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Critical Psychology and the Ideology of Individualism
David J. Nightingale (formerly Bolton Institute UK)
John Cromby (Loughborough University UK)
Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy 2001:
Vol 1,2 p.117-128
Number in square brackets [p.x] refer to page numbers in the published

John Cromby
Dept. of Human Sciences
Loughborough University
Loughborough, Leics
LE11 3TU
England UK
Tel: 01509 223000
Email: Web:
In this paper we explore what we have termed the ideology of individualism in relation to both the academic discipline of psychology and its various related practices. We demonstrate that mainstream psychology, in its uncritical acceptance of dominant ideologies regarding the individual, acts not to explain, describe and ‘help’, but rather maintains and promulgates a series of understandings and practices that legitimate individualised notions of distress while simultaneously drawing attention away from the material and social underpinnings of such distress. We contrast this position with that of critical psychology wherein the individual is reconceptualised, not as a discrete and isolated phenomenon, separate and distinct form an external and objective reality, but as fundamentally interpenetrated by and interwoven with the social, material, political and economic circumstances within which we reside. We conclude by arguing that any approach that does not pay heed to this ‘relationship’ cannot hope to effect sustainable change to either our own thoughts, feelings and experiences or to the circumstances that are implicated in their creation.
The (Ir)Relevance of Psychology

It is not uncommon to hear psychology undergraduates expressing disillusion and dissatisfaction with their course. They hoped that studying psychology would give them insight into themselves, their friends and their relationships. What they typically get instead is arcane theory, psychological "laws" which mostly read like common sense re-written in jargon, and an emphasis on experimental methods which, even by the admission of those who teach them, are often not the best way to illuminate the experience of being human. The commonplace criticism that great novelists have far more to say about the human condition than any psychologist aptly sums up this kind of dissatisfaction. [p.118] Part of the problem may be the individualism of today's students, a characteristic that has multiple origins. In recent years a global culture has arisen, driven by new communication technologies. Narratives, tropes and soundbites drawn from TV shows and films that straddle the globe have colonised everyday life, constituting a corporate homogeneity and offering a bland uniformity of off-the-peg identities (Klein, 2001). This cultural transformation has been closely interwoven with the weakening of previously existing bonds of labour and community, as the era of mass capitalist production and consumption has been superseded by an age of "flexible" production and "identity consumption" (Hall & Jacques, 1989). Attempting to assert their existential worth, people may seek to define themselves against, rather than through, such a culture. Paradoxically, then, global culture may produce a more profound emphasis on the individual, a striving for personal significance in an ocean of sameness (e.g. Jones 1997, Bauman, 1998). At the sociological level today's undergraduates are Thatcher's children, raised in a local climate of values for which the statement that "there is no society, only individuals" (a phrase from one of Margaret Thatcher's speeches) serves as a succinct and telling shorthand. During the 1980's the government promoted a narrow, materialistic individuality focused on the consumer (Leadbetter, 1989). Poverty and material inequality escalated dramatically: research shows that over this time inequality increased faster in Britain than any other industrialised country except New Zealand, and estimates that one in three children now live in poverty (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1995). Mutual aid and collective action were demonised as "the enemy within" and institutional welfare derided as the activity of an overbearing "nanny state". Social services, health and education were shifted from their former basis in needs-led provision to a budgetary model derived from corporate finance, and resources were reduced relative to need (Johnson, 1990). Benefit regulations that prevent young adults from claiming (since, no matter what they have endured at home, they should be living with their parents), place their emphasis on the "nuclear family" rather than the individual, but still constitute a contraction of welfare. Where once the UB40 was the passport to bare survival, now the Big Issue is often the only viable option. The clear message - to pensioners, young adults and all in between - is that collectivity and true welfare are a thing of the past: now, you're on your own. Thus, both material and cultural forces have combined to generate a distinctive