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Colonial Psychology: The Psychology We All Recognize

Psychology is dominated by a worldview most of the world does not have.

Key points

  • The "colonialism" worldview was integrated into psychology from the beginning.
  • What "colonial" psychology emphasizes are myths according to Indigenous psychology.
  • "Colonial" psychology emphasizes individualism and exalts the self over community.

Psychological theory, research and practice have been increasingly criticized for their narrow perspective and biases, many of which are reflective of WEIRD culture (western, educated, industrialized, rich democratic; Henrich et al., 2010). There are alternative approaches to psychology.

In his new book, A New Psychology Based on Community, Equality, and Care of the Earth, Arthur Blume (2020) provides both a critique and an alternative psychology, based on how psychology has been practiced for thousands of years by Indigenous/First Nation communities. Blume contrasts the premises of Indigenous psychology with what he calls colonial psychology.

Colonial Psychology

The field of psychology was founded by White males and continues to be dominated by people who are descendants of White Europeans. Only .1% of American Psychological Association membership is American Indian/ Alaska Native. From the beginning the field tried to establish itself as a science, but not the kind of science Native Peoples practice.

Blume identifies several perspectives of the “colonial” worldview he considers myths because they are contrary to the longstanding psychologies of Native Peoples.

Blume calls nature "creation," to "grant it the respect it deserves as the entity from which we derive our existences" (pp. 4-5).

Here are key constructs within the field of “colonial” psychology. Note that it can be difficult to recognize one's own cultural assumptions unless one is immersed in a contrary culture. Again, these are contrary to Indigenous psychology.

Creation must be improved.

Human nature is viewed as fallen, as a result of original sin, or because of an aggressive and selfish animal nature (e.g., selfish genes). As many writers of western beliefs about the environment have noted (e.g., Horne, 2020; Merchant, 1983; Moore, 2009), western European culture in the last 1,000 years grew to place white maleness as the best representation of humanity because of reason. All else failed in reasoning, being governed by emotions/passions (e.g., women, non-whites, the natural world). All else was objectified and could be exploited. With this view, it is easy to condone harsh punishments and unjust hierarchy as necessary to keep people in line (especially inferior, low class people). Hobbes (1692) most famously held this position with Pinker (2011) more recently supporting it.

The individual self is central.

The self is responsible for success or failure, for riches or poverty. “When self has primacy, self-oriented behaviors are a priority,” as is the case with freedom of speech (p. 35). “However, [in the case of the Indigenous perspective], when the assumptions begin with interdependent egalitarianism, social responsibility becomes equally important,” where individual behavior is oriented toward the well-being of the community as a whole (p. 35).

The primacy of the self in psychology is notable in all the terms about self (self-esteem, self-centeredness, etcetera), many of which were invented by the field itself. “The self has always been an artificial construct reflecting a nonscientific way to understand the complexities of our existence” (p. 82). The Indigenous worldview does not start with the self, and Blume points out that other sciences are finding evidence for symbiosis (Paracer, & Ahmadjian, 2000), most recently in forests with mother trees nourishing younger trees, even of other species, through extensive fungal root connections (Simard, 2021).

Life is compartmentalized.

In the colonial worldview, every individual is a discrete entity with distinct boundaries (unlike the Indigenous worldview which considers everything to be connected and interdependent). The compartmentalization of colonialism is imprinted on psychology’s orientation to decontextualized discrete experiments and a focus on what is observable and quantifiable. Only discrete entities with defined boundaries can be isolated and examined in a vacuum, apart from context and relationships.

Individualism extends into the description of the world as made up of separable individual units with discrete boundaries, whether human/animal/plant, life/death, material/spiritual. All such sharp categories are not recognized by Indigenous psychology and, increasingly, not by science either. Spirituality and the immeasurable or unobservable are typically taboo topics. Indigenous-minded persons, who do not separate the material and the spiritual, find this foreign.

Ownership is possible and desirable.

Owning land, animals, people was contrary to the worldview of original Indigenous societies. In this view, no one can own Creation. Instead, humans hold things in trust.

Unlike Indigenous communities where things were held in common and land/water/forest could not be owned, the colonial view is that ownership leads to happiness. The idea of ownership goes along with the colonial orientation to self, autonomy, and individualism. The focus on ownership emphasizes materialism and finding happiness there (e.g., having your own home). But like emphasizing individual liberty over social responsibility, Blume considers ownership a dysfunctional orientation that leads to ill being. Psychological studies examining materialism have shown this to be the case (Kasser, 2002; Pieter, 2013).

Time is bounded.

Time is also parsed into a one-dimensional, linear view with boundaries between past, present and future. This makes it easy to ignore the future consequences of today’s actions. Blume points out: “Colonization occurs…without a plan. The goal of colonization was to seize and conquer, with positive immediate consequences for those who colonize and negative outcomes for those who are conquered…It is a colonial conundrum, being stuck in the present, uprooted from the past, and disconnected from the future. It is a very lonely sense of time.” (p. 42)

Existence is hierarchical.

Hierarchy easily emerges from the belief that Creation is flawed and humans are in charge of ordering and using it as desired, says Blume. Ranking of Creation’s entities put White Male Europeans at the top, with everything else in the world beneath them. This sense of entitlement is evident in the psychology of White privilege and White fragility (Diangelo, 2018). The sense of entitlement led to the triumphalism of conquest and colonization, the belief in “manifest destiny” (Europeans taking over what became the USA) and the justification of inequality, dehumanization, racism and extermination (e.g., of Indigenous cultures). The European worldview of their superiority made them intolerant of alternative views: “The extremes of the Inquisition, with its religious absolutism and secular intolerance, and the Enlightenment, with its secular absolutism and religious intolerance…both spring forth from European culture” (p. 47).

Wherever it has gone, colonialism culture generally has emphasized conformity, uniformity, and universality at the expense of diversity. Unfortunately, psychology has grown up with a similar view, spurning the wisdom of Indigenous Peoples on how to deal with psychological distress (e.g., see here). In the next post, we’ll examine Blume’s description of Indigenous psychology.

References

Arthur W. Blume (2020). A new psychology based on community, equality, and care of the earth: An Indigenous American perspective. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Diangelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for White people tot alk about racism. Boston: Beacon Press.Kasser, T. (2002). The high price of materialism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83.

Hobbes, T. (1651/2010) Leviathan, Revised Edition. In Martinich, A.P. & Battiste, B. (Eds.). Peterborough, ONT: Broadview Press.

Horne, G. (2020). The dawning of the apocalypse: The roots of slavery, White supremacy, settler colonialism, and capitalism in the long sixteenth century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Merchant, C. (1983). The death of nature: Women, ecology and the scientific revolution. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Moore, J. (2015). Capitalism in the web of life: Ecology and the accumulation of capital. London: Versa.

Paracer, S., & Ahmadjian, V. (2000). Symbiosis, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pieters, R. (2013). Bidirectional dynamics of materialism and loneliness : Not just a vicious cycle. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(4), 615-631.

Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature. New York: Viking.

Simard, Suzanne (2021). Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering How the Forest Is Wired for Intelligence and Healing. New York: Knopf.

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