Do Psychologists Inhibit Awareness of Oppressive Social Structures?

New study calls for psychologists and career counselors to be aware of its role in reproducing unequal and unjust working conditions.

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A recent study published in the British Journal of Guidance & Counselling explores the psychosocial consequences of unemployment to reflect on and critique the role of psychology in the contemporary socio-politico context.

Researchers evaluated a Focus Group Discussion to investigate how eight Portuguese psychologists interpreted the results of two quantitative studies. The authors, Mariana Lucas Casanova, Patrício Costa, Rebecca Lawthom, and Joaquim Luís Coimbra, identified two main discourses, “the hegemonic psychological discourse” and the “social context is an aggressor” discourse and explored how the role of psychologists in mainstream psychology may reproduce power dynamics and a neoliberal worldview.

They evaluate how the construction of the “employable individual” and the limits of psychology influence career counselling’s theory and practice. The authors offer their reflections and critiques with the end goal of promoting an individual’s well-being, collective agency, conscientization, emancipation, and career development.

“The power of mainstream psychology, namely through cognitive-behavioral approaches, is still hegemonic, adopting apolitical perspectives, that promote forms of subjectivity that engender a calculable, individualistic, entrepreneurial, and utilitarian self for all. People become another commodity, a commodity that must compete with other workers to assure a job, a scarce resource.”

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The authors write about a precarious time, the economic crisis in 2007/2008. Portugal saw an increase in unemployment rates, deregulation of labor relations, and insecurity. They also saw a rise in reinforcing negative perceptions of the unemployed. The authors point towards mainstream psychology and the globalization of neoliberalism as a worldview to demonstrate how individualization has become a hegemonic form of socialization. Values of competitiveness, entrepreneurialism, adaptability, and conformity have become dominant, and have resulted in poverty being viewed as a pathology or moral and psychological failings, rather than a result of unfortunate events or socio-political flaws.

Thus, inequality becomes legitimized and acts as an agent of social control, and governments can evade responsibility for their role in the matter. The authors set out to critically reflect on these problems and critique the hegemonic nature of the positivistic scientific paradigm in psychology.

They explore the following questions regarding the psychologists/career counsellors in their research: “How do they give meaning to results? How do they perceive their professional role? How do socio-political issues influence their practice?”

A group of eight Portuguese psychologists were evaluated while they discussed and interpreted the results of two quantitative studies. The participants were all white and their ages fell in the range of the 30s and 40s. They each represented different areas of psychology and career counselling.

The first study given to the participants evaluated the relationship between the experience of work, psychosocial uncertainty, and emotional coping strategies from 2009 to 2019 as a result of the economic crisis in Portugal. The study results shed light on the experience of unemployed people and showed “reduced access to work’s benefits generates more psychosocial uncertainty, and that financial deprivation and increased psychosocial uncertainty foster the adoption of emotional coping strategies.”

The second study confirmed the results of the first, in terms of the impact of financial access and psychosocial uncertainty influence personal agency. Additionally, the second study evaluated variables such as sociopolitical control, and orientation to social dominance, and the results showed that “financial deprivation and psychosocial uncertainty may negatively impact sociopolitical consciousness and may contribute to beliefs on social dominance orientation and anti-egalitarianism, undermining sociopolitical participation.”

The authors described the two main steps of their analysis process. In the first, they use a social-constructionist thematic approach, which accepts the subjectivity and non-neutrality of science to identify main themes. In the second, to understand how the participants position themselves and construct the social world, they used “Critical Discourse Analysis” and identified two main discourses. They supported their argument by providing various examples pulled from the focus group discussion to demonstrate debates between the discourses and how they are exhibited by the identified themes.

Discourses

The Critical Discourse Analysis resulted in the identification of the following two discourses:

  1. “The Hegemonic Psychological Discourse”

This was the dominant discourse identified, which reproduces the neoliberal values of profit and individualism.

“Within psychology, this discourse manifests the ‘psy-complex’, that constructs psychological life and thus ‘regulates it and individualizes, psychologizes, essentializes and naturalizes what are socially constructed features of particular politico-socioeconomic arrangements which privilege the interests of the already powerful.”

Here, the authors explain how this discourse results in creating the perfect worker, what they call the “employable individual”, who aligns with the above values, and as a result, anyone else is seen as a failure.

  1. “The social context is an aggressor”

This discourse includes the socio-political and economic roots of psychological ailments and adopts a social-constructionist approach. The authors note that the discourse did not present a dichotomous view between social and individual, but an integrative approach acknowledging the complexity between the two.

Themes

The authors explored the discourses identified through the analysis of the following two themes:

  1. Construction of the “employable individual”

Through the description of this theme, the authors emphasize how positive psychology aims to change individuals to fit into utilitarian neoliberal values, so that they function well within society. As a result, the profession emphasizes a “shallow individualistic perception of happiness that privileges a neoliberal form of freedom of choice and internal locus of control.” The authors remind readers of the dangers of the reification of values of individualism, which is competition, capitalism, inequality, and injustice.

They claim that psychologists usually seek strategies to reduce external locus of control and increase internal ones. As a result, there is the internalization of responsibility for unemployment which leads to apathy, instead of the acknowledgement of unemployment as a result of socioeconomic and political circumstances may lead to collective action and social uprising.”

  1. Limits of psychology

They describe the theme of the limits of psychology through delving into an example from one of their “politically critical” participants, Manuel, who recognized the political dimension for well-being, but also felt pressure to position himself as “neutral” and adopt the medical paradigm. They suggest this is due to the power of the hegemonic discourse, and the fear of personal convictions infiltrating psychologist and career counsellors practice result in refraining from interventions that foster awareness of oppressive social structures.

