«Published in Journal for Social Distress & The Homeless, 2009, vol. 18, 3 & 4, 231-268. The Cultural Psychology of Oppression and Liberation Carl ...»
While the community members and employees strongly wanted to create an alternative business model that would overcome the traditional capitalist model, we all had very little understanding of exactly what to do. Many of our strategies wound up recapitulating the very problems we sought to escape.
The Cultural Psychology of Liberation
Macro cultural psychology provides a direction for liberation. As I mentioned earlier, it uses psychological deficiencies as symptoms of cultural factors. Macro cultural psychology leads us to analyze the nature of cultural factors that are generating our psychological unease. We can then work to reform these in specific ways that will enhance our psychological functioning. Macro cultural psychology emphasizes culture to deepen our understanding and control of psychology, not to lose sight of it.
Elevating our level of analysis to cultural factors, ties it to other scientific analyses of cultural factors regarding oppression and liberation. We draw on economic analyses of oppression such as Marx’s, we draw on political analyses of oppression such as Chomsky’s, we draw on educational analyses of oppression such as Friere’s, we draw on medical analyses of oppression in health care, we draw on ecological studies of the social causes and distribution of environmental destruction. This approach breaks down the isolation of psychology from other cultural matters. It enables us to use other analyses of oppression to better understand psychological oppression and what to do about it.
Using Marx, for example, we could incorporate an analysis of social class, the profit motive, commodification, and alienation to understand the origins and the characteristics of the psychology of fatalism.
This cultural analysis would also generate knowledge for overcoming fatalism. We would explore collective, cooperative socioeconomic formations that oppose private private property, commodity production, and social classes.
We would use these insights in psychotherapy.
We would help patients to understand the social pressures that cause their unease, we would help them avoid these pressures, and we would encourage them to become politically active to transform them. These cultural aspects of therapy would supplement personal considerations such as their family history. We recognize that both considerations are important.
We rely upon cultural analyses, and we also contribute to them. We elucidate psychological issues involved in social class, the profit motive, commodification, alienation, health care, education, entertainment, and news. We illuminate the thinking, perception, emotions, and self involved in maintaining and participating in these cultural factors. This enriches an understanding of cultural factors.
Macro cultural psychology also directs other social sciences to emphasize the macro cultural factors we do. Economics, for example, is dominated by the theory of rational choice which emphasizes individual decisions as the basis for economic markets. Macro cultural psychology would critique this individualistic emphasis and encourage economists to study structural dynamics of capitalism.
Finally, we provide reasons to transform oppressive cultural factors and we provide directions the transformation should take. We explain that cultural factors need to be transformed because they impair psychological functioning. And we use our analysis of the psychology of fatalism (for example) to delineate the kinds of social changes that are necessary to ameliorate and prevent it. Our reasons and directions complement and supplement economic, educational, and medical reasons.
Macro cultural psychology joins forces with social sciences to analyze and improve macro cultural factors.
Macro cultural psychology is the only psychological theory that directly contributes to social analysis and reform. It is the only theory that regards psychology as a window into apprehending, evaluating, and transforming society. Attributing psychology to biochemical causes, instincts, or personal causes, such as the Oedipal complex, precludes using psychological phenomena in these ways. In these views, psychology is independent of society. Psychology is then added to society as an external element in order to make society compatible with psychological tendencies. For instance, to reduce conformity, advice from social psychology will urge breaking larger social units into smaller ones because Asch found the conformity is less in small groups than in large ones. This is a universal psychological tendency; it has nothing to do with a particular society.
Psychologists need know nothing about the cultural customs of Guatemala, Taiwan, the Congo, or Romania. They need know nothing about social possibilities that could be developed to replace deleterious macro cultural factors. Psychologists only need know the universal principles that conformity is lessened in small groups. This solution to conformity requires no change in customs, government, politics, law, pedagogy, religion, economics, or health care. There is no internal transformation from a particular social problem to a particular solution by altering the social system in a particular direction. On the contrary, the external psychological principal -- reducing group size -supplants all this and is sufficient to solve conformity in any social context without substantive social reform. This is why mainstream psychology is so popular!
The perspective known as psychology of liberation has a very different view of psychology and politics from that of cultural psychology. I used to believe these were differences in emphasis, but I now see these differences as antagonistic. I respect the progressive motives of the authors, but I believe that their psychological perspective and political program are flawed.
I shall demonstrate that they adopt a noncultural view of psychology and divorce psychology from cultural influences such as exploitation, hegemony, mystification, and social class. This leads to idealizing the psychology of people as free from oppression. This, in turn, leads to abdicating any substantive political-economic analysis of oppression that could help people develop a democratic, humane society. Thus, advocates provide little assistance to the struggle for liberation, despite their good wishes.7 These weaknesses are found in Montero & Sonn’s 2009 book “Psychology of Liberation.”8 The chapters are indefinite about the means and the goals for social change/liberation. Montero & Sonn define liberation psychology as “The necessity to produce a science constructed by praxis. That is, practice that produces knowledge, and knowledge that turns into action -- theory and practice informing each other.” No particular social theory is specified. No guidelines are suggested for I expand this critique in Ratner, C. (2009). Cooperativism: A Social, Economic, and Political Alternative to Capitalism. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, 20, 2, 44-73.
