The Imposition of Western Psychology as Colonialism

New scholarship explores how eurocentric ideas inherent in western psychology reproduce colonialism and impact the Global South.

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The global export of Western psychology—with its centering of Eurocentric concepts and metrics of the self—to the Global South assumes a universal subject that is ego-centric, individualistic, and disconnected from community. New work from Sunil Bhatia and Kumar Priya details how this process of exportation in countries in the Global South, specifically India, is an outgrowth of colonialism and serves to deepen psychic wounds and caste-based violence.

Colonialism refers to the political and economic subordination of a nation or people to another nation. As distinct from colonialism, coloniality refers to the “long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism.” As Bhatia and Priya argue:

“The concept of ‘coloniality’ sheds light on how Euro-American psychology appears as a dominant form of knowledge across the world. One example of this dominance is the export of Euro-American psychological knowledge – personality tests, intelligence testing, performance evaluation tests, and new psychological discourses of self-actualization, peak experiences, mindfulness training, and low that contribute to the ideology of a neoliberal self.”

Western psychology, with its focus on individualism, is born from modernity’s preoccupation with “progress” and the unfolding of the Western self as contained, atomic, and separate from community and history.

While the classical period of colonialism may be over, coloniality is still alive in the knowledge production process and the asymmetrical living conditions – represented by massive disparities in control over the means of production and subsistence – of the Global North and South (not to mention its enduring, intergenerational traumas).

Drawing from detailed ethnographies of trauma and violence in Indian populations, the authors show how suffering for victims of religious or caste-based violence in India is experienced as an assault on social or cultural identity.

In these situations, Western-influenced psychiatric interventions that both depersonalize (from a biomedical lens) and individualize (by divorcing from social and cultural relations) a person’s suffering cause more harm than healing. As Bhatia and Priya note, in these situations, “the Western mental healthcare system may cause a second victimization for the survivors of violence by depicting their suffering as individual psychopathology.”

“Mental health professionals’ subtle disengagement and lack of empathy with the social suffering of the survivors was directly related to their heavy reliance on universalistic and individualistic Eurocentric diagnostic categories to psychologize (and thus commodify) the stress and violence that primarily arose from sociopolitical conditions.”

In other words, reliance on and adoption or exportation of Western psychiatric concepts and metrics of the self to other countries do more harm than good, especially in post-disaster contexts, where “survivors often seek to restore cultural coherence and meaning to their selfhood and relationships that diagnostic categories in Euro-American psychiatry such as PTSD often are unable to fully capture.”

Bhatia and Priya conclude:

“Understanding survivors’ selfhood and mental health in the context of politico-religious and caste-based violence requires community-based, insider knowledge, and critical and narrative-based explorations of human life. Otherwise, we run the risk of enacting double victimization-first by the structural forces of political violence and second by the misapplication of Western colonial and neoliberal conceptions of selfhood, well-being, and mental health.”

 

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Bhatia, S., and Priya, K. R. (2021). Coloniality and Psychology: From Silencing to Re-Centering Marginalized Voices in Postcolonial Times. Review of General Psychology 0(0), pp. 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1177/10892680211046507 (Link)

9 COMMENTS

  1. Can the Subaltern Speak? Well… apparently Western psychiatry is hearing voices. There are considerable critiques surrounding Western colonialisms’ current and imminent collapse, but the exporting of (our) psychiatry to the southern hemisphere is as good a marker of it’s desperate sate as most any other. At the very least, the fact that Western psychiatry “treatments” in both hemisphere’s are (effectively) identical, should sound multiple alarm bells.

  2. If you wanted Europeans and their descendants to be more mindful of concepts like “restore cultural coherence and meaning to their selfhood and relationships,” you shouldn’t have spent the past 60 years demanding we give up our own cultural coherence.

  3. This is extremely timely.

    I am looking at therapy from a person who is from a culture where this does not exist. This is what it looks to me
    1. Psychotherapy seems to be based on Christianity and specifically Catholicism – you go in a room – everything is ‘confidential’ to a point and you speak while a person (whom you do know nothing about) listens.

    2. Psychotherapy seems a way to commodify intimate relationships (no difference than prostitution is commodity of sex not love). Psychotherapy seems intimate no sex (sometime – hence why it is regulated) but intimate one way – very capitalistic. Nothing wrong with this but just let us acknowledge. People stay in it long time cause it is commodity of love without love though – very confusing.
    3. The power difference arises from the client being ‘shrunk” to childhood state of mind versus the therapist demanding they keep gate to what is reality for the child and stay adult state of mind. No winning situation for the client – unless they explode and breakdown and acknowledge this weird situation – and laugh – this is very important to be told you are healed. Or keep your integrity, inner power, leave be bitter for a while and eventually realize you survived a solitary confinement with a weird observational body and actually you have issues but fundamentally fine.
    4. Extreme belief (like again Christianity) that your childhood is more prominent than your adulthood. Is this really true? So if yes, everybody with trauma should be screwed for life. If you are confused about this look above #3.

