The Development of
North American Critical Psychology,
Plus Questions About
its Relevance to Israel
Behavioral Sciences Department
Ben Gurion University
Beer Sheva, Israel
November 8, 2006
I presented this talk during a 10-week visit to Israel and Palestine, which I describe in more detail on my blog.
Following my visit to Ben Gurion University, I visited Birzeit University in Ramallah before returning home.
Most of this paper restates themes addressed elsewhere. The final section on critical psychology's potential relevance to Israel was subsequently incorporated into a 2011 paper, Competing Narratives about Competing Narratives: Psychology and Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.
The term critical psychology
is relatively recent, but work within one or another critical
psychology tradition in the United States and Canada has proceeded for
some time. Indeed, a self-consciously critical psychology followed
earlier efforts to make the field more relevant to a range of political
concerns. To overgeneralize for a moment, the ultimate goal of many
critical psychologists is to see individuals flourish within mutually
supportive communities in a just and egalitarian society. To do this,
we hope to alter, and to foster, alternatives to, both mainstream
psychology's norms and the societal institutions that those norms
Well, at least that's my goal. I do think it's
widely shared, but it's fair to say critical psychologists vary widely
in assumptions and priorities. Indeed, North American critical
psychologists have taken three overlapping but conceptually
distinguishable approaches. This divergence complicates the task of
defining critical psychology beyond a general insistence that
mainstream psychology is inherently a political enterprise with a host
of negative consequences, and that we should evaluate psychology's
theories and practices in terms of whether they maintain an unjust and
unsatisfying status quo.
The three idealized critical
psychology perspectives, which I'll return to in a few minutes, diverge
in history, priorities, potential impact, and style. For now I'll just
note that some critical psychologists use psychology's traditional
empirical methods to help reduce injustice and advance progressive or
radical social change to a greater degree than envisioned by mainstream
applied psychologists closer to the liberal-reformist mainstream. Other
critical psychologists, more in keeping with the tradition of European
critical theory, reject mainstream psychology's positivist and
individualist theoretical and empirical underpinnings. And still others
primarily challenge psychology's institutional power over mentally
troubled individuals whose behavior strikes others as problematic. All
three tendencies are reflected in scholarly, political, and
organizational work, including that of psychologists who don't use
critical psychology terminology. While some psychologists emphasize
interconnections among all three, others work primarily or solely
within a single track and make little explicit reference to the others.
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So given this divergence, what do North American critical psychologists have in common?
First, we reject mainstream psychology's traditional norms as a legitimate or necessary framework for all psychological work.
Although psychology generally portrays itself as advancing through
objective, "value-free" science, critical psychologists believe that
psychology's values, assumptions, and practices reflect value-laden
influences such as the prevailing socioeconomic order, psychologists'
political affinities, responses to external pressures, and battles over
power, professionalism, and turf. Traditional positivist norms may
simply reflect the historical and cultural context that spawned them.
For example, the insistence on quantitative rather than qualitative
methodology cannot be attributed only to the experiment's supposed
superiority; also crucial are factors such as an interest in
psychology's being perceived -- and funded -- as a high-status hard
science, one that can produce the quantifiable results sought by those
who seek not so much to understand behavior as to control it.
we believe that modern society is marked by widespread injustice,
inequality, and systemic barriers to both survival and meaning.
Frankly, our ultimate goal is to help bring about a radically better
world, beyond the limited improvements envisioned by psychological
ethics codes that ask psychologists, vaguely, to enhance human
wellbeing. Critical psychology imagines what a fundamentally better
society might look like and how we might help create it. Thus, our
assumptions, conclusions, and speculations take us beyond relatively
minor reforms, because more strenuous efforts are needed to expose and
oppose injustice, oppression, and other institutional barriers to a
Third, we believe that mainstream
psychologists, in the course of their ordinary jobs as therapists,
teachers, researchers, and consultants, too often contribute to
complacency at one extreme and oppression at the other. This
is the case whether they are well-intentioned and "apolitical" helping
professionals or, less commonly, conscious agents of social control.
