Ian Parker. (2007) Revolution in Psychology: From Alienation to Emancipation. Pluto Press. London.

‘ I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’.

Official psychology has always been about the triumph of illusion over reality. In this ambitious work, Ian Parker attempts to take a sharply critical look at transatlantic psychology as both an academic and an applied discipline, and at the end, offering his own prescription for how the many debates within the field can be linked to a progressive agenda, heralding wider social and political change. Achieving this goal in the space of 265 pages is clearly a big job, for which Ian Parker would seem to be well qualified. He is a professor at the Manchester Metropolitan University, an editor of a well-known annual critical review, and a practicing psychoanalyst who has written widely in the fields of critical social and ‘abnormal’ psychology. How well then does he succeed?

In its coverage of critiques and movements the book is very diverse, encompassing feminist, socialist, anti-racist, multi-culturalist and liberation-theological viewpoints, all of which are shot through with a strong dose of post modernism. The book is organised into thematic chapters, which cover some of the history and ideology of Western psychology, its role in the exploitation of the workforce, in the pathologising of distress, and in regulating and suppressing what the author regards as more humanistic alternatives, including non-Western spiritual traditions. Subsequent sections explore the dangers of ‘empowerment’ as peddled by the helping professions, the political traps into which self-consciously left wing versions of psychology (and particularly psychotherapy) have stumbled, and those areas of struggle within the psy professions that the author considers to be vital enough as to be still worth bothering with. The final chapters seek to chart a set of transitional or ‘pre-revolutionary’ demands aimed at challenging the power base of the psy-professions, and conclude with a guide to further reading material that encompasses books, journals and internet resources, including activist web sites. Most of these resources would be of interest to students who are new to this area, as well as to older hands.

Each chapter therefore represents a slice through a tangled thicket of ideas, many of which are mutually contradictory, though Parker welcomes this profusion on the grounds that this hydra like opposition to the status quo will be that much harder to stamp out. Indeed, a real strength of this work is that here we have an author who for once really is prepared to say the un-sayable. ‘The discipline of psychology is part of a sprawling network of theories and techniques concerned with the way we think and behave, and it all too often operates as an apparatus of social control’ (200). Parker feels that psychology as currently understood is so much a part of the problem that it cannot be reformed from within, and must eventually be got rid of. Clearly, an argument as broad as this is in need of a lot of support, and this is provided by the well referenced and annotated text.

Sensibly enough, Ian Parker begins his critique with a look at the origins of the highly disparate collection of ideas and theories that are assembled under the heading of psychology. He shows that the discipline has its origins not in the heady intellectual jousting of ancient Greek philosophy, as many would claim, but in the demands of entrepreneurs and politicians at the turn of the nineteenth century. Most of whom sought more effective ways of grading and managing a reluctant population as fodder for industrial production and – perhaps less unwillingly – as markets for an ever increasing flow of consumer products. The result was a set of approaches that largely rejected any attempt to understand how people think and feel about their lives and the circumstances that give rise to them, and which instead focused upon the collection of quantitative data, aimed at the hubristic goals of ‘predicting’ and ‘controlling’ behaviour.

The author has little doubt that this process has continued apace. The chapters that reveal how psychologists have willingly mis-labeled socially caused misery and dissent as forms of illness or abnormality are among the most accessible and rewarding in the book. The well-schooled child, the subservient employee, and the anxiously self-absorbed and apolitical consumer/citizen: each are revealed to be the object and to some extent the creation of their own specialist psychology profession. In the clinical field, for example, the author shows how the proliferation of meaningless mental health diagnoses have been exploited by many psychologists for their own ends, as they have sought first to imitate and then to compete with psychiatry upon it’s own territory. Most recently, as self professed experts in the use of a variety of CBT treatments, each of which has supposedly been engineered to manage the problems presented by a specific psychiatric diagnosis. Parker writes with righteous anger on the growing trend in the US and Britain for pathologising ‘disruptive’ children and their families. A trend that has lead to the dosing of young people with stupefying psychiatric drugs, on a scale that will one day surely be seen as the sinister exercise in administrative expediency and money making that it is.

