Towards Anti-Oppressive Practice in Counselling Psychology




MAY 1993






Published in Counselling Psychology Review, 9(1).

I was shaken out of my usual slothfulness and moved to respond to a letter in The Psychologist (Honeyford, 1992) warning against Charles Husband’s (1992) call for the adoption of a clear anti-racist policy by the BPS. My energy came from anger generated by my experience in supporting one of my students who, at the time, was a target of racial harassment by other students within my institution. My anger was fuelled by fear and distress aroused by my awareness of increasing racism on a world scale. This paper is a development from my letter in The Psychologist (1993). It is not written from any claim to particular expertise, but by way of developing and sharing my own thoughts and as a contribution to what I hope will become a commitment of the SGCP to develop an explicitly anti-oppressive policy and guidelines for practice.

Multiculturalism Is Not Enough

Husband argued, supporting CCETSW’s policy, that ‘multiculturalism’ which recognises cultural difference and promotes ‘ethnic sensitivity’ in professional practice does little to address the exploitative and oppressive power relations endemic within white society. ‘Anti-racism’, on the other hand, recognises that effective opposition to racism must be grounded in an understanding of the structured relationships of power which permeate our culture and social institutions.

We cannot ignore the wealth and variety of research which identifies racism working at all levels of white society, from those of gross discrimination and inequalities in socio-economic opportunities to the deeper psychological levels of identity formation. Historically it is, perhaps inevitably, those who suffer oppression who place it on the agenda, so black people, Jewish people and women have led the opposition to racism, antisemitism and sexism. However, in these and other areas of discrimination and oppression the burden of responsibility must fall on the oppressor. White people must accept responsibility for racism because racism is fundamentally a problem of white society and as such implicates all white people. However, it goes beyond prejudice, an ugly but personal psychological distortion and anti-racism requires more than a personal and professional moral stance. This does not involve allocating personal blame but accepting responsibility does imply a commitment to understanding and addressing the social processes at work in ourselves, our interpersonal relationships, our culture and social institutions. Husband need make no apology for the political nature of anti-racism. Racism, in common with other forms of oppression – for example on the basis of class, gender, sexual orientation, impairment, or age – is a relationship of power, and this places it firmly in the political arena.

Anti-racism and Anti-oppression

Husband focuses our attention on anti-racism, however, whilst not wishing to detract from this agenda, I think that it is important to consider the character of oppression in general and to consider the broader implications of anti-oppressive practice as well as the more specific demands of particular oppressions. Phillipson (1992) and others have noted the complexity of the term ‘oppression’. It encompasses structural differences in power as well as the personal experience we all have of being agents and targets of oppression; separate domains of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, age and impairment, as well as the interrelationships between them. For example, whilst racism and sexism have specific characteristics, they cannot be analysed in isolation from each other or from other factors such as class, which interact in the experience of black women.

The focus of psychology, on intra- and inter- personal dynamics, tends to obscure the wider social and political context within which we practice but our profession is not immune from the forces at work there. The structures and institutions within which we practice – our conditions of employment, the ways in which our research is funded, the broader political culture and dominant models of knowledge – all help to define our professional identity and practice. Although some of us may feel uncomfortable stepping outside the traditionally defined boundaries of our discipline, if, as individuals engaged in research and professional practice and as a Special Group within the BPS, we intend seriously to address the socially and personally destructive forces of oppression we must begin to meet the challenge of developing an anti-oppressive policy and practice guidelines for all levels of our scientific and professional work.

Thompson’s ‘PCS’ Model

Neil Thompson (1993) has proposed a useful way of conceptualising the working of discrimination and oppression on three levels (P, C and S) which are closely interlinked and constantly interacting:



  • P refers to the personal or psychological; it is the level of thoughts, feelings, attitudes and actions. It also refers to practice, individual workers working with individual clients, and prejudice, the inflexibility of mind that stands in the way of fair and non-judgemental practice.
  • C refers to the cultural level of shared ways of seeing, thinking and doing. It relates to the commonalities – values and patterns of thought and behaviour, an assumed consensus about what is right and what is normal; it produces conformity to social norms and comic humour acts as a vehicle for transmitting and reinforcing this culture.
  • S refers to the structural level, the network of social divisions; it also relates to the ways in which oppression and discrimination are institutionalised and thus ‘sewn in’ to the fabric of society. It denotes the wider levels of social forces, the sociopolitical dimension of interlocking patterns of power and influence. (p. 19–20)

Following Thompson’s model the development of anti-oppressive practice in counselling psychology will involve us in addressing interconnections between issues of power within the therapeutic relationship and the cultural and sociopolitical contexts. I want to focus in this paper on the cultural and personal levels rather than looking directly at the structural level, although the interconnections are clear – for example, in the way our position as a Special Group within the BPS is linked to sociopolitical struggles over the definition of knowledge, legitimated forms of professional practice, professional boundaries and issues relating to equality of opportunity (see for example Burman, 1990 and Parker and Shotter, 1990).

