December 2000

ISSN 1473-219X







Power, Regulation and Pressure: issues in the study of indigenous psychologies

Manfusa Shams, University of Luton


The social context and processes that accumulate psychological knowledge, provide evidence to formulate universal theories and concepts, and accrue culturally specific and sensitive research tools for studying behaviour are still beneath the surface of the discourse that utilises ‘culture’ as a central tool to the understanding of human behaviour in a global context. The notion of ‘culture’ as a knowledge provider delimits the powerful influence of contextualized knowledge on our understanding and interpretations of ‘globalised human behaviour’. The question of a tangible culture is aired through the working definitions of some affiliated concepts that encompass culture, such as modern information technologies and revolutionary agricultural advancement, however its impact on formalising knowledge still remains within the ‘cultural paradigm’. The shifting of the cultural paradigm depends on the regulatory agencies that translate indigenous cultures to conform to existing concerns regarding indigenous psychologies and make them compatible with the western paradigm of (non-western) indigenous psychologies. Due to the interdependency of various cultures (Bandura, 1999), the concept ‘indigenous’ is becoming more flexible and its fluidity allows little room for an autonomous, internal coherent and a self-contained cultural whole, particularly in the present post-colonial world. (Eldridge, 1999)

The aim of this paper is to provide a critical analysis of the study of indigenous psychologies that is subjected to external control in terms of the delivery and production of materials and in relation to ‘position and justificatory functions’ within the mainstream discipline. The paper also endeavours to draw a link between historical perspectives and post-historical prejudgemental views in order to explicate the contentious issues of ‘power, regulations and pressures’ to the study of indigenous psychologies.

The paper addresses the following questions:

1. How do prejudgemental views of social groups and knowledge-text about a culture perpetuate tensions among indigenous psychologists within a western context?
2. To what extent do historical perspectives regulate psychological knowledge and how is that reinforced by society.
3. What are the mechanisms that deconstruct indigenous psychological knowledge and how can they be used to promote cross-fertilization of ideas within the boundary of indigenous psychologies?

Each of these questions will be discussed separately, followed by a general discussion on power, regulation and pressure that are embedded in the study of indigenous psychologies.

Pre-text and indigenous psychologies

The subject-areas of mainstream psychology are firmly rooted in a western context due to society’s privileging of psychology as a discipline (in high demand) that can promote humanity, integrity and knowledge about human beings. In contrast, psychology in a less privileged society (the developing world) is treated as a discipline of second choice because priority is given to the resolution of social and economic problems. (Smith and Bond, 1998) Attempts to import westernised knowledge about human behaviour in this context has been undertaken by some researchers. (Carr, and MacLachlan, 1993) The task of constructing a knowledge base of indigenous psychologies is complex and involves issues such as ‘position’, ‘power’, ‘regulation’ and ‘pressure’. For example, academic psychologists who are engaged in critically synthesizing the roots of psychological knowledge have been profoundly influenced by certain historical perspectives: concepts such as ‘the colonised mind’, ‘intellectual domination’, etc that (Ho, 1993; Enriquez, 1990) are engendered by historical oppression and domination. Even a specialised knowledge about certain aspects of behaviour among a distinctive cultural group is not free from the influence of ‘dominant views that are coloured by prejudiced beliefs’. (Shams, 1994)

This positioning of psychological knowledge can reproduce a notion of cultural imperialism, and it is likely to develop and nurture a ‘colonised state of psychological knowledge’. However, in a recent keynote speech, the former President of the British Psychological Society identifies ‘diversity and pluralism’ as an intrinsic feature of the discipline, psychology providing an opportunity for multi-faceted exploration of human functioning. (Lunt, 1999) The application of this principle in real-life situations and in various cultural contexts remains to be established.

