_*_Radical Psychology_*_

Fall 2001, Vol. 2, Issue 2.


Stephanie Austin

York University

Isaac Prilleltensky

Victoria University


As an emerging field critical psychology is defined in various ways. However, most writers agree that critical psychology is a movement that challenges psychology to work towards emancipation and social justice, and that opposes the uses of psychology to perpetuate oppression and injustice. In this paper, an overview of the philosophical and historical foundations of critical psychology is presented, followed by a discussion of certain challenges that remain to be addressed. The article traces the origins of critical psychology to critical theory, German critical psychology, Latin-American liberation movements, postmodernism, as well as community, feminist and anti-racist critiques of psychology. To achieve its objectives of promoting emancipation and resisting oppression, critical psychology faces the challenge of praxis. Praxis, which is the integration of, and constant engagement with, reflection, research, and action, is predicated on attaining a balance between (a) academic and grounded input, (b) understanding and action, (c) processes and outcomes, and (d) differing and unequal voices.

Although there is no uncontested definition of critical psychology, we think most scholars in the field would accept that critical psychology is a movement that challenges psychology to work towards emancipation and social justice, and that opposes the uses of psychology to perpetuate oppression and injustice (Parker, 1999). The field of critical psychology has experienced an important period of growth recently. Developments in 1999 alone included two international conferences: The Millenium World Conference in Critical Psychology which took place in Sydney, Australia in May 1999, and the Critical Psychology and Action Research Conference which was held in Manchester, England in July 1999. At the University of Western Sydney, there is now a Centre for Critical Psychology where students can pursue graduate level training and professors can teach and do research in critical psychology. The Centre for Critical Psychology has launched a new journal on the subject called the International Journal of Critical Psychology. The Bolton Institute in Bolton, UK also offers graduate level training in critical psychology and has a journal called the Annual Review of Critical Psychology. In 2001 an international Critical Psychology Conference was held in Monterey California focusing on Praxis: Beyond the Theory/Practice Divide.

The following review of the contemporary and historical literature in critical psychology aims to contextualize the emerging field, exploring the roots of critical thought as it relates to psychology. Following this intellectual genealogy we discuss the challenge of praxis in critical psychology. As an intellectual enterprise rooted in highly academic grounds on one hand, and highly pragmatic territory on the other, it is important to seek a balance between theory and action. If critical psychology is to grow in vitality, we claim that it needs to integrate in its praxis the various strands of academic and practical ancestry found in its diverse origins (Goodley & Parker, 2000). We assert that critical psychology will come closer to its humanitarian goals if it respects and synthesizes the rich intellectual and applied traditions within it. We caution against splintering factions within critical psychology, least the movement become more concerned with theoretical purity than with solidarity among diverse social groups.


Critical psychology is a strategy aimed at politicizing all subdisciplines in psychology. It is a metadiscipline in that it enables the discipline of psychology to critically evaluate its moral and political implications. Just as methodology enables psychology to understand and measure human phenomena, a critical dimension makes it possible to assess the moral and political repercussions of psychological theories and practices (Prilleltensky, 1994, 1999; Walkerdine, 2001). Critical psychology focuses on reshaping the discipline of psychology in order to promote emancipation in society.

As Prilleltensky and Fox (1997) suggest, the underlying values and institutions of modern societies reinforce misguided efforts to obtain human fulfillment while maintaining inequality and oppression. The role of critical psychology is to raise questions about what we as a discipline are doing to promote social justice and human liberation rather than human suffering and social control (Ibanez, 1997; Kitzinger, 1997; Sloan, 2000). Critical psychology strives to go beyond studying oppression in the laboratory with an attempt to effect change in the lives of people in real societies.

The type of critical psychology we espouse is based on a commitment to the values of caring and compassion, collaboration and democratic participation, self-determination, human diveristy, and social justice (Prilleltensky & Fox, 1997). These values are the starting point from which critiques of mainstream psychology and of the social status quo are elaborated. This kind of critical psychology goes beyond simply stating its values by further exploring the various ways in which values complement and/or contradict one another in varying contexts (Prilleltensky & Nelson, in press).

