The psyCommons and Community Psychology – Thomas Allan

August 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

Rapport is one of the basic elements of the psyCommons

As the psyCommons idea has begun to move out into the world it has set off chat about its value and context. The most recent take on the psyCommons was this article, The richness of everyday relationships in a leading UK Counselling journal, Therapy Today. A handy nudge in the right direction. David Bollier wrote a blog piece about it and so also, in German, did Silke Helfrich and in Spanish, Javier Jiménez Cuadros.

Some of the most valuable support and insight have come from Thomas Allan, and this guest blog entry by him features a collection of four reflections on the psyCommons idea, inspired by his enthusiasm for Community Psychology.


Having recently read “The Richness of Everyday Relationships”, I wanted to put my support behind the ‘shared power’ and ‘ordinary wisdom’ of the ‘psyCommons’. The article prompted me to reflect on the role of the professional in the helping professions, dominant forms of knowledge and language, and on my own values, commitment and accountability to marginalized individuals and groups in various community contexts.

The psyCommons is a name for the universe of rapport – of relationships between people – through which daily life is navigated. But in my view, the psyCommons is also a model for critical thinking and systemic wisdom.

As I read, the notion of psyenclosures became clearer: Psychiatry and Psychology – an enclosure of our ordinary wisdom and shared power? Solicitors and Barristers – an enclosure of our ability to resolve conflict? In our local community, the car garage has enclosed a monopoly market share by accumulating and sequestering expertise in fixing cars. How far does the metaphor of enclosure go? Does the Hairdresser enclose our ability to maintain our personal appearance? At what point is a community service an enclosure and at what point a shared community resource? It seems only a question of management, but it also raises questions of values and power.

An insight that struck me was the reference to the boundaries between the psyenclosures and the psyCommons; a kind of socially determined ‘mental illness’ that divides and alienates. In this context, boundaries signify inclusion or exclusion and, rather than being fixed, obvious and natural, are a human constructed limitation on what is the acceptable extent of responsibility and participation. It implies that some are able to participate in a given system, but others are not, and those who are not have been dispossessed of the reciprocal social ties and psychological supports necessary for their well-being. For me, it evoked Michel Foucault in Madness and Civilization of how society constructs diversity as deviance using ‘totalizing’ discourses that reflect the power of one group over another, where ‘psychiatry provides the grand narrative..’ (Prilleltensky & Nelson 2010).

Boundaries then, when used as a control mechanism, can also lead to social marginalization; economic and social disadvantage where individuals and communities are systematically blocked from rights, opportunities and resources (e.g. housing, employment, healthcare). It is possible to reduce what is from what is not in the medical world mainly through cause and effect relationships (Virus = Illness, Vaccine = Prevention, Treatment = Cure), but in the social world we need to contextualise in order to understand why or how something has happened. In the absence of objective certainty, the decision to boundary between social in-group and social out-group is not a scientific act of discovery but an act of power. The same kind of power is exercised by anyone who comes to control a jointly used resource where the right of others to use it is lost; a boundary or limitation has been established seen typically in the case of property rights and land ownership e.g. colonisation, enclosure of common land or corporate land grabs. In the context of the psy professions, Community Psychologists Carolyn Kagan and Mark Burton (2010) refer to this deeply problematic, simplistic and reductionist process as the ‘ideological definition of one’s identity in the interests of dominant groups’:


I find much in common in the psyCommons with Community Psychology (CP), a sub discipline of Psychology that seeks to understand people in context with communities and the wider society. It’s a values based approach that draws especially (but not exclusively) from constructivist and transformative paradigms. There are many practical applications and interventions but in brief CP has an ecological theme (the fit between people and their environment), stresses the importance of cultural relativity and diversity so that people are not judged by one single standard or value, and a focus on social change ‘towards a maximally equitable distribution of psychological as well as material resources’ (Rappaport 1977:3). A very useful quote by Community Psychologist Ed Trickett appears to link this approach to the psyCommons concept: “Human activity is not situated within a social vacuum; it is situated within a socio-historical and cultural context of meanings and relationships” (Trickett 1996; Prilleltensky & Nelson 2010). CP also promotes principles such as ‘Sense of Community’ and ‘Social Capital’, both of which I would suggest are principles shared by the psyCommons:

Sense of Community: Community Psychologist Seymour Sarason described it as ‘the sense that there is a network of and structure of relationships that strengthens rather than dilutes feelings of loneliness; the sense that one belongs in and is meaningfully part of a larger collectivity’ (Sarason 1988:41)

Social Capital: Speaks of the potential of communities to improve the well-being of their members through the synergy of associations, mutual trust, sense of community and collective action (Hooghe, 2003; McKenzie & Harpham 2006).

CP makes visible the dominant cultural narrative of ‘blaming the victim’: “What typically seems to happen is that the situation of marginalized persons is portrayed as result of their own characteristics. What is essentially a social and historical phenomenon is presented as a biological or an intra-psychic event” (Kagan & Burton 2010). Linking this to the psyenclosures, this creates demand for experts who are employed to define the reality of individuals by reducing their personal experiences to a set of pathologies with technical names and treatments.

