by Dr. Jem Tosh
Originally published by the International Society for Critical Health Psychology. Republished with permission.
"Critical psychology? Oh that sounds so negative, let's call it 'reflective psychology' instead!"
This was the first response I received when I told a psychologist that I was starting a PhD in critical psychology. It was a weird combination of toxic positivity and misunderstanding about what critical psychology actually is. It was a failure to acknowledge that it's a particular space and perspective 'within' and 'without' psychology's disciplinary boundaries (Parker, 1999). So you can't really go around renaming it just because you don't like the sound of it.
'Critical' doesn't only mean to critique and evaluate something, it also means essential. Evaluating and analysing psychology itself is vital for its existence, development, and to ensure that past harms aren't repeated and present harms are stopped (such as conversion therapies). For those unfamiliar with critical psychology, it can be assumed that it is the kind of 'critical' that is associated with constant negative criticisms. This misconception can result in valid critiques of the harms the profession produces and propagates being dismissed as unrepresentative or 'radical' perspectives from a pessimistic group.
I learned early on that this career choice would require some educating and advocating as I made my way through my training (and beyond it). I also noticed though, that more often than misunderstanding, there was fear.
'Don't speak out, keep your head down'
This was the response I received from caring and concerned mentors and colleagues as I was studying. It became more apparent the further into my career I got, that the farther you are from that narrow constructed 'norm' of psychology, the more likely you would come across difficulties ranging from being excluded from the profession to bullying, harassment, and even assault (Tosh, 2020; Tosh & Golightley, 2016).
This didn't start when I decided to study critical perspectives, because my existence as 'different' was considered problematic as soon as I started studying psychology. Sitting in lectures listening to harmful and oppressive narratives about people like me, year after year, and having to repeat them to pass examinations and enter into the profession, meant that finding critical perspectives in psychology (e.g. critical psychology, feminist psychology, queer psychology etc.) was a breath of fresh air.
Finally there was a space that found these concepts as problematic and troubling as I did - and was speaking out about it and working towards making change in the profession (and more broadly as well).
For example, one of the contradictions that I struggled with early on in my career was the silencing of topics considered 'taboo'. I was told to hide my research posters because the content was deemed 'too upsetting' for students because the presence of the term 'sexual violence' was thought to be 'depressing'. This perspective overlaps with approaches that can be taken regarding sexual violence that occurs on campus - silence and secrecy (Brown and Mangan, 2019; Caron and Mitchell, 2021).
I got tired of trying to carve out a space for myself and others in mainstream psychology, with all the energy and effort that entails, to receive either hostility, tokenism, or performative allyship.
As a survivor of sexual abuse myself, and an academic psychologist who has researched sexual abuse for almost two decades, this focus on 'positive' topics and the erasure of violence was intolerable to me. I needed critical perspectives that addressed and confronted these important issues - including dismantling and deconstructing those norms and structures that are central to our lives and society, but that can also create a context for abuse to thrive.
So that fear that others held and that view of critical psychology as pessimistic didn't resonate with me. It was hopeful and optimistic that this profession could change and could do better. What was more frightening to me, was a profession that refused to look at itself with a critical lens - one where people were afraid to challenge it or question it for fear that their career would be impacted or they would suffer the same exclusion I had been warned about. I wanted no part of a psychology that allowed violence and abuse to continue unquestioned because it didn't want to face the discomfort of acknowledging that these things exist, and sometimes they can be too close to home (Tosh, 2020; Young & Hegarty, 2020).
'So what are you going to do about it?'
This was the first question I was asked at an academic conference. I had just presented my undergraduate dissertation and was faced with this challenging question. It was asked in the spirit of academic activism. Now that I had done this research, what was I going to do about it? It showed me the important connection between research and action, but it also inspired and empowered me to make changes in psychology and academia when I came across situations that I found to be harmful or oppressive.
It was in this spirit of action and change that was directly tied to critical perspectives and research that appealed to me. I found a welcoming and critical space initially at the Manchester Discourse Unit. When I moved to British Columbia, Canada I began carving out my own (virtual) critical psychology space at psygentra. Our motto is 'doing psychology differently' because I was tired of spending so much of my time justifying my own existence in mainstream spaces, rather than doing the critical work that I wanted to do.
