Undoing Colonialism in Psychology

Must Read

Authors discuss how psychology can be decolonized using a dialectical approach and critical-cultural psychoanalysis


A recent article published in Psychology and Developing Societies shows how decolonizing psychology is understood (or misunderstood) and the impact it has on making Psychology a liberating project. The article is written by Umesh Bharte of the University of Mumbai and Arvind Mishra of Jawahar Lal Nehru University.

Decolonisation simply means the process of gaining independence from the economic, political, and cultural dominance of colonial powers. But this is not as simple as it looks. All of these are also related to the social psyche of the colonised society, that is, the way people think, feel, behave etc.

The authors present their argument using three central points. One, colonialism was not as simple as colonizers imposing their views, but a joint project between the colonizers and the colonised. Two, even after gaining freedom from colonial rule, these societies still hold on to the values that made colonialism possible. Three, the binary approach adopted by indigenous psychology, like Local vs Global, Indigenous vs Western is likely to fail in meeting the goal of decolonisation. The authors, then, suggest two probable solutions for these issues. First, the adoption of a dialectical approach, and second, engaging in critical cultural psychoanalysis. These are explained below.

Colonialism has been widely studied for its continued influence on economic, cultural, and political aspects but relatively less for its psychological impact. The structure of a society plays an important role in shaping the self of those people, and the generations that follow. So, colonialism plays an important role in shaping the psyche of Indians, then and now. 

For long enough, Colonialism has been studied in binaries of East vs West, Self vs Other, which overlooks its impact on culture and people’s psyche. The authors write:

“The true antonym of the past is not the present, but it is the notion of timelessness that becomes the true antonym of the past and present together. Extending this line of argument in the context of colonialism, it may be proposed that the categories in binary systems like ‘the coloniser – the colonised’ and ‘the native – the outsider’ are neither true opposites nor mutually exclusive.”

When we study colonialism in this binary way, we see it as a one-way flow of values, instead of the joint project that it really was. The colonisers did not wipe off the colonies of its culture but mixed some already present values with their interventions. Now the indigenous or original values that were not liked by these colonizers were pushed to the margins, so were the people who carried them. This had cultural and psychological consequences and changed the meanings of selfhood and identity.

The political and economic factors favoured those in power and those who praised this power. This widened the gap within Indian society. For example, the English values and language got so deeply ingrained in the minds of the rich in the society that it is still endorsed by many Indians, even after seventy-six years of independence. This complex relation involves both parties, colonisers and colonised, and goes far beyond the binaries of Indigenous vs Western and Self vs Others.

Thinking in binaries has become a regular practice to make sense of the complex realities in the environment. The authors write:

“Thinking in terms of binaries has become a common cognitive style that modern people employ on a daily basis. By way of dichotomous thinking, we try to organise or structure the complex realities surrounding us. We tend to simplify and try to make sense of the complicated world.”

This binary style makes people feel confidant and certain but at the cost of overlooking the grey area in between two polarities. This impacts the study of decolonising psychology. Decolonisation, when understood using binaries, ties us back to the colonial roots instead of freeing us from it. 

Dr. Sunil Bhatia in an interview to Mad in America said, “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?”

One way to understand this problem is the state of Indigenous Psychologies. Indigenous Psychology is a branch of Psychology that aims to develop an understanding of how individuals from specific cultures think, feel, and behave. It has the potential to break free from the colonial influence and help develop culturally sensitive and globally relevant understandings of human behaviour. The authors write:

“As a form of decolonisation, the very promise of the indigenous psychologies in Third-World countries in general, and in India in particular, was primarily to develop a culturally sensitive and socially responsive psychological perspective. Further, it was hoped to understand psychological phenomena in their ecological, historical, philosophical, religious, political and cultural context. However, with few exceptions, the movement of indigenous psychology appears to refer all too easily to the West-East binary.”

