American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 31, Nos.

1/2, March 2003 ( C 2003)

The Quest for a Liberating Community Psychology: An Overview
Roderick J. Watts1,3 and Irma Serrano-Garc´ ıa2

The diverse set of papers in this Special Issue on the psychology of liberation affirm the importance community psychology has long attached to social justice and social context. The papers also reflect the issues that arise from the unique confluence of history, culture, and the exercise of social power in different nations, and among groups and settings within nations. As coeditors we had various goals in mind when we began work on this issue. One was to push the theoretical and conceptual contributions of community psychology further. We were interested in (a) examining definitions of oppression and liberation, (b) incorporating “traditional” concepts of psychology such as emotions, cognition, and identity into a psychology of liberation, (c) further developing concepts relevant to a liberation psychology— diversity, action-research, resistance, and (d) exploring variations across populations, settings, and nations. Our interest was not in creating a unified theory of liberation psychology prematurely; on the contrary, the aim was to highlight how liberation and oppression vary by historical circumstances and by settings. Another goal was to explore how liberation psychology might lead to a new understanding or construction of our psychosocial realities. It may be that sexism, racism, and colonization, to name but a few oppressive processes, are different in light of a liberation psychology perspective. Our third goal was to examine the effects of liberation psychology on research and intervention activity. What are the promising strategies for gaining knowledge and generat1 Georgia

ing change that diminish oppression and promote liberation? How does the sociopolitical context shape these strategies? As is probably clear by now, our disciplinary interest in editing this issue was accompanied by other motivations. We are both members of oppressed groups and, although some would question our personal oppression, our personal and professional experiences are shaped by our immersion in racism, sexism, and colonization. We are both community psychologists with an interest in seeing the field evolve into more than a “misdirected psychology” (Sarason, 1981). Each of us are “Americans” in different ways, but neither by choice nor persuasion. We value the influence and contributions of other nationals and recognize, despite the dominance of U.S. psychology, the diversity of psychologies that abound in the world. Thus, we wanted to give voice to this diversity and to ourselves. THEORETICAL AND CONCEPTUAL CONTRIBUTIONS As with any valid theory, general principles provide a set of tools that aid in prediction and control. In the case of liberation psychology, a general theory would provide action scholars with the means to anticipate the dynamics of power as they play out in human relations. Predictive power aids our efforts to act strategically and proactively in the interest of liberation. However, the danger of premature theorizing is a set of general principles that seem to be universal when they are in fact particular to a unique set of circumstances. Recalling the venerable notion that human behavior is a function of people in interaction with their environment helps lessen this danger. Keep this in mind and view the words of the contributing authors as voices in a social setting. They are sharing ideas and stimulating critical dialogue among their 73

State University, Atlanta, Georgia. of Puerto Rico, R´ ıo Piedras. 3 To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department of Psychology, Georgia State University, MSC 2A1155 33 Gilmer St., Unit 2, Atlanta, Georgia 30303; e-mail: psyrjw@
2 University

