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«ARTICLE THE ROLE OF POWER IN WELLNESS, OPPRESSION, AND LIBERATION: THE PROMISE OF PSYCHOPOLITICAL VALIDITY Isaac Prilleltensky University of Miami ...»

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ARTICLE

THE ROLE OF POWER IN

WELLNESS, OPPRESSION,

AND LIBERATION: THE PROMISE

OF PSYCHOPOLITICAL VALIDITY

Isaac Prilleltensky

University of Miami

The power to promote wellness, resist oppression, and foster liberation is

grounded in psychological and political dynamics. Hitherto, these two

sources of power have been treated in isolation, both for descriptive and prescriptive purposes. As a result, we lack an integrative theory that explains the role of power in promoting human welfare and preventing suffering, and we lack a framework for combining psychological and political power for the purpose of social change. In this article, the author puts forth a psychopolitical conceptualization of power, wellness, oppression, and liberation. Furthermore, he introduces the concept of psychopolitical validity, which is designed to help community psychologists to put power issues at the forefront of research and action. Two types of psychopolitical validity are introduced: type I—epistemic, and type II—transformative. Whereas the former demands that psychological and political power be incorporated into community psychology studies; the latter requires that interventions move beyond ameliorative efforts and towards structural change. & 2008 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Power is pivotal in attaining wellness, in promoting liberation, and in resisting oppression. Contrary to fragmentary disciplinary discourses, power is never political or psychological; it is always both. The same goes for wellness, liberation, and oppression; they are never political or psychological; they are always both. In this article, I discuss the dual political and psychological identity of power and its I wish to acknowledge the contributions of Geoff Nelson to the ideas expressed in this paper.

Correspondence to: Isaac Prilleltensky, School of Education, University of Miami, 312 Merrick Building, Coral Gables Campus, Coral Gables, FL 33124. E-mail: isaacp@miami.edu JOURNAL OF COMMUNITY PSYCHOLOGY, VOL. 36, NO. 2, 116–136 (2008) Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com).

& 2008 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. DOI: 10.1002/jcop.20225  Power, Wellness, Oppression, and Liberation ubiquitous role in shaping wellness, oppression, and liberation. Moreover, I offer the concept of psychopolitical validity to further our understanding of power issues into research and action.

However logical the integration between psychology and politics might seem, its translation into practice is ridden with challenges. Here I will identify these challenges and offer viable alternatives towards a synthesis of two complementary intellectual traditions dealing with power and well-being.

POWER Power and interests affect our human experience, our understanding of it, our definition of it, and our attempts to change it (Parker, 1999; Sloan, 2000). Discussing power in an interview, Foucault (1997) made the point that In human relationships, whether they involve verbal communication such as we are engaged in at this moment, or amorous, institutional, or economic relationships, power is always present: I mean a relationship in which one person tries to control the conduct of the other. So I am speaking of relations that exist at different levels, in different forms; these power relations are mobile, they can be modified, they are not fixed once and for all. (pp. 291–292) Unlike traditional research, in which power is regarded as a variable existing ‘‘out there,’’ affecting the behavior of the people we study or treat, I contend that power suffuses our very own actions as psychologists. We use our power to study power!

Furthermore, we sometimes use our power to define power in such a way that we are not affected by it! This is not a word game. When we read histories of psychology, we find countless examples of psychologists’ declaration of independence from power (Herman, 1995). They usually come in the form of claims to objectivity and valueneutrality, announcing that psychologists study people ‘‘out there’’ in a manner that is not affected by their own interests and power. Were they to admit their own vested interests, their legitimacy as healers and scientists would be in jeopardy. No need to rush towards conspiracy theories, however, for many of us were not even aware that power would be so pervasive and invisible at the same time. Power impregnated the very ways we thought about power, psychology, and human predicaments (Henriques, Hollway, Urwin, Venn, & Walkerdine, 1984). It obviously still does. Power operates in subtle ways because it is usually hidden under a mantle of neutrality of larger discourses about science, truth, and justice (Lyotard, 1984).

When caught in the web of power, we should not run away from it. It is important to understand how our own power and subjectivity influence what we do and feel and study (Walkerdine, 1997). But our objective in this exercise should not be to develop a new cadre of removed experts on power, but rather to use these insights in the pursuit of wellness and liberation.

Once we accept that power and interests affect what we do, we reject the premise that interventions are not affected by politics, and that we just serve an uncontested higher ethical purpose. The outcome of this realization is a doubting attitude towards the social goals of our activities as psychologists (Rose, 1985, 2000). We just cannot take it for granted that psychology pursues human welfare in a manner that is always just Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop 118  Journal of Community Psychology, March 2008 and fair. Psychologists have contributed, directly and indirectly, wittingly and unwittingly, to oppressive domestic and foreign policies. In her 1995 book, The Romance of American Psychology, Ellen Herman documents the involvement of psychologists in formulating ignominious policies. Although malevolent intent cannot necessarily be ascribed, psychologists helped to shape racist and oppressive policies, in the United States and abroad. Herman documents psychologists’ involvement in project Camelot. This was a project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1960 s. It was designed to use social science to fight national liberation movements around the world. Although some psychologists were uncomfortable with the idea of producing knowledge for military purposes, the majority regarded the project as a research opportunity that legitimized their role in public affairs. Many, in fact, were at pain to pronounce their neutrality, even as they endeavored to produce research for the repression of liberation movements.





The point of this story is not to inculpate the behavioral scientists who worked for Camelot, but rather to show that psychologists are capable of claiming neutrality even as they offer advice on how to dominate other countries. ‘‘Camelot’s antiseptic language often emphasized the allegedly apolitical character of behavioural science, referring, for example, to ’insurgency prophylaxis’ rather than counterrevolution.

