Ian Parker is one of the most important contemporary critics of the discipline of psychology. A prolific writer, with over 25 books to his name, he has a formidable reputation in the fields of critical psychology, Marxist psychology, and psychoanalytic theory. He is a fellow of the British psychological society, Emeritus Professor at the University of Leicester, and the managing editor of the Annual Review of Critical Psychology. Parker is also a practicing psychoanalyst analyst and a member of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research and the London Society of the New Lacanian School.
His career reflects the principles he talks about – the importance of challenging powerful institutions and the need for collectively mobilizing against discrimination and exploitation. As the “Psy-disciplines” face increased scrutiny for involvement in past abuses, continued collusion with powerful and unjust institutions, and deep criticisms over current psychological research and practice, Parker’s work has particular relevance.
His criticisms of psychology and psychiatry started from his university days as a student. He observed that while other social sciences were critical of their received knowledge and open to contributions from the civil rights and women’s movements, psychology continued to reinforce old power relations and pathologized these same social movements. Since then, Parker has become one of the most well-known critics of mainstream psychology, and his work repeatedly questions the role of ideology and power in the field. These contributions are evident throughout his writing, including his four-volume ‘major work’ Critical Psychology (2011) and a Handbook of Critical Psychology (2015). He is currently the editor of the ‘Concepts for Critical Psychology’ series for Routledge.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Ayurdhi Dhar: Can you tell our listeners what Critical Psychology is?
Ian Parker: Critical Psychology is a way of stepping back and looking at the discipline of psychology. Rather than taking what psychologists say for granted, critical psychology turns the gaze around and reflexively looks at what psychologists are doing — how they determine our behavior, the ways we think, and the ways they specify different kinds of disorders for us.
Dhar: Some of the most subversive ideas in abnormal psychology have come from critical and radical psychology’s contribution to the areas of mental health and illness. How did this dissenting line of thought develop?
Parker: The most important thing for radical psychology is building alliances. Instead of building the theory first and then telling people what radical or critical psychology is, we make alliances with practitioners to learn from people’s experiences of the mental health system. We draw on their stories, on their experiences, to work together, to challenge what our colleagues in psychology are doing.
The most critical work is done in meetings that bring together users of psychology, psychiatry, or psychotherapy services. We bring service users together with professionals who think critically, are worried about what they are doing, and with academics who are interested in these ideas.
Dhar: Have you found that a lot of professionals are concerned about the way we are practicing psychology, or is it something that you only find on the margins?
Parker: You still find these on the margins, but interestingly, if you look at the critical psychiatry movement and the anti-psychiatry movement, it has always been led by psychiatrists like R.D. Lang or Thomas Szasz, Marius Romme or Franco Basaglia — from different parts of the world.
Trained as psychiatrists, they started to see that there is something seriously wrong with what they are doing, that it is not helping people, and that they need to find alternatives. They reached out beyond the discipline to find people to talk to. There are people in psychiatry and psychology who are worried about the kind of knowledge and practices that they are developing.
Back in the 1980s, when we tried to build a movement called “psychology, politics, resistance” in Britain, we went to North Manchester, a poorer part of the city. We wanted to talk about these ideas with some psychologists we knew were radicals. They said, “look, we haven’t got time to do any psychology. We do housing advice, welfare supports, and help people to develop networks.”
Actually, they were doing radical work; they knew that the psychology they were taught was useless, and they were doing more useful things. We need to connect with those people who know that psychology is simply a sticking plaster (band-aid) for problems and actually makes things worse.
Dhar: It is interesting that it is psychiatrists who came up with these radical critiques because there are currently global de-prescribing and de-diagnosing movements emerging from the medical field. Even though these critiques are on the margins, it’s helpful to see that at least someone is initiating a conversation. Why isn’t is coming from inside psychology?
Parker: That is because a lot of psychologists take for granted the information they get from mainstream psychiatry because there is a pecking order. The psychiatrists are at the top, then the psychologists, then psychotherapists, and then the poor counselors.
Psychologists want to be like psychiatrists, so they always defer to them. We need to connect with the critical psychiatrists who are starting to unravel these claims that medical psychiatry makes.
Dhar: In the last decade, cracks have been developing in the discipline of psychology, from accusations of spin in journal abstracts to the corrupting influence of pervasive industry influence. Your new book, “Psychology Through Critical Auto-ethnography,” is about your experience in the areas of research, teaching, and practice of psychology. What did you find lacking in the way psychology was performing its research, and in what was being taught in universities?
Parker: Most of the psychology carried out today is still quantitative. It still reduces people to numbers, combines people in experiments, and gives broad general statements about human behavior and cognition. It does not account for individual experience and the meaning that people give to their lives.
Years ago, there were alternative qualitative approaches that suggested that psychology needed a paradigm revolution. A paradigm revolution in science is one that changes the fundamental coordinates, the ways of thinking, about what the academic discipline is. For example, in astronomy, we thought that all the planets went around the Earth, but a paradigm revolution, which was provoked by Copernicus and Galileo, showed us that this was wrong and that planets circulated around each other.
