Decolonizing Psychology

The development and application of psychology as a discipline as it has emerged predominantly in the United States has been influenced by the economic and political ideologies of the current era. One formative element of this discipline was the way it was designated as a part of natural science. Another is its milieu situated in the United States as the dominant economic and political force in the world with the status of empire.

The universal application of science on the path toward modern intellectual knowledge set the trend for increasing specialization. This has resulted in a sharp divide among disciplines. Out of this separation of knowledge, each discipline now focuses on its own field, often not recognizing the common roots from which the specialties of knowledge spring. This dominance of abstract knowledge tends to turn all other lines of knowing into branches of science informed by this same reductive empirical epistemology.

Social scientists largely focus on social aspects of external events and cultural trends, describing and analyzing outer reality and leaving the internal psychic domain that is involved in constructing observed reality to psychologists. Psychologists in turn keep to their side of the boundary. Most importantly, psychology bound by science’s empirical epistemological ground is held within the confinement of the outer world and the principle of causality that governs the physical plane. It has not found a way to truly explore the terrain of the inner world, free from the limitations imposed by the weight of knowledge of natural science.

Through discovery of the unconscious, two of the founders of analytic psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, opened doors to the inner world. Psychologist and founder of archetypal psychology James Hillman (1999) saw the constraints of empirical science placed upon this field that kept the psyche in the dungeon of the Ivory Tower. In attempts to bring the soul back to psychology, he called for a re-visioning of this discipline:

My war—and I have yet to win a decisive battle—is with the modes of thought and conditioned feelings that prevail in psychology and therefore also in the way we think and feel about our being. Of these conditions none are more tyrannical than the convictions that clamp the mind and heart into positivistic science (geneticism and computerism), economics (bottom-line capitalism), and single-minded faith (fundamentalism). (1999, p. xxiv)

Hillman (1975) took on this battle of restoring soul through putting forward an archetypal psychology. He described soul as a point of view, “a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint toward things rather than a thing itself” (p. xvi) and archetype as “the deepest patterns of psychic functioning, the roots of the soul governing the perspectives we have of ourselves and the world” (p. xix). He notes how the soul “mediates events and makes differences between ourselves and everything that happens. Between us and event, between the doer and the deed, there is a reflective moment—and soul-making means differentiating this middle ground” (p. xvi).

Hillman (1975) saw how this autonomy of soul that moves between perspectives was seized and hindered by the universal and ahistorical science, which he recognized also as “an activity of the psyche and of the archetypes in the psyche, one of the ways of enacting the Gods” (p. 169). He engaged in archetypal activism in his attempts to save “the diversity and autonomy of the psyche from domination by any single power” (p. 32).

“When we are told what is healthy, we are being told what is right to think and feel” wrote Hillman (p. 77). Once a label is given, as in diagnoses of autism or bipolar, a line is created that divides what is normal, what lies in the center, and what falls out of that center. Through engaging with soul making, he called his readers to look at “the frames of our consciousness, the cages in which we sit and the iron bars that form the grids and defenses of our perception” (p. 127). These unconscious cages keep us locked in entrenched views on what is normal and what is human. He embarked on a new path “to step away altogether from an idea norm of man and a statistical norm of man” in order to bring “the collapse of any normative psychology that is derived from external standards” (pp. 88-89). This was necessary for a rebirthing of psychology.

Depth psychologists broke away from this monopolizing force of science that tended to define and reduce humanity into mere star-dust of Newton’s universe and to interpret complex human acts through simplistic laws of cause and effect. These frontiers of the inner world revolted against the behaviorists’ efforts to place humanity into a Skinner’s box and dissect every motive through stimulus and response. They said no to each teardrop being measured as a mere quantity of H2O. They said no to human destiny being determined by DNA and our roots simply answered by Darwin’s origin of species.

Depth psychologists moved across disciplines to restore knowledge of humanity that was lost in modern science. They charted into philosophy, sociology, literature, anthropology, mythology, and related fields. Yet challenges still persisted. Depth psychology emerged in Europe. Its movement toward deepening our understanding of human nature could be hindered by its narrow Euro-centered perspective. One could easily fail to see the shadow side of European dominance in the world and its influence on the discipline.

Depth and liberation psychologists Helene Shulman-Lorenz and Mary Watkins (2003) point out how:

all practices of healing—such as depth psychology reflect their own cultural context, while also struggling to address and transcend those aspects of culture that give rise to suffering. Depth psychology can be studied to point out how its language and methods reflect a colonial mindset. (p. 13)

Shulman-Lorenz and Watkins suggested reworking methodologies and practices of healing that had been developed in depth psychology in attempts to “heal the psychic sequelae of colonialism” (p. 13).

Depth psychology practiced in the United States in many ways unwittingly abides by Anglo-Saxon Protestant values, and now the Anglo-American centered corporate culture that is embedded in the reality of this global empire. For depth psychology to truly deepen understanding of humanity, it needs to become cognizant of the cultural context in which the discipline is situated.

