Western psychology and African psychology are distinctly different approaches. This is seen by their contrasting views or ideas of the self and perspectives in human behaviour. This essay will expound on the central themes of Western derived theories, Behaviourism by John B. Watson and Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud. Where the individual underlying assumptions when it comes to understandings of the self, mental health as well as how both theories differ from African understanding will be outlined. The ethics and pitfalls of non-critical applications of these theories in South African context and the basic concerns related to imposing these Western derived theories on the South African population will also be covered in this essay.
The Behaviourism theory was founded by John B. Watson between the 1913 and the late 1920s. This theory places emphasis that “each is made and not born” (Weiten, 2018). Watson redefined psychology and stated that since psychology is science, it is important that it is objective (Weiten,2018) and in order to achieve that it should be based more on observable behaviour and not mental processes or other internal attributes of the mind as they cannot be seen to make them valid for research. Based on the behaviourism assumptions, babies are born in a tabula rasa (blank state) and that their personality or behaviour develops according to their experiences with the environment as they grow (Swarts,2016). Through B. F. Skinners research of operant conditional device known as the Skinners Boxes, where he used rats and pigeons in his experiment to show that behaviour is fully governed by external stimuli (Weiten, 2018) and that outcomes from these stimuli determine whether the response is repeated or not,which is the likelihood of the behaviour occurring again, this is called reinforcement. This thus elucidates that our conscious decisions are not the ultimate reason for our actions, but those actions are performed because of experiences in the external environment, “free will is an illusion”(Weiten, 2018).
The Psychoanalysis theory on the other hand by the Austrian Physician Sigmund Freud, focuses more on what happens in the mind, the unconsciousness. According to Freud, the unconsciousness of a human being consists of thoughts, memories from childhood and desires, which are below the surface of the consciousness (Weiten, 2018). These unconscious forces greatly influence peoples thoughts and most importantly their behaviour. They are mainly sexual and aggressive impulses (Swarts, 2018), which people often suppress down to their unconsciousness as some of these impulses are found to be immoral or unacceptable by society, as a result people will tend to build and implement defence mechanisms to try and manage the anxiety and all other negative feelings that these impulses impose (Swarts, 2016). Freud referred to the mind as the Psyche, where he used psychoanalysis to define it as having three parts, which are the ID, Ego and Superego. They are the composition of personality where each of them have their own functions and all work in conjunction to bring about the behaviour of one ( Essays.UK.2018). The ID is the first to develop, it is found in the unconscious and is present in new born babies. The ID consists of biological impulses such as the need to eat, avoid pain as well as gain sexual pleasure. Secondly, he introduces the Ego which also forms part of the psyche. This part of personality develops as the child develops. The child is not initially born with the Ego, this is the part at the psyche which determines what are the appropriate actions as well as mediates between the ID and Super ego. The super ego is thus a representation of aspects that are instilled in a child such as morals and values (Essays.UK, 2018).
The description of both theories show the contrasting views based on the results from the assumptions of each. In these theories behaviour is influenced by different factors. In psychoanalysis the behaviour is determined by forces of the unconsciousness whereas behaviourism is determined by a stimuli from the environment. However, both of these theories are focused on individualism and have been criticized for dehumanizing people, as Skinner used animals during his research to prove his hypothesis and how animals are totally different from human beings, taking into account with how animals live and behave is totally different from humans. Freud theory was criticized for emphasizing childhood sexuality so much which was difficult to do empirical theory.
From what was outlined above one is able to see how strikingly different western psychology is from African psychology. In African psychology the self is defined as interdependent on an individual’s relationships with others within their communities, umuntu ungomuntu ngabantu ( a person is a person through other human beings) (Mkhize 2004). This way of viewing the world and defining is mostly found in South Africa, which places emphasis on the importance of ubuntu, as well as what makes one umuntu (Hoppers,2002). African psychology is built on tenets of interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings as well as the spiritual. However as mentioned before it is different from Western psychology as in western, the self is viewed as an independent subject, which is well defined by internal compositions of the mind such as mental processes, thoughts and emotions (Mkhize, 2006). Even though indigenous (African) psychologies also involves mental processes but it is different because these mental processes are within cultural context that is based on the values, beliefs and norms of ones culture, which ultimately shapes their behaviour (Mkhize, 2006). In indigenous societies time is concentrated on both present and past, in which a relationship with ancestors (past) and their relationship with their current members of their communities is maintained, whereas western psychology places emphasis on the future and time being linear (Mkhize, 2006).
Even though it is said that indigenous philosophical concepts that are superficially congruent with western epistemology, such as ubuntu, is selectively included into western psychology and they are modified to become acceptable (Vermeulen, 2011). Imposing western derived theories would oppress the traditional knowledge systems as western psychology has limited understanding on culture and diversity, which is what makes up South Africa. This will ultimately negatively alter the importance of interconnectedness and interdependence among South Africans.
Seeing how Western psychology neglects the role that communities play in an individual’s life it is thus insufficient in capturing knowledge systems, which could lead to failure of understanding during research of studying people ( the manner in which they think and view the world). Thus western derived theories should not be imposed but rather adapt and include the knowledge systems of African psychology.
- Essay, UK.(November 2018). A comparison between psychoanalysis and behaviourism. Retrieved from
- Hoppers, C.A.(2002).Indigenous knowledge and the integration of knowledge systems: Towards a philosophy of Articulation. New Africa Books.
- Mkhize, N.(2006). Psychology: An African perspective. Critical Psychology, 24-50.
- Swartz, L., de la Rey, C., Duncan, N, Townsend, L.& O’Neill, V.(2016) Psychology: An introduction (fourth Edition) Oxford University Press, Southern Africa.
- Weiten, W.(2018).Psychology Themes and variations(3rd SA Edition).Hampshire, UK: Learning.
- Vermeulen, J.(2011).redefining psychology in a South African context: facilitating epidemiological curiosity, University of South Africa.