Vision 2020: (Indian) Psychology's freedom from the struggle for freedom!

As we prepare for India’s 69th Republic Day celebrations later this month (26th January), marking the enforcement of our Constitution, it is time to reflect on issues related to independence, self-governance, sovereignty and dignity. Yet, it’s not national boundaries that I address in this Kadak Chai essay, even though the country is tense with issues related to citizenship. My concerns here relate to national boundaries in academics and the Indian-ness of Indian Psychology. Some of these ideas have been circulating in my mind recently, especially since the recently concluded conference of the National Association of Psychology at Pondicherry University. Thank you for visiting the blog and I welcome your views.

Science and location

For the social sciences, context is constitutive. It is, after all, our own selves and our connections to circumstances that we attempt to study. The person and environment, (physical, social) are in constant dialogue and any attempt to separate these processes is artificial and incomplete. In the case of Psychology, phenomena are subjective, ephemeral and even elusive, making access a constant challenge. Using the natural sciences as an ideal template for the social sciences by focusing on observations, measurement and objectivity resulted in significant gaps in the pursuit of our understanding of psychological phenomena. Not unlike the blind men and their individual ideas of an elephant’s form in a well-known tale (See notes below), the study of Psychology has been fragmented and incomplete, but sometimes also erroneous. Psychology has remained rather uncomfortable with ‘culture’ and a common strategy has been to ignore context and treat real-life circumstances as ‘noise’ or distraction. In this tradition, the laboratory is promoted as a ‘pure setting’, but for us context-dependent humans, this (the lab) is also an environment, with its own peculiar properties that impinge upon our responses. Despite this awkwardness, Psychology requires to be committed to the study of phenomena in context, but it need not be bound by context either. In practical applications, there is no denying that Psychology has failed to find relevance in several parts of the world, but because of that disconnect, I will argue that Mainstream Psychology has, in fact, seriously failed even the “West”.

[Regarding directions as labels, I recall my mentor, Dr. Anandalakshmy’s annoyance at being labelled a “South Indian”, a person born and raised in a family from Tamil Nadu. “South is a direction, not a category”, she would say with a deep frown.]

The Context conundrum: Approaching Psychology through Culture

So, despite the need to account for the environment, our theorizing about human behaviour also needs to be freed from it. This becomes complicated. An explanation that is so closely confined by its location inevitably remains blind to view this as only one of several possibilities, with the assumption that these conditions are universal. Psychological phenomena are so intrinsically bound to local cultural context and social circumstances in which events transpire, that these conditions have to be addressed rather than ignored. Information about place, time and person (or desh, kaal, patra in Sanskrit), that is, under what circumstances, when and by whom was an act performed, are the minimum details required to gain reasonable information about an event. In psychological research, therefore, these details need to be transparent since our primary tasks are to understand, explain and apply psychological principles.

For Psychology in the Global South, problems become intensified because of social (and geographical) distance, and the lingering consequences of historical inequalities. Mainstream Psychology remains bound by Eurocentric ideas of human development and behaviour, treating these as universal. As a South Asian scholar with a desire to connect with this mainstream, there is only one path to approach the mainstream: Through the channel of cultural psychology. But that is a fundamental problem, because, in fact, all Psychology should be cultural, right? How can we imagine a person without considering the context? This disconnect is felt more seriously in our ‘distant lands’, but I believe that it is far more consequential for Western scholarship precisely because there seems to be very little need to address culture. This is why I argue that Psychology has in fact failed the West far more seriously!

The consequences of this disconnect can be serious. There is a tendency to deny local beliefs to understand local behaviour! The trouble is not the origin of any idea, but the mistaken faith in the universality of its components, which cannot be approached unless context has first been acknowledged and then transcended. How do we deal with this conundrum? How much importance should be placed on context? How should the relationship between the person and environment be configured? Should every culture clamour for its own freedom to prioritize local epistemologies? Well, then we will be even more like the six blind men and the elephant, although all may be partly true (believing the trunk to be a rope, the legs a pillar and the ear a fan and so on), with the creature’s true form escaping our view. What should be our vision for Psychology at the start of 2020? May be our first step should be to free psychology from the East-West divide. Maybe we have to cease in our fight against Western Psychology because it is a created idea, maybe Western Psychology doesn’t even exist as a specific entity. What exactly are the elements we should promote? Let’s look closely that the dialogue between science and culture.

Local science and global culture

The relationship between faith and science is manifested differently in different regions, based on religious practice and social history. In India, for instance, the pursuit of knowledge whether in literature, science, philosophy, spirituality or the arts, was practiced within the same institutions, mostly affiliated with religious practice and scholarship. Thus the opposition of Religion and Science could be a borrowed conflict, although we did have other issues related to access and practice based on social distance and hierarchy. Ideas that arrived through missions and colonies created parallel systems of subjugation on account of which reason became associated with science and blind faith with religion. I believe that in the process of adopting alien conflicts, not only has a lot of energy spent in fighting imaginary monsters, but some of our own demons have remained dormant. The solutions that have worked in other parts of the world, whether it is for social engineering or for environmental healing, just may not work in our context.