    5. Do not get me wrong mental health exist but most people who use therapy are quite wealthy so wealthy to be able to pay $100 or more per hour but yet are treated powerless, childlike, encouraged to lead life by feelings (so valid when in fact feelings are so cheap and we have millions of them in life and no one needs to sit on them so long).

    6. Another strong belief like religion – you must talk to a person to heal your childhood trauma but if you live long enough to experience life and heal – not good. Your experience in life is never as good as sitting a room with a person whom you do not know – their word is more valuable than your own experience of a long life! If this was not true, I would have cried. Double-bind – the experience of sitting a room with a person will heal your developmental issues but living life and experiencing real situations to grow through will not. Verbatim from therapist. Not making this up!

    7. Mad in America is antipsychiatry only because you add meds to the above situations, and you basically burn the house down!

    8. I am very sure I will be challenged with there are million empirical studies – yes I smile at this and say sure…but there is also real world out there…just save your money, travel, see how all humanity lives and that is qualia!

    9. You do not need “the father figure of empirical research” keep you in shackles.

    10. Now how did this help me heal. I could write a book about this – very simple but I am running out of time and also want to keep you the same leash as this phenomenon! I am a jokester. The answer is hidden in this comment. Gosh I lived in this culture too long. Love and peace!

    • I understand what you say about the parallels between Catholic confession and psychotherapy but the institution of confidentiality to me has much more to do with Protestant ideas about privacy and private property (i.e. legal constraints on personal experience); also the one-on-one parallels the Protestant emphasis on an individual relationship with Jesus more than Catholic practice(s).

      And the over-emphasis on childhood and childhood experiences originates with Freud who was not Christian.

  4. I want to add my comment above to clarify #3:
    Most of the time (and I met few) people go to therapy with an issue and when they are reduced to this level of childhood driven only by ‘affects’ where the therapist is functioning as the ‘thinking’, many people end up having panic, psychosis or even suicidal thoughts and are considered after ‘difficult’ clients or better to be sophisticated are given real nick names ‘borderline’ ‘bipolar’ or if you really want to erase them from humanity ‘schizophrenia’.
    So often it is frightening ordeal to be driven unfunctional like this.

    Sadly.

  5. If you are interested in this look at Connell’s ‘Southern Theory’ – which is about the social sciences being dominated by the Northern theories, which frankly don’t work when applied to many indigenous cultures. Another very good broad overview, but a bit lengthy to read, is Joseph Henrich’s ‘The Weirdest People in the World’ – where ‘WEIRD’ is an acronym for Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic) besides the usual implication of being peculiar. He plays out the origins of this in the Roman Catholic church, and later the protestants, forbidding cousin marriages, with increased rigidity (4th 5th and even 6th cousins not being able to marry each other), which had the effect of mobilising this european populace, and making them more individualistic. He tends to kill the book with too much detail. Then you can also blame Cartesianism for individuating the European mind – most westerners believe they have a mind (as a thing) inside their heads, which allows them to stand apart from the world and manipulate it (and their fellow travellers); but a new philosophy of mind has arisen this century that puts Descartes in his place. Its called enactivism – and it doesn’t think of ‘mind’ as a thing (noun) but more as a process (a verb); and as you have more (motor) nerves going to the senses than coming in, you can think of yourself as like a blind man with a cane – using your senses to stay in tune with the world. This is far closer to the way (many) indigenous people see the world.
    When it comes to psychotherapy, I think solution focused brief therapy comes closer to this new philosophy of mind – as it doesn’t even bother with the problem

    Hope this makes sense and I hope its not too late..

  6. In Truth, who cares whether psychology is Western Imposed Colonialism as the title implies? As opposed to other ills that plague humanity and the world, where psychology originates or that it might even in the slightest be related to “colonialism” is a useless argument that seeks to weaken the fact that psychology is nothing but pure evil that has harmed and even killed way too many people all over the world. Psychology and its evil false medical buddy, twin, psychiatry, etc. seeks to break humans into unidentifiable parts and causes humans to essentially break from its creator in heaven. Psychology teaches us that we have no spirit. And psychiatry takes it a step further though its drugging and therapizing. Some assert there is a similarity between Catholicism or Protestantism and psychology; but, I respectfully disagree. As opposed to Christianity, psychology seeks to cause us to split from God and to seek answers elsewhere, amongst other frail, fallible, mortal humans. It is a “false-face.” —a “false-face” that destroys, debilitates, damages, harms and even kills. In this plagues, like I said as opposed to probably some other plagues, we need to be concerned with less where it came from and what it is doing to us all—no matter where we live on this planet. Thank you.

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