Christopher Keys: On Community Psychology

by Kristen Knight

Communities can assume many forms—from online forums to residential neighborhoods, from large collaborations to small groups of people. The APA Dictionary of Psychology, Second Edition, defines community psychology as a discipline “that encourages the development of theory, research, and practice relevant to the reciprocal relationships between individuals and the social systems that constitute the community context.” But these ideas may seem a bit abstract—so we consulted an expert in the field to put them in context.

Christopher B. Keys served on the editorial board of the APA Handbook of Community Psychology—released last October as part of the APA Handbooks in Psychology ® series—along with fellow Editors-in-Chief Meg A. Bond and Irma Serrano-García and Associate Editor Marybeth Shinn. The handbook spans two volumes, and contains 63 chapters contributed by dozens of authors from around the world. It was the first comprehensive work to be published in the field in more than 15 years. Here, Dr. Keys describes community psychology and talks about why it matters.

Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and should not be taken to represent the official views or policies of the American Psychological Association.

Chris Keys picture 2013

Christopher B. Keys, PhD, is a professor emeritus and former chair of the psychology departments at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and DePaul University. He has also been a founder and chair of the community psychology doctoral program in the psychology department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a professor and codirector of the advocacy and empowerment of minorities program in the department of disability and human development at the school. He was the founding associate dean for research in the college of science and health at DePaul University.

Dr. Keys’s research has focused on organizational approaches to community psychology, organizational empowerment, community research issues, and the positive community psychology of disability, and in addition to lecturing and conducting workshops all over the world, he has coauthored and coedited more than 125 articles, chapters, and books on community psychology and disability-related topics. 

KK: How do you define community psychology?

CK: Community psychology is the study of the relationship between person and context and the action taken to improve that relationship by creating a more socially just social contract. More specifically, community psychologists investigate and take action to support and empower persons who have less than their fair share of society’s resources and the variety of community contexts in which they live and by which they are influenced.

KK: How does community psychology apply in our day-to-day lives?

CK: Community psychology examines current social problems and develops constructive ways to address them. Consequently, community psychologists engage in research and action on a variety of important social issues, such as improving educational opportunities, preventing homelessness and enhancing the mental health of those people who are disadvantaged by virtue of society’s marginalization of members of selected groups. These include, but are not limited to, people with disabilities, people living in poverty, people with minority sexual orientations, people of color, and/or women. For example, if you are seeking to improve an after-school program in a low income neighborhood that enhances urban children’s wellbeing and academic performance, then consult relevant work on these issues in community psychology.

KK: What are some of the most important issues that the field is addressing today, and has this changed since the formal recognition of the field more than 50 years ago?

CK: In addition to the topics mentioned above, community psychology issues of particular import today that endure from early in the field’s history include

  • taking an ecological perspective to better grasp the context in which social problems develop and have impact;
  • thinking critically to challenge orthodoxy, such as the assumed preeminence of evidenced-based practice for assessing the quality of interventions; and
  • valuing participation of community members and those from other disciplines as well as partnerships with community organizations in research and action.

Some topics that have grown in importance over the last 50 years since

community psychology was formally established in the United States include (a) celebrating diversity in its many forms; (b) understanding the socioemotional side of community including the psychological sense of community, social capital, and social support; and (c) emphasizing human strengths and resilience in seeking to understand and empower those who face societal prejudice and discrimination.

KK: How do the author demographics and range of topics discussed in the handbook reflect the field?

CK: The handbook authors are a diverse group in terms of demographics, arena of work, and discipline. A notable number are from diverse disciplinary perspectives, nations, races and ethnicities, sexual orientations and career stages. In their diversity, the handbook authors represent the demographic richness of the field of community psychology in the 21st century. The topics addressed by the 63 chapters in 2 volumes include the theoretical foundations of community psychology, the dimensions of context, the methods for research and community change, approaches to social issues, working with diverse groups, emerging challenges, controversies and opportunities, and practical issues related to becoming and being a community psychologist. The handbook also includes topics suggested by experts consulted in an open meeting at the Fourth International Conference of Community Psychology in Barcelona in 2012, and by other thought leaders. Taken together, these topics, while not exhaustive, constitute the most comprehensive coverage of the field to date.

References

Bond, M. A., Serrano-García, I., & Keys, C. B. (Eds.-in-Chief), Shinn, M. (Assoc. Ed.). (2017). APA handbook of community psychology (Vols. 1–2). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2015). APA dictionary of psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.