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Toward a Socially Responsible Psychology for a Global Era, ed. edited by Elena Mustakova-Possardt et al.:

by Michael L. Penn

Ottawa, ON: Association for Bahá'í Studies North America, 2016
Review of: Toward a Socially Responsible Psychology for a Global Era
Edited by: Elena Mustakova-Possardt, Mikhail Lyubansky, Michael Basseches, and Julie Oxenberg
Publisher: New York: Springer (2014)
Review by: Michael Penn
Review published in: online only, originally at [] (2016)

Toward a Socially Responsible Psychology for a Global Era, edited by Elena Mustakova-Possardt, Mikhail Lyubansky, Michael Basseches, and Julie Oxenberg, is sweeping in its scope, passionate in its tone, and audacious in its claims and objectives. It seeks to inspire the transformation of an entire discipline, and is at once a challenge to many of the most fundamental assumptions that stand at the foundation of western psychology and a summons to its contemporary architects to re-conceptualize both its methods and its mission. Referencing research and theory from a variety of disciplines—including public health, economics, human rights, psychiatry, and environmental studies, Mustakova-Possardt and her colleagues argue that the challenges and opportunities associated with globalization require a radical reconceptualization of psychology as a field if it ever hopes to be able to contribute to the resolution of the diverse range of social and mental health concerns that threaten humanity during this unique and challenging period in history. While some in the young discipline that it critiques will find this carefully reasoned, thoroughly researched work a timely and visionary contribution, others are apt to feel that what it advocates reaches far outside the scope of activity that defines the boundaries of psychological science.

Written at a time when the involvement of the American Psychological Association in the military’s “enhanced interrogation” program was not yet widely known, Toward a Socially Responsible Psychology for a Global Era was a kind of “canary in the coal mine” when, in 2014, it began to encourage a commitment among psychologists to the kind of research and practice that would enable the field to advance humanity’s best and noblest interests. The work is grounded in the conviction that “the most appropriate place for psychology to begin to re-constitute itself . . . is by focusing on the global agenda and action framework articulated in key global documents,” such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Earth Charter, as these documents, the authors write, have been “endorsed by the widest representation of the world community,” (ix) and provide the most appropriate ethical underpinnings and moral vision for a socially responsible psychology in a global era. Quoting the Earth Charter in its opening pages, the authors note,

We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward, we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. (8)

In the book’s first chapter, written by Elena Mustakova-Possardt and Julie Oxenberg, we find the authors asking,

What would it mean for psychology as a discipline to reorganize itself in such a way as to help the global community recognize the oneness of our human family and actually begin to live as one Earth community? Through what mechanisms and processes can psychological work be synergistically brought together and integrated with the work of other disciplines, to effectively contribute solutions to the world’s most pressing problems? (8)

They go on to explore the ethical principles and moral aspirations that are at the heart of the Earth Charter and examine the relevance of these principles and aspirations for the work of psychologists. At the outset the reader cannot help but note that the book will tackle big problems and will do so by invoking a variety of principles that are in tension with the values that appear to guide the study and practice of psychology in much of the western world.

A fundamental assumption of the volume, for example, is that psychologists ought to be concerned—perhaps even principally concerned—with advancing the common good. Yet, having been both a researcher and practitioner in this field for more than twenty-five years, it seems to me that psychology, as a discipline, thinks of itself in much the same way that physicists think of their work. That is, most psychologists do not consider themselves social activists; rather, they see themselves as men and women of science whose primary purpose is to understand the laws and principles that undergird the behavior of conscious animals—whether human or otherwise—and to apply those laws and principles, where possible, to shaping the behavior of individuals and groups in directions that those individuals and groups define as favorable. In other words, unlike some of its sister disciplines—such as sociology and public health—which have been more committed to what is sometimes called “social action research,” psychology has not tended to see itself as engaged in processes designed to improve the social, political, or economic context within which people live and come of age.

Indeed, as the authors of the second chapter correctly note, most of the values and assumptions that are at the foundation of the current social order in the West—individualism, materialism, contingent worth and meritocracy, value neutrality, and uncritical alignment with the status quo—are precisely the same values that have shaped the research and practice of the majority of psychologists, as well as the policies and interests of the two professional organizations (APA and APS) that represent the discipline. Commenting on the problems that result from such an alignment, the authors provide a range of thoughtful examples. They note, for example, that in the practice of psychology, as well as in its published literature,

There is a tendency to psychologize and pathologize individual acts of injustice, seeing them as rooted in particular individuals with particular worldviews, rather than seeing injustice arising out of structural features of the global economic system and its crudely materialistic understanding of human beings and the nature of life.

