“Swaraj” in ideas

Some years back, one of us had been invited by a women’s centre run by a municipality in mainland Greece in order to explore experientially what is it that hinders Roma women from turning to the centre for support or help. There were other speakers present as well, each one contributing from her own point of view. And while there were several issues to be mindful of – involving both systemic and cultural practices – what we failed to discuss was the particular context we used in order to offer our opinions, methodologies and expertise.

One thing social scientists learn is that science is neither neutral, nor objective. The idea of one objective, neutral science able to explain every aspect of the world and lives within it, regardless of locality and time, is a narrative, a cultural expression of a particular tradition in the West.

If we discussed the history of psychology, we would become painfully aware of its vested interest in supporting pre-constructed notions of white European and North American superiority narratives (Goodwin, 2015). Paranjipe (2002:38) suggests that this approach tends to lend an “overemphasis on methods rather than meaning”. And while recent developments in psychology have been focusing on the workings of power and the role of language in constituting the social world, while cross-cultural psychology for instance offers alternative ways in explaining the self and the world we live in, such ideas are not enough unless used in a self-transformative manner. Riggs and Augoustinos (2005) for example, are prompting us to be critically aware of how we position ourselves within racialised practices as we construct a “good” self, who may refute racism while operating in the service of white hegemony (Riggs & Augoustinos, 2005).

It is this good self, self-defined as progressive or righteous who fails to commit in examining openly and long-term any personal/ collective privileges and internalised reproduction of discrimination practices. And this discussion of course, is not irrelevant to how psychology is being practiced in Greece. We are failing to see the racial dimensions of the latter, as well as its role in reaffirming a particular status-quo as a site of power. This power is falsely claiming it inhabits a space of neutrality and universality, while actively “writing the difference on the skin of the other” (Hall cited in Riggs & Augoustinos, 2005:471). And through this process of Othering, we construct ourselves both as practitioners and human beings.

Still, if we were able to name Western psychology for what it is, we could take responsibility and by doing so question our privilege and complicity in constructing whiteness (Riggs & Augoustinos, 2005) and what it entails.

Colonisation is a practice of the present and works in insidious ways: through internalisation, the appropriation of non-western philosophical approaches only when useful or fashionable (think of the ways the concept of “mindfulness” may have been appropriated and applied by white American-European psychology), the objectification of indigenous people, the rendering of power to an individual issue taking place in ahistorical terms (Hegarty, 2007) or the characterisation of spiritual practices and philosophies as religious and therefore as non-scientific (Paranjpe, 2002).

It would be difficult to write about the influence of the notion of decolonisation in psychology, as this is an evolving process. Pillay, citing Holloway and the “method of the crack” (2017:138), views dominant systems from the perspective of their crises, contradictions and weaknesses, in order to “understand how we ourselves are those contradictions”. A decolonising process would require us to examine the “objectivity” of our knowledge and perhaps we would be requested to do what the Indian philosopher Bhattacharyya has written about the need for a “swaraj in ideas” or self-determination (Paranjpe, 2002:38), acknowledging the emancipatory role of awareness, but also the subjective qualities of each form of knowledge. Failing to do so, Western psychology may “innocently” continue labelling other psychologies in terms of geographical locality as Pillay (2017) rightly notes, while actively and implicitly constructing Western psychology as the all-encompassing standard for understanding human relationships. Similarly, psychologies here in Greece need to examine critically their own assumptions and generalisations, as well as their own responsibility for reproducing these same power relations.


Goodwin, J.C. (2015). A history of modern psychology. (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Hegarty, P. (2007). Getting dirty – psychologist’s history of power. History of Psychology, 10 (2), pp. 75-91.

Paranjpe, A.C. (2002). Indigenous psychology in the post-colonial context: an historical perspective. Psychology & Developing Societies 14 (1), pp. 27-43.

Pillay, S.R. (2017) Cracking the fortress: can we really decolonise psychology? South African Journal of Psychology 47 (2), pp. 135-140.

Riggs, D.W. & Augoustinos, M. (2005). The psychic life of colonial power: racialised subjectivities, bodies & methods. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 15 (6), pp. 461-477.