The concepts of oppression and emancipation are at the core of critical psychology. By oppression we mean both a state of subjugation and a process of exclusion and exploitation. Oppression involves psychological as well as political dimensions. In light of these central characteristics, Prilleltensky and Gonick defined oppression as "a state of asymmetric power relations characterized by domination, subordination, and resistance, where the dominating persons or groups exercise their power by restricting access to material resources and by implanting in the subordinated persons or groups fear or self-deprecating views about themselves" (1996, p. 129). Oppression involves structural inequality that is reproduced by the everyday practices of perhaps well-meaning but unsuspecting citizens who collude with dominating forces in society. As Young explains, the causes of oppression "are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules" (1990, p. 41). When we invoke emancipation, we refer to the person's life opportunities as they relate to power (Teo, 1998a). Liberation involves a dialectical relationship between "subjective experience" and "power". As psychologists dealing with subjective experience, it is essential that we concern ourselves with power. Similar to the definition of oppression, emancipation can be conceptualized both as a state and a process that includes psychological and political dimensions. Emancipation is the experience of symmetric power relations characterized by equitable and respectful alliances between persons, communities, and nations whereby people are free from internal and external sources of oppression and free to express and explore their physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual human qualities. This notion of emancipation builds on Fromm's (1965) dual conception of freedom; freedom from social and psychological sources of oppression, and freedom to pursue one's objectives in life. Freedom from social oppression entails the experience of liberation from class exploitation, gender domination, and ethnic discrimination, for instance. Freedom from internal and psychological sources includes overcoming fears, obsessions, or other psychological phenomena that interfere with a person's subjective experience of well-being.

The promotion of freedom and the elimination of oppression are foundational concepts for critical psychology. These foci derive from diverse but converging traditions, not only within psychology, but in other disciplines as well. We briefly review the origins of critical psychology in order to understand its present challenges.

Diverse Origins: Critical Theory

The Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, founded in 1923, was the place where the concept of a critical theory emerged. The work that came from the Frankfurt school in Germany is often cited in the published literature as having played a prominent role in critical psychology. The first generation of Frankfurt school theorists (Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Loewenthal, Pollock, and Fromm) sought to establish a social science that went beyond the positivist tradition and thus criticized the very status, structure and goal of traditional social science (Geuss, 1981; Teo, 1997). Critical theory proposed a multidisciplinary approach to understanding society, drawing from political economy, sociology, cultural theory, philosophy, anthropology, psychology and history (Bronner & Kellner, 1989). Concerned with "critically reexamining the basic assumptions on which Western civilization had been founded so that a more adequate theory and a more emancipatory practice could emerge" (Sampson, 1983, p. 16), these theorists were critical of the denial of subjectivity found in positivism. As the following quote describes,

The eradication of subjectivity, they believed, was a betrayal of the promise of modernity, which was itself predicated on the belief that the augmentation of science and technology would improve human control over nature and produce more freedom, individuality, and happiness. Instead, the critical theorists argued, the institutions and practices of "advanced industrialized society" were apparently producing ever greater conformity and social domination (Bronner & Kellner, 1989, p. 9).

The second generation of critical theorists included Habermas, a thinker whose work profoundly influenced the social sciences, especially psychology (Sloan, 1996). According to Habermas, there are three interests served by knowledge seeking: (a) technical control, (b) interpretive understanding, and (c) emancipatory interest (Sloan, 1997; Sullivan, 1984). The emancipatory interest, which is of particular interest in the work of critical psychology, seeks not only to explain or understand, but to enhance human agency in order to modify conditions of systematic suffering.

Critical theory is an exploration of human and social phenomena that seeks to understand the ways in which our categories of thought reduce our freedom by providing only a partial recognition of what could be (Calhoun, 1995). It goes against relativism and nihilism by suggesting an emancipatory alternative to the existing order (Bronner & Kellner, 1989). According to Geuss, "a critical theory, then, is a reflective theory which gives agents a kind of knowledge inherently productive of enlightenment and emancipation" (Geuss, 1981, p. 2).