According to this view, the existing social reality internalizes the ideological narrative (such as the stereotyping of the mentally ill or indeed the unemployed, elderly or the disabled – consider the TV comedy ‘Little Britain’ whose basis for humour was a set of sketches based entirely around poking fun at the victims of this process of marginalization) and ‘reality’ is then seen as a natural rather than socially determined state of affairs. Kagan and Burton’s view is that “psychology has often colluded with ideologies that blame the victim by offering endogenous ‘causes’ of the situations in which oppressed people find themselves”.

But by drawing from the value of holism and using an ecological metaphor, CP provides an effective antidote to medical model reductionism. An example of this is understanding mental illness not only at the level of individual characteristics, but as relating to other factors such as unemployment and debt, lack of social support networks or discrimination. This perspective provides a different lens through which to understand reality and implies that changes in human behaviour are possible when boundaries of the social and organisational environment can be changed. As the network of shared power, rapport and relationship between individuals in current and historical system dynamics, this theoretical approach shares a common principle with the psyCommons.

Social Ecological Model: pays explicit attention to the social, institutional, and cultural contexts of people-environment relations. This perspective emphasizes the multiple dimensions (example: physical environment, social and cultural environment, personal attributes), multiple levels (example: individuals, groups, organizations), and complexity of human situations (example: History: cumulative impact of events over time?)


What can be done in practice? Well, this needs further exploration, but by asking different questions; questions that prompt critical reflection rather than the questions that propose there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. And rather than critique, as intriguing as it is, what would be useful is critical thinking in practice, prompting people to reflect on questions such as those proposed by Flyvbjerg (2001) ‘Where are we going?’ ‘Is this direction desirable?’ ‘Who gains and who loses?’ ‘By which mechanism of power?’, thus, we are now concerned with ‘how values and power play out in social change processes in various contexts’ (Prilleltensky & Nelson 2010).

I would also emphasise bringing a sense of shared history such as that of the Commons to the foreground. Smith (1999) states “to hold an alternative history is to hold alternative knowledge. The [learning to be had from] access to alternative knowledge is that they can form the basis of alternative ways of doing things.” I think developing learning towards a critical understanding of dominant cultural narratives, and developing alternative forms of knowledge alongside new structures of governance and processes of civic accountability is crucial. In particular, the work cooperative: “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise”(ICA), which explicitly embodies the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity, is particularly suited to meet these objectives as an alternative to the dominant bureaucratic organisation.


Other areas for exploration that came to mind when reading “The Richness of Everyday Relationships”:

Empathy: the need to reconnect to others through thought, feeling, listening, talking, deed, gesture, planning and action.

In an economics of enclosure, the psyCommons are fragments: fragments of thoughts, fragments of ideas, fragments of feeling, fragments of communications, fragments of understanding, fragments of the whole.

Empathy is a vital connecting quality enabling those who empathise to understand what they have in common as opposed to emphasising differences. It provides understanding of a diverse range of experience and it is this diversity that makes up the picture of the whole. Moreover, listening to the stories of others can make them real for those who care enough to listen, validate their experiences, help guide people towards their own solutions and empower people to re-claim their history.

Culture: Culture = Commons, Enclosures = Control of Culture?

Culture can be defined as ‘the knowledge, language, values, customs and material objects that are passed from person to person and from one generation to the next in a human group or society..’

The Commons is about culture and cultural change. What is needed is the reclaiming of culture, both economic and psychological, from an oppressive norm or societal status quo; e.g. enclosure, (monopoly) capital.

Discourse: Discourse Analysis is a useful way of theorizing culture, and “social processes operating in contested terrains, in which different voices become hegemonic” (Bratton 2010).

Metaphor: The importance of using metaphor to link social constructs to concrete things. “Metaphors reveal alternative ways of thinking about the origin and nature or organizing, its processes and the constructs that form its ontological roots” (Bratton 2010). Thus, using the enclosures as a metaphor, an historical antecedent and a current reality, in this sense, provides an alternative lens through which to understand reality (ontology).

Aristotle: ‘Midway between the unintelligible and the commonplace it is Metaphor that produces the most knowledge’

Organisation: Organisations and organizing play a central role to both the health of the psyCommons and the process of enclosure. The dominant metaphor as applied to organisations is overwhelmingly the machine metaphor and fits the objectives of the bureaucratic organisational form: ‘organisations were viewed as the primary vehicle through which lives were rationalised, planned, articulated, scientized, made more efficient, orderly and managed by experts’ (Bratton 2010).


Bratton, J. 2010 Work and Organizational Behaviour

Carter, P. & Jackson, N. Re-thinking Organizational Behaviour: A Poststructuralist Framework

Flyvbjerg, B. 2001 Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and how it can succeed Again

Parkhurst, J. The Social Side of Health (Blog)

Prilleltensky, I. & Nelson, G. 2010 Community Psychology: In Pursuit of Liberation and Well-being

Rappaport, J. 1977 Community Psychology: Values, Research, & Action

Restakis, J. 2010 Humanizing the Economy: Cooperatives in the Age of Capital

Smith, L.T. 1999 Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples

Sarason, S. 1988 The Psychological Sense of Community

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