Can the Radical Psychology Network's Critique Make SPSSI More Resilient?

Dennis R. Fox

Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association

New York, August, 1995


The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) has long maintained that understanding and committing to social change should be a fundamental quest for psychology. This emphasis was reflected in SPSSIs own beginnings 60 years ago. Today, however, SPSSI is in a period of reassessment, as many members either age and retire or devote their energies to more narrowly focused divisions of the American Psychological Association (APA). As part of this reassessment, SPSSI should examine the critique offered by the Radical Psychology Network. The Network seeks to influence the organizations of psychologists to which its members belong, including SPSSI. That a number of SPSSI members have joined RadPsyNet is one sign that even within SPSSI the search for effective action may lead in a more radical direction.

Can the Radical Psychology Network's Critique

Make SPSSI More Resilient??

The 1995 convention theme of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) is "Strength in the Face of Adversity: Individual and Social Resilience." "Resilience," noted the Call for Proposals, "is the effective mobilization of individual and social resources, "and the resulting SPSSI convention program reflects useful examination of a variety of social problems. Yet, in the midst of efforts focused on specific issues, it is worth spending some time considering the resilience of organized psychology itself, particularly components such as SPSSI that have been in the forefront of social reform efforts. And in light of increasing strains within SPSSI concerning its mission and organizational survival, it is worth asking how SPSSI could better mobilize its individual and social resources to ensure its vitality as an organization and to bring about a better society. Based on my experience as a founder and co- coordinator of the two-year old Radical Psychology Network (RadPsyNet), I have some thoughts on how SPSSI could confront the future more effectively.

Assessments of SPSSI's early history vary, depending to some extent on the political and philosophical perspective of the viewer (Harris, 1986). It seems clear, though, that SPSSI's beginnings sixty years ago reflected an effort to turn the attention of psychologists away from traditional pursuits in the direction of applied research on social problems and--at least occasionally--in a parallel direction of social activism. Several more recently organized APA divisions have followed in SPSSI's path, focusing concern on a variety of social problems. These efforts are useful, and will continue.

But are they enough?

SPSSI Strains

SPSSI is showing signs of strain. Paradoxically, some of these strains stem from SPSSI's own successes.

One strain has to do with SPSSI's relationship to APA. For example, in a recent SPSSI Newsletter, SPSSI President Virginia O'Leary (1995) reported that in 1996, during SPSSI's 60th anniversary and after a decade of concern over APA's "increasing intrusiveness," SPSSI will reduce its presence at the annual APA convention and organize instead an independent meeting. O'Leary noted that SPSSI Council "took a step in the direction of increased autonomy [from APA] by determining that Council will not expend time and energy responding to APA's various requests for responses to issues relevant to its, not SPSSI's, agenda" (p. 1). SPSSI Secretary-Treasurer Barbara Gutek (1995) added that "Many members of SPSSI including Council do not attend APA or would not if SPSSI Council were held elsewhere or at another time" (p. 3).

In noting the possible benefits of a separate SPSSI convention, O'Leary raised a different set of concerns: "It is hoped that an independent meeting will promote greater attendance, broaden member participation in the organization, and encourage student involvement" (1995, p. 1). The ensuing discussion on SPSSI's electronic mail list madethese hints of declining interest in SPSSI more explicit. Participants considered how to combat the problems of a reduced and aging membership and the difficulty of attracting new members. This discussion topic grew out of member reactions to the announced reduction in next year's APA convention, with conflicting views expressed concerning how closely SPSSI should be tied to APA: Does SPSSI remain a division of APA primarily to benefit SPSSI? Or is the real goal to have an impact on the larger body of organized psychology?

At about the same time, the SPSSI office distributed a questionnaire designed to create a membership database to help SPSSI "shape the current national debate on social issues." The questionnaire asked for reports on research and writing, professional practice, advocacy, consulting, and teaching activities in 82 areas ranging from abortion and academic achievement through domestic violence and mental health to welfare, women/gender, and workplace issues. This list of social problems of potential interest to SPSSI members represents a strength of SPSSI--the wide-ranging efforts by members to make life better for a broad range of oppressed groups. Unfortunately, the list also represents part of the problem.

As pointed out by several e-mail discussants, many SPSSI members, and many students and newer psychologists, have reduced their activity in SPSSI--or never begun any activity--and participate instead in newer, more narrowly focused, perhaps "sexier" APA divisions. Whereas SPSSI once was a natural organizational home for liberal and even radical psychologists, it now has to compete with other divisions explicitly focused on women's issues, peace issues, gay and lesbian issues, legal issues, community psychology, and so on. APA members seeking to avoid time and energy fragmentation increasingly devote their attention to whatever division most closely deals with their primary concern.