Critical theory has significantly influenced the development of all critical subdisciplines in the social sciences. It has been helpful in critical psychology as it has prompted the field to go beyond the traditional focus on the self-contained individual. In keeping with the early influences of critical theory, some critical psychologists engage in research that is interdisciplinary in nature (Prilleltensky & Gonick, 1996) and are concerned with the construction of critical theories of social transformation (Teo, 1998a). Others, inspired by the later works of critical theory, concentrate on the critique of mass culture (Parker & Spears, 1996).

German Critical Psychology

Although it is an important precursor of critical psychology, the contributions of German Critical Psychology are sometimes unrecognized. Much of the work that was done in Germany remained inaccessible to English speakers until the recent works of Dreier (1999), Tolman and Maiers (1991), Tolman (1994), and Teo (1998b). German critical psychology emerged in the context of radical political and social movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Centered on the work of the movement's founder and promoter Klaus Holzkamp, critical psychology sought to improve psychology by developing an alternative ontological and epistemological foundation (Tolman & Maiers, 1991). Critical psychology at that time identified the inherent weakness of psychology as what Holzkamp defined as psychology's reliance on the wrong philosophy of science. In contrast to the empirico-deductive model of accessing psychological knowledge, Holzkamp suggested that a critical psychology should use a social constructivist approach. This approach still worked with the experimental method but rather than believing that psychological knowledge could be attained or accessed through the observation of behaviour in an experimental setting, Holzkamp suggested that psychological knowledge was constructed through the observation of behaviour in an experimental setting.

In the social and political context of Post-War West Germany, challenging the status quo in society by critiquing traditional structures and procedures was quite common. The student movement of the time was reminding people that academic and scientific knowledge had failed during the Nazi regime; that there was no such thing as value neutrality or abstention from value judgement (Teo, 1995). Holzkamp's work in critical psychology at this time established the link between psychological issues and societal goals by questioning the relevance of psychology in the practical domain, identifying problems with traditional psychological methodology, and disclosing psychology's ideological assumptions (Teo, 1998b).

Latin-American Liberation Theology/Psychology

South-American liberation psychology was developed based on the philosophical and historical underpinnings of liberation theology. What made liberation theology different from most academic theology was its connection to grassroots movements. The socio-political context that marked the starting point for a liberation theology was the fact of widespread poverty. As Rigoberta Menchu, Nobel Peace Prize laureate for her struggles in Guatemala asserts: "as Christians, we have understood that being a Christian means refusing to accept all the injustices which are committed against our people" (Menchu, 1984, p. 134). Liberation theology was an active critique of how social structures like the Christian church treated the poor. It was explicitly concerned with having an impact on the experiences of oppression of the people of Latin-America. Liberation was the motivation for and the outcome of pastoral work.

Similarly, liberation psychology emerged as an attempt to reinterpret mainstream psychology in light of the experiences of people who were disadvantaged; to criticize society and its ideologies from a psychological perspective; and to observe and comment on the practices of psychology and psychologists. Latin-American psychologist Martin-Baro (1994) proposed a psychology that openly concerned itself with ending oppression and promoting emancipation. In contrast to mainstream psychology, a liberation psychology is one that is historically grounded, that does not abstract its subjects from their social and political contexts, that is not individualistic, and that locates the sources of values, motivations and behaviours in the dialectical relationships between person, community, and society (Vazques Ortega, 2000). From the perspective of liberation psychology, "there is no person without family, no learning without culture, no madness without social order; and therefore neither can there be an I without a we, a knowing without a symbolic system, a disorder that does not have reference to moral and social norms" (Martin-Baro, 1994, p. 41).


Critical discourses in the 1980s indicated a shift away from Marxism toward postmodernism. Disappointed by the failure of Marxist social utopias, many French and German postmodern philosophers moved to new ideas (Teo, 1996). The advent of postmodernism particularly in Europe marked a recognition that the project of modernity had not been realized to an extent that would make a liberated or emancipated subjectivity possible. "Modernity entered history as a progressive force promising to liberate humankind from ignorance and irrationality" (Rosenau, 1992, p. 5). Postmodernists recognized and worked from the idea that this assumption needed to be rejected.

