By SANDRA M. PACHECO, core faculty in the Bachelor of Arts Completion program
This article was originally published in Cambio, the newsletter of the Office of the Dean of Students at CIIS
Starting in fall 2011 students entering the Bachelor of Arts Completion program in the School of Undergraduate Studies will have the opportunity to select critical psychology as an academic focus.
Critical psychology reflects various theoretical and ideological approaches to psychology that are deeply concerned with social justice. It is not a subdiscipline of psychology, such as developmental psychology, social psychology, or counseling psychology. Rather it encompasses approaches taken by researchers, activists, and practitioners within these and other subdisciplines of psychology. Traditional psychology has historically begun and ended its analysis with the individual. Its main focus has been on the impact of systems on the individual.
As critical psychologists we are interested in the way various institutions—economic, social, and political—impact well-being at a societal level. This includes understanding how systems and constructs such as modernity, capitalism, institutionalized oppression, and “rugged individualism” repeatedly produce large-scale despair, dysfunction, and a sense of meaninglessness.
We make explicit how power is unequal in various institutional settings, which results in the status quo being reinforced, with research and practices in the field of mainstream psychology serving to corroborate power imbalances. Similarly, we explore how such systems produce individuals oriented towards ways of being in the world that reproduce domination, oppression, colonization, and environmental destruction.
For the past twenty years, both through my own experiences within the field of psychology and through those of my students from diverse backgrounds, I have found that more often than not students were already asking broader questions that typically could not be supported by the traditional scope of psychology. These questions were informed by their lived experiences that differed from the mainstream. Students who were most inclined to asking larger systems questions tended to be older and/or from historically marginalized groups. For many students, their experiences were only minimally reflected in the psychology texts and articles they were reading. Repeatedly questions emerged from students challenging assumptions of individualism, developmental stages, categorical identities, definitions of abnormal, and perceptions of competition as “natural,” to name but a few examples. Student asking these questions tend to have an implicit understanding that Western values promoted through our various media outlets and social political institutions are not universal norms but rather social constructions that are privileged, at a cost to social justice and well-being. At a more personal level they are more inclined to question the social systems that call for people to “get with the program” so as to be deemed normal, such as in issues related to gender, sexuality, or ethnic assimilation. It is not uncommon for a student in critical psychology to shift from “there is something wrong with me or the way I live,” to “there is something wrong with society’s view of me, or society’s concept of ‘the good life.’”
Critical psychology does not just call into question the level of analysis employed by traditional psychology, but also research assumptions. We call into question “taken-for-granted” knowledge and how knowledge has been acquired. We recognize that the field of psychology has emerged within a specific sociocultural historical context that has been dominated by middle-class European and American males using positivist methodologies that are deeply entrenched in a colonial mindset. Whereas scientific neutrality is assumed in traditional psychological research, critical psychologists recognize that research can never be neutral, that it, too, is produced within a sociopolitical context. We work towards more participatory research, drawing from indigenous and decolonial methodologies. These can include participatory action research, narratives, reframing, restoring, resistance, and envisioning, to name a few. In general, we wish to make more explicit the aims of our research, clearly articulating who stands to benefit, whose interest it serves, who was involved in the process, and how the information will be made accessible. Our research is informed first by the communities we serve.
Our Critical Psychology Focus in the BAC program will blend nicely both with our undergraduate interdisciplinary curriculum and with a number of our existing graduate programs, especially those already addressing diversity and social justice. In general, students in the Critical Psychology Focus will practice critical thinking. They will be repeatedly encouraged to engage in deep, conscious exploration of their own values and assumptions; and how these can be replicated in their research, activities, and practices. This general approach prepares them for graduate work in various fields. Aside from the above, our focus in Critical Psychology will be distinctive in that spirituality will also be explored.
Within many spiritual traditions, social justice and spirituality are not separate. We see this in liberation theology, mujerista theology, Zapatista spiritualities, as well as the writings of Eastern spiritual leaders such as Thich Nhat Hahn. At CIIS we are strongly positioned to inform new directions in critical psychology that recognize that, just as race, class, gender, and sexuality intersect to create distinct experiences in society, so do spiritualities.