Notes on Ignacio Martin-Baro's Writings for a Liberation Psychology

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I'm slowly reading this book of essays by the founder of Liberation Psychology. It looks like it will be immensely helpful to our project here so I'm going to take notes as I go. (edited by Adrianne Aron and Shawn Corne, Harvard University Press, 1994)

For the moment I'm going to skip over the Forward and the Introduction. Both are full of profound stuff and also dominated by the question, why did Martin-Baro stay in El Salvador? He was not Salvadoran by birth, he was from Spain; he was a Jesuit academic and he could have asked to be transferred somewhere else. There were six attempts on his life before the government succeeded in murdering him in November 1989. Archbishop Oscar Romero had been assassinated in 1980; the right wing government posted flyers that read, "be a patriot, kill a priest". He had to have known what was going to happen. He chose to stay. "Using the techniques and skills of his profession, and a little imagination, Martin-Baro found ways to put psychology in the service of human liberation. He challenged the Official Lie and disclosed to the Salvadoran people, and to anyone else who would listen, the realities of Salvadoran life, at a time when the absence of that information represented a powerful form of oppression." (pg 10)


The first essay by Martin-Baro himself is Toward a Liberation Psychology (translated by Adrianne Aron). He starts out by going after the discipline of psychology in Latin America: "Taken as a whole, psychology's contribution as science and as praxis to the history of the peoples of Latin America is extremely weak...My thesis is that Latin American psychology, save for a few exceptions, has not only remained servilely dependent when it has needed to lay out problems and seek solutions, but has stayed on the sidelines of the great movements and away from the distresses of the peoples of Latin America." Also, it hasn't paid enough attention to the work of Paolo Freire. (pg 18)

"One of the justifications that can be given for the poverty of the historical contribution of Latin American psychology is its relative youth...(t)his argument is valid, though insufficient, and it becomes dangerous if used as a shield against activists who would move now to correct the deficiencies that have led us (and in many cases, continue leading us) to scientific marginalization and social breakdown."


Getting back to the text, let's hear more about what exactly is the problem with acupuncture in North America, I mean, psychology in Latin America.

"The historical misery of Latin American psychology derives from three interrelated causes: its scientistic mimicry, its lack of an adequate epistomology, and its provincial dogmatism. We will examine each of these separately." (pg 20)

Scientistic Mimicry: in an effort to gain social status, it has imported all of its theoretical and practical ideas from the US, mimicking models without understanding them. "Uncritical acceptance of theories and models is precisely the negation of science's own fundamental principles. And the ahistorical importing of ideas leads to ideological thinking, with mindsets whose meaning and validity, as the sociology of knowledge reminds us, excuse some social circumstances and foreclose inquiry into certain concrete questions." (also: "as if an apprentice could become a doctor by hanging on to the stethoscope, or a child could become an adult by putting on its father's clothes")

Lack of an Adequate Epistemology: "The dominant models in psychology are founded on a series of assumptions that are rarely discussed, and even more rarely are alternatives to them proposed..."

the assumption of individualism: "...which proposes the individual as an entity with its own meaning as the final subject of psychology. The problem with individualism is rooted in its insistence on seeing as an individual characteristic that which oftentimes is not found except within the collectivity, or in attributing to individuality the things produced only in the dialectic of interpersonal relations. Through this, individualism ends up reinforcing the existing structures, because it ignores the reality of social structures and reduces all structural problems to personal problems."

the homeostatic vision: "The homeostatic vision leads us to distrust everything that is change and disequalibrium, to think badly of all that represents rupture, conflict and crisis. From this perspective, it becomes hard, more or less implicitly, for the disequilibrium inherent in social struggle not to be interpreted as a form of personal disorder (do we not speak of people who have 'lost their balance'?) and for the conflicts generated by overthrowing the social order not to be considered as pathological."

ahistoricism: "The prevailing scientism leads us to consider human nature as universal, and to believe that, therefore, that there are no fundamental differences between, say, a student at MIT and a Nicaraguan campesino, between John Smith from Peoria Illinois and Leonor Gonzales from Cuisnahuat El Salvador. Thus we accept Maslow's Needs Scale as a universal hierarchy, and we assume that with just a little adaptation and modification the Stanford-Binet will be able to measure the intelligence of our populations. A conception of humanness that would see universality in a historical context; that is to say, in terms of natural history, would acknowledge that needs, as much as intelligence, are in good measure a social construction. Once that is granted, it is clear that models created in different circumstances from our own, and assumed to be cross-cultural and transhistorical,  can lead to a serious distortion of what our peoples are really about. What is needed is the revision, from the bottom up, of our most basic assumptions in psychological thought. But this revision cannot be made from our offices; it has to come from a praxis that is committed to the people...(t)his done, truth will not have to be a simple reflection of data, but can become a task at hand: not an account of what has been done, but of what needs to be done." (pg 23)

