The RadPsyNet Experience
The Monterey Bay Critical Psychology Conference in August 2001 was the first critical psychology conference in North America. A small but committed and energized group of people came together for four days of discussion, planning, and hanging out together in a great setting. Plans are afoot for another conference in a year or two, and a number of action projects are already in progress.
When I began to prepare for this talk a few weeks ago, I read through my files on RadPsyNet's origins and development. That kept me busy for some time.
All that paper was a reminder of how busy the Radical Psychology Network kept me for several years. And I realized it's possible to be nostalgic about something that's not even all that old. (This realization, by coincidence, coincides with my recent bout of personal nostalgia tripping, an outcome of both leaving my university job and turning 50 within the past three years. That's a topic for another time....)
What I want to do today is ramble on a bit about RadPsyNet's development, pointing out issues relevant to organizing critical psychologists more broadly. I should probably have subtitled this talk "My" RadPsyNet experience, since all our experiences differ. I hope that other RadPsyNet members in the audience will add their own comments and interpretations. I also hope you will all consider how your own plans for critical work coming out of this conference can mesh with RadPsyNet.
But before beginning, an initial question occurs to me: Why should we organize critical psychologists at all? What's the point?
As I've just noted, it's an awful lot of work.
Besides, much critical work is done without any organization at all. We can write our articles and books, go to mainstream conferences, teach courses, do research--we can continue to make our individual efforts, on our own. And all this work is useful--none of us would be here today if others hadn't done this work before us.
So why add another level of activity that cuts into our scarce time and reduces our productive output?
I can only answer for myself. Two reasons come to mind.
It was these political and personal factors that led to the creation of RadPsyNet.
And because the political is personal and the personal is political, I'm going to take advantage of my hour-long time slot to tell you more than you need to know about my own history. This is what happens when I start feeling nostalgic. Fortunately, although the details are my own, many of my experiences and reactions are fairly representative of those faced by many others.
I first studied psychology because, like many undergraduates in the late 1960s, I saw it as a way to help create a better world.
I saw social psychology as particularly relevant. I've always been interested in the field's traditional subject matter--values and prejudice, friendship and love, group behavior and conformity, obedience and conflict. What's not to like? Other than the methodology, of course, and all those ridiculously huge textbooks brimming with trivia....
After college I went to Michigan State University, where, for my first attempt at a dissertation, I began to study a group of young people who were planning to create a new kibbutz in Israel. This was a group I was a member of--another group I co-founded. Unfortunately, our group soon split into factions. I returned to the United States, but did not return to grad school for nine more years, during which I engaged in a variety of mostly-political activities.
By the time I did return, in 1982, I saw academia as just another front in the movement for social justice and utopian change. I quickly incorporated my politics into my studies. But I soon became frustrated with the prospect of a long career where advancing political goals was possible only within traditional academic practices such as writing and teaching. I was impatient. I wanted to change the world, not just write about the need for change.
And I didn't want to become an armchair radical, an academic leftist divorced from the nitty gritty of political action.
I know, lots of psychologists think they're changing the world. This is especially true for those who advocate one small reform at a time. Social psychology textbooks are filled with examples. Since psychology has become a significant player in public policy over the last century--Ellen Herman has written about this in The Romance of American Psychology--psychologists can indeed become part of the policy crowd, using the respectability of positivist methods to gain entrée. The only cost of being an insider is a little co-optation.
As I see it, psychology has enough liberals, at least at policy-making level and in the universities. What we need are more radicals, people for whom liberal reform is not only too slow but too short-sighted about how much change is needed. We need more outraged critics, not more tamed insiders.
One thing I noticed during graduate school was that critics were supposed to prove themselves using mainstream methods and goals before criticizing the field. But as I saw it, one of the hazards of toeing the line until we get tenure is that by the time we get it, we may forget what it was we were going to do with it. I wondered whether it was possible to just start out trying to do things right.
So I wrote a few conference papers and a couple of articles, trying to bring my take on politics into psychology. I also wrote a criticism of academia's publish-or-perish norms. I had no intention of churning out empirical research reports.
But all these were individual pursuits. More to the point, I organized a student-faculty discussion group, which we called "Psychology & Controversy." A group of us met every few weeks in the evening, over a bottle of wine, and discussed common readings on methods, on theory, on critiques of the field. This was a lot of fun. It made me feel less isolated. And it demonstrated that, even in the midst of a tradition-bound positivist hotbed like MSU, there were students and even professors who were willing to acknowledge problems in the field and talk together about alternatives.
It was about that time that Joel Aronoff, a personality psychologist who had also lived for a time on a kibbutz, told me that I couldn't be an activist and an academic at same time. To prove him right, I finally graduated in 1985 without having a job.
To shorten the rest of this part of the story, a year later I began a post-doc at the University of Nebraska, in the psychology/law program. There I developed a critique not just of mainstream psychological research on law but of law itself, based on my basically anarchist impulses. The post-doc landed me a job in an interdisciplinary legal studies program at Sangamon State University, an unusual place that originally was a hotbed of radical teaching; today it's much tamer, part of the University if Illinois system.
