‘Impact has got to be more than ingroup grooming’

Malcolm MacLachlan is Director of the ALL (Assisting Living and Learning) Institute and Professor of Psychology and Social Inclusion at Maynooth University.

One good move
In the early 1990s my wife and I got jobs at the University of Malawi. After working in clinical and organisational consulting roles in the UK, I felt, that for me, something was missing. Within days of arriving in Malawi I had found it – a combination of being humbled by the scale of the challenges yet feeling you could make a small, but meaningful, contribution. My uneasiness with ‘psychological colonisation’ was diminished by so much that I learnt from my students – there are multiple psychologies; and very few problems, national or individual, that don’t have a psychological component.

One work habit
I’m not good at habits; I tend to work at odd times and in odd places… and sometimes, with odd people…

One difficulty
I am terrible at languages. When I was Professor of Global Health at Trinity College Dublin, people assumed that with all the travel I did, I must be multilingual. The combination of an extreme dependency on Google Translate and being dyslexic, has resulted in some perverse and other quite rude (but fun) ‘misunderstandings’!

One weakness
A growing (since about the age of four) lack of interest in the minutiae of detail. See others, for details…

One strength
I seem to think more in terms of patterns, systems and context than many other psychologists I know. I try and grasp the ‘big picture’, when I can.

One hobby
Sailing… and swimming, in case the sailing doesn’t go to plan.

One thing that stops you in your tracks
In short, exclusion and exploitation. I have worked with many UN and civil society organisations and it is easy to become jaded and frustrated with the slow pace of social justice and structural reform. However, personal testimonies are often a compelling reminder of what we are trying to address. I recently completed a project in South America and Africa with Humanity & Inclusion; concerned with women with disability and their reproductive rights. Stories of institutionalisation, followed by abuse, including sexual abuse; pregnancy followed by forced abortion and then sterilisation to facilitate continued rape without pregnancy… all continuing behind the closed doors of institutions. Devastating to hear, so what must they be to experience? This is why psychology needs to address not just the person, but also the organisations, and the systems and structures that overpower them. This is one example of the need for psychology as a profession to embrace a psychology of societal liberation, at all levels.

One bit of advice
Question authority, because that’s what maintains the status quo; and many things could be much better, for many people. So why not try and change things?

One other career
I would have loved – and had planned to be – a Merchant Navy captain. I still might.

One impact
My role as the Research & Innovation Lead for the World Health Organization’s Global Cooperation on Assistive Technology (GATE) has provided wonderful opportunities to work with people from all over the world; from service users, to industry, governments, practitioners, civil society and professional organisations. I had the great pleasure of being involved in the foundational work and then chairing the overall consensus meeting that established the WHO Priority Assistive Product List in 2016; which is a recommended list of 50 assistive products countries should seek to provide as a minimum to their citizens (e.g. wheelchairs, Braille displays, hearing loops etc.). It is the assistive technology equivalent of the Essential Medicines List (now in its 20th edition) which has improved access to medicines worldwide.

One pet hate
Citations are not a measure of impact – they are a measure of citations! Some of the most important impacts I have had are unpublished, unpublishable and uncitable. Surely impact requires reaching ‘outside’; it’s got to be more than ingroup grooming.

One frustration with psychology
One of my motivations to become a psychologist was to contribute to improving people’s lives; particularly the most marginalised. The imperative for psychology to prove its worth – particularly in the 1980s and 1990s – led to its commodification and a focus on technocratic skills. This ‘means of production’ within psychology has stimulated a range of professional protectionism that continues to marginalise those most in need of psychological help. Innovations in how psychology is accessed are needed; some internet-based examples are promising; others for those who can’t or won’t use the internet are needed.

One delight with psychology
The students and breadth of the subject are fantastic. This is often however a missed opportunity as so many – particularly academics – drill down deep into the psychological substrata of a particular issue; missing the broader landscape through which such issues are made meaningful in people’s lives.

One big challenge
Psychological interventions need to be developed at the population level, which often means designing policy psychologically; this is an aspect of what I call ‘macropsychology’. Helping to psychologically ‘nudge’ the uptake of, for instance, economic policy, can be useful; however designing good psychological policy for society – psychosocialism? – is an area we need to address more systematically and more boldly.

One future focus
Following my recent move to Maynooth University, we have established the Assisting Living & Learning Institute – the ALL Institute. It’s across 14 departments; with its ‘home’ in the Psychology Department; a warm, energetic, broad-ranging, broad-minded place to work, and study.

One other thing
I have just retired from 20+ years as a part-time livestock farmer; and planted a lot of trees. Trees are less work, but I am missing the bleating of lambs, skilfully born between academic terms…

One final thought
(To paraphrase) knowledge, without passion, is ignorance.

- Photo: "In Kogelberg Nature Reserve, Western Cape, South Africa; I have been Visiting Professor, at the Centre for Rehabilitation Studies, Stellenbosch University, since 2006."

Professor MacLachlan is the winner of the 2018 British Psychological Society Award for Promoting Equality of Opportunity.

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