Published in Proceedings of The International Society for Theoretical Psychology, Larrain, A., Haye, A., Morgan, M., Sullivan, G., & Cresswell, J. (Eds.). Captus Press. 2015


Neoliberal Psychology: A Macro Cultural Psychological Analysis


Carl Ratner

Institute for Cultural Psychology and Education



This paper outlines macro cultural psychology's contribution to cultural psychological theory. We explain the roots of cultural psychological theory in Vygotsky’s theory of culture and psychology named socio-historical psychology. We then amplify Vygotsky’s theory under the name “macro cultural psychology.” We demonstrate that centrally important to culture and psychology and their interrelation are macro cultural factors such as social institutions, cultural artifacts, and cultural concepts.

The distinctive perspective of macro cultural psychology is illustrated through exploring the impact of neoliberal social philosophy and political-economic practices on psychological phenomena. We review empirical studies that specifically research this relation.

Exploring neoliberal psychology from the macro cultural psychological perspective leads to cultural critique and reform. This is an emancipatory, political feature of macro cultural psychology.


Macro Cultural Psychology


Macro cultural psychology is an extension of Vygotsky’s socio-cultural psychological theory. Vygotsky and Luria outlined the revolutionary idea that human psychological phenomena are fundamentally and essentially cultural phenomena:

“Perception depends on historically established human practices that can alter the system of codes used to process incoming information” (Luria, 1976, p. 21; see Ozgen and Davies, 2002; Ozgen, 2004).

Cultural factors replace natural factors as determinants of psychology over ontological development:

The child’s natural memory is replaced by the new artificial [notational] methods. . . . His memory begins to work in a new manner. . . . In the course of his development, the child does not simply train his memory, but rearms it, shifting to new systems, as well as to new techniques for remembering. . . . If we wish to analyze the memory of an adult person, we would have to examine it not in the form nature gave it, but in the form that culture created. Indeed, it would be completely wrong to limit memory to those laws of reinforcement and reproduction of experience that are embedded in the natural mnemonic functions” (Vygotsky and Luria, 1993, pp. 179, 180, 186–187).

Vygotsky (1997, pp. 211-212) concretized culture as divided into social classes: the “social environment is class-based in its very structure. . . . We must be profoundly historical and must always present man’s behavior in relation to the class situation at the given moment. . . . Class membership defines man’s psychology and man’s behavior.”

Macro cultural psychology develops these ideas. Psychology is an element of culture, it develops with cultural developments; psychology has cultural origins, characteristics, and functions. It is objectified in culture and socialized by culture.

Psychological phenomena reflect and maintain culture. They crystalize culture; express culture, embody culture, and reveal culture. Psychological phenomena are the subjectivity of culture, the subjectivity that motivates, plans, and maintains culture, and also reflects on culture and calls for changing it (Ratner, 2012).


A new unit of analysis

Culturally-formed psychology is a unit of analysis for macro cultural psychology. This unit of analysis may be termed "psychological phenomenon-laden-with-macro-cultural-features." It is a Gestalt that integrates cultural factors and psychology in a single unit.  This unit of analysis is more important for cultural psychology than word meaning, which contemporary Vygotsky scholars and activity theorists emphasize.

James Baldwin called this unit of analysis a socius. Bourdieu called it “habitus.” He called it a form of “cultural capital.” It is psychology that derives from, has the character, and function of capital; capital is built into psychological habituses.

This unit of analysis is a new kind, or level, of phenomenon, with distinctive origins, features, dynamics, relationships, and functions. These require a new level of analysis.


 Macro cultural psychology inverts the traditional conception of culture and psychology

Mainstream Psychology construes biological processes and interpersonal processes as basic psychological processes, and relegates cultural processes to secondary, tangential, supplemental psychological processes. The traditional formulation of emotions, for example, is that “basic” biological, evolutionary processes determine the activation and content of emotions – anger, fear, etc. – but that culture may influence the behavioral expression of emotions. Schizophrenia is similarly regarded as a basic, natural, biologically determined process that allows for some cultural forming of the content of delusions. Africans and Japanese may have different content in their disorientated psyche, however, the disorientation is basically a universal, natural process determined by genetic vulnerabilities. Macro cultural psychology reverses this theory and priorities macro cultural factors as the primary, basic processes of psychology. Vygotsky even said that macro cultural factors are the mechanisms of psychology: "Art is the social technique of emotion, a tool of society which brings the most intimate and personal aspects of our being into the circle of social life" (Vygotsky, 1971, p. 249).

