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As a starting point it would be useful to outline the basic premises through which both cognitive-experimental and critical psychology are based upon. Cognitive-experimental psychology attempts to model itself on what it perceives the natural sciences to be (Norman, 2013). This approach is thought to hold the ideological position that human behaviour is objectively measurable and that one can establish universal laws of behaviour based upon a set of predictable variables (Prilleltensky & Nelson, 2002). It should also be noted that cognitive-experimental psychology is grounded on realist ontology and its epistemological underpinnings are objectivist in nature. Proponents defending this approach advocate a positivist methodology, and subscribe to quantitative research methods. Thus, experimental psychology regards itself as 'objective' and value-free.

In contrast, critical psychology not only constitutes a critique to mainstream psychology, but it is also an attempt to apply psychology in a more progressive fashion (Burr, 1995). Parker (2007) defined critical psychology as "the 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" (p. 2). One could trace the origins of critical psychology back to the work of Dilthey (1961) who asserted that scientific psychology and its 'explanatory' approach to the psyche, was unable to grasp the complexity and specificity of the human mind (Teo, 1999). However, it is thought that critical psychology emerged through the work of Kalus Holzkamp (1927-1995) who was an influential critic in this area, particularly through his writings on theory of science (Teo, 1999).

Critical psychologists subscribe to a social constructionist epistemological stance. Unlike cognitive-experimental psychology, it does not constitute an explanatory theory, nor does it postulate to attribute certain psychological phenomenon to a set of predictable variables. Social constructionism basic assumption is that reality is socially constructed, and that its construction is rooted in language and discourse (Burr, 1995).

Experimental Psychology's Individualistic Ideology: The case of Schizophrenia.

At the heart of contemporary psychology lies the notion of 'individualism' and 'psychology of the individual' (Sampson, 1977). It is this ideology that conceptualises the individual as an isolated phenomenon, whose feelings, actions or thoughts can be explained in terms of internal properties or essences (Sampson, 1989). Mainstream psychology's individualistic ideology also postulates that somehow individuals have a discoverable 'nature' which is objectively measurable and empirically verifiable (Nightingale & Cromby, 2001).

It could be argued, therefore, that experimental psychology individualises social problems by failing to realise that there is a social component to mental illness (Boyle, 2004). In the case of Schizophrenia, some asserted that it might be a product of how language is used to negotiate the meaning and assumptions surrounding its aetiology (Boyle, 2002). Language is a precondition for thought, and people organise their thoughts and feelings about a particular mental illness based upon what language is available to them at a given socio-historical context (Parker, 2001). Therefore, one could argue that 'scientific' knowledge produced through experimental psychology research rests heavily on social consensus. In this respect, Parker (1996) postulated that established mental illness diagnostic criteria may reflect dominant meanings which are rooted in language from specific socio-historical contexts.

It should also be noted that every period in history is marked by dominant meanings of 'normality' and 'abnormality', and that 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' behaviour is defined by those meanings (see Foucault, 2003). Here, one can identify the ways in which language and power operates. By defining the boundaries of 'normality' one is indirectly defining 'abnormality'. Language operates in a binary dualistic fashion through which the 'other' is constructed around an apparent social exclusion whereby he/she is systematically disempowered through 'schizophrenic' labels. It is at this point that social control starts operating in the name of 'mental health' by allowing 'deviance' to become pathologized (Green, 1999; Giles, 2002). Furthermore, it comes as no surprise that one sees the government sitting on the table with the British Psychological Society (BPS) in meetings aimed at drafting the nation's Mental Health bill.

It should also be noted that Bentall (2003) asserted that 'schizophrenia' falsely groups people with a wide range of problems together, given that explanations about its causality lack of consistency. Bentall postulated that this lack of consistency warrants the removal of the category 'schizophrenia' from the DSM-IV. This view is also shared by Boyle (2004) who argued that association between Schizophrenia and biological variables appear to have a causal relationship more through the use of language and argument than actual 'scientific' evidence.


It must be concluded that hidden and inexplicit socio-political dimensions of experimental psychology make its 'objective' and 'scientific' status very questionable. Experiments conducted in psychology are naive of wider socio-political and economic factors impinging upon human behaviour. Psychology's essentialist view does not provide a complete 'picture' of individuals' psyche, as people cannot be divorced from the social context in which they are embedded. Socio-historical context is marked by dominant psychological discourses where people are positioned and position themselves within such discourses (Harre, 1997). Often dominant psychological discourses individualise social problems and act as a tool for social control. They also legitimise practices and understandings of individualised notions of distress such as 'schizophrenia'. It is hoped that this paper will constitute a small, but yet significant contribution to the ever growing body of literature within the critical psychology umbrella.


Boyle, M. (2002) Schizophrenia: A Scientific Delusion? London: Routledge

Boyle, M. (2004a) Preventing a Non-Existent Illness?: Some Issues in the Prevention of "Schizophrenia". The Journal of Primary Prevention. Vol. 24, (4), pp. 445-469

Burr, V. (1995) An Introduction to Social Constructionism. London: Routledge

Burr, V. (2003) Social Constructionism. 2nd edition. London: Routledge

Dilthey, W. (1961) Gesammelte Schriften (V. Band) [Collected works: Vol. 5]. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.

Foucault, M. (2003) The Birth of the Clinic. London: Routledge

Harre, R. (1997) The Singular Self: An Introduction to the Psychology of Personhood. London: Sage

Nightingale, D. J. and Cromby, J. (2001) Critical Psychology and the Ideology of Individualism. Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy. Vol 1, (2), p.117-128

Norman, J. (2013) For how long can Psychology maintain its 'scientific' status? Journal of Social & Psychological Sciences. Vol. 6, (1), pp. 1-10

Parker, I. (2001) Lacan, Psychology and the Discourse of the University. Psychoanalytic Studies. Vol. 3, (1), pp. 67-77

Parker, I. (2007) Critical Psychology: What It Is and What It Is Not. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. Vol. 10, pp. 1-10

Prilleltensky, I & Nelson, G. (2002) Doing Psychology Critically: Making a Difference in Diverse settings. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sampson, E. E. (1977) Psychology and the American Ideal. "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology", 35, 767-782

Sampson, E. E. (1989) The Deconstruction of the Self. In J. Shotter and K. J. Gergen (Eds.), "Texts of Identity" (pp. 1-19). London: Sage

Thomas Teo, T. (1999) Methodologies of critical psychology: illustrations from the field of racism. Annual Review of Critical Psychology. Vol. 1, pp. 119-134
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Author:Da Silva, Renato
Publication:Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences
Article Type:Report
Date:Jan 1, 2018

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