What is the value of pan-Africanism for psychology?

How psychologists can and should become advocates for African and African feminist critiques of academia and of society.

A monument for those killed in the Soweto Uprising of 1976. Photo: April Killingsworth, via Flickr CC.

In 2019, the journal Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition, published an article, “Age- and education-related effects on cognitive functioning in Colored South African women.” The findings of the study claimed that low cognitive functioning in “coloured” women (what is understood as mixed race in South Africa) had something to do with “race” and socio-demographic factors. The study was widely condemned for its epistemological and methodological flaws and subsequently swiftly retracted by the journal editors. Nearly one year later, another article, drawing on attitudes research, a strong tradition in mainstream psychology, became the subject of popular concern. “Why are black South African students less likely to consider studying biological sciences?” published in 2020 by the South African Journal of Science, the flagship journal of the Academy of Science of South Africa, makes findings based on “race” as an explanatory factor for students’ study choices at university.

Both incidents highlight how much South African universities have yet to decolonize. For psychologists, this has meant revisiting questions about the relevance of the discipline in the afterlives of slavery, colonialism, and apartheid and about what psychology can contribute to improving our understanding of humans. We know, for instance, that psychology and psychologists have been complicit in scientifically “proving” racial and gendered hierarchies with the effect of legitimizing colonization and apartheid. Why then should we continue to think of psychology as useful?

For me, it is not about the survival of psychology as a discipline, but rather about how psychologists can and should become advocates for African and African feminist critiques of academia and of society. Pan-African struggles (although not complete) should be explored as the most important global contributions to resisting and overcoming racist, capitalist, imperial conquest and therefore should feature prominently in any psychological exploration of contemporary human life.

Pan-Africanism is a philosophy of African unity based on the recognition of the common experience of black oppression. Pan-Africanism is at once a political agenda, an economic project, a socio-cultural movement, and an intellectual quest to center black life and claim Africa as a place of belonging, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Despite the psychological nature of many pan-African ideas of African unity seen through the theorizations of Négritude, Afrocentricity, black nationalism, black consciousness, and pan-African feminisms, there is a dearth of engagement of these concepts in mainstream psychological research and in the formal teaching of psychology.

African psychology emerged amongst African American psychologists in the 1970s, who proposed an African cosmology as its conceptual-philosophical framework. Assumptions of communal and cooperative life, collective responsibility and interdependence are seen as intrinsic to the humanity of African people. Emphasis is placed on culture, the spiritual and the metaphysical along with multiple epistemologies, including the mythical and metaphorical. This conceptual-philosophical framework presents an important shift away from a Euro-American paradigm focused on individualistic and segregationist principles and attempts to provide alternative analyses of racial origins, skin color, black intelligence, and the black self/personality. A central thrust is a rejection of scientific racism and an emphasis on one’s “historical consciousness” and the renewal of a “collective spirituality.” These theorizations have challenged the positivist and empirical principles of race science and propose instead a psychology of protest and rehabilitation.

The point of departure for African psychology is a common understanding of racism and its effects and offers scholars culturally specific classification systems to research the mental health of people of African descent. These instruments measure and analyze black people’s worldviews and personalities outside of Euro-American definitions of mental health. Some examples include the African Self-Consciousness Scale (ASCS) and the Belief Systems Analysis Scale (BSAS) that measure different aspects of black personality with a strong emphasis on African heritage, resistance, survival, and liberation.

Despite these very important developments, there is a tendency in African psychology to present uncritical and essentializing views. Debates on the origins of race, cultural attributes, or the nature of black intelligence and black personality, are located within a framework of biological, cultural, or essentialized difference. As a result, these theories do not necessarily present a critical engagement with the idea of “race” as a socio-political construct and reinforce ideas about “races” as naturally different. In similar ways, the reification of an African cosmology as collective and communal can, on the one hand, have the effect of promoting homogeneous and ahistorical views about Africa, overlooking “prevalent and injurious African cultural practices;” and, on the other hand, negate the individual agency and innovation that African subjects contribute to modern life, as we remain confined to the sphere of communalism and tradition. These ideas are based on the myth of race, tribe, and nation.

It is unclear therefore how these assumptions of African psychology would enable us to critically investigate the concerning levels of violence in our communities, including racialized, xenophobic, gendered, and sexual violence in South Africa and elsewhere without further falling into the trap of pathologizing the perpetrators and their victims as “un-African.” Such criticisms have already been raised over claims of homosexuality being un-African. Indeed, African psychology has not invested sufficiently in questions of gender and sexuality. African feminists have noted the continued erasure of women’s political agency in the nationalist project. Narrow, masculinist nationalism has perpetuated normative gender roles and the control of women’s productive and reproductive labor and sexuality. The assumptions of communality, collective responsibility, and interdependence in African psychology, although valid as aspirational values, may have the unintended effect of pathologizing those whose behaviors fall outside of these prescribed norms.

African feminist thought offers critical and more nuanced insights into the intersecting and interlinked experiences of black oppression. A pan-African feminist lens shows how the myth of common biological or ethnic origins and cultural values reinscribes ideas about membership to a national collective in which the position of women and LGBT people remains precarious. The violence of forced sterilizations of black women instituted through population policies and legitimized under the guise of race science is arguably being perpetuated in other ways through the preoccupation and control over women’s sexuality, the criminalization of homosexuality and the practice of “corrective rape” that are justified through notions of a common African culture.

African feminists and anti-colonial feminists privilege instead the type of research that focuses on contemporary social challenges without making claims to “know” others, their cultures or personalities. These contributions focus on participatory, narrative, and archival work, and the type of memory work that brings people together in conversations, dialogues, exhibitions, performances—or pluriversal knowledges—that promote collective consciousness, mobilization, and activism within a clear agenda for social justice. These insights may be the key to advancing African psychology as a psychology of protest, collective resistance and liberation, and to engage in earnest with conceptions of blackness and Africanness, as well as the critical social challenges of our time.


Further Reading

Breaking the shackles

Ghana is slowly developing its mental health care to protect human rights. Yet sensationalist journalism, including in the progressive media, continues to portray the treatment of mental health in the country as backward and abusive.

Diagnostic dilemmas

The increasing visibility of Qur’anic healing in Cairo intersects with psychiatry’s growing foothold in public awareness, creating fertile ground for debates about affliction, care, and expertise.