A socio-historical perspective can unify cultures into a transgressed whole. However, certain projections of history continue to systematically exploit particular members of a society or groups who are labelled by their ethnic origin rather than their culture. Prejudgemental views and preconceived notions of these groups are concentric and their historical perspective is characterised by domination rather than emancipation.
The study of indigenous psychologies draws attention to the concept of ‘indigenous’ per se, in its literature. Indigenisation is a method and a process that can be employed to gather psychological knowledge. It can also be a source of psychological knowledge and an embodiment of that psychological knowledge. The concept of indigenisation, therefore, is not specific to a cultural context. A leading Philipino psychologist (Enriquez, 1993) defines indigenous psychology as ‘a system of psychological thought and practice that is rooted in a particular cultural tradition’. From this perspective, psychological thoughts common to a western context are also indigenous psychologies. However, this paper aims to examine the way western psychological knowledge is influencing indigenous psychologies, which are subjected to domination, oppression and influence. Those cultures which were not directly colonized, were still continuously influenced by a western intellectual domination (for example, psychology taught in African countries (Carr and MacLachlan, 1993)). A recent review of theoretical contentions and empirical research on psychology and race (Bempah and Howitt, 1999) reaffirms the practice of Eurocentric psychology in Africa, and suggests that the continuation of such a practice will propagate notions of black inferiority.

It is possible to blame this type of influence on literature and media, but the socio-political consequences of such arguments and their ‘open dialogue’ extend beyond the exchange of words. For example, the consequence of acknowledging this ‘domination’ is socio-political. The socio-political implication of indigenous knowledge that informs the discipline of psychology raises several crucial issues that are deeply rooted in the historical context of an indigenous culture. The next section endeavours to provide a brief exposition of a historical perspective on the construction of psychological knowledge and to show that ‘power, regulation and pressure’ on the production of knowledge are situated within this historical perspective. Regulatory powers of historical perspectives and the construction of psychological knowledge.

The constraints of psychological knowledge

A pragmatic approach to scientific knowledge should be able to locate differences in perspectives from which knowledge is constructed and originated. There are fundamental differences in such perspectives, which have their roots in ontological and epistemological issues. The eastern approach or more specifically, the roots of psychology in an Asian context, go back two millennia to religio-philosophical treaties.(Ho, 1993) A historical analysis has indicated indirectly the way a western invasion has challenged indigenous notions of ideas, beliefs and practices. The pervasive influence of, and consequences for, such an invasion are embedded within the structural construction of knowledge. In fact, innovation and advances in scientific technology are reinforcing such a ‘regime of influence’. Pragmatically, this influence is actually internalised within an indigenous cultural context, and leaves the option for further analysis in order to accommodate such ‘influence’ into the power structures of society. This type of deconstruction is termed ‘content indigenisation’. (Sinha, 1997) Although the power to translate knowledge may be shifted towards an indigenous culture, the issue of the validity of the outcome remains within a western paradigm. For example we can challenge the view that issues relating to psychological work can perpetuate racialised views about human behaviour in a western context despite the historical connotations attached to a black-white binary structure. (Phoenix,1999) The reproduction of psychological knowledge reinforces the issue of ‘power regulation’ which exposes human nature to the scientific world (Reicher,1999) and can reaffirm that psychology’s contribution must acknowledge the major shift in post-war analyses that elide prejudice and privilege difference.

A historical perspective thus converges with contemporary psychological issues. The theoretical underpinning of social and cultural trajectories is construed as historically contingent and context-specific. (Brah, 1996) Psychological knowledge is structured and positioned within a socio-historical context. The delivery and production of knowledge and information are always reflecting dominant cultural concerns and conceptions and the reflexive nature of the discipline emerges in a critical discourse on ‘race, racism and psychology’. (Richards, 1997)

Twentieth century intellectual domination has, however, taken a different form. For example, literature, media and information technology promote the co-existence of two cultures, but they are presented within the boundaries of the modernisation of knowledge, and thus the influence of the dominant culture remains and reproduces subsequent influences in order to rebuild a cultural monopoly engendered by a so-called intellectual supremacy. Jahoda argues that images of ‘savages‘ (the roots of modern prejudice in western culture) construct deeply rooted western preconceptions that go back a thousand year and are still feeding racial prejudice today. (Jahoda, 1999) It is not, therefore, surprising that concepts of ‘cultural colonialism’ and ‘cultural dominance’ are prevalent in the discourse of indigenous psychology. The problem persists and raises an important question regarding the cross-fertilisation of ideas based on the segments of indigenous psychological knowledge.

