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The Critical Psychology Project:
Transforming Society
and Transforming Psychology

Dennis Fox

Chapter in
Critical Psychology: Voices for Change
(Tod Sloan, Editor)
2000





Note

I wrote this chapter in response to questions posed to critical psychologists by Tod Sloan:

1. In a nutshell, what does critical psychology mean to you? What are the hallmarks of critical psychology?

2. What brought you to critical psychology? Mention relevant influences, experiences, people, etc.

3. What do you see as the basic principles or concepts of critical psychology? Explain why you emphasize these ideas.

4. What are the big debates in critical psychology? What issues remain to be resolved?

5. What have you done, or what do you do, that exemplifies these principles? In other words, how do you practice critical psychology in your academic work, activism, personal life, etc?

6. From your standpoint in critical psychology, what are the most pressing general social/political problems? What should be done about them?

Note: This version may not exactly match the published version!

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1. In a nutshell, what does critical psychology mean to you? What are the hallmarks of critical psychology?

Critical psychologists follow a variety of theoretical, methodological, and political traditions differing in goals, substance, terminology, and style. Yet it seems to me that critical psychology overall has two essential components.

First, in common with many self-defined "critical" approaches in disciplines such as sociology and law, our ultimate political goal is to help bring about a radically better society. Using psychological insights to evaluate, synthesize, and extend competing perspectives, critical psychology explicitly or implicitly envisions what this fundamentally better society might look like and how we might help bring it about. Our assumptions, conclusions, and speculations often take us beyond the relatively minor reforms advocated by politically liberal mainstream psychologists. Although we may never reach our ultimate goal, it provides a fluid working model today as we try to learn better how to expose and oppose injustice, oppression, and other institutional barriers to a meaningful life.

Second and equally crucially--again departing from liberal mainstream psychologists--we reject mainstream psychology's values, assumptions, and practices as a legitimate framework for our work. Reflecting the historical and cultural context that spawned them, many of these traditional norms reinforce the status quo; they provide ideological support to dominant institutions and channel psychologists' work and resources in system-maintaining rather than system-challenging directions. And more: 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, replacing its norms with emancipatory alternatives.

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2. What brought you to critical psychology? Mention relevant influences, experiences, people, etc.

I became interested in psychology as a student in the late 1960s, following an introduction to socialist Zionism during high school that combined psychological and political theory (I recall reading Kurt Lewin on the Jew as "marginal man"). A course I took at Brooklyn College on "the psychology of prejudice" impressed me with social psychology's relevance to social issues; other courses during that period of on-the-street "helping behavior" research were fun. Clearly, I had not yet developed a critique of psychology to match my Vietnam-era dissatisfactions with modern society.

Two years of early 1970s graduate work at Michigan State University eventually and conveniently focused on social movement participation and value change among members of a group I had helped organize that planned to start a new kibbutz (collective settlement) in Israel. That group eventually splintered, as did my first dissertation and my affinity for much of the Zionist agenda. But my kibbutz-style, small-scale socialist impulses persisted; they were later reinforced by my discovery of anarchist theory, modern communalism and environmentalism, and the work of psychologists such as Erich Fromm and David Bakan, who had understood that the psychological could not be divorced from the sociopolitical. I spent a decade outside academia, working for brief periods in the Social Security bureaucracy (the basis in part of a later article on the politics of disability evaluation) and other settings while participating in social movements such as the direct-action opposition to nuclear power.

When I returned to graduate school at MSU in 1982, I discovered that, a decade earlier, I had overlooked (or had never been introduced to, or perhaps I had just forgotten) social psychology's late-sixties "crisis of confidence," during which the field was confronted by persistent critical challenges. Catching up on my reading, I came across something called qualitative methodology and realized I could do a new dissertation based on interviewing people about their values and politics, a topic always very much on my mind. Frankly, because I adopted this qualitative approach before I had read much that justified it, I quickly immersed myself in a mostly anthropological, sociological, and feminist psychology literature that dissected the political and philosophical ramifications of quantitative "positivist" research. Frequent calls for a "paradigm shift" coincided with my own interest in fundamental social change and my growing awareness that the field I was once again pursuing needed changes of its own. During this period I wrote several papers critical of psychology's methods, assumptions, and political affinities and organized a "Psychology and Controversy" student/faculty discussion group that debated critical ideas (an unpublished paper on my website lists the discussion topics and describes the group's experiences).

