Volume 24 Number 2 
Spring 2014

Remembering Swampscott

Swampscott: a critical commentary[1]

Written by David Fryer, University of Queensland, University of South Africa and Australian College of Applied Psychology   and Rachael Fox, Charles Sturt University, New South Wales, Australia

An invitation to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Swampscott conference, positioned by many as central to the beginnings of United Statesian community psychology, is, to two British social scientists working in Australia, committed to engaging critically with the implications of power-knowledge for subjectivity and community and troubled by United Statesian dominance of community psychology, a bit like two Anglo Saxons being invited to celebrate the Norman Conquest in 1066 or Indigenous Australians being invited to celebrate 1788, when the First Fleet of British settlers arrived on Australian shores (

In this context we are not interested in whether earnest claims about Swampscott are true or even interesting so much as how ritual incantations of Swampscott-related claims have contributed to the United Statesian colonisation of community psychologies around the world. More precisely, we are interested in the roles of the Swampscott discourse in: constituting that colonising version as dominant by bestowing upon its claims the status of being true; constituting that colonising version as dominant by bestowing upon its practices and techniques the status of “effectiveness”; constituting that colonising version as dominant by bestowing upon its values the status of progressive; constituting that version as dominant by bestowing upon its missionaries the status of authority etc. Simultaneously we are interested in which interests groups have been, and are being, privileged by the power relations which are inseparable from these constitutings.

Within the dominant community psychology discourse, Swampscott has been positioned not only as the origin of United Statesian Community Psychology, and not only as the origin of all community psychology but, effectively, as the origin of anything which could be described as community psychology! Moreover although the ‘Swampscott brand’ of community psychology was first promoted by United Statesian community psychologists, as intellectual colonisation of community psychology progressed, United Statesian community psychology has repeatedly been reinscribed by non-United Statesian community psychologists in other countries.

The positioning of Swampscott as the origin of all possible community psychologies is only one of many discursive manoeuvres which function to lend authority to claims that a culturally specific social construction, a product of its time and place, is of universal significance but the Swampscott discourse is one important weapon in the United Statesian colonisation, supplanting and obliteration of internationally diverse ways to engage with community, power and subjectivity.

Swampscott has again and again been positioned as central to the construction, truthing and legitimation of United Statesian community psychological claims. For example, Merrit, Greene, Jopp and Kelly (1999) claimed that the Swampscott Conference “is identified as the founding event of the field” and related variations of the claim, which position the origins of community psychology in domestic events in the USA, are oft repeated in various forms by many other United Statesian community psychologists. For more details and references including some caveats, see Fryer (2008a).

This United Statesian version of community psychology has been and is evangelised through: the most prestigious community psychology journals (which are United Statesian) American Journal of Community Psychology and Journal of Community Psychology); the most well widely read community psychology textbooks; marketed by the most powerful United Statesian / multi-national publishers; US graduate courses generating more credentialed community psychologists than anywhere else; the most powerful community psychology professional organisation (SCRA) which convenes the most important national biennial conference of community psychology, manufactures the most awarded community psychology academics as well as promoting community psychology origin stories which position the beginnings of community psychology as in the USA at Swampscott amid domestic US political events. For more details see Fryer and Fox (in press).

The version of community psychology central to the Swampscott discourse, which emphasises: ecological levels of analysis; social context; cultural diversity; competence; prevention; self-help etc., can be found not only in most United Statesian textbooks (e.g. Dalton et al. 2001, 2007; Kloos et al. 2012; Levine and Perkins 1997; Nelson and Prilleltensky, 2005; Rappaport 1977; the web site of The Society for Community Research and Action ( and the entry on community psychology in Wikipedia but is also reinscribed in many international textbooks.

For example, in Community Psychology and Social Change Australian and New Zealand Perspectives, Thomas and Veno (1996: 25) summarise the core values and principles for an Australian and New Zealand community psychology’ as: ‘empowerment, social justice, diversity and cultural pluralism, cultural awareness, social innovation, evaluation, community development and participation, collaboration and partnership, an ecological approach, systems perspectives, prevention and localisation’ and the chapters of Orford’s (1992) influential British textbook of community address: ecological levels of analysis and intervention; social support; power and control; methodological eclecticism; collaborative working; prevention; organisational change; self-help and non-professional help; and community empowerment. Orford (1992) admits of a table in his book which he says provides the source of answers to the question of what people actually do when they are doing community psychology, that ‘this table is taken, much modified, from one in Rappaport’s (1977) book’ (p. 4).

That a United Statesian version of community psychology has become globally dominant is not disputed even by United Statesian community psychologists but neither is it positioned by them as problematic (Wingenfeld and Newbrough, 2000: 779) who discursively positioned United Statesian community psychology as ‘created at a conference’ in the USA, referred to community psychology, or closely related work, reflecting “influences from the U.S. sources” (ibid: 780) around the world.

Writing in 2000, Wingenfeld and Newbrough (2000: 780) claimed: ‘Poland and Cuba are the two countries where influences from U.S. community psychology have been minimal’. However, Bokszczanin et al. (2007) writing on community psychology in Poland, include only one reference: Dalton et al. (2001). Referring to a survey they did of psychology departments in Polish universities inviting respondents to provide “their own definition of community psychology” (p. 352), the authors wrote: ‘to assess the fidelity of these definitions, we used as an anchor a broad definition of community psychology as a discipline seeking to understand and to enhance quality of life for individuals, communities, and society’, adding in a footnote “we chose Dalton et al.’s definition because of its elegant inclusiveness of the multitude of aims and values generally associated with community psychology in the West” (p. 352). In like vein, Raviv et al. (2007) wrote of community psychology in Israel, ‘the principles of community psychology, to which we shall refer throughout the chapter, are based on the principles delineated by Levine and Perkins (1997). Colonisation works most effectively, of course, through the colonised coming to think like the colonisers.

