Psychology for a Participatory Society: Revisiting Some Early Questions

[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]


What is psychology? What does psychological science have to offer those concerned with participatory society and progressive social change?  These are some of the questions that would occasionally pop into my somewhat bored mind as I sat at the back of my undergrad psychology class.  These fleeting social concerns appeared in between learning about Pavlov’s dogs, Skinners rats and, more excitingly in my opinion, Milgrim’s (not so ethical) obedience studies.  When opting to study psychology my initial, not particularly insightful, take on it was that life seemed to be all about human beings.  I was struck by how meaningless life would be without the presence and interactions of other humans.  On the basis of what appears, in retrospect, to be less than extensive reasoning about my educational options, I resolved to study psychology.  After all, if life was all about humans what else would be better to do with my time than to study them? 


My teenaged thoughts about how psychological knowledge could be applied to progressive social change were informed, in part, by my own personal experiences of racism growing up in the UK.  As far as I can guess, these experiences of fighting (often literally) group-based oppression (racism) coupled with what I saw as an inquisitive mind or what my parents perceived less flatteringly as my mission to "have an answer for everything" are my best guesses for why I have pursued an interest in psychology and social change. 


For me these questions of psychology and social change really didn’t get answered in any of my courses on cognitive, developmental, neuro or clinical psychology.  However, I found some solace in social psychology’s study of topics such as prejudice, stereotypes and intergroup relations. Not to suggest that other areas of psychology are not in themselves relevant and important to human progress and social change, just to say that at that time social psychology seemed to offer me the most direct way of addressing my early questions. 


The point of writing this piece is not to champion social psychology or to give me the opportunity to write a rather early memoir. Rather, as I pursue doctoral research in social psychology I wish to return to these questions that spurred my initial interest in psychology and continue to be, in part, the basis for my doctoral research. I hope that attempting to sketch some answers to these early questions is useful for those who are concerned with social change and for those who, like me, find a deep fascination in human beings; our strengths, weaknesses and above all our unique potential. Importantly, I will offer some empirical evidence from psychology that should give those who are concerned with building a participatory society both useful evidence to ponder, and hopefully further motivation and hope to engage in such worthy pursuits.  Also, I hope that my fellow psychologists and other social/cognitive scientists will also think about the need to ask such questions of their disciplines and make appropriate efforts as they see fit.  In order to sketch how psychological science may be useful or not to those concerned with winning a participatory society it seems sensible to briefly outline what I mean by psychology and to confront some painful truths about the discipline and its historical and contemporary role in society.        


Understanding Psychology


I often feel an odd mix of sadness, frustration and bewilderment when I see public representations of psychology in the media and societal institutions.  From the unfortunate die-hard permeation of Freudian representations of psychology to the mountains of "psychological" self-help books that you tend to encounter in the psychology section of Waterstones. These bare no resemblance to what I know as psychological science (emphasis on the science bit).  In fact, I worked out that the ratio of market-driven "pop-psychology" to what I will, to keep the music analogy going, have to call here "underground-psychology" in my local bookshop is around 20:1.  I would imagine this to be a much smaller ratio than in the US, based on my less than extensive viewing (cultural anthropology) of Oprah, Dr. Phil and other self-focused, "you can be a celebrity/capitalist/slim/sexy" type genres.    


Although psychology covers an immensely broad array of academic and clinical pursuits, each field of psychological inquiry shares some common concern with human behaviour and the brain or "mind".  It seems like an axiom that psychology should have much to offer those concerned with understanding, designing and implementing new participatory forms of society.  However, as is the case with any tool, potential use is one thing, whereas normal functioning within a particular set of institutions and power relations is another thing altogether [1].


