«ARTICLE THE ROLE OF POWER IN WELLNESS, OPPRESSION, AND LIBERATION: THE PROMISE OF PSYCHOPOLITICAL VALIDITY Isaac Prilleltensky University of Miami ...»
The evolution of critical consciousness can be charted in terms of the relationship between the psychological and political dynamics of oppression. Based on the deﬁnition of political and psychological oppression proposed earlier, I suggest that the level of critical awareness of a person or group will vary according to the extent that psychological mechanisms obscure or mask the external political sources of oppression. In other words, the more people internalize oppression through various psychological mechanisms, the less they will see their suffering as resulting from unjust political conditions. At times, the internalized psychological oppression will almost completely obscure the political roots and dynamics of oppression, even in repressive regimes like those of Latin America in the 1970 s (Hollander, 1997). Walkerdine (1996,
1997) documented how these processes of internalized oppression affected the lives of working class women, whereas Allwood (1996) detailed the personal blame discourse of depressed women. In all cases, personal suffering and struggles are explained in terms of private ineptitudes divorced from systems of domination and exclusion. This dynamic may apply as well to some gay, lesbian, and ethnic minorities subjected to discrimination. Eventually, and ideally, people discern the political sources of their psychological experience of oppression and rebel against them. However, research on the process of empowerment indicates that individuals do not engage in emancipatory actions until they have gained considerable awareness of their own oppression (Kieffer, 1984; Lord & Hutchinson, 1993). Consequently, the task of overcoming oppression
should start with a process of psychopolitical education. It is through this kind of education that those subjected to conditions of injustice and inequality uncover the sources of their diminished quality of life (Hollander, 1997; Watts et al., 1999). This ideal outcome, however, should not be idealized too much because, as claimed earlier, it is quite likely that people may gain awareness of some facets of oppression and not of others. Liberation is not a ﬁxated state at which people arrive and claim nirvana. New sources of oppression may emerge, or they may become oppressors themselves. The progression towards liberation is far from linear.
I believe that the preferred way to contribute to the liberation of oppressed people is through partnerships and solidarity. This means that we approach them in an attempt to work with them and learn from them at the same time that we contribute to their cause in whichever way we can (Nelson, Ochoka, Grifﬁn, & Lord, 1998; Nelson, Prilleltensky, & MacGillivary, 2001).
To promote liberation, we need to engage with the political and the psychological at the same time. As Ussher (1991) pointed out, ‘‘we need to operate on the level of the political and of the individual: at the level of discursive practices, and individual solutions for misery. The two must go hand in hand if we are to move forward’’ ´n-Baro (1994), Moane (1999), Hollander (1997), and others began to ´ (p. 293). Martı sketch the aims and methods of a liberation psychology. ‘‘A liberation psychology aims to facilitate breaking out of oppression by identifying processes and practices which can transform the psychological patterns associated with oppression, and facilitate taking action to bring about change in social conditions’’ (Moane, 1999, p. 180).
So far, I have argued for a psychopolitical conceptualization of power, wellness, oppression, and liberation. By themselves, neither psychological nor political explanations sufﬁce in accounting for the sources of suffering and human welfare.
By the same token, neither political nor psychological interventions alone can improve human welfare. It is only when we achieve an integrated political and psychological understanding of power, wellness, and oppression that we can effectively change the world around us. The pressing question now is how to convert the psychopolitical insights gained so far into research and practice.
Power is ubiquitous; it exists in all practice settings, and it pervades the way we think about and treat the people we work with. In all our interactions with community members, we use our power with wellness-enhancing or oppressive effects. Which practices promote wellness and which assumptions perpetuate oppression is not always clear. This is because even with best intentions we can cause harm. A primary challenge, then, is to reﬂect on our own existing practices and scrutinize their effects. A subsequent challenge is to incorporate lessons about power, oppression, wellness, and liberation into everyday practice. To meet these challenges, I propose the use of epistemic and transformational psychopolitical validity (Prilleltensky, 2003).
The main objective of psychopolitical validity is to infuse in community psychology and the social sciences an awareness of the role of power in wellness, oppression, and liberation at the personal, relational, and collective domains. To attain psychopolitical validity, investigations and interventions would have to meet certain criteria. These criteria have to do with the extent to which research and action incorporate lessons about psychological and political power. To narrow the gap Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop 130 Journal of Community Psychology, March 2008 between rhetoric and action in community psychology, I propose that we assess all our activities against epistemic and transformational validity. This will enable us to concretize our concern with power differentials in discourse and practice. As power penetrates both research and action, I suggest that we consider both epistemic and transformational validity.
Psychopolitical Validity I: Epistemic This type of validity is achieved by the systematic account of the role of power in political and psychological dynamics affecting phenomena of interest. Such account needs to consider the role of power in the psychology and politics of wellness, oppression and liberation, at the personal, relational, and collective domains.
Guidelines for epistemic psychopolitical validity are presented in Table 1.