2003 Plenum Publishing Corporation

This is more common among community psychologists in Latin America.” and “diversity”) is inadequate due to its lack of attention to history and social power. analytical skills. It is this emphasis on social and political power that distinguishes many of these terms. Their dialogue affirms diversity and provides all of us with an opportunity to identify how personal dynamics. and so it is a reaction. social group memberships and the like influence theorizing and action. psychological. In a colonial context. structural violence.’s ideas bring together liberation and ecological psychology..” “underclass. reconciliation. resistance. Yet community psychology has not thoroughly examined youth violence in context. For example. and cultural disciplines. Yet at the same time resistance is an emergent liberation behavior—it is some recognition of how things ought to be. and capacity for action in political and social systems. Varas-D´ ıaz and SerranoGarc´ ıa’s research on emotions show their potential role in resistance. They describe it as a “process of growth in a person’s knowledge. Moane moves the field toward a more sophisticated understanding of Watts and Serrano-Garc´ ıa violence and resistance when she notes how those who live in ecologies marked by oppression construct niches that shelter them from oppression and provide opportunities for resistance against it. Similarly.” “low income.” In our opinion. what common themes would arise? We think they would see liberation psychology as different from U. psychology (e. Bennett provides an uplifting example of successful resistance in his description of a struggle for self-determination by the Old Order Amish community of Ontario.S. and healing the effects of oppression. Thus. Most would agree that the common language of U. Although their study of the psychological effects of colonialism on youth found numerous examples of “internalized negative images” associated with Puerto Rican national identity. Africa. community psychology. both common themes and points of difference emerge. Watts and his colleagues also emphasize critical consciousness and place it in the broader context of sociopolitical development. they might say that new knowledge is acquired and deemed valuable in accordance with its contribution to the liberation process. and it holds important lessons for community psychology. historical.S.g. If the contributors to this dialogue sat around a table discussing liberation psychology. Sonn and Fisher see it as indispensable in the reclamation of devalued and lost identities. because liberation psychology places an emphasis squarely on the creation of just societies. emancipatory action.” “empowerment. strengthening self-determination. the latter must be stressed. sociological. The concept of resistance is likely to occupy a prominent position in liberation psychology. They speak of the need for the development of critical consciousness among the oppressed. economic. Because creating a just society is more than a disciplinary endeavor. authors in this issue framed their psychological ideas with terms such as hegemony. People resist oppression. The authors describe how these positive emotions could be a basis for indignation. they worked with Bennett to devise a strategy of resistance and emancipatory action. Without denying the authority we exercised in shaping this Special Issue. repression. we liken ourselves to facilitators in a critical dialogue on liberation psychology. and liberation struggle.S.S. there were highly positive ones as well. and when is it a function of poor conflict resolution skills? In her discussion of Irish women. Accordingly. “inner city. As a result. Together Moane’s and James et al.74 colleagues. His functional analysis of power has obvious implications for school-based interventions (common in U. resistance is at the boundary of both ideas. the contributors freely trespassed boundaries between the political. When is this violence displaced resistance to oppression. Authors agree that resistance does not emerge spontaneously nor easily. colonialism. such as violence prevention. community psychology). Potts describes how education for African Americans often serves as a system of indoctrination that reinforces European cultural hegemony—one that promotes internalization of oppression. describe how an awareness of structural violence can be a first step toward social change. resistance.” “disadvantaged. critical consciousness. community psychologists. Faced with the government’s oppressive land-use regulations. in parts of Europe. in his article on emancipatory education. The analysis of social power would be a central concern. The notion of “niches of resistance” might create a new perspective on niches of youth violence—like gangs—that psychologists usually describe without reference to “structural violence” against youth as described by James. and among a minority of U. People need to experience the veracity and adequacy of their awareness by engaging in actions that both feel right and prove effective. emotional faculties. and James et al. . In the realm of practice. and privilege. Varas-D´ ıaz and Serrano-Garc´ ıa suggest that current theorists of critical consciousness development must enrich their cognitive orientation with emotional considerations. the Caribbean.” “minority.

