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What Is CommunityPsychology

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  • community psychology
  • social psychology
  • cross-cultural psychology

Community psychology is a specialty area concerned with how individuals relate to society. Have you ever wondered how people can become more active contributors in their communities? Or do you ever think about how community issues can impact the health and wellness of individuals? These are both major topics of interest within the field of community psychology.

This is a fairly broad and far-reaching subject within psychology, synthesizing elements from other disciplines including sociology, political science, public health, cross-cultural psychology and social psychology. Psychologists working in this field look at the cultural, economic, social, political and environmental that shape and influence the lives of people all over the globe.

The focus of community psychology can be both applied and theoretical, but it is oftentimes a mixture of both. While some community psychologists conduct research on theoretical issues, others take this information and put it into immediate use to identify problems and develop solutions within communities.

History of Community Psychology

Community psychology began to emerge during the 1960s as a growing group of psychologists became dissatisfied with the ability of clinical psychology to address broader social issues. Today, many recognize a 1965 meeting of psychologists at the Swampscott Conference as the official beginning of contemporary community psychology. At this meeting, those in attendance concluded that psychology needed to take a greater focus on community and social change in order to address mental health and well-being.

Since that time, the field has continued to grow. Division 27 of the American Psychological Association, Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA), is devoted to the subject of community psychology. Several academic journal are also devoted to the topic, including the American Journal of Community Psychology, the Journal of Community Psychology and the Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology.

Community Psychology at Work

Some things that a community psychologist might do include:

  • Finding ways to help disadvantaged or disenfranchised individuals feel more connected with their local communities

  • Understanding social issues among minority groups

  • Developing, implementing and evaluating action-oriented community-based programs

  • Building relationships between individuals and community groups

  • Evaluate organizations, governments and communities in order to promote participation and diversity

Community psychologists can be employed in a number of areas including education, government, nonprofit groups, community organizations and private consulting. Within the educational system, community psychologists often work at colleges and universities to teach courses and conduct original research. In government setting, they may work in health and human services for local, state and federal governments.

Community Psychology and Related Fields

People sometimes confuse community psychology with related fields like social work, cross-cultural psychology and social psychology. While community psychology has many similarities to related fields and often draws upon these disciplines, it is important to not some major distinctions. For example, community psychology is centered on action and solving problems much like clinical psychology. However, clinical psychology tends to have a greater focus on solving individual problems, while community psychology is devoted to understanding the underlying social issues that contribute to these problems.

Community psychology also takes a holistic, systems-based approach to understanding behavior and how people fit in to society, much like related fields such as sociology and social psychology. Community psychology tends to be more centered on applying psychological and social knowledge to solving problems, creating real-world solutions and taking immediate action.

Like public health and mental health counseling, community psychology is also focused on the prevention of problems and the promotion of health and well-being. It also has a very strong research-oriented component. Community psychologists often perform original research, develop theoretical frameworks and then apply this knowledge directly within public and private communities.

As you can see, community psychology overlaps with a number of other disciplines. However, it has its own unique and important contributions to make. The major goals of this field are to create new ways to empower people within their communities, promote social change and diversity, promote individual and community well-being and prevent disorder.

Training and Educational Requirements

Most community psychologists hold at least a master's or doctorate degree in psychology. There are some community psychology programs available, but other students opt to earn an interdisciplinary degree or a general degree with a focus on community psychology topics.

Some of the coursework that an aspiring community psychologist should take includes:

  • Social behavior
  • Research methods
  • Statistics
  • Public health
  • Organizational development
  • Grant writing
  • Developing prevention programs
  • Developmental psychology
  • Sociology
  • Social problems
  • Community development

Training and education in community psychology focuses on both research and application. Graduate students receive extensive training in research methods and social statistics, as well as how to put this information to practical use through developing action-oriented community programs.

According to James G. Kelley, it is important that community psychologists exhibit several important qualities. First, it is important for these professionals to become part of the communities that they are trying to change. Community psychologists must also embrace diversity, since their work places them in close contact with people from all walks of life. Finally, community psychologists must be prepared to face challenges and deal with limited resources. In order to effect change in a community, these professionals often have to make the best of what is available and seek out new ways to gain assistance and build partnerships within the community.


Dalton, J.H., Elias, M.J., & Wandersman, A. (2001). Community Psychology: Linking Individuals and Communities. Stamford, CT: Wadsworth.

Kelly, J. G. (1971). Qualities for the community psychologist. American Psychologist, 26(10), 897-903.

Levine, M., & Perkins, D.V. (1997). Principles of Community Psychology (2nd Ed). New York: Oxford University Press.

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