individualism that informs identity construction in today's students. An era that creates individuals who all-too-easily perceive themselves to be isolated from society and culture will have two prominent effects. First, it will produce unhappiness. Second, it will lead many people to believe that their misery is a product of their own inadequacy (Baumann, 2000). Throughout the Western world suicide has increased dramatically during the last fifty years (James, 1997). Epidemiological studies similarly show that we are unhappier now than in previous decades. Lewis (1993) compared psychiatric morbidity (profound, persistent unhappiness, anxiety and panic attacks) in two representative samples of approximately 6,000 people. In 1977 22% of the sample reported such feelings: by 1986 this had risen to 31%. Other studies elsewhere in the West have produced [p.119] similar results (e.g. Hagnell, 1982; Murphy, 1986). In such a material, social and emotional climate we should not be surprised that the sciences of the individual (or the "technologies of the self" - Foucault, 1988) come to some prominence, and psychology and its related practices of counselling and therapy have been the subject of a sustained boom in recent years. In 1884 Karl Marx declared that "Religion . is the opium of the people" by which he meant that it appears to offer some panacea or consolation for individual suffering. Although organised religion is now in decline exploitation and poverty have continued (Vincent, 1991), and psychology may now fulfil many of the functions which in Marx's time were religious matters. Like the clergy, psychologists offer guidance on moral matters - but we draw on the authority of the normal distribution rather than the Koran or the Bible. From social constructionists through to physiological psychologists we claim expert knowledge of human nature, of how we become what we become and why we do what we do - but our warrant is the book and the journal paper rather than the voice of God. We are called upon to judge the fitness of individuals - as good-enough parents, reliable witnesses, suitable employees: but our criteria are the techniques of empirical assessment and observation rather than the Ten Commandments. Today, psychological theories and methods are widely used in hospitals, schools, courtrooms, prisons, the workplace and the home. Psychologists are called upon by politicians to offer advice on social problems such as the "failure of community care", the "crisis in our schools" or "the problem of young males in our society". On TV, fictional psychologists solve crimes and have interesting relationships, whilst on another channel "real" psychologists participate in chat shows and phone-in advice lines. Psychology is thoroughly embedded in our culture, and so with such a weight of expectation it is barely surprising that sometimes it fails to live up to its image. But important as these considerations are, to accept them as a complete explanation would be to ignore another, equally significant element. Expectations may indeed be unrealistically high, but the nature of academic psychology itself is also a part of the problem.
The Psychology of Irrelevance
Tolman (1994) translates into English the work of Klaus Holzkamp, principle theorist of the German Critical Psychology movement which emerged from the Free University of Berlin at the end of the 1960's. Holzkamp asserts that at the heart of psychology lies an "anthropology of the isolated, abstract individual" (Holzkamp, in Tolman 1994: 40). This problem is exemplified by the procedure of quantitative method which forms the backbone of academic psychology . This procedure involves the identification and measurement of qualities or "variables", and their comparison between groups who are thought to differ in some key respect. Tolman (1994) shows that this methodology consists of a set of procedures which implicitly defines individuals as "switchboxes". By walking through the steps of this method, he shows how it serves to isolate and individualise human experience. First of all, he notes, only those aspects of life over which the research participants might conceivably have some influence or control are commonly [p.120] studied: "Determinants [of experience] that lie beyond the immediate conditions of organismic change, but which may characterise the objective constitution of the individuals life worlds, tend to be ignored" (Tolman 1994: 40). Consequently, questions about social structures and their effects, the broad character of social relationships and practices, are commonly excluded. Having defined a question within such limits, psychologists devise experimental conditions which they measure in the form of "independent variables". They then observe what happens to people subjected to these experimental conditions: effectively, says Tolman, psychologists feed independent variables into a "switchbox" which "transforms" them into measures of outcome, or "dependent variables". The relationships between independent variables and dependent