In order to discuss ways in which critical social psychology views the discipline differently to the mainstream approach, it is first necessary to define the terms “critical social psychology” and “mainstream approach”, and what they look for, followed by discussing how the critical approach views lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) research. The essay concludes by summarising what the critical approach is and what it questions in relation to the mainstream approach.
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According to Allport (1985) social psychology is interested in how the social environment and group interactions affect people’s attitudes and behaviours. The discipline uses scientific methods to understand and explain social phenomena. Two approaches associated with social psychology are the mainstream and critical approaches. Rogers (2011) claims that mainstream uses quantitative methods and is preoccupied with looking for explanations in what makes people, cultures and social groups different, while attempting to discover ‘laws’ establishing why people behave the way they do, which can be generalised to the whole population. This approach is comparable to natural sciences, which use similar experimental methodologies. They use a hypothetico-deductive method which makes decisions by changing one variable and testing a hypothesis, stating there is one true knowledge, both are objective, neutral and value free. Whereas the critical approach uses qualitative methods, seeking better understanding, are not objective and concentrate on inter relationships between the individual and social context. It looks to produce idiographic explications, recognising broader social structures and unfolds the meanings of particular situations.
Gough & McFadden (2001) state critical psychology evolved from mainstream challenges, it confronts social institutions and practices who contribute to inequality and oppression. Lesbian and Gay psychology is one area which has emerged from these challenges.
Kitzinger & Coyle (2002:2) and Clarke, Ellis, Peel & Riggs (2010) define lesbian and gay psychology as an area which is explicit about its relevance to lesbians and gay men. It examines various aspects of their lives, and counteracts issues such as prejudice and discrimination to create a better world. One aspect of many lesbian and gays is family life; there is a lot of prejudice against homosexual parenting. Homophobic bullying is regularly used to demoralize gay and lesbian parents. Clarke, Kitzinger & Potter (2004) analysed 11 documentaries and 11 semi-structured interviews with gay and lesbian parents using discourse analysis. It could be argued parents refuse to acknowledge the reality of their oppression by not being aware or minimising the effects of bullying their children face. Additionally gay and lesbian parents face a dilemma of stake and accountability. By taking wider discourse and analysing the talk of homosexual parents it is possible to see their dilemma. Parents acknowledging bullying and reporting it, could be used to undermine them, however if they refuse to acknowledge bullying this can be used against them by portraying them as an unfit parent, this is problematic as society criticises homosexual parenting more than heterosexual parenting.
Sapsford & Dallos (1996) state the mainstream “scientific” approach has been widely used throughout history, suggesting how we should deal with major social problems at that time. For example Milgram’s (1961) electric shock study was motivated by World War two, studying conditions where people obeyed and tortured others. A great deal of social influence research, such as conformity and obedience were based on perceptions of individuals within society, however critical psychologists suggest social influence should be viewed as social practices in which people engage in as well as the interactions between people. Asch’s (1951) line study is taught in institutions as part of social influence, however Mercer and Clayton’s (2012) claim certain points to consider are how was the ‘social’ represented, there were small samples in each trial, and participants within the group were strangers therefore no relationships were established, this is not a true representation of society. Findings showed the participant conformed to the others, however this could have just been the effect of that situation and they probably would have interacted more and not conformed if they knew one another. Looking deeper into the results only 5% were conforming on each trial, therefore 95% were not, however the way the researcher interpreted and presented the data was biased showing a higher conformity rate than what was actually true.
Rogers (2011) argues the experimental method used by Asch is not the only way to gain knowledge, in contrast to mainstream she claims there are no such things as ‘universal laws of human nature’ that human nature varies and is dependent on time, place and socio-cultural positioning. Critical psychology argues there are multiple views on reality, an example of this is Feri et al’s (2003) British longitudinal study using participants born in 1946, 1958 and 1970, when followed up in 2000 all had different attitudes and behaviour towards relationships. Time and cultural differences had a big impact, those born in 1946 were mostly married by age 31 whereas it was more common for those born in 1970 to be cohabiting and often on their second relationship by age 31. However all participants were British and results of those single or cohabiting may have been influenced by the cultural change in attitudes towards marriage. The fact that this study only looked at British participants solidifies the mainstreams elitist ideological position. Focusing mainly on western white middle class participants and claiming findings are universal. However these participants are the minority population; therefore exploiting and oppressing less powerful social and cultural groups.
Feri et al’s study is an example of social constructionist research, which critical psychologists have adopted the framework. Willig (2001) defines social constructionist research as identifying the variety of ways of how people experience and perceive the world they live in and how it affects their behaviour. Mercer and Clayton (2012) claim research starts at the heart which is society not the individual. Meanings and practices which are socially and culturally organised impact human nature and behaviour, these meanings are constructed and re-constructed through the use of language, which is of central importance in this perspective as researchers listen to how people explain their world.
Kitzinger (1998) states the majority of psychological research before critical psychology emerged regarded homosexuality as a pathological condition; however in 1970 a shift due to protests and violent demonstrations by the gay community against heterosexist views during the stonewall riots marks a significant point in lesbian and gay history (stein 2004). The formation of lesbian and gay psychology investigates reasons behind prejudice and discrimination, while attempting to generate world changes.
