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Community psychology studies the individuals' contexts within communities and the wider society, and the relationships of the individual to communities and society. Community psychologists seek to understand the quality of life of individuals within groups, organizations and institutions, communities, and society. Their aim is to enhance quality of life through collaborative research and action.
Community psychology employs various perspectives within and outside psychology to address issues of communities, the relationships within them, and related people's attitudes and behaviour.
Rappaport (1977) discusses the perspective of community psychology as an ecological perspective on the person–environment fit (this is often related to work environments) being the focus of study and action instead of attempting to change the personality of individual or the environment when an individual is seen as having a problem.
Closely related disciplines include ecological psychology, environmental psychology, critical psychology, cross-cultural psychology, social psychology, political science, public health, sociology, social work, applied anthropology, and community development.
Community psychology grew out of the community mental health movement, but evolved dramatically as early practitioners incorporated their understandings of political structures and other community contexts into perspectives on client services.
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Division 27 of the American Psychological Association is the community psychology division of the APA, called the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA). The Society's mission is as follows:
The Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) is an international organization devoted to advancing theory, research, and social action. Its members are committed to promoting health and empowerment and to preventing problems in communities, groups, and individuals. SCRA serves many different disciplines that focus on community research and action.
The SCRA website has resources for teaching and learning community psychology, information on events in the field and related to research and action, how to become involved and additional information on the field, members and undergraduate and graduate programs in community psychology.
In the 1950s and 1960s, many factors contributed to the beginning of community psychology in the US. Some of these factors include:
In 1965, several psychologists met to discuss the future of community mental health as well as discuss the issue of only being involved with problems of mental health instead of the community as a whole. The Swampscott Conference is considered the birthplace of community psychology. A published report on the conference calls for community psychologists to be political activists, agents of social change and "participant-conceptualizers."
James Kelly (1966; Trickett, 1984) developed an ecological analogy used to understand the ways in which settings and individuals are interrelated. Unlike the ecological framework developed by Bronfenbrenner (1979), the focus of Kelly's framework was not so much on how different levels of the environment may impact on the individual, but on understanding how human communities function. Specifically, Kelly suggests that there are 4 important principles that govern people in settings:
Because community psychologists often work on social issues, they are often working toward positive social change. Watzlawick, et al. (1974) differentiated between first-order and second-order change and how second-order change is often the focus of community psychology.
As an example of how these methods differ, consider homelessness. A first-order change to "fix" homelessness would be to offer shelter to one or many homeless people. A second-order change would be to address issues in policy regarding affordable housing.
Community psychology emphasizes principles and strategies of preventing social, emotional and behavioral problems and wellness and health promotion at the individual and community levels, borrowed from Public health and Preventive medicine, rather than a passive, "waiting-mode," treatment-based medical model. Universal, selective, primary, and indicated or secondary prevention (early identification and intervention) are particularly emphasized. Community psychology's contributions to prevention science have been substantial, including development and evaluation of the Head Start Program.
One of the goals of community psychology involves empowerment of individuals and communities that have been marginalized by society.
One definition for the term is "an intentional, ongoing process centered in the local community, involving mutual respect, critical reflection, caring, and group participation, through which people lacking an equal share of resources gain greater access to and control over those resources" (Cornell Empowerment Group).
Rappaport's (1984) definition includes: "Empowerment is viewed as a process: the mechanism by which people, organizations, and communities gain mastery over their lives."
While empowerment has had an important place in community psychology research and literature, some have criticized its use. Riger (1993), for example, points to the paradoxical nature of empowerment being a masculine, individualistic construct being used in community research. Community psychologist Guy Holmes critiqued empowerment as a vague concept replete with what Wolf Wolfensberger has called 'high craze value' i.e. a fashionable term that means different things to different people, and ultimately means everything and nothing. Certainly few community psychologists would agree with Mao that 'power grows out of the barrel of a gun.'
In the 1990s, the support and empowerment paradigm (Racino, 1992) was proposed as an organizing concept to replace or complement the prior rehabilitation paradigm, and to acknowledge the diverse groups and community-based work of the emerging community disciplines.
