Carolyn Kagan (England)

What attracted you to community psychology?

As a student in 1971-74 a small part of the curriculum was devoted to social psychology. At the time, I was involved in social action groups via Christian Aid (regarding homelessness) and International Voluntary Service (regarding women migrants who did not speak English) and had previously worked with young women caught up in the criminal justice system. The social psychology course addressed none of the issues arising from these experiences. The Tavistock Institute advertised a post for a ‘community psychologist’ and, as chair of our Psychology Society, I invited the contact person to come and speak – the post was really about clinical work in the community – but got a group of us thinking about what a community psychology could be. To my delight in 1976, Mike Bender published a book (Community Psychology, Methuen) which, although somewhat clinical, in which I had no interest, revealed further possibilities for a community psychology. I was a social psychology post graduate (1974-76) during the ‘crisis’ in social psychology and the relevance (or not) of social psychology was being called. Nigel Armistead’s reconstructing Social Psychology (1974) was an important influence as were Hare and Secord’s Explanation of Social Behaviour. In 1979 I spent a year at University New South Wales where I met Sidney Engleberg (a USA-trained, mostly quantitative community psychologist); worked with Alez Carey (a political and industrial psychologist) and gave a public lecture on Psychology of Women (which was in its infancy) – from an all-male department. These factors combined with a growing interest in Latin American politics and encounters with community psychologists from that continent shaped my interest in community psychology.

What makes community psychology special?

A number of things. A concern with social justice; a concern with social change which inevitably means taking a political stance to social issues like inequality, migration, patriarchy, and the economy; working with people about issue that concern them (beyond mental health) and that are not prescribed by service organisations; a systems perspective that throws up the possibilities of understanding and working with complexities; possibilities for interdisciplinary perspectives and for working collaboratively through progressive alliances; an action research orientation; possibilities for incorporating non-professional knowledges into theory and practice. I worked in academia in UK and we had the opportunity to develop a particular approach to community psychology, untrammeled by the pressures and priorities of service or other organizations.

An event that was formative for your interest in or engagement with community psychology?

Meeting and working with Alex Carey who was doing some work in partnership with the Australian Telecomms Union. Nothing in my training had ever raised the possibilities (and actualities) of working politically, or of partnering with a trade union.

What is the future of community psychology in Europe?

There is a strong network across national boundaries, which has done some great work in networking; academic developments; cross-national research. For many years European community psychology suffered from the perception of a strong in-group, making it difficult for others to permeate. This group is now beginning to expand to include younger community psychologists or those interested in community psychology. There is still a lot of work to convince active people (in the UK) of the benefits of working at a European – or indeed international – level and the major challenge is processes of communication between those interested at a European level and those working in the different countries. The zeitgeist is in favour of better collaborative links – at least in academia, possibly not amongst practitioners.

One piece of advice for aspiring community psychologists?

Be thick skinned and keep a sense of humour: never take the ire you might be confronted with as people’s power is challenged personally. Always work collaboratively.

How about a song? One that symbolizes what community psychology is about for you?

Phil Ochs, “When I’m Gone,” 1966.