Decolonising psychological science: encounters and cartographies of resistance

Luis Gómez-Ordóñez, Glenn Adams, Kopano Ratele, Shahnaaz Suffla, Garth Stevens and Geetha Reddy engage the decolonial project that Dr Deanne Bell outlined in these pages last year.

What is decolonisation? Why does it demand attention of psychologists? What is colonial about psychology, such that it requires decolonisation? Alternatively, is there anything redeemable about psychology, beyond its hegemonic or dominant forms, as a tool for decolonisation projects? Is the language of decolonisation appropriate, or is it a misguided appropriation as a metaphor or mere rhetorical flourish (see Tuck & Yang, 2013)?

Perspectives of decolonial theory provide a useful foundation for thinking about these questions (Escobar, 2007; Grosfoguel, 2011; Maldonado-Torres, 2007; Mignolo, 2003; Quijano, 2000). A core premise of decolonial approaches is that the violence of colonialism was not confined to a discrete historical period. Instead, violence persists in coloniality: ways of knowing, power, and being – formed during colonial occupation – that persist after the formal end of colonial rule. Whereas standard accounts typically portray modernity as the shiny edge of progress, decolonial approaches use the phrase modernity/coloniality to emphasise the inseparable role of colonial violence in the production of the Eurocentric modern order.

As renowned psychologist Hussein Bulhan (2015) emphasised, the violence of European colonisation was not limited to occupation of land and appropriation of tangible physical resources (including labour). Colonial violence also extended to the occupation of mind/being. Eurocentric colonial power typically regarded habits of mind and ways of being in colonised societies as vestiges of primitive tradition. Modern individualist ways of being were considered a standard of individual and cultural development. One implication is that efforts at decolonisation will be incomplete unless they consider the occupation of minds and bodies by colonial knowledge forms.

Decolonial strategies
How might we as psychologists decolonise minds – to paraphrase the novelist and essayist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1986) – our own and those of others? Bulhan (2015) suggests that hegemonic psychology is not up to the task because the field is itself part of the problem. Much knowledge in psychological science rests upon a modern individualist understanding of person that reflects its narrow base of research in settings that are WEIRD (i.e., Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and supposedly democratic; Henrich et al., 2010). Rather than understand these WEIRD modern individualist lifestyles as particular cultural forms, hegemonic perspectives in psychology tend to regard them as normal – the just-natural expression of a genetically encoded blueprint. Psychologists elevate these forms to the status of default standards and impose them as universal prescription with little regard for local context. They judge ‘Other’ non-individualist ways of being as pathological deviations from this standard.

As a response to this epistemic violence, decolonial analyses follow two general strategies. One is to re-assert the viability of endogenous lifestyles. The more relational ways of being that are common across diverse postcolonial societies are not pathological deviations; rather, these societies hold valuable lessons for sustainable cohabitation of our one, shared planet.

A second decolonial strategy is to turn the analytic lens to re-think and de-naturalise the modern individualist lifestyles that masquerade as natural standards in hegemonic psychological science. Through active promotion of these lifestyles, hegemonic psychological science contributes to some of the most pressing problems of our time – not only different forms of violence, loneliness and depression, but also rampant inequality and ecological self-destruction.

Imagining alternative psychologies
Perhaps nowhere has the decolonial imperative in psychology been as pressing as in the South African context. One can trace decolonial interventions back to the late 1960s, in the lone voice of Noel Chabani Manganyi (1973, 2016), whose scholarship called for centring the black experience in psychology. Critical voices became louder in the 1980s when individual and diverse groups of critical, community, feminist, and anti-racist psychologists produced rich work that both challenged Euroamerican-centralising, white, individualist, racist and sexist psychology, and contributed toward a future anti-racist and anti-sexist society.

Among these was the black-led group, the Psychology and Apartheid Committee. The Committee drew inspiration from Black Consciousness philosophy and the intellectual and activist contributions of such canonical figures as Frantz Fanon (1963, 1967), Hussein Bulhan (1985), Steve Biko (2004) and Manganyi (1973). They drew attention to psychology’s neglect of the intersections between power, materiality, colonial occupation, knowledge, and the psychological. The Committee called for disobedience to hegemonic psychologies through radical work. A major milestone in this longer history was the establishment of the representative, multi-racial Psychological Society for South Africa in 1994. The Society was established after a bruising struggle for black representation and against the domination of the psychology fraternity by the exclusively whites-only organisations for psychologists.

These enduring decolonial traces gained renewed vitality and impetus in 2015 with the #RhodesMustFall campaign. The campaign sprung from an act by Chumani Maxwele, a student at the University of Cape Town, who threw a bucket of faeces at the statue of the arch-colonialist, Cecil John Rhodes. It was an act of protest against the lack of racial transformation and persistence of apartheid and colonial relations within the University and broader society. The campaign soon spread to other universities within South Africa, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere in the world. Toward the end of 2015 and into 2016, the calls for decolonisation turned into a militant campaign for a decolonised free education under the banner of what came to be called the #FeesMustFall campaign.

These calls for decolonisation have led critically inclined psychologists to collaborate with non-psychologists in ways that trouble and expand the boundaries of psychology and their own practice. The effects have been three-fold:

  • Reformulating an applied psychology with the aim of emancipation and social justice
  • Refiguring and expanding the psychological canon to reflect subordinated knowledges
  • Assessing psychology’s own epistemic limitations and complicities in the hierarchical structuring and regulation of society

The latter is a particularly important trajectory to pursue, given that one of the most common resistances to this decolonial turn has been to challenge it as a form of politicised and disputed knowledge, as opposed to an ‘objective and scientifically-based knowledge’.  A case in point is the complicity of South African psychologists during the early 1900s. Their scientific racism, use of mental testing, and participation in the eugenics movement to support racial segregation laid the foundations for apartheid as an institutionalised form of racism. In response, decolonial psychology insists on revealing the economic, political and cultural structures and ideologies that are shaped by, and inform, psychological establishments, studies and practices.

