry of their cooperation with institutional mistreatment continues, along with efforts, as Aldarondo puts it, to halt the trend to medicalize social, moral, and political problems. Seymour Sarason's book Psychology Misdirected was one of many that detailed psychology's sorry entanglement with the forces of oppression and repression, particularly focusing on psychology's role in developing and implementing IQ tests and other technologies that turned out, in retrospect, to be more politically inspired than scientifically accurate. Critical psychologists and other mental health advocates struggle against the psychiatry-dominated DSM and the willingness of too many psychologists to work as agents of a flawed system, efforts going back at least as far as the 1970s Radical Therapy movement. Psychologists such as Michael McCubbin in Quebec and Ron Bassman in New York have worked to bridge the gap between academic critiques of mainstream psychology's flaws and the work of activists such as Andrew Phelps to organize in opposition to institutional practices through the National Coalition of Mental Health Consumer/Survivor Organizations, the latest of many such organizations. Right now, liberal and critical psychologists are trying to pressure the American Psychological Association to reverse its position that the APA ethics code does not prevent psychologists from helping military interrogators at Guantanomo Bay torture prisoners.

You will not be surprised that, despite all these developments, critical psychology has had little influence on mainstream psychology. The United States is mainstream psychology's heart, dominating the field globally as it does other domains, disseminating American cultural mainstays everywhere. Most American psychologists never come across critical psychology in their training and, indeed, most have never heard the term. There are no degree programs in critical psychology in the United States, and few professors teach courses identified as critical psychology, though as noted above a handful of departments offer degrees that sound critical in everything but their official name, and subfields such as community psychology are more open to critical perspectives than others. Although some critical material is published in mainstream journals, the bulk appears in journals most psychologists don't read, using language most psychologists find difficult to understand. Some psychologists who do come across critical psychology are sympathetic to its goals but don't see how to incorporate then into traditional academic or clinical jobs. Many others, of course, consider it less "scientific" by traditional standards, or think it's too "political," or simply endorse psychology's support for the status quo. Indeed, many academic critical psychologists end up working outside core psychology departments, in counseling or education or disciplines further removed.

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Given the varying tendencies within critical psychology and the difficulty of pinning down just exactly what critical psychology is, a number of overlapping issues confront critical psychologists with unresolved theoretical and practical questions. I will say in advance that I have more questions than answers, some of which no doubt have occurred to you as well.

1. Ultimate allegiances. Are critical psychologists primarily psychologists interested in theoretical rigor, advocating political goals only because they happen to be compatible with critical theory? Or, perhaps motivated by sources outside psychology such as Marxism, feminism, or anarchism, are we really activists primarily interested in social change, using psychology's theory and methods only when they happen to coincide with our politics? We believe critical theory supports political change, but what if we are wrong? If critical theory ultimately justified only an apolitical stance, would we abandon politics, or abandon the theory?

2. Methods. Should we use traditional methods stemming from positivist assumptions to expose inequality and injustice and foster political and institutional reform, or should we refrain from methods that strengthen mainstream claims to legitimacy?

3. Legitimacy. Should critical psychologists claim special expertise as psychologists to advocate social change, or does rejecting positivist methods reduce our rationale for doing so? And a related issue: Given psychology's historic role as a servant of the state, what makes us think we should advocate specific public policies today? Should our goals merely be to keep psychology from doing more damage and to avoid fooling ourselves about the value of our insights?

4. Moral relativism. Can we advocate politically preferred values such as equality and empowerment or must we abandon all value preferences because they are culturally determined?

5. Audience and style. Should we continue to write in journals, and use a style, that only likeminded academics understand, or should we reach out instead to students, psychologists who don't read critical theory journals, and even to the general public? Can we escape the conventional boundaries of academic life or should we continue to follow competitive academic norms demanding not just intellectual rigor but also a substantial number of publications and other evidence that one's views are influential?

These many unanswered questions, and the existence of different routes critical psychologists take, illustrate that, although critical psychology terminology became more common in the 1990s, there has been little effort to refine its meaning. Indeed, organized efforts to advance critical psychology have intentionally left its definition open-ended rather than exclusive. Thus, members of the Radical Psychology Network (RadPsyNet), which Isaac Prilleltensky and I co-founded in 1993 at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, proclaim the simultaneous intention to change the status quo of society and the status quo of psychology. At the three North American critical psychology conferences organized since 1993- at Monterey, California, in 2001; the Duquesne conference, in 2005; and the York conference in 2006 - psychologists addressed all three emphases, and no doubt will do so again at the next conference this coming March, in Utah. The primary critical psychology books edited by North Americans (Fox and Prilleltensky, 1997; Sloan, 2000) explicitly invited contributions from authors with varying and often conflicting perspectives.

It would be reassuring, to me at least, to say critical psychology is a trend, but I don't really think that's the case, which may reassure some of you. True, use of the term "critical psychology" has increased. There are now books and classes, conferences around the globe, journals and websites and more. More scholars today use critical concepts in their work, and more students come across critical perspectives, though this is still fairly minimal in the United States. In Europe, Australia, and South Africa students can more easily enroll in critical psychology courses and even several graduate degree programs, but I know of no explicitly-labeled critical psychology degree programs in the US, where there are very few courses in the subject other than a handful of small seminars.