variables, which we discover in this way, provide the basis for speculations about "how the switchbox works". These speculations then form the basis of our psychology. If this were not enough, the statistical analyses that underpin most research further amplify these problems. Such analyses require that subjects are selected at random, and should be randomly assigned to one or another of the groups being investigated (usually called the "treatment group" and the "control group"). Subjects are then placed, one at a time, into a sterile environment - the "experimental situation". There they are assessed using questionnaires, measures of behaviour, brain activity, galvanic skin response or whatever. Then the subject's involvement ends, and the next subject is taken through the same procedure. And so on and so on, until all members of each of the groups have been assessed. The psychologist then takes these assessments, which are already partial, abstract measures that approximate only roughly and tangentially to the real lives of the people who took part, and adds together or averages them for each of the groups. This process produces even higher level abstractions, which are yet further removed from the lives of the subjects. Statistical significance is then ascertained by comparing any differences between the group averages with the overall range of differences among subjects. Tolman (1994: 53-54) concludes that: "the actual movement is from the very concrete level of an individual human life to a level of abstraction at which no concrete individual existence is any longer recognisable. It is no extreme claim that our methods first isolate the individual and then abstract him or her beyond On this analysis, psychology as it is taught to most undergraduates seems irrelevant largely because it is irrelevant - in the profound sense that it has little or nothing to say about the actual circumstances and life experience of any individual. The knowledge it produces is abstract knowledge founded upon abstract "average" individuals, and consequently is of little benefit to most of us in the difficult business of everyday life. It may be of benefit to ministers, civil servants, managers and advertisers, who can use the information that 65% of people think that there is too much sex on television before the 9pm watershed, that 70% of voters think that we are too soft on "illegal immigrants", or that the average person is more likely to support New Labour if they are seen to be doing something about law and order. But these are not the problems that we encounter in everyday life, and knowledge appropriate [p.121] to such problems is simply not what many people went into psychology to get. So we should not be surprised that psychology of this kind generates some dissatisfaction.
The Practice of Psychology
However, while we have stressed the ways in which the academic discipline of psychology
seems largely concerned with issues that are at best only tangentially related to our own concerns, and while we have noted the ways in which psychology fails to address what can be seen as the pressing social and interpersonal matters at the heart of contemporary culture, this is by no means the whole picture. Psychology is not simply an academic discipline - not only a means of reflecting upon the nature of our world, our minds and our activities - it is also a series of practices that are fundamentally woven into the very fabric of our personal and social lives. From everyday conversations, through everyday practice, to the institutional application of laws, policies and procedures, psychology plays a fundamental role in the constitution of every aspect of our lives. From day-to-day conversations regarding the repression of ‘forbidden’ thoughts and desires (psychoanalysis), through lamentations regarding our inability to be ‘ourselves’ (humanism), to institutional decisions regarding the statementing of children (educational psychology) and the assessment and treatment of a range of cognitive and behavioural disorders (clinical psychology), psychology – as a series of personal, social and institutional practices - is ever present in our lives, as a means of description, constitution and control. In this sense, the relevance or ‘truth’ of psychology is itself irrelevant, as psychology is always and already a part of our everyday world. Rose (1979) has termed this the psychological complex (or psy-complex). He traces the complex combination of practices, ideologies, strategies, and motives which have contributed to the current day psychological conception of the individual, with its focus on the theory and measurement of individual differences. The psychology of the individual is placed within a socio-political framework, and the discourse of this framework, and of the ‘psychological complex’, is unravelled. Rose emphasises that the ‘psychology of the individual’ is not an outgrowth of an autonomous science, but is fundamentally linked with questions and influences of social power, social policy, and political developments.
