Critical psychology is a relatively unknown force in psychology, especially in the United States. Even many psychology professors have not heard of it or, if they have, do not know what it is about. Some of this is because psychologists don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to have to deal with the challenges of critical psychology.
Critical psychology is not so much a branch of psychology as a needed voice. According to Dennis Fox (n.d.), “critical psychology is an effort to challenge forces within mainstream psychology that help sustain unjust political, economic, and other societal structures.” Stated differently, critical psychology is concerned with how psychology often contributes to many of the injustices and oppressions still existing in contemporary culture.
Typically, psychology’s participation in oppression is unintentional and bound to the unconscious level. However, this does not make psychology innocent. Of all fields, psychology is the last that should be able to hide behind the excuse, “We didn’t realize.”
Similarly, postmodernism arose largely as a reaction against the power structures of modernism. It recognizes that current power structures served to protect those in power and reinforce systems that oppressed many. Postmodernism has set out to expose and overturn these oppressive forces.
Hillman and Ventura (1993) voice similar sentiments in their book We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse. They are concerned that psychology always seeks to comfort, when sometimes it may be better, healthier, and more moral to encourage rage. There are things happening in the world that should anger us. We should be angry about racism. We should be angry about sexism. We should be angry about homophobia. We should be angry about terrorism, hate, and war. They are abominations. To replace the active rage against injustice with passive comfort is morally wrong.
Lessons from the History of Psychology
The history of psychology is filled with demons and shadows that are often not included in the history books. One of the most startling tales is Guthrie’s (2004) Even the Rat Was White. Guthrie details how the beginnings of empirical psychology received a great boost by research on individual differences. This research was often blatantly intended to prove the superiority of the white race. For example, when individuals of African decent performed better on measures of finger tapping quickness, it was interpreted as meaning that they were obviously designed for manual labor. These blatantly racist interpretations were considered good, objective science.
Similarly, Scarborough and Furmoto (1989) chronicle the history of ignored women in psychology in their book Untold Lives: The First Generation of American Woman Psychologists. Psychology for a long time has ignored important contributions of women. In a field where the vast majority of students are still women, most psychology organizations and psychology faculty are still dominated by males, particularly white males. Many psychological theories still base the model of health on a perspective biased in favor of white males.
We have made progress, but we still are in no place to pat ourselves on our back. Racist, sexism, and homophobia still exist in psychology, often blatantly so. As one example, it is not uncommon for an African American client, who voices anger about injustices, to be seen as pathological, aggressive, and even potentially anti-social. If we pathologize attempts to address these injustices, or many others in our culture, we only promote further injustice.
Lessons Needed in Contemporary Psychology
Psychology has too often become deluded with its insistence on objectivity and neutrality. Both of these are dangerous illusions. Psychological science is far from neutral. It seems hard to believe that in a postmodern, post-Kuhnian culture a discipline as significant as psychology could still buy into the objectivity of science, research, and empiricism. While the rest of the academy, even physics, the ‘hardest of all sciences,’ has moved beyond the modern paradigm, many in psychology are still trying to ‘prove’ the validity of psychology as a science.
Within psychology, those who promote a narrow, empirical perspective are often considered to be more sophisticated. This is the power position that will help you get ahead in the field. Yet, in the rest of the academy, a majority of the top scholars would quickly see through this thin veil.
A true psychology of compassion requires it to lose its innocence and embrace its shadow. Psychology has a dark side. Contemporary psychology still does not equally value all people and it does not seek to equally free all people. Too often, it seeks to promote a very white standard of health that is sold as being culturally sensitive or culturally competent. Yet these thin, idyllic caricatures don’t stand up. Sam Keen states,
The heroes and leaders toward peace in our time will be those men and women who have the courage to plunge into the darkness at the bottom of the personal and corporate psyche and face the enemy within. Depth psychology has presented us with the undeniable wisdom that the enemy is constructed from denied aspects of the self. (pp. 198-199).
Critical psychology is just such a tool to help psychology embrace its shadow and contribute in a meaningful way to challenge the oppressive forces which continue in our culture and the field of psychology.
Critical psychology and postmodernism are natural partners in contemporary psychology. Both seek to embrace diversity and pluralism in ways that go far beyond what is politically correct. These thick understandings of culture are needed if psychology truly is going to embrace its mission to compassionately help those who are suffering.
Fox, D. (n.d.). Frequently asked questions: Critical psychology. Retrieved from http://www.dennisfox.net/faq.html.
Guthrie, R. V.. (2004). Even the rat was white: A historical view of psychology (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson. Purchase here.
Hillman, J. & Venture, M. (1993). We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
Keen, S. (1991). The enemy maker. In C. Zweig & J. Abrams (Eds.), Meeting the shadow: The hidden power of the dark side of human nature (pp. 197-202). New York: Tarcher/Putnam.
Scarborough, E. & Furumoto, L. (1989). Untold lives: The first generation of American women psychologists. New York: Columbia University Press. Purchase here.
Added August, 2006
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