Psychological treatments of prejudice are also predominately of this kind, focused on stigmatizing and condemning prejudiced individuals and treating as models of moral heroism those who have enough stamina and self-control to suppress their prejudicial impulses. . . . . Psychologists appear to be less attracted to theories of prejudice as arising out of systematic features of the political economy that relegate definable groups of people into underclasses, and then culturally motivate popular contempt for them. There also seems to be little psychological research on the dynamics of successful interracial healing and integration in some communities across the globe. (35)

Having challenged the assumptions and values that underpin western psychology in the most general terms, the authors of the third chapter (Kenneth Gergen and Michael Basseches) set out to adumbrate alternatives, centering their discourse on research. “In a globally responsible psychology,” they ask, “how are we to conceptualize the practice of research?” They suggest that in order to realize “the potentials of a value-based progressivism,” the field must “replace an outworn positivism with a social epistemology.” They note that much of the psychological research available today reflects a “nineteenth century metaphysics conjoined with an early twentieth century philosophy of science” (47).

Animating the metaphysics of the nineteenth century, they argue, is the assumption that what is primarily responsible for people’s behavior is a mental world that is particular to each individual. They argue further that what is reflected in contemporary psychology from twentieth century philosophy of science is the belief that the mental world responsible for behavior can be illuminated by employing empirical methods that are carried out largely in the lab. That is, there is a tendency to see the causes of human action as arising from within individuals and there is thus very little attention given to how the larger context shapes and channels human potential and human proclivities in some directions rather than in others. Viewed from this perspective, the authors ask,

Are these assumptions and their allied orientations to research adequate to treat issues of global significance? How can Western assumptions of mind, research, and scientific knowledge, accommodate or adjust to the plural perspectives and values extant in the world today? How can psychology make a contribution to the enormously complex and often lethal challenges confronting the world’s people? (48; authors’ italics)

The book, however, also acknowledges that the western orientation toward psychological study has indeed “yielded enormous riches in terms of theory, research, methods, and professional practices.” Nevertheless, they continue, “the field that we have inherited from the past is not sufficiently equipped to face the twenty-first century challenges of inquiry” (48). As corrections to the current research orientation, the authors go on to advocate “socially responsible inquiry,” research undertaken for its “pragmatic utility,” a process of “critical reflection” in the field that contributes to human liberation, and “conceptual innovation.” Such changes would allow those involved in research to study the world through a variety of theoretical lenses, without the precondition that these re-visioned approaches must require testable scientific hypotheses. “As new theoretical lenses are made available, new options for action may open. New ways of understanding conflict, of seeing the educational process, of appreciating group differences, and so on, may become available as cultural resources” (59).

Elena Mustakova-Possardt and Julie Oxenberg, authors of chapter 4, take as their focus clinical practice. They advocate the development of clinical services that are better suited to meet the complex needs of a globalizing community. The chapter begins with a powerful clinical vignette, a set of questions that naturally follow, and a solution that is grounded in the kind of work that the authors suggest is required in these times:

A young woman comes to a small pro-bono psychotherapy office in the modest center of a grassroots Latino community organization in rural Georgia. She cannot sleep, is deeply depressed, and comes to talk to me [Mustakova-Possardt] about her baby which she strangled after she gave birth to it in a bathroom. She had left her native Guatemala with a group of fellow villagers, having saved just enough money to pay to be smuggled into the U.S. and leave behind a life of generations of poverty and hopelessness. But she somehow got separated from her fellow villagers while crossing Mexico, and the ‘hyenas’ as the Mexican smugglers are called, locked her along with other smuggled Latina women, in an underground forced sex camp at the border with Texas. She was held there for 7 months and was finally released into the US when it came time for her to give birth. She came to talk to me about the unspeakable.

Everything she had suffered had deep roots in a worldwide system of injustice and poverty, of genocidal regimes that sentence their own people to destitution, of U.S. hegemonic interests which undermined democratic processes throughout Latin America, and in subtle ways supported the military repressions against the Mayans in Guatemala . . . What does Western psychotherapy have to offer this woman?

