Since World War II, the American Psychological Association has sought to enhance efforts by psychologists to influence public policy. To a degree unimaginable earlier in the century, psychologists today lobby the government, testify in court, develop demonstration programs, and talk to the media about a wide range of issues. Community psychologists' efforts to create change beyond the individual and the family often mesh with broader efforts to affect governmental decisions at the national level.
Psychology's increased power to shape governmental decisions and public debate has been good for the careers of individual psychologists. But as Ellen Herman details in her 1995 book The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts, psychology's increased influence has had negative aspects as well. Among others: the danger of turning political and economic problems into individual psychological ones.
Some graduate students, refreshingly, have not yet bought the myths that psychology can do no wrong and that psychologists have no obligation beyond the adjustment of the individual client. It didn't surprise me, thus, that more than a third of the two dozen psychologists who formed the Radical Psychology Network at the 1993 APA convention were students.
RadPsyNet has since grown, linking more than 100 psychologists and others in the United States, Canada, and a dozen other countries. Our website includes notices, documents, book reviews, and other material for psychologists who seek to change both psychology as a field and the larger society. We also sponsor an Internet email discussion list. Many of our members are also members of APA and several of its policy-oriented divisions, especially Divisions 9 (SPSSI), 27 (Community Psychology), and 41 (Psychology and Law).
RadPsyNet has left the term "radical" somewhat undefined and comprehensive. Member concerns include the practical and sometimes oppressive implications of common therapeutic practices in psychology and psychiatry; the public policy efforts of APA and its individual divisions; and the development of theoretical and political support for widespread social change based on decades of work in psychology. Some members, focusing on the damage to human well-being caused by corporate capitalism, embrace leftist political analyses; others are more likely to describe themselves as feminists; still others insist their views "are so reasonable they are not radical at all." What we generally have in common is a belief that liberal reform will never lead to a truly better society in which oppression of the powerless ends and social justice prevails.
A common question--raised most frequently by our student members--is practical: How can radical psychologists seeking to practice what they preach find jobs in a society where radical views are either rejected outright or marginalized? Answering this question is crucial to prevent those seeking significant social change from either abandoning the field or abandoning their ideals. RadPsyNet has no magic answer, but we do offer the chance to mull it over with others who understand the problem.
Career concerns are closely tied to a second issue: How can radical psychologists influence psychology as a field and society as a whole? Rather than assume such an "unrealistic" goal cannot be achieved, RadPsyNet's founders observed that the general hostility to radical perspectives often obscures a contrasting dynamic: More commonly than might be expected, elements of a radical agenda are embraced outright by a number of respected psychologists, often after working for decades within organized psychology and becoming disenchanted with the field's close ties to an unsatisfactory status quo.
As a network of like-minded individuals, RadPsyNet offers support and contacts now and the potential for more in the future. To find out more, check out our website (http://www.radpsynet.org) or write. To contribute to our efforts, join!
Dennis Fox is Associate Professor of Legal Studies and Psychology [on leave] at the University of Illinois at Springfield. He is the co-editor (with Isaac Prilleltensky, RadPsyNet's other coordinator) of Critical Psychology: An Introduction (Sage, 1997). The book's 25 authors include many RadPsyNet members.
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