Transform Psychology in South Africa, NOW!


Early this year (2016), I had the privilege of teaching Counselling Psychology students a very important topic of “Multiculturalism”. I started by introducing the students to the origins of Psychology, and the developments since the days of modern philosophers, who were concerned with the questions of existence. The idea was to help students see why there is need to study Multiculturalism in Psychology, especially in South Africa.

As I was teaching the topic, I noticed that my students had little knowledge about the history of Psychology, and I presumed that they didn’t understand the importance of that history in comprehending theories and principles that have dominated the study and practice of Psychology.

Some of the theories have been presented as founding theories of Psychology, and therefore, students needed to learn about them as students of Psychology—so making Psychology appear like Physics, Chemistry etc.—all the scientific heavy subjects of study whose theories are ‘carved in stone’.

So Kent’s debate of nomothetic and ideographic comes to mind, and psychology according to the view above, would be purely nomothetic.

This view (nomothetic) assumes that psychology is a natural science concerned with discovering laws of nature—meaning, there are universal laws that determine behaviour, and if such laws do not apply in a different context, the tendency is to pathologize the behaviour of people in that context, because they don’t fit a certain “brand” of behaviour (which is universal law).

This is what colonists did when they occupied the lands of the colonised, they disregarded the social systems of the colonised and imposed theirs, with imperialist ideologies that made the colonised believe the negativity about their identities.

I’ve always thought and I still believe that this is a problematic way of understanding Psychology, mainly because, human being are dynamic and it has been proven that environment, social, political and economic conditions play a major role in this human dynamism. As we have seen in South Africa with the students protests and debates about transformation.

The ongoing debates in South Africa about mainly transformation of curriculum, where ‘black’ students, in the main, have been complaining about how the curriculum ignores their experiences with the popular phrase; “Curriculum So White” makes the ideographic view relevant in Psychology. The ideographic view takes the approach of a unique understanding of unique people, and that one socially constructs their reality—discarding the generalisation and comparison approach that comes with nomothetic view. The critical students’ voices have been coming from students in studies like; Politics, Law, History to name but a few. Few of these critical voices have been coming from psychology students—especially in historically white universities.

So when I got an opportunity to teach Multiculturalism, I used that opportunity to create a critical analysis of Psychology as a discipline and practice in the minds of psychology students for them to discuss and understand the relevance of the calls to transform curriculum, especially in Psychology.

So, I used case studies to make my point, and I’ve captured one of the case studies for this article to illustrate the importance of transforming the discipline of Psychology in South Africa. I also acknowledge academics especially in the University of Kwazulu Natal who have started with amazing work around the area of “African Psychology”, academics and researchers who are working in the area of Community Psychology, and Rhodes University’s brand of Critical Psychology which looks specifically at the decolonisation of Gender and Sexuality in society.

The Case study:

A 45 year old woman from Bisho, Nomathemba Mbatha, recently got employed by government, in the legislature. She earns R18, 000 after tax, which makes her a member of the emerging black middle class in the country. The following year after her employment, she took her son to a private school in Bisho. The school has 70% of its student body as Caucasian and 5% Indian. Her child joined the school at age 11 after four years of public schooling. He lives at home with his mother and grandmother, and his four siblings and cousins. Culturally, the boy has been enculturated in his mother’s values inherited from his grandmother. In the family, one of the values includes children not talking back to elders, not looking elderly people in the eye, and never raising their voice when speaking to an elderly person. His community also espouses the same set of values as his family. Every elder he meets is either a father or a mother, or a brother or sister.

Few weeks down the line in his new school, the teachers notice that the child fails to look at them when they speak to him. The teachers associate this with lack of assertiveness on the part of the child. Ignoring the culture and the cosmology of this child. The teacher continues to monitor this boy, and she speaks to other teachers and they all confirm this. She reports this to the principal after associating this with disrespect. The boy gets summoned to the principal’s office, and when the principal tries to speak to the boy, he (the boy) looks down, afraid of looking an elderly person in the eye. The principal calls the mother, and the mother gets invited to the school.

Remember, the woman just got 'promoted' to the middle class status and she did not grow up around ‘white’ people, if anything, she grew up worshipping and respecting them as if they are gods—reinforced by the image of Jesus at the (her) ‘black’ church. So when she gets to the principal’s office, already she is convinced that her child has done something wrong, so she is there to listen not to engage, or question. She gets there and the principal breaks it to her that they think the child lacks assertiveness, and that they are considering taking him to a psychologist to confirm it. The word “assertive” is not in the repertoire of this woman’s English vocabulary, so she is lost. She nods though as if to say; “I understand”. Nodding indicate to the principal that the mother understands what assertive means. The principal acknowledges that they will take him to a fellow ‘black’ psychologist (considering cultural differences). How considerate of the principal.

The child gets taken to this psychologist and after few minutes in the consultation room, when the Psychologist asked questions, the boy, same thing; he looks down and mumbles. The psychologist concludes that, the boy is suffering from ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). The primary features associated with this “disorder” are inattention (lack of attention), hyperactivity (this was introduced later-making ADHD, and impulsivity (doing things without careful thought). So the boy must be helped. The psychologists ignores completely the social, cultural and psychological factors that might cause this “disorder”—the understanding is that this is a biological ‘disorder’ and requires a ‘medical’ intervention.

The boys is given a medication, and he is taken to a remedial class when he goes back to school. After 4 years, a very intelligent boy, has struggled to complete just grade 6, and few years later, he drops out of schools fanning difficulties to cope.

Cultural dislocation and ill-informed diagnoses have affected this boy’s life for ever.

Way Forward

With this example I’m trying to illustrate the different social systems that influence our identities and our behaviours. Psychology is concerned with the mind and behaviour. Both the mind and behaviour are influenced by one’s social system, and until we acknowledge that as researchers, teachers, lecturers, and Psychologist, we’ll continue to misdiagnose people, and teach theories that don’t take into account our students’ context. When they graduate, they will find it difficult to relate with their clients in terms language, diagnosis and psychological interventions.

It is important for the discipline of Psychology to take into account the social systems that individuals are socialised into, and teach theories that consider the context, especially in South Africa. The discipline and practice of Psychology since its introduction as an official academic discipline of study and practice ignored the importance of culture, values, and attitudes of Africans—which is shaped by their social systems. What Psychology did and continues to do in South Africa, is to problematize the African identity and study it as such, ‘a problem’.

As a result, 22 years in a democratic governing system, the throughput of Psychology graduates and practitioners in South Africa has one view, the Eurocentric premised view of understanding the mind and behaviour of Africans.

Researchers in the field of Psychology have a mandate to embark upon new and critical ‘post’-colonial data gathering methods that capture the social systems of Africans, with critical ‘post’-colonial theorists being used as guides.

Psychology just like any other academic discipline has got to transform in South Africa. One acknowledges the tireless work that some researchers have done thus far to bring this challenge with psychology to the fore, and provide some directions.

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