What is Community Psychology?
When people think about psychology, they typically think about therapists who work one-on-one with a client. Or, sometimes they think about a researcher in a lab doing brain scans with an fMRI machine. But psychology embraces a much wider range of subspecialties that may not be as obvious, and there are ways psychology can (and does) impact all areas of your life. Here, I want to highlight community psychology, one of the lesser known branches within our field.
As humans, we all live in a society and interact with others in our day-to-day lives. We work and live in different places, and aspects of those places influence us. For example, if our workplace is lacking resources, or we don't trust the others who live around us, that will definitely affect our overall life satisfaction and how we live our day-to-day lives!
Community psychology aims to help understand how these different, broader factors interact and influence individuals. Community psychologists are interested in things like:
- What resources are available in a person's neighborhood?
- Do people in a neighborhood trust one another?
- Do some people have power over others?
- What systems exist within a person's neighborhood and workplace, and how do those systems work together (if they do)?
- What stressors exist in the environment that influence people?
It's certainly a broad area of study! But that doesn't quite capture the work of a community psychologist. In order to give you a better sense of what community psychologists do, let's take a look at their research and interventions.
Community psychology research, like some other specialties within psychology, utilizes qualitative methods in many studies. Qualitative methods deal with things like interviews and focus groups. They are less structured than quantitative methods (which use things like surveys and scales), and they are more difficult to analyze, but they allow participants to give rich and detailed responses that surveys cannot capture.
There is something that sets many community psychology studies apart from other research though: participatory research. In most research studies there is a researcher, probably a research team, but then there are the participants and those interested in the data, who are separate from the research team. In those scenarios, a psychologist may be asked to come in, do an evaluation for a group, then give the final data and recommendations without really including the others in the actual research process.
Community psychology puts more of a focus on including those in the community in the actual research process. This can be done to different extents, and it's not always achieved for each study, but it's a common goal. Researchers may meet with members of the community to get a sense of what information would be helpful for them to study. Those interested in the results may be included in the research process and taught how to do it themselves in the future. Different community organizations may be pulled into the study more than they otherwise would be.
Community psychologists are more likely to enter into a community, learn about the different systems at play, figure out who the influencers are, and do a study based on that information. There is a greater focus on direct involvement from the researcher, with the idea of the involvement informing the process, rather than remaining completely separated from their participants and community of study.
Along with the different process, community psychology often involves unique research topics. Rather than necessarily trying to understand factual information about human thought processes or the like, community psychologists are typically much more interested in applied research. That is, they want their research to help guide actual changes in a community to help improve the situation for those living in that community.
For example, community psychologists may try to understand how people of diverse backgrounds can live together more harmoniously, or what things a school can do to help students feel more supported. Once this information is obtained, it can be put into action, which leads to our next topic.
Community psychology, although being within psychology, typically does not focus on interventions that target a specific person. There are different levels of targeting, but it always involves groups: everyone in a group, those who are at-risk for difficulties, or those who already experience difficulties. There are also different things that community psychology interventions can target: groups of people, organizations, communities, etc.
In general, the consistent theme across different interventions in community psychology is that they target systems, with the end goal being to improve the quality of life for individuals.
Interventions in community psychology are also different from other areas of psychology in that they tend to be highly individualized to a certain community/situation/organization/etc. These interventions (ideally) pull from resources that already exist in the community, shift things to help them coordinate and cooperate more effectively, and give members of the community the ability to help maintain the balance and continue improvements.
This giving of power to members of the community (typically referred to as "empowerment") has become a big idea for many community psychologists. There are some problems with it, certainly (e.g., if people are given power, there may be a potential for them to exploit that power at the expense of others). Nonetheless, it's a powerful idea. We tend to think about people as victims of their surroundings (just think of the Stanford Prison experiment), but here we are suggesting that the surroundings can be affected by the people.
The way people are empowered varies, and there is no clear best practices for how to empower people. Psychologists may advocate for changes in policy, help to increase resources available to community members, or simply share knowledge that can help people to more effectively manage their surroundings.
Ultimately, the hope is that the community members can have the resources they need to monitor themselves and to improve their own community in the future. Rather than needing the community psychologists to come back regularly for a "tune up," the goal is for them to be self-sustaining.
It's a wonderful idea in theory, and there are several great success stories, but it is definitely hard to do in practice (and it takes a lot longer than normal research)!
While interventions are useful, something considered more ideal within several areas of psychology is prevention. We can help to improve an already bad situation, but it would be nicer if the bad situation didn't need to occur in the first place.
Community psychology isn't any different in wanting to put preventive measures in place rather than only focusing on direct interventions. What makes it different, again, is the focus on system-level changes. These changes are the same as for interventions, but the idea is to apply them for everyone (or at least a large group of people), including those without any current mental health problems, to help ensure they continue to have a good quality of life.
Prevention is always difficult though. At least, it's difficult to examine. If we start a prevention program, how many people did it prevent from having mental health challenges? We can estimate based on decreases in incidence rates (i.e., the number of new cases in a given period of time), but that's just an approximation. It's also unclear what led to the prevention.
Still, prevention is good, and it's something we should strive for. Community psychology, by influencing such a wide range of areas in a person's life, is certainly in a good position to implement successful preventions!
This post just scratches the surface of what community psychology is, and what professionals in this field do. My hope is that you have a better appreciation for how diverse of a field psychology really is, and an understanding of how complex we are as people. I've seen many posts lately from people focusing just on our biology and how it relates to mental health, but there is so much more to the picture. Biology is important, certainly, but the psychological and social pieces are massive in determining mental health outcomes.
Are you interested in community psychology and want to know more about it? Have questions about other specialties within psychology? Let me know in the comments!