Psychology, Poverty, and the End of Social Exclusion
reviewed by Cirecie A. West-Olatunji - November 02, 2010
Laura Smith has written a much-needed text that provides the counseling discipline with a call to social action, based upon a critical analysis of social class, classism, and poverty. This book is necessary and constructed with integrity in both its philosophical underpinnings and its illustrative use of narratives and case presentations from the field. While at times lofty and esoteric, Smith has successfully advanced the discussion on social justice counseling, specifically in relation to working with socially marginalized and impoverished client populations. Further, by inviting the reader into the discussion through her own lived experiences as a woman growing up in an Appalachian mountain town, Smith lends authenticity and subjectivity to her exposition on social exclusion.
The book begins with a comprehensive and mindful articulation of terms that are not commonplace within counseling or psychology literature. Thus, instead of appearing pedantic, the first two chapters provide a careful unpacking of concepts that are useful as a foundation on which to build the case for social action in counseling and psychology. As follow up, in Chapter 3 the author inserts a thesis on the dearth of scholarship about poverty in counseling literature, suggesting that poverty may cause psychological harm, to which we, as clinicians, are not attentive. Next, Smith masterfully employs thick description in Chapter 4, using the voices of marginalized individuals in the real world, to spotlight her assertions about the harm caused by social exclusion. Chapter 5 provides recommendations for social action followed by examples of transformative clinical practice from Smiths own work. The book concludes with a plea for integration of advocacy and social justice principles into counseling and psychology identity, suggesting that, not only is social action good for society as a whole, but that the principle of both-and can be applied wherein counselors and psychologists can attend to both the intrapsychic concerns as well as ecosystemic influences, specifically in this case, poverty.
Beyond the gestalt of the text as a significant contribution to advocacy and social justice counseling literature, the most compelling aspects of the book are: (a) the explanation of key terms, such as social class, classism, and poverty, (b) the inclusion of voices illuminating the subjectivity of poverty, and (c) exemplars provided that represent a transformative clinical psychotherapeutic practice. Juxtaposed with the simplicity of the definition of terms provided are Smiths strident assertions about their application to clinical interventions. Smith makes a strong point in using terms, such as social class, as potential tools for change in counseling. When referencing the social silence surrounding class stratification, the author retroflexes to nineteenth century theorists Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu to construct a framework for discussing social class as part of identity formation. Although the link is not entirely seamless, Smith moves on to define classism within the context of systemic oppression, suggesting that there are disproportionate experiences that create inequities in society (The Poor Get Poorer: The Emergence of Two Americas, p. 28). Citing disparities in healthcare, economic, educational, environmental, and judicial sectors, the author avers that these are visible signs of institutional and thus social injustice. Smith suggests that we, the privileged, choose not to see these signs and implores us to use our moral and ethical compasses to consider the benefit to the whole of society when we abandon elitist thoughts and actions.
The second area in which the author excels is the way in which she uses the voices of stakeholders as a platform for magnifying her thesis. This is a creative way to exemplify client empowerment, client voice, and genuine collaboration in clinical research. As such, the text transforms from an abstract presentation of ideals in which the individuals under discussion remain objectified to a textured, multilayered compilation of interview quotes that place the voices of the investigated as subjects of their own experiences. More than her references to the works of Martin-Baro and Freire to strengthen her argument about inclusion and authentic engagement, Smith models the very pedagogy that she espouses by allowing the oppressed to speak in their own words. In response to marginalization and stigmatization, one participant stated, You really do have to be a strong person to be able to use food stamps and not get intimidated by how people treat you (p. 73).
Finally, practitioners and students alike will be delighted to read the examples of transformative mental health practice. Using Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) as a framework for fostering mutuality and trust between the clinician as outsider and the community members as insiders, Smith offers a model for practice that facilitates mutual trust, empathy, and authenticity. She suggests that co-constructed therapeutic experiences reflect the multiculturalism embedded in RCT in that clients can offer interventions grounded in their own worldviews, such as Comas-Diazs dichos therapy and Durans Earth Therapy (p. 107) that reflect Latino and Native American values, respectively. Perhaps my favorite illustration comes from the ROAD (Reaching Out About Depression) Project. The clinical team partnered with community residents to develop an intervention that contextualized the community members within the context of their ecosystemic influences. By co-constructing interventions that reflected the socio-cultural experiences of the stakeholders, community empowerment and praxis were achieved. Using music and poetry, the members were able to give voice to their feelings, reach critical consciousness, and achieve social action (praxis). Smith states that the organically constructed intervention from the group was as valid an intervention as one imported from White middle-class culture if not more so (p. 114).
