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Martín-Baró: Writings for a Liberation Psychology

Writings for a Liberation Psychology

Ignacio Martín-Baró

"In your country," Ignacio Martín-Baró remarked to a North American colleague, "it’s publish or perish. In ours, it’s publish and perish." In November 1989 a Salvadoran death squad extinguished his eloquent voice, raised so often and so passionately against oppression in his adopted country. A Spanish-born Jesuit priest trained in psychology at the University of Chicago, Martín-Baró devoted much of his career to making psychology speak to the community as well as to the individual. This collection of his writings, the first in English translation, clarifies Martín-Baró’s importance in Latin American psychology and reveals a major force in the field of social theory.

Gathering essays from an array of professional journals, this volume introduces readers to the questions and concerns that shaped Martín-Baró’s thinking over several decades: the psychological dimensions of political repression, the impact of violence and trauma on child development and mental health, the use of psychology for political ends, religion as a tool of ideology, and defining the "real" and the "normal" under conditions of state-sponsored violence and oppression, among others. Though grounded in the harsh realities of civil conflict in Central America, these essays have broad relevance in a world where political and social turmoil determines the conditions of daily life for so many. In them we encounter Martín-Baró’s humane, impassioned voice, reaffirming the essential connections among mental health, human rights, and the struggle against injustice. His analysis of contemporary social problems, and of the failure of the social sciences to address those problems, permits us to understand not only the substance of his contribution to social thought but also his lifelong commitment to the campesinos of El Salvador.

These essays touch on religion as a tool of ideology, the meaning of work and the way in which reality becomes fragmented in a politically repressed society…Those who worked to bring forth these essays have added a measure of justice to his life.”—Richard Higgins, Boston Globe

Martín-Baró’s essays are…characterized by a concreteness and a passion for justice, and they offer tremendous insights into Salvadoran society as well as the struggle for liberation.”—Terry Coonan, Human Rights Quarterly

“Reveals the workings of a mind that was probing and humane, wide-ranging in interests and passionate in concerns, and dedicated with a rare combination of intelligence and heroism to the challenge his work sets forth to construct a new person in a new society.”—Noam Chomsky, MIT

Adrianne Aron and Shawn Corne’s excellent introduction contextualizes the volume, both within the Salvadoran peasant communities with whom much of Martín-Baró’s work was developed and within the academic/intellectual communities to whom it is addressed. The chapters are organized around three major themes, which are, arguably, the major dimensions along which Martín-Baró’s work developed: political psychology, war and trauma, and "de-ideologizing" reality. The selections demonstrate his contributions to social psychology as well as his intense involvement in the social reality of his adoptive country, El Salvador…[This is an] excellent volume. It is required reading for psychologists seeking a more critical psychology–one that takes responsibility for its social position and privilege, and challenges the status quo. It is an equally important resource for those who seek ideas and examples for developing "indigenous psychology" from the base of marginalized people’s lives, in coalition with them.”—M. Brinton Lykes, World Psychology

About the editors:

Adrianne Aron is a member of the Committee for Health Rights in Central America.

Shawn Corne is a member of the Committee for Health Rights in Central America.


Ignacio Martín-Baró's biography page on Wikipedia


Excerpts from Book Review by Joel Kovel — September, 1996

When on the night of November 16, 1989, word of the assassinations of six Jesuits of the University of Central America in San Salvador, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, reached the joint headquarters of the Salvadoran security forces and the CIA, the assembled officers cheered. As the editors of this profound and unsettling anthology of the psychological writings of one of the slain six, Ignacio Martin-Baro, make clear, they had cruel reason to celebrate. For the US-trained killers had accomplished "more than a mass murder, it was an attempted sophiacide" (p. 1) – a killing Of the wisdom and knowledge essential for resistance to their brutal regime.

The murders of the Jesuits were no surprise to anyone familiar with life in El Salvador. As Martin-Baro once quipped to a North American colleague, "In your country it's publish or perish. In ours, it's publish and perish." (p.2) And as he drily observes in discussing some of the difficulties in doing empirical research in El Salvador during the 1980s, "the last bomb to explode in the home of this author (the fifth in three years when he was at home, add the editors) came from his having publically defended the need for dialogue." (p. 194) Dialogue was, in Martin-Baro's view, a use to which psychological research should be put.

It is shocking to realize that a psychologist can be seen as subversive and that advancing the notion of dialogue would cause one's home to get bombed. In the metropolitan North, where the Spanish-born Martin-baro trained (receiving his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago), the image evoked by the psychologist is that of a tidy fellow with a goatee, New Yorkers in the waiting room, and a brass plate on the door of his tastefully done suburban office. Here he contemplates human behavior, pontificates upon the inner world of the psyche, gives tests, fills out forms, and generally super-intends the orderly passage of the self through this world. It is a thoroughly comfortable profession, not merely adapted to bourgeois existence but an integral, indispensible part of it. What the lawyer-narrator of Herman Melville's Bartleby said of himself applies equally well to the bourgeois psychologist: "All who know me consider me an eminently safe man." By the same reasoning, the dialogue advanced by psychology in the metropolis is eminently safe as well.

