Psychology and the Status Quo

On the previous page I argued that psychology, like all fields of social inquiry, is inherently political. I also noted that researchers in psychology and other academic disciplines tend to be politically progressive and I argued that this stems, in part, from the fact that the mission of the academy is itself politically progressive in certain respects.

In reality, however, the progressive character of academic disciplines is regularly vitiated and deflected by powerful forces from far beyond the academic world. One reason for this is that the consumers of academic knowledge are often powerful institutions. Psychological research, for example, is funded by grants from corporate foundations, direct institutional sponsors, industry groups, the military, and educational institutions and government agencies with complicated ties to all of the aforementioned sources. Not surprisingly, academic disciplines tend to tailor their missions to fit those of their benefactors. Thus, as the discipline of psychology has grown over the past 100 years, psychological research has often adjusted its goals to explore psychological issues in ways that will not be too troubling to persons and institutions that hold power. For example, Ian Lubek (1979, 1993) has pointed out that psychological research generally treats aggression as an individual pathology, despite the fact that the great majority and most severe kinds of violence are committed by socially sanctioned groups and institutions, including governments, in order to achieve publicly supported goals. When violence by marginalized individuals and groups occurs, it almost always does so, at least partly, as a direct or indirect response to unjust and intolerable conditions, a fact which is rarely acknowledged in the psychological literature. To illustrate this latter point, a few years ago I consulted a highly regarded introductory psychology textbook (Atkinson, et al., 2000) to see how it discussed the phenomenon of aggression. The section on aggression was far larger than that of any other textbook I could find. The authors devoted eight full pages to detailing psychological theories and findings on the causes of aggression, including the roles of natural selection, specific brain structures, hormones, social learning, imitation, positive reinforcement, psychodynamic processes, and the influence of television. In the entire review, however, social factors such as poverty and unjust treatment were alluded to in only a single sentence (p. 413).

Numerous other examples could be given, and I will mention just a few:

1. In the field of education, Kozol (1991) has detailed the staggering inequalities of educational resources between schools in wealthy and poor districts, resulting in a system that lavishes affluent children with enriching educational experiences while severely undercutting the education of poorer children in under-resourced schools. Yet psychologists who conduct research on learning have virtually ignored this situation. Thousands of psychological studies have been done on countless aspects of learning (physiological, social, pedagogical, cognitive, and familial), but almost none have focused on the effects of resource inequality.

2, Surveys of public opinion frequently suggest dissatisfaction and polarization among respondents on a number of contemporary issues. Yet psychologists generally do not attempt to explore the hopes, fears, and concerns of ordinary people in depth or detail – for example, in in-depth interviews. Instead, a vast number of studies have been conducted on attitude change – that is, on how ideas and preferences can be influenced by advertisers, politicians, and other persons interested in shaping public opinion rather than responding to it.

3. In the field of assessment, psychology has all but abandoned Alfred Binet’s original vision of psychological testing as a tool for ensuring that children with academic deficits receive adequate remedial help; instead, psychological testing has become an enormous industry, marketed on a vast scale and all too often serving primarily to categorize and route students from different socioeconomic backgrounds onto different educational or occupational tracks, a development which Binet himself explicitly warned against.

4. Several large-scale surveys have documented the connection between psychological disorders and environmental stressors like unemployment, poverty, poor living conditions, and racial minority status. Yet researchers in clinical psychology overwhelmingly focus on individual factors in psychopathology. When they do look at social factors, clinical researchers focus on the immediate social environment, like friends and family, but rarely look at the role of larger social processes. For example, a quick scan of research on the causes of various psychological disorders suggests that no more than about one percent focus on the influence of economic and other large scale factors, such as social class.

The point here is not that psychologists should drop their current research programs and focus their attention solely on these neglected areas; but the institutional blindness of psychology to issues of social concern and injustice is striking, as is its willingness to accommodate itself to the agendas of its funding agencies.

On the next page I will look at some of the steps that might be taken toward creating a more just and humane discipline of psychology.