By providing evidence that the particular interests of certain groups were erroneously being presented as universal, and that modern science was being misused and abused to legitimate the preferences of powerful groups at the expense of the interests of less powerful groups, postmodernists developed their critique of all-encompassing social theories of all sorts (Teo, 1996; Rosenau, 1992). Consequently, postmodernism's critical analysis of the way power is used in the very process of developing theories, rendered questionable the critical project to develop a grand theory of human liberation (Teo, 1998a). Changing the subject: Psychology, social regulation and subjectivity is a book often cited as having marked a turning point for a critical understanding of psychology. Henriques, Hollway, Urwin, Venn and Walkerdine (1984) use the concepts of poststructuralism to discuss psychology's insistence on the split between individual and society, and how this has contributed to perpetuating oppression rather than promoting emancipation in psychology. The distinctive feature of this work is that it does not conceptualize mainstream psychology as a direct force of oppression that constrains and enchains individuals. Rather, as this quote clearly states, psychology,

Has helped to constitute the very form of modern individuality. Psychology is productive: it does not simply bias or distort or incarcerate helpless individuals in oppressive institutions. It regulates, classifies and administers; it produces those regulative devices which form us as objects of child development,
schooling, welfare agencies, medicine, multicultural education, personnel practices and so forth. Furthermore, psychology's implication in our modern form of individuality means that it constitutes subjectivities as well as objects. (Henriques et al., 1984, p. 1)

The consequences of this are significant and multiple as can be seen in the example of employability used to illustrate this point in the text. Through the concept of unemployability, the unemployed person can become identified and may even identify her/himself as a cause of unemployment. This kind of psychologically reinforced explanation for unemployment perpetuates the status quo: the individual labeled unemployable can be trained in interpersonal skills either by a psychologist or by psychological instruments but this does not increase the number of available jobs in any way.

Community Psychology

The emergence of community psychology in North-America has contributed to setting the stage for contemporary critical psychology in its attempt to move beyond the ahistorical, asocial, and value neutral assumptions of mainstream psychology (Sarason, 1981; Sampson, 1983). In the Western cultural context, which can be characterized as a place of extreme individualism, community psychology's critique of society and psychology centered on the notion of community as something that had been lost or forgotten. Community psychology was therefore developed in response to the growing sense of disempowerment and alienation that an individualistic mainstream psychology was ineffective in challenging.

Community psychology aligned itself with other social movements such as the feminist movement and the civil rights movement. This is clear in Latin America, where community psychologists work alongside the poor to ameliorate their plight (Fuks, 1999). Because as psychologists our focus is on human problems, it goes without saying that we need to pay attention to social problems. This author went on to say that sexism, racism and class exploitation are risk factors in human problems but have been largely unexamined in mainstream psychology.

Feminist Psychology

Feminist theory recognizes and emphasizes the fact that "women's experiences are important, and the validity of women's perceptions must be known and valued" (Brown, 1994, p. 52). There are many different kinds of feminism that focus on a variety of issues. Some underlying themes are common to the varying manifestations of feminism, such as: the importance of egalitarianism, respect of difference, and social activism aimed at eliminating power imbalances and exploitation (Lerman & Porter, 1990).

Feminist psychology has critiqued mainstream psychology's exclusion of women as psychological subjects and creators of psychological knowledge. Furthermore, it has been critical of biologism in mainstream psychology because it has had the effect of representing women's inferior position in society as biologically determined and therefore unchangeable. In contrast, feminist psychology would argue that sex/gender should no longer be theorized as difference but reconceptualized as a principle of social organization that structures power relations between the sexes (Wilkinson, 1997). When sex/gender is thus defined, the possibility for change remains. Feminist psychology has used the underlying principles of feminism to create a space for a feminist approach within the practice of mainstream psychology. In feminist psychology, the feminist goal of working toward equity and social justice is interwoven with mainstream psychology's goal of further understanding human activity and experience with the intention of improving mental health.

Although the feminist contribution to critical psychology has been remarkable, it has not often been acknowledged as such. The following quote describes the tension that exists between feminist psychology and critical psychology, "critical (social) psychology appropriates and assimilates theoretical advances of feminist psychology without due recognition of the political visions which inform and energize it" (Wilkinson, 1997, p.186). As the author suggests, feminist work in the area of the gendered identity is not merely an intellectual exercise, it is motivated by the political imperative to improve women's lives. This is not meant to imply that only people who have experienced discrimination directly should work for the elimination of oppression. Rather, it is meant as a reminder that white men still represent the wide majority of people working in critical psychology. It is still they who define psychological knowledge.