Towards a unified indigenous psychology

It is difficult to formulate mechanisms to deploy indigenous psychologies which disregard a historical penetration of the process of knowledge construction. In this section, power, regulation and pressure are analysed to show the beneficial effects that they may bring to such a construction.

Discussing the psychology of minority ethnic cultural and social groups is difficult for indigenous psychologies as the groundwork for interrogating the powerful influence of indigenous culture (ie, western culture) on the micro-indigenous culture (non-western culture) has not been completed. It is also likely to develop counter-arguments for indigenous psychologies. The issue then becomes a conflicting interplay between ‘western indigenous culture’ and ‘migrating indigenous culture’. The transformation of the latter has been critically discussed in the social psychology of minority group influence and within research into immigrant groups and the interactive cultural influence of indigenous cultures. This type of ‘interactive influence’ contests the ‘power-holder’ position and may provide a useful source for the globalisation of knowledge about human-behaviour, and the necessary respect of the diversity of epistemologies, methodologies, cultures and modes of application. (Lunt, 1999) However, such a position questions the remit of indigenous psychologies. The socio-political concerns implicated in the discussion of indigenous psychology are a determining force which regulates both the ‘openness’ and the transparency of indigenous knowledge. It is, therefore, to some extent important to know how and why indigenous psychologies are deployed and to what extent they complement and contradict the parent discipline.

Regulatory practice and indigenous psychologies

Despite an emerging call for a ‘non-Eurocentric’ psychology (Bempah and Howett, 1999), critiques of ‘Eurocentric’ psychology (Featherman, 1993) reconfirm growing concerns about various social and cultural mechanisms that perpetuate racialised knowledge to inform the discipline of psychology. Some of these mechanisms are discussed in the previous section. This section aims to highlight the ‘practice’ of institutions to delegate and categorise psychological knowledge and to show how that practice can be richly informed and textualised by the help of indigenous psychologies. The question of how subject-positions are mediated by institutional webs of discourse, and the way psychological discourses are deployed in a variety of locations in contemporary western cultures has been raised in the context of a changing perspective of ‘non-powerful’ and ‘non-totalising’ institutional effect. (Burnam et al., 1996) If such a ‘non-effect’of an institution cannot be enforced into the delivery and production of materials relating to indigenous psychologies, then that in itself might endanger the existence of indigenous psychologies. Notwithstanding western psychology’s central position, ‘contextualised knowledge’ paves the way for a unifying indigenous psychology. Regulatory practices, therefore, produce tensions between various perspectives of indigenous psychologies that might justify in turn the proliferation of indigenous psychologies. The following section offers a critical and reflective practice in an attempt to understand ‘pressure’ and ‘tensions’ within indigenous psychologies.

Pressures and tensions

Frictions between different paradigms and perspectives are beneficial to the development of a cogent argument that cut across indigenous psychologies. The pressure to accommodate indigenous psychologies into the main stream of psychology will only be materialised if appropriate and adequate attention is given to the development and dissemination of diverse indigenous psychologies worldwide. The task may not be that simple because indigenous psychologies are not yet fully documented and endorsed within the parent discipline and require an authoritative voice to assume their legitimate status in psychology.

In addition, the question of transforming textual materials in which such are reproduced and formulated has to be taken on board when the process of documentation begins. It is necessary to generate tensions which create pressures on indigenous psychologies so that generic concepts can be developed, and principles for the universality of psychological knowledge can be formulated that are dictated by epistemological, ontological and methodological enquiry.

Indigenous psychologies are continuously influenced by western intellectual domination through media, literature, training and other electronic media. It is therefore, essential to identify indigenous psychologies in order to justify their existence within the advance of knowledge in psychology. A collective effort is required to nourish and maintain the original forms of knowledge that are rooted in such a historical and cultural context. Due to the position of various cultures in global society, some cultures are inevitably located at the bottom of a social hierarchy. The consequence of such cultural trajectories produces a ‘cultural monopoly’ that overrides any rules regarding the flat rate for knowledge-base and contextualised information. Nevertheless, the task remains in the hands of academics and practitioners to highlight the importance of the cross-fertilization of indigenous psychologies across the academy. It is through this recognition and acceptance of cross-cultural views, ideas, thoughts and values that psychological input to the understanding of human-behaviour can be maximised.


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