Community Psychology

In Pursuit of Liberation and Well-Being

by Geoffrey Nelson and Isaac Prilleltensky

Ethics in Community Psychology

Ethics involves thinking and acting in ways that are morally justifiable. Of course, the meaning of “morally justifiable” is controversial. These two words beg the question morally justifiable according to whom? Well, speaking for ourselves, morally justifiable according to the values we presented in Chapter 3. We stand behind these values. This does not mean that they are indisputable. We do not pretend to have presented the authoritative list of eternally correct values. Yet, in our opinion, they represent defensible values for all the reasons presented in Chapter 3.

Essentially, the question of ethics in community psychology deals with how to act in morally justifiable ways, and how to react in the face of conflicting values. But before we answer these questions, we need to know what higher purpose values serve. Values, in our view, serve well-being, which, as defined in the book, includes individuals, relationships, and communities. Therefore, we want to concern ourselves not just with the well-being of single individuals, but also with the health and wellness of entire groups. As a result of this reasoning, we can face, as community psychologists, three kinds of conflicts:
  1. Conflicts among values
  2. Conflicts among people
  3. Conflicts among individuals and groups based on diverging values

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Conflicts among values

  1. Conflict between self-determination and support for community structures.
  2. Conflict between self-determination and participation and collaboration.
  3. Conflict between the value of caring and compassion and support for social structures.

Let’s explore each one of them. Conflict between self-determination and support for community structures might exist when the needs of the individual are undermined by community rules. For example, Isaac’s sister lived in a kibbutz for nearly two decades. The kibbutz is a collectivist society without private property. For a while, she wanted to continue her academic graduate studies while the kibbutz claimed that they did not need any more early childhood educators. From the perspective of the collective, this would not be a good investment of resources. From my sister’s perspective, it was a personal goal she wished to fulfill. Similar examples abound in institutional life. Employees wish to do something they love while institutions expect them to do something different that will benefit the organization.

The second type of conflict, between self-determination and collaboration, might take place when certain individuals have a hard time agreeing with the collective due to unique views, beliefs, and convictions. On one hand, the values of diversity and self-determination prescribe that we make social spaces as tolerant of opposing views as possible. On the other hand, groups need to make decisions and move on with their agendas, even if a minority disagrees. This is a conflict because we don’t want to suppress the views of minorities, especially if the minority view happens to come from individuals who may have experienced disadvantage in some form. Should participatory processes be held up until we can reconcile all differences?

The third type of value conflict entails competition between caring and compassion and respect for societal rules. For example, in many countries like the United States, Canada and Australia, where I’ve lived, there are many undocumented immigrants. Some of them arrive in the country fleeing persecution or economic deprivation. A caring and compassionate attitude might dictate policies of leniency, whereas strict adherence to fair rules might say that they have to go back to their countries and apply for immigration like everybody else. None of these three examples have easy solutions. We wish to uphold principles that benefit the entire community while caring for individuals and respecting their unique background and wishes.

Conflicts among people

Given the work of community psychologists, the potential conflicts among individuals and groups are innumerable. For example:
  1. Conflict between teachers and parents
  2. Conflict between mental health patients and the psychiatric system
  3. Conflict between the community psychologist and her employer
Community psychologists often work in schools. As part of their preventive work they might institute parenting groups. In the course of their consultation and intervention they might realize that staff in the school holds stereotypical attitudes toward certain minority groups. At the same time, parents may reveal unfounded stereotypical attitudes toward teachers. The community psychologist may be caught in the role of confidant for both groups. On one hand, it is good that groups unveil their biases as this may facilitate resolution. On the other hand, it is a delicate situation for the community psychologist who wishes to remain effective without buying into the respective groups’ biases and stereotypes.

In the second example, there is a history of mental health patients complaining bitterly about the services they do or do not receive from the psychiatric system. Some of these have been documented in the book (see chapter 21, for example). The community psychologist, who may have been hired by a community mental health clinic to organize a self-help group, may discover that the organization is indeed falling short in its treatment of patients. Here the community psychologist will have to find a way to challenge his or her employer without risking deterioration in the relationship the clinic has with the service recipients. This connects to the third example in which the community psychologist is at odds with her superiors. The employer might be a health promotion unit, a health and human service organization or a university. Conflicts due to abuses of power are not uncommon.

Conflict among individuals and groups based on divergent value

Community psychologists might find themselves in the middle of arguments based on conflicting values, for example:
  1. One group of people support women’s rights for an abortion, another group opposes it
  2. One group of people supports universal health care, another group supports a private system
  3. One group of people supports abstinence as the only way to prevent teen pregnancy, another group supports delivering sex education and providing free condoms
These are only some of the many potential conflictive situations community psychologists might encounter. Now the question is how to deal with them. We suggest that it’s useful to think about conflict in terms of prevention and resolution.