The separation of science and faith has had several important consequences for us, a country where the “eco-semiotics” has a very specific orientation (see definition below, and some references to the work of Winfred Nöth below). Diana Eck’s “A Sacred Geography” discusses some beliefs that characterize India’s approach to its environment. “Considering its long history, India has had but a few hours of political and administrative unity. Its unity as a region, however, has been firmly constituted by the sacred geography it has held in common and revered: its mountains, forests, rivers, hilltop shrines.” For Hindus, as also for many Indian Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, India is a holy land. The actual soil of India is thought by many rural Hindus to be the residence of the divinity and, in villages across India, is worshiped as the body of the Goddess. The features of the Indian landscape are understood to be her physical features. Her landscape is not dead but alive, and littered with tirthas, crossing places between different worlds, “linked with the tracks of pilgrimage”. Link:

Occidental science and oriental culture?

The association of reason with (global) science and (local) culture with its opposite, has been unfortunate for fully grasping people’s relationship with social, psychological, environmental and other phenomena. It is also a principle on which colonialism was falsely justified for centuries. Let us make an attempt to examine these associations. For the sake of discussion, if we separate local and global as well as science and culture, we can visualize the matrix thus:

Dialogues between culture and science

In common discussions, we sometimes fail to recognize two of the above dimensions, mostly assuming automatically that culture is local and science is global. Local Science and Global Culture have received relatively little attention in comparison. Although it may be seen as a perpetuation of the artificial separation between culture and science, acknowledging local science may in fact be an important interim step to the advancement of knowledge with a dialogical perspective.

In a recent interview (Red Alert: Ganga), activist Sunita Narain argues that along with industrial pollution, we are rapidly destroying our environment by ways in which context-specific reason has been ignored and ritualism has taken over our practices. Sustainability, respect for the environment, harmony between people and nature, were very much a part of several sacred knowledge systems, but we have got lost in our journey, both in the expression of the sacred and the understand of the secular. Moving forward, Narain argues, our solutions have to be our own, because strategies that have worked for wealthier countries are just not possible locally. We have to find our own solutions.

Transpolar Psychology: Replacing the East-West divide

By creating and preserving the label “Western Psychology“, we have wasted so much time and energy fighting with an imaginary monster. With little attention to the origin and nature of this fictitious enemy, our minds were seduced (in the case of India) by our relatively recent emancipation from colonialism and the need for recognition. This kept a tenacious hold of our imagination as a collective. I realize that every critique of Western Psychology has in fact contributed to keeping the idea alive. An idea A (Western Psychology) brought along with it a simultaneous alternative, non-A (as Valsiner has argued), so the more we persist calling it A, we are automatically placed outside of it, into a sort of minor distraction that could easily be ignored! But what is that Non-A? Asian Psychology? Japanese Psychology? Indian? Non-Western? Because the non-A never took shape, it became a residual, miscellaneous category, one in which all sorts of objects became discarded, and thereby forgotten. In the case of Indian Psychology, the story has been even more poignant as arguments between different factions of Indigenous Psychology and secular science have created fractures in the system, making the global version of psychology the lowest common multiple in higher education. Psychology’s “Western” version is thriving, as experienced during the recently concluded conference of the National Association of Psychology. Apart from the fact that these local skirmishes keep the academic community occupied with trivial conflicts, the most serious loss is the pursuit of science.

In a forthcoming publication, Jaan Valsiner issues an important warning to contemporary Psychology regarding the failure to see systemic unity in diversity. Titled: Where Occidental Science Went Wrong, this article raises concerns about “….a non-fruitful pathway to knowledge that prescribes context-freed categorization of elements instead of viewing them as parts of functioning systems” pushing for an attention to “the conceptual field where Oriental and Occidental perspectives in psychology meet in the analysis of borders within systems—looking at the specific mechanisms under which these borders can inhibit or enhance the exchange relations between parts within the whole”. This should be our vision for Psychology, 2020.

Returning to the South Asian perspective, perhaps it is time to free ourselves from these divisions and to do that, we need first to destroy the notion of Western Psychology. Yes, I mean destroy and not deconstruct, as Burman had attempted, or decolonize as Bhatia has urged. I believe that it is time for us to dissolve the boundaries created between geography, East-West, North and South, cultural and mainstream, and make direct references to substantive objections. After all, these are only imagined constructs, and as Jaan (Valsiner) suggested after reading a draft of this essay. Perhaps shifting to the poles would give us a better perspective, a transpolar one where East-West distinctions are muted. Let us call out our criticism for specific versions of Psychology for what they are, not their location.

Disembodied and Disconnected. Can Humpty Dumpty be put together again?

