Community psychology is the study of the interaction between the individual and the environment (Dalton, Elias, & Wandersman, 2001). Community psychologists are in terested in examining and improving the quality of life of individuals, communities, and society through collaborative research and action (Jason & Glenwick, 2002). Duffy and Wong (2000) characterized this field as emphasizing prevention over treatment; underscoring strengths and competencies over weaknesses; adopting an ecological perspective that examines the relationships among people and their environment; valuing and respecting diversity and differences; stressing empowerment, which involves enhancing the processes by which people gain control over their lives; emphasizing action research and social change, which provide more alternatives; stressing collaboration with other disciplines; examining how social support can act as a buffer against stress; and focusing on interventions that build a sense of community.
The field grew out of concern for the social and community problems confronting the United States during the 1960s and 1970s (Duffy & Wong, 2000; Tolan, Keys, Cher-tok, & Jason, 1990). It was formally founded in 1965 at a conference in Swampscott, Massachusetts (Levine & Perkins, 1997), where psychologists stressed the need to emphasize prevention and the importance of targeting the social environment. A core belief of this approach was that the flow of human casualties could be reduced by modifying social systems to make them more responsive and health-inducing or by teaching persons how to live behaviorally healthy lifestyles (Cowen, 1973). Thus, through community-based prevention and promotion, it was hoped that cost-effective services could be implemented, with fewer resources ultimately devoted to remediating hard-to-cure, entrenched problems.
From a more theoretical perspective, several models of prevention have been advanced, the principal ones being social competence, empowerment, and an ecological approach. Some theorists focus on a social competence model, where the goal is to prevent disorders by enhancing individuals' competencies (Duffy & Wong, 2000). Favored by many behaviorally oriented psychologists because of its emphasis on explicit skills, the social competence approach can assist persons in gaining more resources and increasing their competence and independence (Bogat & Jason, 2000; Glenwick & Jason, 1980).
Another approach is the empowerment model, which attempts to enhance people's sense of control over their own destinies (Rappaport, 1981). Empowerment is action-oriented and goes beyond the individual level as emphasized in the social competence model. Individuals, organizations, and communities can be empowered, and in the process they gain greater access to, and power and influence over, decisions and resources (Zimmerman, 2000). One difficulty for practitioners of the empowerment model involves deciding which groups to empower. In many communities, there are opposing groups, with each regarding its perspective as correct.
Another paradigm that has captured the attention of many prevention practitioners and community psycholo gists is the ecological model (Kelly, 1985, 1990), which was adapted from the biological field of ecology. Kelly's theory includes four ecological principles that describe characteristics of settings and systems. For example, various components of a system are interdependent, in that change in one part influences change in another. One aspect of the ecological approach for increasing the validity of our understanding of social phenomena is its emphasis on the collaborative relationship between researchers and participants. In such a relationship, concepts and hypotheses are developed and tested jointly by investigators and participants. Individuals should be involved in research projects as participants, not as subjects, with the process of being understood and represented considered to be empowering. Also, including community members in the research and intervention process enables them to receive support, learn to identify resources, and become better problem solvers.
There are many significant problems that our planet is facing, including the need to feed an escalating population, increasing poverty in many countries and excessive waste of resources in others, and environmental degradation. The field of community psychology is committed to finding ways to focus on improving the quality of life through research and action (Jason, 1997). As Albee (1986) argued, in the absence of social change, psychopathology will continue to exist as long as there is excessive concentration of economic power, nationalism, and institutions that perpetuate pow-erlessness, poverty, sexism, racism, ageism, and other forms of oppression.
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