Moving forward
An important task for decolonising psychology will be to link the diverse efforts that have emerged, often in isolation, across African, Latin American, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and other colonised settings. Scholars from these regions have not only challenged the relevance of WEIRD theories for understanding local experience, but also illuminated the colonial repression of local ways of living. An equally vital task, in interaction with scholars from ex-colonies, is doing decolonial work within former colonising countries and WEIRD societies more generally. Solidarity across these spaces, struggles, and movements is necessary to address global and societal challenges that reside not only in the minds, but also in the bodies of those we seek to understand and help as psychologists.

A psychology suitable for global application must come to terms with the history and presence of colonial violence from which our field takes its shape. Otherwise, we risk reproducing a science and practice that (perhaps unwittingly) reproduces global inequality, economic exploitation, gender-based violence, and unsustainable lifestyles that will eventually kill us all – North and South, East and West, Black and White, rich and poor alike. Knowledge perspectives from the Global South offer a productive standpoint for imagining alternative psychologies and expanding the knowledge archive. We would do well to heed them.

Box text: Psychology Otherwise – our story
Our work is a collaboration between researchers across diverse geographic and cultural regions. Luis Gómez-Ordóñez works with the Liberation Psychology Collective (LPC), based in the University of Costa Rica and National University of Costa Rica, which accompanies people in marginalised spaces on projects of community resistance. Glenn Adams works with the Cultural Psychology Research Group (CPRG) at the University of Kansas, USA, which seeks to illuminate and counteract the forms of epistemic violence that result from the modern/colonial standpoint of hegemonic psychological science.

The LPC and the CPRG came together across national boundaries a decade ago to discuss common interests in ‘knowledges otherwise’ (Escobar, 2007) – ways of being and knowing that inform everyday life among the marginalised majority of people outside WEIRD settings – as the foundation for a truly liberatory psychology. The collaboration resulted in a collection of papers in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology (JSPP) on ‘decolonising psychological science’ (see Adams et al., 2015).

The JSPP collaboration concluded as psychologists in South African contexts were responding to renewed calls to decolonise university spaces and knowledge systems. In this dynamic context, a number of liberatory psychologists, including Norman Duncan, Garth Stevens, Kopano Ratele, Glenn Adams, Shahnaaz Suffla and Umesh Bawa worked with colleagues from the Department of Psychology at the University of the Western Cape to plan the 2019 conference, Towards a Decolonial Psychology: Theories from the Global South. (See recordings at https://youtu.be/e0xytvYYkrk and https://youtu.be/qiSCJ01avKg.)

Co-hosts of the conference included the Universities of the Western Cape, Pretoria, Witwatersrand, South Africa, and Kansas; the South African Medical Research Council; the Pan-African Psychology Union; and the APA’s Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. It was one of several recent efforts aimed at advancing liberatory-oriented epistemic, methodological and intervention traditions in psychology that co-centre Africa’s imaginaries and realities. We are presently working on special issues of the Journal of Social Issues and Review of General Psychology in which we extend conversations from the conference to a wider audience.

Professor Luis Gómez-Ordóñez, [email protected]

Professor Glenn Adams, [email protected]

Professor Kopano Ratele, [email protected]

Professor Shahnaaz Suffla, [email protected]

Professor Garth Stevens, [email protected]

Dr Geetha Reddy, [email protected]

Illustration: Ana Rosa Lous

Key sources
Adams, G., Dobles, I., Gómez, L. et al. (2015). Decolonizing Psychological Science: Introduction to the Special Thematic Session. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 3(1), 213-238.
Biko, S. (2004). I write what I like. Picador Africa.
Bulhan, H.A. (2015). Stages of colonialism in Africa: From occupation of land to occupation of being. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 3(1), 239-256.
Bulhan, H.A. (1985). Frantz Fanon and the psychology of oppression. Plenum.
Escobar, A. (2007). Worlds and Knowledges Otherwise: The Latin American modernity/ coloniality research program. Cultural Studies, 21(2), 179-210.
Fanon, F. (1963). The wretched of the earth. Grove Weidenfeld.
Fanon, F. (1967). Black skins, white masks. Grove Press.
Grosfoguel, R. (2011). Decolonizing Post-Colonial Studies and Paradigms of Political-Economy: Transmodernity, Decolonial Thinking, and Global Coloniality. TRANSMODERNITY: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World, School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts, UC Merced, 1.https://escholarship.org/uc/item/21k6t3fq
Henrich, J., Heine, S.J. & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 61–83.
Maldonado-Torres, N. (2007). On the coloniality of being. Contributions to the development of a concept. Cultural Studies, 21(2), 240-270.
Manganyi, N.C. (1973). Being-black-in-the-world. Ravan Press.
Manganyi, N.C. (2016). Apartheid and the making of a black psychologist. Wits University Press.
Mignolo, W. (2003). The darker side of the Renaissance: Literacy, territoriality, and colonization (2nd ed). University of Michigan Press.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. (1986). Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. East African Educational Publishers.
Quijano, A. (2000). Coloniality of power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Neplanta, 1(3). www.unc.edu/~aescobar/wan/wanquijano.pdf.
Tuck, E. & Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1, 1-40.

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