Ireland. There is cause for caution.and intrapersonal violence (James et al. The continuity indicates that traditional concepts can be useful in liberation psychology. research. In a world struggling with the traumas of war. slavery. empowerment is conceptualized broadly but is criticized for being used mainly at the individual level. The diversity in the national origins of the authors gives us a window into oppression and liberation in South Africa. and [ . torture.Quest for a Liberating Community Psychology An emphasis on critical consciousness led some of the authors to examine culture and ideology. Similarly. . Consciousness requires deconstructing cultural and ideological foundations of oppression and developing a vision of liberation. empowerment.” She and her colleagues provide examples of how women in Guatemala and the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa dealt with the challenges of healing at multiple levels of analysis as part of a continuing quest for liberation. taking their social context into account. . collaboration.” One common element in these definitions may be that empowerment leads to peoples’ control over their lives and settings. the psychology of liberation has been defined as one that attempts to work with people. to enhance their awareness of oppressive situations and ideologies. Guatemala. Some examples include emotions and social comparison processes (Varas-D´ ıaz & SerranoGarc´ ıa). Finally. “there is a difference between individual and national healing. similarities are evident. Sonn and Fisher see empowerment as a function of liberation movements: “Liberation movements can play a crucial role in developing critical awareness about oppression. Further efforts to develop frameworks which clarify the relationship between these concepts should be fostered. We will focus our analysis on empowerment because it is mentioned most often. and social change. In each case the analysis extended beyond individual functioning to include collective notions of self and identity as well as the larger social and national context. self-confidence. Puerto Rico and in North America among women. when they speak of developing critical awareness of oppressive situations. Multiple coexisting ideologies and cultures that support diverse individual lifestyles and national identities together with an equitable distribution of resources are necessary to move toward liberation. organizations and communities gain mastery over their lives. identity (Sonn & Fisher).). Despite the diversity. terrorism. African Americans. Potts sees close connections: “As with empowerment. and the Amish. Although criticized. Psychology has a long history of being concerned with mental well-being. Another commonality among the contributors is an effort to bring theory.” In summary. however. Moane sees empowerment as a useful concept.” James et al. and this tradition is not lost among the contributors to this issue. various authors incorporate it into their frameworks precisely at this level. some consider it a process that leads to liberation while others consider it the outcome of liberating efforts. and action for social justice and psychological well-being into closer alignment. Watts et al. and successful action in social and political domains.” James et al. With respect to empowerment behavior. and inter. embedded empowerment in a larger framework: “empowerment is best understood within an oppression paradigm because empowerment cannot be studied without examining oppressive contexts and consequences. no simple summary of their views is possible. As Lykes noted. Yet they also see a need for liberation psychology to push community psychology toward higher levels of analysis. and prevention. ] at times the latter might be achieved at the expense of the former.” In the realm of action. talk about “the capacity. add that it is “a mechanism by which people. and they see commonalities between liberation psychology and empowerment. there is clearly a need for a liberation psychology that includes a farreaching conception of healing. but she notes that a critical perspective on community psychology—including empowerment theory–indicates that community psychology interventions “still tend to be focused at the individual level and retain some of the individualistic assumptions of traditional psychologies” without adequately addressing the macro or structural level. What remains to be examined? One first issue that comes to mind is the accord between authors despite their diversity. Empowerment involves self-efficacy. Many would argue that the connection between a fair balance of resources in society and a healthy balance in the psyche go hand-in-hand.). There are some differences among the authors in how they connect liberation psychology to related community psychology concepts such as empowerment. Varas-D´ ıaz and 75 Serrano-Garc´ ıa accept Rappaport’s definition of empowerment as a process whereby people take control of their situations. and the creation or perception of a capacity for effective action. and repression. In relating empowerment to liberation psychology. Some might argue that this is . stress (Grant et al. Because the authors differ among themselves in how they see empowerment.