Even at the height of the Cold War, psychology offered a convenient way to avoid all mention of capitalism, communism, or socialism’’ (Herman, 1995, pp. 170–171). If we learned anything from Camelot it is to realize how much power we have as psychologists.

Camelot cannot be discounted as an aberration, for subtle and overt abuses of power are quite prevalent in psychology and the mental health professions (Parker, Georgaca, Harper, McLaughlin, & Stowell-Smith, 1995; Pilgrim, 1992). To disrupt the silence around the power of power, some psychologists devote considerable activity to understand how cultural norms and systems of social regulation shape human experience. We see this, for example, in Walkerdine’s (1996, 1997) efforts to comprehend the survival and coping mechanisms of working class people, in ´n-Baro’s (1995) work on power and ideology in Latin ´ Montero’s (1994) and Martı America, and in the writings of Burman and colleagues (1996) dealing with social regulation and resistance.

In community psychology, researchers explore how power may be used to enable or inhibit access to resources, to promote social change, or to maintain the societal status quo through a variety of strategies (Speer & Hughey, 1995; Speer, Hughey, Gensheimer, & Adams-Leavitt, 1995). Community psychologists have also used the concept of empowerment to examine how people achieve higher levels of control over their lives and their environments (Zimmerman, 2000). Empowerment is conceptualized in community psychology as a process and an outcome that applies to individuals, groups and entire communities.

These advances notwithstanding, there are domains of power that are not yet adequately covered in community psychology. For example, not enough attention has been paid to the potential dual identity of being an oppressor and an oppressed person at the same time. Furthermore, not enough has been written about the power to promote wellness in self, others, and collectives. Many inconsistencies in people’s behaviors as well as in settings require more attention. We cannot treat people as consistently pursuing the well-being of others, nor can we expect them to be permanently empowered or disempowered. A more dynamic conceptualization of power is needed, one that takes into account the multifaceted nature of identities and

–  –  –

the changing nature of social settings (Watts, 2001). Moreover, we need a definition of power that takes into account the subjective and objective forces, which exert an influence on our actions as community psychologists. Although community psychologists align themselves with causes of social change, as a group, we are not immune to the conservative influence of social forces or new theories such as certain brands of postmodernism (Philo & Miller, 2001) or social capital (Perkins, Hughey, & Speer, 2002). Hence, we need to be cognizant of our own potential collusion with regnant forms of economic, cultural, and political power.

Power is multifarious and omnipresent. There is material and psychological power, there is the power of the psychologist and the power of the community, power of parents and power of children, power to define mental illness and power to resist labels. In light of the need for a more comprehensive conceptualization of power, I offer a few parameters for clarification of the concept. I present them as a series of complementary postulates.

1. Power refers to the capacity and opportunity to fulfill or obstruct personal, relational, or collective needs.

2. Power has psychological and political sources, manifestations, and consequences.

3. We can distinguish among power to strive for wellness, power to oppress, and power to resist oppression and strive for liberation.

4. Power can be overt or covert, subtle or blatant, hidden, or exposed.

5. The exercise of power can apply to self, others, and collectives.

6. Power affords people multiple identities as individuals seeking wellness, engaging in oppression, or resisting domination.

7. Whereas people may be oppressed in one context, at a particular time and place, they may act as oppressors at another time and place.

8. Due to structural factors such as social class, gender, ability, and race, people may enjoy differential levels of power.

9. Degrees of power are also affected by personal and social constructs such as beauty, intelligence, and assertiveness; constructs that enjoy variable status within different cultures.

10. The exercise of power can reflect varying degrees of awareness with respect to the impact of one’s actions.

First, I claim that power is a combination of ability and opportunity to influence a course of events. This definition merges elements of agency, or volitional activity on one hand, and structure or external determinants on the other. Agency refers to ability whereas structure refers to opportunity. The exercise of power is based on the juxtaposition of wishing, consciously or unconsciously, to change something and having the opportunity, afforded by social and historical circumstances, to do so.

Ultimately, the outcome of power is based on the constant interaction and reciprocal determinism of agency and contextual dynamics (Martin & Sugarman, 2000). Agency and contextual dynamics always incorporate psychological as well as political Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop 120  Journal of Community Psychology, March 2008 dimensions. Our ability to act as agents of change for personal or collective benefit depends on subjective, cognitive, behavioral and affective variables as well as structural factors. Similarly, contexts depend on social structures as well as on the ability of people to shape them and change them over time.

Power is not tantamount to coercion, for it can operate in very subtle and concealed ways, as Foucault demonstrated in detailed historical analyses of population control (1979). Eventually, people come to regulate themselves through the internalization of cultural prescriptions. Hence, what may seem on the surface as freedom may be questioned as a form of acquiescence whereby citizens restrict their life choices to coincide with a narrow range of socially sanctioned options. In his book Powers of Freedom, Rose (1999) claimed that Disciplinary techniques and moralizing injunctions as to health, hygiene, and civility are no longer required; the project of responsible citizenship has been fused with individuals’ projects for themselves. What began as a social norm here ends as a personal desire. Individuals act upon themselves and their families in terms of the languages, values, and techniques made available to them by professions, disseminated through the apparatuses of the mass media or sought out by the troubled through the market. Thus, in a very significant sense, it has become possible to govern without governing society—to govern through the ‘responsibilized’ and ‘educated’ anxieties and aspirations of individuals and their families. (p. 88).



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