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Critical psychology

Critical psychology

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Critical psychology is an approach to psychology that takes a critical theory
Critical theory
Critical theory is an examination and critique of society and culture, drawing from knowledge across the social sciences and humanities. The term has two different meanings with different origins and histories: one originating in sociology and the other in literary criticism...

–based perspective. Critical psychology is aimed at critiquing mainstream psychology
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

 and attempts to apply psychology in more progressive ways, often looking towards social change as a means of preventing and treating psychopathology.

One of critical psychology's main criticisms of conventional psychology is how it fails to consider or deliberately ignores the way power differences between social classes and groups can impact the mental and physical well-being of individuals or groups of people.


Criticisms of mainstream psychology consistent with current critical psychology usage have existed since psychology's modern development in the late 19th century. Use of the term "critical psychology" started in the 1970s in Berlin at Freie Universität Berlin. The German branch of critical psychology predates and has developed largely separately from the rest of the field. As of May 2007, only a few works have been translated into English. The German Critical Psychology movement is rooted in the post-war babyboomers' student revolt of the late '60s; see German student movement
German student movement
The German student movement was a protest movement that took place during the late 1960s in West Germany. It was largely a reaction against the perceived authoritarianism and hypocrisy of the German government and other Western governments, and the poor living conditions of students...

. Marx's Critique of Political Economy played an important role in the German branch of the student revolt, which was centered in Berlin
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and is one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.45 million people, Berlin is Germany's largest city. It is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union...

. Then Berlin was a free city surrounded by communist-ruled East Germany, represented a "hot spot" of political and ideological controversy for the revolting German students. The sociological foundations of critical psychology are decidedly Marxist.

Klaus Holzkamp

One of the most important and sophisticated books in the field is the Grundlegung der Psychologie (Foundations of Psychology) by Klaus Holzkamp
Klaus Holzkamp
Klaus Holzkamp was a German psychologist. He worked as a professor at the Free University of Berlin. He took a central role in defining critical psychology based on the works of Karl Marx...

, who might be considered the theoretical founder of critical psychology. Holzkamp, who had written two books on theory of science and one on sensory perception before publishing the Grundlegung der Psychologie in 1983, thought this major work provided a solid paradigm
The word paradigm has been used in science to describe distinct concepts. It comes from Greek "παράδειγμα" , "pattern, example, sample" from the verb "παραδείκνυμι" , "exhibit, represent, expose" and that from "παρά" , "beside, beyond" + "δείκνυμι" , "to show, to point out".The original Greek...

 for psychological research, as he viewed psychology as a pre-paradigmatic scientific discipline (T.S. Kuhn had used the term "pre-paradigmatic" for social science).

Holzkamp mostly based his sophisticated attempt to provide a comprehensive and integrated set of categories defining the field of psychological research on Aleksey Leontyev
Aleksey Leontyev
Alexei Nikolaevich Leont'ev , Soviet developmental psychologist, the founder of activity theory.- Biography :A.N. Leont'ev worked with Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria from 1924 to 1930, collaborating on the development of a Marxist psychology as a response to behaviourism and the focus on the...

's approach to cultural–historical psychology and activity theory
Activity theory
Activity theory is a psychological meta-theory, paradigm, or theoretical framework, with its roots in Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky's cultural-historical psychology. Its founders were Alexei N...

. Leontyev had seen human action as a result of biological as well as cultural evolution and, drawing on Marx's materialist conception of culture, stressed that individual cognition always is part of social action which in turn is mediated by man-made tools (cultural artifacts), language and other man-made systems of symbols, which he viewed as a major distinguishing feature of human culture and, thus, human cognition. Another important source was Lucien Séve's theory of personality, which provided the concept of "social activity matrices" as mediating structure between individual and social reproduction. At the same time, the Grundlegung systematically integrated previous specialized work done at Free University of Berlin in the '70s by critical psychologists who also had been influenced by Marx, Leontyev and Seve. This included books on animal behavior/ethology
Ethology is the scientific study of animal behavior, and a sub-topic of zoology....

, sensory perception, motivation
Motivation is the driving force by which humans achieve their goals. Motivation is said to be intrinsic or extrinsic. The term is generally used for humans but it can also be used to describe the causes for animal behavior as well. This article refers to human motivation...

 and cognition
In science, cognition refers to mental processes. These processes include attention, remembering, producing and understanding language, solving problems, and making decisions. Cognition is studied in various disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and computer science...