Provincial dogmatism: arguing about stuff that doesn't matter, lack of independence in setting forth and addressing real problems

Toward a Liberation Psychology

"From the preceding reflections there clearly follows a conclusion: if we want psychology to make a significant contribution...we have to redesign our theoretical and practical tools, but redesign them from the standpoint of our own people: from their sufferings, their aspirations, and their struggles."

What are the three most important intuitive truths of liberation theology?

1)"Affirmation that the object of Christian faith is a God of life, and therefore, that a Christian must accept the promotion of life as his or her primordial religious task...this search for life demands a first step of liberating the structures---the social structures first, and next the personal ones -- that maintain a situation of sin; that is, the mortal oppression of the majority of the people."

2) "True practice has primacy over true theory, orthopraxis over orthodoxy. Actions are more important than affirmations in liberation theology, and what one does is more expressive of faith than what one says."

3) "Christian faith calls for a preferential option for the poor. The theology of liberation affirms that one has to look for God among the poor and marginalized, and with them and from them live the life of faith....The option for the poor is not opposed to universal salvation, but it recognizes that the community of the poor is the theological place par excellence for achieving the task of salvation, the construction of the Kingdom of God."

From the inspiration of liberation theology we draw

"three essential elements for the building of a liberation psychology for the peoples of Latin America: a new horizon, a new epistemology, and a new praxis" (pg 26)

A new horizon: "Latin American psychology must stop focusing attention on itself, stop worrying about its scientific and social status, and instead propose an effective service to the needs of the majority of the population."  (!!!)

A new epistemology: "If our objective is to serve the liberation needs of the people of Latin America, this requires a new way of seeking knowledge, for the truth of the Latin American peoples is not in their present oppression but in the tomorrow of their liberty. The truth of the popular majority is not found, but made. That supposes, at the very least, two aspects: a new perspective and a new praxis. The new perspective has to be from below, from the same oppressed majorities whose truth is to be created. Have we ever seriously asked what psychosocial processes look like from the point of view of the dominated instead of from that of the dominator?...This is not a matter of thinking for them or bringing them our ideas or solving their problems for them; it has to do with thinking and theorizing with them and from them. Here too the pioneering insight of Paolo Freire asserts itself...To take on a new perspective obviously does not mean throwing out all of our knowledge; what it supposes, rather, is that we will relativize that knowledge and critically revise it from the perspective of the popular majorities. Only then will the theories and models show their validity or deficiency, their utility or lack thereof, their universality or provincialism. Only then will the techniques we have learned display their liberating potential or their seeds of subjugation."

A new praxis. "All human knowledge is subject to limitations imposed by reality itself. In many respects that reality is opaque, and only by acting upon it, by transforming it, can a human being get information about it. What we see and how we see is of course determined by our perspective, by the place from which we begin our examination of history; but it is determined also by reality itself. Thus to acquire new psychological knowledge it is not enough to place ourselves in the perspective of the people; it is necessary to involve ourselves in a new praxis, an activity of transforming reality that will let us know not only about what is but also about what is not, and by which we may try to orient ourselves toward what ought to be." (pg 28-29)

...But a psychology of liberation requires a prior liberation of psychology, and that liberation can only come from a praxis committed to the sufferings and hopes of the peoples of Latin America. (pg 32)






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Lisafer's picture

Foundations for Liberation: Social Justice, Liberation Psychology, and Counseling

is a very helpful article which describes Martin-Baro's work and its themes. For example:


 This is a core foundational construct of Liberation Psychology. In essence, praxis is the conuence of theory and action. Within this framework, one cannot exist without the other. The critical consciousness that arises from reclaiming one’s history, de-ideologizing understandings of cultural truths, discovering the virtues of the people, and using that as a method for making sense of current oppressive circumstances (i.e. problematization) is only made “real” when it is applied in action to current lived experiences in the

effort to liberate self and others from these circumstances."