The problems with psychology don’t stop here, and Parker berates the academic and experimental fields for their longstanding devotion to trivial or highly artificial problems. The sub-discipline of ‘cognitive science’, for example, is held in high esteem by academic psychologists keen to wear the garments of the more respectable sciences. Yet Parker shows that the resulting obsession with information processing and computer metaphors ignores the vital issues of power and subjectivity, and bears as much relation to the organic subtleties of our daily lives, as does the imprint of a fossil to the creature that originally produced it. “Cognitive psychology treats the inside of your head like a bureaucratic flow diagram. […]The increase in office-based work – the kind of work that most academics are most comfortable with – encouraged them to see the mind as like a filing cabinet, and then the arrival of computers led them to produce models of ‘artificial intelligence’ that are just as artificial and culturally specific as computers themselves (Parker, 2007.p.p.44).”

These observations are of course not original, and the discussion might have benefited from at least a nod toward the work of previous scholars who have charted the shortcomings of an experimental psychology that avoids such threatening matters as human feelings and emotions, and most of all, meaning (see, for instance, Bannister and Fransella, 1986; Hudson, 1981; and Kline, 1987). Nevertheless, the author deserves credit for tackling the question of the covert political role served by mainstream cognitive models, as rationales for the new forms of domination and control that go with our increasingly white-collar (or no collar) world.

Parker rightly suggests that it is not just a question of relevance, or the lack of it, but to what uses academic knowledge is put. For instance, the author notes how many of the canonical experiments of the social psychology literature - including Milgram’s research into obedience to authority and the Zimbardo prison studies - are portrayed so as to suggest the darkly irrational nature of group activity. Implicitly endorsing a world in which corporate power is allowed to make idiots of us all – in the original Greek sense of the word, which referred to people concerned only with their own individual affairs and not those of the larger community (Perelman, 2005). By contrast, Parker astutely observes that the political and personal struggles of daily life show how groups of one sort or another can often serve to nurture solidarity and to strengthen personal and political resolve.

Parker is also good on the way in which the discipline has a tendency to assimilate and then quietly neutralise ideas that are radical or potentially challenging to the political mainstream. For instance, the recent vogue for discursive approaches within social psychology are dismissed as a false escape from the dry, positivist number crunching of the empiricist school: ‘Discursive psychology […] appears to pose a challenge to other kinds of psychology but only insofar as it redescribes phenomena of memory or decision-making as taking place in language; it thus ends up simply providing its own discursive description that can jostle alongside the other mainstream accounts (136).” Parker suggests that this approach leads to a false view of human life as a kind rhetorical game, in which we continually manipulate one another through various linguistic devices, many of which are visible only to the researchers.

Perhaps Parker’s most interesting observations concern the worlds of professional critical and community psychology, and the easy assumption made by their devotees that these approaches are automatically benign and empowering. The author questions the new trends in community based research, which seem to offer radical alternatives to what many would regard as the elitism of interpretive and discursive approaches, and which also appear to serve the needs of local people rather than those of the health professionals. Far from being identical with radical politics, as is widely assumed, action research was once favoured by the colonial powers because surveillance and control were easier when the colonising power had a good view of how they were seen by local and ‘native’ populations. The uncomfortable (but probably valid) suggestion is that action research in the UK can readily assume this baleful role, regardless of whether its adherents recognize this or not. Community psychologists have to work within the constraints of an agenda set by government and other external agencies that fund the research, and they have to cultivate close alliances with local leaders and groups, few of whom are willing or able to speak for everyone who lives in a particular area. Practitioners are thereby required to smooth over endemic divisions and conflicts of interest, and the likely outcome, Parker suggests, is the strengthening of central and local government control and the stifling of democratic dissent. Whilst some community workers and psychologists have been prepared to write about this important but painful question - (see, for instance, Melluish, 1998; and Robbins, 1992) - it is more often ignored; and Parker can only have done the field of community psychology a service in highlighting the extent to which the whole problem of interest cannot be elided by the researcher’s good intentions.