The Ideology of Individualism
It is this ‘psychology of the individual’ or ‘individualism’ (Sampson, 1977; 1989) that lies at the heart of contemporary psychology. In this ideology, the individual is a discrete and isolated phenomenon whose actions, thoughts and feelings can be explained as a consequence of internal properties or essences, whose fundamental ‘nature’ can be objectively known and empirically verified. The ideology of individualism is dependent upon and implicated within a heterogeneous matrix of social, material and economic practices. These connections place flesh upon its skeletal bones and, simultaneously, facilitate the operation of power and the maintenance of inequality. Individualism gains credence and legitimacy when problems seem to have their origins or solutions beneath the skin. At the same time, social and economic practices which generate vast profits for unaccountable [p.122] corporations may be validated by cultural presuppositions and academic theories which isolate people from the material and cultural fabric that constitutes their lives, so promoting individual rather than systemic or environmental solutions. In this regard, the amount of money invested in the development and marketing of new drugs can be compared to spending on research exploring psychosocial, environmental and economic factors that contribute to ill health. Precise comparisons are impossible: partly because detailed information about research budgets of large companies is typically considered commercially sensitive; partly because budgets for publicly funded research are not categorised in relevant ways; and partly because the distinction between public and private funding is sometimes unclear. Consequently, the figures that follow are suggestive rather than definitive and must be treated with some caution. In a recent article journalist Frederic Golden asserts that ".all told, drug companies are betting $6billion a year on R&D" (Time, 15/1/2001) - roughly £3.9 billion at today's exchange rates. However, The Guardian (15/2/2001) studied company reports and analysts forecasts (Consumer Project on Technology Drugs Information, 2001) to produce an even higher estimate of $16 billion (£10.4 billion) annual research spending in 2000 by just the five largest pharmaceutical companies (Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Aventis and Novartis). But the industry spends even more on sales and marketing than it does on research. Drug companies in America are estimated to have spent $15 billion on advertising in 1997 (Brodkey & Hassenfeld, 1998). Pfizer spent $8.8 billion on marketing and administration in 2000, compared to $4.4 billion on research ((Pfizer, 2000). Comparable figures for this country are not available because advertising of prescription drugs is illegal here (although companies circumvent this law by funding "public information" campaigns to raise awareness of medical conditions for which they have developed remedies). By comparison, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) which funds research in all university departments in this country has a budget for the coming year of just £867 million. Since this budget funds all university departments in England, only a very small proportion of it will be spent researching psychosocial and economic factors that influence health (some of it, in fact, will fund pharmacy departments). In addition to HEFCE's budget, the Economic and Social Research Council distributes government funding for social research and will allocate £72 million in grants in the coming year - but again, only a proportion of this will be spent on relevant research. In the USA the National Institute for Health funds biomedical research and in 1999 (the most recent year for which figures are available) allocated grants worth $11.2 billion (£7.28 billion): again, only a proportion of this money was spent on exploring systemic or psychosocial factors. Such figures suggest that the development and promotion of pharmaceutical remedies is resourced more generously than the development of systemic, environmental solutions or investigation into psychosocial factors: even though such interventions might be more effective in every sense, including the economic, since they commonly address the causes rather than the symptoms of illness. Thus, the individualisation of illness both diverts attention from social, structural factors [p.123] and generates profits for the pharmaceutical industry. Exemplifying this effect is Prozac, which came onto the U.S. market in 1987. In its wake, consultations for depression increased in the U.S. from 10.99 million in 1988 to 20.43 million in 1993 (Pincus et al 1998), helping Prozac's manufacturers to profit hugely from the misery which the economic and social policies of the Reagan/Bush era had created. Simultaneously, the drug's popularity fortified the ideology of individualism, persuading millions of people that swallowing a capsule
Critical Psychology
The individual then, psychology’s subject, is tacitly implicated in the formation and
regulation of billion dollar research strategies that aim to intervene (in various ways) in our
day-to-day lives. The conception of the individual as a discrete and isolated phenomenon, that in the section above can be modified, altered, ‘mended’ and controlled through the judicious application of relevant drugs and drug related therapies, is one that is analytically and theoretically removed from the social and material conditions of its creation. We are, from this perspective, ‘individuals’ - unique and discrete entities that function as a consequence of various internal properties, essences and processes - whose ‘dysfunctions’ can be corrected through pharmaceutical intervention. At the heart of such approaches is an assumption – sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit – that a person’s difficulties, whether in terms of physical illness or mental distress, are a personal matter that require intervention at the level of the individual; e.g. the routine administration of Prozac for depression. What these approaches lack is a recognition of the fact that individuals are a constituent part of the social fabric and that their experiences are as much a consequence of the material, social and environmental determinants of their lives as they are of their own psychic apparatus. Critical psychology, of which no more than a brief sketch can be presented here (see Fox and