Coming Clean


When thinking about psychology for a participatory society, it seems that the first step to take would be to "come clean".  In other words, for psychology to look itself in the mirror and be honest about its historical and contemporary role. I should offer a caveat here that my argument regarding psychology as a discipline reflects more on the areas of psychology that are primarily concerned with social, health or clinical matters. These and more applied areas are the focus of this article, although basic research in fundamental cognitive processes (e.g., attention, perception and memory) can sometimes be applied in ways that reflect the problems outlined here. That said, even a cursory glance in the mirror for psychology is enough for many psychologists to jump back and never look at it again or find a sufficiently distorting mirror to gaze at instead. Having the honesty to look in the mirror long enough, I suggest, reveals that psychology has a general tendency to maintain the status quo (not unique among social-sciences). In my experience this belief is not widely held among psychologists, although it is found in "critical" psychological scholarship, "…the regnant social system does not satisfactorily meet some of the essential requirements for the existence of the good society. What is psychology to do vis-à-vis this adverse state of affairs? Hitherto, it has mostly contributed not to the promotion of social change but rather to the preservation of the status quo" [2].


To make this point more meaningful I often use an example from child mental health – something I worked on briefly before taking up my doctoral research.  Child conduct or behavioural problems are predicted by a host of social factors that are rooted in poverty and social disadvantage (e.g. alcoholism, crime, single parent status, stress or neighbourhood factors)[3].  These social factors predict conduct problems that are associated with significant later personal, family, social and economic costs.  So, what does psychology do about this horrific situation? Well, it takes parents of at-risk children or those with early onset conduct problems and instructs them on how to be a "better" parent.  Or worse, with medical collaboration it medicates the "offending" child so that they don’t feel like causing trouble or doing much else for that matter.  This is not to say that parent training can not provide parents with skills and support that helps them deal with children (although recent research suggests that conflict between parents may play a more significant role than parenting skills) who are responding to the oppressive and harsh social circumstances they live in.  Rather, it is to suggest that it should be at least comprehendible to those supposedly concerned with conduct disorder that we could, should and must look at ways of changing the underling social circumstances. 


To borrow Chomsky’s familiar all-purpose alien thought experiment, imagine you are an alien from outer space and you came down and observed Auschwitz concentration/extermination camp in 1942.  What would you make of a group of psychologists who offered parent training, counselling, relaxation and psychiatric-medication to the prisoners? In itself, the alleviation of human suffering is admirable. However, if these professionals’ raison d’être was the psychological well-being of their clients, or people in general, than the practice would seem odd.  At least you would ask if they could not also try and abolish the camp, help the prisoners escape or do all they could to bring an end to the abominable social environment their clients were in? Although this is an extreme example of what ignoring the "social" and concentrating on the individual can lead to, the logic applies to contemporary psychology. To reiterate, I see no problem with individual based approaches that alleviate human suffering.  But we should come clean and say explicitly that the implicit remit of psychology is to alleviate human suffering within the present arrangement of power or the prevailing status quo.  All other options, however proficient in tackling the problems, are de facto off the table.


I have often found that this "radical" (or rational) approach does not seem to resonate with many psychologists.  I have frequently heard, "but that is not our responsibility" or "that is just impossible". These sentiments exemplify psychology’s status quo maintaining role and the bundle of associated attitudes and beliefs, but it also conveys a poor understanding of social change[4]. With psychology’s fundamental unit of analysis being the individual it is easy to understand how "social" factors may seem out of the remit of many psychologists. However, given that psychology is concerned with humans and that we are a social species with a puzzling and unique socio-cultural psychological make-up[5], psychology can not be asocial anymore than it can be apolitical. 


Social psychology is the field within psychology whose primary concern is the relationship between the individual and the social.  Although social psychology helps address the asocial problem in psychology it does not tend to address the supposed apolitical problem [2, 6].  The field of political psychology, despite the name, also tends to operate on implicit assumptions that are bound to inquiry within a strict ideological limit.  For example, political psychologists might look at what predicts voting and attempt to design interventions to increase voter turnout.  Such endeavours are based on the implicit assumption that if more people voted for the prevailing parties within the prevailing political system things would be better. Some work in this area also seems to embody rampant elitism, with "theories" focusing on the inability of regular people to comprehend "sophisticated" (read arcane) political matters.             


