What is radical psychology?

dehumanizing workpace

Do we need therapists or social change reform?

RADICAL …. PSYCHOLOGY … these two words popped into my head, seemingly at random recently, as I contemplated the direction of this blog for 2019. My subconscious gave rise to these words, like an involuntary brainstorm that reflected my interest in alternative and emerging psychology; the rebellious fringes of mental health recovery.

Unconventional ideas have always intrigued me but it wasn’t until I consulted my trusted expert and confidant Mr Google that I discovered “radical psychology” was actually “a thing.” …. an established movement complete with website, peer reviewed journal and academic authorship.

As I clicked the search results to find several official pages, I was curious to know what radical psychologists were all about! Did they promote bizarre unconventional therapies? Were they critics of mainstream treatments like CBT?…. or were they part of the psychoanalysis revival?

It turns out my very questions reveal a limited point of view that radical psychologists are trying to change: that we are so focused on the individual, or “person-blame” ideology, that we don’t adequately address the social structures that oppress (or enable) emotional wellbeing. Radical psychologists believe the field of psychology should be more involved in social reform to address dehumanising structures and institutions that cause widespread emotional disturbance.

Although I’m still wrapping my head around what this movement encompasses, it sounds like Macro psychology with a capital M: psychology at a societal scale or a hybrid of sociology, psychology and activism. According to the radical psychology network website, the movement aims to “change the status quo of psychology” and to “challenge psychology’s traditional focus on minor reform”, because, they say, improving human welfare requires fundamental social change. They also suggest psychology itself has too often oppressed people rather than liberated them.

The latter is a radical claim indeed but reminds me of an old Krishnamurti quote “it’s no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”  By focusing on individual adjustment, coping and “management” of symptoms are we in a round about way supporting a dehumanising societal trend? A trend which says we should find a way to endure 80 hour workweeks or thrive despite terrible conditions and continuous exploitation. Are we helping people cope, with an unacceptable status quo that really shouldn’t be tolerated in the first place?

By labelling people with various mental disorders like depression and anxiety, are we blaming individual pathology for problems that are actually symptoms of an oppressive dysfunctional system?

I’m a real believer in the power of psychological counselling but I can also see the need for broader social change. If psychologists can get behind social reform and make a difference to people on mass then why not? I’m all for it.

I think there’s certainly more scope for governments and companies to consult psychologists in the design of structures and systems that support, rather than hinder wellbeing. For example, customer service call centre systems. This is one of the most dehumanising trends I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, both for the workers and customers.

Just yesterday I called my phone provider to troubleshoot a mobile data issue. I got the typical “press 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5”; a tree of annoying options and sub options, that didn’t quite capture the reason for my call. Then I waited on hold for 10 minutes whilst condescending pre-recorded info bites played between fuzzy hold music. The recordings had the tone of a kindergarten teacher addressing a 3 year old.

tamh call centre

When I finally reached a real person the line was choppy with delays as the call centre was based overseas, (where people are exploited as cheap labour). The whole experience was frustrating and dehumanising and as such I experienced 15 minutes of unwanted tension. A better call centre design could make the whole experience much more pleasant for all involved.

Whilst 15 minutes of feeling annoyed might not seem like a big deal, we’re all facing a myriad of dehumanising systems throughout our day. For example, at the self serve supermarket checkout or when interacting with a sales assistant whose sales pitch is so heavily micromanaged it sounds robotic …. “two for the price of one…have a nice day…. would you like fries with that?” Surely all of this homogenised fakery has a negative impact on our psyche. Who knows what the accumulated toll is on our wellbeing. It’s no wonder people wind up exhausted and depressed.

I’m not entirely sure if radical psychologists are concerned about dehumanising company systems as described above or if their critiques focus more on political and economic structures. Perhaps they’re referring to the structural design bolstering the field of psychology itself. Either way I plan to dig deeper into their the literature to find out. I’ve only just touched on it today but I hope to interview a radical psychologist if I can find one willing.

So watch this space for a totally RAD article on RADical psychology! LOL.