Critical Social Psychology

Critical Social Psychology Definition

A central concern of critical social psychology is inequality and injustice in society. Research from this approach typically is politically motivated and aims to highlight and help end the oppression of minority or marginalized social groups. Critical social psychology also examines psychology for any ways it contributes to an unjust and undesirable social order. Another aspect of critical social psychology is it develops and endorses the use of qualitative methods in psychology. Qualitative methods use linguistic rather than statistical forms of analysis. The term critical has implications of negativity but in critical social psychology it refers to work that assesses common assumptions about psychology, to make positive changes.

Key Themes in Critical Social Psychology

Critical Social PsychologyCritical psychology draws attention to social factors impacting on people that are sometimes ignored in other approaches. That is, it emphasizes contextual influences shaping a person’s experiences and behavior. Consider, for example, the case of work-related stress. A traditional psychologist might study individual differences in feelings of stress. A test can be developed to identify workers most prone to stress so they can undergo some kind of stress-management training. Note that explaining a problem in terms of individuals leads to solutions that are focused on individuals. However, a critical social psychologist would take a different approach and consider the characteristics of the job, or of work in general, that lead to stress. If noise levels, for instance, are identified as a cause of stress, then employers can be urged to provide quieter working conditions.

Power is an important theme in critical social psychology. An aim of research is to identify and challenge ideas and practices that support discrimination against people on the basis of their ethnic background, age, gender, sexuality, disability, and so on. Feminism is an important influence on critical social psychology because it highlights that power relations in society are related to ways of thinking and behaving. Feminist psychologists, for example, have noted that in the 1970s masculine stereotypical traits (e.g., independent, active) were associated with adult mental health but feminine ones were not (e.g., dependent, passive). Important findings from feminist critical social psychology are that sex differences (e.g., in confidence) are typically interpreted as female deficits (i.e., low self-esteem) and that women’s general lack of social status is typically explained by individual factors (e.g., a fear of success) rather than social ones (i.e., sex bias in employment practices).

The importance of language for shaping the ways people make sense and act in the world is a key idea. Language is understood as a primary basis for social life because it is largely through talk-in-interaction and writing that people conduct their lives. The ways language constructs different versions of the world is emphasized. Consider that a woman without children can be called child-less or child-free; how does the label used influence understanding about the woman? Why and who might use the term terrorist compared to the word freedom fighter? Note how different words refer to the same person but evaluate them in different ways.

Critique of Mainstream Psychology

Mainstream psychology typically assumes that researchers can be objective or completely independent of the subject they are studying. In contrast critical social psychology suggests research is never completely neutral. An individual researcher cannot be separated from the society they live in, so their research is influenced by social beliefs and values. There is considerable evidence of bias in what has been taken for granted about human psychology. For instance, in the case of intelligence tests, lower scores from other societies have been interpreted as indicating genetic inferiority rather than evidence of the cultural specificity of the tests. Another example is that up until the 1970s, psychological theories defined homosexuality largely as a mental disorder, whereas nowadays psychology offers theoretical and practical responses to prejudice and discrimination against lesbians and gay men.

A theoretical idea about people widespread in mainstream social psychology is that individuals are information processors. Stereotypes, including prejudiced ones, are understood as a natural consequence of all the information the human mind has to process and its limited cognitive capacities. Critical social psychology points out that an information processing model of prejudice is very individualistic in orientation and fails to explain why certain groups and not others have been victims of racist thinking. Another critique is that by suggesting prejudice is a natural and inevitable result of thought processes, a mainstream view fails to promote social change that will challenge racism, sexism, and so on.

The research methods favored by mainstream social psychology tend to be surveys and experiments where people’s thoughts and behaviors are represented quantitatively by numerical scores. The problems associated with conventional quantitative methods have been criticized on several grounds. For example, the measures and categories of mainstream research overly simplify the complexity of human psychology and ignore important personal influences on responses. People behave differently at different times and places, yet mainstream research assumes a person’s response in a survey or experiment is stable and lasting. In the case of experiments, participants are often deceived about the real purpose of the study, which is dishonest and disrespectful.

In contrast, critical social psychology promotes qualitative methods, such as observational and interview studies. A wide range of language-based data sources are used, including audio and video recordings of interactions, newspaper articles, or political speeches. Action research, in which the goal is social change for a particular group or community, is a characteristic approach. Aspects of critical work that differentiate it from mainstream psychology is that it usually aims to emphasize the variation and complexity of human experience rather than discover simple rules of behavior; consider research participants within their social contexts instead of examining them in more controlled experimental settings, and challenge aspects of inequalities in society instead of producing scientific facts about thought and behavior.


  1. Fox, D., & Prilleltensky, I. (Eds.). (1997). Critical social psychology: An introduction. London: Sage.
  2. Tuffin, K. (2005). Understanding critical social psychology. London: Sage.