Additionally, as at least one e-mail discussant pointed out, even APA as a whole now generally advocates liberal policy positions, paralleling SPSSI's own views. Through policy papers, appellate briefs, and other methods, APA devotes some of its considerable resources to oppose the death penalty, advocate abortion rights, and defend many of the causes long championed by SPSSI. Many APA members, as a result, frequently complain of APA's "liberal agenda" in letters to the editor in the APA Monitor and in other contexts (e.g., O'Donohue & Dyslin, in press). Thus, psychologists seeking to bring about social reform have choices they did not have 60 years ago: Rather than join SPSSI, they can join one of APA's politically liberal divisions or they can work directly through APA's Public Interest Directorate or in similar arenas. True, SPSSI can take some credit for psychology's mainstream becoming more reform-oriented. Taking such credit does not negate the fact, however, that, in organizational terms, many psychologists no longer find a reason to join SPSSI. If mainstream psychology seeks liberal reform more actively than in the past, after all, why join a separate division that does the same thing, especially when SPSSI's efforts are splintered among the wide range of specific issues reflected in the recent questionnaire, most of which are not the central concern of each member?

A New Perspective

Perhaps what SPSSI needs is to rethink not only its organizational structure but its political perspective. Maintaining SPSSI's liberal tone may no longer be useful now that such a tone is no longer distinct. Indeed, the rapid proliferation of liberal causes raises questions about the overall liberal perspective. In the liberal political perspective, after all, working on issues of gender equity or delinquency or homelessness can be done in isolation from other issues, because liberal reform generally tackles issues one at a time. Such is the routine of "practical" legislative lobbying and similar efforts: focus on one issue at a time; ask for what is politically reasonable; and be thankful for minor victories.

SPSSI can do better.

In response to its organizational difficulties and, even more important, to the failure of liberal reform to alter an unsatisfactory status quo, SPSSI should reassess its dominant single-issue approach to liberal reform. It should consider instead a clear alternative. SPSSI should begin the process of developing a more comprehensive political perspective, one that seeks to identify the root causes of interlocking social problems rather than examine problems one at a time. In short, SPSSI should consider adopting a more radical political perspective.

Such a perspective would have two benefits for SPSSI. First, it would tackle head on the significant theoretical and political question of how to generate the widespread social change that many SPSSI members believe is really necessary. As my Radical Psychology Network co-coordinator, Isaac Prilleltensky, and I have noted elsewhere (Fox, 1985, 1991, 1993, 1996; Fox & Prilleltensky, 1996; Prilleltensky, 1994), a growing body of work in psychology and other fields demonstrates the inadequacy of the liberal agenda and the need for more fundamental change. And second, a more radical agenda would make SPSSI stand out from the crowd. As the primary APA division developing an analysis linking the wide variety of social problems to basic societal deficiencies, a more radical SPSSI would provide new psychologists and members of other divisions with a reason to join that is now lacking.

Advocating a radical agenda within psychology may strike some as a bit bizarre at the close of the 20th century. Yet psychology has a long history of support for radical social change (Fox, 1985, 1993), support to which SPSSI members and leaders have often contributed. Even today, a surprising number of psychologists and psychology students find in radical theory the perspective they are looking for as they seek to bring about a better society. Such at least is the experience of the Radical Psychology Network.

The Radical Psychology Network

Two dozen psychologists formed the Radical Psychology Network at the 1993 APA convention in Toronto. RadPsyNet has since grown in size, linking about 100 psychologists and others in the United States, Canada, and a dozen other countries. The group publishes a quarterly newsletter, RadPsyNews (Fox, 1995). It also sponsors an Internet e-mail discussion list with about 200 participants. RadPsyNet gopher and World Wide Web servers provide nonmembers with easy Internet access to the group's newsletters and other resources. Members discover the group through a variety of sources, including newsletters and e-mail discussion lists sponsored by APA divisions, including SPSSI's.

The term "radical" within psychology has had a variety of meanings, and RadPsyNet has so far chosen to leave the term undefined and comprehensive. Member concerns include the practical implications of common therapeutic practices; the public policy efforts of APA and its individual divisions; and the development of theoretical and political support for widespread social change based on the data and theory generated by decades of work in psychology. Some members, focusing on the damage to human well-being caused by corporate capitalism, embrace leftist political analyses; others are more likely to describe themselves as feminists; still others insist their views "are so reasonable they are not radical at all." Thus, RadPsyNet serves as an umbrella organization, bringing together people with a variety of concerns. What they generally have in common is a belief that liberal reform will never lead to a truly better society in which oppression of the powerless ends and social justice prevails.

