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Community Psychology at the Crossroads

Community Psychology at the Crossroads



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Am J Community Psychol (2006) 38:9–21DOI 10.1007/s10464-006-9062-3
Community Psychology at the Crossroads:Prospects for Interdisciplinary Research
Kenneth I. Maton
Douglas D. Perkins
Susan Saegert
Published online: 22 August 2006
Springer Science
Business Media, Inc. 2006
Effective engagement in interdisciplinary workis critical if community psychology is to achieve its promiseas a field of ecological inquiry and social action. Thepurpose of this paper and special issue is to help make thebenefits of interdisciplinary community research clearer andto identify and begin to address its challenges. Althoughsome areas of psychology (e.g., biological, cognitive andhealth) have made substantial interdisciplinary strides inrecent decades, progress in community psychology (andrelated areas) is more modest. In this article we explore theprospects for expanding and improving interdisciplinarycommunity research. Challenges include designs, measures,and analytical frameworks that integrate multiple levelsof analysis from individuals through families, organiza-tions, and communities to policy jurisdictions, and thecomplexities involved in simultaneously bringing together multiple disciplinary collaborators and community partners.Challenges to interdisciplinary collaboration common toall disciplines include the disciplinary nature of academicculture and reward structures, limited funding for inter-
K. I. Maton (
)Psychology Department, University of Maryland,Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD 21250e-mail: maton@umbc.eduD. D. PerkinsHuman and Organizational Development, Vanderbilt University,Peabody #90, 230 Appleton Place, Nashville, TN 37203-5721e-mail: douglas.d.perkins@vanderbilt.eduS. SaegertThe Graduate Center, Environmental Psychology, City Universityof New York, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10016e-mail: ssaegert@gc.cuny.edu
disciplinary work and uncertainties related to professionalidentity and marketability. Overcoming these challengesrequires a synergy among facilitative factors at the levels of theinterdisciplinaryprojectteam(e.g.,theframingquestion;embedded relationships; leadership), the investigators (e.g.,commitment to new learning; time to invest), and theexternal context (e.g., physical, administrative, economicand intellectual resources and support for interdisciplinarywork). We conclude by identifying several exemplarsof effective interdisciplinary collaborations and concretesteps our field can take to enhance our development as avibrant community-based, multilevel discipline increasinglydevoted to interdisciplinary inquiry and action.
Interdisciplinary.Community psychology.Levels of analysis.Ecological.Community partnerships.Transdisciplinary.Multidisciplinary.Collaborative research
The importance of interdisciplinarityfor community psychology
Community psychology has been struggling to heed the callfor interdisciplinary collaboration since the founding of thefield. Those who met 40 years ago in Swampscott, MA, tolaunch and define the new field emphasized that “if psychol-ogy wants to make an impact on large social processes
. . .
,it will have to step out of its immersion in strictly clinical-medicalsettings”(Andersonetal.,1966,p.5).Afullchapte of the report was devoted to relations with other disciplinesand emphasized the importance of a training faculty and stu-dent body from multiple disciplines. Among fields singledout for interdisciplinary collaboration were sociology, socialwork, medicine, anthropology, political science, education,
10 Am J Community Psychol (2006) 38:921
public health, economics, nursing, law, business adminis-tration, city planning, philosophy, and theology (Andersonet al.,1966).Similarly, at the Austin, TX, conference on training incommunity psychology in the early 1970s, the field wasdefined as:being concerned with participating in planning for socialchange; with organizing and implementing plannedchanges; with designing and conducting programs of service to provide for the human needs generated bysocial changes; and with the development of communityresources and process to deal with the future implicationsof social changes. It was recognized that these areactivities that involve the efforts of persons from severaldifferent fields, and that community psychologists shouldgive a high priority to cooperation and collaborationwith the community and with other disciplines
. . .