Charles Hampden-Turner’s Maps of the Mind is an incredibly well-arranged book, not just for the delicately drawn maps, but also the anecdotes sprinkled on the margins of every page that remind me of a personal favourite, the MAD magazine and its side-stories. I remember locating my copy of the book (Maps) at a remote stall of the Delhi Book Fair way back in the 80’s. In a clever introduction to the contents, Turner invokes the Elephant story as a metaphor for fragmentation, although all are partly right, each theory is also wrong! As a discipline, Psychology is fractured, almost to the point of being irreparable. Humpty Dumpty appears three times in the text. Once to say that this book is an attempt to try to put him (Psychology) back together again (p. 11), the second with reference to splitting up the domains (intelligence, emotions and so on, p. 30), and the third time when R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self, is mentioned, regarding how hyphenated terms of psycho-somatic, psycho-biological and the like, have made it difficult to imagine a consolidated sense of self (p. 60). While we’re at the topic of Laing, I would like to mention how much his writing impacted our young minds when we were students. More recently, his characterization in Mad to be Normal, the film based on his experiments at Kingsley Hall in London, is also a good source about his life and work. The film received critical acclaim, but David Laing, his son, rejected the film since he believed that the lead character did not really resemble his father.

To return to the fragmented nature of Psychology, one finds evidence everywhere. In a recent podcast about the therapy for PTSD, Bessel van der Kolk discusses the failure of Psychology, specifically psychotherapy, to understand, explain and heal people with stress as a consequence of trauma. Given the fact that much of trauma lingers as physical memory, treating the mind and body as separate, and placing a greater importance on mentality, effective resolution of stress has been elusive in popular forms of psychotherapy. Stress in some instances appears to be located somewhere else, and talking about it just doesn’t seen enough. This is a domain in which van der Kolk argues, that therapies that assume body-mind continuities are far more effective.

Summing up

In conclusion, for those of us living outside of the West in the throes of our relatively recent freedom from colonial pasts, the idea of an empowered perspective as being anti-West was attractive. Seduced by our own independence, we remained captive to the persistent struggle for freedom of meaning. Yet, we failed to see how the need to pull down “Western Psychology” kept us bound to the narrative and thereby kept the key problems of the discipline in abeyance. Henceforth, I resolve to eschew the label of Western Psychology since it creates an implicit assertion that there is something more profound and accurate about Non-Western, Subaltern, Asian or Indian Psychology. Attributing ideas to location (or direction) has kept us locked in circular debates and territorial disputes, despite knowing fully well that these are oversimplified, even spurious connections. Henceforth, I shall focus on the primary infirmity of academic psychology as I understand it, its disembodied nature, that has resulted in an unfortunate separation between the body and mind, between reason and emotion and the disconnect between one person and others. Both these separations (intra-personal disembodiment and interpersonal disconnect) have had long-standing and serious consequences. The battle will of course continue, but the enemy is not Psychology’s direction (Western) but its specific aspects: Disembodiment and Disconnection! We need to be free from these struggles for Psychology, vision 2020. If we renew our attention to these aspects and focus on “Disembodied Psychology” and “Disconnected Psychology”, maybe we will be more successful in our endevours by listening to people from around the world by discarding the popular but irreconcilable east-west divide.

About the East-West divide in Psychology, Valsiner writes: “It has been customary to present the Eastern and Western views on human beings as two discrete and mutually competitive perspectives. I think this starting point is unproductive from the outset. Instead, we are better off starting from an axiomatic stance where the basic assumption is that of universal unity of the human psyche, with versions in different societies that on their external specifications seem mutually irreconcilable. The empirical research program of cross-cultural psychology that since the 1970s has attempted to contrast the “individualist” and “collectivist” cores of persons and societies continues its avalanche despite clear demonstration (Sinha and Tripathi, 1994, 2001, Tripathi and Leviatan, 2003) that this opposition is based on an untenable axiomatic stand. The features of self-focus (“individualism”) are possible only through the social focus (“collectivism”) that are mutually feeding into one another within the same person and in the same society. It is the systemic unity of the (seeming) opposites within the whole that is the starting point for any inquiry into the human psyche (Valsiner, 2017). Psychology has had over a century of failing efforts to build up a theoretical system that would accept the difference of the qualities of the whole and its parts (Ehrenfels, 1890, 1937). The quality<>quantity relationships are an unstudied realm in the case of psychology.”


The story of six blind sages is well known, This delightful illustrated book by Ed Young is a great addition to your home library. Here is a YouTube reading of the story.

A conversation with Bessel van der Kolk:

Ecosemiotics: Ecosemiotics is the study of sign processes (semiosis) in relation to the natural environment in which they occur.

A sacred geography: Defining India’s landscape through the journey of pilgrims and the meanings attached to these spaces. By Diana Eck.

Ganga:Red Alert:

Decolonizing Developmental Psychology By Sunil Bhatia OUP

Deconstructing Developmental Psychology by Erica Burman, Routledge.

Other readings: Oppong, S. (2019). Overcoming obstacles to a truly global psychological theory, research, and praxis in Africa. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 29(4): 292–300. DOI:10.1080/14330237.2019.1647497

Serpell, R. (2019). Introduction to the special section by the guest editor. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 29(4), 289–29. DOI:10.1080/14330237.2019.1654202

Maps of the Mind:

Mad to be Normal (2017):

David Laing’s criticism of the fil “Mad to be Normal”

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