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In Response to Dennis Relojo-Howell’s Criticisms of ‘The Psychologist’ – There Shouldn’t Be a Limit to Social Justice Articles

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Editor’s note: You are invited to first read Dennis Relojo-Howell’s article before reading this.
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In 2017 I visited the West Bank with a friend of mine, whereby we found ourselves in an environment ravaged by the brutal processes and outcomes of an unwanted occupation and systematic colonisation.

It had a profound effect on me as an Irish person who studied psychology after being state examined on my country’s history of resisting colonialism by the British Empire for 800+ years.

When I saw The Psychologist’s issue about ‘decolonising psychology I was intensely intrigued. It was fascinating to me that there is a school of psychological thought that could consider the impact of colonisation and the structures of societal oppression on a psychologist’s research and practice.

But not everyone shares this fascination. On Twitter recently, I challenged a perspective about social justice in relation to this very topic. I was appreciative to be given a chance to state my thoughts on this and the topic of ‘decolonisation’ more generally. 

So I will start with a context:

There are two countries (given fictitious names): Abhkazar and Noredema. In 1949, Noredema occupied Abhkazar, and militarily depopulated Abhkazarians from many of its villages and towns. Noredema then began to repopulate the former Abhkazarian towns and villages with its own residents: Noredramans.

Presently, there is a village called Al-Bhazar (not its real name) and its situated in a ‘disputed’ territory claimed by two countries. The residents of Al-Bhazar have been known Abhkazarans for generations, but since 1950, have watched on as Noredramans replaced their town names, signs, local languages, destroyed cultural heritage sites, and manipulated the media to legitimise their actions.

This is called settler colonialism. It is a well-known malignant type of colonisation that has been historically (in some cases still presently) carried out by many countries that we know of today such as: Turkey, United Kingdom, Israel, United States of America, Netherlands, Germany, and South Africa. Colonialism itself, occurs when a country claims another, and sometimes including its inhabitants, whereby its resources are exploited. 

But that’s history and politics. Surely it doesn’t have anything to do with psychology? Well, It does. I would argue, quite a lot.

I would argue that colonialism and modern psychology are inextricably linked. When we consider the origins of psychology, and the basis to which psychology began to embrace the scientific method, the connections to Western colonialism are striking. 

The first psychology laboratory was operational in Leipzig, Imperialist Germany in 1879 by Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt. At that time, Germany was an empire adamant on ‘Germanising’ Prussia, Poland and other parts of Europe for its success as the Second Reich.

Like many others in Germany, Wundt would have been considered a ‘privileged’ member of German society, economically benefiting from the German Empire’s wealth, forcibly acquired by occupation and invasion of foreign lands. The wealth of the German Empire could be considered as a driving force for the progression of modern psychology as a field of study.

In the US, psychology was undergoing its own rocky journey from the rejection of psychoanalytic approaches to adopting the modern scientific method. This welcomed scientific emphasis was music to the ears of behaviourists and experimental psychologists who were determined to categorise psychology ‘as a science’.

At that time; the US was recalibrating after the Second World War, it carried out a series of military interventions in Central and South America, it systematically murdered many Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War against Communist militias, and its own people suffered a period of mass anxiety and political tension known as the Cold War.

As a backlash, a lesser known movement, known more popularly now as ‘liberation Psychology’, aimed to reverse this colonial pathology embedded in the psyche of the study of psychology. Ignacio Martín-Baró, an El Salvadoran Jesuit psychologist who is credited as its founder, produced a series of texts documenting ways in which the study of psychology can be ‘decolonised’.

One of the central arguments that Martín-Baró expressed in his writings was that while psychologists were building the study of psychology to be scientific, it had ignored the majority of oppressed people and their perspectives. The study of psychology was more suitably a science for understanding the oppressors and not the oppressed.

Evidently, the history of psychology is well documented and significantly more comprehensive than the narrative that I have presented here. But the need for psychology as a discipline to mainstream decolonising research approaches is timely.

We currently live in an era whereby global politics is highly divisive, extreme, polarising and dynamic. Our news sources pit us against each other as ‘right-‘ and ‘left-‘ wingers so that we consume the content without challenge and critical insight.

Our ‘wings’ are what seem to be the confines of our moral and political beliefs in relation to modern day colonialism. Do we ‘side’ with the Palestinians in the face of the Israeli occupation? Do we ‘consider the views’ of the Turks while the Kurds experience hostile living conditions and ethnic cleansing in Turkish occupied Rojava?

These are colonial questions that sociologists, historians, archaeologists, political analysts, politicians, human rights activists, philosophers, writers, and anthropologists have been answering for decades. These are questions that have long been investigated by many before the psychologists. 

Decolonisation is an ongoing crises party. One that psychology has been rather latent and passive in its response. And in my view, unfashionably so.

Derek Laffan is a psychology teacher and researcher from Dublin, Ireland. You can connect with him on Twitter @dereklaffan.

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