Miles Thompson (UK)

What attracted you to community psychology?

I was always looking for something like community psychology – it just took me a while to find it and even longer to find any space to be able to consistently research within it. What I mean by this, is that I was always looking for something with a wider focus than the individual alone. Always looking for something more focused on social justice, more political, both aware of wider structural issues and resolved to tackle them.

In my undergraduate degree and beyond, I spent quite a lot of time exploring other parts of psychology. Thinking: this is interesting, but doesn’t seem to go wide enough. To be honest, I’m not even sure the phrase “community psychology” was mentioned during my first degree. And if no one tells you about it, you don’t necessarily know it is there. Community psychology can remain quite hidden.

We explore this a bit in two pieces of recent research (Thompson et al, 2022; Thompson & Thomas, 2023). In one study, we talked to qualified UK clinical psychologists with an interest in critical community psychology. We asked them how they came to have a relationship with critical community psychology and they told us about their own lifespan events, which often involved the interaction of their wider principles and politics. They also told us about their somewhat awkward interactions with psychology – where they kept waiting and wanting for more critical and community psychology related content. In the other study, we asked UK psychology undergraduate students about their perceptions of critical community psychology having been introduced to it as part of the study. A number of participants wished they had already known about it – and wanted more education around it, not just for themselves as students, but also for the wider public.

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

Community psychology is not an especially easy path to follow in the UK. So, I took a much more established and clearly defined route and became a clinical psychologist, working in the NHS in the field of chronic pain, before moving into higher education.

My formative community psychology experiences came during my clinical training. During the course, we did have at least one session on community psychology. If I’m honest – though I highly regard the person who led the session – I don’t remember a single thing about its content. But clinical training did give me a book budget, and made me aware of wider meetings and conferences. Bookwise, I purchased, “Writings for a Liberation Psychology” by Martín-Baró, the first edition of “Critical Psychology: an introduction” by Fox and Prilleltensky and two books by David Smail. It was the critical psychology text I started reading first. I distinctly remember being sat outside, in the sunshine, reading the preface and first chapter, thinking: “Wow. I didn’t think you were allowed to say things like that”.

The first community psychology event I attended, was around the same time, way back in 2003. It was the “Community and Critical Psychology Conference” in Birmingham. I think the event had sold out, and I had to wait for a cancellation in order to attend. I’m sure there were many inspiring sessions at the conference, but the memory that stayed with me, was from a plenary talk, or the Q&A that took place after, where I remember sitting there thinking: “Oh, we’re just being critical of CBT. Is that it? Is that all we’re going to do? Is that as radical as it gets?

So, on the one hand there was the excitement of attending a community psychology event, and on the other the somewhat more mundane content being discussed in that specific session. And this came against the backdrop of the explicitly political content that I was excited to read in Fox and Prilleltensky. The contrast was interesting.

With hindsight, this tension remains interesting and relevant. In fact, we explore this a bit in Thompson et al. (2022). We asked participants how they bring their interest in critical community psychology into their NHS clinical work. Participants told us it can be hard given the confines of NHS practice. Moreover, some of the things they told us about seemed more like good contemporary clinical practice – rather than anything more radical or transformative. Still, arguably, forms of community psychology, but perhaps not especially distinct or different.

In your assessment, what is future of community psychology in Britain?

I think, in some ways, the future can be anything we want it to be. But, as with everything, we have to organise and fight for it. Community psychology in the UK is not especially well developed. It exists in pockets: inside the NHS, inside academia, inside the charity sector, even inside politics. Back in 2003 – and again in 2007 – Mark Burton and Carolyn Kagan – wrote great papers about the state of community psychology in the UK. One titled: “Community psychology: Why this gap in Britain?”. Over 20 years on from that first paper, it is tempting to ask whether the gap has widened or narrowed?

Rather than answering that question here, perhaps a related story might be useful. I virtually attended the international community psychology conference in Naples in September 2021. There was a great session titled: “New volumes in CP” where panelists spoke about new community psychology book titles from Italy, South Africa, Germany, the UK and elsewhere.

When the speakers talked about their books, they spoke about the state of community psychology in their own countries. Of course, if you’re promoting a book, you might talk up the health of community psychology at home. But one speaker, who wasn’t from the UK, just said (words to the effect of): “Community psychology has been fading away from the universities here. So this new text may not be especially innovative. But we need to be honest about how things are, join together and move forward”.

This really struck me, and made me think that part of the work we should be doing is building better structures that allow us to get to know each other and work together, beyond our national borders. Getting better connected globally on a day-to-day basis. Of course, we have our biannual international conference – with the next being in Uruguay. And in the UK, we have a regular community psychology festival. But how are we encouraging people with an interest in community psychology to meet, network and collaborate outside of these events? Could we be doing more – especially during the climate and ecological emergencies when we should arguably be flying less? For example, could we create a global, lightweight, digital forum, that helps us organise and shape our shared futures as a discipline? Something that includes but maybe goes beyond organising bodies like ECPA and SCRA?

Two other things to consider when thinking about the future. While it continues to be great to see new books and chapters about community psychology coming out – could we be doing more to ensure our future publications are Diamond Open Access? Where authors don’t pay processing charges and readers can access digital versions fast and for free. “Community Psychology in Global Perspective” and the “Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice” are leading the way in terms of journal articles. And Jason et al., (2019) have published a freely accessible Introduction to Community Psychology textbook. But is there more we could be doing more to give our knowledge away when we write books and chapters? (For a recent blog about these issues see Thompson & Clark, 2023).

Finally, when planning for the future. Let’s not assume all of today’s students are coming to community psychology positively or even neutrally. In one of our recent studies (Thompson & Thomas, 2023), we found a small subset of students who felt that statements related to critical community psychology were not relevant to: i.) individual mental health, ii.) to psychology, and even iii.) not relevant as ideas.

In what ways can community psychology contribute in tackling issues for marginalized people facing climate change?

Three thoughts: First, by doing some of things we do best. Meeting with people, groups and communities where they are, in the contexts they find themselves. And then genuinely working together as partners and co-researchers to tackle the issues that matter most to them.

Secondly, acknowledging that community psychology does not have all the answers – or all the leverage, and so using our networks, to draw in others from academia, from health and social settings, from charities, NGO and activist networks to help tackle the issues that marginalised people and communities face.

Thirdly, I think I’d ask – are the first two enough? Not just in terms of climate change, but in terms of our work generally. Have we – in our history to date – done enough to hold the limiting structures and the powerful to account? Are we able to show consistent success at changing things in truly transformative ways? Not just at local levels, but also at national and international levels? Because this is what tackling the climate and ecological emergency requires.

How do we combine: i.) on the one hand our partnership working with marginalized communities. And on the other ii.) forcing progressive, positive movement from governments, corporations, and international bodies who arguably seem steadfast in upholding the status quo? The outcomes of the recent COP28 seem to have given us nothing more than what Greta Thunberg rightly identifies as “blah, blah, blah”. There are no easy answers here, but this is something we grapple with in a recent paper (Thompson et al., 2023). In it, we explore participant generated examples of environmental and wider social challenges as a tool to reflect on climate change and community psychology. In the discussion, as others have already done, we highlight the role of capitalism and neoliberalism. But beyond highlighting it – how do we challenge and change it? How do we even dent it? In the paper we highlight the role of critical consciousness. Not just raising awareness, but also promoting focused critical action. One of the challenges of the climate and ecological emergencies is the way it demands that we work across all levels from the micro to the macro – but with change necessarily needing to happen urgently at the macro level. Again, no easy answers – but vitally important work for us all to do.