The power of macro cultural factors over cognition is revealed in the relation of social class to cognitive development. A study compared the cognitive development of children from 5 years old to 10. Of children who scored in the top 25% when they were five, 65% remained in the top 25% when they were ten if they were from high SES families. However only 27% remained in the top 25% if they were from low SES families. Conversely, of 5 year olds in the bottom 25% of cognitive achievement, only 34% remained at that level when they were 10, if they came from high SES families. However, 67% remained low achievers if they came from low SES families. Social class completely overwhelms early cognitive competence as a determinant and predictor of 10 year old cognitive development. No psychological, biological, or personal factor can account for this enormous class difference in cognitive development (Ratner, 2012, p. 426).

A similar example is that Japanese eating disorders have increases 600% in the past 25 years. Only macro cultural changes can account for this massive, rapid change. Obviously, Japanese genes, neurology, and hormones have not changed this rapidly and massively to precipitate eating disorders. Neurons and hormones may have changed in response to cultural changes, but they did not determine the latter or the eating disorders. Biological changes are subordinate and auxiliary to cultural changes. The basic processes of Japanese disorders are macro cultural factors. They must be the focus of psychological science in order to understand eating disorders.

Familial interactions are similarly subordinate to, and derived from, macro cultural factors. Bronfenbrenner famously depicted this relationship as a set of concentric circles in which the micro level is surrounded by macro culture. Family interactions prepare individuals for participation in the macro culture; they must therefore be congruent with these.

(Psychology curricula should be reconfigured to make cultural processes and cultural theory the core, basic processes, while biological processes, personality, learning, socialization, perception, and cognition should be subsumed under them.)


The Emancipatory Political Implications of Macro Cultural Psychology


An important value of the macro cultural psychological unit of analysis is its socio-political emancipatory potential. Bringing culture and society into the study of psychological phenomena is an enlightening psychological science for understanding society. It empowers people to evaluate society and change it. Macro cultural psychology is thus an emancipatory psychological science.

Macro cultural psychology supports Foucault’s insistence that "The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the working of institutions which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight them" (Foucault, 2006, p. 37, 41). Macro cultural psychology engages in this kind of cultural critique by elucidating concrete macro cultural factors through the lens of psychological phenomena.


Neoliberal Psychology


An important example of the emancipatory and scientific power of macro cultural psychology is its analysis of neoliberal political-economic-ideological cultural factors (institutions, concepts, artifacts) and their psychological effects. I call the latter “neoliberal psychology.” It is an example of what I have called psychology of oppression (Ratner 2014a, b) and pathological normalcy (Ratner, 2014c).

Neoliberalism is a major macro cultural factor that has been systematically restructuring all social institutions and cultural concepts. In the area of education, for example, neoliberalism has restructured curricula, administration, budgets, cognitive functions of students, the social role of teachers – including their identity as service workers (readily trained and retrained, and disposable) rather than professionals – requirements for research in universities, and even knowledge itself – i.e., as an instrumental commodity that produces publications at a rapid rate for advantage and profit (Mullen, et al., 2013).


Macro cultural psychological research methodology

1) Macro cultural psychological research must commence with a historical analysis of neoliberalism in order to understand its foundational principles.

2) Neoliberal political practices are then identified in order to demonstrate how the principles are practiced, who promotes them, how they promote them, who benefits from them, and who loses.

3) The ideology of neoliberalism is compared to this reality to ascertain its truth or falseness. This is crucial for understanding psychological effects. For if the ideology is false, then it mystifies peoples’ understanding of society and their own psychology. Mystification would then be a symbolic cultural factor that social scientists would need to research.

4) The material and psychological effects of neoliberal praxis and ideology are identified.

