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Introducing Critical Psychology:
Values, Assumptions,
and the Status Quo


Isaac Prilleltensky & Dennis Fox


Chapter 1 in

Critical Psychology: An Introduction

London: Sage Publications

This chapter combines my own long-term thinking about critical psychology with that of my friend and colleague, Isaac Prilleltensky. It introduces the book we edited, which reflects a similar melding of our interests.

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"Chapter copyright Isaac Prilleltensky and Dennis Fox 1997. Excerpts reproduced here with permission from the publishers.

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From the Introduction


Throughout this book, we contrast approaches taken by critical psychologists with those followed more typically by mainstream psychologists. By mainstream psychology we mean the psychology most often taught in universities and practiced by clinicians, researchers, and consultants. It is psychology portrayed as a science, with objective researchers and practitioners who uncover the truth about human behavior and help individuals adjust to the demands of modern life. Some mainstream psychologists, recognizing the societal sources of much distress, propose minor reforms of social institutions to help individuals function more effectively. In general, when people become psychologists they expect to do some good. And often they do.

Yet critical psychologists see things a bit differently. As the contributing authors emphasize throughout this book, mainstream psychology reinforces Western society's unacceptable status quo, even when psychologists propose tinkering with social institutions. Indeed, the field of psychology itself is a mainstream social institution with negative consequences of its own. Of course, if existing institutions ensured social justice and human welfare, minor alterations to smooth out the rough edges might be good enough. In our view, however, the underlying values and institutions of modern societies (particularly but not only capitalist societies) reinforce misguided efforts to obtain fulfillment while maintaining inequality and oppression (Fox, 1985, 1996; Fox and Prilleltensky, 1996; Prilleltensky, 1994a). Because psychology's values, assumptions, and norms have supported society's dominant institutions since its birth as a field of study, the field's mainstream contributes to social injustice and thwarts the promotion of human welfare (Albee, 1986; Baritz, 1974; Chesler, 1989; Jacoby, 1975; Kamin, 1974; Sarason, 1981).


Central Concerns

  • Individualism and Meaning
  • Oppression and Inequality
  • Intentions, Consequences, and Dilemmas

A Vision for Critical Psychology

  • Basic Values
  • Basic Assumptions
  • Defining the Level of Problems and Solutions
  • In Search of the Good Society

On Subjectivity

Using this Book

  • Organizing Matters

Excerpts: Using this Book

Reflecting the varied ways critical psychologists have analyzed issues and dilemmas such as these, the chapters in Critical Psychology: An Introduction complement one another. Each presents a different piece of the puzzle or a different way of looking at the whole picture. For example, some of psychology's discriminatory norms are easier to grasp when focusing on issues of sex and gender, making a feminist analysis particularly fitting. Indeed, feminism has provided much of the impetus for the emergence of critical psychology (Fine, 1992a; Unger and Crawford, 1992; in this book, see especially Chapters 3, 4, 7, 9, 13, and 16). On the other hand, neo-Marxist psychology is sometimes more directly relevant to issues of economic class and power (Nahem, 1981; Newman, 1991; Sloan, 1996a; Tolman, 1994), issues particularly noted in Chapters 2, 5, 10, 11, and 14. Other intellectual traditions include German critical psychology (Tolman, 1994), South American liberation psychology (Martín-Baró, 1994; Montero, 1992; Chapter 15), social constructionism (Gergen, 1985a; Chapter 17), discursive psychology (Parker, 1992; Chapters 17 and 18), postmodernism (Kvale, 1992; Chapter 17), and post-positivist approaches in general (Sullivan, 1984; Chapter 17). All find a place within critical psychology as we define it to the extent that they aim to eliminate oppression, promote social justice, and redirect society's values


In making your way through the book, it may help to keep in mind what the authors are trying to accomplish. We asked some of the authors to examine broad themes running through psychology as a whole and others to analyze a relatively narrow segment. We did not, however, ask the authors to present a comprehensive review of their entire subfield or a complete history. Instead, because of space limitations, we asked them to identify and clarify the field's central issues, providing a broad critical overview that readers might use as a basis for further investigation. We asked five general questions, questions you can ask yourself regarding your own field of interest:

1. Does the field promote the status quo in society?

2. Does the field promote social justice or injustice either for its particular population of interest or for society at large?

3. Is there an awareness of the societal repercussions of the field's theories and practices, or is the field oblivious of its potential negative effects?

4. Do researchers, theorists and practitioners declare their values, or do they assume what they do is value-free?

5. What are your own cultural/moral/value commitments, and how do they affect your critique?


Our main message here is that it does not take years of training in critical psychology to begin practicing it. The myth that we cannot speak before we are "all knowing" about a field and the mainstream's insistence that "more research is needed" frequently prevent constructive action (Fox and Prilleltensky, 1996). How much more research on oppression's destructive effects do we need before we try to end oppression? We believe we know a great deal about oppression, and about how consumerist societies erode a sense of community and personal meaning. A century of manipulating variables in laboratories and the field has not challenged the status quo. What we need instead is research that can teach us how to change real societies in fundamental ways. And we need action that goes beyond research.

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