. He also incorporated ideas from Freud's psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis is a psychological theory developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis has expanded, been criticized and developed in different directions, mostly by some of Freud's former students, such as Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav...

 and Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology into his approach.

One core result of Holzkamp's historical and comparative analysis of human reproductive action, perception and cognition is a very specific concept of meaning that identifies symbolic meaning as historically and culturally constructed, purposeful conceptual structures that humans create in close relationship to material culture and within the context of historically specific formations of social reproduction.

Coming from this phenomenological perspective on culturally mediated and socially situated action, Holzkamp launched a devastating and original methodological attack on behaviorism (which he termed S–R (stimulus–response) psychology) based on linguistic analysis, showing in minute detail the rhetorical patterns by which this approach to psychology creates the illusion of "scientific objectivity" while at the same time losing relevance for understanding culturally situated, intentional human actions. Against this approach, he developed his own approach to generalization and objectivity, drawing on ideas from Kurt Lewin
Kurt Lewin
Kurt Zadek Lewin was a German-American psychologist, known as one of the modern pioneers of social, organizational, and applied psychology....

 in Chapter 9 of Grundlegung der Psychologie.

His last major publication before his death in 1995 was about learning. It appeared in 1993 and contained a phenomenological theory of learning from the standpoint of the subject. One important concept Holzkamp developed was "reinterpretation" of theories developed by conventional psychology. This meant to look at these concepts from the standpoint of the paradigm of critical psychology, thereby integrating their useful insights into critical psychology while at the same time identifying and criticizing their limiting implications while (which in the case of S–R psychology were the rhetorical elimination of the subject and intentional action, and in the case of cognitive psychology which did take into account subjective motives and intentional actions, methodological individualism
Methodological individualism
Methodological individualism is the theory that social phenomena can only be accurately explained by showing how they result from the intentional states that motivate the individual actors. The idea has been used to criticize historicism, structural functionalism, and the roles of social class,...

). The first part of the book thus contains an extensive look at the history of psychological theories of learning and a minute re-interpretation of those concepts from the perspective of the paradigm of critical psychology, which focuses on intentional action situated in specific socio-historical/cultural contexts. The conceptions of learning he found most useful in his own detailed analysis of "classroom learning" came from cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave
Jean Lave
Jean Lave, PhD, is a social anthropologist and social learning theorist.She completed her doctorate in Social Anthropology at Harvard University in 1968...

 (situated learning
Situated learning
Situated learning was first proposed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger as a model of learning in a Community of practice. At its simplest, situated learning is learning that takes place in the same context in which it is applied...

) and Edwin Hutchins
Edwin Hutchins
Edwin Hutchins is a professor and former department head of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. Hutchins is one of the main developers of distributed cognition....

 (distributed cognition
Distributed cognition
Distributed cognition is a psychological theory developed in the mid 1980s by Edwin Hutchins. Using insights from sociology, cognitive science, and the psychology of Vygotsky it emphasizes the social aspects of cognition. It is a framework that involves the coordination between individuals,...

). The book's second part contained an extensive analysis on the modern state's institutionalized forms of "classroom learning" as the cultural–historical context that shapes much of modern learning and socialization
Socialization is a term used by sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists, political scientists and educationalists to refer to the process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs and ideologies...

. In this analysis, he heavily drew upon Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault , born Paul-Michel Foucault , was a French philosopher, social theorist and historian of ideas...

's Discipline and Punish
Discipline and Punish
Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison is a book by philosopher Michel Foucault. Originally published in 1975 in France under the title Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la Prison, it was translated into English in 1977. It is an interrogation of the social and theoretical mechanisms behind...

. Holzkamp felt that classroom learning as the historically specific form of learning does not make full use of student's potentials, but rather limits her or his learning potentials by a number of "teaching strategies." Part of his motivation for the book was to look for alternative forms of learning that made use of the enormous potential of the human psyche in more fruitful ways. Consequently, in the last section of the book, Holzkamp discusses forms of "expansive learning" that seem to avoid the limitations of classroom learning, such as apprenticeship and learning in contexts other than classrooms.