Preventing ethical conflicts and dilemmas

Given that conflicts among values and people are rather predictable, it is sound practice to anticipate them and put them on the table before they occur. Several authors offer useful preventive and remedial guidelines (O’Neill, 1989; Roos, Visser, Pistorius, & Nefale, 2007; Schwartz & Hage, 2009; Trickett, 1998). The following are some useful measures:
  1. Clarify with all stakeholders involved if your participation is desired. It is entirely possible that some authority hires you to work on their behalf while the recipients of the “help” do not wish to engage with you.
  2. Establish with your partners, clients, students and colleagues ground rules and values. This simply means making explicit the values, principles, and guidelines that the group wishes to use in working together. For example, respecting each other’s opinions.
  3. Create organizational conditions that facilitate reflection and support. In a series of qualitative studies we conducted with colleagues in several cities, we found that professionals often refrain from disclosing ethical dilemmas due to fear of coming across as incompetent. A culture of fear precludes open communication, and, eventually, satisfactory and ethical professional conduct (Prilleltensky, Rossiter, & Walsh Bowers, 1996; Rossiter, Walsh-Bowers & Prilleltensky, 1996; Prilleltensky, Walsh-Bowers & Rossiter, 1999; Rossiter, Walsh-Bowers, & Prilleltensky, 2002; Walsh-Bowers, Rossiter, & Prilleltensky, 1996).
  4. Anticipate potential conflictive situations and try to come up with principles for solving them. If it is likely that some participants in a community wellness project (children, minorities) might feel undermined by another group (adults, immigration officials), it is best to think in advance of ways to deal with that.
  5. Try to answer the following questions with as much clarity as possible
    a. Whose interests are being served?
    b. Who benefits from interventions?
    c. Who has the power?
    d. What might be some of the unintended consequences of the intervention?
  6. Know the culture of the community. An intervention that might be helpful to children of one cultural background may harm others. Some cultures value emotional expressiveness while others value emotional restrain. This may create problems for children at home.
  7. Follow the ethical principles and codes of your respective professional association. Various psychological professional associations around the world have explicit guidelines for behaving with integrity, avoiding conflicts of interests, beneficence, etc.

Resolving ethical dilemmas

Once ethical dilemmas occur, it may be helpful to think about the following steps:
  1. Clarify the values at stake and how they might conflict with each other. It is useful to understand what values, principles or guidelines are at play and how they might have been violated by some of the players.
  2. Identify who is going to be affected by the conflict or ethical dilemma. Before rendering a possible decision it is crucial to understand who the players presently affected by the situation are and who might be affected by a resolution in the future.
  3. Consider the needs of the most vulnerable population. Some groups require more protection than others by virtue of their vulnerability.
  4. Pay attention to the multiple constructions of reality by the different parties involved in the conflict. We all have our own biases and assumptions. It is important to give all the parties involved an opportunity to express their views and to feel heard.
  5. Seek consultation. This is hard work! When conflicts arise we often feel threatened. We want to know that we are behaving ethically, with integrity, and that we are not violating any principles. We are afraid that we might be “in trouble”. It is good practice not to keep these dilemmas a secret but to disclose them to supervisors, peers and the appropriate parties.
  6. Consult the ethical guidelines of your professional association and, if needed, ethics officers of your institution and professional body. Organizations often have an ombudsperson or conflict of interest or ethics expert who might offer advice.


O’Neill, P. (1989) Responsible to whom? Responsible for what? Some ethical issues in community intervention. American Journal of Community Psychology, 17(3), 323-342.

Prilleltensky, I., Rossiter, A., & Walsh-Bowers, R. (1996). Preventing harm and promoting ethical discourse in the helping professions: conceptual, research, analytical, and action frameworks. Ethics and Behavior, 6(4), 287-306.

Prilleltensky, I., Walsh-Bowers, R., & Rossiter, A. (1999). Clinicians’ lived experience of ethics: Values and challenges in helping children. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 10(4), 315-342.

Roos, V., Visser, M., Pistorius, A., & Nefale, M. (2007). Ethics and community psychology. In N. Duncan, B. Bowman, A. Naidoo, J Pillay, and V Roos (Eds.), Community psychology: Analysis, context and action. Cape Town, South Africa: University of Cape Town Press.

Rossiter, A., Walsh-Bowers, R., & Prilleltensky, I. (1996). Learning from broken rules: Individualism, bureaucracy and ethics. Ethics and Behavior, 6(4), 307-320.

Rossiter, A., Walsh-Bowers, R., & Prilleltensky, I. (2002). Ethics as a located story: A comparison of North American and Cuban professional ethics. Theory and Psychology, 12, 533-556.

Schartz, J. & Hage, S. (2009). Prevention: Ethics, responsibility, and commitment to public well-being. In M. Kenny, A. Horne, P. Orpinas, and L. Reese (Eds.), Realizing social justice: The challenge of preventive interventions (pp. 123-140). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Trickett, E. (1998). Toward a framework for defining and resolving ethical issues in the protection of communities involved in primary prevention projects. Ethics and Behavior, 8, 321-337.

Walsh-Bowers, R., Rossiter, A., & Prilleltensky, I. (1996). The personal is the organizational in the ethics of hospital social workers. Ethics and Behavior, 6(4) 321-335.