We need a similar paradigm revolution in psychology to treat people as if they are human beings. The old experimental paradigm, which treats people as if they are objects, does things to them and does not take their words seriously, is still very powerful. A new paradigm works with the meanings that people give to their experiences.
This was being argued for by philosopher of science Rom Harre who argued that it would be more scientific because it would take seriously what human beings were and what they could do. Well, the paradigm revolution failed.
Psychology departments are still experimental laboratory-based departments. To be honest, I have concluded that I give up. I give up trying to change psychology. We’ve got to start somewhere else.
Dhar: Where would you like to start? With the people working on the ground who said: “We are not even trying to do psychology anymore”?
Parker: That’s right. And we are connecting with people who’ve been trained as psychologists, psychiatrists, or psychotherapists about ways to seize radical spaces. You talked about the cracks earlier, and they are opening up. There have always been cracks, and we have to bring together people who are opening things on the inside of the field with those who are subjected to these practices on the outside.
Dhar: Could you give us an example of that, where somebody chipped away at these cracks, and something quite incredible was revealed?
Parker: An example is the Hearing Voices movement — the network of people who hear voices, but they think about those voices differently. They have different explanations and find that mainstream psychiatry pathologizes their experience and tells them that there is something wrong with them.
The hearing voices network is exactly that kind of initiative that gives a different space for people to reflect on their experiences, and to work together to share their ideas. They can be in control of the process and, for example, have a choice about using medication. We shift the balance of power from the professionals to the users of services.
Dhar: In your work, you place psychology in a political and a cultural context to address how psychology’s understanding of abnormal and normal is deeply interconnected with powerful ideological and institutional forces. Can you elaborate on that connection?
Parker: When we talk to people who are given various diagnoses, we find they have their own personal explanations and understandings of their experiences. Also, they share these experiences with others who suffer the same kinds of oppression — oppression of being a woman, a black person, being lesbian, gay, or trans. That is why self-help groups that bring people who are subjected to psychology together are so important. They allow people to develop a consciousness of those shared meanings that are given to them, those shared forms of pathology that are handed down to them.
Psychologists and psychiatrists often have reinforced the pathologizing of social movements. For example, a few years ago, a behavioral psychologist at Manchester University described in his class a patient who was worried about her weight. He said he put her on the scales to show her what her weight was, in order to show her facts. One of the students asked, “But what did she mean by thinking that she had the wrong weight?” My colleague immediately said it meant she was wrong. That is the problem with a cognitive-behavioral approach. It leads the psychologist into this way of thinking that they know best and can show people what reality is.
But the reality is that we live in a deeply unequal society in which different people are given different rights to speak. Older white men like me are the ones who do most of the talking. When other voices talk about their own experiences, they are told they are wrong. Psychology reinforces the unequal distribution of power. This is why the social movement aspect of critical psychology is so crucial to change the world and make psychology itself obsolete.
Dhar: You have examined the relationship between psychology and Marxism in your work. Could you say a little bit about what Marxist theory adds to psychology?
Parker: Before I trained as a psychologist, I was a Marxist. By Marxism, I mean the attempt by people to collectively work together to take the means of production into their own hands and determine their own lives. It doesn’t mean endorsing the Soviet Union or China or any of these terrible regimes. Other comrades in the group questioned why I would train in psychology because it is a bourgeois discipline. It individualizes experience. That is the reason why I wanted to go into it to find out how it works.
In my latest book, I went into this discipline as an anthropologist, describing what I found. I am concerned with bringing people together and enabling them to work collectively. In that process, they confront the capitalist state and large corporations that are interested in maintaining their power and keeping us all docile and obedient. We need to work collectively to become what we are, which is collective beings thinking reflexively.
We need to look at the ways the powerful are telling us we can’t change things for ourselves, that every Marxist is a filthy red who wants to impose a dictatorship, every feminist is a man-hater who wants to destroy men, every lesbian is a pervert who wants to overturn every kind of morality, and every black activist is someone who wants to kill the white people.
Dhar: What were some of the challenges, the pushback, you faced when you were trying to do this work?
Parker: People are very committed to the theoretical frameworks they have been trained in. They want to hold tight to the status and the qualifications. Some people are open to listening, and others are threatened.
For example, the founding of the Hearing Voices Network came about when a patient, Patsy Hague, challenged the psychiatrist Marius Romme. She said to Romme, “You’re a Catholic, aren’t you? That means that you must hear the voice of God.” Marius Romme realized that she was right. Together, they learned that many people heard voices, but the problem wasn’t the voices, it was the relationship that you have with the voices.