Margaret Thatcher framed the official neoliberal cultural template for explaining poverty: "Nowadays there really is no primary poverty left in this country . . . In Western countries we are left with problems that aren’t poverty. All right, there may be poverty because they don’t know how to budget, don’t know how to spend their earnings, but now you are left with the really hard fundamental character-personality defect" (Gane, 2014 describes the development of neoliberal theory that underlay Thatcher’s comment). This cultural conception, or template, attributes poverty and wealth to competencies and decisions of individuals. Society is reduced to a sum of individual acts.

This is an ideological distortion of social reality and psychology. Society is not a set of independent individuals who are responsible for their own behavior. Society is a system of macro cultural factors that are systematically controlled by groups of people exercising power. This is obviously true for neoliberal restructuring of education that affects the educational psychology of students, and ultimately the class structure of society. Poverty is caused by economic policies and practices such as mechanizing labor, lowering wages, and outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries. The Great Recession was caused by speculative financial practices by leading banks and mortgage companies – which have been prosecuted and fined billions of dollars. Thatcher’s neoliberal ideology inverts the cause of poverty (and behavior in general) from government and business policies to individual decisions.

 The question macro cultural psychologists ask is, what are the psychological affects of neoliberal practices and its mystifying ideology?


Research on neoliberal psychology

Shildrick, and MacDonald (2013, p. 285) found that many poor people accept neoliberal ideology as their interpretive schema (cultural capital) for understanding poverty. One unemployed British woman said: "A lot of people round here are living in poverty but I think a lot of it’s their own doing".

Luxton (2010) documented and elucidated this phenomenon in an empirical study. It is a model of cultural psychological research and deserves to be presented in detail. For it deepens our theoretical understanding of psychology. She interviewed 137 Canadians in 2000 who had suffered a calamity such as unemployment, underemployment, medical catastrophe. These were in socio-economic domains that had been attacked by neoliberal political reforms. E.g., cuts in social services, imposing cumbersome procedures for applying for social benefits, forcing the participants to rely on their own devices to cope with tragedies. Luxton looked at how neoliberal ideology affected the subjects’ response to their individual tragedies. Her methodology is a form of “epistemic frame analysis” that examines the knowledge that community members advance and defend, their identities as portrayed within the larger sphere of political action, the underlying values revealed by such action, and how individuals legitimize those actions (Mullen, et al., 2013, p. 189). Luxton found that the victims of neoliberalism internalized the values of the neoliberal political economy that had impoverished them. These neoliberal values were:

1) Personal Responsibility/Choice/Identity

   Participants blamed selves for behavior. They directed anger at themselves. Their behavior was their own choice: “At 55 I have no income. Now I realize I should have done things differently. I should have gotten more education although there never seemed time for that. I could have saved more; found a cheaper place to live and put more money in the bank. Looking back I just see how I made so many mistakes that got me here.”

Behavior was considered as part of their identity: ”What else could I do? I had to be true to myself.” "Maybe if I were smarter I would figure out how to do it better.”

Successful individuals similarly took responsibility for success. “I did well because I worked hard. Anyone can succeed if they do that. I have no use for whiners and complainers who want government handouts because life treated them unfairly.”

2) No Social Analysis of Behavior

     Participants expressed very little appreciation of the ways in which circumstances that were largely out of their control had shaped their lives. They knew that circumstances were out there but were not clear what they really were, how they affected life, or how they could be changed. The focus on individual causation, responsibility, and choice of behavior blunted social understanding.

    This finding is generalized throughout the population. A British survey found that "less than one in ten of the population gives structural explanations for inequality" (Shildrick and MacDonald, 2013, p. 297).

    A study of teachers found similar results:

In the group of pre-service teachers that form the focus of the present analysis, many found critical perspectives on schooling discouraging, and vociferously rejected them on those grounds. Faith in individual agency and the basic fairness of the current system was deeply ingrained in their early schooling, familial values, and cultural socialization (and in other elements of their teacher education program), often sitting uncomfortably alongside their awareness of discrimination and marginalization. In their own narratives of schooling, these young women consistently de-emphasized the influence of ethnic, class, and historical factors… as a source of guiding values in their lives and crucial support for their professional ambitions (Luykx and Heyman, 2013, p. 353; see also Kuziemko and Stantcheva, 2013).


