RadPsyNews #2

December 1993

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Issue #2 Contents

  1. APA "Beyond the Dead Zone"
  2. APA's Conventional Zone
  3. RadPsyNet In the Chronicle
  4. Psychology Politics Resistance
  5. Reactions
  6. Help Wanted!
  7. What are you up to?
  8. Member Activities & Announcements
  9. Radical Psychology in Historical Perspective
  10. More Reading Material?
  11. Becoming Radicalized (Anonymous)
  12. Psychology & Social Ethics: Limitations & Challenges (Isaac Prilleltensky)
    1. On moral philosophy
    2. On epistemology
    3. On politics
    4. References


APA "Beyond the Dead Zone"

In a column called "Beyond the Dead Zone" in November's APA Monitor, American Psychological Association President Frank Farley lists societal problems psychologists can help solve. He criticizes the research establishment's "publish or perish paradigm" that "encourages quick studies on easy and minor problems."

Farley then notes: "We need to bring together everything we know on the various problems, evaluate the quality of that knowledge, and identify solutions. The next step is a big one--changing the world with these solutions!"

Farley's solutions may not go as far as those advocated by radical psychologists, but it's good to see another APA president acknowledge the limitations of psychology's business as usual. Members of the Network might think about responding to Farley's final question: "Does anyone have better answers? We need them. Fast." Suggestion: Let's really change the world.

APA's Conventional Zone

After lots of e-mail and other forms of communication, several of us finally submitted an APA symposium proposal. We think the topic, "Radical Psychology for the Public Interest: Change, Not Adjustment," fits in well with the convention focus of SPSSI, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (APA's Division 9). Proposed presenters are Bob Sipe, Nancy Norvell, and Dennis Fox; George Albee will be Chair and Ben Harris the discussant.

Another convention issue: Should we schedule a meeting at APA as a "nonaffiliated group"? For $50 we can get a meeting room for an hour and be listed in the convention program. The deadline on this is February 11, so let us know if you think it's worth doing.

RadPsyNet In the Chronicle

Our efforts to organize and figure out what we're doing attracted the attention of the Chronicle of Higher Education. The paper printed a short, light-hearted account of our existence on page A6 of the October 27 issue.

Despite the publicity, we have not yet been deluged with either requests to join or invitations to appear on Oprah. We haven't even gotten any hate mail. On the other hand, the article is useful to send along to colleagues, along with sample Newsletters, to give them a sense of what we're thinking about.

Psychology Politics Resistance

More from Stephen Reicher and Ian Parker in England: Psychology Politics Resistance is planning its inaugural conference July 1-2 in Manchester during the Global Forum (the follow-up to the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit). They invite RadPsyNet members to attend. Contact Steve and Ian (on the address list of new members) for conference information or for more details about their network.

Steve is an associate editor of the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, which emphasizes "the promotion of well-being and social justice." Steve says the journal can be an outlet for radical psychologists. Keep it in mind!

Ian sent along an article of his from the December 1992 issue of Changes: An International Journal of Psychology and Psychotherapy. The article, "Psychology, Racism and the Third World: 500 Years of Resistance," describes an earlier radical psychology conference in Manchester. As noted last month, we can usefully build on their work. There's a lot of material out there that can help us develop our own perspectives.


I've gotten interesting reactions to recent outreach efforts. Last month I was invited to a graduate course in Theories of Counseling to describe the RadPsyNet. Many of the students were curious about a side of psychology they had not known anything about. Some took to the ideas right away, but others, not surprisingly, doubted that all this radical stuff had any relevance for their own work.

The discussion was lively, and the instructor seemed pleased enough. Yet I'm not a clinician, and I doubt I was as effective as I might have been. I'd appreciate hearing from the clinicians among you about how to best raise these issues with students. How about sending something in for the next Newsletter?

Also last month, I described on the psychology-law e-mail network a conference I had attended on "Rethinking the Corporation." That led to a series of back-and-forth comments on the degree to which a corporate capitalist society is (or isn't) compatible with human well-being, as well as a number of sympathetic comments e-mailed to me personally. The public discussion ended abruptly, however, after two people wrote to the discussion list that this issue didn't belong in a psychology-law forum. This despite the many empirical issues raised by the way in which legal assumptions about human nature help shape the social structure.

Efforts to marginalize us shouldn't be surprising. Many of us have had similar reactions from editors and reviewers, conference organizers, and other gatekeepers, as well as from our peers. At the same time, many of us have occasionally been successful in making inroads. Let's hear some success stories! And maybe some practical advice?

Help Wanted!

