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What is critical psychology and how is it important for our lives? Can we even define it? Should we abandon psychology in favor of critical psychology? How does critical psychology treatment look like compared to mainstream psychology? These are only a few of the questions this enormous and potentially revolutionary Handbook of Critical Theory attempts to address.
Critical psychology has been a rising "academic" discipline since the 1990s. I write the word "academic" in quotation marks because I want to focus on a major issue running through this wonderful book: the relation of critical psychology to praxis. In other words, can critical psychology lead to social transformation? If so, how is this possible?
A little bit of background is needed. One can trace critical psychology's origins to the "crisis in psychology," a battle between the scientific paradigm of psychology and the phenomenological tradition that criticized social psychology for depending too much on human laboratory experiments and thus relinquishing any sense of humanism. Simply put, the importance of humanism is the idea that human beings are the center of our concern. From this perspective, the role of psychology is to help people and should not be treated in an instrumental manner, i.e., as a means to an end, in order to better understand the human psyche. This paradigm of psychology was based on "qualitative research," which Parker notes was not only dehumanizing, but utilized deception to control the people under psychological inspection.
The major influences on critical psychology were the first generation of thinkers who developed the Frankfurt School's critical theory. They were a group of neo-Marxists that formed an interdisciplinary tradition in the 1930s, which incorporated the Marxist framework with Freud's psychoanalytical concepts. One of critical theory's more significant contributions to critical psychology is the insistence on emancipation. This inheritance of critical theory postulated that theory is not merely a descriptive activity of the mind, nor is it a true representation of reality; rather, it must be attuned to the liberation and betterment of all people's lives.
The editor of this volume, Ian Parker, has been a prominent scholar in the field of critical psychology and is often considered the godfather of critical psychology. He has written and edited a vast amount of books about critical theory, such as The Crisis in Modern Social Psychology—And How to End It (1989), Critical Psychology (4 volumes) (2011), and Revolution in Psychology: Alienation to Emancipation (2007).He isalso the founder and editor of the Annual Review of Critical Psychology. As Parker remarks in his introduction to the Handbook of Critical Theory, trying to define or create a handbook for this discipline is an arduous and probably impossible mission due to the diversity in the critical approaches to critical psychology. Therefore, instead of offering a definition,the Handbook of Critical Theory tries—and succeeds in my opinion—to cover the different attunements that follow from the diversity of "specialties" that require special treatment, as well as the inability of critical psychology to encompass this diversity in its parent field of psychology. Critical psychology is shaped through the process of dealing with the "problems posed by each sub-field of the discipline." Furthermore, the effects of neo-liberalism and globalization seem to (falsely) demand that critical psychologists tackle many cultural traditions leading to a proliferation of critical theory (2).
The Handbook of Critical Theory is divided into three major parts, which themselves are split into more parts. I will not examine every aspect that this multifaceted handbook deals with in detail; instead, I will focus on what I believe to be the pivotal elements of critical psychology. The first part deals with the different critiques of psychology. I would say critical psychology's main target is the methodology of mainstream psychology, and more specifically, the quantitative approach's desire to quantify the mind and human experience. As Cosgrave, Wheeler, and Kosterina argue, "The hegemony of quantification within psychology" is one of the main targets of critical psychologists' critiques. This hegemony involves the prevalence of instrumental reason in the social sciences—the almost full adoption of "the language of quantification in any scientific field" (15). The authors approach to quantification does not intend to expel it from the realm of psychology, but rather to incorporate it with qualitative research. By doing so, the dichotomizing thinking that rules mainstream psychology will become redundant: "Focusing on the constitutive aspects of individuals' experiences challenges the individual/society dualism by understanding the subject as being a product of dominant positions and discourses" (20).
Of particular importance are the chapters that give us a taste of the value that critical psychology can offer to other disciplines that utilize psychological knowledge for therapeutic reasons. In her chapter "Social work: Oppression and resistance," Suryia Nayak explores the way a discipline emerges to sustain social order, e.g., by treating the poor and vulnerable miserable situation, social work addresses the problems that the vulnerable might cause the ruling class (241). The same argument can be attributed to the psychologists who help their patients to be less miserable in society, but neglect the fact that miserable people can also have revolutionary potential. A fundamental tension is apparent in the disciplines of psychology and social work: "on the one hand, it purports to be an agent of social change with an emphasis on tackling unequal power relations, and on the other hand, social work is implicated in the control, selection, organization, and redistribution of discourse that actually produces unequal power relations" (242).
I would like to address one crucial point that I fear is part of the theoretical governance in critical psychology (and other critical prefixed disciplines). The need to heed social transformation is often hindered by theoretical voices that deem the acts of social change as prone to being coercive. Appearing as a know-it-all from the standpoint of power over their patients, Nayak's example refers to the way a specific theory of human beings determines the contours and the way we perceive our patients, and thus in a way reifies bronzes their conditions (246). I view this as a theoretical problem that rises out of theoretical analysis, and by focusing on the theoretical instead of the praxis, we lose track of what is important: the emancipation of human beings and other creatures and the alleviation of their distress. In a way, the two major parts of this book deal with the theoretical aspects of critical theory, particularly defining critical theory through the critique of mainstream psychology. Nonetheless, the important issue at hand is how we maintain critical psychology that is not primarily an academic, journal- and book-driven discipline, but rather one that is truly attuned to the emancipation of society.
