Liberation psychology or liberation social psychology is an approach to psychology that aims to actively understand the psychology of oppressed and impoverished communities by conceptually and practically addressing the oppressive sociopolitical structure in which they exist. The central concepts of liberation psychology include: conscientization; realismo-crítico; de-ideologized reality; a coherently social orientation; the preferential option for the oppressed majorities, and methodological eclecticism.
- 1 History
- 2 Key Concepts
- 3 Applications
- 4 Moving liberation psychology forward
- 5 References
- 6 External links
The core ideas of liberation psychology emerged in Latin America in the 1970s in response to criticisms of traditional psychology, social psychology specifically. Psychology was criticised for its 1) value neutrality; 2) assertion of universality; 3) societal irrelevance.
- View of science as neutral – The idea that science was devoid of moral elements was considered a flawed framework.
- Assertion of universality – Psychological theories were being produced based on research conducted primarily with white, middle class, undergraduate males. Liberationists questioned the notion that such principles were universal and therefore applicable to all individuals without regard to the consideration of contextual factors.
- Societal irrelevance – Psychology was viewed as failing to generate knowledge that could address social inequalities.
In response to theses criticisms, psychologists sought to create a psychological science that addressed social inequalities both in theory and practical application. It is important to note that liberation psychology is not an area of psychology akin to clinical, developmental, or social psychology. However, it is more of a framework that understands psychology through the structures that perpetuate social inequalities. Therefore, individuals using this framework would likely not call themselves “liberation psychologists,” although this term is sometimes used to refer to such individuals.
The term “liberation psychology” (or “psciologia de la liberacion”) appears to have first appeared in print in 1976. However, it was later brought into widespread use, articulated as discussed here, by Ignacio Martín-Baró. A number of other Latin American social psychologists have also developed and promoted the approach, including Martiza Montero (Venezuela), Ignacio Dobles (Costa Rica), Bernardo Jiménez Dominguez (Colombia/Mexico), Jorge Mario Flores (Mexico), Edgar Barrero (Colombia) and Raquel Guzzo (Brazil) among others.
The genesis of liberation psychology began amongst a body of psychologists in Latin America in the 1970s. Ignacio Martín-Baró is credited as the founder of liberation psychology, and it was further developed by others .
Martín-Baró was a Spanish-born Jesuit priest and social psychologist who dedicated his work to addressing the needs of oppressed groups in Latin America, and ultimately was assassinated as a result of his work. His project of constructing a psychology relevant to the oppressed majorities of the American continent was therefore terminated prematurely. The collection of some of his articles in the collection 'Writings for a Liberation Psychology' is a seminal text in the field that discusses the role of psychology as socially transformative. Unfortunately most of his work still remains untranslated into English. His two major textbooks, "Social Psychology from Central America" and his other books are published by a small University publisher, UCA editores in El Salvador with the consequence that the breadth and depth of his work is not well known even in Latin America.
The central concepts of liberation psychology include: concientización; realismo-crítico; de-ideologization; a social orientation; the preferential option for the oppressed majorities, and methodological eclecticism.
The intrinsic connectedness of the person’s experience and the sociopolitical structure is a fundamental tenant of liberation psychology and is referred to as concientización, a term introduced by the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, roughly translatable as the raising of politico-social consciousness. In this process people become more conscious of themselves and their lives as structured by the social reality of oppression, understood structurally, and they thereby become social actors. They change as they begin to act on their social circumstances. Understanding this interconnectedness is of particular importance to understanding the experiences and psychology of oppressed peoples, the power structure to which they are subjugated, and the ways in which this subjugation manifests in their behavior and psychopathology.
Liberation psychology criticises traditional psychology for explaining human behavior independently of the sociopolitical, historical, and cultural context. Martín-Baró argued that a failure of mainstream psychology is the attribution to the individual of characteristics that are found in the societal relations of the group. He argued that individual characteristics are a result of social relations, and to view such individualistically de-emphasizes the role of social structures, incorrectly attributing sociopolitical problems to the individual. Liberation psychology addresses this by reorienting the focus from an individualistic to a social orientation. Using this framework, the behaviour of oppressed people is conceptualized not through intrapsychic processes, but as a result of the alienating environment.