Help write, edit, lay out, and distribute this newsletter. Help maintain the mailing list. No experience necessary! Send us your stuff!

What are you up to?


Member Activities and Announcements

* Isaac Prilleltensky just submitted a response to an article by Howard H. Kendler in the October American Psychologist. Kendler criticizes efforts to link psychology to "political goals or ethical ideals." In his Comment, reprinted at the end of this Newsletter, Isaac provides a suitably devastating critique.

* Nancy Norvell sent along an op-ed column on feminism she wrote for the September 30 Tampa Tribune. The column elicited half a dozen letters to the editor. All but one complained about Nancy's efforts to destroy society as we know it. Go for it, Nancy!

* Valerie Hans reports that she and Ramiro Martinez, Jr. are editing a special issue of Law and Human Behavior on Race, Ethnicity, and the Law. It will be out next summer. Valerie noted on the psychology-law e-mail discussion list the relative paucity of minorities in the field, eliciting some general discussion as well as at least one somewhat hostile comment. Valerie notes: "The special issue is a way to highlight our commitment to working on race and ethnicity issues as they relate to the law. It's a start."

* George Albee has lots of copies of a book he edited with Justin Joffe in 1981. Prevention Through Political Action and Social Change is available for free. Send a self-addressed mailing label to George Albee, Department of Psychology, University of Vermont, Burlington VT 05405. The book includes chapters on Society and Psychopathology, Obstacles to Change, Strategies for Social Change, and Revolutionary Change. Get it!

* Bob Sipe announces another conference in England: The Fourth International Conference on Innovations in Community Psychiatry, March 23-25, 1994, at the University of York. For information: International Conference Secretariat, P.O.Box B135, Huddersfield HD1 1YG, United Kingdom.


Radical Psychology in Historical Perspective

Benjamin Harris, a new member, has written widely on the history of radical psychology. Most recently, he's engaged Lenora Fulani and others in the New Alliance Party in a debate in Contemporary Psychology, which began with Ben's review of Fred Newman's The Myth of Psychology in the February 1993 issue, and continues in the October issue. Ben also wrote the chapter on Psychology in the Encyclopedia of the American Left (1990), and he had an article last Spring in Rethinking Marxism called "`Don't Be Unconscious; Join Our Ranks': Psychology, Politics, and Communist Education."

Another item of interest is the chapter on "The Theory and Practice of Psychology" by Dana Bramel and Ronald Friend in Bertell Ollman and Edward Vernoff's The Left Academy: Marxist Scholarship on American Campuses (1982).

More Reading Material?

In the last RadPsyNews we asked for names of books and articles you think every radical psychologist or potential radical psychologist should read. We'll include them some day in a RadPsy bibliography useful to teachers and others.

Suggestions so far include such titles as Michael Lerner's Surplus Powerlessness, Edmund Sullivan's A Critical Psychology, Seymour Sarason's Psychology Misdirected, James Hillman and Michael Ventura's We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, Constance McGovern's Matters of Madness: Social Origins of the American Psychiatric Profession, and Kate Millet's The Loony Bin Trip. Keep those suggestions coming!

[1997 Note! See our Books and Reviews Site]

Becoming Radicalized


Traditional psychology and psychiatry create and perpetuate myths about individuals for their own economic and political survival. These myths are masked by the status and power accorded to all of these "experts'" and by the professionalism insulating even the most well meaning of them from the human suffering they hope to understand and alleviate. That insulation, while invisible to the person socialized into the cult of professionalism, is clearly visible to the person doing the suffering.

Nothing radicalizes one as quickly as the assignment of the role of "patient" (or slightly less condescendingly "client"). When I was a grad student I was hospitalized for depression and an eating disorder. We were reminded continuously of the ridiculousness of our fixation with our weight and body image. Yet for anyone failing to appear each morning with her hair done, makeup on, clothes coordinated and legs shaved, such lack of concern for appearance was noted in the offender's chart as a sign of deterioration of our mental state. When I asked about this paradox, my doctor and the nurses could provide no answer, other than that they wanted to see us get well as soon as possible, providing the kind of classic double bind usually connected with "dysfunctional" families.

Still, my release depended less on me "getting better" than on the business office getting paid. I was pronounced "cured" and released the day after the hospital realized I wasn't covered as completely by insurance as we had thought. I left the hospital and completed my degree.

The kinds of myths and paradoxes illustrated above are more the norm than the exception to the way the academic world trains its professionals. For psychologists of all stripes, it is clear that the examination of the assumptions upon which their sub-discipline is based are crucial to the practice of a psychology that actually cares about human beings. What a radical thought!