United Statesian intellectual colonisation with its origins in Swampscott, whilst irritating, might not be a serious problem if the United Statesian intellectual export were unproblematic but, from a critical and decolonising standpoint, it is not. The internationally dominant, United Statesian,  form of community psychology not only draws on the mainstream positivist modernist psychological disciplinary tradition, literatures and frames of reference (Coimbra et al. 2012, p.139) and is problematic in the way it engages with power (Fryer, 2008b) but it is, as Seedat et al. (2001, p. 4) assert, characterised by ‘discriminatory approaches’, “hegemonic and epistemological domination’ and ‘an accommodationist position seeking greater influence within the mainstream fraternity”. United Statesian community psychology is, from a critical standpoint, a version of the mainstream psy-complex, “the heterogeneous knowledges, forms of authority and practical techniques that constitute psychological expertise” (Rose 1999, p. vii), integral to governmentality through neoliberal subjection and compliance in the 21st century.

If Swampscott was the scene of the birth of a version of community psychology, the child has grown up to become a hegemonic problem for those around the world trying to develop and deploy alternative ways to engage progressively with power, subjectivity and community which do not reinscribe the problematic features of intellectually colonising Anglo-United-Statesian 20th century psy-disciplines. The development of such radical alternatives is happening around the world, for example, in, Australia, Central America, New Zealand, Palestine, the Philippines, Scotland, South Africa and in other places, including in the USA, but it is, from our standpoint, happening outside community psychology and with roots far away from Swampscott. But that is another story beyond the scope of this commentary . . .


Bokszczanin, A., Kaniasty, K. and Szarzynska, M. (2007) ‘Community Psychology in Poland’, in S. Reich, M., Riemer, I. Prilleltensky and M. Montero (Eds.) International Community Psychology: History and Theories. New York: Springer.

Coimbra, J., Duckett, P., Fryer, D., Makkawi, I., Menezes, I., Seedat, M. and Walker, C. (2012) ‘Rethinking community psychology: Critical insights’, The Australian Community Psychologist, 24(2), 135-142.

Dalton, J. H., Elias, M. J. and Wandersman, A. (2001) Community Psychology: Linking individuals and communities. Stamford, CT: Wadsworth.

Dalton, J. H., Elias, M. J. and Wandersman, A. (2007) Community Psychology: Linking individuals and communities (2nd Ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Fryer, D. (2008a) ‘Some questions about the history of community psychology’, Journal of Community Psychology, 36(5), 572-586.

Fryer, D. (2008b). Power from the people? Critical reflection on a conceptualization of power Journal of Community Psychology, 36, 2, 238-245.

Fryer, D. and Fox, R. (in press). Community Psychology: Subjectivity, Power, Collectivity. In I. Parker (Ed.) Handbook of Community Psychology. London: Routledge.

Kloos, B., Hill, J., Thomas, E., Wandersman, A. Elias, M.J., and Dalton, J.H. (2012) Community psychology: Linking individuals and communities (3rd Edition). Stamford CT: Wadsworth.

Levine, M. and Perkins, D. (1997) Principles of community psychology: Perspectives and applications. New York: Oxford University Press.

Merrit, D.N., Greene, G.J., Jopp, D.A. and Kelly, J.G. (1999). A history of Division 27 (Society for Research and Action). In D. A. Dewsbury (Ed.), Unification through division: Histories of the divisions of the American Psychological Association. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Nelson, G. and Prilleltensky, I. (2010) Community psychology: In pursuit of liberation and well-being (2nd Edition). Houndmills: palgrave macmillan

Orford, J. (1992) Community psychology: Theory and practice. Chichester: Wiley.

Rappaport, J. (1977) Community Psychology: Values, research and action. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Raviv, A., Zeira, M. and Sharvit, K. (2007) ‘Community Psychology in Israel’, in S. Reich, M. Riemer, I. Prilleltensky and M. Montero (Eds.) International Community Psychology: History and Theories. New York: Springer.

Reich, S. M., Riemer, M., Prilleltensky, I. and Montero, M. (Eds.) (2007) International Community Psychology: History and Theories. New York: Springer.

Rose, N. (1999) Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self. London: Free Association Books.

Seedat, M., Duncan, N. and Lazarus, S. (Eds.) (2001) Community psychology: Theory, method and practice. South African and other perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thomas, D. and Veno, A. (eds) (1996). Community Psychology and Social Change:Australian and New Zealand Perspectives (2nd Edition). Palmerston North: The Dunmore Press.

Wingenfeld, S. and Newbrough, J.R. (2000) ‘Community psychology in international perspective’ in J. Rappaport and E. Seidman (Eds.) Handbook of Community Psychology. New York: Kluwer academic / Plenum Publishers.

[1] This commentary draws heavily upon Fryer and Fox (in press). Community psychology: Subjectivity, power and collectivity. In I. Parker (Ed.). Handbook of Critical Psychology. London: Routledge.

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