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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Hunt

Critical psychology: An overview

Since most of my writing is underpinned by critical psychology thinking (intersected with a disability studies lens), I thought I would write a piece on what I understand by the term ‘critical psychology’. Hopefully, at some point, I will write something similar on the disability studies’ concepts that inspire me. Critical psychology, in my humble opinion, offers a multi-faceted and naturally transdisciplinary framework for understanding and addressing social injustice, notably through revealing the power relations that (re)produce mainstream discourse and shape the collective consciousness – including within the field of psychology itself.

Critical psychology, as the name may suggest, emerged as a critique of mainstream psychology, where mainstream psychology is understood as the type of psychology usually taught in higher education institutes, and practiced or applied by clinicians and researchers. Mainstream psychology could be argued to have modelled itself on the natural sciences, and the extent to which a social science such as psychology can – or should – seek this kind of modelling has been a matter of much debate. Psychology as it predominates in social, clinical and academic spheres typically understands itself as science that is largely objective and neutral (value-free), or at least seeks objectivity and neutrality, through a foregrounding of a particular scientific approach which is often referred to as ‘the’ scientific method (the hypothetico-deductive model). I’m no philosopher of science, so I’m not going to go into any details here; however, suffice to say that critical psychology has always been highly critical of the philosophical assumptions and preferred methods underpinning mainstream psychology.

Critical psychologists argue that psychology cannot be neutral and – a point of considerable contention with mainstream psychology - should not be neutral, in particular vis-à-vis social injustice, which is a central focus of critical psychology. In fact, critical psychology aims to identify and challenge the frequently oppressive assumptions and implicit values, buried behind the façade of apolitical objectivity, within mainstream psychological practices. Another considerable divergence between critical and mainstream psychology is the level of analysis. Psychology is traditionally the science of behaviour and mind of individuals; even mainstream social psychology, rather ironically it might be argued, takes a largely individualist approach to its subject matter. Critical psychology arguably has more in common with sociology and anthropology in its recognition of and focus on socio-structural context. In critical health psychology, for example, an individual’s wellbeing is always located within the broader socio-cultural, political and temporal space in which that individual is embedded. Health issues that are typically conceptualised and ‘treated’ through an individualist lens in mainstream clinical practice (such as depression) are through a critical lens also considered as the downstream effects of social and structural injustice.

The field of critical psychology draws on many other disciplines and theoretical standpoints, including feminism, Marxism, social constructionism, psychoanalysis and postmodernism (this is where mainstream scientists occasionally go into epistemological shutdown). Whilst feminism and Marxism underpin critical psychology's emphasis on social change and can be drawn upon to interrogate unequal power relations underpinning widely accepted ‘truths’, psychoanalysis can be a useful tool to shift the spotlight of critical scrutiny from the pathologisation of marginalised people to revealing the pathologies of an exclusionary society. Social constructionism holds that language not only reflects reality, but also constructs (or at least shapes) it; this can be observed in dominant discourse where power and language entwine to create consensus reality – a reality that most people ascribe to, but that might not equal or even approximate the truth. Postmodernism is helpful for, among other things, interrogating ‘grand narratives’ (totalizing discourse that is taken as truth) and for disrupting binaries that might promote the othering (social and epistemic marginalisation) of minority groups.

I became interested in critical psychology because, as a lifelong outsider (a disabled woman from a working class background who has lived much of her life in a relatively isolated and precarious social space), I often find that mainstream psychology doesn’t resonate all that much with me. For example, when studying mainstream health psychology, I couldn’t help but think that some of the interventions, theories, research questions, sampling parameters and so forth could only have been thought up by researchers who, largely by virtue of their social position, had a very different take on reality to mine. Psychology, like all forms of knowledge, is very much a product of dominant knowers who, as in most (all?) mainstream disciplines, are typically multiply privileged subjects, notably white, middle-class, abled men. (To pre-empt, no, I’m not a misandrist, a term which is not synonymous with being a feminist, and I don’t tend to subscribe to mainstream feminism in any case).

Although I would probably be positioned as ‘radical’ by researchers who dislike critical theory, I certainly don’t think critical approaches are superior to or should replace mainstream approaches. I don’t subscribe to the ‘paradigm wars’ analogy of competing mainstream and critical approaches which suggests that researchers have to pick a side. On the contrary, I think that divergences can be approached more productively in a spirit of complementary, though it does throw up difficult questions around reconciling very divergent theoretical stances. I don’t have the answers, but I enjoy pondering, when my ‘non-normate’ brain and body will allow me.

That’s it for now, I’ve run out of battery life.

Postscript: here is another blogpost looking at how critical psychology can be applied to so-called 'medically unexplained symptoms' in a way that highlights abuse of power and the psychopathologies of an exclusionary society.

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