In 1989, we brought over Marius Romme and Patsy Hague to Manchester for a session. An old traditional psychologist looked very worried and asked Patsy, “Surely, you want to get rid of the voices.” And she said, “No, I’m very happy with the voices, the voices are my friends, they are a form of support to me,” and he just could not understand that. He kept insisting: “But surely you would be happier without the voices.” He just could not get it, that there were different kinds of experience and different ways of being in the world.
That’s what we’re up against with psychologists and psychiatrists. I’ll give you another example. We had a campaign in Manchester called “Northwest Right to Refuse electroshock” to ensure that people have the right to refuse electroconvulsive therapy. One psychiatrist in the West of Manchester actually said that he would have electroshock even if he knew that the machine was faulty. This shows how steeped in these ideas these professionals are.
Dhar: You have said that paying attention to language is essential because psychological theories can conceal and reveal what they want using language. For example, the concept of anosognosia, which is used to mean “a lack of insight into your mental illness.” This concept creates a catch-22; if you agree that you have a brain disease, then you have a brain disease, but if you don’t agree, then it is a sign that you definitely have that brain disease. Could you speak a little bit about the place of language in this discipline of psychology?
Parker: Language is bound up with practice and has real consequences. It isn’t only a description of the world. It frames experience in a certain kind of way. When a psychiatrist makes a diagnosis, that diagnosis is a use of language, and it has effects on the person. As a result, they’re going to end up on a certain kind of medication or treatment. So, the language is bound up with power.
We have always been interested in discourse, which is just the organization of language — discourse of medicine, of care, of charity, and resistance as well. We were interested in the connection between discourse and power. Who has the right to speak who is reduced to an object when certain kinds of discourses are used?
For example, when slaves were running away to escape from the plantations, the United States psychiatrists had a word for this: Drapetomania. It just means the tendency for the slave to run away. What a bizarre thing to give a psychiatric label to a perfectly understandable form of resistance and a rejection of oppression.
Dhar: What points of resistance does the current sociopolitical context of psychology offer?
Parker: The approach is finding many different points of resistance, not simply retreating into one political party and expecting magical solutions. We must enable people themselves to find their own points of resistance, whether it is in the factory, home, clinic, or in prison, wherever it is.
The key thing is to connect with the other kinds of resistance that are going on inside psychiatry, and more broadly, in the social movements that are challenging racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. If the points of resistance remain isolated and separate, then we’re not going to get anywhere.
Dhar: In your book Psy-Complex in Question, you wrote about “new psychoanalysis.” For many people, psychoanalysis, more than other sub-disciplines, places the cause of people’s suffering inside the person. What do you mean by this “new psychoanalysis,” and how is it politically and socially cognizant?
Parker: Many people move away from psychology towards psychoanalysis and then turn into evangelists of psychoanalysis: from the frying pan into the fire. Psychoanalysis as a mainstream practice is as bad as psychiatry, maybe worse because it makes people feel responsible for their problems. But the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan shifted attention to language, and how language enters us and frames how we think.
This opens a connection with political movements, because if it is language that defines who we are, then as we change cultural conditions and ways of speaking about the world, we change ourselves as well. Now you have a possibility of thinking about the intimate connection between personal subjectivity and political processes.
In my practice as a psychoanalyst in Manchester, I never make diagnoses. I open a space for people to speak about their experience in a way that they’ve never spoken to anyone before. In that process, something transformative happens as they hear themselves speak because they hear themselves repeat certain words and phrases, descriptions that they have been given. Then they can distance themselves from those terms, descriptions, and open up to a different way of living.
But as they go back into the everyday world, they come across the old forms of pathological labels. Therapy on its own will solve nothing. We need broader social therapy that will change the world and the conditions that give rise to so many forms of distress.
We need to develop forms of support for people who aren’t able to cope — genuine asylum for people who need time away from the world, time to reflect, time to have space.
One of the initiatives I have been involved with is called Asylum magazine. It takes the notion of asylum seriously. It wants to reconfigure things so that the old medical asylums are done away with, but people have genuine spaces of asylum where they can be who they are as human beings, and then find ways of reconnecting with other people.
Dhar: There is debate over whether we can make traditional psychology better, or whether we need to get rid of it altogether. Where do you stand and why? Is there anything in the old paradigm that you think can be salvaged?
Parker: Here, I have differences with my friends in the Asylum magazine. Some of them say that there is a possibility of developing alternative forms of knowledge within psychiatry or psychology. I am a rather negative person.
We used to say that charity is perfume in the sewers of capitalism. I would say that that psychologists think they are social engineers, but they are the maintenance men who keep the sewers in place. They pump all our distress down into the sewers and deal with it there in that private space inside each individual.
I think that psychology is completely bankrupt and needs to be done away with. Some people have told me that prisoners sometimes use sewers to escape, but that only happens in films like the Shawshank redemption. Usually, people go into the sewers to escape, and they drown. I think psychology is a complete dead-end discipline that developed at the same time as capitalism. We need to get rid of them both.
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Foundations