Introduction to Community PsychologyBy Leonard A. Jason, Olya Glantsman, Jack F. O’Brien, and Kaitlyn N. Ramian
This module explores core themes within the field of Community Psychology, which include an emphasis on prevention, a social justice orientation, and an ecological understanding of how people are affected by their environments. Community psychologists comprehensively analyze, investigate, and address problems such as economic inequality, violence, substance abuse, homelessness, poverty, and racism. This unique discipline encourages active collaboration with community partners and organizations to promote a fair and equitable allocation of resources and opportunities. Finally, this module reviews the methods used by community psychologists as well as provides resources for learning more about and getting involved within this field.
- Understand the differences between prevention and treatment
- Differentiate interventions that bring about short-term versus long-term changes
- Appreciate the many layers of community interventions
- Identify critical elements of the Community Psychology approach
When many people think of the work of a psychologist, they envision a person conducting psychotherapy. Indeed, therapists have been the most commonly portrayed aspect of psychological science since Sigmund Freud began treating people over 100 years ago. There is some truth to this stereotype: about a third of all psychologists are clinical psychologists, those trained in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. By contrast, relatively few are community psychologists. Community Psychology is the branch of psychology that seeks to understand complex individual–environment interactions in order to bring about social change, particularly for those who have limited resources and opportunities. It arose out of a dissatisfaction with clinical psychology’s emphasis on locating mental health problems within the individual.
Aspects of the field of Community Psychology have emerged in many countries (Reich, Riemer, Prilleltensky, & Montero, 2007). In the United States, it began in the 1960s during a period of intense social change, when the nation grappled with its on-going involvement in the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. Many psychologists wanted to become more actively involved in working on these types of pressing societal issues (Cowen, 1973). They saw opportunities to extend services to those who had been under-represented, to focus on prevention rather than just treatment of psychological problems, and to actively involve community members in the change process (Bennett et al., 1966). Over the past five decades, the field of Community Psychology has matured with recurring themes of prevention, social justice, and an ecological understanding of people within their environments. One distinguishing feature of Community Psychology is that it is a value driven science; it seeks to balance objectivity with guiding principles such as respecting diversity, encouraging collaboration, promoting a sense of community, focusing on policy change, and empowering communities.
The Role of Prevention
One of the primary characteristics of the Community Psychology field is its focus on preventing rather than just treating social and psychological issues. There are two radically different ways of bringing about change, which are referred to as first- and second-order change. First-order change attempts to eliminate deficits and problems using an individualistic perspective, focusing exclusively on people. When a lifeguard dives into the water to save one person who fell off a seaside cliff, this is an example of a first-order intervention. Second-order change, by contrast, emphasizes understanding the root of a problem and changing systems— such as environmental causes of problems. For example, installing railings on a seaside cliff where people often fall into the water can prevent drownings without the need of a lifeguard.
There is a considerable appeal for a preventive approach, particularly as Albee (1986) has shown that no condition or disease can be eliminated by just focusing on those with the problem. An impressive example of prevention occurred with efforts to change attitudes about tobacco and its use. Sixty years ago, smoking was widespread (about 42% of the population in the United States) and socially accepted. Today, attitudes and norms have dramatically changed toward tobacco use and rates of smoking have dropped to about 14% (CDC, 2019). This change began with the landmark Surgeon General’s Report in the 1960s, which summarized serious health problems caused by smoking. Over time, multiple preventive efforts were launched by advocacy groups to create new laws and policies, such as non-smoking sections in public buildings, restaurants, and work areas, as well as reducing youth access to tobacco (Jason, 2013).
A Social Justice Orientation
Community Psychology’s focus on social justice is due to the recognition that many of our social problems are made worse when resources are disproportionately allocated throughout our society (see Figure 1). Social and economic inequalities can contribute to and even cause poverty, homelessness, underemployment, unemployment, crime and mental illness (Albee, 1986). Economic inequalities not only cause stress and anxiety but also can lead to serious physical health problems (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). This suggests the need to more thoroughly consider the role of social and economic inequalities when thinking about the treatment of individual mental illness.
Community Psychology endorses a social justice position by challenging unjust practices, even within the larger field of psychology. For example, a person with a social justice orientation would object to imposing psychotherapy intervention manuals, based on white middle-class norms, on minority students. Such materials would not be applicable or appropriate to the experiences of minority students, and yet all too often interventions based on white norms have been used when working with under-represented groups (Bernal & Scharrón-del-Río, 2001).