Counselling: A Model for Anti-oppressive Practice?

I have argued elsewhere (1992) that the traditional paradigm of scientific psychology is premised on a logic of domination implicit in the classical model of science which, whilst claiming objectivity and value neutrality, seeks to predict and control nature and human behaviour in the interest of increasing productivity. Counselling, on the other hand, can offer to psychology the possibility of an alternative model. The core conditions of acceptance, empathy and genuineness commit counselling psychology to a clear value base, as a knowledge discipline as well as a professional practice, through the internal linking of caring with coming to know. It is a practice led model based on: co-operative inquiry; the valuing of feelings; a respect for the reality of differing universes of experience and meaning; and the preserving, fostering and releasing of potential.

In my view this alternative model offers a basis for anti-oppressive forms of practice and it is my concern that, as counselling psychology ‘comes of age’ within BPS, professional recognition is gained through its development rather than by increasing adaptation to the more standard ‘scientific’ models of the ‘mature’ divisions. I say that our model offers a basis for anti-oppressive forms of practice because it is at an early stage of development and we have much to do in working through its potentialities. Moreover, we must look carefully at the ways in which even this model is implicated as part of the problem rather than the solution.

‘Normalizing’ the Individual

In common with all knowledge disciplines, psychology is itself a social and political practice and participates in the construction of the identities it seeks to describe, measure and explain. It defines normality and sets standards of behaviour, intelligence, mental health and so on. (see, for example, Rose, 1989) Paralleling psychology’s part in developing conceptions of normality, the therapeutic enterprise has, from the start, been linked to the aims of adjustment and rehabilitation within parameters described by the norms. It can be placed in the wider context of a technology of social control characterised by surveillance, confession and the ‘normalizing’ gaze of scientific, medical and educational practitioners (Foucault 1975, 1977). David Smail has compared this technology of control to what Christopher Lasch calls the ‘tutelary complex’, the instrument of the ‘managerial discipline’ of modern industrial societies. It:

... both reflects and contributes to the shift from authoritative sanctions to psychological manipulation and surveillance – the redefinition of political authority in therapeutic terms – and to the rise of a professional and managerial class that governs society not by upholding authoritative moral standards but by defining normal behaviour and by invoking allegedly non-punitive, psychiatric sanctions against deviance. (Smail, 1987: 58)

Invoking the core conditions of the therapeutic relationship we can easily anaesthetise ourselves to its ideological function. We can overlook the way in which its value base, quite rightly grounded in a respect for persons and a belief in the possibilities of self-awareness, autonomy and personal growth, focuses on the individual and simultaneously deflects attention from culture and social structures. Professionally we are inclined to treat psychological distress as the result of individual emotional, cognitive or perceptual distortions or of some biographical misfortune, such as abuse, located at the level of interpersonal or family relationships and, as Smail argues, ‘Encapsulated in our belief that the reasons for our conduct are to be tracked down somewhere inside our own skulls, most of us assume that, if life becomes uncomfortable, it must be some individual’s “fault”.’ But:

Slowly one becomes led to see that the hostile defensiveness which so often characterizes our relations with each other, the heartless ways in which we exploit and use each other, the extent to which we accept and reject ourselves and each other as commodities, entirely inescapably reflect the culture in which we live. One can no more easily opt out of a culture than one can opt out of a physical environment, and a poisonous culture will affect one just as surely as will a polluted atmosphere. (Smail, 1987: 19)

In developing anti-oppressive forms of practice we need to address seriously the ways in which social forces operate through individuals by constructing us as identities cast in social relationships of oppression between classes, between women and men, between black and white people and so on. Whilst there is a large and growing body of literature which does address these issues, it is a long way from being widely assimilated within mainstream psychology which generates a myriad of texts which fail even to begin to question white, male, middle class, heterosexist, able bodied assumptions.

Conceptions of Self and Moral Development

Our own emphasis on autonomy, personal growth and responsibility is rooted in a model of self and moral development defined by male norms (e.g., Gilligan, 1982) and one could add white, western, bourgeois, individualist. As a model of development it places value on being ‘grown up’. Women generally attain lower levels of moral development, defined and measured in these terms, and are less likely to appear grown up. Gilligan argues that generally women have a sense of self and morality which is more relational, than that defined by the model, and that this can be construed in terms of strength rather than weakness. We can locate Gilligan’s work in an ongoing historical struggle against the ideological process of infantilisation whereby women, black people, working class people and other oppressed groups are defined as in some way immature. The title of the radio programme ‘Does He Take Sugar’ expresses well this attitude towards people who have a physical or mental impairment. All this should alert us to the way in which the humanistic values at the centre of the counselling model can themselves be oppressive, if accepted uncritically. We need, at least, to be open to questioning our own norms and to exploring the implications, for our therapeutic relationships and practices, of culturally different conceptions of the self, developmental processes and ways of valuing.

