South Africa

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Op-Ed: The recolonising danger of decolonising psychology

Op-Ed: The recolonising danger of decolonising psychology

Amid the chaos in our higher education system, protesting students have been unswerving in their demand for a “decolonised” education. With universities around the country forced into the uncertain task of reimagining their curricula, departments of psychology have also started to grapple with the question of how to “decolonise” their discipline. By WAHBIE LONG.

In this essay, prompted by discussions with colleagues and students, I attempt to think through some of the historical and theoretical issues that attend the nascent “decolonisation” project in psychology. It is regretted that the mention of words such as “history” and “theory” may have created a desire in some readers to tune out.

I must begin, therefore, by insisting that the transformation of psychology in South Africa is not another ivory tower indulgence. For, despite staggering levels of violence and trauma in our country, we have a treatment gap of 75%, which means that only 25% of people diagnosed with a mental disorder in the last year received any form of treatment.

Some psychologists regard this fact as a human rights violation, and yet psychology remains one of the most popular social science disciplines around – a testament to the remarkable psychologisation of modern societies over the last century-and-a-half. In short, the position of psychology in South Africa is a matter that should concern us all. Since the emergence of modern psychology in the late 19th century, psychologists have believed that they are “able and destined to contribute greatly to the welfare of mankind” – to quote the second president of the American Psychological Association, George Trumbull Ladd (1894)

But in my recently published book, A History of ‘Relevance’ in Psychology, I argue that accusations of “irrelevance” have become, instead, a recurring theme in the discipline. Over the course of the 20th and early 21st centuries, optimism has been met with disillusionment in a series of crises that have rocked the discipline. In the wake of the Great Depression, for example, American psychologists responded to the perceived irrelevance of the discipline by establishing the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI). Among American psychologists of the 1960s, widespread misgivings over experimental “methodolatry” inaugurated “the age of relevance” (Rosnow, 1981), particularly in social psychology. Simultaneous crises shook the discipline in Western Europe and across the so-called Third World, as the end of colonialism (in the latter instance) led psychologists to reject the “ready-made intellectual package” (Nandy, 1974) that had hitherto determined the direction of their disciplinary activities.

If a single sentiment could have characterised these reactions against the American mainstream, it was that psychological knowledge and practices did not travel well.

To be sure, the history of psychology in South Africa has proved no different. The current preoccupation with decolonising psychology is just the latest incarnation in a never-ending stream of debates about the “relevance” of the discipline in our country. As a generation of critical psychologists did before them, postcolonial psychologists continue to decry the dominance of an asocial, Euro-American scientism – now identified as “colonial” in character – in South African psychology. The question that troubles me, however, is why, after decades of critique in psychology, an alternative, contextually sensitive paradigm has still not materialised – and what this means for well-meaning efforts at decolonising the discipline.

This, I believe, is where the history and theory of psychology become genuinely instructive. It was not by accident that, in 1962, Thomas Kuhn called psychology “pre-paradigmatic” in his wildly popular The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. What he meant was that psychologists could not agree on the fundamental questions nor the methods of enquiry in their discipline.

Fifty years down the line, that remains the case. In Knowledge and Human Interests, Jürgen Habermas (1972) presents a useful schematic of three knowledge-making paradigms, namely the natural sciences, the social sciences, and what he calls the sciences of social action. But again, the problem with psychology is that it belongs to all three traditions: its “cognitive interests” are variously technical, hermeneutic, and emancipatory. Of course, as some proponents of identity politics are likely to insist, we could dismiss Kuhn and Habermas as white men who, for purely demographic reasons, are not worthy of our attention. But it is my belief that intellectuals who abhor that special kind of racism will recognise the enormity of the task that faces us – and are therefore willing to take pointers from whomever and wherever.

For those intellectuals, what can be taken from Kuhn and Habermas is that the extraordinary diversity that characterises modern psychology makes any attempt to decolonise the discipline in toto a challenge, if not folly, of the first order; strategies for decolonisation have to be calibrated in accordance with the particularities of each of the many fields of psychology.

Paradigms aside, the decolonisation mission will also need to deal with a second, rather baffling conundrum, which is that psychology does not have an identifiable subject matter. Whether it is behaviour, brain, mind, cognition, community, discourse, groups, perception, subjectivity, or the unconscious – the list goes on – different psychologists will tell you different stories about what they think psychology is all about. It goes without saying, therefore, that rhetoric-fuelled attempts at decolonising a discipline that resists all attempts at definition run the risk of falling at the very first hurdle.

The work of the critical historian of psychology, Kurt Danziger (1990), alerts us to yet another problem, which has to do with the nature of the knowledge-producing enterprise. If we look at the requirements of discipline formation – particularly the case of psychology – we note two things. First, (psychological) knowledge has to be produced in forms that are recognised by established knowledge producers. Second, (psychological) knowledge has to appeal to the interests of influential social groups. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, psychology was able to meet both conditions – first, by embracing the “cult of numbers” we now call “quantitative” research, and second, by producing the kind of knowledge that satisfied the administrative needs of military and educational institutions.

Accordingly, if the decolonisation project in psychology is to succeed, it has to think carefully about its relationship to both disciplinary and social power. The very nature of disciplinarity – the process of becoming a discipline – suggests that the decolonisation of psychology cannot succeed without the decolonisation of the entire knowledge-making apparatus, nor can it succeed for as long as various forms of social oppression persist.

In light of all these challenges facing the decolonisation project, now is probably as good a time as any to define what I mean by “decolonisation.” As a discourse analyst, I must confess that I dislike the term. The prefix “de” suggests the removal of some germ, irritant or pollutant – as in “deflea,” “deworm” and “detoxification.” It strikes me as simplistic to think of higher education in South Africa as a colonial era brew comprising several ingredients, one (or several) of which needs only to be extricated to ensure the general well-being of our students.

