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Critical psychology is a branch of psychology that is aimed at critiquing mainstream psychology 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.


Philosophically grounded in critical theory, critical psychology started in the 1970s in Berlin at Freie Universität Berlin, and the German branch of critical psychology predates and has developed largely separately from the rest of the field.

Klaus Holzkamp

One of the most important books in the field is the Grundlegung der Psychologie (Foundations of Psychology) by Klaus Holzkamp, who might be considered the theoretical founder of critical psychology. Holzkamp incorporated ideas from Freud´s psychoanalysis and Merleau-Ponty´s phenomenology into his approach. The appeal of critical psychology to socialists is that it is an attempt to come to grips with the social and the historical "conditionality" of human beings. His last major publication before his death in 1995 appeared in 1993 and contained a phenomenological theory of learning from the standpoint of the subject, as well as 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 sozialization. In this analysis, he heavily drew upon Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish; in his learning theory, he was inspired by social anthropologists Jean Lave (situated learning) and Edwin Hutchins (distributed cognition).

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 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 1990's

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 published an influential manifesto in both the online journal Radical Psychology and the Annual Review of Critical Psychology. 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 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.

Critical Community Psychology

Main article: Critical community psychology

The social theories at the heart of critical psychology lend themselves to new approaches within community psychology


Main article: Critical theory

Criticisms of conventional psychology

One of the criticisms of conventional psychology raised by critical psychology is the inattention to power differentials between different groups - examples include between psychiatrists and patients, wealthy groups and the less financially well-off, or industrial lobbyists and the general public. This inattention to power has resulted in conventional psychology tending to assume that how things are is how they should be, that the current state of affairs is the natural state of things. As a result, conventional psychology has a tendency to uphold the status quo, victim-blame and situate problems within individuals rather than the social context they are embedded in.


Like many critical applications, critical psychology has expanded beyond Marxist roots to benefit from other critical approaches. Consider ecopsychology and transpersonal psychology. Critical psychology and related work has also sometimes been labelled radical psychology and liberation psychology. In the field of developmental psychology, the work of Erica Burman has been influential.

Various sub-disciplines within psychology have begun to establish their own critical orientations. Perhaps the most extensive are Critical Health Psychology and Community Psychology (see the Monterey Declaration of Critical Community Psychology).

Critical psychology internationally


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

South Africa

The University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, is one of few worldwide to offer a masters 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), and the action-focused PsyACT (Psychologists Acting with Conscience Together).


There are a now international journals devoted to critical psychology, including:

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts


  • Dawes, R.M.(1994) House of Cards: Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth,
  • Dineen, T (2001).Manufacturing Victims:What the Psychology Industry is Doing to People
  • Fox, D R. and Prilleltensky, I.(1997). Critical Psychology: An Introduction. London: Sage.
  • Hansen, S, McHoul, A and Rapley, M (2003). Beyond Help. A Consumers' guide to psychology, (PCCS Books},
  • Slife, B and Williams, R (1995). What's behind the research? Sage Publications (Introductory Critical Psychology).
  • Hook, D. (ed.), with Mkhize, N. Kiguwa, P. and Collins, A. (section eds) and Burman, E. and Parker, I. (consulting eds) (2004), Critical Psychology.Cape Town: UCT Press. ISBN 1-91971-388-3
  • Ibañezm T. & Rueda, L.I. (eds). (1997). Critical Social Psychology. Sage Books. on-line
  • Prilleltensky, I & Nelson, G. (2002). Doing psychology critically: Making a difference in diverse settings. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.


Additional material


  • Prilleltensky, I.(1994). The Morals and Politics of Psychology: Psychological Discourse and the Status Quo. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994


  • Fox, D R. and Prilleltensky, I. (1996). The Inescapable Nature of Politics in Psychology: A Response to O'Donohue and Dyslin. New Ideas in Psychology, 14, 21-26.
  • 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)
  • Prilleltensky, I.(1990). Enhancing the Social Ethics of Psychology: Toward a Psychology at the Service of Social Change. Canadian Psychology, 31, 310-319.

Prilleltensky, I. (1997). Values, assumptions and practices: Assessing the moral implications of psychological discourse and action. American Psychologist, 52(5), 517-535.

External links

External links

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