Empowerment and its Depoliticisation

In stressing the egalitarian values of counselling, rooted in the tradition of self-help and linked to opposition to the medical model in psychiatry, we have borrowed the concept of ‘empowerment’. ‘Empowerment’ keys into the positive dimensions of power which link it to the potency of the therapeutic relationship and its capacity to energise, strengthen and release potential. However, we can too easily forget its wider political force. It can:

... act as a ‘social aerosol’, covering up the disturbing smell of conflict and conceptual division. ... The language of empowerment trips too lightly off the tongue and is too easily used merely as a synonym for enabling. (Ward and Mullender, 1993: 147–8)

In a society where the sources of many problems, experienced by individual people, reside in the advantages enjoyed by the powerful and the institutional arrangements which perpetuate them, empowerment implies recognising and, where possible, challenging oppressive aspects of existing power relationships. In so far as our practices fail to recognise or serve to obscure these relationships then we are contributing to the depoliticisation of social problems.

Our dominant theoretical models do not readily direct our attention outside personal and family contexts and it is no accident that, despite a somewhat radical history, counselling is gaining professional status in a political climate which favours the personalisation of the political.

There is a long and well documented history of the role of psychology and psychiatry in the development of a variety of ‘scientific’ versions of racism (see for example Fernando, 1991; Littlewood and Lipsedge, 1989) and recently:

In a context where public images, fostered by the media and police, associate race with drug abuse and attribute the anger of black youth to their use of cannabis, value judgements attached to drug abuse, the need to ‘pathologise’ the anger of black people and perhaps a pragmatic need to avoid the diagnosis of schizophrenia all seem to come together in the diagnosis of ‘cannabis psychosis’ – a British diagnosis that is given almost exclusively to Blacks. (Fernando, 1993: 56)

Working against this tendency feminist work, over many years, has drawn attention to the political nature of the personal and recent books (e.g., Miles, 1988; Showalter, 1987; Ussher, 1991) have traced the misogynies of psychology, psychiatry and various therapies. All locate many of the problems which women face, and which result in common psychiatric diagnoses, firmly in the sociopolitical arena. We might also note work in the area of disability (Finkelstein, 1993; Oliver, 1990) which argues that disabled people are disempowered by the medical model of health care professionals which locates disability within the individual’s personal impairments. Relating disablement to the powerlessness of people with impairments living in environments designed by people with ‘able’ bodies raises awareness of its political dimensions.

Consciousness Raising?

What then are the implications of all this work for our direct work with people? At the very least it must raise questions about the levels on which we hear, reflect and validate their experience. We may be well tuned in to messages which convey feelings or give clues to family dynamics, but the dominant models with which we work do little to sensitise us to messages about the sociocultural and political dimensions of oppression. Moreover, whilst the therapeutic context is not one of direct political action we do have to address the thorny problem of ‘consciousness raising’. Developing awareness and insight are central aims in most forms of counselling and psychotherapy. To this end we have a broad spectrum of legitimated areas of exploration ranging from the personal unconscious, biography, family history and the dynamics of family systems to ‘universal’ processes embedded in myths and archetypes. Perhaps strangely, there appears to be a reluctance to engage with the middle ground of the cultural unconscious, although this seems to me to be no different in principle from working with other hidden or unconscious processes. Indeed the notion of a cultural unconscious might be seen as the contribution that therapeutic thinking has made to our understanding of ideological processes and consciousness raising its contribution to political action. There are important issues concerning the place, if any, of direct interpretation in therapy, and these should not be glossed over, but they apply equally at all levels. Again I can see no difference in principle between an intervention offering a psychodynamic and one offering a sociocultural interpretation.

In working towards a more general understanding of anti-oppressive practice feminist and black perspectives have much to contribute. For example, Maye Taylor (1990), writing from a feminist viewpoint, suggests one way of locating the wider roots of women’s emotional distress and misery by encompassing personal psychopathology, family pressures and sociopolitical factors within a Maslow-type hierarchy of five levels comprising:

  1. Existential, i.e. life choices;
  2. Personality, i.e. psychopathology;
  3. Interaction, family relationships, etc.;
  4. Predicament, the person’s immediate situation;
  5. Material deprivation, money, shelter, food.

She links this with the need to understand and work with the ideological practices of masculinity and femininity on all five levels. Like Thompson’s ‘PCS’ model this suggests one possible framework within which we might address the gaps in current mainstream therapeutic approaches and provides a way of encouraging and legitimating work which recognises and validates experiences of oppression.