Prilleltensky, 1997, for an introduction), is an umbrella term for those approaches in psychology that take as their focus the manifold ways in which our subjectivities and lives are consequential to or shaped by our historical and cultural location. In terms of its analysis of the individual, many critical psychological approaches are underpinned by social constructionism (Berger and Luckmann, 1966; Burr, 1995), an approach that challenges the individualism of much contemporary psychology. Constructionist arguments offer a direct challenge to mainstream positivistic psychology in terms of both psychology’s assumptions regarding the ‘nature’ of the individual and in terms of challenging the status and validity of knowledge. In terms of the latter, constructionists argue that knowledge should not be taken as a veridical and objective ‘reflection’ of an external and objective reality, rather, it is the product of local and historical practices and interactional processes that, rather than describing an out-there reality, actually constructs that reality. A simple example: at the turn of the century a diagnostic category for the explanation of women’s ‘distress’ way hysteria. The symptoms of this ‘disorder’ included ‘eating like a ploughman’, ‘cussedness’, ‘erotic tendencies’ and masturbation. The ‘cure’ involved the introduction of ice and water into the [p.124] vagina, the use of leeches on the labia and, in extreme cases, clitoridectomy (Ussher, 1989). While we do not have any data regarding the effectiveness of this treatment it is likely that this treatment was successful, not in the sense of providing a solution to an objective disorder, but in terms of both defining, delimiting and controlling the behaviour of women in patriarchal Victorian Britain, women already constrained and oppressed by the political and social arrangements of their time. In this sense, knowledge is social and political in origin and, therefore, practices derived uncritically from such knowledge serve to merely reinforce locally contingent ideologies and dominant social and political concerns.
Critical Psychological Practice
In light of the above we would suggest that any form of psychological practice - from academic
theorising to counselling and psychotherapy - must take account of the ways in which
mainstream or traditional psychological notions of the individual suffuse and distort both our professional and lay understandings of what it means to be a person. For example, any psychotherapeutic approach that places the isolated, abstract individual centre stage will, no matter how benign the intentions of the practitioner, replicate and reinforce the ideological, social and material circumstances that already shape and underpin the individual's distress. Indeed, whilst many forms of psychotherapeutic practice can serve a palliative function, they do so only at some cost. First, they typically fail to recognise the actual material and social circumstances within which problems of mental distress arise, restricting their focus to the individual's experience and so de-emphasising its socially constructed character. Second, they pay little or no heed to the ways in which issues of normality and abnormality, deviance and conformity, selfhood and subjectivity, are social in origin. And third, they serve to reinforce individualistic notions of personal distress thereby masking its social, political, and material origins. Many therapists would challenge this analysis and assert that their clients do benefit and improve. Smail (1988, 1996) acknowledges this, but nevertheless questions psychotherapy. He argues that people are neither faulty machines that can be fixed (psychiatry) nor computers that can be reprogrammed (counselling and psychotherapy). Rather, barring neurological damage, people carry with them for life the impress of their experiences such that events - whether traumatic or euphoric - become an intrinsic part of who and what they are. Therapeutic curing is therefore a chimera: therapy can provide clarification, comfort and support, all of which can be beneficial to people who are suffering. But what it can't do is cure anything, since personal distress is, in this sense, not an illness at all: it is, rather, the to-be-expected outcome of harmful life experiences. In fact, Smail argues that by proffering false hopes of a "cure" therapy can even add to people's problems. The false hope of a cure may only make things worse for some who, failing to achieve this illusory goal, only have the depths of their inadequacy reconfirmed. So whilst therapy may indeed be helpful for some, a balanced assessment shows that its effects are largely confined to the individual and its goals are necessarily more limited than some practitioners like to believe. [p.125] This does not mean that no interventions are possible and no assistance worth giving. But it does have some clear implications for practice. First, that therapeutic interventions are likely to succeed, and gains are more likely to be maintained, when the fundamentally social nature of people's distress is placed at their core. Second, that therapists should adopt a humble stance towards their own practice, recognising both its limitations and its potentially negative effects. And third, that the scope of what we call psychotherapy should be greatly widened to incorporate a range of activities and practices which may have some therapeutic value but which are not formal healing techniques or procedures. Some initial steps have been taken in this direction with the establishment of community psychology, although its effects in practice may be somewhat questionable (Chavis and Wolff, 1993). The collective self-organisations of people suffering with distress, such as the Patients Council Support Groups of the 1980's and the more recent Hearing Voices Network, may also serve a significant therapeutic function for activists, as can innovations such as Nottingham's "Ecoworks" which involves users of psychiatric services in environmental projects. There are even attempts to make of mental distress a new social movement in the form of "Mad Pride" (Curtis et al, 2000). But ultimately, perhaps, even these innovations may not be enough. We need to recognise that the sufferings of those who seek therapy are the sufferings of us all, distilled, condensed and sedimented, and that they will only be assuaged when the social and material circumstances which produce them are transformed.
