Liberation PsychologyIssue 50 – June 2017 Author: Steve Melluish (contact via email@example.com)
- Liberation psychology is a framework for taking account of how people and communities are shaped by their experience and history of oppression.
- Oppression results from an unequal society where social structures based on differences of race, gender, and class disadvantage large numbers of people
- Psychological distress is understood not solely in terms of the individual’s immediate circumstances but in the context of these wider social structures and injustices.
Implications for practice
- Liberation psychology helps people become aware of how their lives, behaviour and psychological state are shaped by their experience of living in an unjust society.
- It sees psychological change as occurring when people take action to change their circumstances. When a person acts to alter an aspect of their life this also has the effect of changing their understanding of themselves.
- As well as looking at how an individual’s history is shaped by experiences of injustice it also works with groups of people in the same community to look at how whole communities have been historically shaped by unequal access to resources.
What is Liberation psychology?1,2,3,4Liberation psychology is a framework rather than a specific approach. It is based on a set of values about the importance of addressing social injustice. It challenges the idea that psychology is a value neutral science and instead argues that psychology has often supported, whether intentionally or not, the status quo and so maintained an unjust and unequal society. Liberation psychology asks us to consider the experiences of people living in the most poor and marginalised communities. It aims to help people understand how the experience of living in these communities often makes them fatalistic, believing they are powerless to alter their circumstances and thus how they become resigned to their situation. Liberation psychology suggests that this demoralisation not only effects an individual’s psychology but it influences the shared psychology within whole communities. Liberation psychology attempts to discover how demoralised people can regain the energy to take back control of their lives. A key idea is helping people to develop ‘critical consciousness’. This is where a person becomes aware of both external oppression and also self-imposed internal oppression. Critical consciousness aims to free the person from self-imposed powerlessness. It is a process in which changes in a person’s internal world result from taking actions to change their external world. This critical consciousness cannot be learned in a top-down way only but through taking actions with others, learning from this experience, and then taking even more powerful actions to change one’s circumstances.
How does it fit within the UK context?Liberation psychology emerged in the 1970’s in Latin America and offered a critique of mainstream psychology5. In the UK context, there is overwhelming evidence that poverty, social inequality and other forms of discrimination are the main factors influencing peoples’ mental health6. These are clearly social, political issues rather than psychological/ medical issues. However, mental health services often unwittingly frame people’s experience of distress as an individual problem rather than an understandable response to the way that society is structured so unfairly. Liberation psychology calls into question the tendency of mental health services to pathologise disadvantaged people rather than the systems that oppress them. Liberation psychology also recognises that the inequality in our society effects everyone. While the effect of oppression tends to be invisible to those who hold more power and privilege, the inequities also impact negatively on privileged members of society by making it harder for them to recognise and benefit from the diversity around them. Inequality decreases trust and increases fear for all.
What might this look like in practice?1,2,7Much of accepted mental health practice, whether it be drug prescribing or psychological therapy, is based on getting clients to adjust to the world as it is and this in effect encourages compliance with the status quo. The underlying principle of these approaches is to make people ‘happy’ or ‘content’ and it tends to overlook other human needs for fairness and social justice or any desires to transform the society in which we live. A liberation psychology framework helps the practitioner to reframe a client’s experience of distress. Instead of seeing an individual’s distress as the result of pathology or a problem within the person, the form of the distress is understood as a way in which the person is responding to external and self-imposed internal oppression. The person’s response to this oppression may take many different forms. It may be physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual. It may be open and direct or disguised and confined to the privacy of their mind. The important thing for practitioners is to recognise that all responses are meaningful and can be seen as different ways in which a person resists their oppressive environment. The person’s response can be understood as commenting on the nature of the oppression they have experienced and also their place in the world. As well as recognising the way people resist oppression Liberation psychology uses critical consciousness as a method for changing a person’s awareness of their situation. Critical consciousness occurs when people come together and begin to share their experiences and develop a shared understanding of how their personal lives connect to a shared history. Creative approaches are often used such as poetry, art, dance, music, literature as ways to develop new shared stories. It also allows marginalised stories to be expressed and for silenced voices to be heard. This process of recovering a shared history helps people create self-respect and respectful relationships and to reject the role of either victim or victimiser both in their personal relationships and wider societal ones too. Liberation psychology is a framework that can be used to guide mental health practice. It is a framework that explicitly promotes social justice as a central value and has increasing relevance as more people sense that the status quo is unjust and that it is wrong to help people adjust to it. Liberation psychology asks us to challenge the authorities, institutions and practices that maintain this unjust society.
REFERENCES AND WEBSITE
- Afuape, T. (2011). Power, resistance and liberation in therapy with survivors of trauma. London: Routledge.
- Afuape, T & Hughes, G. (2016). Liberation Practices: Towards Emotional Well-being through Dialogue. London: Routledge
- Burton, M. (2004). Viva Nacho! Liberating Psychology in Latin America. The Psychologist,17, (10), 584-587,
- Burton, M., & Kagan, C. (2005). Liberation Social Psychology: Learning From Latin America. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 15(1), 63–78
- Martín-Baró, I. (1994). Writings for a Liberation Psychology (Edited by Adrianne Aron and Shawn Corne). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Wilkinson and Pickett (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Penguin.
- Wade, A. (1997). Small acts of living: Everyday resistance to violence and other forms of oppression. Contemporary Family Therapy, 19(1), 23-39.
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