Unfortunately, what is happening in Psychology is that the transfer of knowledge is flowing one-way from West to East. Human behaviour is widely studied through the Western lens, which then looks like it’s universal in nature. As long as we continue to treat the West as the standard of knowledge production, the binaries and the colonialism will not end. To succeed, Indigenous Psychologies need to find a balanced solution that accommodates both ends of the binary spectrum. Researchers (Gergen, Danziger, Bhatia) have time and again warned us about the harm of adopting this binary approach. This over-simplified binary thinking can lead to colonisation, where one might adopt values, beliefs, and identity influenced by colonial forces.

Possible Solutions:

The authors write that potential solutions to this crisis involve using a dialectical approach when creating knowledge, and using cultural-critical psychoanalysis. They write:

“Dialectics as a method of dialogue or debate has been central to both Eastern and Western philosophy since ancient times… the primary aim of the dialectical method is to resolve the disagreement through rational discussion.”

A dialectical approach will help reach a collaborative solution by appreciating contradictory ideas, which is crucial in the case of the coloniser and the colonised.

Dialectical approach, shall be especially useful in dealing with the ongoing crisis of Individualism, positivism, and universalistic claims of human behaviour, in Psychology. A dialectical approach will help in making samples in research more diverse, in studying social issues like poverty, caste and gender, and understanding a person in their context instead of the artificial environment of the experimental lab. Knowledge production in Psychology needs to include voices and experiences from all corners of the world for decolonisation and global relevance.

Another essential approach for decolonising psychology is the methodology of “critical cultural psychoanalysis”. 

Mainstream Psychology is being criticised for its biomedical model of mental health, for disconnecting individuals from their social context, and oversimplified import of scientific methods, i.e., overuse of experiments, manipulation of variables, quantification, measurement, and statistical analysis. Psychological research often replaces the real-world social categories with non-social categories that give the research participants an artificial identity. A person outside the experiment holds multiple social roles which lead to multiple social identities of gender, family dynamics, and social and economic status of the family. But in an experimental situation, the focus is narrowly kept to one particular problem, and the social identities and realities are ignored. The authors write:

 “It explains complex socio-political phenomena by reducing them to the level of the psychology of the individuals assuming that they exist autonomously, independent of the political and social milieu in which they are embedded, and the significance of the former is primary while that of the latter is secondary.”

Critical Cultural Psychoanalysis can overcome these limitations of mainstream Psychology. Critical cultural psychoanalysis helps to understand and analyse several aspects of human experience, culture, and society that may be overlooked by mainstream Psychology due to its limited scope. The authors write:

“The critical cultural psychoanalytically oriented approach essentially directs us to a socio-political analysis of how the ideology of race, class, or gender constructs human subjectivities and selfhood.”

Psychoanalysis helps in uncovering hidden meanings, so it can help in revealing power relations within a society. This will lead to a more complex and careful understanding of social issues. It also brings together many disciples and fields leading to a wider understanding of how individuals construct their identities in relation to cultural aspects. 

Critical Cultural Psychoanalysis will, therefore, help attain a common ground between the coloniser and colonised cultures and psyche. The authors argue:

“By employing this psychoanalytic mechanism, both colonisers and colonised gain insights into the complementary relationship between self and other, between their culture and that of other’s culture, and thus gain a vision to transcend the apparent narrowness of their culture. Another positive outcome of this process is to gain the ability to overcome the illusion of superiority and inferiority about their self and culture.”

Article Link: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/09713336231152302

Ayushi Jolly

Ayushi Jolly is a PhD Candidate in Social Psychology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. Her doctoral research focuses on exploring the neoliberal subjectivities of student migrants. Her research aims to foster a more holistic understanding of the human psyche that acknowledges the intricate interconnections between individual lives and the broader societal tapestry. She is dedicated to restoring the 'social' in social psychology.

Outside the academic sphere, she relishes the joy of travel and trekking and finds


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here