The need for this social justice orientation is also evident when working with urban schools that are dealing with a lack of resources, overcrowded classrooms, community gang activity, and violence. Second-order change strategies would address the systems and structures causing the problems. As an example, community psychologists have found that improving physical features of neighborhoods such as fixing abandoned housing, cutting long grass, picking up trash, and planting a garden resulted in nearly 40% fewer assaults and violent crimes than street segments with vacant, abandoned lots (Heinze et al., 2018). Another innovative school and neighborhood services intervention addressed a range of issues faced by children including housing, schools, and crime; and this comprehensive intervention led to increases in math achievement and college enrollment. Females were less likely to be teen mothers, and males were less likely to be incarcerated (Dobbie & Fryer, 2013).
The social justice perspective can also be used to examine the criminal justice system. According to an individualistic perspective, people end up in prison because of personal factors such as mental illness, substance abuse, or a history of domestic violence. On the other hand, community psychologists argue that structural influences, such as historical or political forces, all need to be considered. Evidence for this can be seen in the incarceration rates across nations (see Figure 2). Millions of people have been locked up in the United States and Russia, due to—in part—laws promoting longer prison sentences. The social justice solution to crime, then, would include individual remedies such as the provision of drug treatment and mental health care; but also attention to social factors such as more just legal policies to divert people from entering prison, better educational opportunities when in prison, and access to safe housing and decent jobs following re-entry into the community.
A Shift in Perspective: The Ecological Model
Another distinct feature of Community Psychology is the ecological perspective. This is the view that multiple levels of analysis can be used simultaneously to explain human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. These include the personal level such as personality traits, the social level such as family upbringing, the community level such as cultural norms, and the societal level such as public policies. The ecological perspective stands in contrast to the individualistic perspective, which emphasizes the personal level that influence the individual. Using the ecological perspective, community psychologists recognize that individuals, communities, and societies are interconnected and all of these aspects need to be considered when trying to understand and solve problems.
To illustrate this point, let’s continue our examination of the criminal justice system with a case example. Hajra is a 22-year-old woman who worked part-time and attended classes at community college. One day, she was struck by a car while crossing the road. As a result of this accident, Hajra had three surgeries and subsequently went into debt, lost her job, and became addicted to painkillers. When it became too difficult to purchase her prescribed medications, Hajra turned to heroin as a less expensive option to effectively treat her pain. Although she still managed to attend her classes, Hajra’s grades were slipping. One day, while driving under the influence of heroin, Hajra was pulled over by the police and searched. She was arrested for driving while under the influence of a substance and possession of an illegal narcotic. Hajra received the maximum jail sentence. After serving time in jail, she was released back to the community without access to most needed resources such as a decent job and safe housing.
At the individual level, we can see that Hajra’s behavior is not simply some fault of character. She suffers from real physical pain and wrestles with drug addiction. At the social level, she struggles to maintain close relationships with her family members because her moods and behavior become increasingly unpredictable. The ecological perspective would also point to a number of community and societal factors that contribute to her difficulties: health care organizations and physicians that too-freely prescribe painkillers, pharmaceutical companies that aggressively promote the use of painkillers, a criminal justice system that focuses on punishment rather than rehabilitation, and inadequate housing and employment opportunities following incarceration.
Community psychologist James Kelly (2006) has proposed several useful principles that help us better understand how social environments affect people. The ecological principle of interdependence describes the mutual dependence between things, and indicates that everything is connected. For example, when a person with a substance use disorder is released from prison into environments that have high rates of substance use and illegal activities, this type of setting can increase a person’s chances of relapse and a return to prison. However, if the formerly incarcerated person is provided a safe place to live with others who are gainfully employed, such as a sober living home, this setting can have positive ripple effects by influencing the person to secure a job and refrain from taking drugs (Jason, Olson, & Foli, 2008). The ecological principle of adaptation indicates that behavior adaptive in one setting may not be adaptive in other settings. A person who was highly skilled at using and selling drugs, for instance, will find that these behaviors are not adaptive or tolerated in a sober living house; so to remain in this setting, the person will have to be abstinent, which is adaptive in this recovery setting. The ecological perspective broadens the focus beyond individuals to include their context or environment by requiring us to think about how organizations, neighborhoods, and communities can either contribute to a person evidencing risky/destructive behaviors, or enhance prosocial and constructive competencies.
The Science of Community Psychology
Like all branches of psychology, Community Psychology is a science. Their understanding of personal wellness and the interplay of personal and social factors is not a matter of opinion or politics. Instead, community psychologists base their ideas and interventions on data that are generated from research. Just as developmental psychologists had to pioneer new research methods to study pre-verbal children, community psychologists employ a number of scientific tools in understanding the relationship between people and their environments. For example, they often use qualitative methods in addition to quantitative methods. Qualitative methods are descriptive of phenomena expressed in words so they focus on non-numerical sources of data. These can include language from case studies and analyses of personal narratives. Qualitative research is helpful in understanding people’s lived experiences in their own voices. Quantitative methods, by contrast, are those that describe cold, hard facts by using numbers (e.g., amounts of substance use in a sample).There are usually more respondents in quantitative research because it is easier to conduct a survey than provide qualitative in-depth interviews of people. Quantitative methods tend to be better for making individual and group comparisons while qualitative methods encourage interviewees to expand on their responses and thus provide more depth by uncovering ideas that had not been initially considered. When researchers combine these methods in a single study, it is known as mixed-methods research, which is often better at helping understand the context and complexity of social issues.