The social orientation has a particular emphasis on understanding the role of history in shaping current conditions, and the ways in which this history resulted in the oppression of particular communities. Within this orientation, critical examination of social power and its structures is crucial. This is necessary in order to understand political and social power as not being interpersonal, but part of a society’s institutional organization.
Preferential option for the oppressed majorities
The development of a psychology that is “from” oppressed people rather than “for” oppressed people is the aim of liberation psychologists. Traditional psychology is understood as Eurocentric and is critiqued for ignoring the unique experiences of oppressed individuals. Martín-Baró made a similar argument, critiquing Latin American psychologists for adopting Eurocentric psychological models that were not informed by the social, political, and cultural environment of the impoverished and oppressed, which was the majority of people in 1980’s El Salvador.
Liberation psychology further criticizes traditional psychology for its ivory tower approach to understanding phenomena. Unlike traditional approaches, liberation psychology understands the psychologist as part of the emancipatory process for oppressed communities. A bottom-up decision making approach is favored where the community informs the research agenda, rather than the typical top-down approach. Within this framework, the psychologist is charged with understanding the everyday lives of individuals, their history, culture, and communal structure. This then allows the psychologist to work with communities to generate knowledge. Such an idea repositions the psychologist from the ivory tower to within the communities that are being served.
Martín-Baró contended that theories should not define the problems to be explored, but that the problems generate their own theories. This idea is termed realismo-crítico. This is contrasted to the traditional approach of addressing problems based on preconceived theorization, idealismo-metodológico (methodological idealism). In realismo-crítico, theorization plays a supportive, but not fundamental, role. Martín-Baró’s idea of realism-crítico should not be equated with the work of Roy Bhaskar on critical realism. Although the two ideas are conceptually similar in some ways, they have distinct meanings (hence the use of the term here in Spanish, rather than attempting a direct translation).
Martín-Baró emphasized the role of ideology in obscuring the social forces and relations that create and maintain oppression: a key task of psychologists then is to de-ideologize reality, helping people to understand for themselves the nature of social reality transparently rather than obscured by dominant ideology. Ideology, understood as the ideas that perpetuate the interests of hegemonic groups, maintains the unjust sociopolitical environment. Alternatively, a de-ideologized reality encourages members of marginalized populations to endorse ideologies that promote their own interests and not those of the hegemony. Martín-Baró's analysis of supposed Latin American fatalism and the myth of the lazy Latino exemplified his approach as did his use of public opinion surveys to counter the distortion that the then government and military were presenting of the Salvadorian public's views on the war.
Research with a liberation psychology framework incorporates methodologies from diverse domains. Traditional methodologies, such as surveys and quantitative analyses, are combined with more novel techniques for psychology, such as qualitative analyses, photography, drama, and textual analysis.
Ignacio Martín-Baró had opposed the introduction of community psychology to El Salvador, on the basis of the ameliorative approach and limited social perspective of then dominant North American models. Nevertheless, community psychology, and especially the Latin American variants (typically termed community social psychology) is one of the areas most influenced by the concepts of liberation psychology.
Liberation psychology departs from traditional psychological prioritization of the individual and the attribution of an individual’s distress to pathology within the individual. Liberation psychology challenges us to understand the person within their sociopolitical, cultural, and historical context. Therefore, distress is understood not solely in intrapsychic terms but in the context of an oppressive environment that psychologises and individualises distress. In a psychotherapeutic context, this removes the onus of psychological distress solely from the individual and the individual’s immediate circumstances, and reframes the origin of distress as the environment and social structure to which the individual is subjugated. Furthermore, this allows the individual to understand their relationship to the power structure, and the ways in which they participate in it. In liberatory approaches to mental distress the therapy is only a step towards the 're-insertion' of a person into their social milieu, social action and their existential life-project.
Some scholars argue that the liberation psychology framework is central to black psychology. The interconnectedness of the personal and political, a fundamental tenet of liberation psychology, is central to black psychology. Furthermore, black psychology is thought of as inherently liberationist as it argues that addressing the psychology of black persons necessitates understanding, and addressing, the history and sociopolitical power structure that has resulted in the global oppression of individuals of African descent.