Two beautifully crafted chapters elucidate other key points in critical psychology. In "Psychotherapists: Agents of change or maintenance men?," Ole Jacob Madsen discerns between psychologists and psychotherapists. Psychology pertains to the examination of "mind and behavior," while psychotherapy is the "therapeutic interaction or treatment." Although psychotherapy often draws its knowledge from psychology, its treatments are diverse. The conclusion is that not all psychotherapists are psychologists. However, in modern times conversational therapy is quite popular, which raises the question of how critical psychology deals with the common claim that the purpose of psychotherapy is "to increase an individual's sense of well-being, to help a client with a specific problem, or to improve relationships between two or more people" (223). The focus of psychotherapy is on the individual and his or her history that gave birth to their problems; therefore, the socio-historical conditions that created the problems in one's life are left unexamined and unchanged. The problem and the solution are in the individual. With respect to this point, critical psychotherapy can put forward a new treatment that reveals to the person how in addition to their socio-historically created problems, his or her problems are also caused by society. However, by no means does this mean that critical psychology relieves the individual of responsibility. Instead, this approach entails edifying the person in regards to his or her problems and directing them to change society, as opposed to giving them pills or instructions for individual solutions that dull their revolutionary impetus. I believe Madsen's analysis and conclusions (227) miss the mark as it focuses primarily on "questioning the sociopolitical conditions surrounding the individual clients they set out to help" (228). Critical psychology must transcend merely educating the people who come for therapy and promote their involvement in changing society; e.g., a social democratic welfare state can improve the situation of both women and men, which would in turn reduce the number of psychological problems.
In the third part of the Handbook of Critical Theory we get a glimpse of what critical psychology catered toward emancipation can look like. To battle the capitalistic mode of production that subjects people globally and nationally to perpetual crisis—i.e., a neo-liberal economics and way of life that advocate the reduction of state intervention in people's lives, leaving it to the private sphere, corporations, and the third sector to take care of people's social needs—critical psychology requires a way of action, or a "praxis" in the Marxist jargon. Although some might argue that critical psychology can still be critical without its emancipatory core, the consensus seems to be that critical psychology is an approach that can be described as striving for social transformation in a qualitative manner. I would add that uncovering the ideological elements of psychology, revealing the power structure of psychology (how psychology creates knowledge and thus control over people's lives), and rearticulating a new epistemological method for psychology research that will make the quantitative/qualitative dichotomy redundant is not enough. For critical psychology to be critical, it must provide—be it by negative critique or positive programmatic manuscripts—a clear praxis. This leads us to a paradox: Writing in journals does not amount to emancipating society from atrocities, but instead perpetuates the power structure of the division of labor. However, in order to change society we must write and expose the oppressive elements in it.
A great example of the praxis that critical psychology can and should adopt is found in the works of critical psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró and his formulation of "liberation psychology."In Handbook of Critical Theory, Mark Burton and Luis H. Gómez Ordóñez examine how this form of critical psychology uncovers the ideological aspects of capitalism and the colonial drive to subdue indigenous people and subject them to Western values in order to take their lands and utilize them as low-income workers. Martín-Baró's praxis which is informed by liberation psychology, advances the critique of scientific psychology and favors a psychology that is preoccupied with the "needs and interests of the majority of Latin American people." I believe the most important element in his theory is expressed thusly: "rather than merely academically adopting an assumed perspective of the oppressed other, knowledge will come from the attempt to transform that reality. This involves an activity that transforms reality" (349). That is why his theory is connected with social liberation movements, as he views critical psychology not merely as a theoretical endeavor, but as one that must be utilized for the sake of human liberation (353).
This Handbook of Critical Theory is a vital source for students, post-graduates, and scholars who are interested in critical psychology and wish to better understand the social structure that produces psychological knowledge. However, it is ultimately for anyone who wishes to transform society and improve the lives of themselves and others. Parker did a marvelous job at covering the immense diversity in the field of psychology. Although the amount of publications found in this book might seem to indicate that critical psychology is popular, the opposite is true. Unfortunately, it is but a sub-field in a vast ocean of sub-fields in psychology, and most psychology departments in the world only give it a small percentage of teaching time. It is not an exaggeration to argue that the majority of psychologists do not see themselves as critical psychologists, at least not in the sense that their efforts are geared toward society's emancipation and the removal of oppression. Most people still get (or perhaps prefer since they are not exposed to any other kind of treatment) the traditional psychological treatment wherein they try and solve their marriage problems; as a result, most people are not told that marriage is a social construct that prevents them from looking outside the individualistic frame of mind to the society and that constructs a patriarchal oppressive structure that leaves women dependent on men. I am sure that this Handbook of Critical Theory will serve students and scholars, as well as activists, as Parker and the authors did a splendid job at lighting the way for human beings' and other creature's emancipation.
© 2016 Ben Fulman
Ben Fulman, PhD, Israel