At Sangamon State, trying to get tenure in a rapidly mainstreaming university, I found myself in grave danger of settling in to my armchair. In the fall of 1992, while beefing up my personnel file, I engaged in a bit of pre-Internet ego-surfing and checked the Social Science Citation Index to see if anyone was citing my work on psychology, social change, anarchy, and utopia. That's how I found Isaac Prilleltensky.
I quickly read a few of his articles, and sent him a couple of mine. He responded: "I feel we are concerned with very similar issues: clarifying psychology's values, demystifying psychology's 'good intentions,' and promoting a social change agenda within the discipline."
That sounded good to me. It also dawned on me that if there were two of us, maybe we could find others. I suggested we organize a discussion session for the1993 APA convention--in the belly of the APA beast. Isaac of course agreed.
I wrote to him that February: "I'm looking forward to this, even if it doesn't lead to a formal network, an edited book, and massive social change."
Hey, two out of three isn't so bad....
The session we proposed for APA was called "Will Psychology Pay Attention to its Own Radical Critics?" Here's the leaflet we passed around to arouse some interest....
Despite its Tuesday afternoon time slot, when almost everyone at APA had gone home, two dozen graduate students, professors, and practitioners showed up to talk about what could be done to increase radical influence within psychology. Students especially were interested in increasing mutual support for those who were trying to complete nontraditional dissertations. We talked about whether it was possible to influence APA itself, or whether we should simply form a small support group of like-minded psychologists.
At the end, we had one decision: to create a mutual support network, as Isaac and I had hoped.
And we had one concrete achievement: a mailing list.
I remember, after the session, the drive back to Isaac's home west of Toronto. Isaac looked at me and said, with his characteristic excitement, "it's like the tnuah!" That's Hebrew for "the movement." It doesn't really matter what movement we're talking about. The emotion is always the same. We felt energized just sitting in a room with other people who saw psychology, and saw the world, as we did, people who wanted to change both. Many of us have had that feeling during this conference, the feeling of connection.
Over the next few months we began to set in place a number of projects. We also generated a grandiose list, called Fantasies & Future Directions, that we distributed for discussion. The list ended with a section labeled "self-definition" that raised the issue of what we mean by "radical psychology." I should say here that the issue is still unresolved. As we say on our website,
Members include academic psychologists, clinicians, and students from a wide variety of specializations as well as nonpsychologists. Some call themselves "radicals," others don't. Some use terms like "critical psychologists" or "progressives." We're not too set on any single definition or approach.
We also note on the website our goals:
The Radical Psychology Network seeks like-minded psychologists and others to help create a society better able to meet human needs and bring about social justice. We want to change society's unacceptable status quo and bring about a better world.
And we want to change the status quo of psychology, too. We challenge psychology's traditional focus on minor reform, because enhancing human welfare demands fundamental social change instead. Moreover, psychology itself has too often oppressed people rather than liberated them.
Why didn't we call ourselves the "critical psychology network"? "Critical Psychologists" was one possible name on our Fantasies and Future Directions List. Yet the terminology of critical psychology was not widespread in North America at the time, and there was no real push for it. And "critical" too is subject to misinterpretation.
By contrast, "Radical" seemed clear, deceptively so as it turned out. Its chief virtue was that it distinguished us from the many liberals in psychology who were interested in minor social reform rather than fundamental societal change. Those were not the people we were seeking.
Besides, in early Internet time, RadPsyNet sounded very cool.
What has RadPsyNet done in the past eight years, or tried to do?
As a result, we now have about 300 formal members in almost three dozen countries.
We've held RadPsyNet business/introductory meetings in 1995, 1996, 1999, 2000. At these meetings we catch up on what we're doing, discuss proposals for action, research, and education, and talk about why we aren't doing more. Our focus is really to try to make APA conventions more bearable. We create and distribute a list of sessions of interest to critical psychologists, and we arrange a dinner at some restaurant with spicy food. One goal, clearly, is to help one another through the convention, which can be pretty alienating.
Is APA the right place for RadPsyNet to meet? Should we organize a separate meeting? Do we want to be more than an occasional support group? Should we abandon the time-consuming "membership" aspect of RadPsyNet and become simply a website and email list? We periodically discuss these issues as well.
In addition to the RadPsyNet business meetings and dinners, we also proposed a symposium for the 1994 APA convention. The topic, which we submitted to SPSSI (The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues) was "Radical Psychology for the Public Interest: Change, Not Adjustment). Proposed participants included George Albee (chair), Bob Sipe (Politicizing the Therapeutic Encounter), Nancy Norvell (How Radical is Feminist Psychotherapy?), Dennis Fox (Radical Psychology Organizing in Liberal Psychology Organizations), and Ben Harris (Discussant)
The rejection letter from SPSSI was instructive: "reviewers expressed concern about the absence of case studies or other research which might have given more 'credibility' to the symposium." The three reviewers had a variety of other concerns--the topics didn't cohere, the panel should have been proposed for clinical division, and there was little sophistication about individual/social change....