Grant et al. most of the articles are written from the perspective of the oppressed. What about oppression in Sweden. not new to psychology in other countries. or do we contradict its basic tenets by going this route? Watts and Serrano-Garc´ ıa ilar groups. One of these problems is that of groups who are not at the extremes of the oppressor–oppressed continuum. . Are any of these topics subject matter for liberation psychology. An emphasis on materialism and social status dominates all these questions. has only recently crept into community psychology [in the United States]. It is to them that liberation psychology is committed. France. Although his sample is composed of South African immigrants to Australia. Feminists. West Indians in Great Britain.” Grant et al. United States is the only first-world country included in this issue. England? What about oppression among the oppressed—women within decolonizing social movements.S. the information and experiences they have accumulated could be mutually beneficial. Sonn and Fisher state that “oppression operates at various levels and varying degrees of negativity. . as if material possessions are the primary determinant of one’s quality of life. but it also points to a new way to integrate what we know about one group (women in this case) with other groups. For example. some argue that oppressors’ construction of reality should also be examined. Similarly.) or the “subtlety of domination” (Varas-D´ ıaz & Serrano-Garc´ ıa). If integrated. and researchers that focus on girls and women.” Potts takes a different view based on work by Ogbu. psychology gives to oppression and liberation. they also argue that “.” Does this mean the answers will be found in new developments such as emotional intelligence as Cherniss (2001) suggested? There are a number of possible ways to further explore critical consciousness and sociopolitical development. which we will touch upon in the next section. state that people are not swayed by emotional appeals but can be moved by data.” Because of multiple group memberships. This speaks to the role of research. However. a number of authors in this issue contend that a spiritual NEW UNDERSTANDINGS OF OUR PSYCHOSOCIAL REALITIES The articles in this issue deal with many manifestations of oppression and examples of liberating struggles. Other authors speak of the need to deconstruct subtle ideological foundations (Watts et al. are subject to similar patterns of school failure. An example of this is Sonn and his colleagues’ explication of “inbetween” status. In presenting their case they provide us with a new look at old problems. Varas-D´ ıaz and Serrano-Garc´ ıa state that “psychology of liberation. Watts and his colleagues argue “Any hope for the formation of alliances across the divide of oppression requires that the beneficiaries of privilege first critically analyze their status and attend to their own sociopolitical development. and Maoris in New Zealand. black men within gay organizations? The interplay of cognition and emotion also needs further consideration. Finally.” Grant’s analysis might explain this curious lack of attention U. Grant et al. have similar goals. most forms of oppression in the United States are less blatant and more diffuse than counterparts in other nations that receive United States media attention. their experience can be used to understand the struggle of sim- . but they have operated on different levels of analysis. In contrast. who “found that caste minorities such as African Americans in the United States. and with torturers. most people function in some settings where they benefit at least nominally from oppression. heterosexual men as vectors of HIV/AIDS. and placement in ‘special education. drop-out. speak of “benevolent sexism” as others in the political science literature speak of benevolent dictatorships. also illustrate another longstanding issue: the absence of bridges between valueconvergent but action divergent efforts in our societies. Thus the concepts should be explored in other settings and nations.76 due to similar training and disciplinary formation or even to the editors’ selection process.” Is oppression qualitatively different in countries other than the United States? What variations are there among countries outside of the United States? Is it a difference in both magnitude and content? The question of magnitude is particularly poignant among authors in this issue. This has led to interventions with women batterers. She and her colleagues state that “manifestations of oppression in the United States are distinct from manifestations of oppression in other parts of the world” and although they acknowledge significant oppression in the United States. liberation psychologists can advance the field by linking their work with Blacks to the civil rights movement and their work with activists in the gay liberation movement. Is this the case or is it exactly the opposite? Are there areas where an emotional appeal will be more effective than a cognitive approach? Watts and colleagues state that “creativity is required to envision a better cultural and moral order.

