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Working in social psychology

By Melisah Feeney

My introduction to social psychology began during my psychology internship where I assessed and supported people who were undergoing rehabilitation. I was struck by how social influences, such as housing tenure, family dynamics, interpersonal relationships and discrimination, play such a powerful role in the rehabilitation process as people try to build new lives.

This observation was augmented when I worked as a family and youth counsellor in rural NSW. Again, social context seemed to play a significant role in the outcomes that could be achieved with people. For example, young people and Aboriginal people in the region were portrayed very negatively in the media. It became clear to me that if we have low expectations of people, this is often what we get. This seemed to be the case with the Aboriginal youths I worked with in a school context. Working in a rural town, I also observed my clients being exposed to strong levels of racism. This fired me up to do something. I became involved in developing community programs that aimed to improve perceptions of marginalised people. Several years later, I did my PhD on social and organisational psychology perspectives and the psychology of mobilising social change. Following this, I moved into a social policy role which allowed me to work more directly on issues at a social level.

I presently work at the University of Canberra's Centre for Applied Psychology where I am researching attitudes toward Indigenous Australians following the Rudd Government's apology to the Stolen Generations. Has the apology helped shift false beliefs, prejudice and empathy levels? I am also looking at the role of mental health education initiatives, such as MindMatters and Mental Illness Education ACT (MIEACT), in demystifying mental illness in schools and communities.

Social psychology is like working with a wide angle lens; you need to consider an individual in the context of his or her larger social sphere. Social psychologists investigate how culture, place and interpersonal relations impact on the social and emotional well-being of people. Researching human interactions and designing social interventions to improve society are all part of the daily focus of my job.

I was privileged to work with Noel Pearson on his welfare reform agenda for Cape York Peninsula. My work focused on how to transform a community marked by poor school attendance, high levels of alcohol use and gambling addiction into one in which people have the opportunity to lead the lives they choose.

I also established and pilot tested the Longitudinal Study of Aboriginal Children, which involved working with Aboriginal people to engage and consult with communities in urban, regional and remote communities across Australia. This project helped inform how our current measures of mental health need to adapt to integrate different cultural perspectives.

I am passionate about the role social psychology can have in improving the plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I don't think you can work with Aboriginal communities and not take a social perspective. One needs to understand how racism, identity, culture, family and collective experience impacts on the individual. Currently I am working with the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health - guiding their Social and Emotional Well-being program and looking at how Aboriginal mental health can be understood in a more culturally appropriate way. I had a good ‘yarn' the other day with an Aboriginal leader from Alice Springs about how we can better understand the changes in the way young people relate to others, including their elders, when they leave the ‘country' and move into the towns and cities.

The late Professor Clare Graves, who developed a bio-psychosocial model of human behaviour, has been a major influence in my thinking. His theories have helped me view human cultural behaviour from a developmental perspective. I have also been deeply influenced by working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have taught me what it is like to see the world from a collectivist rather than individualist perspective. I still default to an individualist worldview, but I'm more conscious that I am doing it!

My advice to psychology students is to think broadly how psychological knowledge can be applied and remember that the context in which human behaviour occurs is critical!

In my view, opportunities and challenges are intrinsically linked. Social psychologists have an important role in helping a higher expression of human interaction emerge. The future of the human race depends on human beings being able to interact harmoniously with each other and accepting that all of us are in this together.