That session didn't work out. But we did organize a "critical issues group" at the 1995 Division 27-Community Psychology convention in Chicago. The session, called "Radicalizing Organized Psychology: A Critical Issue for Empowerment and Social Change," included discussion of how community psychologists can work to turn the institutions of psychology in a direction more critical of the status quo of society and the status quo of psychology.
--books, conference presentations, etc. For example: Isaac and I originally met about a third of the authors in our edited book Critical Psychology: An Introduction through RadPsyNet activities, and we always considered the book an integral part of RadPsyNet's purpose. Tod Sloan's new book, Critical Psychology: Voices for Change, is another example of a project that would have developed differently without RadPsyNet's influence; the book is an excellent example of combining the psychological, the political, and the personal.
Two main problems have confronted RadPsyNet.
Our main problem, faced by many similar organizations, is that we've always been dependent on the efforts of overworked individual coordinators. This would be manageable if we were a true grassroots organization--a network of members doing their own projects. But this hasn't been the case, and RadPsyNet's health has varied as individual coordinators have increased and decreased their work in response to other demands.
In the early period, I did the newsletter, dues collection, publicity. But I eventually reached my limit, partly because of other projects and partly for health reasons. At the same time, Tor Neilands organized the gopher and website; Dave Nightingale started the email list.
The newsletter ended mostly because we no longer had anyone who could put in the time, and I no longer had the energy to send out dues reminders. This was a serious loss--it meant we had no more access to some of our members, and members could no longer simply make copies of newsletters to bring to classes or conferences. But had to face our limits.
In 1996 I took over website when Tor could no longer maintain it. At first I was very excited about learning new skills. But after a couple of years, I left my academic job and could no longer do more than bare site maintenance. The site remains stagnant, with only some portions now maintained.
In 1999 we began a more decentralized coordination, with graduate students in three countries--Dan Aalbers, Steve McKenna, Juliette Cutler Page--joining Isaac and me on a coordinating committee. But this too has not worked as we had hoped. Both Juliette and Dan have had to stop their participation.
So we've had highs and lows, a series of enthusiastic but overworked coordinators--there remains a danger of over-commitment, especially when school and career pressures mount. We've simply never had enough people with enough time to make the organization more stable.
During my pessimistic times, it seems that we have sometimes been little more than an out-of-date website. At the same time, more optimistically, we continue to send out ripples....
For survival, RadPsyNet needs to end its dependence on a few busy individuals and become institutionalized, preferably as a true grassroots membership network--for example, with a variety of projects (the Journal, a newsletter, action projects, and the like) and even several linked websites rather than a single centralized one.
RadPsyNet's identity is not clear. Are we a support group? A research group? An activist group? Whether this is a problem or not is subject to debate. But some do think RadPsyNet is insufficiently focused, as well as insufficiently theoretical, and this has led to some confusion. This issue today seems relatively unimportant, at least to me. People can find within the organization a variety of tendencies, all of them useful.
More to the point, does it matter if RadPsyNet survives?
Perhaps not, because fortunately, RadPsyNet is no longer alone. Critical psychology is expanding--there are now more books, conferences, websites, journals, and courses that did not exist eight years ago. The Critical Psychology Network (in Australia) is so similar in its goals that we simply transferredmuch of our website content to their site. There was little point in having two sites list conference notices and the like, and they had an advantage we didn't: paid grad students to do the work.
So if the goal is generating intellectual advances critical of psychology's status quo, it may not matter if RadPsyNet survives.
But it does matter, I think, for reasons going back to RadPsyNet's origins:
So I'm happy to report that there are signs of renewed interest:
If these things don't happen, I imagine the Radical Psychology Network will survive in name only. My university's patience has run out and I will have to remove the website from its computers within a few months, whether it's moved to BC or not. With no newsletter, no bank account, no strong push for meetings, it would eventually wither away.
But let me end by being optimistic, which for me is uncharacteristic. That's easy today, as I look around this room and see friends whom I would not have met but for RadPsyNet's existence. It's good to see you here.
And I see the rest of you, not RadPsyNet members--or at least, not yet--but like-minded just the same, coming together to work toward a new psychology for a new society.
I also know there are thousands of people around the world who have visited our website, and many hundreds who have emailed or written us over the past eight years from wherever psychologists and psychology students struggle to avoid the strictures of their departments and their worksites, trying as much as they can to bring about social justice and social change. Their correspondence encourages me, as does your presence here, reinforcing my belief that RadPsyNet can continue to serve a useful purpose, if only we figure out the mundane details of survival.
If RadPsyNet does not survive--and even if it does-- other groups of critical psychologists will arise at other time, because changing society and changing psychology are too important to be left to the normal routines of academia. Those routines allow us to participate on the margins, and to advance our careers, and even to influence some of the relatively few individuals who stumble across our work.
But those routines will not allow us to change the status quo in any fundamental way. This state of affairs, while not unexpected, can still be disheartening. But let's not despair. Instead, as Mother Jones said, "Don't mourn, organize!"
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