Psychology and Social Ethics: Limitations and Challenges

Isaac Prilleltensky
Department of Psychology
Wilfrid Laurier University

  1. At a time when ethics in psychology is defined almost exclusively in terms of obligations toward individual clients or research participants (Prilleltensky & Walsh-Bowers, in press), Kendler's (October 1993) article "Psychology and the ethics of social policy" does much to foster the neglected debate on the role of psychology in social ethics. In essence, Kendler contends that psychology's ability to help resolve social conflicts based on competing moral views is very limited. He makes a persuasive argument to the effect that neither mentalistic nor behavioral conceptions of psychology can offer a sound moral rationale for choosing one social policy over another. In the case of mental psychology, the study of consciousness and individual moral choices does not provide a criterion "to resolve the inevitable conflicts between moral truths of different individuals and groups" (Kendler, 1993, p. 1048). In the case of behavioral psychology, no amount of data concerning the moral conduct of individuals or groups can dictate what ethical behavior is or should be, for to do so would be to engage in the naturalistic fallacy of trying to derive an ought statement from an is statement. In other words, one cannot deduce a moral value from observing how people behave.
  2. In contrast to his cogent arguments regarding psychology's limitations in resolving ethical dilemmas, Kendler's prescription of a useful role for psychology is rather problematic. According to him, "psychology can assist society in settling ethical disputes by revealing the empirical consequences of different policy choices, thus allowing society to make informed decisions as to which competing social policies to adopt" (1993, p. 1052). This assertion raises a number of issues that are not satisfactorily addressed by Kendler. I express my main reservations to his prescription in the next three sections.

On moral philosophy

The first difficulty in accepting the role Kendler assigns to psychology has to do with the fact that while empirical data can help make moral decisions, information--in and of itself--cannot render moral judgments. A system of values according to which the moral implication of the data is to be interpreted is still necessary. While this point does not completely escape Kendler, he does not fully come to terms with it. Although he notes that "when such information becomes available, some value judgment is required to evaluate the desirability of the resulting empirical consequences" (p. 1050), he overlooks how this statement undermines his prescribed role for psychology, for his argument concludes with the suggestion that psychology act exclusively as a vehicle for the collection of reliable data. Kendler does not suggest where moral guidance should come from, nor how we should pursue it. For Kendler, having supplied data on the empirical consequences of social policies is either enough, or all psychology can do. For me, neither alternative is satisfactory. If supplying information is all psychology needs or can do, how are we to ensure that research results will be used in a socially and ethically justifiable manner? In acting just as data collectors, however reliable and ethically respectful of participants' rights, psychologists cannot assure that their findings will be put to good moral use. Behaving ethically towards individual clients or research participants does not guarantee an ethical interpretation and application of the results at the social level. Therefore, psychologists need more than ethical guidelines which focus primarily on the obligations toward persons we work with. We need a framework for social ethics (Prilleltensky, 1994; Prilleltensky & Walsh-Bowers, in press). Without a moral frame of reference psychologists cannot decide what socially useful research is, or whose interests their findings may serve. Or are we, as psychologists, to relinquish our moral sense and trust that others will make good moral use of our findings? The history of psychology and the social sciences is replete with instances where academic knowledge has been used for morally reprehensible goals (Bulhan, 1985; Prilleltensky & Gonick, in press). This should be enough to emphasize the need for ethical standards not only in the use, but also in the very creation of psychological knowledge.

A set of values, derived from moral philosophy, should inform psychology's conception of human welfare. Such moral code would convert psychologists from mere instruments of moral reasoning, as in Kendler's scenario, into full moral agents. Once we have identified these values, psychological knowledge can not only be used to resolve moral conflicts, as Kendler suggests, but also to advance well-being for the population at large. Unless we have a set of values to inform our actions in the social domain, we do not necessarily know what to do with empirical data about social phenomena. Elsewhere I have suggested the fundamental values of self-determination, distributive justice, and collaboration and democratic participation as primordial principles in the promotion of human welfare and the good society (Prilleltensky, 1994). My account of human welfare may be neither complete nor beyond reproach, but it does offer a framework for the moral evaluation of psychological research and practice. Furthermore, it serves as a guide for proactive moral action.

To summarize, I do not disagree with Kendler that information regarding the empirical consequences of social policies can help us choose between contending moral options, but I regard his prescribed role for psychology unnecessarily narrow and incomplete. Moral reasoning should not just result from the data psychology constructs, but it should suffuse its very construction.

