What is Community Psychology? An Interactive Video Explainer

by Erika Sanborne

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Fun Fact

This video project won 1st place (in a tie!) by membership vote of the American Psychological Association Division 27 SCRA Video Contest in 2020!

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      Sanborne, E. (2020, July). What is community psychology? An interactive video explainer. https://geterika.com/what-is-community-psychology.

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Video Transcript

All segments of the interactive video have open captions, for accessibility, which is my preference so that everyone viewing has the same experience of having text overlaying the video. You can also access the video transcript below if you need it.

What is community psychology? 

Community psychology is a field defined by its values. In this interactive video, I introduce you to the ten core values of community psychology. By making choices and interacting with the video, you can get a short explanation of whichever concepts you’d like to explore.

What is Prevention

Prevention is a big deal in community psychology, and in other disciplines, and that is because it is always more efficient to prevent illness and suffering than it is to treat it. Preventing something is often the goal of community interventions, and it can be primary prevention, secondary prevention, or tertiary prevention. Primary prevention happens at the earliest point in time and it is applied to the population broadly, before signs of distress are present.

Suppose we want to prevent childhood obesity. An example of primary prevention for childhood obesity could be to make sure physical education classes are funded in the public school system, and to advocate for positive, healthy imaging in mass media. Secondary prevention happens with so-called at-risk groups, in order to hopefully prevent further decline or distress. An example of secondary prevention for childhood obesity could be to identify so-called at-risk children, perhaps those whose older siblings are obese, and to target those younger siblings with education and supplementary nutrition funds and counseling.

Another example of secondary prevention would be to map out where the food deserts are, which makes it so families cannot access healthy affordable food near their homes, as we know that this contributes to childhood obesity, and so eliminating food deserts is secondary prevention for childhood obesity in a way that does not blame the victim. And then tertiary prevention is basically treatment, aimed at preventing some of the suffering but folks are already experiencing the problem. An example of tertiary prevention is treatment, and so that’s whatever service or interventions are put into place to support children with obesity becoming more healthy.

There is one more distinction when it comes to prevention, and that’s about whether you are making a first-order change or a second-order change. First-order change is prevention that just works at the individual level, and results in changing out the faces of those suffering from the problem, but does little to reduce incidence of the problem. Second-order change is prevention that makes structural changes, the goal of which is to reduce overall incidence of the problem. So, with the childhood obesity example, targeting the kids whose older siblings were obese, that was first-order change, and individualistic in focus. Finding and eliminating the food deserts, that was second-order change, and more aligned with a community psychology orientation.

What is Social justice? 

Social justice is partly why community psychology exists, as we recognize that so many of our social problems are due to the unequal distribution of resources throughout our society. A definition of social justice would be “the fair distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges that provide equal opportunities for all people to things such as education, healthcare, work, and housing.” As psychologists, we realize that social inequalities are a major cause of mental health issues and trauma. We cannot just treat individuals with clinical psychology without also addressing the broad social factors that are the cause of so much suffering.

At this time in our lives and in our world, we all know what suffering is, and most of us have experienced loss and hardship. But the reality is that these burdens are not distributed evenly in our society. Certain populations are harder hit than others, and that reality is the opposite of justice. Any efforts to address that unequal burden are actions taken toward social justice. The goal is for everyone to have their fair access to resources and to have no more than their fair share of the burden.

What is Ecological perspective

Think of what the word perspective means. It comes from the medieval Latin root word meaning: to look at closely. So, this has to do with how you see a situation. The ecological perspective is a way of looking closely at a situation that differs from an individualistic perspective. When we see a homeless person, an individualistic perspective leads us to ask what they did wrong to end up homeless. Engaging at the individual level risks blaming the victim, and in community psychology we, instead, take an ecological perspective, in which we look at multiple ecological levels of analysis. We see the homeless person in layers of social context.

That also means we see causes of their situation at multiple ecological levels, and solutions to the problem at multiple ecological levels as well. So this ecological perspective is a way of viewing an individual as being situated within layers of social context, so that both problems and solutions can be seen at multiple levels also. This avoids blaming the victim and is more efficient, and generally more correct. Point of fact, the number one cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing, not something that an individual homeless person did wrong. The ecological perspective is necessary to define social problems without centering on individual-level variables.

What is Respect for diversity? 