From depth psychology to liberation psychology

Psychologist Phillip Cushman (1995) saw psychology that developed within the capitalistic framework of the American society struggle to break free from its dominant economical forces. He observed how psychology as a discipline conformed to predominant market ideologies. He noted how this is manifested in the discipline’s “strong tendency to avoid the political and ethical in favor of the technological, to avoid the humanistic in favor of the scientific, to avoid the humanitarian in favor of the expedient, to avoid the needs of labor in favor of the interests of capital” (p. 163)

He recognized the influential position that psychology has attained within this sociopolitical arrangement, noting that:

if psychology is one of the guilds most responsible for determining the proper way of being human, then psychology wields a significant amount of power, especially in our current era, in which the moral authority of most religious and philosophical institutions has been called into question. (Cushman, 1995, p. 336)

Cushman noted how the model of self put forward by psychology has the effect of perpetuating dominant cultural values. He pointed out its role in shaping political structures and policies. He described psychology’s need to adapt itself to the dominant political force of capitalism has influenced the shaping of theories concerning the configuration of self, definitions of normality, and the general understanding of what constitutes mental health and illness.

Cushman (1995) deconstructed the dominant configuration of self in this era and defining it as the “empty self,” characterizing this prevalent modern condition as “a pervasive sense of personal emptiness” that produces “values of self-liberation through consumption” (p. 6). He articulated how this psychological condition was a perfect fit to meet the needs of twentieth century capitalism and pointed out how by treating this notion of self as natural, instead of truly addressing symptoms and causes that relate to this condition of self, psychologists end up serving capitalistic demands and further encouraging an increasingly decadent consumer culture.

Cushman (1995) emphasized the importance of psychologists understanding the cultural and historical context behind the theories they practice.

Our current arrangement of power and privilege create many victims in the course of everyday life. But if our ways of understanding these attacks rob us of our ability to conceive of ourselves as persons who can join together into groups that can work to stop the emptiness, violence, and abuses of our era, then our theories are unhelpful. No, then our theories add to the oppression. (p. 352)

Without understanding the historical context through which their theories emerge, researchers at times blindly exercise psychological imperialism. They enforce predominant cultural values through normalizing the conception of self that was formed by and perpetuates the framework of power and privilege.

A radical departure is now called for from depth psychology as it is situated in the current era. This requires a move out into the world beyond the margins of Western perspectives of the soul and self, into the Global South and Middle East that have been generally pushed beyond the horizon.

Psychologist and Jesuit priest Ignacio Martín-Baró (1994) in Writings for a Liberation Psychology observed how psychology in Latin America is following the same trend as psychology in Europe and North America, with the goal of gaining a social status similar to what North American psychology had attained. Martín-Baró criticized the way psychology holds to the methodology of natural science to legitimatize its field of study, developing a fictionalized and abstracted image of what it means to be human based on ahistoricism and an emphasis on individualism. He argued how this image of man is false, as it presents the individual as cut off from history, community and the social and cultural context through which one emerges.

Martín-Baró (1994) called out modern psychology’s blindness and unconscious compliance with the status quo:

Psychology has for the most part not been very clear about the intimate relationship between an unalienated personal experience and unalienated social existence, between individual control and collective power, between the liberation of each person and the liberation of a whole people. (p. 27)

Martín-Baró further pointed out psychology’s role in creating oppression, showing how it often fails to see individual suffering and illness in the context of history and society and instead places responsibility solely on the individual. This led him to recognize the need for a liberation psychology; one created not from top down, but from the bottom up. He insisted that psychology must truly become a force for liberation, yet to do this it first must liberate itself.

It was this attempt to look critically at the dominant ideas and values that liberation psychology was conceived. In Toward Psychologies of Liberation, Watkins and Shulman (2008) describe how “liberation” is “a holistic term that urges us to consider the links between economic, political, sociocultural, spiritual, and psychological transformation” (p. 46). Liberation psychology is a discipline that emerged in the intersection between socio-political fields and depth psychology. It provides a space where one can “break open one’s normalized assumptions, allowing one to see the interconnections between the psychological, the historical, the socioeconomic, and the spiritual” (p. 62).

Liberation psychology places individuals in a cultural and social context. It allows researchers to critically examine dominant views and biases in American psychology, with notions of progress and individualism, and the psychological consequences of neoliberalism, an ideology that promotes Euro-American economic and cultural hegemony.


Cushman, P. (1995). Constructing the self, constructing America: A cultural history of psychotherapy. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.
Hillman, J. (1975). Re-visioning psychology. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
Hillman, J. (1999). The force of character: And the lasting life. New York, NY: Random House.
Martin-Baro, I. (1994). Writings for a liberation psychology (A. Aron & S. Crone, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Shulman-Lorenz, H, & Watkins, M. (2003). Depth psychology and colonialism: Individuation, seeing through, and liberation. Quadrant, 33, 11-32.
Watkins, M., & Shulman, H. (2008). Toward psychologies of liberation. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.