«ARTICLE THE ROLE OF POWER IN WELLNESS, OPPRESSION, AND LIBERATION: THE PROMISE OF PSYCHOPOLITICAL VALIDITY Isaac Prilleltensky University of Miami ...»
Sen (1999a, 1999b) articulates the complementarity of diverse social structures in fostering what I call wellness and what he calls human development. Sen invokes the interaction of ﬁve types of freedoms in the pursuit of human development: (a) political freedoms, (b) economic facilities, (c) social opportunities, (d) transparency guarantee, and (e) protective security.
Each of these distinct types of rights and opportunities helps to advance the general capability of a person. They may also serve to complement each othery Freedoms are not only the primary ends of development, they are also among its principal means. In addition to acknowledging, foundationally, the evaluative importance of freedom, we also have to understand the remarkable empirical connection that links freedoms of different kinds with one another. Political freedoms (in the form of free speeches and elections) help to promote economic security. Social opportunities (in the form of education and health facilities) facilitate economic participation.
Economic facilities (in the form of opportunities for participation in trade and production) can help to generate personal abundance as well as public resources for social facilities. Freedoms of different kinds can strengthen one another (Sen, 1999b, pp. 10–11).
The presence or absence of health-promoting factors at all levels of analysis can have positive or negative synergistic effects. When collective factors such as social justice and access to valued resources combine with a sense of community and personal empowerment, chances are that wellness will ensue. When, on the other hand, injustice and exploitation blend with lack of resources, social fragmentation, and ill health, suffering and oppression will emerge (Kim, Miller, Irwin, & Gersham, 2000;
The challenge for community psychologists is to create spaces in communities, government, clinics, schools, families, workplaces, classrooms, and society at large where this delicate balance among personal, relational, and collective needs can be pursued. This extremely difﬁcult task requires concentrated attention on our part.
Speciﬁc suggestions follow in the section on psychopolitical validity.
Action is further complicated because wellness is not only a multidimensional concept, but, as can be seen in Figure 1, a hierarchical one as well (Prilleltensky, Nelson, & Peirson, 2001). The wellness of the individual is predicated on the wellness of the immediate family. Family wellness, in turn, is related to community and social well-being. Parental well-being, in turn, is closely tied to employment opportunities, communal support, and adequate social services. These societal resources are largely dictated, in turn, by social and economic policies established by the government of the day. Personal wellness, then, is not unrelated to family and social wellness (Cicchetti, Rappaport, Sandler, & Weissberg, 2000; Cowen, 1991, 1994, 2000; Prilleltensky et al., 2001). Wellness is like a pyramid where at the top is the individual and at the bottom is society with its economic infrastructure and cultural superstructure. The middle of the pyramid consists of meso-level structures such as family, schools, workplaces, and religious congregations. This conceptualization makes intuitive and theoretical sense, but it is hard to translate into practice.
‘‘Optimal development of wellness y requires integrated sets of operations involving individuals, families, settings, community contexts, and macro-level societal structures and policies’’ (Cowen, 1996, p. 246). Despite what we know about the impact of various systems and levels on families, most interventions in psychology and mental health deal with individuals, dyads (e.g., parent–child or marital relationships), or families (Prilleltensky, 1997). Our actions seriously lag behind our understanding of wellness. Much evidence points to the powerful impact of socioeconomic, cultural, and contextual factors in shaping the lives of children, adults, families, and communities (Basic Behavioral Science Task Force of the National Advisory Mental Health Council, 1996; Keating & Hertzman, 2000; McLoyd, 1998), yet in apparent disregard for this knowledge, many of us continue to focus on counseling, therapy, or person-centered prevention as the main vehicles for the promotion of wellness (Albee, 1996).
The causes for maintaining an individualistic and intrapsychic orientation in psychology are many and have been reviewed elsewhere (Fox & Prilleltensky, 1997;
Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop 126 Journal of Community Psychology, March 2008 Prilleltensky, 1994; Prilleltensky & Nelson, 2002). In essence, a culture that emphasizes individualism and blames victims for their misfortune is bound to ﬁx people and not structures. Crossing boundaries and working across levels of the pyramid of wellness is antithetical to professional specialization. We are either clinical, school, or community psychologists; child, adult, or family therapists; social workers or clinicians; economists or psychologists. Traditional divisions have partitioned for all practical purposes the human experience. Although we tout systemic thinking, we revert to fragmentary practice.
The question that immediately springs to mind, then, is how to intervene at different levels of the pyramid. Each layer of the pyramid, as can be seen in Figure 1, comprises values, resources, policies, and programs. Values are the principles that inform the resources, programs and policies that have to be in place to meet personal, relational, and collective needs. If we think of means to promote wellness at the child and family levels, there are effective programs to prevent child abuse, to promote family cohesion, to enhance social skills, and even to promote sociopolitical consciousness in children and youth (Cicchetti et al., 2000; Watts, Grifﬁth, & AbdulAdil, 1999; Watts, 2001). What is required of the psychologist is to venture into the community and identify partners with whom to collaborate on these programs. The same applies to programs at the community and societal levels, where programs and policies to prevent violence and discrimination, for instance, are sorely needed.
A warning, however, is called for: It is entirely possible to venture into the community, into schools, and even into government, and to be welcomed with open arms to institute programs and policies that concentrate on changing individuals and not structures. This has, in fact, occurred with many preventive interventions, that even though took place in community settings, were devised to change individual behavior, and not structures of oppression or domination. As Albee (1996) points out, this is still the case with many preventive initiatives.
The achievement of wellness is predicated on the fulﬁllment of personal, relational, and collective needs, but speciﬁc needs within these domains will invariably differ across cultural contexts. Hence, it is crucial to attend to the experience of the people themselves before we try to prescribe a dose of either personal or collective wellness. This applies to work with individuals, groups, or collectives alike.
