Ethical and professional issues in community psychology

Values are seen as central to community psychology and it is often defined, among other features, by a stance for social justice and solidarity with marginalised communities. This stance does not mean that community psychology is free from ethical challenges. On the contrary, working within a community psychology framework poses many ethical dilemmas as practitioners attempt to implement these values. Therefore, it is essential that those working within this approach engage in critical self-reflection. This chapter will begin with a brief consideration of the stated values and principles of community psychology. It will then outline some key ethical issues and dilemmas, including dilemmas posed by the professionalisation of community psychology.

Community psychology has many roots and influences, including social psychology, liberation psychology, feminism, Marxism and dccoloniality theory and has developed in different parts of the world at different times and with different emphases. Given the context of this book, the emphasis will be on community psychology in the UK. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to give a history of the development of and influences on community psychology in the UK; however, a comprehensive account is provided by Burton ct al. (2007) and Kagan ct al. (2011) and a list of relevant resources and links arc provided after this chapter.

What is community psychology?

Community psychology is defined not by location but rather by how it conceptualises problems and by a set of values, principles and practices. Therefore, it is not simply about taking a traditional psychological or academic research model and locating it in a community setting, such as a charity, community organisation or faith group. The following sections outline some of the key features of a community psychology approach.

An alternative understanding

Community psychology provides an alternative understanding to the individualising and internalising approaches more usually found in Euro-Amcricanpsychology, where the focus tends to be on the individual and their inner world, behaviours or immediate relationships. Community psychology takes an ecological perspective, seeing people in their social context and considers how social systems operate and interact. Community psychology views distress, health and well-being as connected to people’s social, material and political contexts, for example, the stability they are afforded by their economic position and the intersecting forms of discrimination and oppression they may face. The focus therefore moves away from internal, biomedical and individual psychological explanations of people’s distress towards an understanding of the impact that oppressive political and social environments have on people and communities and on how people and communities can influence these structures.

A stance for social justice

Community psychology approaches have been described as underpinned by values of social justice, liberation, empowerment and inclusion of marginalised people (e.g. Kagan & Burton, 2001). Community psychologists do not attempt to take a stance of neutrality or detachment but actively oppose neutrality, since neutrality in the face of social injustice and inequality is seen as colluding with those systems of injustice. Community psychologists generally position themselves as being on the side of the oppressed and marginalised. Within community psychology, social justice includes distributive justice, which refers to fair and equitable allocation of resources and procedural justice, which comprises fairness, transparency and inclusion in decision making and genuine collaboration (Evans et al., 2014). Patel (2016) argues that we should also be aiming beyond social justice and towards legal justice and reparation.


Community psychologists use the term ‘praxis’ to highlight the interconnected nature of theory and practice. Following Freirc’s concept of praxis as a process of ‘reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it’ (e.g. Frcirc, 1996: 33) community psychologists attempt to engage in a cycle of reflection research and social action from the value base of social justice (e.g. Prillel-tensky, 2001).


Collaboration is a key principle of community psychology. Community psychologists attempt to engage with communities and work collaboratively, negotiating ways of working and shared goals and ensuring meaningful participation. There is an emphasis on ‘working alongside’, rather than ‘working on behalf of’. Community psychologists talk of ‘giving psychology away’, sharing knowledge and skills with community members. However, true collaboration also involves acknowledging the expertise of community members and mutual exchange of knowledge (British Psychological Society (BPS), 2018a). Collaboration also encompasses working together with other disciplines; community psychology is often described as interdisciplinary and an approach that promotes theoretical and methodological pluralism.

Participatory research

According to Patel (2003: 34), ‘ethical research should be empowering research, whereby the development of the research questions lies with the very people to whom the research pertains’. In line with the stated values and principles of community psychology, research strategies aim to be participatory with active involvement of people at all stages from the formulation of research questions, conducting the research, analysing and interpreting results, producing the reports and deciding on methods of dissemination. As community psychologists arc also interested in bringing about change they often adopt a participatory action research (PAR) approach, involving cycles of research, action and reflection.

The degree of participation varies and can be seen on a continuum, from being controlled and managed by community members without professional involvement to being controlled by professional researchers. A review of publications arising from community-based participatory (CBPR) research found that the majority fall into the latter category of being controlled by professional researchers, with varying degrees of participation (Durham Community Research Team, 2011). This type of research is often claimed to be inherently more ethical than more traditional types of research, because it is seen as more egalitarian and focused on community concerns, however, as outlined below, this type of research has its own ethical challenges.

Prevention and social action

Community psychology interventions often focus on prevention rather than treatment and this entails working at different levels, attempting to bring about change in the environment or at policy level. Community psychology is concerned with change beyond the individual and attempts to address structural inequalities and material resources. The focus also moves from the individual to the role of the group in bringing about social change. The strengths and resources of a community arc acknowledged and built upon and the approach aims to strengthen connections between community members. Drawing on concepts associated with liberation psychology, such as concientizacion (e.g. Frcirc, 1996), it is argued that, in building connections with each other and in understanding their experiences and distress in their social and political contexts, people come to find ways to take collective action to tackle these forces.

The following vignette illustrates these principles and practices in an example of how participatory action research contributed to a campaign to address homelessness and mental health in London and supported the establishment of the Housing and Mental Health Network.

The Focus El5 campaign was founded in 2013 by a group of young mothers who came together following eviction from the hostel where they were living in the East London Borough of Newham. On seeking help from the council, they were told that they would have to take private rented accommodation far from London and thus be separated from their families and support networks. The women organised themselves, protested and undertook a series of actions to highlight the problems of homelessness and social cleansing in Newham. This included occupying a block of flats on a housing estate from which the residents had been moved so that the land could be sold to private developers. They also established a weekly street stall in a busy shopping area where they could bring their campaign to the local community and talk with people about the impact of the housing crisis. Hearing the stories of others in this way led Focus El5 to collaborate with researchers Kate Hardy and Tom Gillespie (Hardy & Gillespie, 2016) on a piece of participatory action research exploring the experiences of people facing actual or threatened homelessness in Newham. They worked together to formulate the research questions and women from the Focus EI5 campaign became peer researchers, conducting structured interviews with people affected by the housing crisis. Their findings highlighted the significant numbers of people being told they had to leave London and that this disproportionately affected women and children and people with disabilities. The insecurity, displacement and housing conditions had a significant impact on people’s mental health, including suicidal thoughts and self-harm. The research team worked with illustrators to create drawings of participants to show the human face of the problem but in a way that preserved people’s anonymity. These are now part of an exhibition in the Museum of Homelessness, which travels around the UK staging exhibitions and events. The team held workshops and events to disseminate the research and launched the Housing and Mental Health Network of activists, artists, local charities, community psychologists, NHS and social care workers, academics and many other groups working together to highlight the links between austerity, housing and mental health and campaign for housing justice.

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