In community psychology, having respect for diversity means many things. It means that one needs the cultural competence and humility to be a part of diverse settings and groups, because diverse perspectives are so valuable. It means understanding that burdens are not experienced equally in society, and that people and groups with social privilege need to use their privilege as the social capital that it is, so that diverse community members are safe and free to live their lives. White supremacy can be thought of as weaponized white privilege, and real lives are at stake. Respect for diversity means acknowledging a history of homophobia, ableism, and colonization, a violent history which has remnants that are still present in our world and must be addressed.

There is overlap between respect for diversity and social justice, because of this history of oppression. There is overlap between respect for diversity and empowerment, as those whose wellbeing is at risk continue to lead the fight for equality, as they always have. In general, respect for diversity generally touches upon aspects of social identity such as race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, spirituality, ability, age and social class. These aspects of identity are socially-constructed, which means that our understanding of them varies by time and place. Last, but not least, intersectionality is essential to the core principle of respect for diversity.

This began with Kimberle Crenshaw’s work, originally describing the intersection of race and gender, because while being Black in this country is something, and being a woman in this country is something, being a Black woman in this country is an intersectional reality all its own. Building on Crenshaw’s work, community psychologists consider the intersectionality of all social identities, as context is key to understanding both privilege and inequality.

What is Active citizen participation? 

Active citizen participation is a process of community decision-making in which everyone in the community can be involved in making the decisions that affect the future of the community. Note that citizen is not a legal entity, but something more broad and inclusive, to include all members of the community. Active citizen participation is about having a voice and influence in community decision-making. Sometimes, people think active citizen participation just means participating in the community, like community service or something like that.

Be mindful that active citizen participation is about being a part of the official decision-making processes in the community, or in whatever setting is the focus. For example, in a school system, active citizen participation means that students and teachers are a part of the decision-making processes that affect the future of the school system. In a hospital system, active citizen participation means that providers and patients are a part of the decision-making processes that affect the future of the hospital system. If not? There is no active citizen participation in that setting.

Now, active citizen participation does not necessarily mean that citizens make all decisions, but it does mean their voice is truly heard, and they really do influence decisions in some democratic way. Active citizen participation happens in many ways – i.e., being a part of a community coalition, writing a letter to the editor, speaking out at a public hearing at the city council meeting, voting, etc. All of those activities take place in the public sphere and involve actively participating as a citizen in the decision-making processes that are happening.

What is Grounding in research and evaluation? 

No one should invest resources to effect change without first analyzing the problem, seeking to identify root causes, and continuously evaluating outcomes of interventions as they happen. Community research and action has a cyclical nature that never really ends. In community psychology, we don’t love theory or intervention that lacks empirical evidence, or haphazard research that does not center the interests of the community in which it is based. Do you want to change something? Great, start with some research first, because you need to look into root causes, to find out why this problem is how it is. Make sure you have cultural humility and that you are seeing the situation clearly.

Once you know something about the causes, you might, with community members’ involvement, begin an intervention, but you need to have measurable outcomes so that you can know whether you are accomplishing anything. Then you need to evaluate whether you have done any good, or caused harm and made things worse, mindful always that there may be radiating effects in community research, often unanticipated, because of our interrelatedness. The purpose of evaluation is to modify interventions. The important thing is that any intervention be grounded in research, not based on somebody’s “good ideas” and that all interventions are continuously evaluated, refined, improved upon and, if necessary, stopped.

Last but not least, remember that no research is value-free. Everything we do is influenced by our values, preconceptions, life experience, and context. Therefore, conclusions drawn from social research must include considerations of this context for our data. This does not make our analysis less rigorous but more so, as we discuss the values and community issues that affect the research so that we can best interpret our findings.

What is Interdisciplinary collaboration? 

This core principle is about collaboration among whatever parties are involved. If you are a community psychologist doing community-based research, then you see community members as experts, honoring their life experiences, cultural traditions and other resources and strengths that exist in that community, and you may seek to build on those strengths, and that is the collaboration. For example, a community researcher may design a study to meet the needs of residents somewhere. They might share research findings with residents in a way that they can use, and perhaps help them use the findings to advocate for changes by decision-makers.

If you were developing a complete community program, you would fully involve citizens in every step of planning it. If you were observing a community meeting, you might see the collaboration happening between board members and other organizations, because collaboration is economical. Because we each bring our own skills and strengths to the table, interdisciplinary collaboration leads to a stronger, better thought out project. Whatever form it takes, collaboration is about building on strengths, which is often the best pathway to overcoming problems.

What is Sense of Community? 