I was tired of being the Diversity Representative in a profession that has a long history of pathologising diversity. I was tired of teaching about queer and trans psychologies next to colleagues teaching that those very communities, identities, and concepts were 'abnormal'. I got tired of trying find a space for myself and others, with all the energy and effort that entails, to receive either hostility, tokenism, or performative allyship.
For all our research and expertise in mental wellbeing and preventing abuse, we have managed to create some toxic work environments that can put the wellbeing of staff and students last...
I wanted a space where those positioned on the outside of psychology were at the centre. I wanted to dismantle the classism and ableism of academia and psychology, where we're expected to 'publish not perish', work long hours beyond our contracted obligations, and encouraged to compete with colleagues for funding, promotions, and more. For all our research and expertise in mental wellbeing and preventing abuse, we have managed to create some toxic work environments that can put the wellbeing of staff and students last (Meeks, Peak, and Dreihaus, 2021; Morrish, 2019).
Psychology is not a homogeneous space though. It has a longstanding history of dominant perspectives that Other a wide range of groups and individuals, and of foregrounding some perspectives and silencing others. Yet even in my own experience there is contradiction and complexity. For each space that told me to hide my work on sexual violence, there were those who awarded it. There have been discussions about sexual violence that occurs within psychology on the front page of professional publications (e.g. Young and Hegarty, 2020) and meaningful engagement with the dual position of being both a survivor of abuse and a professional working with other survivors (e.g. Lee and Palmer, 2020). For each person who told me to 'keep my head down', there were more who joined my academic activism.
At psygentra, the focus is less on what we do and more about the kind of space we are creating. It's a counter to that unrelenting productivity and competitiveness of academia. It's a dismantling of white-centred and rigid ableist norms such as hard deadlines and hierarchies. We promote slow scholarship and crip time instead (Mountz et al., 2015; Samuels, 2017). It's not just about accessibility and inclusion, it's about dismantling the barriers that make accessibility and inclusion an issue in the first place. It's about creating a space for those who feel on the periphery elsewhere to know that they are at the centre of everything we do here.
If you want to get involved, you can join us at one of our Reading and Research Group sessions where we talk about critical and feminist psychologies, discourse analysis, violence and abuse, gender and sexuality, and more. Learn more by watching one of our online lectures in the Lecture Library, and sign up to our email updates to be notified of upcoming events, groups, lectures, publications, and online courses.
Brown, S., & Mangan, K. (2019). ‘Pass the Harasser’ Is Higher Ed’s Worst-Kept Secret. How Can Colleges Stop Doing It? The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Caron, S., & Mitchell, D. (2021). “I’ve Never Told Anyone”: A Qualitative Analysis of Interviews With College Women Who Experienced Sexual Assault and Remained Silent. Violence Against Women, 28(9), 1987-2009.
Lee, D., and Palmer, E. (2020). #MeToo - Counsellors And Psychotherapists Speak About Sexual Violence And Abuse. Monmouth: PCCS Books.
Meeks, K., Peak, A., & Dreihaus, A. (2021). Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Among Students, Faculty, and Staff. Journal of American College Health.
Mountz, A. et al. (2015). For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance Through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 14(4), 1235-1259.
Morrish, L. (2019). Pressure Vessels: The Epidemic of Poor Mental Health Among Higher Education Staff. Hepi Occasional Paper 20.
Parker, I. (1999). Critical psychology: Critical links. Radical Psychology, 1(1), 3-18.
Samuels, E. (2017). Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time. Disability Studies Quarterly, 37(3).
Tosh, J. (2020). The Body and Consent in Psychology, Psychiatry, and Medicine: A Therapeutic Rape Culture. London: Routledge.
Tosh, J., & Golightley, S. (2016). The Caring Professions, Not So Caring? Bullying and Emotional Distress in the Academy. In Psychiatry Interrogated: An Institutional Anthology, pp. 143-160. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
Young, J. and Hegarty, P. (2020). Psychology Has a Sexual Harassment Problem. The Psychologist, 33(6), 40–45.