A Radical Approach to Psychology and Public Policy

A Graduate Student's Perspective

Cameron Norman

APAGS Newsletter


Note: Cameron wrote this for a discussion of ethics to be published in the American Psychological Association's Graduate Student Newsletter. When he was an undergraduate, Cameron wrote a related piece for RadPsyNews.

Change is among the most certain things in life (next to death and taxes). In our training, we as future psychologists hope to promote, above all things, positive change in the lives of the people we work with. How we influence such change is dependent upon our perspective and the values that we hold in guiding our actions toward that change. It makes sense then that in promoting change, our values play a tremendous role in how we interact with others on both an individual and on a community level during the change process.

For members of the Radical Psychology Network, the values that guide their quest for change are based on an ethic that promotes community responsibility, collaborative and democratic participation, distributive justice and self-determination. These are social ethics or morally-based quotidian ethics (Prilleltensky, 1994), and thereby contrast many of the individual-focussed ethics of traditional psychology. Radical psychologists (see Fox, APAGS Newsletter 10 (1), p.16 for a definition of a radical psychologist), guided by these social ethics, serve to remedy the damage caused by two generations of policies which have absolved psychologists of any responsibility to the greater society that their clients are a part of.

As psychologists, these 'radicals' view people as a part of the community and not separate from it. In the promotion of psychology as a force for societal change, radical psychologists advocate for language and policies that maximize the involvement and accessibility of all members of society - especially the disenfranchised and oppressed. The writings of murdered psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró encompass much of the spirit behind what guides this radical or critical perspective on psychology and public policy. Martin-Baro examined how psychology could play a role in counter-acting the negative aspects of blind ideology, religious intolerance, and politics. Psychology has, sometimes unconsciously (and sometimes not), served to propagate many social policies which have served as the basis for discrimination, oppression and neglect of many in our society -- usually the most vulnerable.

As graduate students, we represent the link between psychology's past, its present state and the future. While much of graduate training in psychology is steeped in traditional perspectives, graduate students are in the position to make changes to the profession by offering a fresh, new and insightful way of perceiving psychology's utility on the public policy stage. We represent a new generation of psychology, and in doing so offer the best hope for positive change in the way psychology interfaces with public policy. We have the choice to adopt the status quo or seek to expand our view of psychology that includes critically examining how psychology has influenced our society in the past.

Examples of such important changes already being undertaken is the move from using medical and deficit-based language to community-based language in mental health treatment programs. This grassroots movement has inspired the Canadian Mental Health Association to adopt a language policy that discourages labelling people based on a clinical diagnosis and encourages the use of strengths-centred programming options that help keep people in the community rather than leaving people reliant on institutional treatment and services. Similar policies are being adopted by agencies in the United States and Great Britain. This is but one sample how a radical, critical psychology can make a difference in setting the priorities in public policy.

By operating from an explicit value-base and a social ethic rooted in moral values, radical psychologists serve to advocate, educate and act to change current public policy structures toward becoming more emancipatory in nature. Radical psychologists are not content to simply conduct research and practice psychology, they live the values they espouse and see psychology not just as an academic discipline or method of healing, but as a force for change and as a means of providing understanding of the role everyone plays in the promotion and maintenance of social well being.


Fox, D. (1998). RadPsyNet, Psychology, and Public Policy. Newsletter of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students, 10, (1), 16.

Prilleltensky, I. (1994). The Morals and Politics of Psychology: Political Discourse and the Status Quo. Albany, NY: State University of New York.

Cameron D. Norman is a masters degree candidate in community psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University. He is also a member of APAGS and the Radical Psychology Network. Cameron can be contacted at the Department of Psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON, Canada, N2J 4T2.

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