Psychology and cis‑realism

Ian Parker looks at how the discipline of psychology is changing and the limits set by the backlash against trans* people.


The discipline of psychology, which fashions itself as a “science” of the individual, took root in the personnel divisions of US American corporations at the beginning of the twentieth century, and since then it expanded as an academic study of individuals and professional practice to encourage and enable people to cope as “normal” in capitalist society. Psychology was never scientific, but it guarded its supposed expertise through what some psychologists still call “prediction and control.”

The discipline nowadays primarily concerns itself with “cognition,” how we think, and behaviour, and brings those two elements together in “Cognitive Behaviour Therapy” (CBT), which aims to correct wrong thinking and behaviour and adapt people to what the psychologist deems to be “healthy” work, family and citizenship roles. However, crucially, psychology, which often does terrible things to people to keep them in line, is peopled by many well-meaning academics and practitioners who went into psychology to understand and help people. Those people and progressive arguments have come to the fore of the field, but now there is a backlash, one that targets trans* people.

Psy professions

Psychology is often confused with the range of other “psy professions” that have blossomed in the last century, and it struggles to keep its place in the status pecking order to prove its use. It differentiates itself from psychiatry, which often has more status and which relies on a medical model of distress. Psychiatrists are trained as medical doctors before they specialise in psychiatry, and they then carry their biological understanding of the body into their knowledge of the mind and behaviour.

Psychotherapy and counselling are lower down the food chain, and psychology tries to maintain its position above these rivals by claiming expertise in, for instance, CBT, and through protected titles like “clinical psychology” or “counselling psychology.” Off on the edge is psychoanalysis, a psy profession that is viewed with some suspicion for its loyalty to Freud and his followers but which is often as much of an obstacle to social change as the other approaches.

CBT is only one part of psychology, though nowadays its most successful part, and most psychology courses include a ragbag of theories only held together by its supposedly scientific experimental “method.” This is mainly a quantitative reductive pretend-scientific experimental method in which behaviour is measured, and internal mental states, the “cognitions,” are speculated about. Something that obsesses many psychologists in their research is how to explain what gender and sex “really” are.

Sex and gender

Remember, the aim of “explanation” in psychology is to “predict and control” behaviour, and so in experimental studies there is always a search for “causes” for what pushes and pulls people to do things. The many rather ridiculous “experiments” in the history of psychology extract people from real life and manipulate the conditions, the “variables,” so that the researcher can pin down what’s what. One of the most popular “research questions” that often pops up in questions after a talk on a psychological study, is about “sex differences.” Actual significant results of “sex difference” research are sparse; the differences are more sought for than found. And, symptomatically, psychologists routinely forget that the “Turing Test,” used as a benchmark for marking out artificial intelligence as different from human intelligence revolves around gender rather than the difference between man and machine.

Psychology has worried away for years about what role “sex differences” play in different kinds of situations, and the study of “sex differences” is at the heart of much “developmental psychology” and “personality theory.” There has then been much puzzling about an argument that was made forcefully by feminists, that there is a big difference between biological “sex” and social “gender” roles. Eventually, psychologists seemed to get it, to get the point that sex does not determine gender and certainly does not “cause” it.

But then, arguments from second and third-wave feminism, particularly from queer theory, upset and confused things again, confused the psychologists trying to look for for “causes” of behaviour. Queer theory, and the range of different perspectives in LGBTQIA+ politics, showed us that even “sex” was not a scientifically fixed baseline against which gender or anything else could or should be measured. People are assigned a biological sex at birth, and that is something that is often made invisible, and produces pain and exclusion to “intersex” people. Descriptions from so-called “biological” or “evolutionary” psychology about X and Y chromosomes are suffused with ideological assumptions, more ideology than pure “science.”

Psychology, research and society

These political arguments, particularly by feminists, and including feminists inside psychology from the 1970s onwards, opened a space for a challenge to what the discipline claimed as a “science.” There is now “feminist psychology” and “lesbian and gay psychology”, both of which jostle for room alongside “transpersonal psychology” and other kinds of approaches. Some are optimistic about these approaches, seeing a dramatic change in the discipline, while others are sceptical, arguing that turning different progressive political movements into “psychology” does not do us any favours.

At any rate, there has been a sea-change, with a new openness to kinds of research that do not search for “causes” of behaviour but instead ask people for their “reasons” for doing what they do. Many of the old certainties about what “gender” and “sex” are have been thrown into question, for example in a new attention to the “performative” dimension of our lives. That is, the “performance” of our identity and what we want identity to do in social relationships and society is of overriding importance, over and against so-called “expert” opinions, never mind psychologists, telling us who we really are and what we are.

These new political spaces inside psychology have led to different ideas about “science,” so instead of research simply collecting brute facts, we notice how the description of “facts” is always connected to history, ideology and our own standpoint. In recent years, some progressive ideas about collective action and social change have also appeared in the discipline, leading to a backlash. It is this backlash against progressive, if slow and limited shifts in psychology that is now so toxic.

Back to science, now to “cis-realism”

In conditions of austerity and creeping fascism, some psychologists have retreated to the most inhuman and reactionary positions, back to the hard-core individualist assumptions that were always there at the birth of the discipline. It is there that appeals to “science” are bolstered by “realist” arguments that cut against the lives of those who “deviate” from the norm, who deviate from the “cis” position that wants to make gender correspond to taken-for-granted biological difference. It is there that the backlash in psychology poses a particular threat to trans* lives.

A battleground now is over what science is about and who it is for. What kind of “science” psychology is has always been contentious. Most psychology is underpinned by an “empiricist” approach that only takes what can be observed in experimental research seriously. This approach limits human beings to what is observed about behaviour currently, at this point in history, to capitalism. A recent player in the debate has come from an approach called “realism,” an approach that sometimes even styles itself as “critical realism.”