We already know what are the main precepts underlying wellness. In this section, I explain what I mean by oppression and the role of power in its creation and perpetuation. Oppression can be regarded as a state or a process (Prilleltensky & Gonick, 1996). With respect to the former, oppression is described as a state of domination where the oppressed suffer the consequences of deprivation, exclusion, discrimination, exploitation, control of culture, and sometimes even violence (e.g., Bartky, 1990; Moane, 1999; Mullaly, 2002; Sidanius, 1993). A useful deﬁnition of oppression as process is given by Mar’i (1988): ‘‘Oppression involves institutionalized collective and individual modes of behavior through which one group attempts to dominate and control another in order to secure political, economic, and/or socialpsychological advantage’’ (p. 6).
Another important distinction in the deﬁnition of oppression concerns its political and psychological dimensions. We cannot speak of one without the other (Bulhan, 1985;
Moane, 1999; Walkerdine, 1997). Psychological and political oppression co-exist and are mutually determined. In Bartky’s (1990) words, When we describe a people as oppressed, what we have in mind most often is an oppression that is economic and political in character. However, recent liberation movements, the black liberation movement and the women’s movement in particular, have brought to light forms of oppression that are not immediately economic or political. It is possible to be oppressed in ways that need involve neither deprivation, legal inequality, nor economic exploitation; one can be oppressed psychologically—the ‘psychic alienation’ of which Fanon speaks. To be psychologically oppressed is to be weighed down in your mind; it is to have a harsh dominion exercised over your self-esteem. The psychologically oppressed become their own oppressors; they come to exercise dominion over their own self-esteem. Differently put, psychological oppression can be regarded as the ‘‘internalization of intimations of inferiority.’’ (p. 22).
Following Prilleltensky and Gonick (1996), I integrate here the elements of state and process, with the psychological and political dimensions of oppression. Oppression entails a state of asymmetric power relations characterized by domination, subordination, and resistance, where the dominating persons or groups exercise their power by the process of restricting access to material resources and imparting in the subordinated persons or groups self-deprecating views about themselves. It is only when the latter can attain a certain degree of conscientization that resistance can begin (Bartky, 1990; Fanon, 1963; Freire, 1972; Memmi, 1968).
Oppression, then, is a series of asymmetric power relations between individuals, genders, classes, communities, and nations. Such asymmetric power relations lead to conditions of misery, inequality, exploitation, marginalization, and social injustices.
The dynamics of oppression are internal as well as external. External forces deprive individuals or groups of the beneﬁt of personal (e.g., self-determination) collective (e.g., distributive justice) and relational (e.g., democratic participation) wellness. Often, these restrictions are internalized and operate at a psychological level as well, where the person acts as his or her personal censor (Moane, 1999; Mullaly, 2002; Prilleltensky & Gonick, 1996). Consequently, we can deﬁne political and psychological oppression as follows: Political oppression, which is the creation of material, legal, military, economic, and/or other social barriers to the fulﬁlment of self-determination, distributive justice, and democratic participation, results from the use of multiple forms of power by dominating agents to advance their own interests at the expense of persons or groups in positions of relative powerlessness. Psychological oppression, in turn, is the internalized view of self as negative, and as not deserving more resources or increased participation in societal affairs, resulting from the use of affective, behavioral, cognitive, material, linguistic, and cultural mechanisms by agents of domination to afﬁrm their own political superiority (cf. Prilleltensky & Gonick, 1996).
Some political mechanisms of oppression and repression include actual or potential use of force, restricted life opportunities, degradation of indigenous culture, economic sanctions, and inability to challenge authority. Psychological dynamics of oppression entail surplus powerlessness, belief in a just world, learned helplessness, conformity, obedience to authority, fear, verbal and emotional abuse (for reviews, see Moane, 1999; Mullaly, 2002; Prilleltensky, 2003; and Prilleltensky & Gonick, 1996).
Among others, these dynamics contribute to the state of oppression.
Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop 128 Journal of Community Psychology, March 2008 LIBERATION In the context of my deﬁnition, power may be invoked to promote wellness, or to engage in oppression or liberation. Liberation refers to the process of resisting oppressive forces. As a state, liberation is a condition in which oppressive forces no longer exert their dominion over a person or a group. Liberation may be from psychological and/or political inﬂuences. Following from the previous interpretation of oppression, there is rarely political without psychological oppression, and vice versa.
Repressive cultural codes become internalized and operate as self-regulatory, inhibiting deﬁance of oppressive rules (Moane, 1999; Mullaly, 2002).
Building on Fromm’s (1965) dual conception of ‘‘freedom from’’ and ‘‘freedom to,’’ liberation is the process of overcoming internal and external sources of oppression (freedom from), and pursuing wellness (freedom to). Liberation from social oppression entails, for example, emancipation from class exploitation, gender domination, and ethnic discrimination. 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. Liberation to pursue wellness, in turn, refers to the process of meeting personal, relational, and collective needs.
The process of liberation is analogous to Freire’s concept of conscientization, according to which marginalized populations begin to gain awareness of oppressive forces in their lives and of their own ability to overcome domination (Freire, 1972).
This awareness is likely to develop in stages (Watts et al., 1999). People may begin to realize that they are subjected to oppressive regulations. The ﬁrst realization may happen because of therapy, or from participation in a social movement or readings.
Next, they may connect with others experiencing similar circumstances and gain an appreciation for the external forces pressing down on them. Some individuals will go on to liberate themselves from oppressive relationships or psychological dynamics such as fears and phobias, whereas others will join social movements to ﬁght for political justice.