We had to process together not just her personal wounds; we had to help her reconnect to the resilience of her people, to some hope for her country and her native community, before she could see any possibility of embracing life again. Having seen too many like her in the backyard of the university where I taught, I had realized that these people, who had to exist invisible as they labored in Georgia, needed a place to call theirs, a community; and my graduate students needed to understand what it means to seek to become a healer of humanity. So together we started the grassroots organization, which opened a clinic and a pro-bono psychotherapy center, and this initiative later won the 2003 Carter Center Campus Community Partnership Award. Graduate students involved wrote that the experience had changed forever the way they looked at psychology as a profession. (65–66; authors’ italics)

Following this illuminating example, the authors go further to describe what clinical training would have to be like in order to prepare clinicians to serve the needs of a global community in turmoil. We are invited to reflect on the implications of war and the ramifications of people’s religious and spiritual concerns, which are introduced increasingly into clinical practice as the peoples of the world carry themselves from one part of the planet to another. The authors invite the field to explore the implications of what we are learning about mindfulness, the moral dimensions of mental health, the impact of the physical and social environment on human flourishing, and the consequences of economic insecurity on the way people may live and function in poor communities. The chapter is rich, both in depth and scope, and is itself a reflection of the profound contribution that the authors are seeking to inspire in others who work in the field.

Chapter 5, written by Elena Mustakova-Possardt and John Woodall, reflects on the concept of “social health” and explores what we know about the relationship between the social health of communities and the mental health of individuals. The chapter examines the impact of abuse, poverty, unemployment, homicide, alcohol-related traffic fatalities, and income inequality on people’s mental health in a variety of community contexts. The chapter critiques the widespread perspective among psychologists that the problem of mental health in society is best understood as resulting from the thinking and behavior of a number of “unadjusted” individuals. Referencing the pioneering work of Erich Fromm—who was perhaps among the first to introduce the notion of social health in his book The Sane Society (1955)— Mustakova-Possardt and Woodall note that “Fromm proposed the radical idea that society as a whole may be lacking in sanity to the extent to which it does not offer and promote satisfactory answers to the problem of human existence” (100).

They advocate a “dynamic systems perspective on social health” and suggest that the mental health of any particular individual is best understood by applying principles and insights that may be drawn from the dynamic systems theory in the mathematical, computing, and biological sciences. Thus, any analysis of the behavior and thinking of any particular part must be understood by reference to the behavior and thinking of the whole—in much the same way that in the human body one cannot understand the functioning of the kidneys without also understanding what the liver and endocrine systems do. “Thus a healthy social organization is one that entails well-regulated harmonious inter-participation with each person and group. The health of the social organization entails maintenance of the dignity of every participant in that organization. Failure to meet this requirement creates prime ground for the emergence of all kinds of social ill-health” (105). The chapter, embodying as it does a wealth of penetrating insights that reach from the macro level of community life to the micro processes that animate the inner workings of persons, is a major conceptual contribution to the field.

Chapter 6, which closes part I of this two-part volume, suggests that psychology should overcome its reactionary stance and endeavor to actively cultivate the development of those qualities of consciousness that are needed to remake the world. Such qualities include a radical rethinking of the grounds upon which human identity rests; the emergence of an awareness of our fundamental interrelatedness; the realization that the three structures of mind—human thought, feeling, and will—are organically linked and that mental health cannot be achieved when these three aspects of human consciousness are in tension; the realization that human life can be best understood when we take a historical and developmental perspective; an awareness of why we must bring the power of a “critical moral consciousness” (126) to bear on our perceptions if we are to liberate humanity from those habits of mind that have brought so much harm to the social body; and, last, a sense for the limitless potentialities of the human soul.

Part II is an exploration of the most pressing global problems facing humanity today. It opens with chapter 7, titled “Toward a Psychology of Nonviolence,” written by Harry Murray, Mikhail Lyubansky, Kit Miller, and Lilyana Ortega. This chapter examines the nature of violence and provides a sober and frank critique of psychology’s longstanding involvement in torture and war:

As psychologists, we are professionally bound to protect and promote the psychological health and wellbeing of those we serve, to avoid knowingly doing harm, and to apply our knowledge base and scholarship toward promoting the greater good. This professional ethos is clearly challenged when psychologists become involved in the activity of torture.