I was fortunate in having as my MSU mentor the late Charles Wrigley, who had left his directorship of the Computer Institute for Social Science Research because, he said, he wanted to end his career working with people rather than with machines. Wrigley, who taught courses in political psychology and the psychology of social movements rarely offered in psychology departments, agreed with much of my politics (a supporter of the peace movement, he was intrigued that the Michigan State Police Red Squad had kept a file on him for signing a newspaper advertisement protesting the Vietnam War); trained in philosophy, he encouraged my growing awareness that social psychology had become bogged down in trivia (as did a retired faculty member, my decade-earlier adviser Gene Jacobson). Although impatient with qualitative methods, Wrigley's endorsement kept my dissertation committee from rejecting or mutilating my proposal. Unfortunately, he was unable to persuade the core social psychology faculty to fund my research during the whole three and a half years I was there--unlike my fully funded years in the 1970s when I still dabbled with statistical analysis and hadn't yet criticized the kind of research my professors were doing.

Wrigley gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me: To be a "good" traditional psychologist one should read narrowly but in great depth, writing for the ever-proliferating journals devoted to increasingly narrow and irrelevant topics. But to be a "great" psychologist, and to publish in journals read by generalists, one should read broadly and demonstrate how different fields of study interrelate, thus introducing psychologists to new literatures. Although I wasn't aiming for greatness, I did follow Wrigley's advice in my first significant paper: Combining a critique of centralized authoritarian solutions to environmental problems with a call for utopian speculation, I described how anarchist theory paralleled and enriched psychological thinking on the tension between individual autonomy and a psychological sense of community.

When the paper was published in American Psychologist (Fox, 1985), the American Psychological Association's primary journal, I realized I could actually present radical ideas to a mainstream audience if I was willing to jump through the necessary hoops (adopting a certain tone, responding to reviewers' and editors' concerns either by revising as they wanted or justifying not revising, recognizing good advice when it was offered, letting go of the small stuff without losing sight of the big stuff); dozens of supportive letters in response to the article made me think it was worth it, both to spread my (admittedly recycled) ideas to people who didn't read political journals and to find like-minded people. Most of my writing since then thus has been for mainstream psychology journals, though sometimes the hoops have remained insurmountable. On the other hand, editors have sometimes solicited or facilitated my work, making me think that real people in mainstream institutions vary among themselves more than their formal gatekeeping roles might indicate.

A final graduate school story: Joel Aronoff, a personality psychologist with his own early kibbutz experience and a broad range of interests, told me that I could not be an academic and an activist at the same time. I would have to choose, he insisted, and perhaps, given the department's refusal to fund me, I would have to choose sooner rather than later. Aronoff's advice foreshadowed a somewhat nastier comment by an untenured psychologist responding to a short polemic of mine that criticized academic publish-or-perish expectations; he suggested in print that "a competent vocational psychologist might suggest pursuit of a different occupational environment." Although at the time I found both comments amusing, my inability ever to find a job in a mainstream psychology department and my subsequent career path have since elicited occasional second thoughts. I did find a job eventually, but only after another year outside academe and two years of postdoctoral work in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's psychology/law program, where Gary Melton's call for a values-based "psychological jurisprudence" offered a starting point (and someone respectable to cite) as I began to look at the psychology/law field with a critical eye (e.g., Fox, 1993, 1999).

Finally, though, I found a real job, in an unusual teaching university that actually encouraged critical approaches. As a faculty member in an interdisciplinary legal studies program, I spent a decade teaching, writing, and organizing. I even got tenure. Unfortunately, the former Sangamon State University, since taken over by the research-driven University of Illinois, has succumbed to relentless efforts to weed out everything nontraditional, paralleling efforts by universities across the United States to cut costs, boost enrollment, eliminate faculty and student power, and persuade legislators and alumni that their university needs more money to teach job-relevant skills (Fox & Sakolsky, 1998). Now that I've chosen to go on permanent leave, my department, pressured from above, is seeking to replace me with someone whose work and politics are more mainstream. It is still the case, I think, that academics can be critical theoreticians and sometimes even off-campus activists without extreme jeopardy. But criticizing their own institutions and rejecting traditional research and publication norms makes academic life difficult, and sometimes impossible. In this respect the university resembles other institutions designed to replicate the status quo.