Mainstream psychologists, perhaps especially in North America,
overemphasize individualism, the narrow pursuit of personal goals, and
either adapting to or bypassing societal norms and expectations; they
de-emphasize mutuality beyond the family, justice, and the need for
institutional change. This emphasis strengthens a status quo that too
few psychologists find objectionable, which enables dominant
institutions to inculcate a psychologized ideology that encourages
widespread belief in unjustified assumptions about human nature.
Societal elites may or may not believe the ideology they disseminate;
either way it narrows the range of institutional arrangements the
society considers possible and desirable and encourages people to
accept unjust outcomes.
For an obvious example, a
capitalist economic system is justified by the insistence that human
beings are inherently selfish, competitive, and accumulative and that
people who fall behind have only themselves to blame; people learn to
expect the worst from others and from themselves. That Hobbesian view
of human nature strengthens a system whose essential principles,
procedures, and styles were created by, and for the benefit of,
privileged men with substantial property and power.
of my own work has focused on the relatively new specialty area called
"psychology and law" or psycholegal studies. One of my concerns has
been that mainstream psycholegal researchers too readily aim to help
legal authorities do their jobs more effectively when they should, in
my view, challenge that work instead. Thus, mainstream psychologists in
this and other subfields advise legislators, political leaders, and
judges on public policy issues, write books encouraging individualist
rather than communal problem-solving, help pacify dissatisfied workers,
prisoners, and others with limited power, and use psychological
principles to facilitate advertising and other means of keeping the
public focused on consumerism, competition, career, fashion, and other
individualist pursuits. Revolutionizing psychology itself is a
challenge, but the real goal is to revolutionize society.
Mainstream psychology and critical psychology often differ, thus, in their level of analysis.
For example, by reducing widespread job or relationship difficulties to
"manageable" personal problems, traditional psychotherapy diverts
energy and legitimacy from efforts to transform work, community, or
societal institutions. It reinforces the false hope that we can
determine our own outcomes if we simply work hard to find the socially
appropriate individual solution. Equally troubling, psychology itself
is a dominant institution with its own oppressive history, often
stemming from norms that demand or facilitate measurement,
categorization, manipulation, and control. So critical psychology aims
not just to transform society but to transform psychology itself,
replacing its norms with emancipatory alternatives.
what I think of as general themes common among critical psychologists,
the presence of three co-existing tracks raises a number of issues.
It's not clear that all three can proceed in theoretical,
organizational, and political harmony. Perhaps "critical psychology" is
too vague a term to be useful. We might really talk instead of "critical psychologies."
psychologists who primarily seek significant, even transformational,
social change are perhaps the closest to psychology's conventional
liberal mainstream. They often use quantitative methodology
despite their suspicion of it, at times re-conceived but sometimes in
conventional ways, generating data to identify injustice, inequality,
and oppression, and they suggest and test interventions designed to
help transform individuals, communities, and societies. They push
psychology to look outside the laboratory and beyond the individual,
taking to heart many of the criticisms raised during social
psychology's 1960s-era "crisis of confidence." Expanding on the earlier
tradition embodied by Kurt Lewin, they embrace action research and
community interventions, and use qualitative as well as quantitative
methodology. Many gravitate away from social psychology or counseling
psychology's conventions toward newer realms such as community
psychology, the branch of mainstream north American psychology that
most explicitly seeks community and social change. Many define
themselves as feminist therapists or researchers. Some model their
efforts on the liberation psychology of Salvadoran social psychologist
Ignacio Martin-Baro and on other attempts to put psychology on the side
of liberation and justice.
This activist critical
psychology has managed to create some space for itself within academia.
For example, Vanderbilt University's Peabody College has an
interdisciplinary doctoral program in Community Research and Action,
which expanded from a more traditional community psychology department.
It is now, essentially, a doctoral program in how to create
community-based social change. Similarly, the University of
California-Santa Cruz social psychology doctoral program focuses
explicitly on social justice. In programs such as these, critical
psychologists try to expand mainstream psychology's liberal boundaries.
Leading North American psychologists who have bridged this
liberal-radical divide include influential elder statesmen like Seymour
Sarason and the late George Albee. Today the most active self-defined
critical-community psychologist is probably Isaac Prilleltensky, now
Dean of Education at the University of Miami, with whom I co-edited Critical Psychology: An Introduction a decade ago.
