Sunil Bhatia is a professor and chair of the Department of Human Development at Connecticut College. He is the author of two books and over 50 articles and book chapters. He has received numerous awards for his work in the field of decolonizing psychology, cultural psychology, and qualitative methods and for studies of migrant and racial identities. Most recently, his second book, Decolonizing Psychology: Globalization, Social Justice, and Indian Youth Identities, received the 2018 William James book award from the American Psychological Association (APA).
The movement to decolonize psychology is led by interdisciplinary scholars demanding a move away from the biomedical model of mental health and its colonial roots, especially in the Global South. Bhatia has been writing about these issues for over two decades and has often encountered resistance for speaking against mainstream voices. He is now one of the foremost experts in the field of decolonial studies. His work asks vital questions: Who decides what psychology should study? How do economic and social systems influence psychology? Is it possible to address economic inequality and social issues in psychotherapy? Does psychology speak of people, about people, or does it try to speak for them?
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Ayurdhi Dhar: A lot of your work has been on decolonization and psychology. Can you explain what decolonizing psychology means?
Sunil Bhatia: Decolonizing psychology draws on three frameworks: indigenous psychology or native studies, the colonial theory that comes out of Latin America, and lastly, postcolonial theory. It speaks to me personally, as well.
When I think about decolonizing psychology, I think about asking questions about who is telling the story of psychology, who has the power to construct and disseminate knowledge about psychology, whose voices are being included in that story?
I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Pune in India, and my curriculum was in psychology and philosophy. My syllabus was largely frozen, unchanged since colonial times, and the psychology we studied was all by British and American authors. It occurred to me that there was a disconnect between what I was reading in textbooks and what I was experiencing in India.
I could see the disconnect in rituals, at bus stops, while I was driving around on my moped—different cultural spaces. There were multiple layers of cultural meanings and practices around me, from the modern to the feudal, the postcolonial, and the neoliberal. But it was forbidden to ask questions about these cultural meanings in the classroom. It was not considered scientific to ask how religious meaning was critical to an understanding of Indian psychology, for instance.
This led me to seek a way of thinking about psychology that rooted in an understanding of culture—that saw culture as more than just another object to study. I felt very alienated from the way psychology was being done until I came to Clark University, where culture and narrative identity were more prominent.
In psychology, the stories of people from the Global South were depicted as a deficient form of humanity, and stories of people of color were relegated to the margins. I saw 356 million Indian youth, a gigantic part of our humanity, missing from the canon of the discipline. Their voice, their realities were erased, and I wanted to start addressing this gap. This motivated me to come up with a decolonizing framework to speak to these absences, to speak to the realities of the people who are the majority of humanity, but largely missing from the field.
Dhar: You mention the disconnect you saw between what you were studying in psychology and life in India. Can you illustrate this with an example?
Bhatia: Take the concept of internalized oppression and colonialism. I personally felt this during my master’s. I was studying how the founders of psychology had portrayed Indians in their work, and the representations were highly racist. From Darwin to Stanley Hall, they spoke of colonized people as “primitive savages.” Churchill had called us a beastly people.
In my seven years of studying psychology, I was always told that British and American culture was superior and more advanced. When I challenged my professors and asked why we continue to study this knowledge, which is colonialized, racist, and treats us as slaves, I was dismissed as being rebellious.
When I met graduate students from sociology, they taught me about caste hierarchies. I was able to bring in centuries-old oppressive structures that psychology was not studying. Psychology was only about the identity of middle-class people and was based on studies done in the United States. In India, class is deeply tied to caste hierarchies, but in my Master’s in psychology, I was told to ignore caste in my analysis because that would complicate things, and we wanted to keep explanations easy and scientific.
Dhar: Few people understand how internalized colonization works, and how speaking in English instead of your mother tongue becomes a marker of high class, caste, education, morality, and intellect. As an undergraduate studying psychology in India, I used to joke that if I spoke English well enough, I could land a job as a computer engineer. Can you talk about how Indian academics and psychologists internalize these colonial ideas?
Bhatia: First, they didn’t challenge the representations given in the books, the canon that was being exported from the West to the so-called third-world departments. They tried to indigenize it, give it an Indian flavor, but the core thinking, the empirical structures, and the positivist ideas, were never disturbed.
Second, there is the politics of location. Everyone was located in different socioeconomic conditions, from the middle and upper class to those from Dalit backgrounds, which is the lowest social group in the Indian caste hierarchy. But Indian academics and psychologists were not allowed to speak to that. Their existential experiences of living in India in these caste hierarchies, their socio-cultural identity, were important topics to them, but they could not bring that into the knowledge production process.