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3. What do you see as the basic principles or concepts of critical psychology? Explain why you emphasize these ideas.

Four premises:

a. Psychology's values, assumptions, and practices have been culturally and historically determined, reflecting among other things the prevailing socioeconomic setting, political affinities, responses to external pressures, and battles over power, professionalism, and turf. In contrast, mainstream psychology generally portrays itself as progressing through objective, scientific, "value-free" progress. (For example, demanding 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 quantifiable results sought by those who seek not just to understand behavior but also to predict and control it.)

 

b. Modern society is marked by widespread injustice, inequality, and systemic barriers to both survival and meaning. To explain the origins of the unacceptable status quo and to justify its continuation, dominant institutions inculcate a psychologized ideology and use the process of false consciousness to encourage widespread belief in unjustified assumptions about human nature. Societal elites may or may not believe the ideology they disseminate; in either case it narrows the range of institutional arrangements the society considers possible and desirable and encourages people to accept unjust outcomes. (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. A legal and political system whose essential principles, procedures, and styles were created by white privileged men with substantial property is justified by the false claim that today everyone is treated equally; because the law is unconcerned with unjust outcomes so long as approved procedures are followed, substantive justice is displaced by the perception of procedural justice.)

 

c. In their everyday work, mainstream psychologists too often contribute to complacency at one extreme and oppression at the other. This is the case whether they are well-intentioned and avowedly apolitical helping professionals or, less commonly, conscious agents of social control. Mainstream psychologists typically overemphasize individualism, the narrow pursuit of personal goals, and either adapting to or bypassing societal norms and expectations; they deemphasize mutuality beyond the family, justice, and the need for institutional change. Mainstream psychology and critical psychology 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 belief that we can determine our own outcomes if we simply work hard to find the socially appropriate individual solution.)

 

d. Critical psychology seeks to alter, and ultimately provide alternatives to, both mainstream psychology's norms and the societal institutions that those norms strengthen. Desired values such as social justice, self-determination and participation, caring and compassion, health, and human diversity must be advanced in a balanced way, with awareness that some of these culturally specific values have more potential for social transformation than others. Our ultimate goal is to respect and enhance both individuality and diversity within a mutually supportive just and equal society. (Isaac Prilleltensky and I discussed these points in more detail in Critical Psychology: An Introduction--Fox & Prilleltensky, 1997; Isaac's ideas are now so intertwined with my own that I can no longer easily discern when I should be citing him.)

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4. What are the big debates in critical psychology? What issues remain to be resolved?

Efforts to devise an internally consistent, clearly defined critical psychology have led to debates among critical psychologists who bring to their work differing emphases and motivations. Reflecting a variety of "critical psychologies," these debates are valuable. They spark intellectual interest; coalesce new insights into a more comprehensive whole; direct needed attention to issues such as economic class and false consciousness; and motivate both mainstream psychologists and critical psychologists alike to question their own assumptions.

On the other hand, overemphasizing intellectual purity creates a risk common to all movements seeking social change: splintering into factions that devote more energy to distinguishing real but relatively minor differences than to pursuing shared goals by different routes. This risk is magnified by competitive academic norms demanding not just intellectual rigor but also a substantial number of publications and other evidence that one's views are influential. So for me, the big debate in critical psychology is over the importance of theoretical consistency. I don't think we should allow our differing approaches to mask the much more fundamental divide between critical psychology and mainstream psychology.

Having said this, several overlapping issues confront critical psychology, some of which I present here, mostly as oversimplified forced-choice questions. Having a critical psychology perspective does not require answering them, however, and specific critical psychology projects can proceed without trying to accomplish everything all at once.

