Critical and Radical Psychology
Psychology’s secession from philosophy in the nineteenth century required new approaches to speculation and investigation to clarify and shape its modern scientific identity. The emphasis on predicting and controlling human behavior, which marginalized phenomena unsuited for quantitative data production, generated techniques that proved especially useful to government, military, and corporate bureaucracies. At least as useful were explanatory models compatible with Western individualistic values. As psychology’s influence and reputation in the public imagination expanded, psychologists working as researchers, therapists, teachers, and consultants became central to the psy complex, the set of professionals from psychiatrists and guidance counselors to teachers and social workers who aim to modify the behavior of others.
Although the terminology of radical psychology and critical psychology is relatively recent, there have always been psychologists who opposed the field’s emerging identity and practices. Today, critical and radical psychologists present a multitude of philosophical, scientific, and political objections. Despite varying emphases, methods, and priorities, critics generally maintain that mainstream psychology functions essentially as a political enterprise. It does so by disseminating selective assumptions about what counts as relevant knowledge and how to obtain it, unjustified confidence that professional norms can ensure scientific objectivity, and misguided faith that such objectivity (if even possible to attain) frees the field of biases that sustain an unjust and unsatisfying status quo. Indeed, psychology’s chosen practices inevitably produce forms of knowledge particularly compatible with society’s dominant power structures. In response, critics work to identify mainstream psychology’s unacknowledged assumptions, demonstrate their impact on psychology and on the larger society, and propose alternative theoretical frameworks, research methods, and professional practices.
Around this critical core, the critical psychology and radical psychology landscape remains imprecise. Each term incorporates a range of overlapping, crosscutting, inconsistent, and sometimes contradictory critiques of mainstream psychology’s assumptions, methods, and goals. Some critics use both terms interchangeably while others identify with just one or the other. Some focus on psychology as a whole, while others emphasize specific links among some of the field’s many components. Confusingly, some psychologists who use neither term also depart from mainstream norms, while others use mainstream methods to advance progressive or radical aims. The lack of consensus about what critical and radical psychologists do and what they hope to accomplish suggests we might more accurately speak in the plural of critical and radical psychologies.
Radical psychology has had two primary meanings. For many, the term brings to mind the radical therapy and anti-psychiatry movements emerging in the 1960s. For others, “radical” means politically radical, further to the left than liberals and progressives who had long sought to use scientific psychology for socially useful ends while generally accepting the dominant individualistic framework of Western, especially United States, democratic capitalism. Combining both meanings, the journal Radical Therapist proclaimed “therapy means change, not adjustment.” Among the three dozen articles reprinted in its classic book The Radical Therapist (Radical Therapist Collective, 1971) were “How to Be a Radical Therapist” (Rick Kunnes), “Radical Psychiatry and Movement Groups” (Claude Steiner), several on Mental Illness, and titles such as Rights of Children, Gay Liberation Manifesto, and Radical Psychiatry Manifesto; the book’s longest section included 15 articles on Women and Men, including Carol Hanisch’s “The Personal is Political,” Marilyn Zweig’s “Is Women’s Liberation a Therapy Group?” and Phyllis Chesler’s “Marriage and Psychotherapy.”
Introducing his own edited book Radical Psychology, Phil Brown (1973) noted his debt to the Radical Therapist Collective as well as to Psychologists for a Democratic Society. Brown’s broader reach incorporated, among others, chapters on or by Thomas Szasz, Erving Goffman, R. D. Laing, Karl Marx, Wilhelm Reich, Frantz Fanon, Naomi Weisstein, and the Mental Patients’ Liberation Front. The book’s preface made a claim still relevant today:
Brown also noted the expansion of radical psychology’s concerns beyond radical therapy, which he believed “became a widespread term for innovative techniques that lacked real radical analysis or content” (p. xix). The radical therapy movement was already splitting into factions partly over this question of whether alternative therapies were as beneficial for patients as they were for the psychologists and psychiatrists who developed them.
Although the terminology of radical therapy and radical psychology receded in prominence in the 1970s, overlapping developments consistent with radical psychology’s aims had already taken root on different continents. Social psychology’s “crisis of confidence” beginning in the 1960s generated broad theoretical, methodological, and political critiques. Feminist therapists began to carve out niches in the expanded psychotherapy world. Salvadoran social psychologist and Jesuit priest Ignacio Martín-Baró (1994) advocated a liberation psychology designed not only to rid Latin Americans of repressive political systems but to rid Latin American psychology of North American dominance (he was killed by a right-wing death squad in 1989). German students and faculty began constructing a self-described Critical Psychology based on earlier critical theory; Klaus Holzkamp’s work was central, as recounted in Charles Tolman’s Psychology, Society, and Subjectivity (1994) and in this volume’s entry on Critical (German) Psychology.
These and other developments beginning in the 1960s grew in the 1970s and 80s towards an array of critiques and projects. Shifts in mental health policy that “deinstitutionalized” patients in many public mental hospitals sparked new activist groups, including those formed by former patients organizing as psychiatric survivors. Extending the British anti-psychiatry movement, Psychology Politics Resistance began in 1994 as a network of psychologists and non-psychologists aiming “to oppose the abusive uses of psychology.” The Radical Psychology Network (RadPsyNet), founded at the 1993 American Psychological Association (APA) convention, advocated change beyond liberal tinkering. Self-defined radical groups such as these explicitly distinguished themselves from those using mainstream methods to achieve generally liberal goals – for example, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), community psychology’s Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA), and APA’s social activist divisions that focus on particular groups or causes (e.g., Women, Ethnic Minorities, Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual, Peace).