I am also disturbed by the fact that many students and academics insist on using the word “decolonisation” while admitting to having no idea what it means. That “decolonisation” is something of an “empty signifier” is, for me, a clear indication of its ideological potential. In a phenomenological sense, the term imprisons us within a colonial imaginary. Unable to think beyond the binaries of coloniser and colonised, white and black, stripped of the potential for audacious acts of imagination, it becomes that much harder to think through – and ultimately dissolve – the formidable societal complexes that haunt us today.

I am persuaded, instead, by an understanding of decolonisation that has less to do with the historical past per se than with answering the question of why we learn. Alternatively, in Habermasian parlance, I take decolonisation to mean an interrogation of the interestedness of knowledge. While there may have been a time when people learnt for the sake of personal refinement, that is a cultural relic of a bygone era. Knowledge acquisition nowadays – thoroughly instrumentalised – has to have a point, and for many South Africans, that point is the escape from grinding poverty. Indeed, I can think of no other way to understand the demand for ‘free’ tertiary education – but for what end? I would hope that the goal of ‘free’ higher education is not the mere attainment of a middle class existence, the internalisation of the associated class interest, and the tragicomic perpetuation of a particular kind of class warfare in which oppressed and oppressor trade places.

Decolonisation has to think beyond the class interests of university students who, whether they care to admit it or not, are an emergent social elite. Accordingly – and contrary to what seems to be the prevailing consensus – I am wary of a decolonised education that focuses solely on teaching students about themselves, that seeks only to craft a learning experience in which students can encounter their own images, as if gazing into a mirror. A decolonised education should not become a project of the self but should remind students of their obligations to those South Africans who will never see the inside of a university, including the millions of schoolchildren who are being miseducated for at least 12 years of their lives without anyone protesting on their behalf. Colonialism – and colonial-era higher education – was a deeply narcissistic project and it would be an irony of note if, by “decolonising” higher education, we ended up recolonising it through an astounding act of repetition compulsion.

With the aforementioned provisos in mind, what, then, should a decolonised psychology look like? Again, the history of psychology provides useful suggestions. In the Third World, there have been many attempts to “indigenise” the discipline, but few successful ones. In the Muslim world, for example, efforts to “Islamise” psychology – which resembled a romantic form of identity politics – failed miserably despite a distinguished tradition of classical Muslim scholarship on interiority. Elsewhere, in India, it proved harder than expected “to cast off the microcosmic and individualistic orientation acquired in the West” (Sinha, 1993).

Yet indigenisation efforts produced positive results in the Philippines and Latin America. In the former instance, psychologists recognised that the decolonisation of Filipino consciousness did not equate to the wholesale rejection of Western psychology – hence Virgilio Enriquez’s (1979) famous distinction between “indigenisation from within” (utilizing native psychology) and “indigenisation from without” (adapting foreign psychology). In Latin America, it was the insistence on the pertinence of politics to psychology that occasioned the birth of psicología de la liberación – a unique response of social psychologists such as Ignacío Martín-Baró and Maritza Montero to widespread conditions of oppression across the continent.

But what can these historical examples teach us about the decolonisation of psychology in South Africa? To begin with – and in light of my earlier discussion about the various factors that have a bearing on the decolonisation of the discipline – I think it would be self-defeating to focus on psychology as a whole. Accordingly, I shall restrict my thoughts to the field in which I received my professional training, namely, clinical psychology. Understood broadly as the study and treatment of serious psychopathology, clinical psychology is often criticised for locating the source of mental illness within the sufferer. Whether a biochemical imbalance or an abusive childhood is postulated, the implication is that the patient is responsible for his/her illness and, therefore, treatment as well, which may require entering psychotherapy or initiating psychopharmacology.

For psychologists of a more critical bent, however, clinical reasoning of this sort would be considered a form of “colonisation” in that theories and practices developed in the United States and Western Europe have served to obfuscate the broader, structural forms of oppression that influence the aetiology, course, and treatment of the patient’s disturbance.

Indeed, when one considers the multiple interlocking forms of structural violence – including poverty, inequality, unemployment, racism, and sexism – that saturate life in South Africa, it is remarkable that practising psychologists do not ordinarily address these aspects of lived experience in their clinical work. Then again, when one considers that most – if not all – of their theories of human functioning are rooted in atomistic individualism, it is not entirely surprising.

A decolonised clinical psychology will require a radical overhaul of its theories of human suffering. Middle-class psychologists will have to relinquish the narcissistic practice of developing middle class theories and middle-class interventions for middle class patients. It is not “all about the patient”, his/her brain chemistry, or his/her family of origin. Therapeutic failure is not only about “compliance” or an ability to “trust the process” for as long as we live in a country that – in the words of Malcolm X – “will crush people, and then penalise them for not being able to stand up under the weight.” The quest to decolonise clinical psychology in South Africa will have to start at the very beginning – by examining and theorising the psychological sequelae of centuries of structural violence. From there, we can begin the serious work of constructing appropriate forms of clinical practice that do not make our patients strangers to their own life histories.

I am under no illusion as regards the difficulty of the task at hand. Psychology cannot be decolonised without an appreciation of the history and theory of this most curious of disciplines, without an understanding of the politics of knowledge production, and without a shared commitment to ending the material and existential agony that typifies life in this country. But these are important times in the history of South Africa – and as psychologists, we do not want to find ourselves, once again, on the wrong side of the fence. DM

Photo: Students and supporters protest in support of the #FeesMustFall campaign at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa, 04 October 2016. EPA/NIC BOTHMA


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