(Mann,1978, p. 18).Why did the founders of community psychology (andothers since) so clearly see the need for interdisciplinarywork? The answers have to do with their recognition thatby itself, an intrapsychic, person-centered psychology waslimited in (a) contributing to transformative social change,(b) developing programs to improve settings and communitylife, (c) advancing theory development in psychology andotherfields,especiallywithregardtounderstandingcontextsand communities, and (d) creating a new and distinct fieldof community-based research on social behavior and well-being at multiple levels of analysis. Let us briefly examinethe potential importance of interdisciplinary work in each of these areas.Contributing to social changeThe Swampscott and Austin conferences did not emphasizeamelioration of problems, or incremental change, as muchas they did larger social change. Those attending the con-ferences were fully aware that psychologists have far lessknowledge of social movements, social change and politicalaction than do sociologists, political scientists, and socialhistorians. Yet through to the present time, few communitypsychologistshavecollaboratedwithresearchersintheseandrelated fields to further our understanding of social changemechanisms and processes.The importance of focusing on social change, and doingso in collaboration with other disciplines, has been arguedrepeatedlyovertheyears.Arecenttextbooksuccinctlystatesthe case:The world’s greatest problems—poverty, disease, hunger,violence, war, oppression, environmental contamination,resource depletion
. . .
have as root causes, solutions, or both, complex political, economic, environmental, andsociocultural issues. If community psychology is to con-tribute anything useful to addressing those problems, wemust think more ecologically, act more politically, andactively engage the various disciplines that understandthose issues, or at least their particular piece of thoseissues, including political science, economics, sociology,anthropology,publichealth,law,urbanplanning,commu-nitydevelopment,andothers.(Levine,Perkins,&Perkins,2005, p. 471)Although little empirical work has been conducted in thisarea, community psychologists over the years have high-lighted key foci within the larger social change arena whereinterdisciplinary collaboration may be fruitful. For exam-ple, Maton(2000) emphasized the need for sustained work with allied disciplines to understand and jointly influencefour key, interrelated processes linked to the social transfor-mation of environments: capacity-building, group empower-ment, relational community-building, and culture challenge.Prilleltensky and Nelson (1997) called for our field to ad-dress underlying structural issues of power, oppression, andliberation.Christens and Perkins (in press)expand on thatvision by proposing a comprehensive framework for inter-disciplinary community research and action which includesthe need to focus systematically on multiple levels of anal-ysis and on economic, political, physical, and socio-culturalforms of both capital and oppression. Clearly, collaborationswith other disciplines are essential to usefully frame ques-tions related to social change, to generate relevant theories,to conduct research and analyze data encompassing multi-ple, higher levels of analysis, and to initiate and evaluatechange efforts at all those levels. We cannot do so by our-selves. Moreover, over time we must move from occasionalcommunications or collaborations with other disciplines tosustained, robust interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary inter-actions in which new perspectives and knowledge about so-cial problems and means to address them are developed over the longer term.Developing programs and improving settingsand community lifeInvolvement in efforts to improve the everyday lives of citizens inevitably brings us into contact with professionalsfrom diverse fields who work in a multiplicity of communitysettings.Effectivecollaborationwithstaffandadministratorsinthesesettings,alongwiththecommunityitself,isessentialif our applied work is to be successful and sustainableand our theories are to contribute to improving the humancondition. These collaborations may involve developmentof prevention or promotion programs, program evaluation,action research, organizational and community consultation,
Am J Community Psychol (2006) 38:921 11
