Senior Director's Column

Reaching out internationally — Where are we now?

In this column, Dr. Bullock addresses both the excitement and concerns over APA’s burgeoning international outreach programs.

By Merry Bullock, PhD

Merry Bullock, PhDAPA recently began to foster international outreach for its members by arranging opportunities for professional visits to countries that, for geographical or historical reasons, have not been so accessible to U.S. psychologists. The first of these trips was to Cuba in the spring of 2011. Others are now planned to China and again to Cuba. Yet others are under consideration —Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East, Africa.

In the course of planning and announcing these opportunities, we have heard many comments from APA members, including both excitement about these prospects from some, and doubts from those who question whether such professional travel to countries outside of North America or Europe is a tenable undertaking. The general concern is that APA members visiting such places would not understand that mainstream psychology is grounded in a set of assumptions about behavior, the mind, the self and science, and would inadvertently impose their own world view as the only psychological frame. That is, that they would ignore, or worse, discount local, indigenous or non-Western perspectives, perpetuating a form of intellectual neo-colonialism.

This concern bears serious discussion. Are U.S. psychologists aware of their own cultural frameworks? Can they be prepared to be good international colleagues? Is it possible to fulfill the mandate in APA's vision statement to be an international "learning partner"? Are such visits welcomed?

APA outreach program — What is it?

Before addressing these questions, it is important to know what it is that APA is attempting to do with its outreach programs. The primary goal is to offer opportunities for person-to-person interaction, and to foster the development of international understanding, collaboration and exchange. The participants are not an official governmental or APA delegation. Although to date, the group leaders have been APA's governance leaders, these are private, colleague-to-colleague outreach programs. Program participants are not "selected" by APA — they are self selected. The agendas for the visits are developed in collaboration with the group leader, with participants, and with institutions and organizations of psychology in the host country to attempt to meet mutual interests and needs.

What does outreach mean today?

Interactions between U.S. and non-U.S. psychologists are different now than they were in decades past. In part, this is because psychology in the United States has become somewhat more expansive in its international scope, and more U.S. psychologists have been exposed to different models and cultural frameworks through attention to multiculturalism in the United States, attention to the lived experiences of ethnic minority and other marginalized groups, and exposure to ideas, phenomena and colleagues from elsewhere.

But in much greater measure, it is because psychology has drastically changed in the rest of the world.

First, the demographics have changed. Only a few decades ago, more psychologists lived in the United States than in any other country or region, most of the psychology literature was in English and most psychologists were academically oriented. Now, in 2012, there are more psychologists in Latin America and more psychologists in Europe than in the United States. Psychology has been developing over several decades in its own local contexts in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Much of the growth in psychology has been in applied areas, underscoring the importance of a psychology that is relevant to local and pragmatic needs.

Second, psychology education has changed. Whereas several decades ago most psychologists outside of Europe and North America were trained outside their country of origin because the psychology education infrastructure was not sufficiently well developed, and there were too few local faculty, this is no longer the case. As postgraduate programs have grown in countries in nearly every region in the world, it is no longer necessary to "travel abroad" to Europe or North America for advanced training. Psychology students in Africa, Latin America, Asia or Oceania can obtain advanced degrees close to home, from local faculty, and, in many cases, in their local language.

These changes, in demographics and in infrastructure, are altering how psychology understands itself. As psychology continues to grow, fastest in countries outside the traditional locus of influence, there is increased attention to identifying basic psychological constructs that reflect local perspectives and needs. This contributes to the attempt to understand and find balance between the universal and the local in explaining human behavior. Whether that new psychology is a mosaic (what some have referred to as "many psychologies") or a new, integrated unified psychology is the topic of much debate.

This is not to suggest that there is a truly internationalized psychology. The tools of psychology measurements, methodology, grand theories and models are still western-dominated and largely in English, as is the mainstream literature. But addressing this imbalance is a recognized goal within the discipline. Questioning the cultural validity and relevance of psychological models, promoting multiple methods, broadening representation of journal editors, co-editors and authors, and working toward a generalized understanding of the particular cultural frameworks in which psychology is embedded may, over time, reach the goals of an internationalized psychology.

Where are we now?

The goals of APA's outreach include fostering exploration of models of human behavior and structures of psychology outside of the United States. This exchange takes place within a framework captured in APA's vision statement — APA as a "learning partner." Implementing these goals means encouraging participants to critically examine their own assumptions about what is universal and what is local. It means listening to the perspectives, history and views of the host psychological community as valid approaches to understanding the human experience, rather than attempting to bring expertise to the host country.

Can we "give psychology away"?

Yet, as good guests, we do need to bring something to the host country. Psychology in many countries may not have abundant resources for education and training, and what materials they have may contain little local content. Often smaller countries or countries where psychology is becoming established obtain resources from elsewhere —in the form of textbooks, assessment materials, demonstrations and literature — certainly this was the case in much of the world when psychology began to grow internationally. Thus, resource materials may still be valued gifts.

However, in contrast to the past, when it was assumed that such materials could provide a valid and comprehensive local base, today there is increasing explicit acknowledgement that materials are tools to be adapted according to local needs and realities, not adopted without regard for their local application.

As an example, during the first APA trip to Cuba, the Cuban psychology hosts said they would appreciate receiving materials from the United States because this was information from which they have been largely cut off because of embargo and economic conditions. When some asked if U.S.-developed materials would be appropriate in a Cuban culture, they noted, "we understand the issues of cultural adaptation — we are good at that — we just need materials to adapt." Similar sentiments are regularly expressed in many areas where psychology is developing. Recent conferences and guidelines on translation and adaptation attest to this growing awareness, as does the exploration of non-western approaches to mental health treatment, self, identity and personality structure.

It is our challenge to support that change, to highlight it, and to be sure that any APA outreach occurs with strong and careful preparation for what being a 'learning partner' entails.