«Published in Journal for Social Distress & The Homeless, 2009, vol. 18, 3 & 4, 231-268. The Cultural Psychology of Oppression and Liberation Carl ...»
Published in Journal for Social Distress & The
Homeless, 2009, vol. 18, 3 & 4, 231-268.
The Cultural Psychology of Oppression and
Psychological liberation requires going beyond
psychology and humanizing the full set of social influences
on it. Vygotsky (1997, p. 236) expressed this sense in
relation to education: "Questions of education will be fully
solved only when questions of social order have been fully
solved. Every attempt at constructing educational ideals in a society with social contradictions is a utopian dream."
The same holds for psychological liberation. It cannot be achieved through psychological maneuvers alone.
We need a psychological theory that links psychology to broad (macro) social influences, so that as psychologists we may be sensitive to them and figure out the best ways of humanizing them. Only then will psychological liberation be a viable possibility -- in the general sense that we can use humane cultural factors as the basis for making our psychology more fulfilling, empowering, and oriented toward cooperative social relations.
Most psychological theories do not seriously relate psychology to broad social influences such as social institutions and cultural artifacts. This is the gap that cultural psychology was supposed to fill. I would like to explore how cultural psychology can delineate the linkage between psychology and macro cultural factors in a way that can help us promote psychological liberation. My exploration will take the name of “macro cultural psychology,” which I have articulated in detail elsewhere.1 The path to psychological liberation is not an easy or direct one. It begins with its opposite, the psychology of oppression, which is why liberation is necessary. The psychology of liberation must be built upon an understanding of the psychology of oppression and it must systematically overcome each of its specific details and its supportive cultural context. The psychology of liberation is an internal development that issues from oppression and transforms it. This is the kind of historical-genetic thinking that Vygotsky emphasized. Liberation is not an externally imposed ideal that circumvents oppression or discounts it e.g., by simply asserting the existing agency of individuals, regardless of the conditions that confront them.
Macro cultural psychology provides the principles (constructs) for understanding the cultural psychology of oppression and liberation.
Ratner, C. (2008). Cultural psychology and qualitative methodology:
Scientific and political considerations. Culture and Psychology, 14, 259Ranter, C. (forthcoming). Macro cultural psychology: A political philosophy of mind. N.Y.: Oxford University Press.
Principles of Macro Cultural Psychology The main principle of macro cultural psychology is that psychological phenomena such as perception, self, emotions, cognition, and mental illness are cultural phenomena. Psychology is based on macro cultural factors, it embodies macro cultural factors, and it functions to sustain macro cultural factors. Culture comprises the operating system of the psyche. We think, perceive, feel through cultural factors.
A clear example is honor killings among devout religious people: For choosing a lover outside of her Kurdish community, Fadime was brutally shot and killed by her father at point blank range in front of her mother and younger sister. The father felt no regret; he felt the killing assuaged the shame that Fadime had brought upon him and his family. He was angry at his daughter for what she had done. This complex of emotions, reasoning, morality, and behavior was organized by a cultural script regarding proper male-female interactions.2 This is what it means to say that cultural factors are the operating systems of psychology. His psychology was not a personal invention, nor was it a natural reaction
Wikan, U. (2008). In Honor of Fadime. Murder and Shame. Chicago: University of
Psychology is not simply “influenced” by cultural factors; it is composed of cultural factors. Cultural factors are inside the mind comprising our psychological functions, they are not entirely outside the psyche.
North American women are dissatisfied with their body image because they utilize cultural ideals of the good body shape as their own criteria for evaluating their own bodies, and these cultural ideals are difficult to achieve. They are about 25% lighter than the average N. American woman’s body.
Consequently, the average body does not measure up to the ideal and women feel dissatisfied. The internalized cultural body standard generates dissatisfaction.
North American and European symptoms of disturbance rest upon Protestant values of individualism, self-control, rationalism, activism, and introspection. Catholic societies which value communalism, fateful acceptance of destiny and higher authority, manifest quite different symptomatology. Whereas American patients tend toward active symptomatology with ideational distortion and elaboration, Catholic Latin patients tend toward passive symptomatology with a suspension of cognitive effort. Americans tend toward obsessional thoughts, intellectualization, guilt, and self-blame, while Latinos suffer more somatic complaints, sleeplessness, and obesity.
Americans are more lonely and suspicious than Latinos, while Latinos are more dependent.3 The cultural concepts do not simply influence some more basic process to be expressed in these symptoms; the cultural concepts are the processes that generate these symptoms. This is what it means to say that cultural factors are the operating system of psychology.
Macro cultural psychology does not simply record cultural differences in psychological expressions, it identifies the cultural operating system that generates those expressions. Again, this reveals culture in psychology, rather than psychology in culture. Reporting variations in psychology in culture is merely descriptive, it does not explain the processes that account for the variations.
Cross-cultural psychologists have proven that all psychological phenomena vary in different cultures.
Macro cultural psychology explains why.
The cultural character of psychology makes psychology a window into society. Psychology incarnates and crystallizes cultural factors. It is a barometer of them because it reflects society.
Psychology enables us to identify positive and negative aspects of society through (in the form of) self-concept, emotions, thinking, and mental illness.
If we find deficiencies in these psychological phenomena, we can trace them to negative aspects Carl Ratner,(1991). Vygotskyʼs sociohistorical psychology and its contemporary applications.
N.Y.: Plenum, pp. 264-278 for additional examples and discussion.
of cultural factors and use our psychological analysis to suggest ways of reforming the cultural factors.