The international community has reached a moral consensus, as reflected in the UDHR and other international treaties to which the United States is a signatory, that torture is cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment and thus represents a violation of international law. Further, empirical research suggests that not only is torture psychologically brutalizing, but it is not even an effective technique for ascertaining truth . . . .

This is why the leadership of virtually every other related professional discipline, including psychiatry, social work, and medicine, has deemed it unethical for its members to participate or assist in the process of torture. However, in the United States the discipline of psychology, through the leadership of the American Psychological Association (APA), has stood alone in its refusal to firmly acknowledge the ethical incompatibility of its mission to promote human mental health and healing and its members’ involvement in the military’s and the CIA’s abusive interrogation and detention practices. While we are not privy to APA’s reasons for this choice, we believe that in part it is rooted in the troubling history of APA’s relationship with the military. (158)

This chapter should be required reading for every student in the field.

Chapter 8, by Mikhail Lyubansky and Carla Hunter, adumbrates a role for psychology in promoting racial justice. Its exploration of the “racial reality of policing practices,” its critique of the American criminal justice system, its reflections on the ways that racism has become an unconscious bias in the lives of many Americans, and its study of the role of “racial microaggressions” on the lived experience of people of color are precursors to the authors’ thoughtful discourse on what psychologists can do, in a practical way, to move the population in the direction of greater equity and justice.

Chapter 9, “Overcoming Discrimination, Persecution, and Violence Against Women,” by Dana Jack and Jill Astbury, focuses on psychology’s responsibility to be more proactive and systematic in confronting the interlinked issues of oppression, discrimination, and violence against women and girls. Given the large numbers of women who now pursue psychology as clinicians and researchers, one would imagine that such a call would find a welcoming response. That so little discourse is arising out of the profession about the prevention of violence against women and girls, notwithstanding its ubiquity and obvious threat to mental and social health, is itself a kind of proof of the argument that the book struggles so earnestly to make.

Chapter 10 by Steven Shapiro takes on the problems of economic injustice and environmental degradation. Quoting children in fourth and fifth grade living in the impoverished North Bay region of Ontario, Canada, the chapter opens with the following observation:

Poverty is . . . [p]retending you forgot your lunch, being teased for the way you are dressed, feeling ashamed when Dad can’t get a job, not getting a hot dog on hot dog day, being afraid to tell your Mom that you need gym shoes, not getting to birthday parties, not buying books at the book fair. (231)

The chapter brings to consciousness what is known to many of us: that at this moment, “millions of desperately impoverished people are starving in Africa, Asia, and other lands as climate change has accelerated drought and depletion of their water resources”; that as a consequence of environmental degradation, thousands more of the world’s people “find themselves displaced from their homes after severe storms, raging rivers or rising seas”; and that “extreme heat waves are testing both the mental and physical health of the most vulnerable among us, including the malnourished, the elderly, the young and the isolated”(231). And while psychologists rarely think of themselves as having any responsibility for addressing these kinds of problems, Shapiro suggests that, inasmuch as these environmental challenges stem from human behavior, there is much that the field can do to both understand and influence the attitudes and values that sustain environmental degradation.

Chapter 11 closes the volume by noting that “the diversity and complexity of issues before us are as enormous as are the diversity and complexity of cultural, religious, and social groups that comprise our global society.” It points out that “a framework is needed for embracing this diversity and complexity, and for cultivating effective integrative processes to reach collective solutions.” The authors call on the field to recreate itself by taking on these challenges. In this way, they suggest, the field will be able to address, befittingly, the “concerns of the age in which we live” (255–56).

This comprehensive and critical analysis of psychology brings to mind a Persian saying: “It is impossible,” it notes, “to carry the torch of truth through a crowded room without singeing some beards.” Toward a Socially Responsible Psychology for a Global Era is a bright torch that illuminates, often in painful detail, the very serious problems that threaten the usefulness of western psychology to the world in its current incarnation. The book is thus apt to singe some beards. But for those who wish to see the work before us more clearly, it will also provide a great deal of light. For this reason, I have the sense that it will become a valuable and often cited resource in this new era. I consider it one of the most important books I have ever read as a student, professor, and practitioner of the field.

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