Some suggest developing experiences where the oppressed can compare themselves to groups other than the oppressor (i. . homophobia. Varas-D´ ıaz & Serrano-Garc´ ıa) and in community and institutional settings (Moane. religious intolerance. Opinions range from highly positive to highly skeptical. Sonn and Fisher. cultural theorists. collaborative processes shift the voices of both professionals and community participants and discourse shifts. Strategies We will conclude with a few thoughts on how liberation psychologists are (re)creating historical and cultural experiences in schools (Potts. and facilitating their . . sexism. A psychology of liberation is a psychology of the political. Views on how this affects their work and roles in liberation psychology vary. It is part of that debate between the postpositivists and the postmodernists (along with anthropologists. By creating a setting for critical dialogue where action scholars can discern how their insights are shaped by the historical context of their work. Our hope is that our account will serve as a corrective to overly purist and naive ideas sometimes found in the community psychology literature regarding the possibilities of “giving voice” to or empowering the marginalized and the disenfranchised. Most of the authors examined how racism. the contributions of personal insight and unique historical forces to general theory become clearer. These transgressive. . . cultural exchanges). an attempt to understand the particularities of every community is in order. The challenge is to create a liberation psychology that adjusts to the unique historical and ecological characteristics of the settings where it is applied. Although many of the contributors to this issue are members of oppressed populations. travelling to other countries. It is an inevitable tension in a liberation psychology that seeks neither coerced unity nor balkanization. It must be a belief system. a political stance . and terrorism fare in a similar analysis? How important is the magnitude of social inequality within and between nations as compared to the absolute severity of a group’s social deprivation? Clarifying these variations in outlook— in both historical and theoretical terms—would be useful to the field. What has general value and what is tied to a unique setting or work group? In this volume. VarasD´ ıaz and Serrano-Garc´ ıa remind us of the connection between the personal and the political: Liberation must not become another empty discourse in the psychological literature. How would the construction of other social realities such as ageism.). The practice and research have emerged from the pursuit of the agendas of the Old Order Amish. questioning the notions that perpetuate oppression is undeniably a political act. to change some of the normative legislative regulatory systems that they have defined as oppressive. Bennett tells us I have collaborated with the Old Order Amish .e. 77 uals their material and occupational circumstances give them high status. Varas-D´ ıaz & Serrano-Garc´ ıa argue that liberation psychology “must turn away from the task of generalizing specific characteristics to whole populations. but it is worth the effort to see the tension between unity and diversity as complementarity and to manage it in a creative way. Lykes et al. and colonization can be conceptualized from a liberation psychology perspective. James et al. my approach has been consistent with the scholarly development agendas summarized by Kelly (1990). differences in historical experience produce differences in outlook. Lykes and her colleagues said [our work] illustrate[s] some of the complexities that arise when academics engage with communities and together develop novel processes of selfrepresentation.. RESEARCH AND INTERVENTIONS The Action Scholar in Context One of the major implications of the person– environment fit perspective for community psychology that is not well articulated is that between the action scholar and her or his historical context.Quest for a Liberating Community Psychology worldview can be empowering if not liberating. This is more evidence of diversity. The editors of this issue will not pretend to settle this long-running philosophical debate. an attitude. who have been equal and collaborative partners . while at the same time celebrating basic community psychology principles of respectful engagement and participatory action. Obviously.” This is one side of the tension between universalizing and particularizing human experience in the effort to build theory. and the use of the narrative approach to theory and method proposed by Rappaport (1995). Only when our liberating beliefs are incorporated in our psychological practice will our work contribute to freedom from oppression. . . Instead. In contrast. and others) who take a constructivist stance to knowledge. as individ- Through the din of these intellectual debates.

researchers are aware of their social context and committed to harnessing resources for social change. The use of qualitative methods likely reflects their special advantages: they foster a relationship between the researcher and others who participate in the research. but relationships and dialogue provide an opportunity for it to develop. make a case for transactional methods. Efforts should focus on small aims and immediate results (Grant et al. in-depth interviews. Although surveys and other less interactive research methods have a vital place in liberation psychology. then we should all be contributing to moving community psychology towards it emancipatory potential. and narratives. community psychology would do well to promote qualitative methods. 32(11). (1981). In these models. APA Monitor. Neither of these elements guarantees a more egalitarian researcher– participant partnership. S. constantly aware of its own context. 61. fostered a new look at the issues you work with and generated strategies which are more participatory and liberating. Few authors made explicit recommendations regarding research. C. If we have contributed in any way to your awareness. Among those that did. participatory research. . (2001). but so will your response. and James et al. Watts and Serrano-Garc´ ıa which are already an increasingly important feature of research in the field. REFERENCES Cherniss. and poised to harness resources for systemic change. Is there a difference in the acceptance of these models between other nations and the United States? Are authors in this issue who are seemingly on the margins or at the vanguard of community psychology actually in the process of being coopted? Time will tell. Emotional intelligence for a better community. Action research. The latter also proposed forums where researchers could share their findings with activists.78 direct engagement in political processes (Varas-D´ ıaz & Serrano-Garc´ ıa). All the empirical articles in this issue emphasize qualitative methods—focus groups. The best liberation psychology research is reflexive. or even reframe research questions through their own words. New York: The Free Press. Sarason. and intervention research are all mentioned in these pages and linked to a psychology of liberation. and they provide an opportunity for people to respond to.). Psychology misdirected. both Watts et al.

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