As a radical approach to psychology and psychotherapy, Liberation Psychology aims to move the field away from methods that simply help people adapt to current injustices and instead refuse complicity with socially and morally unjust practices.
An article published in Psychology from the Margins examines the history and ideas of liberation psychologists such as Ignacio Martín-Baró. The author, Hannah Heitz, lays out some of his most effective tools for combating the sociopolitical status quo within psychiatry and psychology (and society more broadly). Alongside Martín-Baró, Heitz suggests several avenues that critically minded professionals could take to adjust the scales of justice.
“Aligned with the importance of critical consciousness, Martín-Baró noted that psychology must consider the individual within the social system. Without considering the sociopolitical and historical context of the individual, oppression, and barriers to the development of historical identity are perpetuated,” Heitz explains.
“As such, liberation psychology requires critical consciousness, awareness of social inequities, and practices that dismantle the social and psychological factors that uphold oppression—including both institutional and internalized oppression. Personal liberation is part of the process of collective liberation. When those who are oppressed begin the process of liberation, it becomes possible for all to experience emancipation and healing.”
The discipline of liberation psychology, inspired partly by Brazilian educator and revolutionary Paulo Freire, as well as Jesuit priest and psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró of El Salvador, champions the wellbeing of “common people” against elite interests and patterns of social domination.
Inspired by Latin American liberation theology, liberation psychology emphasizes the necessity of treating mental health as a social, political, and economic issue rather than through a conventional individualistic lens.
This includes, at times, conflict with prevailing paradigms within psychiatry and psychology, which many liberation psychologists view as complicit with the sociopolitical status quo despite their professed a-historicism and a-politicism.
For example, this conflict came to a head in El Salvador, where Martín-Baró was assassinated by the Salvadoran military, presumably for his radical (and threatening to the status quo) ideas. It should be noted that the elite battalion which performed Martín-Baró’s assassination was a counter-insurgency unit trained by the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas in 1980.
The current article traces the origins of liberation psychology. It outlines some of its primary conceptual tools to be mobilized for a critique of mainstream psychology and to develop a framework for an alternative psychology that takes social context and power issues seriously.
Heitz notes, first and foremost, that conventional psychiatry and psychology have understood the individual person as primary—an identified patient in family systems lingo.
On the contrary, liberation psychology “identifies oppressive sociopolitical systems as the origin of distress.” Heitz explains:
“…liberation psychology suggests that an individual holding a marginalized identity might experience anxiety in response to their experiences of discrimination and oppression, with an emphasis on the role that larger structures and sociopolitical factors play in perpetuating their experience of oppression at the individual and collective level…
…According to liberation psychology, marginalized individuals and groups experience prejudice and bias, internalize negative stereotypes, and are pathologized by Western psychology for identifying or responding to oppression–all of which make it difficult to experience psychosocial well-being.”
Within the liberation psychology of Martín-Baró, then, the goal is to rethink and re-enact a different kind of psychology which could take these social and contextual factors into account as it seeks to redress what ails people—what Martín-Baró called psychological as an “instrument of change” rather than a program for adaptation or the maintenance of social dominance.
Important concepts, “tasks,” or pertinent questions for a liberation psychology are numerous, but Heitz focuses on a handful. They are:
- Critical consciousness or “conscientização.”
- Recovery of historical memory
- De-ideologize everyday experience
- Utilize the people’s virtues
- We must work differently
- “But if [psychology] contributes to alienation or maintaining control of the people, what is psychology for? People don’t need any such psychology.”
Critical consciousness, or conscientização in Portuguese
This notion refers to a process of increasing dialogue and awareness around the material, social, and political conditions of one’s (or a community’s) situatedness in the world, with particular attention paid to positions of subjugation. For Martín-Baró, according to Heitz, critical consciousness involves three crucial steps:
“First, individual change occurs through active engagement in dialogue. Second, the individual becomes aware of systems of oppression and the possibility of making change. Third, the individual begins to understand their ability to actively shape their identity and their role in the social context; this part of the process includes a historical understanding of the self and community.”
Critical consciousness is the raising of awareness through dialogue (not just interpersonal but often communal as well) of the situation in which people find themselves. This opens the door to further activities down the road, such as activist efforts and a refusal to accept such conditions for themselves.
Recovery of historical memory
To understand the present and prepare for a brighter future, we must know where we come from. “Historical memory” must not be lost. Giving an example, Heitz states:
“For example, following the Guatemalan civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996 and primarily targeted civilians of Mayan descent, the Catholic Church initiated the Project for the Recovery of Historical Memory… The project’s goal was to allow survivors of political violence in Guatemala to share their experiences and stories to inform a more equitable future and promote justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation.”
Other efforts along similar lines have existed/continue to exist for Jewish people engaging in activities of historical remembrance around the Holocaust, and perhaps some efforts in post-Apartheid South Africa related to efforts at communal repair and reconciliation.
Inherent to this approach is a belief in the power of preserving historical and cultural narrative, as it at least in part explains where people come from—what they have gone through. Rather than forget these ordeals in some attempt to “start afresh,” liberation psychologists believe it is vital to find roots in one’s historical lineage, even when it involves suffering.
