Anthropology, sociology and history – disciplines that consider a variety of cultures, social conventions, and historical times – make a valuable contribution to understanding the self (along with the many other valuable contributions they make, of course). They force us to acknowledge that what is true for one specific culture, society, or historical time is not universally true.
Because psychology considers itself a science, with theories based on empirically validated findings, it lacks the benefit of the self-reflective qualities intrinsic to humanist disciplines. This leaves psychology open to criticism.
For example, there’s the charge that psychology has been guilty of assuming that what it observes in Western (North American and European) cultures must be true for other cultures, as well as for our ancestors. In an excellent article on this point, The Weirdest People in the World (PDF), the authors point out that those who live in Western societies not only differ psychologically from people in the rest of the world. WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) people are in fact quite exceptional compared to other cultures and to their ancestors. Americans, in particular, are so unusual that they stand out as “outliers among outliers.” (See also on this: Ethan Watters, We Aren’t the World.)
Another, related criticism — one Kenneth Gergen likes to point out — is the ideology of the self-contained, autonomous individual. This is a culturally specific assumption. I’ve written before of how reductive biomedicine treats patients as isolated individuals and ignores the social determinants of health. The parallel in psychology is the study of individuals as if they existed in a vacuum, independent of the social and cultural contexts in which they were born, raised and currently live.
More fundamentally, Western psychology makes assumptions that are so taken-for-granted they are never mentioned, let alone questioned.
Psychology’s lost emancipatory potential
It turns out there is a field of study that attempts to correct – or, at the very least, point out – these deficiencies of mainstream, academic psychology. It’s called critical psychology, and, as I start to read the literature in this field, I feel as if I’ve found a new intellectual home. Critical psychology aims to identify the fundamental problems of psychology: the reduction of human mental life to isolated, mechanical parts; the conceptualization of the person as individualistic and independent of society; the refusal to consider the very quality that makes us human — our subjectivity — for fear of being considered less scientific than physics.
Critical psychologists are not only critical of the theories, methodologies, and blind spots of what they call “mainstream” psychology. They are also saddened by the lost opportunity. By failing to recognize the social and political value system in which it operates, mainstream psychology neglects what Thomas Teo calls psychology’s emancipatory potential. Psychology could, for example, provide insights into why societies maintain social inequality and injustice. In the name of science, however, psychology refuses to acknowledge the values it implicitly upholds.
Teo explains why psychology has failed to be emancipatory (NB: by “methodological theory of knowledge” Teo means research in which the method of study is more important than the subject matter):
[A] methodological theory of knowledge … prevents critical questions about the purpose of research: What are the personal, social, and political-economic interests involved in executing a certain study? Who benefits from which results? …
[M]ainstream psychology is … guided by certain values, beginning with the value of value-neutrality; and a lack of reflection on the values that guide one’s research maintains the status quo. … In not challenging the mainstream, psychology reinforces the status quo, which also means performing psychology in the interest of the powerful. This embeddedness of psychology in the market economy has made it difficult to promote psychology as an emancipatory science. (emphasis added)
From healthism to critical psychology
In my other blog, I found my way from an initial interest in healthism to how healthism serves the interests of neoliberalism to the social determinants of health. I have a strong interest in social inequality and injustice, so that path doesn’t surprise me.
Critical psychologists would like to use psychology to correct society’s injustices. For this to happen, psychology must become aware of its assumptions. Dennis Fox, one of the leading US proponents of critical psychology, writes:
Critical psychology is an effort to challenge the forces within mainstream psychology that help sustain unjust political, economic, and other societal structures. … One of the most difficult things to confront is the belief of most psychologists that their work is entirely apolitical – they’re just trying to help people. In fact, although they are trying to help people, their work often incorporates assumptions they haven’t always considered.
In Critical Psychology: An Introduction, Fox and his co-editors write (emphasis added):
[T]he minor reforms to smooth out society’s rough edges that mainstream psychologists most often endorse simply don’t go far enough. Dominant cultural, economic, and political institutions exhibit two fundamental problems especially relevant to psychology: they misdirect efforts to live a fulfilling life and they foster inequality and oppression. What concerns us as psychologists is that these institutions routinely use psychological knowledge and techniques to maintain an unacceptable status quo. Instead of exposing and opposing this use, however, mainstream psychology strengthens it. Its prevailing conceptions of human needs and values and its image of scientific objectivity too readily accommodate harmful institutional power. Furthermore, as a powerful institution in its own right, psychology generates its own harmful consequences that fall particularly hard on those who are oppressed and vulnerable.
Not only does psychology fail to point out what’s wrong. It functions as a handmaiden to the powers and interests that benefit from maintaining the status quo. This is essentially the same point Robert Crawford was making in 1980 about those who advocate personal responsibility for health, a political position that benefits neoliberal interests. It’s the same point Dana Becker makes in her new book One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea. As a recent review of the book summarized her argument:
Ignoring the social background to stress … puts the burden of responsibility on vulnerable people to change themselves – to solve their own problems – and it condones the external conditions that lead to their suffering. It allows us to avoid the larger problems.
Avoiding the larger problems by blaming the individual is a theme that has motivated much of my previous blogging. I guess that’s why critical psychology feels like a new room in a familiar intellectual home. I’m so glad I found it.
What is healthism?
The politics behind personal responsibility for health
On healthism, the social determinants of health, conformity, & embracing the abnormal: (2) Economics & the socio-political
On healthism, the social determinants of health, conformity, & embracing the abnormal: (4) The abnormal part
Image source: Barnes & Noble
Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan, The Weirdest People in the World: How representative are experimental findings from American university students? What do we really know about human psychology? (PDF), Behavioral and Brain Sciences, June 2010, 33 (2-3), pp 61-83
Ethan Watters, We Aren’t the World, Pacific Standard, February 25, 2013
Kenneth Gergen, An Invitation to Social Construction
Thomas Teo, “Philosophical Concerns in Critical Psychology,” in Dennis R Fox, Isaac Prilleltensky, and Stephanie Austin (editors), Critical Psychology: An Introduction
Dennis R Fox, Isaac Prilleltensky, and Stephanie Austin (editors), Critical Psychology: An Introduction
Robert Crawford, Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life, International Journal of Health Services, 1980, 10 (3), pp 365 -388
Michael Bond, Get off my back! How to reduce your stress levels, New Scientist, April 3, 2013