Critical/Community Psychology and the Problem of Methodolarty


Recently some psychologists have come clean and started to address psychology’s role in maintaining the status quo.  This small sub-field of psychology goes under the banner of critical or community psychology[7-9].  The latter has a particular emphasis on psychologists doing applied work in the community.  Much of the sentiments and goals of such approaches are admirable.  However, one of the main problems with such approaches is what has been called "methodolarty". This is characterised by a strange association/obsession between being "critical" and qualitative or constructivist-based approaches to psychology.  Noam Chomsky once wrote an article that played an important role in shaking psychology loose from the dominant behaviourist paradigm[10]. Subsequently, he has also written a less well-known, particularly among social psychologists, but just as important article on post-modernism[11].


The conflation of a politically aware or "critical" psychology with post-modernism or strong constructivism in worrying:  Firstly, it is worrying from an academic point, as it seems to potentially limit our understanding and explanatory power of many important social-psychological phenomenon.  However, it is most worrying from a social change perspective. This is because a post-modernist or strong constructivist approaches are likely to alienate just about everyone apart from those "schooled" in such approaches. For example, caring educated middle class folks or coordinator classes can easily label any post-modernist findings that posse a moral question for society as non-science, which is if they can understand them at all. Such approaches would also seem to alienate working class constituents who apart from the shared inaccessibility of such work are likely to be rightfully put off by some of the connotations of postmodern thought.     


Three West-Indians and a Jesuit Priest: A Rich Legacy


Despite the problems outlined above, psychology does have a more positive, although obscure, history. Psychology has a rich legacy of psychologists whose work should surely form part of the basis for 1) any considerations of what a vision for Participatory Psychology (as an academic subject) should look like and 2) an understanding of how psychology can play a role in efforts for a participatory society.  Although there are certainly many more psychologists who I could include in this legacy, I will briefly cover the work of four historical figures: Mamie and Kenneth Clark, Frantz Fanon and Ignacio Martín-Baró. 


The Clarks were active in the civil rights struggle and through their famous "doll studies" helped provide empirical evidence of the psychological harm associated with the segregated school system. This evidence played a role in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954) that racial segregation in public education was unconstitutional. Their work is seminal in the psychology of prejudice and "racial" identity and helped to inspire a generation of work in this area[12]. Although social change is never about simply speaking truth to power, the Clark’s work shows that empirical evidence and rationale inquiry by social scientists can help to give some weight to arguments and help in the struggle for a more just society.


Frantz Fanon was a seminal thinker regarding the psychology of oppression. In particular, he theorised about the psychological processes and effects of Western colonization.  His observations regarding the social structures of colonisation and the human behaviour and cognition that these systems both produce and are facilitated by were pioneering[13]. Besides his acute mind and bravery in anti-colonial liberation movements and revolutionary wars, Fanon had some poignant insights regarding violence in the colonial system. Fanon is often associated with straight out advocacy of violence and there are plenty of valid critiques of his writing in this respect[14]. However, for me Fanon’s position on violence is much richer. Fanon expanded definitions of violence to include more social psychological aspects that characterised the colonial system. Here oppression and the psychological harm it causes is firmly identified as "real" violence, not some watered-down version of violence. In this respect Fanon, in his characteristically pioneering spirit, predates some of the latest findings in social neuroscience that show how "social" pain is much the same as physical pain, at least when it comes to the underpinning neuronal circuitry[15]. For me this is Fanon’s great contribution; giving a "realer" more tangible basis for sometimes ephemeral or fuzzy social constructs such as oppression or colonialism. In other words, Fanon’s work highlights how the social is real and not weirdly separate from the physical.


Ignacio Martín-Baró was a psychologist and Jesuit priest who worked in El Salvador during the American backed terror of the 1980’s. Martín-Baró was to lose his life along with other Jesuit priests who were brave enough to think about, campaigned for and speak out about social change within the oppressive terror-state. His approach to social psychology was novel and deeply inspiring. He used rational inquiry to empirically test system-justifying ideologies that were espoused by the government and the prominent intellectual and media elites [16]. If the government pronounced that "the people" had never been happier, freer, richer and generally never had it so good, Martín-Baró tested these pronouncements empirically with survey methods (the best bit is, if I recall correctly, he used the government funds to do this). This social psychological approach to ideology is a far cry from contemporary post-modernist hand-waving, and highlights the role social psychology could play in rational inquiry into beliefs, values and attitudes reflecting power relations within a society (ideology).


