Friday, 6 February 2015

Who Owns "Critical"?

This post is about "critical psychology". Or rather (as i don't think there is one cohrent movement under this heading) it is about the fact that some people call themselves "critical psychologists".

I like the idea of a "critical" psychology. Being critical is something I aspire to in this blog and in my research and clinical work, though I don't know how often I manage it. But what do I mean by critical? Something like thinking as hard and as intelligently as possible about what I do and say. I think that when some people talk of being "critical psychologists" they are using the word in a more complicated way.

Partly this is because the word "critical" does not refer only to acuity of judgement, but also denotes a specific historical/philosophical intellectual project. To identify as "critical" is to invoke "critical theory", an approach to culture and knowledge which stresses the importance of analysing communication intensely for hidden assumptions. This project is specifically engaged in liberation from oppression by implicit historical structures supported by texts. It is interested in the ways that power gets played out in the deployment of knowledge. As such, critical theorists are open to ways of talking that move outside the "traditional discourses" of any given subject. It's also a project I with which I feel aligned.

Critical theory has been very fruitfully used by critical mental health professionals. The notion of clinical practice as the exercise of power has found particular traction in UK Clinical Psychology, and this is a good thing. You can find it in the work of David Smail, Dorothy Rowe, and in Joanna Moncrieff's critique of diagnosis as a political tool.

But there is a difference between doing critical psychology, and saying you're a critical psychologist. Identifying oneself as "critical" is more than just a description, is an action, which different people undertake to different ends. Many people may want to signal that they are amenable to thinking in particular ways (often in psychology it signifies a willingness to consider the relevance of non-quantitative evidence). "Critical" here is a shorthand for an interest in the use of political and social theory as well as psychological.

Critical or "Critical"?

Being "Critical" often also marks people out as holding particular views. For some it has explicitly provided a way to get distance from. "antipsychiatry" (a term which at least has the virtue of accuracy). Thus many psychologists are "Critical" in virtue less of an approach than an entire system of beliefs, and this is where things get tricky. Calling oneself "critical" might be intended to signal a particular perspective, but it also (in virtue of the word's broader meaning) serves as the subtle assertion of superior judgement.

Often in reality "Critical" simply serves to flag that you take for granted that certain things about mental health are true; that some treatments are necessarily "good", others "bad"; some ways of describing mental health problems as inherently morally superior. That is not what Foucault had in mind when he wrote "Madness and Civilisation". Saying you are "critical" under these circumstances is both a distraction and an untruth.

If calling oneself "critical" is no guarantee that a person will always be critical, nor is it a necessary condition for being so. There is much uncritical, partisan nonsense written under the banner of Critical Psychology, and many sharp critical voices outside it.

You Don't Own Critical:

When we consider the power of our blind-spots and personal biases, it seems unreasonable that any person can say accurately or in good faith that they are more critical than anyone else. Certainly no-one can be critical all the time. If there is a viable "critical psychology" project, it is probably the sort of thing we should do without feeling the need to draw attention to ourselves in the process. If you want to be critical you are better off showing people than telling them. 

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