Proponents of black psychology operate within the social orientation of liberation psychology, contending that Eurocentric ideologies of traditional psychology lack relevance when dealing with black communities. Therefore, an Afrocentric conceptualization that recognizes the unique history of individuals of African-descent is necessary when dealing with such communities. Using a liberation psychology framework, black psychology argues that simply recognizing the distinctiveness of the black experience is inadequate if the psychological theorization used does not come from the communities to which they are applied. Such a position is consistent with Martín-Baró’s assertion that the use of Eurocentric psychological methods is incongruent with the lived experiences of oppressed communities.
Moving liberation psychology forward
Since the late 1990s, international congresses on liberation psychology have been held, primarily at Latin American universities. These congresses have been attended by hundreds of professionals and students, and have been crucial in perpetuating the social justice message of liberation psychology.
Specific congress themes include human rights, social justice, democratization, and creating models for liberation psychology in psychological practice and pedagogy. In recent years, these meetings have become increasingly focused on addressing issues related to poverty and economic inequality.
International congresses on liberation psychology:
- 1st, 1998 in Mexico City, Mexico
- 2nd, 1999 in San Salvador, El Salvador
- 3rd, 2000 in Cuernavaca, Mexico
- 4th, 2001 in Guatemala City, Guatemala
- 5th, 2002 in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
- 6th, 2003 in Campinas, Brazil 
- 7th, 2005 in Liberia, Costa Rica
- 8th, in Santiago de Chile
- 9th, 2008 in Chiapas, Mexico
- 10th, 2010 in Caracas, Venezuela
- 11th, 2012 in Bogotá, Colombia 
There are also Liberation Psychology collectives in several places, the most active being in Colombia and Costa Rica.
Liberation psychology is not limited to Latin America. The term was used by Philippine psychologist Virgilio Enríquez, apparently independently of Martín-Baró. Elsewhere there have been explicit attempts to apply the approach to practice in other regions. In 2011 an English language liberation psychology network was established by the British psychologist Mark Burton. It has an international membership which reflects interest in liberation psychology from psychologists who do not read Spanish or Portuguese. Moreover, not all liberatory praxis in psychology goes under the name 'Liberation Psychology".
An example of an application: Liberation psychology and LGBT psychotherapy
Recent work in North America has sought to understand the applied use of liberation psychology in psychotherapy with LGBT individuals. Unlike traditional psychotherapeutic interventions, this approach reframes LGBT individuals’ psychological issues as resulting from an understandable incorporation of the homonegative attitudes characteristic of the social structures within which gay people live.
Traditional psychotherapy typically recognises the effect of homophobia and its impact on LGBT people, but often fails to clear the person of the blame for embracing such views. However, a liberationist psychological approach aims to facilitate the freeing the individual of the blame for adopting the homonegative views of the society. Instead, the onus is on the social environment, understanding that persons are themselves constituted as persons in their social context. Such an approach understands 'psychological' issues as inextricably linked to the societal context.
This then frees the LGBT person of feeling flawed for harboring homonegative ideas. They are then able to examine how they are a participant in the social environment and the ways in which they can take responsibility for future actions. Additionally, using the concept of concientización, people are able to examine how changing themselves can challenge the oppressive nature of the larger sociopolitical system., although in most liberation psychology there is a more dialectical relationship between personal and social change where personal change does not have to precede social liberation.
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- Russell, G. M., & Bohan, J. S. (2007). Liberating psychotherapy: liberation psychology and psychotherapy with LGBT clients. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Psychotherapy, 11, 59-75.
- Burton, M., & Kagan, C. (2005). Liberation social psychology: learning from Latin America. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 15, 63-78.
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- Azibo, D. (1994). The kindred fields of black liberation theology and liberation psychology: a critical essay on their conceptual base and destiny. Journal of Black Psychology, 20, 334-356.
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- Guzzo, R. S. L., & Lacerda, F. (Eds.). (2011). Psicologia Social Para América Latina: O Resgate da Psicologia e Libertação. Campinas, Brazil: Editora Alínea.
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- Enriquez, V. (1994). From colonial to liberation psychology: the Philippine Experience. Manila: De La Salle University Press.
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