The Limitations of Western Psychology Applied to African American Clients

Published 13 Mar 2017

The assumptions housed by Western psychology are often mistaken to be the best fit for all clients. Researchers and clinicians have identified serious shortcomings in the application of Western psychology to the effective treatment of African Americans (Belgrave & Allison, 2006). The two approaches of Western psychology and African American psychology diverge in several key areas, but they also share many important central features. A comparison and contrast of these approaches provides practical information for clinicians to utilize in the treatment planning process. African American psychology offers a rich collection of underutilized methodology that could improve the cultural competence of all clinicians (Parks, 2003).

Western and African American psychology prioritize scientific rigor as the cornerstone of empirical research. Both approaches emphasize the study of behavior, thoughts, and feelings. Much of the research from the African American psychology perspective fortifies its findings by incorporating a historical reflection when discussing current trends. Western research occasionally includes considerations of history, but fails to apply the effects of intergenerational oppression consistently (Parks, 2003). In this regard, Western psychology falls short in comparison. This is not usually the conclusion drawn by many professionals, who mistakenly view Western psychology as the dominant and singular example of the study of human behavior.

Those familiar with African American psychology develop a dual appreciation for both emic and etic treatment modalities and approaches to the study of psychology. Etic factors can be applied universally to all people. Western and African American approaches share a universal reliance on self-determination to initiate therapeutic change. The power and confidence is placed in the client to make the transformations necessary to improve his or her life. Western psychology and African American psychology can sometimes overemphasize self-determination, especially when working with a collectivistic client who values the progress of the group before his own gain. With shared weaknesses, both approaches could be strengthened by considering Eastern psychology approaches (Belgrave & Allison, 2006)

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African American psychology also recognizes the emic aspects of treatment, which are specific to cultural background. Diverging from Western psychology, African American psychology incorporates spirituality, rituals, and even dreams into the core of the study and treatment of people. Dreams are representative of the intense value placed on self-knowledge by the African American approach. Intuition and a strong reliance on the ability to understand oneself are prioritized. Western psychology often ignores the promotion of intuition in exchange for undivided attention on observable behaviors (Belgrave & Allison, 2006). Western psychology draws from a range of research and therapy methods, but fails to clearly identify which approaches work best for which groups of people. For example, Parks (2003) has found narrative therapy to be especially beneficial for African American clients.
Clinicians need to recognize worldwide treatment approaches and prioritize the expansion of their cultural competence. Identifying the barriers of Western psychology to provide the greatest client growth for African American clients it the first step. It should be followed with a deep respect and review of the assumptions held by African American psychology.


  • Belgrave, F. Z. & Allison, K. W. (2006). Introduction to African American psychology. In African
  • American Psychology: From Africa to America. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA, 4-25.
  • Parks, F. M. (2003). The role of African American folk beliefs in the modern therapeutic process.
  • Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(4), 456-467
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