Positioning oneself in Social Psychology


Based on your previous study, make notes in your Independent study notebook about areas of psychology and research topics that you have found interesting.

The Open University (2017)  ‘4 Locating yourself in social psychology and psychology’, DD317 Week 3 Study Guide [Online] Available here (Accessed 30 October 2017)


At the moment i’d place myself firmly in the critical camp – obviously. But within that? Primarily, i’m probably approaching psychology from outside of it; from a critical philosophical orientation that questions the manner in which we theorise mind, concepts, ethics, and politics, and also from a macro-perspective that situates pyschology in the study of societies; of modes of governance, subjectification, and control.

Two things i’m particularly interested in learning more about: First, contemporary neuroscientific understanding of the brain, neuroplasticity, agency, and how this impacts on philosophy of mind. Second, Foucault’s theories of governmentality and subjectification, and how this interacts with Marx’s understanding of “legal fetish”, personhood, and real subsumption (if at all), and how (if!) this can be a sort-of foundation for the critique of psychology. It may be that these two interests interact as a relation between agency and structure.

In the DD317 Glossary, under ‘agency’ (2017) it says that “[s]ocial scientists… often distinguish between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’, the latter concept allowing that human beings may not simply be determined by their sociocultural context, but may also creatively shape it to some degree” (2017).

Very usefully, the glossary entry draws out the absolute distinction between the two:

Whereas determinism refers to efficient causation from the past, agency implies some form of teleology or aim towards a future.

The Open University (2017), ‘Agency’, DD317 Glossary [Online] Available here (Accessed 30 October 2017 )

This draws out a central question of causality or determination, which pulls me back to a question that’s plagued people for millenia; to do with freedom, emancipation, liberation, or negation of the present state of things.

In particular, a philosopher friend of mine recently raised the following issue with me – he rejected any ethics, or other knowledge, that describes a process or subject as being oriented towards a ‘final goal’. My friend denies that this is possible; he illuminates the flip-side of ‘final goal’ by naming it ‘final cause’, conceived this way, it seems implausible that a process or subject could be effected, motivated, or oriented by, a cause which does not exist (for it is in the future, or merely hypothetical), but in a sense, this is what ‘final goal’ seems to suggest. Thus the idea that agency is to orientate oneself towards a goal, is to invert the logic of causality. In any case, there is surely much literature on the subject, and hopefully i’ll get the time to look into this further in the course of my studies.

But briefly, the challenge for a theorisation of agency is to come up with a non-teleological conception of it. Some hard task (or at least it seems).

One way to go, intimated by my friend, is with (i think) Spinoza, who (i think) would say something like if there is agency, it’s because an agent is a cause of itself. I think this would count as an argument for vitalism, which i’ve been taught to disdain, as it supposedly inscribes the spirit of freedom/creativity into the cosmos – the idea being that matter is self-motivating – or something. But if matter is not self-motivating, then who the f*** motivates it? We get dualism otherwise right? If matter is self-motivating, like a force, then maybe it can do some Spinoza stuff like increase it’s power by being affected by a body/force it agrees with, and be diminished by a body/force it doesn’t? (WTF KNOWS!?) What’s probably needed here is a dose of astrophysics, which might tell us a bit about the relation between matter and force, things and process, being and becoming.

One quick example for psychology is intentionality (helpfully brought up by Alan Colquhan in my DD317 Tutor Forum) a la Brentano. According to Stanford Encyclopedia of Psychology Philosophy, intentionality is understood to be:

“about the power of minds to be about, represent, stand for, things, properties, or states of affairs”. Franz Brentano popularised the word, which “derives from the Latin word intentio, which in turn derives from the verb intendere, which means being directed towards some goal or thing“.

Jacob, Pierre, (2014) “Intentionality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Available here (Accessed 30 October 2017)

So this conception of intentionality would be challenged by my pals argument. Anyway, enough (folk) philosophy.

It is apparent that my sub-divisions of psychology are more like satellite towns from which i commute in to psychology and then back out again, rather than an arrondissement with it’s particular history of either subversion or conservatism, only to be appropriated and annihilated by whatever Research Excellence Framework, or whatever.

To finish this self-inquiry, i’d need to mention an interest in the approaches that situate psychological knowledge socio-historically, though this may be covered by my Marx-Foucault intersection. Hovering in the middle-ground is the work of Deluze and Guatarri, which comes up in my readings, allowing is us to conceptualise via assemblages, rhizomes, and machines etc. The approaches of discursive psychology seem useful to me, perhaps more as reference than method. My only worry about discursive psychology is that for me it’s not enough to see mental states, identities, attitudes, or behaviours as being solely the product of discourse or dialogue, of cultural constructions, fictions, and literary self-invention, no – i’d need to also bring human activity into the frame, to see psychology’s objects as historical products of a society, with a particular mode of production, political organisation, etc.

I also need to briefly mention that visits to Liberation Psychology, and approaches such as Cultural Historical Activity Theory, seem like they should also be on my itinerary, given the questions i raise above. In the same spirit, the feminist critique of psychology also seems necessary, in its work on power relations, gender, identity, violence, and sexuality.

Oh! and i’ve forgotten to raise my interest in violence, and how it circulates between people, how ‘indirect’ structural violence relates to direct violence, how violence is domination and domination violence, and how subjection is violence etc. Here, my independent study visits to the school of Afropessimism in sociology and Black Studies, is indespensible.

LC, 30th October 2017

Marx, Karl
Foucault, Michel
Deluze, Giles and Guattari, Felix
Spinoza, Baruch

Critical Psychology:

Holzkamp, Klaus
Rose, Nikolas
Kofoed, Jette.

History of Psychology:

Tajfel, Henri

Liberation Psychology:

Martín-Baró, Ignacio

Soviet Psychology / CHAT:

Vygotsky, Lev
Leontiev, Alexei

Feminist critiques of Psychology: