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Decolonising Psychology

“Look baby, she looks like us”, read Mindy Kaling’s Instagram caption when Kamala Harris and Joe Biden won the race for Presidency in the United States. While we’re yet to fully see the politics of the new government play out, the sight of a woman of colour as Vice President of the United States of America is remarkable. Representation on a scale such as this matters and will perhaps go a long way in the inclusion of minorities in mainstream media, politics, and governments. India, by contrast, has always had prominent female political leadership.

However, this by no means indicates a lack of sexism in our political landscape – just that token representation is a reality. This got me thinking, in a manner of decolonising psychology, wouldn’t it be nice to be truly represented (not just shown sitting on grass with my other non-represented peers) in my psychology textbooks as well, most of which elucidate theories through western examples of living, suffering and dying?

Our understanding of psychology and mental health is WEIRD. Since its inception, psychology has been a field dominated by research from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) countries. Some of the most fundamental understanding of the human condition emerges from the Western understanding of what is considered healthy, normal, and acceptable.

For years, psychologists in the West have turned to the plethora of eager undergraduate students at universities as subjects for their research. The sample is conveniently available and cost effective. Why is this a problem? Anthropologists and psychologists have argued that this sample of students is not representative of human nature, and has led to gross over-generalisations of what drives human behaviour. A 2008 study analysing all empirical papers published between 2003 and 2007 in six top-tier psychology journals found that 96 percent of the subjects in these published studies came from countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other parts of Europe – all WEIRD countries, thus indicating why it is important to move towards decolonising psychology.

In psychology specifically, published research often discusses a psychological process such as decision making, without addressing the limitation of generalisability. Journals revered in the fields of psychology and behavioural science routinely publish research that claims to be generalisable to the human mind or human behaviour at large, while relying entirely on a WEIRD undergraduate sample. These inferences, when limited only to the sample group, can be extremely valuable. However, these tend to be inaccurate when applied to the human race in general, thus making decolonising psychology necessary.

While the contributions from WEIRD countries to the field are invaluable and cannot be undermined or disregarded, some of the direct applications of tools and theoretical constructs to the populations of non-WEIRD countries have been problematic. This article aims to highlight the problems of the direct application of psychological theories and treatment practices originating in the West to the non-western world, specifically formerly colonised countries. It elaborates further on emerging fields within psychology that are attempting to decentralise western psychological norms, deconolising psychology and make it a field inclusive of those populations often overlooked in mainstream psychology.

The Need for a Cross-cultural Understanding of Mental Health

One of the most salient differences between the two cohorts, i.e., the West and the rest of the world, is in their approach to health and healthcare. In the West, the emphasis is more on the individual, their health habits, and suitable healthcare treatments. However, in India, the African continent and others in the Global South, community or familial processes play an integral role in healthcare. The same argument is applicable in the approach to psychology and mental health too.

For instance, there have been studies conducted in Gujarat and West Bengal to understand the mental health of the survivors of political-religious violence and natural disasters. They found that the mental health intervention for the victims of such violence was focused largely on the treatment of psychiatric disorders based on the Euro-American understanding of trauma, rather than on the stress induced due to the collective socio-political trauma faced by the community. On further study, it was concluded that availability of limited resources, enforcement of derogatory social and religious identities, and demoralisation due to non-compliance towards culturally valued norms were more a cause for distress rather than the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In truth, the globally accepted diagnostic criteria for PTSD is a direct result of the socio-political scenario in the United States after the Vietnam War. It was a diagnosis given to American war veterans specifically, and may not have been generalisable to other populations.

Not only is India vast and diverse in terms of its culture, economics, natural environment and politics, the experience of and exposure to trauma is also extremely diverse. As a country, we are vulnerable to several traumatic events at a personal and societal level such as gender-based violence, natural disasters, politically incited riots, etc., and thus a need for decolonising psychology through a relevant understanding of trauma is crucial. It is highly imperative then to ensure the cross-cultural validation of a disorder like PTSD in India. It will help bridge the gap between communities’ experience of trauma and the treatment they receive from mental health professionals, who have predominantly been trained as per western norms of human psychology. A discrepancy between the two can lead to imperfect diagnoses and treatment practices that can further give rise to unmet psychological needs among various populations.

Decolonising Psychology

There are emerging fields in psychology that are attempting to move away from Euro-American centric approaches to psychology. In the 1980s, liberation psychology emerged in Latin America, which has strongly been advocating for the psychological well-being and representation of the oppressed. It argues that mainstream psychology pathologises those who fall outside of the WEIRD category, and has taken up the mammoth task of centralising marginalised perspectives in the field of psychology and providing a conventional space for academic study.

The scope of liberation psychology falls under the umbrella of decolonising psychology. It is a field that examines how Euro-American scientific psychology has become the gold standard for Psychology across the world, and why the understanding of specific local cultural ideas is imperative in shaping identities across the world. A step further from cross-cultural psychology, decolonising psychology not only identifies the role of culture in human behaviour, but also calls for action towards social change, inclusion, and validation of the lived experiences of people who are often overlooked or quoted as a statistic in psychological discourse: indigenous populations, people of colour, and the economically disadvantaged, among others. The decolonising of psychology would mean moving away from the assumption that an individual is the central unit of analysis, devoid of social, economic, and political influences.

Another field that has gained traction in the last decade is that of global mental health. A branch of global health, it aims to bring equity in the study, research, and practice of mental health for people worldwide. The field especially aims to highlight the understanding of mental health, treatment practices, and its other applications among the low and middle income countries across the world, given that they account for 80% of the population and yet utilise less than 20% of the share of mental health resources. This massive gap can be owed to a uni-cultural understanding of mental health, scarcity of personnel in the field, social stigma, exclusion, and lack of awareness.

The Postcolonialism in Psychology

The historic movement of decolonisation is that of resistance by the previously colonised nations primarily in Asia and Africa, in order to gain complete physical and psychological independence from the European powers. This movement goes beyond celebrating a day in history that marks ‘independence’, and warrants the rewriting of nations’ histories, geographies, politics, and establishing self-governing states that are free from the cultural imperialism of colonisers. It is not easy, however, to move on from centuries of subjugation by the colonial powers, nor is it entirely possible. Even our understanding of happiness, success, morality, and social justice is coloured by the influence of colonialism and the normalisation of western psychology. The “coloniality” is kept alive in our school and college curriculums, norms for academic performance, professional goals, and many other facets of our modern experience.

It is important that psychology not only aid in theorising the collective trauma of colonisation, but also create an idea of psychological resistance to the “civilising mission” of colonialism. An understanding of this, based in decolonising psychology, will help diversify treatment approaches to several mental health illnesses, and also help normalize the expression of trauma as a result of oppression.

The Road Ahead

For decades now, the WEIRD countries have had the authority to decide what is worth studying, publishing, teaching, and learning. To a large extent, our understanding of human nature and behaviour is based on a small non-representative sample of individuals, which needs to be addressed and amended urgently. Westernized research also has a spillover effect into the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders such as PTSD. There is a pressing need for recognising the traumas of the formerly colonised and the ripple effects of colonisation in today’s world. Liberation psychology and decolonising psychology are two fields that are attempting to decentralise the psychological sciences and create new spaces for inclusionary research and practice.

An example of decentralising psychology and mental health closer home comes from the pioneering work of Dr. Vikram Patel and his organisation Sangath in the field of global mental health. It is playing a pivotal role in bringing about accessibility to and awareness about the need for evidence-based treatments for culturally diverse populations in India. Sangath has received accolades for its involvement in policy interventions and mental health advocacy. Individuals and organisations such as these are a beacon of hope for a more inclusive approach to psychology in the non-west.

In the meantime, questioning our pedagogy and encouraging interdisciplinary study will facilitate critical thinking and assist in moving away from norms that do not hold true in our cultural context. It is imperative to find our way back to our own culture, give it due attention, and attempt to change the standard to which psychology is currently held. Perhaps one day, I will proudly be able to look at a psychology textbook and say, “look baby, they look and live like us”.


Shreya Agarwal is a Research Assistant at Nolmë Labs, an academic research and science communication organisation based in Mumbai. She is passionate about interdisciplinary social science research, mental health, and the behavioural sciences. She can be found on Twitter

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