Psychology for a Participatory Society: A Brief Contemporary Survey


So what about today’s contemporary psychological science? What does it have to offer those interested in winning a more participatory society? Of course as Chomsky often points out, there are no magic tricks when it comes to social change. There is only hard work, careful thought and strong commitment to justice. Given this, I still think psychology has something to offer those of us engaged in efforts towards winning a participatory society. The rich legacy of those mentioned above is an inspiration to psychologists and other cognitive/social scientists who wish to use their skills and privilege to pursue rational inquiry bearing on more participatory forms of economy, polity, kinship and ethnic/cultural relations[17].  I see psychological science as a useful tool with respect to evidence, evaluation and experimentation regarding existing and alternative institutions and systems. In the remaining space I will briefly outline examples of work that supports this view in the hope that it helps inspire and inform both the project for a participatory society and cognitive/social scientists who find these questions deeply interesting and among the biggest in psychology.


Michael Albert often outlines the important role of knowledge, vision and strategy in social change. I would argue that psychology is positioned to help build our knowledge regarding the effects of current and alternative systems/institutions on the humans that inhabit them. In this respect, Tim Kasser’s work represents some of the first efforts by psychologists to look at the impact of current economic systems or what he calls "American Corporate Capitalism" (ACC).  Kasser and colleagues show initial evidence that ACC’s focus on self-interest, competition, hierarchical wage labor and profit conflict psychologically with goals and values such as caring about others/community, maintaining close relationships with others and feeling a sense of worth and autonomy[18]. While this is not news for those of us advocating a participatory economy, it is at least rigorous empirical evidence in a peer-reviewed journal. Psychological science has developed methods and techniques to measure some of the more abstract, but important, constructs that advocates of a participatory society value – indicators that social science disciplines like economics have tended to neglect. Measuring values, attitudes, personality, self-esteem and psychological well-being is necessary if we are to evaluate, as rigorously as possible, existing institutions and systems. More, such techniques offer us a way of evaluating the alternative systems and institutions we advocate. This can be a means of experimenting and improving of the intuitions that make up our vision for a participatory society – I will expand on this later.


Moving from the above work on values and well-being, there is also interesting work on the relationship between institutions and personality or individual differences.  Social dominance orientation (SDO) is an individual difference measure that can be thought of as a measure of an individual’s anti-egalitarian tendencies. There is data across many societies showing the impressive psychometric properties of SDO; with SDO predicting endorsement of racism, sexism and many other stereotypes and myths that legitimise systems of group-based hierarchy [19]. What is most interesting here is the role of institutions. For example, data shows that those high in SDO tend to self-select for jobs in institutions that attenuate systems of group-based hierarchy (e.g., police force), while those low in SDO tend to apply for jobs in hierarchy attenuating institutions (e.g., human rights law/NGOs)[20]. This research has documented how those higher in SDO proceed to get promoted quicker in institutions such as the police force (despite having more complaints lodged against them!). This is not to say that all police officers are high on SDO, but it is to highlight the role of institutions in rewarding particular tendencies. This kind of work highlights the kind of role that these institutions play in maintaining group-based hierarchy in the current society.


Finally, I want to briefly mentioned work on power and cognition. In recent years social cognition researchers have began to explore the affects of power (control over one’s environment). Work has shown that being in a low power situation impairs peoples executive functioning (e.g., maintenance of goal-related information in working memory despite interference and distraction)[21]. This, along with other work, offers state of the art evidence regarding how "the social" affects the individual. Institutions like balanced job complexes are set up on the belief that doing only rote work all day impairs an individual’s ability to participate in workplace deliberation and decision-making. While it is true, as Albert and others argue, that to believe that people are unable to participate or incapable of the empowering tasks that a balanced job complex would entail is deeply classist, racist and sexist, such findings from psychological science offer us firm evidence against those who would argue otherwise.  


