Striving for a fairer society

Ian Florance talks community psychology with Maggie Peake.

Maggie Peake took a degree in experimental psychology at the University of Sussex, and since then has worked mainly as a qualitative market researcher, and also as a RELATE counsellor and trainer. She is now taking an MA in community psychology at the University of Brighton. It seemed a good opportunity to get a view of a relatively new applied psychology.

Why did you choose community psychology?
My primary focus in the last 20 years has been raising my two daughters. I haven’t pretended that work came first, and I’ve kept clients who understood that. Over the years my career has moved from commercial market research into more public sector consultation and social research: giving the most vulnerable service users a voice and keeping my clients in touch with their users. I live in Brighton and was interested in CUPP (the Community University Partnership Programme) started by Brighton University; this creates links between academics and local community organisations. The MA is a route into CUPP, a way to do good work with people who need it.

What is community psychology?
Its aim is social change. Community psychologists strive for a fairer society and seek to work collaboratively with communities to achieve this. They have a set of values to guide this change.

CP is about psychology ‘experts’ working with people instead of on people. I think it tries to redress traditional clinical psychology‘s view of mental health problems as rooted in the individual rather than in society. It also tries to redress  the imbalance in systems set up by Western white men, seemingly interested in money and status; such privileged men still hold power, in psychology as much as elsewhere.

CP also tries to break down the research/applied divide through approaches like Participatory Action Research:  it emphasises the political dimensions of what we do on national and international issues. For example, the West exported their models of economy and mental illness into developing countries, then charged in saying ‘we have the cure – at a price’.

Whether there has been long-term positive change for the communities CP has researched is harder to determine.CP is largely presented through an academic perspective that needs to be acceptable to peers for credibility and funding. Often, academic writing does not tell us where funding for projects or the research question have come from, or participants’ views and experiences after the research has finished. We don’t know if long-term change has occurred or who has really benefited.

It is good that some psychologists have come down from their ‘ivory towers’ into the community and want to make a difference. They are willing to give up their ‘expert’ status, give away their psychology and create knowledge collaboratively with disadvantaged groups.

However, there are many other people working in the community – both voluntary and paid – who don’t have an exit strategy when the research ends. They have experience of working with all parts of the community long-term, not just those willing or able to participate in Participatory Action Research. These people could well describe community psychologists as ‘tourists’.

How’s it going?
I’m a third of the way through a part-time taught MA. It has been challenging going back to academia after a long absence. Academic work needs to be done in a very specific way but after years in the outside world it is hard to find out what that is.

I have been learning about the equal sharing of power and knowledge, so it’s interesting that universities themselves are very hierarchical structures. They appear to have all the power! I am paying for my course and have had to work hard to try to understand the language. As a student I have sometimes felt a low priority. Some academics seem to only value published, peer-reviewed research so don’t really listen to students or think that their life experience is of value. Guest lecturers talk about their own research but don’t always relate it to theory or to the MA programme. I have not been taught ‘assessment technique’, as school students tend to be now, so marks can feel rather random. I’ve had to be diplomatic as they mark my work! However, overall it’s been really interesting and I’ve met some great people. So I’m up for two more years!

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