Although critical psychology has had little impact on mainstream psychology's institutions, it has become somewhat easier to maneuver within those institutions. Even now some psychologists can make a career doing critical work. We can publish more, do critical research or write nonempirical essays, occasionally facilitate small changes in psychology's ethics rules. This is perhaps especially true for feminist psychologists, who have had a fair amount of success in disseminating feminist analysis and pushing for institutional change. That's also the case within community psychology. But all this has little impact on the vast numbers of people most psychologists work with -- individual and institutional clients, students, research subjects, mental institution patients, prisoners, etc.

Still, critical psychology has become something of a subculture. Identifying oneself as a critical psychologist engenders a variety of legitimate expectations. Subculture is not so bad -- it provides some breathing room, especially for students and newer psychologists who otherwise find psychology too confining. But the rules of publication, tenure, and promotion push toward blending critical values with rigid mainstream norms. The result too often is a reduction of goals from transformation to something somewhat less.

And of course, if it was easier, critical psychologists would be part of the mainstream rather than on the fringes. I don't expect to see that happen.

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The Israeli Context

Before moving to questions and, I hope, general discussion, I would like to ask several questions of my own related to the situation facing academics here in Israel. I would like to hear from you, both in this discussion today and over the course of the next month, how critical psychology in particular and a self-consciously political approach to academic work more generally, have been applied, or might be applied, to the kind of work you do. In other words, what would an Israeli critical psychologist find worth exploring? I will acknowledge first, though, that my questions reflect my own ignorance about the work you are engaged in as well as my distance from the complex situations you all face daily. But I blunder ahead anyway, with three general questions.

First, how does mainstream psychology here, as it does in the US, help maintain an unsatisfactory status quo either by directly supporting it, or by imagining that a "values-free" psychology is divorced from politics, or by avoiding politically charged issues completely and turning instead to topics that may be intellectually interesting but politically safer? Has Israeli social psychology, for example, had its own "crisis of confidence" such as the one in the US three and four decades ago, and if not, why not?

Second, are there critical psychologists in Israel? Is it possible, under the difficult conditions Israelis face daily, for psychologists inside or outside the academy to gaze at the society around them free of more general societal assumptions and allegiances? Does a critical perspective, in other words, depend on a certain degree of alienation from social norms and assumptions? Does it depend on marginality?

I first learned of Kurt Lewin's (1941) work on the Jew as Marginal Man in 1966 in Jerusalem, in a course on Zionism, and ever since the concept has made sense to me. I was not surprised decades later to realize that many leading critical psychologists in the United States have been Jewish, both accepted by, and still on the fringes of, American culture. I have wondered if, here in Israel, the benefits of fully belonging reduc the advantages of not belonging.

In the US and elsewhere, critical psychologists and critical theorists and researchers in other fields identify with the downtrodden, the oppressed - the marginalized. Can that happen in Israel, where societal divisions often seem, to an outsider at least, more absolute than in the US? We have our own difficult problems back home, which we've made too little progress in resolving. Yet here, the divides between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, religious Jews and nonreligious Jews, Sephardi Jews and Ashkenazi Jews, Zionists and post-Zionists, often seem to my pessimistic external gaze insurmountable, especially so when victims are so readily perceived as enemies. In the long run, I wonder, if a critical rejection of mainstream assumptions depends on marginality, will Israel's future critical psychologists more likely come from your Arab students than your Jewish ones?

Finally, and most importantly, how can critical psychologists help resolve the most one-sided internal conflict, that between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis, and the broader national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians across the Green Line? What empirical issues are worth investigating, what ideological myths worth dissecting, what assumptions worth challenging? What is the role of ethnic and religious identity, of nationalist appeals based on cultural mythologies and dehumanization of the Other, of the cognitive effort necessary to resolve the inconsistency between Jewish statehood and democratic statehood? I know something of the work done by Professor Dan Bar-On (2001) and others, but I don't know how common this is, or how it is perceived, or how useful it is likely to prove given the high stakes, strong emotions, and firm commitments on both sides to underlying interpretations and justifications. All of these, of course, raise important, and sensitive, psychological questions. So I wonder: What can be done to enable more psychologists to escape the confines of the dominant discourse so they can help others see things anew?


Aldarondo, E. (2007) Advancing Social Justice through Clinical Practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bar-On, D. (2001). The Silence of Psychologists. Journal of Political Psychology. 22:2: 331-345.

Fox, D. & Prilleltensky, I. (1997). Critical Psychology: An Introduction. London: Sage.

Lewin, K. (1941). Self-Hatred Among Jews. Contemporary Jewish Record, 4, 219 -32 [noted at]

Sarason, S. B. (1981). Psychology Misdirected. New York: Free Press.

Sloan, T. (Ed.). (2000). Critical Psychology: Voices for Change. Hampshire, England: Macmillan Press.

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