Montero, M., & Sonn, C. (2009). Psychology of Liberation: Theory and Applications. N.Y.: Springer developing a theory. The only criterion mentioned is that it must be based on praxis. But what kind of praxis? Any praxis? How will praxis help us understand oppression know what direction to take?9 Similarly, liberation psychology encourages oppressed people to “develop modes of control of their lives.” But what does it mean to control their lives? Community members in the U.S. have elected school boards committed to not teaching sex education or evolution -- because these violated their conservative religious beliefs. The people controlled the schools and would therefore qualify as implementing the vague definition of liberation psychology. Indefiniteness in terms such as controlling life can lead to supporting very regressive actions by community members.
Montero & Sonn tell us that liberation psychologists “foster the recuperation of historical memory of the oppressed majorities, in order to overcome alienation and ideology.” Again, the authors never specify what historical memory consists of. What aspects of history are important to recall? Will alienation be overcome if people remember that 500 years ago their Indian ancestors sacrificed children by burning them to death? Or
Mao Tse-tung explained this in his 1937 essay entitled “On Practice.” He
emphasized Marx’s concept of praxis known as historical materialism, in which production is the fundamental activity. Our psychologists would profit from reading this discussion of real, revolutionary praxis.
recalling that a witch doctor said that people should strip off their clothing and pray for rain?
The omissions in the Montero & Sonn’s chapter are also noteworthy. They never mention capitalism, commodity production, the World Bank, the CIA, extracting surplus value from wage labor, or interlocking boards of directors which are the cornerstones of oppression. They never mention Marx. They never mention socialism.
These omissions are deploring in the context of Latin America where Marxism has been a powerful orientation for liberation struggles. Excluding any mention of Marxism or socialism or even capitalism from an account of liberation psychology is a harmful obstructing of a real liberatory science or policy. For it leads liberation movements to ignore the dominant economic system in the world, and the viable alternative to it. This “conspiracy of silence” about Marxism is far more destructive than open debate and critique, for it makes Marxism disappear from discussion so that it cannot be considered in any form.
Instead of developing such concrete analyses, psychologists in the book orient liberation
psychology toward the following abstractions:
• Choosing man, choosing our people integrally conceived
• Choosing love for the poor
• Choosing integral liberation
• Denouncing everything that goes against justice Defend the right to live in dignity Generate strategies to develop collective consciousness Since none of these terms is defined with any particular content or social relations, they are useless. What is justice? Is it preserving property rights? Is it raising the minimum wage for work? Is it requiring managers to inform workers 30 days before they are laid off? Or does it involve replacing the capitalist ownership of resources by workers’ associations?
Are we supposed to love everything about the poor? Even their domestic violence, crime, high murder rate, drug dealing, lack of education?
These psychologists endorse these abstract, unhelpful notions for a reason. The masses of people are believed to know the truth. They can find the way to liberation by looking at their own indigenous experience and memories. External, expert ideas are unnecessary. They are even harmful impositions that will stifle the indigenous creativity and agency of the people. This is why the authors shy away from mentioning specific concepts that liberation psychology should utilize.
Leaving concepts open and vague allows the people to implement them according to their own knowledge, experience, and desires.
Jimenez explains it in his chapter.10 “The role of the social psychologist must be defined according to the circumstances of the people in question, not to solve their collective problems, but to search a solution with them and from their own perspective as a way of helping the people to overcome their alienated personal and social identities by transforming the oppressive conditions of their context. Consequently, psychologists must adopt the perspective of the popular majorities and follow them on their historical path towards liberation.” Furthermore, “As proposed by Ignacio Martín-Baró, `de-ideologization’ assumes a critical commitment which gives back to the people the knowledge they have gained of their reality.” This motive to encourage the self-activity of people may be well-intentioned. However, it must be evaluated scientifically before it can be endorsed.
Jimenez’s statement assumes that within their oppression, the people have acquired knowledge of their reality that has been suppressed (by the elites) and needs to be brought back to consciousness. This is the familiar psychological notion of recovering memories that will reveal to us the truth of our experience that has been
B. Jimenez-Dominguez (2009). Ignacio Martín-Baró’s Social Psychology
of Liberation: Situated knowledge and Critical Commitment against
Objectivism. In Montero, M., & Sonn, C. (Eds). Psychology of Liberation:
Theory and Applications. N.Y.: Springer suppressed.
However, this notion needs to be assessed rather than asserted. The question is, “To what extent have the people acquired knowledge of their reality?” Macro cultural psychology worries that the oppression of people’s experience and psychology have mystified them. Oppressed, mystified psychology is not deeply knowledgeable. I have offered a detailed argument for this. Advocates of liberation psychology need to address this argument. They do not. They rely on assertions rather than arguments.
Instead of evidence, logic, or argument, Jimenez disparages any questioning of the knowledge, creativity, and motivation of the people. Jimenez reprimands “elites who promulgate the belief that people are passive, submissive and fatalistic in regard to the prospect of changing society towards a more socially just arrangement.” This is an odd criticism for Jimenez to make, because the very man that he devotes his chapter to -- Martin-Baro, the champion of the people -- writes that fatalism is the real character of the popular majorities. I cited his statement earlier. His statement supports my contention that oppressed people have oppressed psychology that is also oppressive psychology and sustains oppression. Jimenez is wrong to think fatalism is some elitist prejudice against the popular majority. It is their real oppressed psychology as their champion, Martin-Baro, emphasizes: people have “learned to be resigned and submissive.” Jimenez overlooks Martin-Baro’s emphasis that fatalism is an impediment to people’s capacity to dig themselves out of oppression and poverty.