Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Why Interventions in Dysfunctional Communities Fail: The Need for a Truly Collective Approach

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Why Interventions in Dysfunctional Communities Fail: The Need for a Truly Collective Approach

Article excerpt


Communities can become dysfunctional. Many Aboriginal and inner city communities are not only defined by mainstream authorities, but equally by themselves, as struggling with a persistent range of social problems. Intervention strategies have been applied for years involving vast human and financial resources, all to no avail. The problem is not a "cultural mismatch," but rather the misapplication of an individualistic solution to what is clearly a collective problem. We describe a collective intervention strategy, involving survey research, that is designed to effectively change community norms, and one that goes beyond the usual definitions of "community-based" research.

Keywords: cultural identity, collective self-control, norms, dysfunctions, survey research, social change

You might say that psychological intervention is necessary when a person's idiosyncrasies, which we all have, render the person dysfunctional in at least one important sphere of his or her life. But what are we to make of those situations in which an entire group, community, or indeed nation is rendered dysfunctional? Dysfunctional is the label often applied to failed nation states, Aboriginal communities, and inner-city African American neighbourhoods to cite but three examples of collective dysfunction. We suggest that society's default intervention strategy in situations of collective dysfunction is precisely the "toolkit" we bring to address individual challenges. And these, we argue, are entirely inappropriate. Collective dysfunction requires collective intervention. In this article, we outline a collective intervention strategy that may hold some promise.

The concrete example we focus on throughout is the array of challenges confronting Canada's Aboriginal communities, with a special emphasis on the poor attendance and astronomical dropout rate in Aboriginal schools. Indeed, the dropout rate averages 64% for Aboriginal youth living on reserves (Mendelson, 2006; Statistics Canada, 2003) and can be as high as 75% in many Aboriginal communities (Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, 2011). The intervention model we propose, however, is a general one, and can be applied to any dysfunctional community and any particular presenting issue.

The driving social force that serves as the genesis of our theoretical analysis is one that has impacted each and every First Nations, Inuit, and Métis group in Canada: Colonization. Our theoretical framework posits that colonization, first and foremost, negatively impacted Aboriginal cultural identity. The outcome, we argue, is not merely a dramatic change in cultural identity but worse: A cultural identity vacuum. The concrete manifestation of this cultural vacuum is a number of collective self-control issues that lead to a destructive structure of community norms. The end result of these linked processes is widespread community dysfunction.

This key series of social psychological processes is each addressed in turn before turning to a concrete, genuinely collective intervention plan that involves a unique application of scientific survey research.

Colonialism: Colonization and Aboriginal Identity

Members of a cultural group share a worldview in the form of a cultural identity that allows them to successfully navigate their social and physical environment. Colonization virtually destroyed the cultural identity of Aboriginal peoples and the implications of this process need to be articulated. We offer here a theory of the self-concept that places special emphasis on the role of cultural identity so that the impact of colonization on the self-concept can be fully appreciated.

The "self-concept" is the process that organizes experience, guides, and regulates behaviour, and is ultimately the root of psychological meaning and adjustment (Baumeister, 1999; Leary & Tangney, 2003). Despite the complexities associated with the self-concept, there is consensus about two of its fundamental dimensions. …

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