In contrast, here is the notion of dialogue as advanced by Martin-Baro The human being is transformed through changing his or her reality. It follows that this has to do with a dialectical process, an active process that cannot be taught by imposition but only through dialogue." (p. 10)

Not the words of a safe man. But was it the practice of psychology that primarily made him dangerous to the power structure, or his religion? After all, Martin-Baro was also a Jesuit and practitioner of that theology of liberation which shook the world, especially the world of Latin America, in the 1970s and 80s. Through its development of the "special option for the poor" liberation theology gave the masses hope of overturning the circumstances causing their poverty, thus putting revolution on the table as another kind of sacrament. Nothing can be more unsettling to ruling elites in these profoundly Catholic nations than to have the traditionally opiate function of religion turned upside down, and quite a few priests and nuns, including the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, paid with their lives for doing so. Martin-Baro was, along with his other duties, a village priest, and he undoubtedly belongs to this group of martyrs, along with his fallen fellow Jesuits.

But his other duties included being the chair of the psychology department at the University of Central America, editing a scholarly journal, directing the National Institute for Public Opinion Research, and traveling throughout the Americas as a leading academic psychologist. And the heart of the matter is to realize that for Ignacio Martin-Baro there was no essential political distinction between his religious and psychological work. The essence of his life's work was to make psychology part of the same struggle as theology. Where there could be a liberation theology so could there be a liberation psychology, driven by the same fundamental principle: the option for the poor. Religion pertains to the relation of the human being with the transcendant; thus it invokes humans in the capacity of soul., Psychology deals rather with the this worldly relations of humanity, and regards the individual in the capacity of "self." To Martin-Baro, these are contiguous dimensions of human existence, and each is subjected to historical forces. The first premise of liberation theology and psychology alike is that "soul" and "self" are constructed, ideologically fought over, actively drawn into class struggle. As a revolutionary intellectual, Martin-Baro knew how much power is involved in what Hobbes called the capacity to give names and enforce definitions. There is a great deal at stake, to choose but one example, in how the poor are regarded psychologically. This plays a role in how they are treated by authorities, and also in how they regard themselves. Here are some of his reflections on this question:

It must be stressed that it is only because of their ingenuity, creativity, and energy that the poor manage to survive the pervasive poverty that goes with marginalization. Outside the stale air of the laboratory no one could really believe that the marginalized populations of Latin America suffer serious mental disturbances. The fact is, the poor show signs of a vitality that is astonishing considering the objective conditions they face. What might appear as "laziness" is perhaps better described as economy of strength, and what passes as unreliability might well be a consequence of having to maintain alternate sources of income. (p. 90)

This insight defines a twofold struggle with the powers-that-be: against those who enforce unjust distributions of wealth and power., and, as an intellectual, against those who patrol the ideological frontiers and define human reality in ways congenial to the former group. In psychology the ideological distortion against which Martin-Baro fought encompasses more than the breathing of the "stale air of the laboratory,, such as afflicts the experimentally hard-headed. It pertains, as he develops in a particularly brilliant passage, to a much deeper and more pervasive construction of consciousness itself. For as we return to the historical roots of psychology," we encounter the movement that restricted psychological analysis to behavior – observable behavior…" This movement was a reduction, a removal of the full conception of consciousness, thus psychology deals with a truncated human being. For consciousnes is not simply the private, subjective knowledge and feelings of individuals. More than anything, it represents the confines within which each person encounters the reflexive impact of his of her being and actions in society, where people take on and work out a knowledge about the self and about reality that permits them to be somebody, to have a personal and social identity. Consciousness is the knowing or not knowing of self, through the world and through others, with praxis coming before mental knowledge. (p.38)

In this view, so foreign to our psychological establishments, the subjectivising psychologies like psychoanalysis are as deficient as the objectivising psychologies like behaviorism. Neither sees the person from the standpoint of praxis; both sever the human being from the world, creating pale abstractions to be processed intellectually. In so doing, psychology processes people to fit into the established order. The trendy "humanism" which passes for progressive thinking in the psychoculture of the metropolis is equally defective insofar as the human being it postulates is removed from the full range of social relations.

Without mentioning the names of Marx or Engels – a kind of Aesopian discourse frequently resorted to by the radical clergy in order to keep down the whiff of heresy – Martin-Baro develops a genuinely Marxian vision of psychology. Its core concept is praxis – which, depending on the angle at which it is looked, can be regarded as either conscious social transformation or socially transformative consciousness. The notion of praxis is applicable to the understanding of human beings in society as well as to the critique of those who study human beings, such as psychologists. Thus to achieve a psychology of liberation demands first that psychology be liberated., (p. 25)


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