3) Discount Social Responsibility

Luxton’s respondents felt that no one else was responsible for what happened to them. They did not blame anyone or any factor or structure outside themselves. Personal responsibility replaced social responsibility.



Psychological and social conclusions of macro cultural psychological research into neoliberalism


The empirical studies we have reviewed point to important theoretical conclusions about the cultural nature of human psychology in general.

1) Peoples’ subjective interpretations of their behavior and its causes incarnate the cultural ideology of neoliberalism. Numerous individuals’ psychology is remarkably consistent around core neoliberal tenets. Individuals may emphasize different tenets, but they are all tenets of neoliberalism. This demonstrates that official culture is effective in organizing a culturally coherent psychology.

The participants did not construct their own  psychology/consciousness/subjectivity. Nor did their psychology/consciousness/subjectivity resist, negotiate, or redefine neoliberal values with countervailing personal interests and meanings. Agency reproduces and performs macro cultural concepts/ideology.

2) Individual agency internalizes and externalizes/ reproduces harmful macro cultural factors. In our case, the neoliberal values that participants adopt are the basis of the policies that dispossessed them of their jobs, pensions and health care. In addition, neoliberal values are a false ideology that blames the victims for their destitution when, in fact, neoliberalism is the cause.

3) Thus, people accept harmful ideologies that prevent them from understanding their society, the reasons for their social positioning, and the reasons for their social behavior. People do not necessarily understand their objective interests concerning what it good and bad for them. This is psychology of oppression (Ratner, 2014a, b). In 1843 Marx wrote about the oppressed consciousness of the working class: “our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analyzing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form” (Marx, 1975, p. 144).

4) Peoples’ interpretations of their failures are not the result of general, abstract processes such as "social comparison." Their interpretation, reasoning, perception, emotions, self-concept, and motivation are framed by, and derived from, concrete features of macro cultural factors that have been designed by, and administered by, social-economic-political-religious leaders.

       Mystification and self-blame are built into neoliberal ideology -- as the privatization of risk. It is a false description and explanation of social reality. People who utilize the ideology absorb the mystification, ignorance, and self-blame that are built into it. Neoliberal ideology is a technology of the self (in Foucault’s words); it is cultural capital (in Bourdieu’s words).

      These findings confirm macro cultural psychology’s tenet that psychology originates in macro cultural factors, is objectified in them, is socialized by them, and operated (or administered) by them, and is an element of them.

5) Ideology is a technology that operates psychological functioning. It is an operating mechanism as language is. Neoliberal ideology blocked Luxton’s participants from perceiving and understanding social institutions, social position, and their own behavior and self-interpretation. Neoliberal ideology additionally blocked emotional outrage at the limited availability of services and the lack of social responsibility in social institutions. In this view, emotional docility is determined by macro cultural factors, not by internal psycho-biological mechanisms such as repression or sublimation.

       Neoliberal ideology prevents people from understanding that their self-understanding of their behavior and the social results of their behavior (whether positive or negative) derive from a macro cultural factor, namely, neoliberal ideology. The reason is that neoliberal ideology attributes all behavior/activity, including self-understanding, to personal choice, not to any cultural factors. Neoliberalism is a self-denying, self-obfuscating ideology that influences people while denying its influence (Rose, 1999).

    All ideologies mystify oppressive cultural factors so that their victims cannot challenge them. Religion, for example, blames God for misfortune, rather than the political economy. However, religion does not try to hide itself as the source of the concept, god. Neoliberalism is unique in denying itself as the source of individualistic attitudes and actions.

6) Psychological phenomena have cultural-political qualities and functions. Emotional docility and personal responsibility for behavior are psychological features of neoliberalism that strengthened the political economy by impairing rejection of it. We may say that Ss had neoliberal emotions, as well as neoliberal perceptions, reasoning, motivation, and self-concept.

7) Cultural ideology is a more powerful determinant of psychology than social reality is. People believe the ideology of personal construction and responsibility instead of perceiving, cognizing, resenting, and rejecting the structural causes of their social, material, and psychological misfortune.