Anti-Racism in Psychology

Anti-racism in psychology is still emerging as a critical interrogation of the racist foundations of psychological knowledge and practice. As one author points out, "the modern concept of race was constructed pseudo-scientifically within the context of European colonization and conquest in order to justify, within a systematic ideology, inhuman practices" (Teo, 1999, p. 18). Scientific support for racism began with Galton, the founder of the eugenics movement (Sarason, 1981, p. 77).

The ability to critically reflect on whether our discipline works to promote either the oppression or the emancipation of certain groups based on the category of ‘race’, has been neither taught nor practiced in psychology. Anti-racism educator George Dei defines anti-racism as a "critical discourse of race and racism in
society and of the continuing racializing of social groups for differential and unequal treatment. Anti-racism explicitly names the issues of race and social difference as issues of power and equity rather than as matters of cultural and ethnic variety" (1996, p. 25). Critical psychology needs to be further inspired by anti-racism in order that our work may reflect the lived experiences and historically situated realities of diverse groups in society.

Common Aims

The diverse traditions within critical psychology pull the field into different directions. Each school of thought confers benefits as well as risks upon the emerging movement. Postmodern theory challenges dogmatic discourses and values the importance of identity, context and diversity. At the same time, it faces the risks of social and political retreatism, as well as skepticism and a lack of moral vision. German critical psychology advocates rigorous theoretical and empirical research but has not entirely broken outside of the academe and into the community. Feminist, anti-racist, and community psychology do venture into social action but are not immune to theoretical inconsistencies (Jaggar, 1994). In the case of community psychology, for instance, there is a risk of collaborating with the establishment in launching and evaluating programs that divert attention from injustice and structural oppression. The discipline is complicit in redefining political problems in terms of pseudo-neutral health issues (Prilleltensky & Nelson, 1997).

The challenge for critical psychologists, we maintain, is to integrate the most promising features of each tradition with the common aim of eliminating oppressive practices in both psychology and in society at large. In order to meet this challenge we need some guidelines. How are we to decide what features of each tradition foster or detract from the common aim of eliminating oppression and promoting emancipation? We need a set of criteria for praxis. The criteria we suggest entail reaching a balance of (a) academic and grounded input, (b) understanding and action, (c) processes and outcomes, and (d) differing and unequal voice.

Balancing academic and grounded input

Academic discourse is useful in unveiling hidden assumptions about psychology and about culture but we must acknowledge the fact that academics occupy a particular location in society, typically one of privilege. Most critical psychologists are academics who are concerned with the welfare of oppressed populations. Their well-meaning intentions notwithstanding, they risk prescribing what disadvantaged people need in the absence of consultation with the people themselves. This is why we need to balance rigorous academic analysis with grounded input; input that will complement what theoreticians and researchers believe is a better state of affairs for a particular population.

Philosophers in particular face the risk of depicting ideal scenarios that are out of touch with the experiences of most people in society. A balance between philosophical and grounded input is needed to complement deductive with inductive approaches to knowledge and praxis. What good is it to have an internally consistent framework of values that does not reflect the lived realities of most people? The corollary of this question is that moral philosophy is not enough. On the other hand, we can ask what is the point of knowing people's needs and aspirations if that knowledge is not processed into principles and guidelines for action? The main corollary of this question is that grounded knowledge is not enough (Kane, 1998). Moral philosophy and grounded experience are complementary. Theories of values have to be validated with lived experience. Otherwise, we can end up with notions that are theoretically flawless but practically worthless. At the same time, people’s voices need to be scrutinized for their ethical and political meaning. The state of oppression does not confer moral superiority. The desirable state, in our view, is a healthy tension between grounded input and academic discourse. The techniques of participatory action research in community psychology can complement deconstructive analyses to determine which social policies are progressive and which ones maintain the status quo. At the same time, discursive methodologies can dissect the voice in which people are speaking. Is the voice of the oppressed representing their own legitimate interests, or are they just voicing internalized messages of victim blaming or neighbour blaming?