Table 1 offers criteria for establishing epistemic validity in nine domains, which I consider central to the mission of community psychology. Although for practical and pedagogical reasons I distinguish among the nine cells, in effect they are interconnected and mutually inﬂuential.
It might be argued that my deﬁnition of epistemic psychopolitical validity limits the ﬁeld of community psychology, potentially excluding studies that fall outside the nine cells of Table 1. This is a source of tension. On one hand, I wish for the ﬁeld of community psychology to be pluralistic and accepting of diverse paradigms. On the other hand, I feel that such pluralism may lead to relativism, which, in turn, may dilute the ﬁeld’s mission and concern for the well-being of the oppressed. Perhaps, like wellness, it is a matter of balance among competing orientations. And like wellness, the preferred position depends on the cultural and temporal context of the decision. In the current climate, I think that we should refocus on the role of power in wellness, oppression, and liberation. Hence, the prescribed role for epistemic psychopolitical validity.
Should this innovation outlive its use in the future, surely it will be replaced by a more contextually sound alternative. However, until such time that we exhaust our understanding of power issues in well-being and suffering, I choose to pursue this type of validity in research. The implications for community psychology research are easily drawn from the Table. I advocate for research that will illuminate the role of power in the nine cells. This does not mean that investigations have to do exclusively with power, but rather with the role of power on the phenomena of interest.
Psychopolitical Validity II: Transformational Transformational validity derives from the potential of our actions to promote personal, relational, and collective wellness by reducing power inequalities and increasing political action. Table 2 presents guidelines for establishing transformational validity at the various intersections of wellness, oppression, and liberation in personal, relational, and collective domains.
It might be argued that all community psychology interventions aim to enhance wellness and reduce oppression, but I beg to differ. As Geoff Nelson and I have argued (Prilleltensky & Nelson, 1997; 2002), many community psychology interventions, however well intentioned, do not alter structures, but rather help their victims. Along a continuum of amelioration to transformation, our actions contribute primarily to the former and only peripherally to the latter. Hence, the need to concentrate on political action.
As in the case of epistemic validity, transformational validity might narrow the justiﬁability of community psychology interventions. Actions that do not concern themselves with power, inequality, and political change might be ascribed lesser importance in the ﬁeld. It is a matter of priorities. Again, I look at the context to determine what interventions might be preferred. In the current context, I would argue that most resources are allocated to ameliorative, person-centered interventions that contribute only marginally to social change (Albee, 1996; Prilleltensky & Nelson, 2002). When the context varies and political equality for oppressed groups is achieved, we might justiﬁably focus on interventions that increase self-esteem, social support, and social skills.
This turn does not exclude ameliorative strategies though. Rather, it proposes to enrich them by incorporating into them sociopolitical development, consciousness raising, and social action. We need not see health promotion as exclusively healthrelated, nor should we see social and emotional learning in schools as exclusively interpersonally. We need to see how our health and our relationships are affected by power inequalities at all levels of analysis. In making the time-honored feminist connection between the personal and the political, we can advance political change in all our interventions. Therefore, I do not propose a reduction of social skills, selfconcept, self-help, home visiting, or job-training opportunities. Instead, I propose to Journal of Community Psychology DOI: 10.1002/jcop 132 Journal of Community Psychology, March 2008 Table 2. Guidelines for Transformational Psychopolitical Validity in Community Psychology Action
refocus them to tackle the sources of inequality and exploitation. It is not a reduction, but a redirection that I am proposing.
When participants in any type of community psychology intervention learn about the societal and political origins of oppression and wellness, there is a chance that they will contribute to changing these inimical conditions. Nevertheless, learning about sources is not enough. Participants need to be activated to become agents of social change. Time is short and the suffering vast. Resources are limited and we must be accountable to oppressed populations who suffer because of inequality. Limited resources mean choices. If we continue to use our limited community psychology resources only to ameliorate conditions and to tend to the wounded, who will work to transform the very conditions that create exploitation and distress in the ﬁrst place?
CONCLUSION Psychopolitical validity oscillates between two risks. A diluted version of it risks perpetuating the status quo, whereas a rigid form risks dogmatism. In the former case,
not much changes in community psychology and we go about our business without realizing the urgency of present social conﬁgurations of power for the poor and the oppressed. In the latter, we impose inﬂexible boundaries around what is and what is not justiﬁable community psychology practice. Somewhere in the middle there is a path towards the main mission of community psychology: to enhance wellness for all and to eliminate oppression for those who suffer from it and its deleterious mental health effects.
Psychopolitical validity requires setting priorities, concentrating on targets, and avoiding distractions. This is my way of restoring the vision of community psychology to the forefront of its agenda. The preceding sections offer concrete ways to look at power issues at multiple levels of analysis. Moreover, they offer strategies for transformative work. It is time we drew direct links between our research and action and their transformative potential. Tenuous connections cannot undo the damage of globalization, violence, and internalized oppression.
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