Psychosocial Intervention 23 (2014) 151-154
Vol. 23, No. 2, August 2014
DE INTERVENCIÓN SOCIAL
1132-0559/ © 2014 Colegio Oficial de Psicólogos de Madrid. Producido por Elsevier España, S.L. Todos los derechos reservados.
Meaning-making, mattering, and thriving in community psychology:
From co-optation to amelioration and transformation
La adquisición de significado, valoración y prosperidad en la psicología comunitaria: de la
cooptación a la mejora y la transformación
University of Miami, U.S.A.
Community psychology is not a monolithic entity. While united
by a set of values, theories, and principles, researchers and
practitioners around the world engage in multifarious activities in
the name of community psychology. Given that community needs
vary greatly around the world, this is expected. United by the pursuit
of meaning, mattering and thriving, community psychologists adopt
diverse approaches in diverse contexts. In this paper I wish to capture
the relationships among meaning-making, mattering and thriving,
and to offer a continuum that goes from co-optation to transformation,
with amelioration as its center point. As I do so, I will draw on the
papers published in this special issue to illustrate the principles that
unite us, the risks that beset us, and the promises that excite us.
Meaning-Making, Mattering, and Thriving
I wish to propose that human beings engage in meaning-making
through their struggles to matter and to thrive (Frankl, 2006).
Meaning-making positions human beings as agents of personal and
collective change. People make meaning in different ways obviously,
but I want to suggest that most of these ways revolve around
mattering and thriving, which entail fairness and wellness,
respectively (Prilleltensky, 2012). There is a lot of evidence that
people will go to great lengths to pursue fairness for themselves,
their loved ones, their communities, and their countries (Corning,
2011; Greene, 2013; Sun, 2013). This is a sign of the power of
mattering. Similarly, there are many indications that people will
strive to achieve wellness in various domains of life – a clear
indication of the struggle to thrive (Buettner, 2010; Segall & Fries,
2011). I submit that for many people, the struggle for mattering and
thriving is what makes life worth living. The reason I have confidence
in this hypothesis is that mattering and fairness on one hand (Greene,
2013; Sun, 2013), and thriving and wellness on the other (Prilleltensky
et al., in press; Rath & Harter, 2010), encompass a wide array of
human activity. To further my claim, I will briefly elaborate on the
many faces of mattering and thriving.
Mattering is fundamentally about the feeling that you count,
and that you are important (Schlossberg, 1989; Taylor & Turner,
2001). Phenomenologically, this may be experienced as a feeling
that “I matter.” Mattering can be broken down into two essential
moments: recognition and impact. The moment of recognition
refers to signals we receive from the world that our presence
matters, that what we have to say has meaning and that we are
acknowledged in the room, in our family, at work, and in the
community at large. The moment of impact, in turn, refers to our
sense of agency; that what we do makes a difference in the world
and that other people depend on us.
Each one of these two moments exists along a continuum. The
moment of recognition has at one end a sense of entitlement and at
the other a feeling of invisibility. Neither extreme is healthy for
personal or collective well-being. We need to feel recognized,
acknowledged, and appreciated in good measure, without demanding
too much attention or privilege at the expense of others. At the same
time, we must avoid the feeling of invisibility, which plagues so
many minorities and oppressed communities. Feeling ignored,
neglected, and forgotten is a terrible violation of a psychological
human right. Let me suggest then that we must struggle to find the
happy medium of recognition. This is fundamentally a question of
justice and fairness, which I will address after we attend to the
continuum of impact.
Impact refers to making a difference in the world. In psychological
parlance, we often refer to it as self-efficacy, or the feeling that we
are capable of making a difference, mastering a new skill, and
influencing the course of events in our lives and in the world. We feel
that we matter when we can make a difference. Two extremes
threaten the health of mattering: domination and helplessness.
While the former signals a need for complete control over the
environment and other people, the latter refers to powerlessness and
the inability to make a difference. In helplessness, no matter what
we do or think, we feel doomed.
Recognition and impact, the two branches of mattering, emanate
from principles of justice and practices of fairness. For the purpose
of this essay, I will refer to justice as a series of principles, and
fairness as a set of practices meant to enact precepts of justice.
Viewed this way, recognition is part of demanding what is due a
person, a classic instance of distributive justice. In this case, what is
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152 I. Prilleltensky / Psychosocial Intervention 23 (2014) 151-154
due may be a subjective good, such as attention, acknowledgement,
or respect; or an objective good, such as health insurance, or
educational resources, such as books and computers. In this vein, a
person may feel recognized to the extent that he or she is the
recipient of subjective or objective goods that are due him or her
through the enactment of fair practices in society.
Impact, the second branch of mattering, is also a matter of justice.