Despite Brown’s warning that “radical psychology is a force of revolution, not academia” (1973, p. xxii), over time critiques of psychology explicitly defined as “critical” found a home in the university. By the mid-1990s, critics building on earlier work rejecting the field’s self-congratulatory character (e.g., Sampson, 1983; Sarason, 1981) rapidly created isolated pockets of activity that saw hints of institutional acceptance, especially in the United Kingdom and other English-speaking nations outside North America. In the US today, critical work is more visible in particularly amenable specialties such as theoretical and community psychology than in core research areas. While several graduate programs exist elsewhere, no US university offers a critical psychology degree.
As described in Critical Psychology: An Introduction (Fox, Prilleltensky, & Austin, 2009), critical psychologists from various traditions typically share several concerns about mainstream psychology:
A decade earlier, introducing the first issue of the Annual Review of Critical Psychology, Ian Parker (1999) wrote that critical psychology’s conflicting tendencies meant “we need elements of a definition that can link good work and construct a field of debate where the tensions between different positions can be debated” (p. 12). Maintaining that “critical psychology should span academic research, professional practice and the self-organization of users of psychology services,” Parker suggested four necessary components:
Critical psychology continues to generate books, journals, courses, conferences, websites and other signs of academic growth. Yet critics who might generalize about what critical psychology is or should be often begin from very different starting points, take different routes, and reach different and even conflicting conclusions. As disparate literatures grow in discursive psychology, conversation analysis, critical community and health psychology, and more, emphases range from abstract theory to practical research and practice issues to political activism. Tod Sloan’s (2000) Critical Psychology: Voices for Change offers accounts by some two dozen psychologists of their own journeys through the critical landscape.
Two distinctions are especially noteworthy. One common divide is over methodology. At the heart of the critique is a rejection of mainstream psychology’s positivist underpinnings. Many critics consider the dominant insistence that real science requires experimental research and quantitative analysis a superficial misreading of science that unjustifiably narrows psychological investigation. With feminist psychologists in the forefront of developing approaches less confined by male-dominated assumptions, qualitative methods such as open-ended interviewing and participant action research became a distinguishing mark of critical work. Yet although qualitative research remains the primary critical research method, today there is general acknowledgment that not all qualitative research advances critical or radical goals.
There is similar awareness of the converse: Not all quantitative research impedes critical or radical goals. In an ironic turnabout, feminist psychologists and others have used quantitative data to reveal a wide range of oppressive practices. If the goal is to end inequality and injustice and advance liberation – or, at the least, to suggest beneficial reforms or fight regressive policy – then many researchers justify quantitative approaches and other mainstream styles despite the risk of strengthening the underlying positivist framework. Although many who choose this route do not consider themselves critical psychologists, for others the distinction between good and bad methods – or between critical and noncritical methods – is less significant than it seemed a decade or two ago.
The methodology divide overlaps a political gap. Critics commonly advocate radical social change rather than liberal reform – or, using terminology from critical community psychology, “transformative” rather than “ameliorative” change (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2005). Yet while some critical psychologists are philosophical or pragmatic liberals, some who identify as radicals do not always identify with critical psychology’s broader theoretical critique. Furthermore, some critical psychologists reject any political label or agenda on the grounds that political commitment implies a false confidence in some unknowable truth; most critical psychologists, however, resolve the tension between relativism and certainty by acknowledging the risk while standing on the side of liberatory change. Still, the matrix of philosophical critique, political identity, and activist agenda complicates understandings of critical psychology’s domain.
However defined, as critical psychology becomes increasingly institutionalized within academia it remains to be seen whether the benefits of recognition outweigh the concomitant pressures of academic norms and career advancement. The potential for academic, philosophical, and political splintering brings to mind Phil Brown’s caution that radical psychology’s revolutionary potential makes academia an inapt setting. Psychologists who advocate transformative social change to bring about a world of peace and social justice would do well to resist efforts to define critical psychology as just one more psychological specialization. Such marginalization would deflate efforts to rid mainstream psychology as a whole of its cultural, historical, and political blinders.
Brown, P. (Ed.). (1973). Radical psychology. New York: Harper.
Fox, D., Prilleltensky, I., & Austin, S. (Eds.) (2009). Critical psychology: An introduction (2nd ed.). London: Sage.
Martín-Baró, I. (1994). (A. Aron & S. Corne, Eds.). Writings for a liberation psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Parker, I. (1999). Critical psychology: Critical links. Annual Review of Critical Psychology, 1, 3-18. [http://www.academyanalyticarts.org/parker1.htm]
Nelson, G., & Prilleltensky, I. (Eds.). (2005). Community psychology: In pursuit of liberation and well-being. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Radical Therapist Collective. (1971). The radical therapist. Produced by J. Agel. New York: Ballantine.
Sampson, E. E. (1983). Justice and the critique of pure psychology. New York: Plenum.
Sarason, S. B. (1981). Psychology misdirected. New York: Free Press.
Tolman, C. W. (1994). Psychology, society, and subjectivity: An introduction to German critical pssychology. London/New York: Routledge.
Sloan, T. (Ed.). (2000). Critical psychology: Voices for change. Hampshire, England: Macmillan Press.
Critical Psychology in a Changing World: Contributions from Different Geo-Political Regions (Annual Review of Critical Psychology #5) -
ideology – the set of ideas promulgated by societal institutions to justify inequitable societal arrangements, either intentionally to mislead the public or because elites themselves believe them
mainstream psychology – psychology as taught and practiced by the field’s dominant institutions
positivism – the view that progress depends on logic, objectivity, and the scientific method
psy complex - the set of professionals from psychiatrists and guidance counselors to teachers and social workers who aim to modify the behavior of others
some political, most not
Page updated January 2, 2012