On epistemology

My second objection to the role Kendler foresees for psychology in social policy concerns the very ability of psychology to render neutral "empirical and theoretical truth" (Kendler, 1993, p. 1046) to inform ethical decision-making. Kendler suggests that "a natural science conception of psychology that uses behavior as its dependent variable" (p. 1052) can be useful in determining moral decisions. This proposition assumes that the production of social knowledge can be apolitical or devoid of moral biases. As with the previous objection, Kendler is not oblivious to critiques that directly question his favored natural science paradigm, but he nevertheless proceeds to suggest a natural science model for the contributions of psychology to ethical disputes. In my opinion Kendler does not incorporate into his own vision of psychology critiques he alludes to throughout the paper, critiques that cast doubt on the epistemological ability of psychology to render unbiased accounts of social phenomena. The suggestion to pursue "empirical and theoretical truth" in the social domain denies massive amounts of evidence to the effect that the very terms we use to define the subject matter are socially constructed and inextricably linked to the interests of the producers of knowledge (Kvale, 1992; Riger, 1992). My postulate does not necessarily question the personal integrity of researchers; rather, it suggests that investigators are embedded in a complex web of interests and socially conditioned terms of reference which determine what it is to be studied, how is the area to be defined, and whose interests are served by the particular definition of a social problem (Fox, 1993; Harding, 1991). As human agents, our ability to discover "empirical and theoretical truth" about the social world we inhabit is confined by the language, presuppositions, and definitions the very social context we live in, and wish to study, imposes on us. Hence, the logical impossibility of providing "true" accounts of social phenomena by tools that have themselves being created by the phenomena we are trying to explain. Psychologists cannot transcend their socially determined position to render socially unbiased accounts of human phenomena. Therefore, Kendler's recommendation that psychology contribute to ethical social policies by offering only apolitical "scientific evidence" (1993, p. 1052) cannot be endorsed.

On politics

Kendler (1993) predicts that if his suggestion that psychology "assist society in settling ethical disputes by revealing the empirical consequences of different policy choices" (p. 1052) is not followed by society, it will be "because the knowledge claims offered either are contradictory or are perceived as political statements instead of scientific evidence" (p. 1052). This statement implies a dichotomy between scientific evidence and political propositions that may be difficult to defend, primarily in the social sciences. In light of the preceding discussion on the impossibility of extricating oneself from the social reality one wishes to examine, it can most certainly be expected that political and ideological aspirations will permeate knowledge claims about social phenomena (Prilleltensky, 1994; Riger, 1992). It is crucial to realize that psychology is already a political and moral force, even if some psychologist may wish to deny it. Individual psychologists and psychological organizations act on the social world and their implicit or explicit actions carry political meanings; some endorse aspects of the societal status quo, some oppose them. We cannot pretend that our individual or collective social policy recommendations are based solely on health related reasons. Moral and political interests are involved in abortion, homelessness, drug abuse, educational reform, and the like. If we accept the basic assumption that psychology cannot divorce itself from politics, because even a denial of a political position represents one, one that upholds the status quo, then we cannot expect psychology to deliver morally sterile scientific truths that are completely devoid of political interests. Contrary to Kendler's proposition, I believe we should promote public awareness of political intentions within psychology. If we are really serious about serving the public, the public should know what are our individual and collective biases and make a truly informed decision about our contributions, one that will be facilitated by a courageous recognition that there are interests involved in doing psychology. As Fox (1993) put it, "psychology cannot be separated from ideology....making our agenda explicit is the honest thing to do" (p. 239). Hiding behind a veneer of scientism will do little to produce a sound social ethics for psychology.


Bulhan, H. A. (1985). Franz Fanon and the psychology of oppression. New York: Plenum Press.

Fox, D. R. (1993). Psychological jurisprudence and radical social change. American Psychologist, 48, 234-241.

Harding, S. (1991). Whose science? Whose knowledge?. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kendler, H. H. (1993). Psychology and the ethics of social policy. American Psychologist, 48, 1046-1053.

Kvale, S. (Ed.). (1992). Psychology and postmodernism. London: Sage.

Prilleltensky, I. (1994). The morals and politics of psychology: Psychological discourse and the status quo. Albany: State University of New York Press. [1997 Note! See our Books and Reviews Site]

Prilleltensky, I., & Gonick, L. (in press). The discourse of oppression in the social sciences: Past, present, and future. In E. Trickett, R. Watts, & D. Birman (Eds.), Human diversity: Perspectives on people in context. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Prilleltensky, I., & Walsh-Bowers, R. (in press). Psychology and the moral imperative. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology.

Riger, S. (1992). Epistemological debates, feminist voices: Science, social values, and the study of women. American Psychologist, 47, 730-740.

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Editor: Dennis Fox

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