Also at Miami is Etiony Aldarondo, whose edited book coming out in January, Advancing Social Justice through Clinical Practice, captures the flavor of this approach as well as its multidisciplinary character. Aldarondo explains that the book focuses on
disseminating the insights of clinicians and trainers who have been
making a deliberate effort to address both individual suffering and
social inequities fueling this suffering. Writing from various vantage
points within the system of mental health care in the United States,
these authors aim to rekindle a reformist spirit, long present in our
professions, while offering an array of conceptual and practical tools
for the development of social justice oriented therapeutic practices.
not surprising that critical psychologists who make more conscious use
of the European critical theory tradition have had less influence in
North America than in the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe.
North American psychology in general is also theory-driven less than
elsewhere. There are exceptions, of course, critical psychologists such
as E. E. Sampson, Phil Cushman, and Tod Sloan who have pushed toward
more theoretically sophisticated critiques of psychology's
individualist and positivist assumptions and whose work is often
compatible with traditions such as radical psychoanalysis and with
earlier efforts by Erich Fromm and others to explore the impact of
socioeconomic conditions on psychological development (Aldarondo.
2007). Duquesne University's psychology department emphasizes
"psychology as a positive response to the challenges of the 21st
century -- a response which includes existentialism, phenomenology,
hermeneutics, depth psychology, feminism, critical theory and
post-structuralism." Graduate students at Duquesne organized the second
North American critical psychology conference in 2005. The third was
organized last spring by students in York University's History and
Theory of Psychology Program in Toronto. Those students work with
Thomas Teo, whose website notes he is "reconstructing the history of
psychology as the history of the critique of psychology, the history of
philosophical psychology in the 19th century, and the history and
theory of racism in psychology and the social sciences from a
scientific, political, social, and developmental point of view."
third critical psychology approach is the effort to challenge
mainstream psychology's power over the lives of individuals,
particularly but not only mentally troubled individuals. The
movement to rid psychology and psychiatry of their cooperation with
institutional mistreatment continues, along with efforts, as Aldarondo
puts it, to halt the trend to medicalize social, moral, and political
problems. Seymour Sarason's book Psychology Misdirected was
one of many that detailed psychology's sorry entanglement with the
forces of oppression and repression, particularly focusing on
psychology's role in developing and implementing IQ tests and other
technologies that turned out, in retrospect, to be more politically
inspired than scientifically accurate. Critical psychologists and other
mental health advocates struggle against the psychiatry-dominated DSM
and the willingness of too many psychologists to work as agents of a
flawed system, efforts going back at least as far as the 1970s Radical
Therapy movement. Psychologists such as Michael McCubbin in Quebec and
Ron Bassman in New York have worked to bridge the gap between academic
critiques of mainstream psychology's flaws and the work of activists
such as Andrew Phelps to organize in opposition to institutional
practices through the National Coalition of Mental Health Consumer/Survivor Organizations,
the latest of many such organizations. Right now, liberal and critical
psychologists are trying to pressure the American Psychological
Association to reverse its position that the APA ethics code does not
prevent psychologists from helping military interrogators at Guantanomo
Bay torture prisoners.
You will not be surprised that,
despite all these developments, critical psychology has had little
influence on mainstream psychology. The United States is mainstream
psychology's heart, dominating the field globally as it does other
domains, disseminating American cultural mainstays everywhere. Most
American psychologists never come across critical psychology in their
training and, indeed, most have never heard the term. There are no
degree programs in critical psychology in the United States, and few
professors teach courses identified as critical psychology, though as
noted above a handful of departments offer degrees that sound critical
in everything but their official name, and subfields such as community
psychology are more open to critical perspectives than others. Although
some critical material is published in mainstream journals, the bulk
appears in journals most psychologists don't read, using language most
psychologists find difficult to understand. Some psychologists who do
come across critical psychology are sympathetic to its goals but don't
see how to incorporate then into traditional academic or clinical jobs.
Many others, of course, consider it less "scientific" by traditional
standards, or think it's too "political," or simply endorse
psychology's support for the status quo. Indeed, many academic critical
psychologists end up working outside core psychology departments, in
counseling or education or disciplines further removed.