8) Perception can be misperception. This is especially prominent in societies where mystification is pronounced. This cultural-psychological condition requires an appropriate epistemology and methodology to comprehend culture and psychology. For subjective interpretations about the meaning of events and the self are often wrong. Perception and interpretation must be critically and externally analyzed to detect ignorance and mistakes about social and psychological phenomena (see section 3.1). This is what any teacher does. Any teacher compares a student’s performance with objective, independent knowledge of the problem and its solution. When this comparison reveals deficient knowledge, the teacher helps the student to better understand the material. The same is true for ascertaining individual’s self-understanding. Dilthey called this besserverstehen.

     People's level of mystification is a measure of their oppression by macro cultural factors. For mystification is socially caused and functional; it is not mere absence of information. Mystification is incorrect information that is inculcated by macro factors such as neoliberalism.

9) Psychological effects – properly elucidated by a critical, objective, cultural-psychological epistemology and methodology – illuminate real features of neoliberalism that contradict official claims/ideology. Official claims are that neoliberalism promotes creativity, independence, motivation, rationality (choice), excellence, enrichment, and fulfillment. However, psychological effects demonstrate that neoliberal capitalism promotes authoritarian control over people, fatalism, conformity, apathy, mystification, social ignorance, self-ignorance, anxiety, helplessness, and depression. Few of Luxton’s participants had any sense that they could ask or fight for more services or change their lives. Macro cultural psychological research thus reveals culture as well as psychology.

       The real psychological and social and material effects of neoliberalism are what neoliberal leaders truly desire.

The unequal distribution of educational resources – the restricted opportunities offered to some groups of children, the persistent imperialist/racist/patriarchal mythos that shapes the curriculum – are not ‘design flaws’ of schooling, but rather design features, central to the functioning of the social system. Whereas mainstream critics often claim that schools are ineffective at fulfilling their designated mission of general social improvement, advocates of critical pedagogy claim that schools are operating as intended: that their much-ballyhooed ‘failures’ are in fact manifestations of their effectiveness at reproducing a stratified society (Luykx and Heyman, 2013, pp. 347-348).

     Mystification of corporate control of resources, institutions, and policies is functional for obfuscating their destructive character and preventing revolt against them. Social institutions reproduce themselves as they deny what they are like and their influence on people (ibid., p. 348).  

      A case study of the impact of neoliberal reform efforts in Chile shows how neoliberal policy requirements in education – e.g., the standardized test-based accountability apparatus imported into the country at the insistence of the World Bank -- have worsened the position of lower SES students in public school. Psychological effects parallel those of Luxton’s participants: “The cost was evidenced by increased fatalism, hopelessness, disengagement from school, civic life and the dominant culture as well as students coming to view themselves, their backgrounds and home life as the cause for academic failure—as opposed to income inequality, persistent poverty, or social/cultural dislocation” (Cassell and Nelson, 2013, pp. 257, 258).

     As with Luxton’s participants, Chilean participants internalized their oppression and actively reproduced/performed it: “Perhaps the most salient aspect of the Chilean case study is the way in which the forms of association created by excluded groups worked to exacerbate that exclusion” (ibid., p. 258).

10) Identifying the psychological effects of neoliberalism's politics, social structure, and ideology – though an objective, external, critical analysis of cultural factors and individuals’ responses to them -- helps emancipate people from ignorance, mystification, and social oppression. Macro cultural psychology is unique in engaging in this cultural-political analysis of psychology’s origins, characteristics, and function. This analysis leads directly to transforming macro cultural factors. Macro cultural psychology illuminates, critiques, and precipitates changing society via the lens of psychological research. Deep analysis of the cultural roots, characteristics, and function of psychology leads to the deepest critique of culture and the deepest transformation of it.

11) Macro cultural psychology makes the discipline of psychology politically emancipatory by deepening its cultural orientation. Psychological theories, methods, and interventions have political consequences, as well as political bases/assumptions. Most psychological theories, methods, and interventions ignore cultural origins, characteristics, and functions of psychological phenomena. Paradoxically, this is true of most contemporary cultural psychologists and Vygotskyans (Ratner, 2012). This oversight recapitulates the error of neoliberal ideology, that denies macro cultural influences on behavior. It entraps people in the oppressive macro cultural factors that do structure behavior. Macro cultural psychology calls for reform in psychological science as part of macro cultural change necessary to emancipate people psychologically, materially, and politically.




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