A lot of my catching up with friends happens by going walking together. Several years ago, on one of these walks, my walking buddy shared with me the story of her very first therapy session, maybe twenty-odd years ago. The therapist asked her, “what do you think’s the cause of your problems?” She answered, in all earnestness, “patriarchy”. The therapist laughed, then proceeded to ignore the request from a smart, perceptive, self-aware woman to explore the impact gendered oppression was having in her life. [Yes, I was sad and pissed off hearing this story too]. My friend then said, “I wonder how my life might have gone differently if I’d been taken seriously”. Ouch.

This is an excellent example of not-liberation psychologies.

One way to analyse different approaches to psycho-emotional wellbeing is the degree to which the approach serves a liberation agenda, or the opposite, a social control agenda. Sound dramatic? Re-read the story above – that was social control (don’t become more aware of patriarchy lest you challenge it). That’s not to say the therapist, or any individual therapists, are consciously and intentionally trying to control people. My intention with this article is to briefly explore how different systems of thinking about individuals and their relationship with and place in society, sits at the foundation of different approaches to psycho-emotional wellbeing. Practitioners who work from social controlling approaches absolutely will replicate social control but it doesn’t mean that’s what they think or intend to do.

Ignacio Martín-Baró, a psychologist and Jesuit priest from El Salvador, is credited as the founder of liberation psychology, but like most excellent ideas, the concept was, of course, a team effort. It was one branch of several liberation theories emerging throughout central and south American countries in the 1960-70s, including liberation theology, liberation philosophy, and critical pedagogy (education for the oppressed). A time of extreme social injustice became a catalyst for some deeply thoughtful, provocative and transformational ways of understanding society, oppression, and freedom from oppression.

Liberation psychologies “focus on the well-being and self-organisation of people and their communities…promote critical reflection and transformation in local arenas, and…their goal is not the imposition of a prescribed yardstick of development but an opening toward greater freedom in imaging the goals of life.”1

In other words, liberation psychologies focus on the whole community, they challenge status quo culture if it’s harmful, and they enable people to define for themselves what it means to be successful, normal, fulfilled etc.

Mainstream Western psychology/psychiatry (which could be defined simply as that which gets the majority of research funding and institutional/governmental validation) falls at the social control end of the spectrum for a variety of reasons;

  1. The problem is in the individual: a tendancy to focus only on the individual and locates the root of distress in the individual’s brain – either as faulty wiring, faulty habits of thought, or faulty brain chemistry. It fails to acknowledge the social, political, environmental, and commercial contexts in which people live and the ways they impact wellbeing.
  2. Universality: mainstream medicine (of which psychology/psychiatry are a part of) is horrendously colonial. One of the ways it does this is by assuming and imposing a fundamental, psychological sameness across all cultures.
  3. Society’s fine: the assumption that social structures don’t need to change, that instead, it is the individual who should shape themselves to fit the structures and be more functional within them (as opposed to supporting the transformation of harmful social structures).
  4. Lab vs real life: Mainstream psychology/psychiatry tries to position itself as a science and tries to use the scientific method to study people. The approach is mechanistic, meaning it breaks things down into parts in order to study them, then thinks the results of that study can be applied back to the whole. It just doesn’t work when studying humans, we’re too complex.

The central criticism of mainstream psychology/psychiatry; it doesn’t acknowledge the role social oppression, colonialism and globalisation play in diminishing individual wellbeing; it works in service of the dominant Western culture by helping people adapt and adjust to oppression, rather than seeking to analyse and transform it.


On a socio-cultural level – the implication that the mainstream approach to psycho-emotional wellbeing perpetuates social oppression is pretty massive and could be the work of a life-time to unpack.

On an individual/client level – if you’re engaging with mainstream mental health services, it’s good to be aware that sometimes the treatment you receive could be more harmful than helpful because the impact of oppression, abuse and marginalisation in your life is not being recognised and instead, all the issues the you bring are seen as something wrong with just you.

If that’s the case, you might perhaps push back or go somewhere else – in Australia, Mental Health Social Workers can be a good option as the premise of social work is much more justice-oriented (and they’re covered by Medicare). If you can afford private therapy, hunt around for therapists who articulate some kind of social psychology bent/awareness of social oppression. 


  1. Watkins, M. and Shulman, H. (2010). Toward psychologies of liberation. Second Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. p 5.
  2. Ibid, p 24, drawing on Writings for a Liberation Psychology by Martin-Baró.


Wikipedia gets poo-poo’d a lot as a source and whilst you can’t use it for academic work, I think it’s an excellent place to start with a new topic. It gives you the basic bones of the topic, names the main players, and often provides some good references – you can snowball from there to find the key readings. Check out:

Down the more academic end of the spectrum, I like:

  • Unconscious Dominions: Psychoanalysis, Colonial Trauma, and Global Sovereignties, edited by Anderson, Jenson & Keller
  • Liberatory psychiatry: Philosophy, politics and mental health, edited by Cohen and Timimi

Here’s a nifty guide to ethical book sellers if you’re looking to purchase any of the above: https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/retailers/shopping-guide/ethical-bookshops

Over to you. Have any other great reading recommendations? Thoughts about the idea of liberation vs social control in psychology. Put them in the comments so we can learn together. (Please be mindful about sharing personal stories though, this is a public forum and stories can sometimes be unintentionally distressing – I will moderate them if I think they’re too distressing).

Share it | Send it | Keep it