Community Psychology and Liberation Theologies: Commonalities, Collaboration, Dilemmas

Article excerpt

Community psychology and liberation theologies share an emphasis on personal and social transfor-mation through a process of liberation. Emerging in the 1960s in the climate of social change movements, both fields serve to challenge the dominant discourse of how and why to perform the tasks of theology and psychology. My purpose in this article is to put these fields into dialogue, with a focus on commonalities, collaboration, and dilemmas. After presenting an overview of the fields and their commonalities, I posit that liberation theologies can enrich the why and where of liberating structural change, whereas community psychology can enrich the how with conceptual tools such as multiple levels of analysis and social change strategies. I conclude with dilemmas internal to these fields and inherent in collaboration. My goal is to promote theoretical and practical collaboration in the quest for liberatory social change.

Community psychology and liberation theologies hold great potential to encourage personal and social transformation through a process of liberation. Emerging in the 1960s in the climate of social change movements and influenced by the writings of Paulo Freire (1970/2000), both fields serve to challenge the dominant discourse of how and why to perform the tasks of theology and psychology (Dokecki, 1982). My purpose in this article is to put these fields into dialogue, with a focus on commonalities, collaboration, and dilemmas. After presenting an overview of the fields and their commonalities, I posit that liberation theologies can enrich the why and where of liberating structural change, whereas community psychology can enrich the how with conceptual tools such as multiple levels of analysis and social change strategies. I develop these arguments from my social location as a White-Protestant man, primarily through the lens of community psychology though also informed by my formal theological education. I conclude with dilemmas internal to each field and inherent in potential collaboration.

OVERVIEW AND INTERRELATED HISTORIES OF COMMUNITY PSYCHOLOGY AND LIBERATION THEOLOGY

Community Psychology

Against a backdrop of the U.S. social movements in the 1960s, community psychology emerged as a field in reaction to clinical psychology and nurtured by governmental support for community mental health programs (Dalton, Elias, & Wandersman, 2006; Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2005; Rappaport, 1977). The formal birth of the field in the United States (1) is credited to the 1965 Swampscott conference, where a small gathering of social scientists envisioned a different type of psychology focused on prevention, alternatives to the medical model of mental illness, and social change (Rickel, 1987). In the early years, the field developed conceptual tools for theory, research, and practice to counter the dominant person-blaming tendency of mainstream psychology (Caplan & Nelson, 1973; Ryan, 1976). For example, a focus on social context and multiple levels of analysis enabled an analysis of factors beyond the individual that impact individuals and groups (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Kelly, 1966). In the 1980s the field moved from a focus on prevention to empowerment (Rappaport, 1981), began to more actively pursue a focus on strengths and wellness (Cowen, 2000), and embraced diversity and social justice as central to the field (Dalton et al., 2006). A focus on studying social change interventions (e.g., citizen participation, community organizing) also set community psychology apart from other areas of psychology. More recent attention has been given to the role of community psychology in the process of liberation (Watts & Serrano-Garcia, 2003) and the incorporation of a critical understanding of power (Fisher, Sonn, & Evans, 2007; Prilleltensky, 2003, 2008). I argue in this article that these conceptual and practical tools may help to inform liberation theologies in the how of promoting liberation. …