community development, advocacy, policy analysis, andcommunity coalition building (e.g., Rappaport & Seidman,2000; Rich, Edelstein, Hallman, & Wandersman,1995; Speer et al.,2003). These intervention and social action ac-tivities must be done with a clear understanding about larger social structures and dynamics, cultural diversity, politicaland economic considerations, global interdependence, andthe physical environmental context. They therefore wouldgreatly benefit from collaboration with other disciplines.The more complex and multifaceted the problems andsettings being addressed, the more likely involvement in aninterdisciplinary effort will yield a sufficiently complex, so-phisticated and useful intervention effort. Researchers fromother disciplines, including those in applied fields (e.g., ed-ucation, public health, law, health services research, com-munity development), bring theoretical and practical knowl-edge, sensitivity and understanding about larger social struc-tures and dynamics, enhanced access, and strategies, tacticsand skills related to specific domains in their area of exper-tise (e.g., schools, human services, criminal justice system,health care settings, neighborhood organizations, religioussettings,etc.).Theycanbringtobearalternativeinterventionperspectives and approaches that complement and expandthose with which we are familiar, thus enhancing the odds of success. They can also help community psychologists moredeeplyunderstandthesocio-culturalobstaclestoandfacilita-torsofchangethatoperateatmultiplelevelsinthesesystems.Advancing theories and understanding of contextsand communitiesThe ecological concepts and principles proposed by Kelly(1966;2006), Barker (1968) and others helped define com- munity psychology in the 1960s. These principles were keydrivers in differentiating community psychology from main-stream individual psychology. Ecological and systems prin-ciples embraced a critical focus on context and community.Nonetheless and unfortunately, over the years our researchstudies have in many cases been limited to the individuallevel of analysis, excluding the systematic study of context,community and social ecology. Our home discipline of psy-chology does not prepare us well for the latter work.At the time of the founding of community psychology,through to the present, other disciplines have possessed im-portant methodological tools, theoretical perspectives, andbodiesofknowledgethatareextremelyimportanttoenhanceourunderstandingofcontextsandcommunities.Examplesof methodological tools, some now beginning to be included inour studies of context and community include ethnography,qualitative methods, narrative and discourse analysis, socialepidemiology, population perspectives, participant observa-tion, social historical analysis, multi-level statistical models,and geographic information systems. Relevant theoreticaland conceptual perspectives, to name just a few, include thesocial structure vs. agency debate, social systems, criticaltheory, biological ecology, culture, population perspectives,role theory, and political economy. Specific fields that havegenerated perspectives, methods and accumulated empiri-cal knowledge relevant to our understanding of contexts andcommunitiesincludeurbanandcommunitysociology,publichealth, urban and regional planning, applied anthropology,political science, social history, education, and applied eco-nomics. Collaboration with like-minded researchers in thesefields can yield important new, interdisciplinary understand-ing of contexts of interest, including the larger geographicalcommunity.Community-based, multilevel, interdisciplinaryresearch: A niche for community psychologyCollaborating with other fields often requires collecting andanalyzingdataatdifferentlevelsofanalysis.Currently,com-munity psychology stands balanced on one foot in psychol-ogy at the individual level, with its other foot testing thegroundathigherlevels(e.g.,Maton,1989;Perkins&Taylor, 1996;Rappaport&Seidman,2000;Saegert&Winkel,1990; Shinn,1996;Trickett,1996).Wedesiretoworkacrosslevels with other applied social sciences, but have done so rarely.Incorporating more interdisciplinary work into communitypsychology would help create a new and more distinct nichefor the field: community-based research on social behavior andwell-beingencompassingmultiplelevelsofanalysis.Wewill continue to explore the level of individual behaviors,emotions, cognitions, beliefs, and interpersonal microsys-tem relationships. That will continue to set us apart fromother social sciences and, along with our multiple method-ological skills, interpersonal competencies, value base, andecological perspective, provide much of our valued exper-tise in interdisciplinary relationships. To work effectivelywith other disciplines and be of more value to other psy-chologists, however, we must also expand our knowledge of groups, voluntary associations, and other local organizationsand social networks at the mesosystem level and of commu-nities, institutions, and social structures at the macrosystemlevel, along with how each of these influence the others. Aswe extend our work to global settings, we must expand our culturalandlanguageliteracyandourknowledgeofpoliticalaffairs, both foreign and domestic.As discussed later in the paper, the multiple levels of analysis that are an implicit and fundamental orientation insocial ecology (Bronfenbrenner,1979) have, surprisingly,never been fully developed or exploited in community psy-chology. As a unit of analysis, the community and the so-cial or physical setting still have a long way to go, even incommunity psychology, although that has begun to change(Shinn&Toohey,2003).Theadventofmulti-levelstatistical

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