As impressive as the text is, the strengths are also its challenges. The definition of terms rooted in sociological theories may not be a good enough fit for counseling. Poverty as a construct encompasses a broad spectrum of populations and subgroups, such as women, people of color, multigenerational Whites, the working class, and immigrants. All of these subgroups have their own woven and textured historiographies that frame their social exclusion. Theorizing about and interviewing impoverished individuals requires an understanding that is complex and multi-layered. Nonetheless, Smith offers a significant contribution to a much-needed discussion. Existing literature on impoverished communities, and the individuals residing within them, is often pejorative, such as the work of Ruby Payne that has served as a basis for professional development of teachers for the past few decades (Ng & Rury, 2006).
Another aspect of the text that is wanting is that the core foundation of Smiths argument still places mainstream values as core. Much of the scholarship of contemporary female scholars and those of color place this work as a bridge to innovative scholarship rather than work that crosses over. For example, in Chapter 3, I expected to find at least a cursory overview of the literature on traumatic stress (Carter, (2007). This construct has been used to frame the psychological and emotional impact of systemic oppression and cultural hegemony on historically marginalized groups in the U. S. Additionally, an explicit discussion of the confluence of race and class seemed notably absent from the book. Another example of the absence of relevant discourse, particularly from scholars of color is the invisibility of significant contributors to the advancement of social justice counseling and psychology. As a separate reality from the intellectualism of eighteenth century European philosophers, Black psychologists in particular (as well as Black scholars in other disciplines), have fundamentally integrated issues of racism and classism when formulating frameworks for therapeutic change and resilience (Belgrave & Allison, 2006). Emerging from theological discourse, Black women and other women of color have advanced the discussion of intersected identity, oppressions, and resilience in offering womanist theory (Heath, 2006). I had hoped to see references to these bodies of work that also serve as pedagogical bases for social action in counseling and psychology.
Finally, transformative clinical mental health practice is offered without a sufficient discussion about what other approaches are available. While there is a marginal inclusion of culturally informed interventions, the RCT framework is the core pedagogy. It would have been refreshing to see Smith use a non-Western framework for Chapter 4. As stated above, culture-centered frameworks are marginally presented in the text without prominent exposition of their value to the books thesis. For example, the emancipatory research frameworks of Dutta (2007), Kaomea (2003), King (2005), L. T. Smith (1999), and Tillman (2002) have also been used as signature pedagogies in clinical social justice research and practice.
In sum, this book is an excellent contribution to the discussion of social inequity and provides a cogent argument for inclusion of social justice ideals in counseling and psychology. Smith expertly introduces new concepts to the psychology community and then challenges her colleagues to become more civic minded, morally responsive, and therapeutically effective. This, she asserts, can be done by choosing to see class-based exclusion and to act on that visibility by partnering with impoverished individuals to co-construct new realities that will give voice to their experiences, leading to empowerment and praxis. Smith urges the reader to respond to objections that counselors and psychologists should stick to mental health with the reply, Well, pardon me this is mental health, (p. 145).
Belgrave, F. Z., & Allison, K. W. (2006). African American psychology: From Africa to America. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Carter, R. T. (2007). Racism and psychological and emotional injury: Recognizing and assessing race-based traumatic stress. The Counseling Psychologist, 35, 13-105.
Dutta, M. J. (2007). Communicating about culture and health: Theorizing culture-centered and cultural sensitivity approaches. Communication Theory, 17(3), 304-328.
Heath, C. D. 2006. A womanist approach to understanding and assessing the relationship between spirituality and mental health. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 9: 155-170.
Kaomea, J. (2003). Reading erasures and making the familiar strange: Defamiliarizing methods for research in formerly colonized and historically oppressed communities. Educational Researcher, 32, 14-25.
King, J. E. (2005). A transformative vision of Black education for human freedom. In J. E. King (Ed.), Black education: A transformative research and action agenda for the new century (pp. 3-17). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.
Ng, J. C., & Rury, J. L. (July 18, 2006). Poverty and education: A critical analysis of the Ruby Payne phenomenon. Teachers College Record. ID Number 12596. Retrieved from http://www.trecord.org on July 26, 2006.
Tillman, L. C. (2002). Culturally sensitive research approaches: An African-American perspective. Educational Researcher, 31(9), 3-12.