Examples of research before the shift was stated by Morin (1977) he reviewed studies on homosexuals, finding 70% of studies focused on whether homosexuals were mentally ill, the causes and identifying characteristics. 82% compared homosexuals against heterosexuals, which have been objected strongly to as it assumes homosexuals have certain characteristics which differentiates them from heterosexuals. Overall homosexuality was seen as an illness that needed curing. Boehmer (2002) argues public health research has ignored LGBTQ populations as they are underrepresented as research subjects. After looking at articles on the MEDLINE database only 0.1% focused on LGBTQ individuals. The majority of these were based on LGBTQ participants with sexually transmitted diseases, focusing on HIV or AIDS, showing not only are homosexuals underrepresented in psychological research but when they are involved it is either comparing them against heterosexuals or whether they are mentally unstable. However a reason for the lack of lesbian and gay participants can be explained by Dunne (1997) he claims there are difficulties in finding these participants and many are recruited through personal contacts. However this sampling method is restricting only providing access to small discrete networks. Another reason Kitzinger (1987) found is lesbians and gays only agree to be participants because the interviewer was also a homosexual. Although having a homosexual interviewer can be good due to making them feel more comfortable and answer more honestly, however it could be bad as the interviewer could be bias in interpreting answers differently than an impartial interviewer might.
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One of the first studies to look at homosexual research from a different view point and not just compare the two groups was Hooker’s (1957) paper “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual” in which self-identified homosexuals and heterosexuals groups participated in several psychological tests, experts had to identify the homosexuals. Results found no detectable difference in terms of mental adjustment. It was of great critical importance that homosexuality is not a mental disorder, as it shows is not developmentally inferior to heterosexualism. Hooker’s work influenced further quantitative measures to assess human personality such as Eysenk Personality Inventory.
Burr (1995) quotes “We are born into a world where the conceptual frameworks and categories used by people in our culture already exist.” Various psychologists including Herek (1987) and Kite (2001) agree views about male gender roles and sexual prejudices are culturally constructed from birth. From previous societal norms men learn what they are expected and not expected to be, for example they should be strong and heterosexual and not seen as weak or homosexual.
Gergen (1973) argues human behaviour changes over time. He concluded social psychological theories are a product of historical and cultural circumstances. Additionally the ‘truth’ and ability to generalise becomes misguided if the information produced only makes sense within specific contexts, for example findings in western culture. Gay marriage has been controversial within society, but has changed overtime. Baunach (2011) examined attitude trends towards gay marriage, she concludes attitudes have significantly liberalised; in 1988 71% were opposed to gay marriage compared to only 52% opposing in 2006. Even though more are supporting gay marriage, findings from a Gallop poll found 64% of Americans did not support equal marriage rights for homosexuals. (Gallup Poll News Service, 2007). Baunach (2011) suggests change could be due to individuals’ altering their attitudes, also later cohorts replacing earlier ones. Findings were replicated across various subgroups of the U.S. Critical psychology is committed to a social justice ideology that attempts to gain knowledge from all social groups and questions objective claims of the mainstream. Therefore they would agree with this research as it looks at all ages and subgroups across a period of time. However data was collected using a poll service, this survey method does not delve deeper into participant’s answers. Firebaugh (1989) suggests social attitudes change gradually as birth cohorts replace older cohorts. Ideological changes are due to long term social and cultural developments. Individuals are exposed to various socialising experiences and different people that may impact on their opinions, those who have greater contact with homosexuals’ increases identification and therefore weakens the prejudice against them.
According to Herek (2000) & Olson, Cadge, and Harrison (2006) younger individuals, females, those who live in cities and the educated are more accommodating of homosexuality and gay marriage. This is supported by Ellison and Musick (1993) who found education and interactions with homosexuals leads to greater acceptance. On the other hand it was found those less supportive are Southerners, Republicans and African Americans. Evidence of this was found by Lewis (2003) he states blacks are 11% more likely to express disapproval of homosexual relations and gods punishment results in Aids. Therefore African Americans are under more pressure to hide their sexuality. However research came from the general social survey (Davis, Smith, and Marsden, 2008) a national probability sample of non-institutionalized English speaking adults, where sample sizes varied over the years. Therefore this method cannot be used to generalise to the whole population as it excludes non English speaking participants and only targets adults leaving out adolescent opinions. Although contrary to the small sample size, the data provided is from the earliest national level sample on the issue.
To conclude Hepburn (2003) defines critical social psychology as being critical of society, the institutions and practices within it. It questions the assumptions made and its broader influences. Critical social psychology disproves of the mainstream “scientific” approach and believes focus should be on society as a whole not just on the individual. It takes an ideological position in believing there are multiple views on reality, claiming these views and opinions vary from time, place and socio-cultural positing. Mercer & Clayton (2012) state the critical approach is ideologically positioned in there is no one truth; therefore it questions objective claims made by mainstream which uses quantitative methodology. Critical Psychologists argue against this methodology which produces facts and statistics irrespective of politics and values and uses nomothetic approach where findings can be applied universally. They argue qualitative methods are better from recognising broader social structures and seek better understanding of particular situations. However by disregarding statistics and universal facts in favour of using smaller samples and more in-depth answers then studies lose the evidence needed for greater political and social changes to occur. Gough and McFadden (2001) suggest the best way to study social psychology is for researchers to situate themselves within society and develop a critical attitude. The majority of LGBTQ research has relied on western white middle class lesbian and gays therefore there is still a way to go in giving less powerful and oppressed groups a voice within social psychology.
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