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Revolution in PsychologyReview - Revolution in Psychology
Alienation to Emancipation
by Ian Parker
Pluto Press, 2007
Review by Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D.
Aug 5th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 32)

The author is a professor of psychology, though what he professes is light-years away from the conventional approaches, since he regards current psychology as 'mostly useless and sometimes dangerous'. A few years ago he gave a talk in which he suggested that it is so bad that only Marxism can save it. From the fact that he is anti-Stalinism one can infer that his Marxism is probably of the Trotskyite variety. He is extremely well read in the psychological literature, though there is no indication that he has done any empirical research. At this point readers of this review may well conclude that this book is not for them, but that would be a mistake.  Parker views psychology through a red filter, and his unusual panorama is presented with force and clarity, supported by an impressive display of scholarship -- the bibliography extends over 35 pages.

Parker's fundamental thesis is that present-day western psychology is tool of capitalist society and as such a means of control and oppression. All the well-known slogans are rolled out: ideology, alienation, false consciousness, class struggle, and so on. Some of these are helpfully explained. For instance he says that

When Marxists talk about 'false consciousness' they do not mean that individuals are making some kind of cognitive errors, mistakes in their reasoning. It is rather that people are making conscious choices based on life conditions that are 'false' and every false option available to them serves to confirm their alienation and sense that nothing can be done to change these conditions.

His objective is to bring about social change, and current psychology stands in the way. Apart from Marxism, another ideology he favors is that of feminism, which is also against the status quo.

One is led on a wide-ranging travel through the landscape of conventional psychology in its various forms, theoretical and applied, such as cognitive, developmental, social, educational clinical, etc., and shown how it is misguided, pointless, or actually damaging from his standpoint. He dislikes some more than others, and social psychology is his particular bête noire; he concedes that early American social psychologists were politically on the left, but that was long ago. Social psychology now 'churns out some of the most stupid research'. With few exceptions (e.g. when comparing Piaget and Vygotsky), he gets his main facts right and only his interpretations are, to say the least, debatable.

Many of the specific criticisms he puts forward have actually been voiced by non-Marxist psychologists, e.g. the burning desire to be seen as true scientists, the prevailing individualism, the excessive reliance on students in research, or the narrowness of some topics. Some of these critics have banded together to introduce novel ideas and methods, such as 'discursive' psychologists. Although Parker is here less harsh, in so far as they are not Marxists he has no time for them either. There is also a basic contradiction in his several characterizations of psychology:  on the one hand it is said to be a useless and empty fake science, and on the other it is described as a powerful tool in the hands of the oppressors.

The book is at its best when challenging the claims of psychology, but is rather weak on the constructive side. The author advocates  social change, but (perhaps wisely) does not explain what his non-capitalist and non-Stalinist society would look like, nor what role -- if any -- psychologists would have in it; but that would probably be too much to ask.

In one of his main contentions Parker is surely right: most psychologists are content to ignore not merely the broad culture-historical context of their work, but often even the more immediate social (and political?) one.  In sum, the book is instructive as well as infuriating. Given the rich sources cited, it can be recommended to anyone interested in radical critiques of contemporary psychology

© 2008 Gustav Jahoda

Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His main fields of interest are cross-cultural and social psychology, especially the development of social cognition. He is the author of  A History of Social Psychology (Cambridge University Press).


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