A core value of community psychology is seeking social justice through research and action. Community psychologists are often advocates for equality and policies that allow for the wellbeing of all people, particularly marginalized populations.
Another value of community psychology involves embracing diversity. Rappaport includes diversity as a defining aspect of the field, calling research to be done for the benefit of diverse populations in gaining equality and justice. This value is seen through much of the research done with communities regardless of ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, disability status, socioeconomic status, gender and age.
Individual wellness is the physical and psychological wellbeing of all people. Research in community psychology focuses on methods to increase individual wellness, particularly through prevention and second-order change.
Citizen participation refers to the ability of individuals to have a voice in decision-making, defining and addressing problems, and the dissemination of information gathered on them. This is the basis for the usage of participatory action research in community psychology, where community members are often involved in the research process by sharing their unique knowledge and experience with the research team and working as co-researchers. In contrast, citizen participation is sought by community developers and community planners (i.e., public administrators) to assure that governmental funds best meet the needs of local citizenry. Three key values of participation are: building support for governmental planning, raising political consciousness, and furthering democratic values. Citizen participation in policymaking has a long history and has been particular strong in neighborhood action and poverty programs, and other activist-led initiatives.
Collaboration with community members to construct research and action projects makes community psychology an exceptionally applied field. By allowing communities to use their knowledge to contribute to projects in a collaborative, fair and equal manner, the process of research can itself be empowering to citizens. This requires an ongoing relationship between the researcher and the community from before the research begins to after the research is over.
Psychological sense of community (or simply "sense of community"), was introduced in 1974 by Seymour Sarason. In 1986 a major step was taken by David McMillan and David Chavis with the publication of their "Theory of Sense of Community" and in 1990 the "Sense of Community Index". Originally designed primarily in reference to neighborhoods, the Sense of Community Index (SCI) can be adapted to study other communities as well, including the workplace, schools, religious communities, communities of interest, etc.
Community psychology grounds all advocacy and social justice action in empiricism. This empirical grounding is what separates community psychology from a social movement or grassroots organization. Methods from psychology have been adapted for use in the field that acknowledge value-driven, subjective research involving community members. The methods used in community psychology are therefore tailored to each individual research question. Quantitative as well as qualitative methods and other innovative methods are embraced.
|Clinical Psychology||Community psychology|
|More likely to work with individuals||More likely to work with groups and communities|
|Work confined to clinical populations||Work likely to involve the diverse groups in a local community|
|More likely to take place in a consulting room in a clinic||More likely to take place in a community setting|
|Focus on symptomatic change in the individual through individually-focused therapies||Focus on community level change through collective action|
|Work influenced by psychiatric diagnosis||Work influenced by mapping needs at community level and identifying sources of oppression|
|Work influenced by ‘top down’ treatment guidelines (e.g. NICE)||Work influenced by ‘bottom up’ feedback from community collaborators|
|Evidence base privileges RCTs||Evidence base privileges diverse research methods especially those which emphasise community action and participation|
|More likely to be short-term or time-limited||More likely to be long term and build and grow over time|
|Reactive and ameliorative in aim||Preventative and transformational in aim (e.g. advocacy, campaigning and acting to bring social change)|
Many programs related to community psychology are housed in psychology departments, while others are interdisciplinary. Students earning a community psychology degree complete courses that focus on: history and concepts of the field, human diversity and cultural competence, public health, community research methods and statistics, collaborative work in communities, organizational and community development and consultation, prevention and intervention, program evaluation, and grantwriting.
Research is a large component of both the PhD and master's degrees, as community psychologists base interventions on theory and research and use action-oriented research to promote positive change. Further, students will generally find niches under faculty mentors at their institutions related to local programs, organizations, grants, special populations, or social issues of interest—granting students the chance to have practice doing the work of a community psychologist, under the supervision of a faculty member.
Many community psychologists will find clinical psychologists involved in their work in communities, and collaboration between academic departments are encouraged.
To disseminate the field and make community psychology education free, an online Introduction to Community Psychology textbook was published in June of 2019.
The following journals provide peer-reviewed articles related to community psychology:
In addition, there are a number of interdisciplinary journals, such as the Community Mental Health Journal, with articles in the field of community health that deal with aspects of community psychology.