De-ideologize everyday experience
This concept is connected to the idea of critical consciousness. The emphasis here, however, is on “stepping back from socially constructed stories” and stepping instead into “reflection” and “attempting to objectively observe our social environment.”
One can think of recent debates in the U.S. around the educational reform attempts of the 1619 Project and its conservative backlash, as cultural wars are fought over founding myths and “socially constructed stories.”
For Martín-Baró, these are not simply competing ideas or discourses with no grounding. On the contrary, de-ideologizing presumes that there is a degree of truth we can arrive at regarding what is happening around us socially and politically. Looking at this issue concretely, for example, one can see how international corporations across the world seek to extract resources from “developing” countries, as well as to sway the decision-making of powerful leaders and governmental bodies in the “developed” world” through lobbying efforts.
Martín-Baró believed in using multiple tools available to social scientists, from quantitative analysis to qualitative work, in order to uncover and de-ideologize these social truths, which have been covered over by new stories and truths by those in power.
Utilize the People’s Virtues
Given that Martín-Baró, inspired by liberation theology, believed in the power of the common people to determine their own fate, he also thought that liberation psychologists must look to the people themselves to answer the question “what is to be done?” This opposes the conventional psychiatric and psychological method of perhaps including the voice of the marginalized as a token perspective—hardly would they often seek to put the voice and lived experience of the people first.
Likewise, this was a move on Martín-Baró’s part to work against the “deficit” model under which a great deal of psychiatry and psychology have worked, attempting to find what is “wrong” with people to provide some “fix.” Instead, liberation psychology looks to champion and amplify the already-existing resources of marginalized and oppressed people.
Additionally, this approach goes against the colonial mindset, which is prevalent in much of western psychiatry and psychology. Rather than coming in with preset ideas of human well-being and human pathology, what Martín-Baró is proposing requires humility and a willingness to observe and even follow the guidance of those who are most intimately aware of the struggles of oppression and domination. At times this may conflict with western ideas of the self, others, the world, and even cosmologies.
Heitz notes, for example, that western medicine has often been suspicious of indigenous healing practices but that there may be more to these practices—situated in communal settings—than western medicine can fully understand. If nothing else, it is an act of colonialism to come in and tell a cultural group, “no, no, your entire approach is wrong. We have it figured out”—all the while paying no heed to how these practices may benefit the community and its members.
We must work differently.
For Martín-Baró, working differently meant a different kind of therapeutic practice and, according to Keitz, “reimagining the traditionally individual bounds of psychology.” Essentially, Martín-Baró believed that it was not enough to reform therapeutic or group therapeutic practice. Instead, an imaginative alternative to psychology was needed, which could “operate at a structural level to “depolarize, demilitarize, and deideologize” to produce meaningful, long-term change.”
Heitz notes that although there are significant differences between civil-war El Salvador and the contemporary United States, with the COVID-19 pandemic coinciding alongside matters of racial injustice—systemic disenfranchisement among racial and other lines—U.S. psychologists are in perhaps an opportune position to begin thinking about how to “approach care differently,” taking issues such as oppression and access to resources into greater account.
“But if [psychology] contributes to alienation or maintaining control of the people, what is psychology for? People don’t need any such psychology.”
Given liberation psychology’s insistence that much of mainstream psychiatry and psychology maintain relationships of oppression, domination, alienation, and more, then what is to be done from a liberation psychology perspective? Are psychology and psychiatry worth saving?
Before answering that question, Heitz tackles the issue of psychology and psychiatry’s ignorance (knowing or unknowing) once more:
“Taking Martín-Baró’s statement a step further, by ignoring societal oppression, even if we are clinically addressing the individual consequences of oppression, we are contributing to a form of psychology that minimizes, and even ignores, sociopolitical circumstances.”
Instead, Heitz argues for multiple avenues that liberation-focused psychologists can take—informed as well by feminist therapies and others outside of psychology calling for changes in addressing systemic (racial) social issues, like the historian and antiracist scholar Ibram X. Kendi.
Among the possibilities she lists are 1) working for black liberation (and thriving) within academia, 2) initiatives and programs within an organization (such as efforts by the American Psychological Association and its various divisions) to come up with action plans for addressing social problems, 3) political advocacy, both individually and collectively, such as “voting, calling local and state representatives, or volunteering time and expertise through larger initiatives organized by the American Psychological Association or state psychological associations.”
“We must actively engage in dismantling oppressive structures and empower oppressed groups to do the same to promote psychological liberation. Bringing the ideas of Martín-Baró and Kendi together, it is clear that if psychologists are not actively fighting against oppression, then the discipline of psychology is not serving the people, and it is not supporting healing or liberation.
Psychology, as it exists in the United States today, is not equitably meeting the needs of all individuals and groups. In fact, in some cases, the field continues to perpetuate inequities. While some of these inequities are entrenched beyond the field of psychology, such as the healthcare system in the United States, there are ways psychologists can advocate for change, and it is our responsibility to do so. Liberation psychology provides a framework to understand and make sense of psychology’s history, prioritize oppressed voices, facilitate positive change, and work toward collective healing and liberation.”
Heitz, H. K. (2022) “Liberation Psychology: Drawing on history to work toward resistance and collective healing in the United States.” Psychology from the Margins, 4(4). Bottom of Form (Link)