This search culminated in plans to write a major work on life leadership in the specific historical context of modern (capitalist) society. Due to his death in 1995, this work never got past the stage of early (and premature) conceptualizations, some of which were published in the journals Forum Kritische Psychologie and Argument.

1960 through 1970

In the 1960s and 1970s the term radical psychology was used by psychologists to denote a branch of the field which rejected conventional psychology's focus on the individual as the basic unit of analysis and sole source of psychopathology. Instead, radical psychologists examined the role of society in causing and treating problems and looked towards social change as an alternative to therapy to treat mental illness and as a means of preventing psychopathology. Within psychiatry the term anti-psychiatry was often used and now British activists prefer the term critical psychiatry
Critical psychiatry
The Critical Psychiatry Network is a group of British psychiatrists who first met in Bradford, England in January 1999. Most people associated with the group are practicing consultant psychiatrists in the United Kingdom National Health Service...

. Critical psychology is currently the preferred term for the discipline of psychology keen to find alternatives to the way the discipline of psychology reduces human experience to the level of the individual and thereby strips away possibilities for radical social change.

In the 1990s

Starting in the 1990s a new wave of books started to appear on critical psychology, the most influential being the edited book Critical Psychology by Dennis Fox and Isaac Prilleltensky. Various introductory texts to critical psychology written in the United Kingdom have tended to focus on discourse, but this has been seen by some proponents of critical psychology as a reduction of human experience to language which is as politically dangerous as the way mainstream psychology reduces experience to the individual mind.

Ian Parker

In 1999 Ian Parker
Ian Parker (psychologist)
Ian Parker is a British psychologist who has been a principal exponent of three quite diverse critical traditions inside the discipline...

 published an influential manifesto in both the online journal Radical Psychology and the Annual Review of Critical Psychology
Annual Review of Critical Psychology
The Annual Review of Critical Psychology is the first international peer-reviewed journal in the field of critical psychology. The managing editor is Ian Parker, Professor of Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-founder of the Discourse Unit...

. This manifesto argues that critical psychology should include the following four components:
  1. Systematic examination of how some varieties of psychological action and experience are privileged over others, how dominant accounts of "psychology" operate ideologically and in the service of power;
  2. Study of the ways in which all varieties of psychology are culturally historically constructed, and how alternative varieties of psychology may confirm or resist ideological assumptions in mainstream models;
  3. Study of forms of surveillance and self-regulation in everyday life and the ways in which psychological culture operates beyond the boundaries of academic and professional practice; and
  4. Exploration of the way everyday "ordinary psychology" structures academic and professional work in psychology and how everyday activities might provide the basis for resistance to contemporary disciplinary practices.

Critical psychology today

There are a few international journals devoted to critical psychology, including the no longer published International Journal of Critical Psychology and the Annual Review of Critical Psychology. The journals still tend to be directed to an academic audience, though the Annual Review of Critical Psychology runs as an open-access online journal. There are close links between critical psychologists and critical psychiatrists in Britain through the Asylum Collective. Critical psychology courses and research concentrations are available at Manchester Metropolitan University, Cardiff University, the University of the West of England in Bristol, the University of East London and the University of Adelaide and the University of Auckland.


Like many critical applications, critical psychology has expanded beyond Marxist roots to benefit from other critical approaches. Consider ecopsychology and transpersonal psychology
Transpersonal psychology
Transpersonal psychology is a form of psychology that studies the transpersonal, self-transcendent or spiritual aspects of the human experience....

. Critical psychology and related work has also sometimes been labelled radical psychology and liberation psychology
Liberation psychology
Liberation psychology, also known as liberation social psychology or psicología social de la liberación, is an approach to psychological science that aims to understand the psychology of oppressed and impoverished communities by addressing the oppressive sociopolitical structure in which they exist...

. In the field of developmental psychology, the work of Erica Burman
Erica Burman
Erica Burman is an influential critical development psychologist based in Britain. Her work has been a conceptual resource for critical research in developmental psychology, feminist perspectives on the connections between different forms of oppression, and methodological debates in...

 has been influential.

Various sub-disciplines within psychology have begun to establish their own critical orientations. Perhaps the most extensive are critical health psychology
International Society of Critical Health Psychology
The International Society of Critical Health Psychology is a society devoted to debate about critical ideas within health psychology and developing new ways of health psychology practice....

 and community psychology
Community psychology
Community psychology deals with the relationships of the individual to communities and the wider society. Community psychologists seek to understand the quality of life of individuals, communities, and society...



