The Society for the
Study of Social Issues


Emerging Scholars' Column

Creative Maladjustment and the Psychology of Change We Can Believe In

By William M. Davis, Jr, APA/SAMHSA Predoctoral Fellow
Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Each February I make it a point to reread Martin Luther King, Jr.’s landmark speech to the American
Psychological Association wherein he called for psychologists to be creatively maladjusted to societal problems by addressing social justice issues in our research and practice. Upon reading his speech this year, I could not help but to notice striking similarities between the state of our society then and the state of our society now. As was true of the 1960s our nation is faced with tremendously high unemployment rates, our urban centers are plagued with violence, and our country is engaged in a war that is hotly debated. Like then, our nation seems to be in peril, with large groups of people being polarized on important issues.

Nonetheless, there is one notable exception between then and now. While the majority of the Civil Rights Movement was marked by executive ambiguity on social issues, we are now living in a “yes we can” moment. Utilizing his intellect and charisma, then Senator Obama infused our nation with hope and, for the first time that many of us can remember, there is an unmistakable air of optimism and creative maladjustment that extends from the White House to everyday Americans – even those who had not previously participated in the political process. We are a nation at work and our work toward change, our collective commitment to being creatively maladjusted, seems to be bringing us closer together. This is not surprising considering what is known about in-group/out-group relations and the power of bringing groups together by engaging them in a joint task.

As the presidential campaign progressed I had the fortune of watching the presidential debates and participating in political activities with a member of an opposing “camp.” While much of the United States recognized the need for change, our interactions with those from opposing camps were oftentimes frustrating and passions ran high. In the process of our political punditry and volunteer activities, our playful, yet ongoing debate turned from ideological sparring to a more meaningful processing of our experiences around race/racism, which also greatly influenced our predictions. In retrospect, I now realize that while we had different experiences with race, we had more in common than what we had previously assumed. Among other things, we realized that we both had been impacted by our nation’s roots in racism, yet both desired to work for something different. It seems that the “work” we engaged in together greatly benefited our personal relationship. For me, it changed the way I thought about myself and my counterpart. Similarly, it’s quite possible that the “work” of change to which Barack Obama enlisted the entire nation may have cemented his election as President of the United States and improved in-group/out-group relations in our country. This is terribly exciting for me as a junior psychologist who, like many others, holds a personal commitment to social justice issues. As researchers and health service providers, we may well be the first generation of psychologists who have the privilege of carrying out M.L. King’s mandate during a time when doing so is considered the norm.

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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin