Psychology’s liberating and oppressive history

Ella Rhodes reports from a keynote by Professor Ann Phoenix at BPS Conference 2021.

While there is much to celebrate in psychology, Professor Ann Phoenix (UCL) said in her keynote address, some areas have a more troubling history. She suggested that we need to retheorise what we mean by the ‘social’ – to encompass intersectional complexity and recognise that personal and social histories are part of the everyday. 

Phoenix pointed to some areas of psychology which have already made a contribution and should be celebrated. Social identity theory, she said, has examined the ways our identities and in-groups matter, effective leadership and understanding our place in the world. ‘Colleagues suggest investing in social cohesion can be a significant vehicle for building stronger, more connected and resilient communities, that are better able to cope with crisis situations.’

Next Phoenix turned to health psychology. Professor Susan Michie and Professor Robert West’s (UCL) COM-B model suggests that, for a given behaviour to occur, people need capability, opportunity and motivation. Phoenix said that this model encouraged us to think about socio-structural influences on adhering to pandemic restrictions and to address inequality, as not all people are equally able to stick to restrictions. 

She also highlighted the work of Professor Dominic Abrams (University of Kent) and colleagues who examined mutual aid groups that sprung up during the pandemic, demonstrating solidarity even in the face of divisions. The work of psychologists interested in discourse, including from Professor Elizabeth Stokoe (Loughborough University), has shown that people need consistent, clear communication. This work has highlighted problems with the UK government’s approach to communications about Covid.

‘Just looking at the last two years of psychological work, we see that there are indeed positive adaptations that show psychological strength, and that there has been a lot of collaborative mobilisation using psychology as an ontological social resource. In other words, a resource that tells us something about the nature of… what human beings are like and therefore how best to approach them in times of adversity, in times of danger and sadness.’

However, Phoenix said that psychology has a long history in which it has been just as oppressive as it is liberating. Professor Julian Henriques (Goldsmiths, University of London) argued in his book Changing the Subject that psychology can reproduce pre-existing power relations and thus maintains the status quo. 

In 1987 Phoenix coined the phrase ‘normalised absence, pathologized presence’ to illustrate the fact that some groups are omitted from the norm. She gave the example of research into motherhood – many of the studies in this area are devoted to white and middle class mothers in the USA. However, if a study is examining problematic areas of motherhood, Black mothers will be included or will be the whole focus of the study. ‘What that means is that they do not have the chance to change what's considered normative, already the division has been made, and they're always only seen as pathological.’

A recent BBC documentary Subnormal: A British Scandal highlighted the role of educational psychologists in the 60s and 70s when Black British children were more likely to be categorised as educationally subnormal. Phoenix praised the BPS Division of Education and Child Psychology’s response to that documentary which accepted the profession’s role in this racist practice. 

In South Africa, Phoenix said, there was recognition of psychology’s role in enabling and justifying racism through apartheid. ‘We need to recognise that psychologists are temporarily, geographically, and institutionally located, and those institutions, those nations have particular ways of constructing people that are racialized and gendered… In other words they’re intersectional, recognising that people belong all at the same time to many different social categories. 

‘We also need to pay more attention, methodologically and in terms of substantive content, to the everyday. What's in the everyday that these reproductions of inequalities happen within psychology? We need to recognise that there are personal and historical legacies of the everyday such that we cannot leave history behind, that the everyday is made in our personal histories, in our nations and institutions.’

Phoenix said that we need to take perspectives which are psychological, but which are also informed by an understanding of socio-structural and intersectional factors, and recognise that no one is located in just one social category. She pointed to movements which aim to decolonise knowledge and knowledge production, and said there was a need to explore the ways nationalism is embedded in our everyday lives – in the flag, coinage, and stories we tell about our lives – and negotiate intersectional complexity to help embed diversity, equality and inclusion into society. 

While there is cause for celebration in psychology, Phoenix concluded, we do need positive adaptations. ‘Parts of psychology continue to… contribute to oppression and discrimination in different parts of the world, and we need to re-theorise what we mean by the social. If we're to address this and really to celebrate psychology… you have to think about intersectional complexity, we have to recognise that personal and social histories are part of the everyday… and they’re also part of our imagined futures.’

- Catch up with BPS Conference 2021. Get access to talks from some of the greatest thinkers in psychology including 5 keynote presentations, 3 student stream talks and 3 symposia. Register for £50 – watch anytime in July. 

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