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the varying tendencies within critical psychology and the difficulty of
pinning down just exactly what critical psychology is, a number of overlapping issues confront critical psychologists with unresolved theoretical and practical questions. I will say in advance that I have more questions than answers, some of which no doubt have occurred to you as well.
Ultimate allegiances. Are critical psychologists primarily
psychologists interested in theoretical rigor, advocating political
goals only because they happen to be compatible with critical theory?
Or, perhaps motivated by sources outside psychology such as Marxism,
feminism, or anarchism, are we really activists primarily interested in
social change, using psychology's theory and methods only when they
happen to coincide with our politics? We believe critical theory
supports political change, but what if we are wrong? If critical theory
ultimately justified only an apolitical stance, would we abandon
politics, or abandon the theory?
2. Methods. Should we
use traditional methods stemming from positivist assumptions to expose
inequality and injustice and foster political and institutional reform,
or should we refrain from methods that strengthen mainstream claims to
3. Legitimacy. Should critical psychologists
claim special expertise as psychologists to advocate social change, or
does rejecting positivist methods reduce our rationale for doing so?
And a related issue: Given psychology's historic role as a servant of
the state, what makes us think we should advocate specific public
policies today? Should our goals merely be to keep psychology from
doing more damage and to avoid fooling ourselves about the value of our
4. Moral relativism. Can we advocate
politically preferred values such as equality and empowerment or must
we abandon all value preferences because they are culturally determined?
Audience and style. Should we continue to write in journals, and use a
style, that only likeminded academics understand, or should we reach
out instead to students, psychologists who don't read critical theory
journals, and even to the general public? Can we escape the
conventional boundaries of academic life or should we continue to
follow competitive academic norms demanding not just intellectual rigor
but also a substantial number of publications and other evidence that
one's views are influential?
many unanswered questions, and the existence of different routes
critical psychologists take, illustrate that, although critical
psychology terminology became more common in the 1990s, there has been
little effort to refine its meaning. Indeed, organized efforts to
advance critical psychology have intentionally left its definition
open-ended rather than exclusive. Thus, members of the Radical
Psychology Network (RadPsyNet),
which Isaac Prilleltensky and I co-founded in 1993 at the annual
convention of the American Psychological Association, proclaim the
simultaneous intention to change the status quo of society and the
status quo of psychology. At the three North American critical
psychology conferences organized since 1993- at Monterey, California,
in 2001; the Duquesne conference, in 2005; and the York conference in
2006 - psychologists addressed all three emphases, and no doubt will do
so again at the next conference this coming March, in Utah. The primary
critical psychology books edited by North Americans (Fox and
Prilleltensky, 1997; Sloan, 2000) explicitly invited contributions from
authors with varying and often conflicting perspectives.
would be reassuring, to me at least, to say critical psychology is a
trend, but I don't really think that's the case, which may reassure
some of you. True, use of the term "critical psychology" has increased.
There are now books and classes, conferences around the globe, journals
and websites and more. More scholars today use critical concepts in
their work, and more students come across critical perspectives, though
this is still fairly minimal in the United States. In Europe,
Australia, and South Africa students can more easily enroll in critical
psychology courses and even several graduate degree programs, but I
know of no explicitly-labeled critical psychology degree programs in
the US, where there are very few courses in the subject other than a
handful of small seminars.
psychology has had little impact on mainstream psychology's
institutions, it has become somewhat easier to maneuver within those
institutions. Even now some psychologists can make a career
doing critical work. We can publish more, do critical research or write
nonempirical essays, occasionally facilitate small changes in
psychology's ethics rules. This is perhaps especially true for feminist
psychologists, who have had a fair amount of success in disseminating
feminist analysis and pushing for institutional change. That's also the
case within community psychology. But all this has little impact on the
vast numbers of people most psychologists work with -- individual and
institutional clients, students, research subjects, mental institution
patients, prisoners, etc.
Still, critical psychology has
become something of a subculture. Identifying oneself as a critical
psychologist engenders a variety of legitimate expectations. Subculture
is not so bad -- it provides some breathing room, especially for
students and newer psychologists who otherwise find psychology too
confining. But the rules of publication, tenure, and promotion push
toward blending critical values with rigid mainstream norms. The result
too often is a reduction of goals from transformation to something
And of course, if it was easier, critical
psychologists would be part of the mainstream rather than on the
fringes. I don't expect to see that happen.
