Community Psychology in the Canadian Psychological Family

By Walsh-Bowers, Richard | Canadian Psychology, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Community Psychology in the Canadian Psychological Family

Walsh-Bowers, Richard, Canadian Psychology


I review the marginalized status of community psychology in the history of psychology in Canada, emphasizing the early precedents of applied mental health and community interventions. I present the findings from inquiries into undergraduate and graduate training in community psychology in Canada. After assessing current problems in the subdiscipline, I make recommendations for future directions and discuss the potential usefulness of community psychology to professional psychology in meeting the challenges of public mental health.


J'examine le caractere marginal de la psychologie communautaire dabs l'histoire de la psychologie au Canada, en mettant l'accent sur les premieres interventions communautaires et en sante mentale. Je presente les conclusions d'enquetes sur la formation de premier, de deuxieme et de troisieme cycles en psychologie communautaire au Canada. Apres avoir evalue les problemes que connait actuellement cette sous-discipline, je recommande des orientations pour l'avenir et je traite de la mesure dans laquelle la psychologie communautaire pourrait aider la psychologie professionnelle a relever les defis que pose la sante mentale de la population.

Community psychology, in my view, is the applied subdiscipline that is explicitly oriented to developing psychological theory, values, and research methods and to creating innovative social interventions, all for the purposes of: preventing social, economic, health, and mental health problems; improving the quality of life and well-being, particularly for marginalized groups; and building the sense and reality of community and empowerment. (For reviews of the epistemic bases of community psychology and their theoretical, methodological, and practical implications, see the edited volume by Tolan, Keys, Chertok, & Jason, 1990.) A distinctive feature of community psychology, ideally, is the planned use of participatory research in active collaboration with citizens to promote a more equitable distribution of community resources. In both theory and practice, community psychology is broader in scope but overlaps to some degree with professional psychology (i.e., clinical, counselling) and applied social, industrial-organizational, developmental, and educational psychology. The concept of primary prevention, for instance, which is central to community psychology, has insinuated its way into other subdisciplines of applied psychology and other professions such as social work.

Current Canadian examples of community psychologists' work include: (1) the application of the standard of social justice to cases of sexual assault in comparison to physical assaults and robberies in order to expose a criminal justice system that minimizes male violence against women and to propose law reform (Renner, Alksnis, & Park, 1997); (2) a participatory, peer-centred evaluation of an urban organization that stimulates community-based economic development intended to counter the debilitating effects of extant marketplace conditions through community organizing, mutual aid, and alternative economic and employment practices (Papineau & Kiely, 1996); (3) the development and evaluation of a collective drama approach with adolescents in schools to heighten peer awareness about and prevent violence against women, which incorporates innovative research methods and report-writing (Community Education Team, in press).

According to conventional wisdom, American psychologists originated community psychology in response to the U.S. community mental health movement and social issues in the 1960s. More recently, the community psychology division of the American Psychological Association (APA) became known as the Society for Community Research and Action to signal its action-science intentions. But community psychology, practiced in nations as diverse as Cuba, New Zealand, and Venezuela for over a decade, actually has a much longer history in Canada than in the U. …

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