Inequality: the Japanese knotweed problem

Zoe Sanderson reports on a panel discussion at the Annual Conference about how our discipline can respond to the challenge of the psychological impact of inequality.

Inequality is a little like Japanese knotweed. It’s destructive, difficult to tackle, and disregarded only by those who haven’t got the problem in their own back yards. As every gardener and estate agent knows, knotweed has long, strong roots that extend far beyond what is visible on the surface; just as the root causes of inequality extend deep into the past and across our world. Pull up one root, and the overall mat of inequality remains frustratingly unchanged. 

Of course, it’s an ethical imperative to try to pull up each and every root of inequality. But what social, economic, and political conditions led to so much of it in the first place? What would it take to create the conditions for inequality not to flourish? We must ask how the systems themselves need to change. We need ground-breaking ideas.

One of the speakers rising to this daunting challenge was Dr Deanne Bell (Nottingham Trent University). As part of a panel discussion on how our discipline can respond to the psychological impact of inequality, she offered an analysis of some of the structural dynamics that have created and perpetuated the problem. Bell argued that mental illness is primarily a consequence of social, not individual, pathology. To improve mental health, therefore, we need to grapple with multiple dimensions of injustice and pain, at both individual and structural levels. 

Bell highlighted the present-day effects of longstanding patterns of unequal power caused by colonialism. These continue to define myriad aspects of the social world, from criminal justice to knowledge production. The cumulative forces of racism, classism, patriarchy, and so on, dehumanise those who are marginalised in society. This happens as people are put into externally-labelled groups – disabled, BAME, transgender – which can negate an individual’s sense of self and make it easier to view certain people or groups as inferior. Ironically, we psychologists usually understand the pain that results from these social processes of dehumanisation as an individual problem.   

We should respond by decolonising and rehumanising psychology. Bell suggested: ‘decoloniality can hold at once both psychological pain and the conditions of the life world that created that pain. It helps us to stretch intellectually and empathetically.’ In practice, this can happen in four main ways:

-       by altering how we research. Those who bear the brunt of inequality should be central to research into it. This calls for participatory methodologies that produce knowledge with people, not simply about or for them. 

-       by decolonising psychology curriculums, so the social determinants of suffering become core elements, not the subjects of occasional guest lectures. This should be accompanied by critical pedagogies in which students and teachers together share their understandings of the world. 

-       by reforming service provision through the use of participatory action research and learning techniques, involving both public and private transformation practices.  

-       by bringing the same principles of horizontal engagement to policy-making, so that those who are most affected by change become central agents in its planning.

The calls to embed matters of inequality in psychological curricula, and for psychologists to engage more politically – both individually and through the BPS – were echoed by Dr Dave Harper (University of East London). He promoted the Psychologists for Social Change network (@psychsocchange) and the BPS Community Psychology Section, who will hold their annual Festival on 13/14 September in Brighton. These groups – and the speakers in this panel debate – are radically rethinking how psychologists approach inequality, providing hope for the paradigm shifts that might enable us to uproot it once and for all. 

Photo: Getty Images

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