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The Israeli Context
Before moving to questions and, I hope, general discussion, I would
like to ask several questions of my own related to the situation facing
academics here in Israel. I would like to hear from you, both in this
discussion today and over the course of the next month, how critical
psychology in particular and a self-consciously political approach to
academic work more generally, have been applied, or might be applied,
to the kind of work you do. In other words, what would an Israeli
critical psychologist find worth exploring? I will acknowledge first,
though, that my questions reflect my own ignorance about the work you
are engaged in as well as my distance from the complex situations you
all face daily. But I blunder ahead anyway, with three general
First, how does mainstream psychology here, as it does in the US, help maintain an unsatisfactory status quo
either by directly supporting it, or by imagining that a "values-free"
psychology is divorced from politics, or by avoiding politically
charged issues completely and turning instead to topics that may be
intellectually interesting but politically safer? Has Israeli social
psychology, for example, had its own "crisis of confidence" such as the
one in the US three and four decades ago, and if not, why not?
Second, are there critical psychologists in Israel?
Is it possible, under the difficult conditions Israelis face daily, for
psychologists inside or outside the academy to gaze at the society
around them free of more general societal assumptions and allegiances?
Does a critical perspective, in other words, depend on a certain degree
of alienation from social norms and assumptions? Does it depend on
I first learned of Kurt Lewin's (1941) work
on the Jew as Marginal Man in 1966 in Jerusalem, in a course on
Zionism, and ever since the concept has made sense to me. I was not
surprised decades later to realize that many leading critical
psychologists in the United States have been Jewish, both accepted by,
and still on the fringes of, American culture. I have wondered if, here
in Israel, the benefits of fully belonging reduc the advantages of not
In the US and elsewhere, critical psychologists
and critical theorists and researchers in other fields identify with
the downtrodden, the oppressed - the marginalized. Can that happen in
Israel, where societal divisions often seem, to an outsider at least,
more absolute than in the US? We have our own difficult problems back
home, which we've made too little progress in resolving. Yet here, the
divides between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, religious Jews and
nonreligious Jews, Sephardi Jews and Ashkenazi Jews, Zionists and
post-Zionists, often seem to my pessimistic external gaze
insurmountable, especially so when victims are so readily perceived as
enemies. In the long run, I wonder, if a critical rejection of
mainstream assumptions depends on marginality, will Israel's future
critical psychologists more likely come from your Arab students than
your Jewish ones?
Finally, and most importantly,
how can critical psychologists help resolve the most one-sided internal
conflict, that between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis, and the
broader national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians across the
Green Line? What empirical issues are worth investigating,
what ideological myths worth dissecting, what assumptions worth
challenging? What is the role of ethnic and religious identity, of
nationalist appeals based on cultural mythologies and dehumanization of
the Other, of the cognitive effort necessary to resolve the
inconsistency between Jewish statehood and democratic statehood? I know
something of the work done by Professor Dan Bar-On (2001) and others,
but I don't know how common this is, or how it is perceived, or how
useful it is likely to prove given the high stakes, strong emotions,
and firm commitments on both sides to underlying interpretations and
justifications. All of these, of course, raise important, and
sensitive, psychological questions. So I wonder: What can be done to
enable more psychologists to escape the confines of the dominant
discourse so they can help others see things anew?
Aldarondo, E. (2007) Advancing Social Justice through Clinical Practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Bar-On, D. (2001). The Silence of Psychologists. Journal of Political Psychology. 22:2: 331-345.
Fox, D. & Prilleltensky, I. (1997). Critical Psychology: An Introduction. London: Sage.
Lewin, K. (1941). Self-Hatred Among Jews. Contemporary Jewish Record, 4, 219 -32 [noted at muse.jhu.edu/journals/american_jewish_history/v091/91.2fermaglich.html#FOOT35]
Sarason, S. B. (1981). Psychology Misdirected. New York: Free Press.
Sloan, T. (Ed.). (2000). Critical Psychology: Voices for Change. Hampshire, England: Macmillan Press.
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