The definition according to McMillan and Chavis is that sense of community is “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.” In a personal conversation I once had with David McMillan, he told me that a synonym for sense of community could be love. In case that doesn’t help you define, describe, measure and otherwise study sense of community, I will now give you the more standard, academic introduction to sense of community. And I will use the McMillan-Chavis model, because it has endured, and it remains the reference model in the field today.

Sense of community is comprised of four elements that must exist together. The first element is Membership, which is a sense of belonging that marks the boundary between those who are part of a community and those who are not, boundaries which allow emotional safety and personal investment. The second element is Influence, which goes in both directions of giving and taking a sense of bearing upon the community and the awareness of being in?uenced by the community itself, sacrificing and bending to community norms, and noticing how much power the group exerts over its members. The third element is Integration and fulfillment of needs, which concerns expectations about having one’s needs met by a community as a result of one’s participation therein, through a community economy of pooled resources and shared values.

And lastly, The fourth element is Shared emotional connection, which is the definitive element, the soul of the people, the feeling of being deeply involved in collective experiences together. You should probably read the 1986 publication on sense of community, because even though this core principle is a long one to introduce, it is kind of a big deal.

What is Empowerment? 

Empowerment is an ongoing process through which those who do not have an equal allocation of resources gain increasing access to resources. Notice several aspects of this definition. It is relational. It involves a disempowered group who lacks access and control over resources, and their gaining relatively more access and control over those resources. Empowerment also involves multiple ecological levels. At the individual level, empowerment is about thoughts, emotions and behaviors. At the level of setting or organization, it looks like reciprocal helping and mutual influence.

How does an individual or a disadvantaged group gain access to resources? They work together on shared goals, that’s how. Empowerment often happens through alliances and shared initiatives. Think of one light bulb. It cannot produce a lot of light, but if it gathers with a lot of its friends, then it can have real power and make a difference. That’s empowerment, going from not having enough power to do something to getting more power so that you can. Do what you have to do to gain access to the resources you need. Empowerment also sometimes means dismantling unjust and oppressive systems, and advocating for the rights of those who are not heard.

What is Promotion of wellness? 

This principle, promotion of wellness, originated with Emory Cowan’s research, and it goes with prevention but it is distinct from it because of the direction of change. The idea is that the goal of an intervention should not just be to prevent something bad, but also to foster something good. We try to prevent illness, yes, and we should also try to promote wellness. That is what this principle is about, the enhancement of wellness and competence. There is health promotion and problem prevention, and they both exist for the same reasons but they do different things. This is important to think through.

Let us use the example of suicide as the bad thing. Of course we want to prevent suicide, so any suicide prevention efforts that are grounded in research and are effective should continue. But are there life-affirming things we can also do, in the promotion of wellness, that will serve to lessen the incidence of suicide? When thinking of a maladaptive outcome like suicide, or homelessness, or anything else you might want to lessen, you have two categories of factors.

On the one hand, you have risk factors, which are all the things at all ecological levels that make the maladaptive outcome more likely. On the other hand, you have protective factors, which are all the things at all ecological levels that make the maladaptive outcome less likely. So, risk factors are bad and protective factors are good. Promotion of wellness means to build up the protective factors!

Prevention of illness means to reduce the risk factors! These are two different strategies of addressing a shared interest, in very different ways. Does that make sense? Promotion of wellness efforts build people up, increase their protective factors, and make them resilient.

This video was produced by Erika Sanborne Media LLC – geterika.com and the transcript belongs to the video © 2020 All Rights Reserved. Background music is licensed from audiio. You can share this video by sharing a link to this website. If you want to use this resource on your department or professional organization’s website, or in your courses, you can. Scroll down for licensing information. For all other permissions, please contact Erika Sanborne.

     Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
     Cowen, E. L. (1994). The enhancement of psychological wellness: Challenges and opportunities. American Journal of Community Psychology, 22(2), 149-179.
     Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. The University of Chicago Legal Forum, 140, 139-168.
     Jason, L.A., Glantsman, O., O’Brien, J.F., & Ramian, K.N. (Eds.) (2019). Introduction to Community Psychology: Becoming an agent of changehttps://press.rebus.community/introductiontocommunitypsychology/.
     Kloos, B., Hill, J. Thomas, E. Wandersman, A., & Dalton, J. (2012). Community psychology: Linking individuals and communities (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage.
     McMillan, D. W., & Chavis, D. M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 14, 6-23.

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