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The Psychology of Culture

Making Oppression Appear Normal

L. Richard Della Fave is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at North Carolina State University.

Carl Ratner, Macro Cultural Psychology: A Political Philosophy of Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 544 pages, $69.95, hardcover.

To understand properly Carl Ratner’s Macro Cultural Psychology: A Political Philosophy of Mind, one must keep in mind the fact that any logical system of knowledge must be grounded in a set of non-testable assumptions or first principles. These are truly a priori.

It is also true that all theories in the behavioral sciences are grounded in assumptions about human nature, social structure, and culture. Ratner’s assumptions follow closely from those of Marx. All adult humans are capable of making rational, informed choices about how to conduct their lives; we are all endowed roughly equally in this way; we naturally strive for autonomy yet we are also inherently social, that is, cooperative. Society—especially capitalist societies, but also some earlier types such as feudalism—is divided by class, with a minority constituting a ruling class that lives by exploiting the direct producers. Thus, the majority is exploited and hence oppressed. Culture, far from being democratically created by the countless interactions of the population as a whole (sort of like Adam Smith’s mythical marketplace composed of innumerable buyers and sellers), is overwhelmingly shaped and manipulated by the ruling class in ways favorable to its continued rule and people seeing that rule as legitimate, natural, and inevitable.

The very existence of such an exploitative social structure, rooted in its political and economic institutions, leads to a culture that distorts reality and thereby thwarts people’s ability to develop their full human potential. That distortion appears normal and makes it extremely difficult for people to see their situation as it really is. This is what Ratner calls the “psychology of oppression.” He sees the mission of psychology to trace out precisely how the exploitative actions of the ruling class create culture and how culture, in turn, shapes people’s behavior. Yet he sees the field of psychology, as presently constituted, failing utterly to do this.

Instead, psychologists engage in a number of practices that, mostly unwittingly, help to sustain the cultural distortions of the ruling class and hence their exploitative rule. One of these practices is to treat human behavior as primarily driven by biology. This leads, for example, to the medicalization of mental illness. It also leads to portraying dominance and subordination, as well as intergroup conflict, as simply human nature and hence unchangeable. It also supports one of capitalists’ favorite ideological ploys: individualism. We are the masters of our own fate, not society and its culture. If we fail, it is our own fault. We simply did not try hard enough or follow the right path. Individualism favors self-blame and a refusal even to look for social causes. Ratner instead argues that humans are qualitatively different from all other species precisely in terms of how culture, not constant biological traits, shape their behavior. He points out that even our closest relatives, the great apes, have not developed culture, institutions, science, religion, etc. We are truly unique.

Another practice, this one is used by those who call themselves cultural psychologists, is to see culture as emerging from the bottom up, as the sum of an infinite number of human face-to-face interactions. This approach imparts to culture a quality of democracy and common sense that Ratner insists is misleading at best, pernicious at worst.

Finally, Ratner attacks subjectivism, a position that sees reality as nothing but people’s perceptions. However people see the world, well, that’s how it is. There is no objective social reality against which to test such perceptions, and one person’s perception is every bit as valid as another’s. While psychologists who take this view claim to be democratic and respectful of all people, Ratner protests that they perpetuate an exploitative social order by endorsing the reality of a distorted culture. If people are deceived and fail to see themselves as exploited, a subjectivist view holds that they are not.

Macro Cultural Psychology is filled with concrete examples of how culture determines behavior. They involve mostly consumerism and mental illness, although there is also an extended discussion of Southern racism. The discussions of teenage smoking and the absurdly slim body images for women (the power of Barbie!) are especially convincing. They are all part of Ratner’s argument that culture does not emerge spontaneously from innumerable interactions among the populace but rather stems from the calculated efforts of capitalists. The examples involving mental illness make the point that while drugs may be able to control symptoms whose proximate (and I emphasize proximate) cause may be chemical imbalances in the brain, as in the case of substance addictions, these chemical imbalances may, in turn, have been caused by external sources, such as those related to socially created stress. The most politically relevant examples have to do with the promotion of an ideology of individualism, and Ratner is correct in seeing this form of ideology as the single most important legitimizing bulwark of capitalism.

Ratner quotes his Marxist psychology idol, Lev Vygotsky, when he says that psychology awaits its Das Kapital. While one should hesitate to bestow that accolade on Macro Cultural Psychology, this is an important book that is nothing less than a powerful call for a paradigm shift in the field of psychology. As with Marx’s work, it is clear that only if we accept the emancipatory assumptions about humanity and society and culture, only if we are willing to acknowledge the objective existence of exploitation at the very core of our society, regardless of most people’s perceptions, only then can we even conceive of a mission to rescue humanity from its own oppression.

However, in over four hundred pages Ratner fails to deliver answers to two important questions. In general, what are the conditions under which people suffering oppression will finally jettison their individualist mythology and accept Marxian first principals to undergird their view of the society as it exists? More specifically, how do Marxists get past the defensive reaction that I have referred to in my own work as “investments in subordination”? If, as Ratner argues, the existing exploitative reality profoundly shapes people’s behavior, it stands to reason that our behavior, in turn, shapes our very identities. Enforced subordination calls forth coping reactions and leads to identities grounded in how well we manage to cope.

Examples of this kind of coping include what can be called “the good soldier” and “the sexy woman.” In the former, a person prides him or herself on the ability to demonstrate undying loyalty to a superior. In the latter, a woman prides herself on her ability to manipulate men in a world where men are dominant. One could even add to these examples the well-known song by Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue.” These adaptations become valued parts of people’s identity that they cling to in preference to some seemingly off-the-wall notions of intellectuals about human emancipation. These same adaptations, however, fail to challenge the very system of dominance and exploitation that brings them about. To admit not only that you have been duped—but that the whole set of social institutions you have learned to live with and adapt to needs to be thrown out of the window in favor of an unknown and untried future—may be more than a little too much for the very people who need to be rescued, or, more accurately, need to rescue themselves from oppression. Add to this that the prophets of emancipation are not really like regular folks; why should the oppressed trust them?

Answers to these questions might very well qualify a subsequent work as psychology’s Das Kapital. Impatiently we wait!

2013, Volume 64, Issue 08 (January)
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