Social psychology and politics
Social psychology and politics

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Social psychology and politics

5.1 Liberation psychology: An interview with Mark Burton

Liberation psychology was pioneered by Ignacio Martín-Baró, and informed by the work of the educational philosopher Paulo Freire. Liberation psychologists work with marginalised and oppressed communities to understand and improve the reality of people’s lives. Liberation psychology has a much more explicit social justice and social change agenda than would ordinarily be found in more mainstream psychological approaches. It is focused on action and practice; on ‘what works’ and what is relevant for understanding and transforming the experiences of people in these communities. It also sees the role of psychologists as fundamentally different from mainstream approaches: the psychologist is more engaged and actively involved in social transformation and liberation (Burton, 2004; 2013; Burton and Kagan, 2009).

Listen to the following short interview, where Mark Burton talks about the origins of liberation psychology and discusses six key principles of this approach.

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Hello, my name is Mark Burton. I'm now retired, but I used to work in intellectual disability services, also known as learning disability services in the National Health Service and in local government, and I've also maintained a practice as a part-time amateur academic.
I've had a strange trajectory, really. I studied psychology back in the early 1970s, and reacted pretty much against what was then seen as a revolution in psychology, the cognitive revolution, which didn't really set me alight very much. I became a behaviourist, and I pursued a PhD in behavioural psychology and then after that moved into the applied field. Initially in mental health, then training as a clinical psychologist. I specialised chiefly in learning disability where I suppose some of my other interests came together with my practice and my psychological interests to develop a much more social approach, and to focus very much on processes of oppression, liberation, mobilisation, development, and so on. Not individual focus psychology really, although one where individual people are important.
Mark Burton has worked in the area of liberation psychology which developed in Latin America and aimed to empower oppressed and marginalised communities.
Liberation psychology developed in Latin America really in a number of centres but it's particularly associated with the work of Ignacio Martin-Baro, who was both a social psychologist and a Jesuit priest, one of the six Jesuits who was assassinated in 1989 by the El Salvadorian army. Martin-Baro developed an approach to social psychology which he termed 'liberation psychology', which drew on liberation theology almost like a template. It emphasised a number of different things, but particularly social relevance. It particularly emphasised taking the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, and rethinking the theories and concepts and methods of psychology from their perspective. Despite having been a North American trained social psychologist, he was reacting very much against that tradition but in a very constructive way. The way he tackled that was not to, I suppose, throw the baby out with the bath water, but to rework many of the concepts from the perspective of the oppressed majorities of Latin America. In his case, to try to figure out which concepts could be used, which needed amending, and which needed abandoning.
Mark Burton and his colleagues have come up with six key principles which describe the core of liberation psychology.
We've pulled out six key points, I'll just go through those. The first is social justice and the social system. Liberation psychology adopts an anti-individualist approach, it doesn't see social problems as located within individuals, although clearly social problems are experienced by individuals and individuals play their part in both reproducing social problems, but also resisting them and transforming the context. The pursuit of social justice within a understanding of the nature of social problems as socially generated through social processes that are economic, they're about paranomination. They're not located in individuals, but they're systemic, is very central.
Secondly, understanding the perspective of those people who are oppressed in social systems. For the Latin Americans, that came directly from liberation psychology's preferential option for the poor.
In our thinking, and in that of more contemporary liberation psychologists, we will use some other terms like oppression, exclusion, marginalisation, and so on. We're focusing on those people. I suppose most of its most vulnerable, most affected by those global processes of economic and social domination. The idea there is that psychology has to be relevant to those people. It's trying to strive for psychology that speaks to their experience, that is relevant to them. It takes that preferential option. In other words, it prioritises work with them rather than those people who are the beneficiaries of the system.
Thirdly, becoming aware of the social forces and relations that affect people, and helping people to become aware of those relations and forces, and their situation within that nexus of social forces in order to change them. This draws on the concept that the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire developed, or at least popularised. He wasn't the initiator, which is known as conscientisation. This is somewhat similar to the notion of consciousness raising those used in the women's movement in the global north, where people understand their experience in terms of social relations both at the micro level of their experience but also at the macro level of the system that generates those social relations. That is in order to change the context that they're in.
Fourthly, going beyond appearances and questioning ideology. Liberation psychology takes a realist stance on the nature of the social world. It basically says oppression is real, it's not something that we conjured up in our minds, as are social relations. Our experience of them, and our understanding of them, is through a kind of an ideological cloud where the concepts and the ways in which those experiences and concepts are transmitted to us is imbued with ideology, with I suppose false meanings, false information. In liberation psychology there's always the attempt to try and, as Martin-Baro called it, de-ideologise, to strip social reality and social processes from the way in which they're ideologically constructed. For example, there is a lot of formulation of social problems which essentially blames the victim for those problems. Often there are theoretical conceptual frameworks that do that, so liberation psychologists would attempt to strip off those ideological understandings and get to, if you like, to the nub of what's really happening in terms of social processes.
Fifthly, then, liberation psychology has a stance on the use of theory that basically says it is not theory lead. It is lead from experience, from practice. That doesn't mean to say that it rejects theory, but rather it sees theory as really important and valuable but one which is developed on the basis of practice. The term often used is practice, the unity of theory in practice. In liberation psychology there's essentially the philosophy of constructing theory from the elements of practice, testing that against action, against the results of action and so on. That's very different from starting with a theory, starting with a concept, and then testing it out. It's the other way around with theory as a kind of scaffold for practice.
Sixthly, and somewhat connected to the stance on theory is the stance on method. Liberation psychologists tend to use a variety of methods, they are eclectic in their approach to method. That's not to say they're not critical in their magpie sort of use of different methods, but they're not doctrinaire, they don't say the only methodology is participant methodology. We can only use qualitative methods, there's a role for qualitative methods, there's a role for surveys which Martin-Baro used in this de-ideologisation work in El Salvador on public opinion, for example, using quite standard social psychological, sociological survey techniques for looking at public opinion. I think those six key points that we would use to identify the core of liberation psychology.
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