An old saying has it that all strengths, if carried too far, begin to turn into weaknesses. And while Parker’s energetic attack upon a moribund ‘scientific psychology’ takes us some way along the path toward more honest and perhaps more useful alternatives, the assault becomes so riotous and so diffuse that some readers may find themselves slowly starting to loose our way, and to search for the outline of some kind of stable sign post, however dimly perceived.

Quite where this point is reached may depend upon the reader’s allegiance to a realist reading of the human predicament and even, at times, to basic logic. For instance, Parker castigates much of psychological research for its tendency to deceive participants about the full purpose of the research in which they are involved, for fear that such knowledge might lead them to act in accord with their beliefs about what the experimenter expects of them. The author feels that because participants are barred in this way from making fully informed decisions (and thereby lack full agency) then the research is somehow completely invalidated, and cannot speak to any situation outside of the confines of the experimental set up in which the deception occurs.

Here, Parker is surely going too far. Most people who are involved in social psychology experiments have at least some agency in regard to the situational influences that are being investigated. As do all of us, for instance, when encountering an apparently unconscious stranger lying on the pavement of our hometown, or when we are being bullied by someone in authority to do something that we find morally or distasteful, or just stupid. And this is precisely why the results of social psychology experiments can sometimes shed light upon every day life. However much Parker may deplore it, over the years, experimental and observational research in the fields of compliance and persuasion (including careful study of the professions that specialize in these areas) has revealed how most of us can be surprisingly blind to the many strings of social influence that are continually tugging upon us (see for example, Doris, 2002; and Zimardo, 2007). In the words of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, these investigations have consistently shown the reality that “people of many different kinds will behave badly under certain situational pressure. Through the influence of authority and peer pressure, they do things that they are later amazed at having done, things that most people think in advance they would never themselves do” (Nusbaum, 2007: 5).

This is surely a worthwhile insight which goes beyond a mere rehearsal of received wisdom; the implications of which have yet to be taken as seriously and widely as they deserve. Whilst Parker’s argument that both Milgram and Zimbardo’s research are frequently cited in textbooks as pessimistic indications that ‘social behaviour is bad for you’ may well be true, this is not necessarily the message that all social psychologists would intend. Recently, for example, Phillip Zimbardo has challenged us to develop alternative educational systems which encourage both critical thinking and scepticism towards authority, and which also seek to help us to find ways of building social and cultural bonds with those who are all too easily designated as ‘other’ (c.f. Zimbardo, 2007).

Parker likewise rejects neuropsychological research as a scientific dead end, unlikely to cast any light upon our most important struggles and concerns. Once again, while Parker is right to note that there are many technical and conceptual obstacles in the way of any attempt to bridge the gap between our mental lives and the functioning of our nervous systems, his wholesale rejection is perhaps premature.

Clinical and experimental studies make it seem increasingly likely that there is no inner centre from which we weave our intentions and construct ourselves out of favoured mental images and narratives, which, for some theorists, are looking more and more like rationalisations that appear after the fact (Blackmore, 2005; Wegner, 2004). A small group of neuropsychologists and cognitive scientists are seeking to replace the received notion of an inner mind (bottled up inside the brain) with that of a distributed or “leaky mind”, which crosses the presumptive barriers between body, world and central nervous system (Clarke, 2003; Wheeler, 2007). Recently there have been attempts to reconcile these viewpoints with social-constructionist versions of psychology, which suggest how things that happen in the world ‘out there’ can work themselves under our skins in a way that reflects our social status (or lack of it), and that can help to shape who and what we are – and sometimes with irreversible results (Cromby, 2004; Lyng and Franks, 2002). All of this work points to a material and indeed scientific basis for understanding our selves and our many predicaments, which a politically critical psychologist cannot afford to ignore.

Perhaps one of the strangest omissions in this book is Parker’s failure to discuss that research literature which deals with the outcomes of psychotherapy. This leaves a significant gap in his argument, because the whole question of the effectiveness or otherwise of talking treatments goes right to the heart of what it means to be a person, and raises difficult questions about the limits of personal change. Parker rejects most of the dominant therapeutic schools that encrust the English speaking word, including CBT, psychodynamic and the humanistic modes. These approaches discount the importance of power relationships, both in the causes of unhappiness and in its treatment. Therapists end up bamboozling their clients into believing that what ails them are their own failures of insight and learning, rather than their experience of a sometimes harsh and iniquitous world.