In addition, community psychologists conduct action-oriented research, which involves a wide variety of evaluative methods that link together taking action and doing research. Those who use this approach also critically reflect on their actions and their methodology in this research in order to examine themselves and the research’s impact on the population of interest, making corrections as needed to achieve the best, most ethical outcomes. One example of such research is called community-based participatory research, which actively involves community members in shaping the research and/or service agenda (Jason & Glenwick, 2016). Such participation raises the likelihood that research questions and designs are responsive to community needs, include the voices of the community, and are sensitive to the nuances of the community context. Having been an integral part of the research process, community members will be more likely to engage with and use the research findings.
For example, Berman (2017) discusses a case of action-oriented research taken from South Africa. One of the challenges in that nation is the fact that approximately 17% of the adult population lives with HIV/AIDS. One local organization—the Artist Proof Studio—partnered with researchers to create a photo-based intervention program. In the program, local women from rural communities took photographs, labeled them with captions, and presented them to policy makers in an effort to improve rural childcare. Through this process, researchers documented benefits of the program including increased knowledge of HIV/AIDS, greater psychological wellness, and small gains in economic empowerment. In this way, action-oriented research combines data collection with real-world intervention.
This chapter has reviewed the key features of the Community Psychology field, including its emphasis on prevention, its social justice orientation, and its shift to a more ecological perspective. Community psychologists are broadly interested in promoting widespread wellness, in order to advance a fair and equitable allocation of resources and opportunities. Researchers and practitioners in Community Psychology go beyond an individual focus as they partner with oppressed groups in addressing the root causes of distress. Although there is an activist component to Community Psychology, it should also be noted that Community Psychology is more than “political correctness;” it is a science.
An extended version of this module is available for free, in an open access Community Psychology textbook: Jason, L.A., Glantsman, O., O’Brien, J.F., & Ramian, K.N. (2019). Introduction to the field of Community Psychology. In L.A. Jason, O. Glantsman, J.F. O’Brien, & K.N. Ramian. (Eds.), Introduction to Community Psychology: Becoming an agent of change. Retrieved from: https://press.rebus.community/introductiontocommunitypsychology/ CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
- Community Psychology Academic Programs:
- Community Psychology – Social Justice through Collaborative Research and Action:
- Community Tool Box:
- Free Student Associate Membership Form:
- Introduction to Community Psychology: Becoming an Agent of Change:
- Society for Community Research and Action interest groups - Get Involved!
- The Community Psychologist Journal:
- Using Covid 19 to learn about Community Psychology activity. Scroll to the A Shift In Perspective: The Ecological Model section to locate the activity:
- The American civil-rights activist, Martin Luther King, Jr., argued that a guaranteed income would abolish poverty. In modern times, many politicians around the world have also advocated a universal basic income. What do you think of this idea?
- According to some research, residents of affluent neighborhoods live about 15 years longer, on average, than those who live in neighborhoods with fewer resources. The city of Chicago, for example, has a large gap in life expectancy between its most and least affluent neighborhoods. Why do you think this might be the case? What factors might influence life expectancy?
- Racism is the holding of prejudicial attitudes and biases based on the perception of a person's skin color. What factors do you think influence the development of racist views?
- Systemic oppression is when laws, policies, and societal institutions discriminate against an identifiable group of people. Examples include racial segregation in South Africa, laws against homosexuality in Uganda, and the removal of indigenous people by colonial governments. What other examples can you think of?
- What do you believe are the economic, social, or psychological consequences of oppression? What evidence can you find for these views from studies published in academic journals?
- Action-Oriented Research
- Research that generates knowledge through participatory university/community partnerships in the hope of bringing about social change.
- Focuses on interactions between persons and their environments to better understand why behavior that is effective in one setting may not be useful in others.
- Community Psychology
- A field that goes beyond an individual focus and integrates social, cultural, economic, political, and environmental influences to promote system level, second order change.
- Community-Based Participatory Research
- Research that involves power sharing between researchers and the community members as issues for action are defined and change interventions launched.
- Understanding the relationships between people and their social environments (e.g., families, groups, communities, and societies).
- Ecological Perspective
- A consideration of individual, group, community, and ecological contextual factors when examining phenomena of interest.
- First-Order Change
- Involves minor changes that lead to small, short-term improvements by focusing exclusively on the individuals.
