What Is Psychology of Liberation? It is Cultural Psychology

By Carl Ratner

In developing a psychology of liberation, the key question is, “what do we mean by liberation?” The way we define liberation determines the kind of psychology of liberation that we develop. If we believe that liberation consists of expressing oneself, the psychology of liberation would investigate psychological processes that promote this. If we believe that liberation consists in forming personal meanings about things, then a psychology of liberation would consist of understanding and promoting ways of doing this. If we define liberation as exercising the imagination, then we would understand and promote the psychology of imagination.

Most of us at this congress believe that liberation must be defined more culturally. It must include transforming the culture in which people live — humanizing social institutions, practices, conditions, and values. Such cultural change is imperative for real liberation. Accepting oppressive social conditions diminishes human liberation.
How can psychologists contribute to cultural analysis and change? We can do so by studying the effects of cultural factors and processes on psychology. This approach will identify fulfilling psychological functions and trace them to positive cultural influences. It will also identify unfulfilling, debasing, anti-social psychological phenomena — e.g., insecurity, anxiety, irrationality, prejudice, self-destructive behavior, selfishness, and aggression — and trace them back to negative cultural influences. Identifying positive and negative cultural influences on psychology will point out the ones which need to be promoted and the ones which need to be transformed. In this way, psychologists can contribute to the liberation of people.

This is precisely the kind of analysis that Martin-Baro made of fatalism among Central American peasants. He traced fatalism to real social relations and conditions of the peasants. He argued that these must be changed in order to free people of fatalism.

Fascinating research has demonstrated that cultural concepts also shape psychological functions. Concepts act as filters which mediate perception, emotions, memory, self-concept, body-image, and mental illness.

Smith-Rosenberg (1972) explained 19th century hysteria as resting upon cultural concepts. Hysteria was prevalent among white, upper middle class women in the U.S. and Europe. It was rare among men and among lower class women. Hysterical symptoms included deadening of the senses and immobilizing the limbs. According to Smith-Rosenberg, these symptoms reflected the middle class feminine ideal of a weak, spiritual, person. Normal middle class women were expected to shun physical work, take no interest in bodily pleasure, and avoid the mere mention of bodily functions. Even the breast of chicken was euphemistically called white meat to avoid reference to anatomical parts. The ideal Victorian young women was very slim and weak. Her body was restricted by eating extremely little and by wearing tightly laced corsets that produced an 18 inch waist. Normal Victorian middle class women cultivated physical debilitation in order to realize the ideal of weakness, delicacy, gentleness, purity, submissiveness, and freedom from physical labor. The debilitating symptoms of hysteria were only a slight exaggeration of middle class feminine ideals. Middle class hysteria was sympathetically accepted by men and women as characteristic of women.

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