The third is the politics of practice. As a culture, we spent thousands of years thinking about the ‘self,’ the meaning of the self, nirvana, liberation, etc. at the metaphysical, philosophical, and psychological level. But all of this accumulated cultural wisdom was pushed to philosophy and seen as unscientific. There was no room for indigenous healing frameworks for understanding mental life because it was relegated to religion and philosophy. These are the three areas where colonial internalization played out.
Dhar: Have you received any pushback for doing this work on decolonizing psychology? If yes, from where?
Bhatia: There was pushback throughout my career, especially when I was beginning to develop ideas in opposition to the mainstream in psychology. When I wrote my 2002 paper on historical representations and rethinking of psychology, there was considerable pushback by the reviewers and a denial of the problem.
In that paper, I did a hundred-year portrait of how psychology has been complicit in advancing the colonial agenda directly and indirectly. I named all the key founders and stated that Orientalism, the practice of representing the East in ways that aided in colonialism, would not have been unleashed as a political project by the West without the explicit complicity of the social sciences.
The most common pushback was the rejection of my papers by journals, simply because it offended some reviewers who thought I was too severe. They would insist that this is all in the past and that psychology is progressive now. There was also resistance from colleagues who warned me that there is a risk in picking on the establishment. To articulate a framework of psychology from an anti-colonial and anti-racist position 20 years ago was tough, and there was a lot of emotional labor involved.
Dhar: How did the social sciences and psychology support the colonial project?
Bhatia: Take the example of G. Stanley Hall, founder of APA, who we are told is a hero and pioneer of psychology. He was also an advocate for colonialism and called for so-called “primitive” people to be domesticated and controlled, or else our world would be run by inferior people. He advised that the field should collaborate with politicians and soldiers to find out how to domesticate or wipe out these populations. So, there was a hint, maybe not an explicit agenda, of genocide. But all of this went unacknowledged by the field of psychology. It is the same story with Darwin, who also espoused racist opinions. Those are two examples I could give.
Additionally, there is the fact that modern psychology is predominantly the study of white, Anglo-Saxon, upper-class, elite, and mostly American subjects. All this knowledge about human psychology emanates from research on this one type of subject, and then it gets exported to the rest of the world.
Dhar: Indian culture and philosophy have a long history of knowledge about the ‘self,’ but the self in psychology is different from the Indian concept of self. You have written about how psychology promotes a “neoliberal self.” What does this mean?
Bhatia: We have spent over a millennium speaking, inquiring, and analyzing the term ‘self.’ Kenneth Burke, the literary critic, called it a God term. In the Indian context, the self is always thought about as embedded within the family, the community, and the neighborhood. The distinctions between self and other are slippery; this is a kind of slippery subjectivity. It cannot be encased within the individual.
Psychology’s understanding of self is based on the individual as self-contained, as atomic—a self which fashions itself as separate from the other. That concept did not exist in the Indian context, which focuses on the connection of self to the world, a relational concept. Philosophically, the transcendence of self was important.
In postcolonial times, after the British left but colonialism remained in India, new and powerful ideas about the self came about. In the ’70s, with the unleashing of modern globalization and privatization, and with the decline in social safety nets and access to public goods, came neoliberalism. Within neoliberalism, the idea emerges that social structures are not going to guarantee the maintenance of self. You have to rely on your biography, your strength, your family, your education, your credibility, your degree. You become an entrepreneur—managing your ‘self’ and making it presentable becomes critical, as Gauri Pathak says.
Being presentable involves acquiring new skills, whether it is meditation, new degrees, or other ways to look attractive and market yourself. This how you get Silicon Valley-type language in cross-cultural psychology, which promotes these new ways of thinking about the self. These psychological ways of thinking tie well-being to your productivity. This is the neoliberal shift, and it reflects the neoliberal economy and culture.
Dhar: Psychology reinforces this ‘neoliberal self’ by promoting theories of self-management and emotional regulation. What did you find in your research about this ‘self’ in India?
Bhatia: Neoliberal globalization affects each community in specific ways. Youth who have access to cultural capital, elite education, and wealth have developed a transnational identity where the understanding of Indianness is tied to being highly mobile. This can mean education at Oxford, travel across the world, acceptance by their German and Swiss friends, etc. Neoliberal language gave them an Indianness that could be exported around the globe—cosmopolitan but also culture-oriented, not backward anymore.
For example, in my book, Nina calls herself the ultimate Indian because they are the ones who set the standards of Indianness, and others usually follow it through fashion or consumption. This is a very consumer-oriented model, and behind it is the transnational capitalist class that supports this neoliberal self.
The middle-class is different; they are educated with limited income, and they work for large corporations, often as call center workers. They are the neo-colonial subjects. They have to go to accent reduction workshops—part of management practices where corporate cross-culture psychology is used to regulate them. They have to attend workshops to understand Indianness and Americanness! They laughed at it—this was their resistance. They would ask, “I am Indian. Why do I need to study what Indianness means?”