Conclusions and Future Directions


I hope I have begun to stimulate ideas and vision for the kind of role psychology could play in efforts for a participatory society. A more "participatory psychology" has a rich legacy to build upon and as our methods and tools become more powerful we are well placed to help drive rational inquiry into some of the areas where people, institutions and systems interact. I hope I have not portrayed psychology as some magic bullet or overstated its importance in winning a participatory society. My intention was to try and sketch some answers to questions I have found interesting; by stating where psychology has been (good and bad) and where we are beginning to head currently. All this was done in the hope that sharing these thoughts and work will increase the power of our arguments and give those advocating a participatory society more evidence to inform well-founded intuitions and observations. 


In terms of psychology and the future, it seems to me that we need to build on some of the contemporary work exploring the affects of current systems and institutions. We need to explore the impact of current political, kinship and ethnic/cultural systems[22]. Most importantly we need to move beyond knowledge of existing systems and look towards vision. Developing and experimenting with alternative institutions will form an important part of the strategy that advocates of participatory society will employ[23]. Psychological science offers rigorous methods for evaluating these efforts and ways of comparing existing institutions to possible alternatives. It is not that psychological science is necessary here, only that it offers us an opportunity to build on a rich legacy and to provide powerful and compelling evidence and insights to help win a more participatory society.







1.       Chomsky, N., Understanding Power, ed. P.R. Mitchell. 2003, London: Vintage.

2.       Prilleltensky, I., The morals and politics of psychology: Psychological discourse and the status quo. 1994, NY, US: State University of New York Press.

3.       Loeber, R. and D. Hay, Key issues in the development of aggression and violence from childhood to early adulthood. Annual Review of Psychology, 1997. 48: p. 371-410.

4.       Albert, M., The trajectory of change: activist strategies for social transformation. 2002, Cambridge MA: South End Press.

5.       Richerson, P.J. and R. Boyd, Not by genes alone: how culture transformed human evolution. 2005, Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press.

6.       Howitt, D. and J. Owusu-Bempah, The racism of psychology: time for change. 1994, New York, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

7.       Fox, D. and I. Prilleltensky, Critical psychology: An introduction. (1997), 1997. Critical psychology: An introduction. xvii: p. CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc.

8.       Hook, D. and C. Howarth, Future directions for a critical social psychology of racism/antiracism. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 2005. 15(6): p. 506-512.

9.       Prilleltensky, I. and G. Nelson, Community psychology: Reclaiming social justice. Fox, Dennis (Ed); Prilleltensky, Isaac (Ed), 1997. (1997). Critical psychology: An introduction. (pp. 166-184). xvii: p. CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc.

10.     Chomsky, N., A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. Language, 1959. 35(1): p. 26-58.

11.     Chomsky, N., Rationality/Science. Z Papers Special Issue, 1995.

12.     Philogene, G., ed. Racial identity in context: The legacy of Kenneth B. Clark. 2004, American Psychological Association: DC, US.

13.     Bulhan, H.A., Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression. 1985, London: Plenum Press.

14.     Majavu, M. (2007) The Wretched of the Earth: Critcal Psychology in the Colonial Context. ZNet, http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/15420.

15.     Eisenberger, N.I., M.D. Lieberman, and K.D. Williams, Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Science, 2003. 302: p. 290-292.

16.     Martín-Baró, I., Writings for a Liberation Psychology (Edited by Adrianne Aron and Shawn Corne). 1996, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

17.     Albert, M., Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism. 2002, London: Zed Books.

18.     Kasser, T., et al., Some costs of American corporate capitalism: A psychological exploration of value and goal conflicts. Psychological Inquiry, 2007. 18(1): p. 1-22.

19.     Sidanius, J. and F. Pratto, Social dominance theory: an intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression. 1999, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

20.     Haley, H. and J. Sidanius, Person-Organization Congruence and the Maintenance of Group-Based Social Hierarchy: A Social Dominance Perspective. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 2005. 8(2): p. 187-203.

21.     Smith, P.K., et al., Lacking power impairs executive functions. Psychological Science, 2008. 19(5): p. 441-447.

22.     Major, B. and L.T. O’Brien, The Social Psychology of Stigma. Annual Review of Psychology, 2005. 56: p. 393-421.

23.     Hahnel, R., Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation. 2005, New York: Routledge.

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