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Critical Psychology: History & Theories

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Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders in a variety of settings. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

Critical psychology emphasizes how a society's social structure has an impact on the well-being of people. Explore the origins of critical psychology, compare and contrast it to traditional psychology, and examine the concept of the public sphere. Updated: 01/24/2022

A More Inclusive Psychology

Justina considers herself a critical psychologist. She spends much of her time as a professor working with her students, teaching them to approach the very bedrock tenets of their field with a searching eye. To her, traditional psychology leaves much of Earth's population out of its calculations. She hopes to help other psychologists recognize groups that often go unseen and make their discipline more just and inclusive.

Many people, even many psychologists, have not heard of this specialty area. What makes it different from the mainstream of psychological practice? How did it originate, and what are its aims?

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  • 0:03 A More Inclusive Psychology
  • 0:40 Critical Psychology Definition
  • 1:48 Positivism vs Qualitative Data
  • 3:16 Roots of Critical Psychology
  • 4:41 The Current Public Sphere
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Critical Psychology Definition

The idea of critical psychology arose from the concept that conventional psychology, to a great extent, buys into the status quo: the standard understanding of politics, economics, and social outlook. Most psychologists insist they do not take sides and want only to help people, and no doubt they do. However, the critical psychologist points out that the field is built on assumptions that tend to further the aims of the majority in society and overlook the needs of the minority.

Traditional psychology focuses on the individual and tends to only consider society as it relates to that individual. Critical psychology argues that the traditional perspective undermines the establishment of community and even supports and strengthens unjust social systems. Critical psychology also emphasizes the ways in which class and class barriers in society affect the thinking, actions, and mental health of individuals.

The goal of critical psychologists is to use the tools of their field to combat oppression and inequality and to work toward a more free and just world. To Justina, psychology is a political venture without ever even intending to be.

Positivism vs. Qualitative Data

One of the foundations of science, including psychology, is research, and the gold standard is often summed up in the term positivism. The positive approach holds that logic, objectivity, and the scientific method are the only ways to truth. Many critical psychologists feel that limiting research to quantitative analysis and rigid repeatable tasks causes too narrow a focus that loses much information in the translation.

Experimental research is not thrown aside altogether by most critical psychologists. However, they also incorporate qualitative approaches, like open-end interviews and participant action research, to a much greater degree than their more traditional colleagues.

Participant action research (PAR), as its name implies, gets the people being researched involved in the research. This approach is especially appropriate for critical psychologists, for whom the power differentials of society are a particular area of concern. Participants gather data, analyze it, learn to see trends and problem areas, and figure out for themselves how to address the problems.

Justina is using participant action research right now in her current project. Working with a group of disadvantaged teenagers, she helps them collect data about issues in their age group like vandalism and truancy, determine the causes behind them, and work out ways to make things better. She likes how PAR gives power back to the subjects of the research and makes them more equal partners with her as the researcher.

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