The workshops used traditional cross-cultural psychological concepts, and Indians were portrayed as always late, unable to adapt, argumentative, too flexible, authoritative, and hierarchy-oriented. In contrast, Americans were portrayed as punctual, reliable, and self-sufficient. All these diversity and management programs are invented in the US and executed there.
The Indian youth do not passively accept these ideas, but they could not resist it within the organizational culture. Privately, they make fun of it and call it gora psychology (white psychology), but the corporate stranglehold is too firm. Administrators had mandates from corporations to use personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to evaluate performance.
If one cannot talk like Americans or the British, it is a problem. There is a strong colonial hold on how to be yourself and what happens if people speak in a vernacular accent. They teach you to remove MTI (mother tongue influence). These are the ways coloniality has now taken a neoliberal turn and persists in India.
Lastly, there is the fact that social justice issues are not considered in psychology. We rarely ask about what impact poverty and chronic hunger have on self and identity in India. The lives of urban workers are not given any attention. It is as if they don’t exist as subjects. Their lives took a turn for the worse with liberalization. Globalization was supposed to help them. Their income increased a little, but the life around them became much more expensive and unaffordable, and their aspirations changed.
Dhar: These workers don’t feature in our research and our experiments. Subjects of most psychological research in India tend to be city-dwelling, upper-caste, educated elite. You have written about how Euro-American psychology tends to speak for others and silence them. Can you talk about a time you noticed that happening?
Bhatia: The entire enterprise of psychology over the last 50 years has spoken on behalf of the rest of humanity, even though psychology itself is a local and provincial discipline emerging out of a particular historical period in Europe and America. The Euro-American modern subjects then speak on behalf of Asians, Africans, etc.
Western psychology decides what good emotional and social development looks like, and then sets the standards for what constitutes a good education, life, health, and mental health. It decides all our psychiatric diagnoses. These are embedded in specific local cultural practices and then exported to the rest of the world.
Another way of speaking for someone is through research. In the book. Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, she writes that research was a very dirty word in the Maori community in New Zealand. This is because almost all of the research done on them and their way of life was by Europeans who wanted to exploit, contain, and destroy them. This particular community and their sense of self was largely represented by American psychological frameworks.
Dhar: Psychology was born in the Global North and is deeply entrenched in specific cultural values such as individualism, meritocracy, etc. Do you think psychology can ever truly be decolonized? What would that look like?
Bhatia: I think yes, it could be decolonized, but only under certain conditions. It has to be a political project akin to the abolishment of slavery, which means that to abolish it, you needed to change its entire structure.
It is not just driven by the state. It is about the very idea of what it means to be a human being. It is political, economic, cultural, personal, psychological, familial, and sexual. The roots of slavery had to be attacked, but the effects still exist. Right now, more African-Americans are dying in the pandemic because of health disparities.
Native American theorists have insisted that the decolonization model is not simply about taking a social justice perspective. It is about reclaiming land, territory, water—reclaiming language. Decolonization means restoring what was lost.
American undergraduates are 4,000 times more likely to be represented in psychological experiments. Then our studies claim that these findings can be applied to a person living in the Global South. The project of decolonization is viable, but it has to be complete decolonization in the way Frantz Fanon talked about it—new humanity. You have to dismantle the current methods of thinking about and doing psychology.
You cannot compromise because the colonial structure has tentacles at all levels: knowledge production, editors, writers, and the power of the American academy, etc. These tentacles, like the neoliberal order, regulate all psychological knowledge production across the world—deciding what forms of knowledge are considered elite, who gets published, who gets tenure, what makes a journal prestigious, and so on. First, you have to map, identify, and analyze this architecture. We are not even there yet. We have just opened up the conversation about what decolonizing means.
We have to ask ourselves, what does it mean to do psychology? There needs to be a revival of indigenous concepts that were for 500 years, not given any credibility. They do not exist in a pure form without being impacted by colonialism or modernism, but they are viable frameworks.
Take, for example, the Buddhist contemplative practices like Vipassana practiced and handed down for thousands of years. Silicon Valley understood the power of these practices, diluted them, turned them into mindfulness, co-opted them, and then sold them back to India. A lot about the mindfulness movement is powerful, amazing, transformative, but at the same time, there is the commercial interest of the rich. There are potential practices in many indigenous philosophies, religions, and community psychologies that we haven’t explored without evoking the language of Eurocentric knowledge.
Colonization is deeply rooted in capitalism. This current crisis has starkly exposed the difference between the haves and have nots—people who have care and those who don’t, those who can stay at home, and those who cannot. Psychology is rooted in the individual project of colonization, which serves to keep the idea of the individual intact. The intellectual project of decolonization will only be fulfilled when many of us come together in solidarity to rethink the entire structure.