Change? The Limitations of Counselling

Of course, counselling is often seen primarily as a practice which facilitates change and the depoliticisation of the concept of ‘empowerment’ is, I suspect, in part, a result of a reluctance to confront our own powerlessness. The question of anti-oppressive practice confronts us directly with the limitations of therapy, and perhaps with our own despair, in the face of daily encounters with child abuse, sexual violence and ‘ethnic cleansing’. We well know that denial is a common defence and, if we refuse to bring the pain of our own powerlessness into consciousness, we can easily collude in oppression, by failing to hear and by overextending our faith in therapeutic practices to effect change. Recognising our limitations we can, nevertheless, acknowledge the significance of the work of validation which in itself can affirm and encourage. As counsellors we are often working with coping strategies and much of the time must be content to support those who, like ‘the women men don’t see’ in James Tiptree Jr’s story, survive, living by ones and twos in the chinks of the world machine (Tiptree Jr, 1973).

Power within the Counselling Relationship

The level at which we can work most directly with both the positive and negative dimensions of power is, of course, that of the counselling relationship itself. As noted above, the notion of ‘empowerment’ keys into the positive side of power but we must also examine its damaging potential. There are, no doubt, those who enter our profession with the intention to exploit. Most of us are inspired by more worthy motives and it is painful to confront our own potential as agents of oppression. Our emphasis on facilitation, personal choice and responsibility along with a general antipathy to forms of ‘helping’ which disempower, by failing to encourage ‘self-determination’, can obscure the power which we undoubtedly possess as counsellors. Nevertheless, the very process of professionalisation, in which we are vigorously engaged, is one which enhances our own power in relation to the people with whom we work. The recognition of professional power and its potential for abuse is manifested in such things as the development of codes of ethics and practice and demands for regulation. However, it is difficult to establish clear criteria for the application of requirements to set and monitor boundaries between counselling and other relationships and to refrain from financial, sexual and emotional exploitation. It is consequently difficult to distinguish clearly abuses of power. The issues are as complex here as at other levels and for the same reasons.

In addressing issues of sexual exploitation, Janice Russell draws attention to the dynamics of power relationships. Power is not a static commodity, it is ascribed as well as taken and may vary from situation to situation:

... many clients allow therapists to have power over them, some therapists exercise a power over a client, and some abuse power in relation to their clients. (Russell, 1993: 77)

She usefully distinguishes ‘authority’, ‘influence’ and ‘force’ as dimensions of power and discusses the ways in which authority and influence, as structural aspects of the professional relationship, may contribute to a therapist’s conscious or unconscious capacity to exploit. Authority and influence combine with the degree of trust, invested by clients in counselling relationships, to produce an imbalance of power so great that the egalitarian intentions of the contract may seem impossible to fulfil. Indeed, Masson (1988) has argued that the power invested in therapeutic relationships is such that they are inherently exploitative. Of course, I have a clear interest in disputing this claim. I do, however, believe that we have a responsibility, as individual practitioners and as a professional body, to raise our awareness of the power dynamics of the counselling relationship and to improve our codes of ethics and practice and complaints procedures. This will not be an easy task but one important contribution that we have already made in this area is to insist, against the BPS grain, on the requirement for personal counselling as a component of our new Diploma. We are, at least, committed to learning by putting ourselves on the receiving end, although our understanding of the process must affect our experience as clients, particularly in respect of the dynamics of power.

Towards Anti-oppressive Practice

Reading through the above I am left feeling daunted by the complexities of the task and my powerlessness in the face of the ‘world machine’. On the other hand, I am encouraged by the thought that even a broad statement of intent can be a powerful action. Moreover, despite my reflections on the limitations of counselling and its capacities to contribute to oppression, I do hold to the view that, enshrined in its egalitarian tradition and intent and the core conditions, is the belief that good practice is anti-oppressive practice and that, carefully thought through, counselling can offer the basis of a model of anti-oppressive practice to psychology more generally.

I have suggested a number of areas around which we might begin to develop a policy and outline guidelines for good practice:

  • Explicitly recognising the structural and cultural contexts of practice;
  • Explicitly recognising the oppressive dimensions of power relations at all levels of our society;
  • Developing awareness of cultural norms embedded in concepts of self, models of development and humanistic values;
  • Developing understanding of sociocultural processes and building this into our theories and practices e.g. by more informed listening at this level and resisting the tendency to personalise the political;
  • Defining and acknowledging the limitations of counselling, particularly in its claims to effect change, whilst recognising its value in validating experience, affirming and encouraging;
  • Developing understanding of power dynamics within the counselling relationship and addressing issues of power and the abuse of power by developing improved codes of ethics and practice and complaints procedures.


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