Here, Parker is almost certainly correct. All of which makes his subsequent endorsement of the school of narrative therapy - (as one of the elements of an alliance of progressive alternatives to current psychology) – rather surprising. Narrative therapists assume that a person’s malaise can be eased by the act of helping them to create new and more positive accounts of themselves and particularly of their problems. These newly minted stories are said to confer even more benefits when shared with the sufferer’s family and community in such a way as to lead to collective action (e.g. White and Epston, 1990).
The problem, of course, is that talk is no replacement for substance. There are good grounds for questioning how effective or long lasting any form of narrative based work can be, whether it is conducted at the family or community level. The last half century of research into the work of therapeutic psychologists and of social workers has failed to answer the question as to what the supposedly effective ingredients of treatment might be, or even as to whether professionals are more effective than amateurs. Most of the evidence so far suggests that they are not. Worse still, Parker fails to discuss trenchant critics such as the American academic William Epstein, who has shown through meticulous analysis that this literature is really a form of propaganda, and cannot bear even the briefest scrutiny as credible scientific method. Far from ‘curing’ personal ills, there is every reason to believe that such treatments are routinely ineffective, and even harmful (Epstein, 2006; 1996). At least some psychologists and therapists have reached this conclusion on the grounds of their own clinical experience, though none of these critics make an appearance in Parker’s text.

One implication of these different strands of critical work is that, all too often, the weight of our biography and of our environment will mean that our scope for personal change is very narrow: especially in the absence of any shift in our wider social and material milieu. Parker barely pauses to consider this critical realist viewpoint, and when he does, he rejects it out of hand as a form of defeatism. In the long run however, this message may be the only hope that we have for improving our lot, even if we cannot easily see how this might be brought about at the present time.

This brings us to the remaining difficulty presented by Parker’s book – in which he charts a set of what he calls transitional demands for taking on psychology. These are a list of ideological tools designed to help both consumers and the wider public to challenge and eventually topple the psy-professions from the outside, as bogus sciences. Many of these suggestions – for example the notions that psychologists should themselves be an object of study and that their explanations should never be taken at face value - are in line with the best parts of the writer’s critique, and are clearly very useful when considered as a set of arguments or ideas. For Parker, however, the ultimate aim is the formation of a kind rainbow alliance consisting of the mental health service user movement, feminist, gay and black activists, environmentalists and anti-capitalists of all hues, who together will help to ignite the revolution.

Enticing though it may be, this analysis seems to have more than a few issues of its own. Just like the benighted entities that are the professional concern of ‘community psychologists’ and that the author dissects so well - it is not clear that a unifying consensus of the kind hoped for by Parker ever would (or ever could) emerge. If nothing else, the decades after 1960 have shown that such movements have disparate and sometimes very narrow aims, and are prone to repeated schisms. Furthermore, while psychology plays a central role as the fig leaf for disciplinary power, it is surely self delusion to believe that the act of plucking this leaf aside will lead to the terminal embarrassment of Goliath. Ideological power is usually very good at outmanoeuvring the less exalted, and there is no guarantee that some other garment would not be purchased or woven so as to take the place of an errant scholasticism.

In sum, Revolution in Psychology is not so much a unified critique as a compendium of arguments and positions from academics, service users and political radicals - which point toward the possibility of a united resistance to the power of conventional psychology in our lives. Readers of a certain age may recall a Coca-Cola T.V. advert of the 1970s, in which an ethnically diverse collection of smiling and healthy young people linked hands to celebrate their brother and sisterhood anthem – “I’d like to teach the world to sing”. For all of its many strengths, the relentless post modern drift of Parker’s text bring us to a place that resembles the trite world portrayed in the Coca-Cola ad: Laudable in its vision of how things might be, but ultimately unconvincing, because of its failure to fully grapple with the material realities of a world in which flavoured water can be marketed as the fountain of all happiness.


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With thanks to Richard Stevens, for reminding me about the Coca-Cola advert.

Paul Moloney