While recognition reflects the moment of getting attention, respect,
and dignity, impact reflects the moment of doing and acting on the
world. Here also we can talk about impact as a matter of justice. If we
think about the right to vote, it is a matter of justice to give men and
women equal opportunities to elect officials. Both have the right to
express their opinion. In this case we can talk about voting as the
legitimate due of both men and women. Whereas distributive justice
refers primarily to the fair allocation of goods and obligations,
procedural justice refers to fair processes. Voting is an expression of
procedural justice. Giving people a voice in matters that affect their
lives is an act of fairness.
Thus, principles of distributive and procedural justice, and their
corresponding practices of fairness, play a role in mattering through
the moments of recognition and impact. Whereas distributive and
procedural justice may be called substantive forms of justice, they are
enacted in various situational forms of justice, such as interpersonal
relations, occupational settings, community contexts, and policy
arenas. In workplaces for instance, people may feel recognized or
ignored, helpless or influential, valued or forgotten. The same goes
for entire groups of people who feel their rights have been forgotten,
such as many people with disabilities around the world. When taken
as a whole, the struggle for substantive forms of justice in diverse
situations makes it clear that mattering, through recognition and
impact, is a consequential motivator of human behavior. Community
psychologists are right in aligning themselves with the struggles of
oppressed minorities, for their pursuit of meaning-making is tied to
their struggle for mattering.
The second pillar of meaning-making, in my view, is the pursuit
of thriving (Buettner, 2010; Seligman, 2011). This is the quest for
well-being that also propels so much action in humans. Well-being,
or wellness, is a multidimensional construct encompassing
interpersonal, community, occupational, psychological, physical, and
economic domains (Prilleltensky et al., in press). People always strive
to improve their lot in one or more of these domains of life. Having
enough money, harmonious relationships, friendly communities,
little stress, vitality, and a good job are goals that many of us share.
Community psychologists are well justified in investing time,
resources, and expertise in advancing well-being in these domains
with partners throughout the world. As a profession, we are
responding to valid and pressing human concerns.
The present special issue of Psychosocial Intervention demonstrates
community psychology’s commitment to advance meaning-making,
mattering, and thriving. The work by Balcazar and colleagues with
people with disabilities focuses on occupational well-being, whereas
the work of Genkova, Trickett, and Birman on immigration
concentrates on family, social, and psychological well-being of
émigrés from the former Soviet Union. Sabina, Cuevas, and Lannen
deal with interpersonal, psychological, and physical well-being of
Latino Women following interpersonal victimization. Finally, the
work of Worton and colleagues on the Better Beginnings Better
Futures is an exemplary ecological community intervention
promoting psychological, educational, social, and physical well-
being of children.
Contributions to the special issue also deal with mattering and
social justice issues. Hernández Plaza and colleagues address
asymmetrical power relations in regards to access to maternal-child
healthcare for marginalized communities. Here is a prime example
of distributive injustice in allocation of goods and services. Two
papers deal quite explicitly with procedural justice questions. The
work by de Freitas and collaborators documents international
approaches to include minorities and migrants in the process of
creating health policies. The challenges and successes of doing so in
a variety of European countries reminds us of how hard it is to create
sustainable and engaging processes, and how rewarding it can be
when they afford authentic voice to marginalized groups. The work
of McAuliff and her group attempts to give voice to consumers of a
new managed care initiative in Illinois. While the effort to collect
data from marginalized communities is commendable, it is not
unproblematic. In some instances, collecting data for a program,
without challenging the program, may be seen as a form of co-
optation, a risk faced as well by the work of Balcazar and colleagues
on tacitly supporting an entrepreneurship model for people with
disabilities. While generating employment for people with
disabilities is vitally important, uncritically endorsing an
entrepreneurship model is risky (Armstrong, 2005). Both of these
cases raise the specter of co-optation, which leads us to the next
Co-optation, Amelioration, and Transformation
The relationship between community psychology interventions
and unjust systemic structures may be organized along a continuum.
On one end of the continuum there is the risk of co-optation, leading
to the possibility of aligning ourselves, however unwittingly, with
conservative forces. Co-optation comes in many forms (Baur &
Schmitz, 2012; Coy & Hedeen, 2005; Gray, 2010). One form is
adopting methods without the social critique. Another form is
changing the system only minimally to silence dissent while
maintaining fundamental inequities intact. A third way is to change
the language without changing the system. Thus, many programs
embrace the idiom of empowerment without really giving much
voice and choice to people who need it most. Advancing wellness
without fairness dilutes the mission of community psychology and
exposes our discipline to the risk of acquiescence (Prilleltensky,
2012). We might argue that co-optation is not a desirable outcome of
community psychology interventions, unless the co-optation is
strategic and temporary and might lead to transformative efforts in
the long run.
