Social Justice and Psychoanalysis


What is Psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis refers to 1) a theory of personality development, 2) a psychotherapeutic intervention and 3) a theory of culture and society derived from the work of Sigmund Freud.

Psychoanalytic theory emphasizes how much of our psychological functioning operates outside of our awareness and without conscious control. This includes our core beliefs about ourselves and others, our fears, and how we cope with our fears day to day (typically called defenses).

Psychoanalysis explains how we avoid feelings and thoughts we unconsciously deem threatening to 1) our self concept, 2) our relationships with others, and 3) our cultural and social values. Hence, it is a theory of relationships, but also a theory of how cultural and social systems become internalized and come to define our behavior.

What is Social Justice?

Social justice refers to fairness and just relationships between individuals, groups and society. It is explicitly concerned with how wealth, resources, opportunities and privileges are distributed based on intersecting group memberships such as race, ethnicity, culture, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, class, ability, citizenship status, and etc.

Social justice is a central concern of mental health related fields such as social work and clinical psychology, involving attention not only to individual (often unconscious) biases against vulnerable populations but also changing social, economic, and institutional systems which maintain inequality.

From a social justice perspective, everyone is worse off in a more unequal society as inequality often results in negative outcomes for privileged and underprivileged groups. Reducing inequality, then, restores health and humanity to both dominant and marginalized groups.

Isn’t Psychoanalysis Irrelevant to Social Justice?

Psychoanalysis and social justice have a complex history. There is no question that psychoanalysis, especially in the United States between the 40’s and 70’s, has been complicit in the enactment of racist, sexist, homophobic, and class inequality. Contemporary scholars and clinicians have made great strides in critiquing this history and reforming psychoanalysis. Much work remains to be done.

At the same time, recent historiographic research reveals how Freud and the first generation of psychoanalysts actually endorsed progressive social values and developed psychoanalytic theories addressing racism and economic inequality. As the first generation of analysts identified as Jews within a racism and anti-Semitic European milieu, scholars note how this provided them with the perspective of a marginalized community critical of the dominant order.

In addition, there is a history of psychoanalytic thought being used by African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latinx thinkers as a tool of social analysis, including Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire. Their work and that of others has gone on to influence a variety of fields ranging from literature, sociology, postcolonial studies, cultural studies, and pedagogy.

What We Are Doing

I am engaged in scholarship, including historical research, examining the relationship between psychoanalysis and social justice. This takes the form predominantly of investigative articles published in peer-review journals and book chapters.

Most recently I am finishing a book on the subject, and hope to announce the title and publication date soon. Stay tuned!