We can use the feelings, perception, reasoning of Fadime’s father to indict the honor code that led him to kill her. We can use women’s dissatisfaction with their body image to indict the exaggerated cultural ideal of beauty that generates the dissatisfaction. And we can trace the exaggerated cultural ideal to deeper cultural factors such as consumerism. Consumerism deliberately promotes unattainable ideals to motivate people to keep buying products. Thus, women’s selfdisappointment is really an indictement of consumerism.
A final example of how psychology can indicate the need for social reform concerns a technical process known as working memory. The level of working memory is inversely related to childhood poverty and stress. The income–achievement gap is already present by kindergarten and accelerates over time. The greater the duration of childhood poverty from birth to age 13 years, the worse one's working memory as a young adult. Working memory is thus a psychological window into social inequality and a testament to the need for social reform to reduce class distinctions.
The same is true for all other psychological phenomena such as literacy, violence, and mental illness.
Now I would like to explain the implications macro cultural psychology has for understanding and overcoming the psychology of oppression.
The Psychology of Oppression
Cultural psychology emphasizes that psychology originates in macro cultural factors, embodies their characteristics, and functions to perpetuate them.
It logically follows that oppressive social conditions thus generate oppressed psychology. Martin-Baro provided a clear example of this in his discussion of fatalism.
Fatalism is a way for people to make sense of a world they have found closed and beyond their control; it is an attitude caused and continually reinforced by the oppressive functioning of overall social structures. Marginalized children in favelas, or champas, or other shantytowns of Latin America internalize fatalism not so much because they inherit it from their parents as because it is the fruit of their own experience with society.
Day by day they learn that their efforts in school get them nowhere;
the street does not reward them well for their premature efforts at selling newspapers, taking care of cars, or shining shoes; and therefore it is better not to dream or set goals they will never be able to reach. They learn to be resigned and submissive not so much as the result of the transmission of values through a closed subculture as through the everyday demonstration of how impossible and useless it is to strive to change their situation, when that environment itself forms part of an overall oppressive social system (Martin-Baro, 1994, pp. 210-211).4 Martin-Baro’s description is valuable because it links fatalism to cultural factors. Fatalism reveals problematical aspects of lower class existence that help to justify social reform. If he had linked fatalism to biochemical or interpersonal causes, we can easily see how this would have nullified insights into culture and social reform.
While Martin-Baro was a champion of the people, he recognized that we must begin with their Martin- Baro, I. (1994). Writings for a liberation psychology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press psychological reality which was oppressed to the point of being fatalistic. Of course, this is only one manifestation of oppression. There are many others, including ignorance, apathy, superstition, prejudice, violence, stress, illiteracy, and mental illness.5 This must be the case for psychology that is formed by oppressive conditions. New studies in the epistemology of ignorance and sociology of ignorance demonstrate that ignorance is actively promoted in the population to pacify them.
Ignorance, self-doubt, fatalism, and other psychological defects are a means by which dominant classes retain their power over the population.
The psychology of oppression is even more complicated. It does not passively receive oppression and stultification. Psychology is active subjectivity. This means that oppressed psychology actively incarnates oppression and promulgates it.
Oppressed psychology is oppressive psychology. It oppresses individuals through their own subjectivity and behavior. The act of thinking, feeling, perceiving, remembering, and sense of self activate oppressed aspects of these functions. Oppressed psychology thus oppresses the individuals who engage in oppressed psychological activity. This makes oppressed psychology oppressive psychology. It makes mystified psychology,
Jacoby, S. (2008). The age of American unreason. New York: Pantheon.
mystifying psychology. This is clearly the case with fatalism. Fatalism works on peasants to strip them of the confidence, optimism, and energy they need to improve their lives. Fatalism is oppressive in that it compounds the material oppression that enriches and empowers the dominant class.
In this way, psychology is a macro cultural factor. It acculturates people into a certain life style. Psychology does cultural work just as institutions, artifacts, and cultural concepts do.
If society is oppressive, psychology will reproduce oppression in peoples’ minds and behavior. "Durable embodied cognitive schemes, acquired by children in class environments, are a principal cause of observed class variation in educational performance."6 Psychology can thus be an instrument of oppression, an oppressive force, an instrument of ruling class hegemony to maintain the subordination of the populace. Psychology can be a mystifying force in addition to being mystified.
This is depicted in figure 1.
Nash, R. (2003). Inequality/difference in New Zealand education: Social reproduction and the cognitive habitus. International Study in Sociology of Education, 13, 171-191; p. 174.
Exploited people must have an oppressed psychology. Exploitation depends upon oppressing psychology to garner compliance with exploitation.
Exploitation does not remain outside individuals in factories, mines, banks, board rooms, government bureaus, the IMF, the CIA, and advertisements. It penetrates their bodies and minds. It takes the form of physical disease and psychological deficiencies.
This has ominous implications for social and psychological improvement. For oppressed and oppressive psychology is an albatross, not a sure-sighted path to progress. Oppressed, oppressive psychology problematizes emancipation and fulfillment, it does not guarantee them.
This cultural psychological analysis shows that consciousness and liberation are problematical.
Oppressed consciousness/subjectivity does not spontaneously understand the full complexity of why and how it is oppressed, what the source of its oppression is, or how subjectivity is oppressive to the individual agent. Nor does subjectivity spontaneously know how to overcome oppression.
Subjectivity is as little informed about the causes of its oppression and the way to overcome it as it is about the causes and treatment of diseases that ravage the body.
I say this from my own experience in the American coop movement. For two years I was the vice president of the largest food coop in California.