Not surprisingly, the response of mainstream psychologists to radical critiques typically ranges from hostility to ambivalence. Even when seeking liberal reform, psychologists generally have supported basic societal institutions (Sarason, 1981). Thus, a common topic on the RadPsyNet e-mail list and in the newsletter--raised most frequently by our growing number of student and recently graduated members--is a practical question: How can radical psychologists seeking to practice what they preach find jobs in a society where radical views are either rejected outright or marginalized? Answering this question, although admittedly self-serving, is crucial to prevent psychologists seeking significant social change from either abandoning the field or abandoning their ideals in favor of liberalism and professionalism. This tension between liberalism and professionalism on the one hand and the struggle for radical revamping of the status quo on the other was present in SPSSI's early years (Harris, 1986). In SPSSI's case, the attractions of liberalism and professionalism proved stronger in the end.

Career concerns are very closely tied to a second issue common to both the Radical Psychology Network and elements within SPSSI: How can radical psychologists have an impact on psychology as a field and on society as a whole? Rather than assume that such an "unrealistic" goal cannot be achieved, the founders of RadPsyNet observed that the general hostility to radical perspectives often obscures a conflicting dynamic: More commonly than might be expected, elements of the radical agenda are embraced outright by respected psychologists, often after working for decades within organized psychology and becoming disenchanted with the field's close ties to an unsatisfactory status quo. Thus, the problem is not an absence of critical voices within psychology. Former APA presidents and other highly regarded mainstream psychologists frequently call for extensive societal restructuring. Rather, the problem is that these calls, while often politely applauded, are then too often ignored.

That the response to radical perspectives is at least sometimes ambivalent or even supportive raises significant questions: To what degree do liberal psychologists actually support radical goals even if not radical methods or styles? If radical efforts had more chance of success, would liberals sign on in larger numbers? If the answer is yes, how can radical psychologists transform such potential sympathy into actual support? In a practical sense, how would greater support for radical perspectives affect the work of psychologists?

Answering these questions is among the tasks of the Radical Psychology Network. A related goal is to influence the larger organizations of psychologists to which its members belong. These include APA's more reform-oriented divisions such as SPSSI and Division 27, the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA), divisions that were, in their earlier years, more conducive to radical perspectives. The fact that a number of SPSSI and SCRA members have joined RadPsyNet and taken on leadership roles is one sign that even today those divisions have members seeking more radical approaches.

The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues is an established organization with a proud history. It is not likely to disappear, nor should it. But it does face a period of reassessment. The Radical Psychology Network is a new organization, struggling to reach critical mass to survive even as it seeks to disseminate its views. Both SPSSI and RadPsyNet could benefit by working together. The result would be more energetic advocacy within organized psychology for the broad social change that members of SPSSI and members of RadPsyNet know is necessary.



Fox, D. R. (1985). Psychology, ideology, utopia, and the commons. American Psychologist, 40, 48-58.

Fox, D. R. (1991). Social science's limited role in resolving psycholegal social problems. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 17, 159-166.

Fox, D. R. (1993). Psychological jurisprudence and radical social change. American Psychologist, 48, 234-241.

Fox, D. R. (Ed.). (1995, July). RadPsyNews, no. 9. (Available from the Radical Psychology Network, Dennis Fox, Legal Studies Program, University of Illinois at Springfield, Springfield, IL 62794-9243; and on-line on our World Wide Web site)

Fox, D. R. (1996). The law says corporations are persons, but psychology knows better. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 14, 339-359.

Fox, D. R. & Prilleltensky, I. (1996). The inescapable nature of politics in psychology. New Ideas In Psychology, 14, 21-26.

Gutek, B. A. (1995, April). SPSSI Council gathers for retreat, mid-year meeting. SPSSI Newsletter, pp. 3, 16.

Harris, B. (1986). Reviewing 50 years of the Psychology of Social Issues. Journal of Social Issues, 42, 1-20.

O'Donohue, W. & Dyslin, C. (in press). Abortion, boxing, and Zionism: Politics and the APA. New Ideas In Psychology.

O'Leary, V. (1995, April). SPSSI council goes south, plans "a meeting of our own." SPSSI Newsletter, 1-2.

Prilleltensky, I. (1994). The morals and politics of psychology: Psychological discourse and the status quo. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Sarason, S. B. (1981). Psychology misdirected. New York: Free Press.


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