At FU-Berlin, critical psychology was not really seen as a division of psychology and followed its own methodology, trying to reformulate traditional psychology on an unorthodox Marxist base and drawing from Soviet ideas of cultural–historical psychology, particularly Aleksey Leontyev
Aleksey Leontyev
Alexei Nikolaevich Leont'ev , Soviet developmental psychologist, the founder of activity theory.- Biography :A.N. Leont'ev worked with Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria from 1924 to 1930, collaborating on the development of a Marxist psychology as a response to behaviourism and the focus on the...

. Some years ago the department of critical psychology at FU-Berlin was merged into the traditional psychology department.

An April 2009 issue of the Sage journal Theory & Psychology (edited by Desmond Painter, Athanasios Marvakis, and Leendert Mos) is devoted to an examination of German critical psychology.

South Africa

The University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban
Durban is the largest city in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal and the third largest city in South Africa. It forms part of the eThekwini metropolitan municipality. Durban is famous for being the busiest port in South Africa. It is also seen as one of the major centres of tourism...

, South Africa
South Africa
The Republic of South Africa is a country in southern Africa. Located at the southern tip of Africa, it is divided into nine provinces, with of coastline on the Atlantic and Indian oceans...

, is one of few worldwide to offer a Master's course in critical psychology. For an overview of critical psychology in South Africa, see Desmond Painter and Martin Terre Blanche's article on Critical Psychology in South Africa: Looking back and looking forwards. They have also now started a critical psychology blog.

United States and Canada

Critical psychology in the United States and Canada has, for the most part, focused on critiques of mainstream psychology's support for an unjust status quo. No departments of critical psychology exist, though critical perspectives are sometimes encountered in traditional universities, perhaps especially within community psychology programs. North American efforts include the 1993 founding of RadPsyNet Radical Psychology Network, the 1997 publication of Critical Psychology: An Introduction (edited by Dennis Fox and Isaac Prilleltensky; expanded 2009 edition edited by Dennis Fox, Isaac Prilleltensky, and Stephanie Austin), and the action-focused PsyACT (Psychologists Acting with Conscience Together).

See also

  • Activity theory
    Activity theory
    Activity theory is a psychological meta-theory, paradigm, or theoretical framework, with its roots in Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky's cultural-historical psychology. Its founders were Alexei N...

  • Anti-psychiatry
    Anti-psychiatry is a configuration of groups and theoretical constructs that emerged in the 1960s, and questioned the fundamental assumptions and practices of psychiatry, such as its claim that it achieves universal, scientific objectivity. Its igniting influences were Michel Foucault, R.D. Laing,...

  • Positive Psychology
    Positive psychology
    Positive psychology is a recent branch of psychology whose purpose was summed up in 1998 by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: "We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise, which achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving in...

  • Wikiversity:Topic:Critical psychology


  • Fox, D. & Prilleltensky, I. (1997). Critical Psychology: An Introduction. Sage. on-line
  • Prilleltensky, I. & Nelson, G. (2002). Doing psychology critically: Making a difference in diverse settings. New York: Palgrave–Macmillan.
  • Kincheloe, J. & Horn, R. (2006). The Praeger Handbook of Education and Psychology. 4 vols. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Press.
  • Ibañez, T. & Íñiguez-Rueda, L. (eds.) (1997). Critical Social Psychology. Sage Books. on-line
  • Harwood, V. (2006) Diagnosing 'Disorderly' Children. London & New York: Routledge.
  • Sloan, T. (ed.) (2000). Critical Psychology: Voices for Change. London: Macmillan.


  • Kincheloe, J. & Steinberg, S. (1993). A Tentative Description of Post-Formal Thinking: The Critical Confrontation with Cognitive Thinking. Harvard Educational Review, 63 (2), 296–320.
  • Prilleltensky, I. (1997). Values, assumptions and practices: Assessing the moral implications of psychological discourse and action. American Psychologist, 52(5), 517–35.
  • Parker, I. (1999) Critical Psychology: Critical Links, Radical Psychology: A Journal of Psychology, Politics and Radicalism (on-line)
  • Parker, I. (2003) "Psychology is so critical, only Marxism can save us now," (on-line)

External links