«ARTICLE THE ROLE OF POWER IN WELLNESS, OPPRESSION, AND LIBERATION: THE PROMISE OF PSYCHOPOLITICAL VALIDITY Isaac Prilleltensky University of Miami ...»
The idea of internalized social prescriptions has direct implications for the selfperception of people with psychological problems. Although coercion has not disappeared from the treatment of the mentally ill, we have today treatment methods characterized by kindness and compassion. However humanitarian, this turn is not without side effects, for it shifts responsibility for problems and solutions inward. In the absence of apparent coercion, and in the presence of overt caring, there is nobody but oneself to blame for difﬁculties and lack of progress. According to Parker and colleagues (1995), The humanization of treatments of the insane encouraged the internalization of the difﬁculties they exhibited. The mad then had to take responsibility for cure, and the kind treatment which replaced the rods and whips would work its way inwards. The conscience of the mentally ill would act as a self-discipline all the more efﬁcient than the social discipline of the general hospital (p. 7).
A similar dilemma is faced by community psychologists wishing to promote social capital. Whereas bridging and bonding are desirable qualities of healthy communities, they can restrict opportunities for challenging power structures and for engaging in productive conﬂict. Although social capital can contribute to health and welfare, it can also depoliticize issues of wellness and oppression (Perkins, Hughey, & Speer, 2002).
Power, then, emanates from the conﬂuence of personal motives and cultural injunctions. Nevertheless, as we have seen, personal motives are embedded in the very cultural injunctions with which they interact. Hence, it is not just a matter of persons acting on the environment, but it is a matter of individuals encountering external forces that, to some extent, they have already internalized. The implication is that we cannot just take at face value that individual actions evolve from innate desires. Desires
are embedded in norms and regulations. This is not to adopt a socially deterministic position, however; for even though a person’s experience is greatly shaped by the prescriptions of the day, agency is not completely erased. I concur with Martin and Sugarman (2000) who recently claimed that While never ceasing to be constructed in sociocultural terms, psychological beings, as reﬂection-capable, intentional agents, are able to exercise sophisticated capabilities of memory and imagination, which in interaction with theories of self can create possibilities for present and future understanding and action that are not entirely constrained by past and present sociocultural circumstances. (p. 401) This is why we witness resistance to oppression and actions towards personal and social change. Indeed, the deﬁnition of power I propose refers to three types: power to strive for wellness, power to oppress, and power to resist oppression and pursue liberation. We should bear in mind that, in all cases, power ensues from the dynamics of agency and culture described above. We should also distinguish, in all cases, among power to affect self, others, and the collective. We can strive for personal, and/or relational, and/or collective wellness. All the same, we can engage in personal, and/or relational, and/or collective oppression. The objects of resistance to oppression can also be the self, others, or the collective. Thus, for our purposes, we need to concentrate on how power affects the experience of individuals, groups, or collectives in the form of wellness, oppression, or resistance. Power works by obstructing or meeting needs. Needs is a basic construct in the deﬁnition of power because it underscores wellness.
To reiterate, power refers to the ability and opportunity to fulﬁll or obstruct personal, relational, or collective needs. Personal needs for empathy, caring, social and emotional support illustrate psychological ingredients of wellness, whereas respect for diversity and democratic participation in matters affecting one’s life relate to relational well-being. Accessible health and educational services, social justice policies, and an effective social safety net are examples of collective needs that beneﬁt the community as a whole (Prilleltensky, 1997).
Conceivably, a person can endeavor to promote his or her personal and relational needs, but may be opposed because of privilege or political ideology, to advance the needs of the collective. As an example, a wealthy man who can afford private medical insurance may not wish to pay more taxes for a national medical insurance plan.
Conversely, we may think of women who forego personal needs for the beneﬁt of their children or community.
Power, however, is not only about wellness, but about oppression as well; and regardless of motives, some people oppress others. Oppression can be directed inwards, towards oneself, towards family members, or towards others in the community. Finally, power can be used to resist oppression and pursue liberation.
In psychological practice, we may wish to see ourselves, as community psychologists, as always promoting wellness and helping people resist domination.
But this is not always the case. Great care should be exercised in working with community members to ensure that we do not, however innocently, contribute to practices and discourses of oppression and conformity (Prilleltensky, 1994). We may also wish to see our clients and community partners as caring and compassionate, invested in promoting personal and family wellness. However, this is not always the ` case either (Doherty, 1995). Hence, we need to reﬂect on what is our role vis a vis Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop 122 Journal of Community Psychology, March 2008 clients and community partners who engage in oppression of others. Not an easy question, for we tend to medicalize the problem and avoid the difﬁcult moral dilemmas.
The potential outcomes of the exercise of power are numerous, and they involve a variety of actors. As community psychologists, we are interested in our professional and civic role in promoting wellness, and in the part our community partners play in the same. Our power, as well as the power of our partners, is largely determined by material and cultural circumstances related to privilege. Internal variability within community members and within community psychologists, stemming from class, gender, background, race, and ability will determine the latitude each person can exercise in procuring personal and collective wellness. Psychologists and community stakeholders can have varying degrees of power in different contexts. We may be privileged in our homes, but feel threatened in conferences, whereas our community partners may be powerful at home, but vulnerable at work. Power is not a ﬁxed attribute. Power changes not only across contexts, but also across time: oppressor at one time, liberator at another.