Whichever way you play it, whether the threat comes from “empiricist” experimental research or from “realist” attempts to tell us what is hidden under the surface, psychology ends up slap-bang in the middle of what Mark Fisher diagnosed as “capitalist realism.” Most psychology is a form of “capitalist realism”, which tells us that nothing can be changed since this is the way the world is.

The message that “there is no alternative” comes through time and again in psychological research about what we must be and how we must behave and think to be happily adapted to society. In the process, trans* life, which challenges existing ideological categories of sex and gender, is erased, rendered invisible, or it is pathologised; that is, it is treated as abnormal.

Strange bed-fellows

Here, we find some strange bed-fellows in the backlash against innovative, progressive shifts of perspective inside the discipline of psychology, a backlash that puts trans* lives in the firing line. We know from the political realm that there has been a vicious transphobic assault on trans* and that this has often drawn explicitly or implicitly on psychology. We see this in the Cass Review, which, after noticing that the Gender and Identity Services (GIDS) were under-resourced and failing trans* people, weirdly and ideologically turned its attention to the “causes” of an increase in trans* people. This was classic reductive and distracting psychological reasoning.

We saw it in the Labour Party quickly adapting to a transphobe position, welcoming the Cass Review and not only endorsing the report but falling in line with the even more reactionary spin on it that accompanied its release in the tabloid press. Here, the old transphobe obsession with toilets re-appeared, and instead of all public toilets being made safe for everyone, for anyone, there were calls for gender-segregated toilets. And, tragically, we have seen a range of left organisations, ranging from the Communist Party of Britain and the Morning Star to ex-revolutionary groups like the Communist League and, of course, the libertarian right Spiked Online as successor to the Revolutionary Communist Party, parroting anti-trans arguments.

There is something “psychological” that holds these different arguments together, a pretend “scientific” argument that is a twist on the “capitalist realism” that tells us that we cannot change what we know to be the case about the world today. The worst of ideology in capitalist society often appeals to “psychology” to give scientific legitimacy to its arguments. Complementing “capitalist realism” is a kind of “stalinist realism” that comes from the left or ex-left. It is “stalinist” in the sense that it defines what underlying reality is as a bedrock human nature that cannot be changed and it defines that underlying reality in line with reactionary political positions.

Just as forms of organisation on the far left have often been affected by old forms of Stalinist organisation, and this is the case even for many “Trotskyist” groups or “libertarian socialist” organisations that should know better, so many forms of politics on the far left have often been infected by forms of “stalinist realist” reasoning; the logic of this reasoning is that since this is what we see in the world and what we deep-down believe, it must be true, this is the way things must be. This assumption is what plays itself out now in the backlash against trans* lives, in and alongside psychology as “cis realism.”

Mind your language

One example is a group that includes ex-leftists called “BPS Watch”, a group that claims to be “querying what goes on at the British Psychological Society.” One thing that is weird about this outfit is the semiotic twist on “queer” into “querying,” quite possibly a quite unintentional, even unconscious mutation from questioning of sex and gender into some kind of quasi-vigilante discourse. The name of the group will also evoke for some comrades something more sinister, the “Red Watch” websites set up by fascist groups decades back.

What the “BPS Watch” group has in their sights now is what they see as the promotion of transgender lives by the British Psychological Society (BPS), the 60,000 strong organisation that brings together most academic and practising psychologists in the UK. It is true that the BPS has published recent issues of its house magazine The Psychologist that are trans-inclusive. BPS Watch views these developments as signs of “corruption,” hailing the Cass Review as exposing what it frames as the “psychology-led” GIDS service at the Tavistock Clinic. It gets worse.

What BPS Watch activists particularly dislike is the turn from science in psychology into a concern with language, something that is, understandably, viewed as a threat to the stalinist realist mode of the so-called “realist” approach its supporters advocate. Here there is evident annoyance not only at kinds of language that they do not like but also at the reflection on that language that has gone alongside the turn from fake-scientific research to newer forms of qualitative, feminist and discursive research. That reflection challenges the “naturalisation” of sex, gender and “racial” differences that have always operated ideologically outside psychology, naturalisation that has also often entailed “psychologisation.”

So, the transphobes seeking to turn the clock back complain about the “word salad” language of queer and trans* politics, hating the word “cis”, which so usefully names the disavowed standpoint they are pushing. What they don’t notice about how their BPS Watch website is written is that they themselves throw together a word salad in each posting drawn from tabloid-press commonsense. This is while they use the twisted phrase “gender critical” to attack queer critiques of traditional gender and sex binaries. This is “realism” about sex and gender that cashes out as transphobe hatred of people who do not live and speak in the taken-for-granted normative categories of identity that psychology as a discipline traditionally traded in.


We should always distrust what a self-claimed “expert” in our psychology tells us about who we are and what we can be. That applies to even the nicest psychologists, and the best, most progressive psychologists who have been questioning things inside the discipline will know this and will see that they should not be defining what is normal or abnormal about sex or gender or being trans*. As a discipline that likes to wear the mantle of science, psychology has often operated under capitalism as a tool of prediction and control, a form of “spychology.”

Now we should take notice of the backlash against progressive, more open ideas inside psychology, against the space we have to speak for ourselves inside the discipline and grasp the way that the appeals to “science” and “realism” usually amount to little more than a toxic form of “cis-realism,” what we could see as “cisology.” Has traditional psychology not always been a form of “cisology,” something the transphobe backlash wants to return us to? This type of naturalisation is what psychology has always at root been about, and so “cisology” and its underlying pretend-scientific stance of “cis-realism” is something progressive colleagues inside or outside the discipline should notice and find alternatives to in alliance with those who suffer it.

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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyst and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.


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