Decolonizing Psychology

What connections might a white, middle-aged, middle-class woman in the United States have with urban youth living in Western India? At first thought, little, if any. Yet, a book by Sunil Bhatia (2018), a professor of human development at Connecticut College in the U.S. unsettles any hasty judgments.

Decolonizing psychology: Globalization, social justice, and Indian youth identities explores a globalized world in which Indian youth partake in and are shaped by similar sorts of cultural experiences available to people all over the world. For example, urban youth living in the city of Pune, the second largest city in the state of Maharashtra, western India are exposed to Vogue magazine, replete with advertisements for Gucci, Dolce & Gabbano, Audi, Salvatore Ferraganoi, and Tommy Hilfiger (p. xiv). They live near shopping malls in which transnational global products are available. Some elite youth are global travelers, while middle and working class youths’ lives are governed by human resources departments that draw on psychological tests and theories developed in the west (e.g., the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) (p. 45). And on occasion, urban youth in India might even find themselves on the phone in the early morning shift, conversing with clients like me, in an effort to locate a missing file in the cloud service for which support is provided by workers in a call center in India. Bhatia’s book shows how urban Indian youths’ lives are situated within global flows of consumption and capital that connect them to others who may have never set foot in India. How does this happen? And what meaning do urban youth make of the globalized flows of consumption, technology, and work that characterize early 21st century life on planet earth?

Bhatia grew up in Pune during the 1970s and 80s and left India in 1990 to pursue his doctorate in psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachussetts. Similar to many other scholars who pursue their work in another country, Bhatia returned to his birth country every other year – observing “a city that was changing beyond recognition” (p. xiii). Bhatia’s aim in this book is to understand how young urban youth of different social classes in Pune “engage with contradictory cultural flows of globalization” (p. 257). Using narrative methods, participant obervation and analysis of material culture, Bhatia examines the stories of youth from three different classes, elite and upper class youth, middle and working-class youth including call center workers, and young men and women who live in basti, or “settlements”. This study explores multiple questions, including “why 356 million Indian youth, who make up the world’s largest youth population, remain so utterly invisible in the discipline of psychology?” (p. xx). Bhatia offers a “critical voice to the current scholarship that has made calls to move beyond Eurocentric bias of American psychology” (p. xxii) through his deep exploration of how the forces of neoliberalism and globalization both silence and shape young people’s understandings of self and identity. In Bhatia’s words, the project of creating new cultural psychologies is a “constructive and positive project that aims to study interconnected histories, asymmetrical cultural flows, and intersecting cultural stories” (p. xxv).

Over a period of 10 years, Bhatai conducted over 60 formal interviews and 25 informal interviews, completed hundreds of hours of participant observation, and facilitated 6 focus groups with a variety of groups, including (1) affluent and elite youth; (2) middle and upper-class college students; (3) middle-class youth working in call centers; (4) middle managers and information technology workers in call centers and business process outsourcing companies (BPOs), and (5) urban youth living in settlements (slums). The book is organized in 9 chapters. The first chapter discusses theories of globalization and how globalization shapes spaces, places and identities. Chapter 2 explores globalization via an interdisciplinary lens, taking in perspectives from political science, geography, cultural studies, economics and sociology. The third chapter provides the background for a key tenet of Bhatia’s book: how neoliberal globalization “brings with it shifts in the spheres of cultural psychology and identity” (p. xxxii). Through his examination of how western models of psychology have been taken up in corporate practice in India, Bhatia recounts how “neoliberal psychological discourses of self, identity and happiness” have become part of Indian culture and society (p. xxxii). Chapter 4 provides a detailed overview of how Bhatia applied narrative inquiry to the study, while chapters 5, 6 and 7 convey the central findings of the book. Here, Bhatia reports on what he learned from the narratives of elite and upper-class youth, middle- and working class youth who work in call centers, and youth who live in basti. Chapter 8 provides a decolonizing perspective of urban Indian youth identities in which Bhatia offers a vision for psychology in which “indigenous psychology, social justice, and equity are central” (p. xxxiii). The final chapter documents the research process that Bhatia used for the study, and recounts the author’s reflections on doing ethnography at home. Bhatia’s book realizes the potential of critical qualitative research for social justice, and prompts readers to think deeply about what transnational critical psychology might look like. For researchers wanting to review examples of how narrative inquiry can be used as an approach to research, Bhatia’s book has much to offer. This book provided me with a lot to think about theoretically, substantively, and methodologically.

Kathy Roulston

Reference

Bhatia, S. (2018). Decolonizing psychology: Globalization, social justice, and Indian youth identities. Oxford University Press.

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