 

a. Ultimate allegiances. Are critical psychologists primarily psychologists interested in theoretical rigor, advocating political goals only when they happen to be compatible with critical theory? Or, perhaps motivated by sources outside psychology such as Marxism or 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?

 

b. Methods. Should we use traditional methods stemming from positivist assumptions to uncover inequality and injustice and achieve political and institutional reform, or should we refrain from methods that strengthen mainstream claims to legitimacy?

 

c. 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, on what basis can we legitimately 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 insights?

 

d. Moral relativism. Can we advocate our politically preferred values such as equality and empowerment or must we abandon all value preferences because they are culturally determined?

 

e. Audience and style. Should we primarily write in journals, and use a style, that can be understand only by other theory-oriented academics, or should we reach out instead to students, psychologists who don't read critical theory journals, and the general public?

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5. What have you done, or what do you do, that exemplifies these principles? In other words, how do you practice critical psychology in your academic work, activism, personal life, etc?

It's difficult for me to distinguish between activities stimulated by critical psychology and activities reflecting my preexisting political perspective, and even between academics, activism, and the personal. However:

a. Academic work. My most significant critical psychology academic project was organizing and editing with Isaac Prilleltensky the book Critical Psychology: An Introduction. With chapters written by two dozen psychologists on three continents, the 1997 book presented a relatively readable overview of critical psychology's approach to different areas of psychology. It's been used as a text in courses around the world, though much more frequently in the United Kingdom and elsewhere than in the US and Canada, where relatively few professors have even heard of critical psychology. (Introductions to the book's chapters are on my website.)

In the past 16 years I've also published some two dozen articles, mostly in psychology journals, and presented a similar number of conference papers--not an impressive number by US academic standards but enough to get my basic points across. Essentially all my work is critical of mainstream psychology or of some aspect of society--not because noncritical work is never interesting or worth doing, but because enough people already do it. None of my articles is based on original empirical research; instead, they range from comprehensive synthesizing essays to pointed polemics to short rebuttals; as a body of work they pursue in different contexts several themes I've noted in this chapter.

These themes also appear in my teaching, where I've tried with mixed success not just to teach critical subject matter but to use a critical pedagogy, encouraging students to think about the connections between their studies and their lives. I'm always energized by the relative few whose horizons are indeed transformed by what they discover. I'm also repeatedly awed by the example set by colleagues whose creativity in the classroom consistently demonstrates higher education's critical potential, a potential we should defend against efforts to turn universities into mere suppliers of state and corporate workers and data.

b. Activism. Beyond anti-nuclear, anti-war, and other direct-action movements over the years, I've focused on issues related to my workplace (e.g., faculty and staff unionizing, campus free speech) and to psychology. I think it important not just to oppose injustice and oppression around the world but also to turn a critical eye toward my own institutions.

From 1993 to 1999 Prilleltensky and I coordinated RadPsyNet: The Radical Psychology Network. RadPsyNet evolved from a discussion group we had organized at the 1993 APA convention on the topic "Will Psychology Pay Attention to its Own Radical Critics?" We had proposed that session after realizing that even though journals such as American Psychologist published our articles, our work seemed destined to have no impact; the well-known and mostly long-gone psychologists whose work we repeatedly cited had published in the same journals and had written many books and had even gotten lots of awards, yet not many people followed their advice. Perhaps we were all just a novelty, serving only to justify the mainstream's claim to open-mindedness. So, partly to avoid the lure of armchair radicalism, we decided to move from writing to organizing.

RadPsyNet now has over 200 formal members in more than two dozen countries (including many students), an active e-mail discussion group run by David Nightingale, and a website with reading lists, conference notices, position papers, teaching materials, and much more (see http://www.radpsynet.org for membership information). Coordinating the group, editing its original newsletter for two years, and maintaining the website for the past three years have taken a lot of time. However, providing a forum for critical psychologists to find, support, and debate one another has seemed to me more useful than adding more publications to the proliferating literature (though I am glad to report that three graduate students in three countries have recently taken over most of the coordinating tasks).