My working deﬁnition of power alludes also to levels of awareness. If our goal is to enhance wellness and ﬁght oppression, awareness of our actions and those of our students, clients, and community partners is crucial. It is entirely possible that people may be aware of being oppressed, but not of being oppressors. We may wish very strongly, and consciously, to liberate ourselves from social regulations, but we may be buying, less consciously, into oppressive cultural norms. Young women may think that dieting is fashionable and will help them achieve popularity, but with dieting come the risks of eating disorders and perpetuating commercialism and consumerism. Contradictions abound. Humanists, for instance, wished to promote individual well-being without recognizing their contribution to the status quo by individualizing sources of suffering (Prilleltensky, 1994). They wished to advance personal liberation without changing social oppression. Community psychologists may wish to promote social capital, without realizing that they are depoliticizing conﬂicting interests and masquerading power differentials as deﬁciencies in the density of social networks.
Power and interests, then, are difﬁcult to ascertain because there are unconscious subjective forces as well as socially constructed interests that are hard to disentangle. In the light of this, our job is to try and comprehend how power operates and how it can be channelled towards the promotion of wellness, of self, other, and the collective.
My ﬁrst concern is with the role of power in wellness. Wellness is achieved by the simultaneous, balanced, and contextually sensitive satisfaction of personal, relational, and collective needs. Wellness entails the simultaneous fulﬁllment of the three types of needs. Personal needs (e.g., health, self-determination, meaning, spirituality, and opportunities for growth), are intimately tied to the satisfaction of collective needs such as adequate health care, environmental protection, welfare policies, and a measure of economic equality; for citizens require public resources to pursue private aspirations and maintain their health. There cannot be caring without justice, and justice without caring (Dokecki, Newbrough, & O’Gorman, 2001; Newbrough, 1992).
Personal and collective needs represent two faces of wellness (Keating & Hertzman, 2000; Marmot & Wilkinson, 1999). The third side of wellness concerns
relational needs. Individual and group agendas are often in conﬂict. Indeed, like power, conﬂict is immanent in relationships. To achieve wellness, then, I claim that we have to attend to relationality as well. Two sets of needs are primordial in pursuing healthy relationships among individuals and groups: respect for diversity and collaboration and democratic participation. Respect for diversity ensures that people’s unique identities are afﬁrmed by others, while democratic participation enables community members to have a say in decisions affecting their lives (Prilleltensky & Nelson, 2000).
The present deﬁnition of wellness parallels Newbrough’s (1992, 1995) usage of the values of the French revolution: liberty, equality, and fraternity. In advancing the Third Position for community psychology, Newbrough also advocates for complementary attention to personal (liberty), collective (equality), and relational (fraternity) needs. The present conceptualization builds on Newbrough’s ideas and suggests that singular attention to any one of these values would likely have negative repercussions for the advancement of others. In a context where liberty is the supreme value, relationality and collectivism are bound to suffer because individual needs will come prior to any others.
In my view, there is a need to establish a contextually based, creative balance among the three components of wellness (Prilleltensky, 2001). If any one of the values is undermined, our role should be to foreground the neglected principles (Prilleltensky, 2000). Communities invariably differ in their conﬁguration of values.
This is why we cannot predetermine which values are overexposed and which ones are forgotten. Communities have different starting points in their quest for balance and wellness.
The question of whether this tripartite conceptualization of wellness and values is universally applicable is an open one. Nevertheless, extensive research indicates that people across societies experience similar needs for personal, relational, and collective wellness. A major recent study involving over 60,000 participants reports that poor people of various cultures and continents yearn equally for the presence of the three domains of wellness (Narayan, Chambers, Kaul Shah, & Petesch, 2000; Narayan, Patel, Schafft, Rademacher, & Kocht-Schulte, 2000). Although contextual nuances differ, the overwhelming evidence is that the three domains of wellness must co-occur for life satisfaction to ensue. The precise dosage of each domain of wellness needs to be culturally and historically bound; neverthess, the overall aim of reaching a balance cannot be forgotten.
We can apply the current deﬁnition of wellness to a number of social and psychological problems. What we ﬁnd is that an imbalance in the attention to the different sets of needs results in difﬁculties to either the person or the collective. Too much attention to personal needs is often at the expense of social values such as justice, fairness, and equality; resulting in poorly equipped communities. Such is the case in most western societies, where liberal messages of personal responsibility for happiness ﬂood the media. In light of scarce social resources, the outcome of the ensuing competition for success is isolation and alienation. Conversely, radical collectivist societies, which attend primarily to what is good for the nation, tend to neglect the individual needs of their members. The outcome of this extreme position is lack of opportunities for growth, conformity, and denial of autonomy. It is indeed hard to ﬁnd societies where the needs of the collective are balanced with the needs of its members.
It is harder yet to ﬁnd a society where equal attention is paid to relational needs for tolerance and democratic participation (Marsh, 1995). Sen (1999a, 1999b) found that Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop 124 Journal of Community Psychology, March 2008 in the absence of democratic structures and respect for diversity, national wealth is bound to concentrate in the uppermost tip of the economic elite.
We require ‘‘well-enough’’ social and political conditions, free of economic exploitation and human rights abuses, to experience quality of life (Marsh, 1995). All the same, we expect interpersonal exchanges based on respect and mutual support to add to our quality of life. Eckersley (2000) has shown that subjective experiences of well-being are heavily dictated by cultural trends such as individualism and consumerism; whereas Narayan and colleagues have claimed that the psychological experience of poverty is directly related to political structures of oppression (Narayan, Chambers, et al., 2000; Narayan, Patel, et al., 2000).
Much like the present deﬁnitions of power and wellness, Sen (1999a, 1999b) describes power and well-being in terms of both capabilities and entitlements. In both cases, capacities and resources are at once intrinsically meritorious and extrinsically beneﬁcial. This means that a sense of mastery and control is both an end in itself as well as a means of achieving well-being. Access to preventive health care and educational opportunities are not only means to human development, but also ends on their own right.