- Individualistic Perspective
- A focus on the individual where the influence of larger environmental or societal factors is ignored.
- Because everything is connected, changing one aspect of an environment will have many ripple effects.
- Levels of Analysis
- Complementary frameworks for analyzing and understanding a phenomenon.
- Mixed-Methods Research
- Thoughtful combining of qualitative and quantitative data collection methods.
- The focus on actions that stop problems before they happen by engaging in environmental change.
- Qualitative Methods
- Methods involving collecting data that typically consists of words that provide comprehensive descriptions of participants’ experiences.
- Quantitative Methods
- Methods involving collecting data in the form of numbers using standardized measures in an attempt to produce generalizable findings.
- Second-Order Change
- Involves initiating more structural, long-term, and sustainable transformational changes.
- Involves the fair distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges that provide equal opportunities for education, health care, work, and housing.
- Engaging in research and action with consideration of achieving the fair distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges that provide equal opportunities for education, health care, work, and housing.
- Albee, G. (1986). Toward a just society. Lessons from observations on the primary prevention of psychopathology. The American Psychologist, 41(8), 891-898. doi:10.1037//0003-066X.41.8.891
- Bennett, C. C., Anderson, L. S., Cooper, S., Hassol, L., Klein, D. C., & Rosenblum, G. (1966). Community Psychology: A report of the Boston Conference on the Education of Psychologists for Community Mental Health. Boston, MA: Boston University Press.
- Berman, K. (2017). Finding voice : A visual arts approach to engaging social change (The new public scholarship). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvdtphz0
- Bernal G., & Scharrón-del-Río, M. R. (2001). Are empirically supported treatments valid for ethnic minorities? Toward an alternative approach for treatment research. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 7, 328-342. doi:10.1037/1099-9809.7.4.328
- CDC (2019). Current cigarette smoking among adults in the United States. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/adult_data/cig_smoking/index.htm
- Cowen, E. (1973). Social and community interventions. Annual Review of Psychology, 24(1), 423–472.
- Dobbie, W., & R. G. Fryer, Jr. (2013, Oct). The medium term impacts of high achieving Charter Schools on non-test score outcomes. NBER Working Paper 19581. National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from https://www.nber.org/papers/w19581
- Heinze, J. E., Krusky-Morey, A., Vagi, K. J., Reischl, T. M., Franzen, S., Pruett, N. K., … Zimmerman, M. A. (2018). Busy streets theory: The effects of community-engaged greening on violence. American Journal of Community Psychology, 62(1-2), 101-109. doi:10.1002/ajcp.12270
- Jason, L. A. (2013). Principles of social change. (pp. 17-21). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Jason, L. A., & Glenwick, D. S. (Eds.). (2016). Handbook of methodological approaches to community-based research: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Jason, L. A., Olson, B. D., & Foli, K. (2008). Rescued lives: The Oxford House approach to substance abuse. New York, NY: Routledge.
- Kelly, J. G. (2006). Being ecological: An expedition into Community Psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Reich, S., Riemer, M., Prilleltensky, I., & Montero, M. (Eds.). (2007). International Community Psychology. History and theories. New York, NY: Springer.
- The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (2017). Changes in U.S. Family Finances from 2013 to 2016: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances. 103(3). Washington, D.C.: Federal Reserve Board. Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/files/scf17.pdf
- Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2009). The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. Essex, England: Allen Lane.
- Leonard A. JasonLeonard A. Jason is a Professor of Psychology at DePaul University and the Director of the Center for Community Research. His interests are in public policy, community building, recovery homes, addiction, reducing stigma for those with chronic health conditions (i.e., chronic fatigue syndrome and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), and preventing violence among urban youth.
- Olya GlantsmanOlya Glantsman, is a senior professional lecturer at DePaul University and a director of the Undergraduate Concentration in Community Psychology and a co-coordinator of the M.S. in Community Psychology. Her research interests include cultural diversity, improving academic environments for students and faculty, community psychology values, and the teaching of psychology.
- Jack F. O’BrienJack F. O’Brien is a graduate student in DePaul University’s Masters of Science in Psychology program and a research assistant with the Oxford House Research Team at DePaul’s Center for Community Research. He graduated from DePaul with a BA in Psychology with a Community concentration in 2018. His research interests include substance abuse recovery with an emphasis on recovery residencies; Community Psychology education; and advocacy for ethical practices in psychology.
- Kaitlyn N. RamianKaitlyn N. Ramian is a graduate student at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Kaitlyn earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Community Psychology from DePaul University, where she also served as a research assistant at the Center for Community Research. Kaitlyn has participated in psychological research since 2015 and has experience working with diverse populations of children and adolescents in clinical and community settings.