In conversation with the results, the authors acknowledged that they are interpretive, and there may be numerous other ways to view and understand them. Additionally, they mention the analysis is influenced by the authors reference frameworks, the theoretical frameworks used, and the personal and professional experiences of the authors.

To conclude, this study offered a critique of mainstream psychology and an exploration of its role as “an ideological apparatus that maintains power structures in contemporary societies, and the hegemonic power of neoliberalism by producing a discourse that promotes adaptability to toxic environments, conformism, and engenders personal distress and a sense of inadequacy through interventions that blame the victim for her/his vulnerability.”

The authors call for psychologists and career counsellors alike to recognize the expansion of the psy-complex. They posit that that career counselling could have a crucial role within psychology given its issues are directly related to the socioeconomic and political context, and that career counselors must be aware of its role in reproducing unequal and unjust working relations and conditions. If they are, psychology and career counselling may be able to trouble the hegemony and conformity that result in the major limitations of psychology and the socio-political effects on mental well-being.

This study contributes to growing bodies of literature that advocate for greater focus on the social determinants of mental health, psychological programs that work to “modify” unemployed individuals and promote conformity, as well as engage with conversations of how neoliberal ideology is embedded in the psychologists agenda and its impacts on psychological well-being. In relation to the construction of “the employable individual,” similar research on the effects of neoliberal capitalism take the conversation further to address whether psychotherapy can counter the discourses that position individuals as entrepreneurial agents.

 

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Lucas Casanova, M., Costa, P., Lawthom, R., & Coimbra, J. L. (2022). The hegemonic psychological discourse and its implications for career counselling and psychological intervention. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 50(4), 515–532. https://doi.org/10.1080/03069885.2022.2065243 (Link)

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Ally Riddle
Ally is pursuing a master's in interdisciplinary studies through New York University's XE: Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement. She uses the relationship between anthropology, public health, and the humanities to guide her research. Her current interests lie at the intersection of literature and psychology as a method to reframe the way we think about different mental states and experiences. Ally earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota in Biology, Society, & Environment.

5 COMMENTS

    • Yes! Social workers, Psychologists, Nurse Practitioners, PA’s and Nurses work together to “follow the strict guidelines” and follow the “standard of care” motto with psychiatry and labelling and drugging people despite long term poor outcomes. They gaslight and ignore the fact that the patient before them is getting worse and worse. It is just endless treatment of symptoms and tamping things down here and there. It is called sickcare and the sicker you get the more $ there for reaping.

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  1. I’ve been SAYING this for years now. It’s one of the main reasons why I gave up on therapy and only take my psychiatric medication. I’d give that up too and only self medicate with fentanyl, meth, and any other drugs I see help me not to kms, just so I wouldn’t have to deal with anything to do with the mental health industry, but getting off all my psych. meds would also mean I kms lol. I can’t even recommend that other people with mental health issues engage with therapy and psychiatry anymore because of how these institutions have only served to further oppress, alienate, and abuse those of us who CAN’T assimilate into society and support ourselves under our current system. Honestly the only advice I can give now is, “if you’re not considered ‘so far gone’ and as fucked up as I am, try it, but in my last 14 years of experience, researching shit myself, my wife, and self-medicating with drugs has done more for me than they ever have. Getting some meds might help idk.”
    ┏( .-. ┏ ) ┓ the future is bleak and all I can do is numb myself enough to stare at the wall all day bc my wife has cursed me with the request that I let myself shed this mortal coil thru natural causes.

    EDIT; I just realized it’s probably not socially acceptable to say all this, but fuck it post it mods. My voice and experience are valid too and I’m absolutely bursting at the seams, wishing to desperately be heard and seen even though I’m probably just screaming into the uncaring void.

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  2. As a person who has had many years of personal therapy, which was elective on my part, no doctor suggested I ought to see therapy, I disagree. I was self aware enough to know I needed other perspectives to grow as a person. The best people for this are therapists, not family or friends. And never did I feel a bit of political influence. For all I know, all of my therapists could have been conservatives, or all of them could have been liberals. It was likely a mix, which I don’t care about anyhow. You are suggesting if any of them were liberals, they were brainwashing me. I never experienced anything that made me feel a need to believe any particular political way. What does bother me is how this puts the idea of therapy into a bad light at a time when people are in dire need of mental health assistance. The only thing radical that came out of it is that my life was radically helped after most of my family died of cancer. After struggles being bullied in childhood. After a major car accident changed the trajectory of my life. The best thing is I have put those losses into perspective. If that is politically wrong for some reason, that’s somebody else’s problem. I don’t see the point of this article. It will discourage people from seeking help.

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    • Well, Lee, I simply can’t agree with your contention that therapists, not family and friends, are the ones to whom one should turn in an emotional crisis. Would you mind disclosing the source of the authoritative knowledge, keen insight, and clinical expertise with which so-called mental health professionals are presumably endowed? In the absence of scientifically valid, universally applicable criteria for evaluating their clients’ emotional well-being and cognitive faculties (apart from demonstrable neurological conditions such as dementia), aren’t their evaluations perforce highly subjective and prone to error? Or do you believe that the views of all the numerous psychiatric mavens past and present (Freud, Jung, Adler, Janov, Reich, Ellis, Skinner, Maslow, Beck, Asperger, etc.) have equal validity? If we can safely ignore the self-serving propaganda of the APA, the deceptive marketing of drug companies and ECT device manufacturers, and the pseudo-scientific pastiche known as the DSM, what CREDIBLE standards are there for judging the value of a particular school of therapy and an individual who practices it?

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