Coordinating RadPsyNet has clarified for me the degree to which people have differing perspectives on what it means to be a radical or critical psychologist. RadPsyNet has received some criticism for not having a clearly defined theoretical approach, but as a loose network there has been little member interest in excluding people willing to join a group with "radical psychology" in its title. Radical psychology has as many potential meanings as does critical psychology, and for many of us they mean the same thing.

On the academic-activist borderline, I created a second website designed to disseminate my own perspective beyond journals read only by other academics and to draw connections between my academic activities and other aspects of my work and political life. This project has led to a slow but steady stream of e-mail, mostly from students and psychologists around the world, some of whom have since joined RadPsyNet or made other critical psychology connections.

c. Personal life. These days I live a fairly conventional middle-class life, a sometimes-uneasy compromise between my ideals and my reality. With varying degrees of both success and failure, I've tried to implement my values in raising my children, interacting with family, friends, and colleagues, making a living, and engaging in community and other activities. I'd like to think that someday we will all create a world where our compromises are harder to get away with, as well as less necessary. Awareness that "the personal is political" may help clarify certain issues, but it doesn't always help resolve them.

On a different personal note, an admission: Despite my politics, I sometimes fantasize myself being not a critic but a true participant in the institutions around me--fitting in rather than struggling against. After 35 years of being "critical," at 50 I'm more tired of confrontation than in the past, perhaps reflecting academic and activist burnout at least as much as a fatiguing disability that's required simplifying my life. But inevitably, the yearning for calm is overcome by the impulse to point out what should be obvious, to place things in context, to try to get "to the heart of the matter" (as I was recently told when I asked simple questions about the parent-teacher organization at my daughter's school).

And when I do step forward I'm almost always reinforced. I don't think there's ever been a time in my life that others didn't tell me my questions or criticisms matched their unvoiced concerns. I appreciate this positive feedback, but I appreciate even more those who move to active collaboration. As critical theorists and radical activists we need to focus more attention on how to remove systemic barriers to voicing opposition. Within psychology, for example, we could do more to disseminate information to students and faculty about how to pursue critical perspectives within mainstream institutions, or about how to find alternative institutions, or we could create alternative institutions. One loud individual can always be dismissed as a crackpot, two as some bizarre pair. But three critics are the beginnings of a movement, with a mailing list, and a future.

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6. From your standpoint in critical psychology, what are the most pressing general social/political problems? What should be done about them?

Critical psychologists should create an effective coalition that seeks to raise consciousness about, and opposition to, the societal ramifications of mainstream psychology's values, assumptions, and practices. Groups such as RadPsyNet (centered in the US and Canada) and Psychology Politics Resistance (in the United Kingdom) are a start.

This coalition should foster efforts to end class and other forms of inequality, oppression, materialism, the degradation and homogenization of social life, and the destruction of the environment. Because all these problems are exacerbated by the power of multinational corporations to reshape the political, economic, and natural environment, removing the vestiges of corporate society is especially crucial to achieve our aims. There already exists a widespread but struggling movement against corporate power; its mostly sociological, environmental, and economic analysis could be broadened by critical psychologists who can focus on the psychological consequences of life in corporate society and on the psychological assumptions and methods undergirding the status quo (Fox, 1996).

The ultimate long-term goal is to create a truly better society, the kind many now dismiss as utopian (Fox, 1985). In my view, such a society would reject capitalism's individualistic assumptions about a conveniently selfish human nature and abandon efforts to find technological solutions to social and political problems. The future society should foster decentralized sociopolitical institutions that rely on mutually derived, environmentally benign arrangements and enhance our ability to seek, and perhaps even to find, meaning and mutuality in our daily lives. The kibbutz and other forms of intentional community are potential models. Despite their flaws and failures, small communities are our best hope of meeting conflicting needs for both individual autonomy and a psychological sense of community. And this I believe: We should state -- as psychologists -- that such a society would be better for most human beings.

But this is my view. Clearly, we cannot--should not--clarify in advance what will emerge from democratic participation in establishing the future. There will always be many cultures with differing institutions, and no doubt towns and cities as well, though these would likely take new forms to reflect new understandings and priorities. People will always differ, and crave different experiences at different times. Rather than restricting us, the future society should allow a wider range of personal experiences and social arrangements than most people around the world can even dream of attaining today.

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