Balancing understanding and action

A balance between understanding and action is needed to ensure that knowledge does not remain the sole object of intellectual interest. To achieve the common aims of critical psychology, our theoretical sophistication has to be followed by action, not just academic action, we claim, but social action as well. It may well be argued that writing and theoretical work are forms of action. To an extent, we agree. But this work needs to be translated into social actions that have a direct impact on the life circumstances of people who suffer because of globalization, unemployment and discrimination. Powerful ideas need to be matched by powerful actions. Books don’t change the world. But the urge to act should be tempered by the need to know; to know our common aims, and the risks and benefits of pursuing one course of action rather than another. Understanding pertains not only to the internal consistency of any set of theories, but also to the context of application. Whereas one set of principles may be appropriate in one social context, it may be inimical to the well-being of people in another setting. Thus, while we promote more autonomy and control for disadvantaged people in oppressively controlling environments, we do not want to push for more self-determination of violent people in disorganized societies. Blind adherence to any value, from personal empowerment to sense of community, is risky. Actions to promote personal control, for instance, have to be considered in light of social repercussions.

Balancing processes and outcomes

Postmodernism and empowering approaches in psychology, including qualitative methodologies and collaborative interventions with communities, recognize the importance of entering into a dialogue with research participants and community members (Crossley, 2000; Holzman & Morss, 2000). Indeed, the values of collaboration and democratic participation seem essential to us. However, there is a need to balance good processes with effective outcomes for oppressed peoples.

The balance between process and outcomes is required to ensure that dialogue is not an end in itself. By the same token, we need to assert that ends do not automatically justify the means. If the object of an intervention is to uphold the rights of an oppressed group, do we justify any means, including terrorism? On the other hand, can we justify endless talk when the lives of vulnerable people in conflict zones are at risk? These are very difficult questions for which there are never easy solutions, but the tension between valid processes and just outcomes should be reflected in any framework of critical psychology.

Balancing differing and unequal voices

This is the fourth criteria for pursuing praxis in critical psychology. Social policies and programs that have an impact on the health and well-being of the population are typically formulated by powerful politicians, educated government officials, and privileged academics. Efforts by critical psychologists to work in partnership with disadvantaged members of society are not typical practices in social policy formation. Quite the contrary, most social policies are conceived in the absence of meaningful input from those most affected by them (Taylor, 1996; Wharf & McKenzie, 1998). Hence, a framework of praxis should be attentive to differing voices and in particular to those who are often rendered inaudible by the political process. Unequal power and unequal representation must be considered in praxis. Actions that are based on the voice of the powerful will irrevocably perpetuate the status quo, whereas actions that are based on the voice of the powerless have a chance of promoting social justice (Jaggar, 1994). This is why it is crucial for critical psychologists to work closely in collaboration with members of oppressed groups.

The criteria stipulated above responds to the challenge of critical psychology by calling upon diverse voices (academics and community members), employing diverse methodologies (discursive analysis, qualitative investigations, participatory action research), and relying on diverse traditions (liberation psychology, postmodernism, community psychology, etc.). The challenge of critical psychology is to integrate these various perspectives into the common aim of human liberation.


The cycle of praxis requires that we engage in reflection, research, and action (Prilleltensky & Nelson, in press). Not any one activity is sufficient to address the common aim of critical psychology. Reflection is aided by discursive analysis, philosophical thinking about the good society we want to promote, and about visions of a better future. Research into the sources and mechanisms of oppression is facilitated by qualitative and sometimes quantitative methods, by participatory action research, and by textual analyses of oppressive discourses (Parker and Bolton Discourse Unit, 1999; Willig, 1999). Finally, action is promoted by consulting with both therapists and social change agents because we believe that personal and community change are complementary. The role of the critical psychologist is to defy narrow roles by being philosopher, researcher, and activist all at once. A tall order, but isn’t it a good start?

Author Notes

Correspondence concerning this article may be sent to Stephanie Austin, Department of Psychology, York University, 4700 Keele St., Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M3J 1P3. Electronic mail may be sent to saustin@yorku.ca


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