“Psychology is one of the most popular subjects in UK higher education. Nearly 70,000 applications to study psychology were received by UCAS in 1999, with 1 in 7 of these leading to a place on a degree course. The most recent statistics indicate that there were nearly 40000 students studying psychology at all levels in UK institutions of higher education in the 1999/2000 session” (taken from the QAA Psychology Benchmarking document). Many of these students aspire to professional status and competition for places on Clinical Psychology courses, for example, remains fierce. Other students will go on to work in the ‘caring professions’, some will train as counsellors, therapists and teachers, while yet others will enter professions where their psychological ‘expertise’ will inform their working practice (e.g. career guidance, nursing, advertising, market research). As noted above, many of these students - at one point or another - express dissatisfaction with their courses, particularly in terms of their failure to provide insight into the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of both themselves and their significant others. Nonetheless, these students, for the most part, do So where does this leave us? Our view, as argued above, is that psychology and its related practices are instrumentally involved in what we have termed the ideology of individualism. First, as derivatives and consequences of this ideology, in terms of psychology’s place and formation within a matrix of social, material and economic practices, and second, as a series of institutional, social and political practices that, through their failure to engage with the conditions of their creation, [p.126] acritically promulgate and maintain such an ideology. In this sense, psychology becomes a part of the machinery rather than an explanatory tool or We have also suggested that critical psychology, through a direct and critical engagement with the ideology of individualism, provides a means whereby we might avoid some of the difficulties associated with mainstream psychological practices, not in the sense of offering a ‘better’ psychological theory and derived set of practices, but in terms of directly engaging with the social, political, economic and material conditions that give rise to and shape our subjectivities. In this sense, critical psychology recognises the dialectical interpenetration of the psyche and the world. We are not individuals who stand apart from our world, reflecting upon an external and objective reality, rather we are constituent parts of that world - we are woven into its fabric. Our thoughts, feelings and actions, while undeniably our own, are as much a consequence of the various institutional matrices within which we reside as they are consequences of anything ‘internal’ to us as individuals. We are not suggesting that critical psychology alone can change the world, nor that it can act as a panacea for our modern or postmodern ills, rather we are suggesting that it can form part of what might realistically be called an answer. In highlighting the structural ‘determinants’ of personhood, the various ways in which individuals are enmeshed within particular social and material circumstances, we can begin to see ways of effecting change. Not in terms of altering our perceptions of the world, mending our faulty cognitions, eradicating our harmful behaviours, and elevating our feelings of worth, but in terms of developing an understanding of the interpenetration of the individual and that individual’s material and cultural circumstances such that we might intervene to effect sustainable change. Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Alan Carling, Rachel Cooper, Rachel Fyson, Libby
Maison, Julie Skinner, David Smail, Penny Standen and members of the Radical
Psychology Network discussion group ( for their help in the preparation of this article. 1 We are aware that not all quantitative method is of precisely the form that Tolman describes and criticises - for example, that there are other statistical techniques aimed at assessing clinical rather than academic significance (Jacobson & Truax, 1986), and that in recent years there has been an increasing tolerance of and interest in qualitative research methods in psychology. But our discussion is centred upon the experience of psychology undergraduates, and these trends are feeding through to the syllabi of first degrees only slowly - as documents specifying relevant content for a degree leading to membership of the British Psychology Society illustrate (British Psychological Society 1997, 1999). Whilst Tolman's critique may be something of a caricature that omits significant recent trends, we feel that it nevertheless captures the essence of how psychology is typically presented to undergraduates. 2 Our use of the term "subject", rather than the more polite and currently fashionable term "participant", is quite deliberate. In this kind of research people are indeed subjects with no real opportunity to participate, and current terminology helps to obscure this.
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