Some papers in this special issue walk a fine line between
augmenting the voice of marginalized communities and buying into
neoliberal, individualistic, and rather conservative approaches to
well-being. The paper on an empowerment model of entrepreneurship
for people with disabilities (Balcazar et al., this issue) does not
challenge at all the entrepreneurship model of upward mobility
(Armstrong, 2005), or its likelihood of success, which is very much
limited (Surowiecki, 2014). This model believes that anyone can
create a business, generate jobs, and achieve the “American dream,”
without much regard for social and economic conditions. It is a
model built on personal drive, motivation, achievement, optimism,
and individual pursuit, which are not necessarily negative attributes,
unless they cloud the social context of inequality, which the
entrepreneurship model does.
Another paper that draws attention to the issue of co-optation
concerns the perspectives of consumers on the Illinois Integrated
Care Pilot (McAuliff et al., this issue). The paper details the
empowering and disempowering aspects of the new program, but
does not necessarily challenge the unjust nature of a system of care
that excludes so many people from accessing the help they need.
While listening to consumers is an act of procedural justice,
neglecting the larger distributive justice question is a serious
omission. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong and many good
things about consulting with users of services, but doing so without
challenging the unjust structures of health care put in place without
consultation with consumers in the first place might be seen as co-
I. Prilleltensky / Psychosocial Intervention 23 (2014) 151-154 153
Although Hernández Plaza and her collaborators do not expand
on it, they hint at the fact that cultural competencies on the part of
health care professionals cannot do much in the face of systemic
discrimination (this issue). This is a useful reminder that attention to
some practices, such as cultural competence, can be very good on
one hand and distracting on the other. If cultural competence is not
accompanied by strategies to challenge the system of oppression it
can become a controversial practice, which is what I think the
authors were trying to say in their paper on inequalities in maternal-
I, as a community psychologist, I’m not immune to this risk myself
and I do not want to convey an illusion that I’m beyond it by critiquing
other people’s work. My goal is to sensitize all of us to the risks
involved in getting too close to institutional structures that reward
some of our skills as researchers while suppressing others, such as
change agents. This is a reality that many of us in community
psychology contend with (Burton, 2013). We aim to transform
society, but sometimes we get too close for comfort with rigid
institutional structures, and instead of challenging oppressive
structures we settle for amelioration, which is, in my view, the
biggest field of operation of our discipline.
Along with other colleagues, I have used in the past the heuristic
of amelioration-transformation to draw attention to the distinction
between working within the system (amelioration) and changing
the system itself (transformation) (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010).
Using the language of wellness and fairness, we might say that
improving wellness without improving fairness is ameliorative
work because, in the end, the unjust social conditions that led to
the problems in the first place remain unaltered. While this
heuristic is familiar to community psychologists and builds on the
notions of first and second order change, I now believe that the
dichotomous portrayal of amelioration vs. transformation, or first
vs. second order change does not accurately reflect the complex
nature of systemic change (Burton, 2013; Nelson, 2013). In my view,
it would be better to conceptualize change along a continuum with
many gradients, as opposed to thinking about it in a dichotomous
way. In the present special issue, there is ample material to debate
what is ameliorative, what is transformative, and what lies in
between these two practices. For example, the efforts described by
de Freitas and colleagues (this issue) to transform social policies
promises to go beyond amelioration but we are not certain what
the final outcomes of these efforts will be, and what social
structures will be radically altered as a result of the work. In the
case of the Better Beginnings Better Futures, the authors claim that
the project is well aligned with social justice, but most of the
description is around well-being. No one can doubt that the project
in Ontario has had major policy and practice implications that have
improved the well-being of children and families in the
communities, but more conceptual work needs to be done on the
amelioration-transformation continuum to appreciate the systemic
impact of this terrific project (Worton et al., this issue).
As a collection of papers, it seems to me that the majority of the
work described in this special issue falls under the category of
amelioration, in the sense that through research or interventions,
they all strive to improve well-being but not necessarily challenge
the status quo. Most of them also aim to transform systems of
inequality, but that remains somewhat of an aspirational goal. I
actually think that this sample of papers may be representative of
the field of community psychology: we do mostly ameliorative work,
we hope to do transformative work, and in some instances we even
fall prey to co-optation. Some of the work described here and in
other community psychology outlets is inspiring, provocative, and
beneficial to many people. To what extent it is socially transformational
it is not clear to me. The reason it is not clear, I think, is because we
do not yet have adequate definitions of what transformation looks
like on the ground. Conceptually, we know that instituting
redistributive policies to help poor people, for example, can be
massively transformative, but in the actual day to day work we do
not know quite yet how to detect the transformational value of some
interventions. While the task of mapping the amelioration-
transformation continuum is beyond the scope of this discussion, I
think it is worth the intellectual investment. I think it would be good
to develop an ecological and multidimensional hierarchy of
interventions along the continuum of social change. Some of the
dimensions worth including in such ladder are ecological levels
impacted (personal, family, workplace, community, etc.), domains of
life covered (social, physical, psychological, economic, etc.), time
horizon (short term, long term), sustainability of intervention
(temporary, institutionalized, inscribed in legislation), development
of consciousness-raising (from political helplessness to critical
analysis to strategic thinking), and power imbalance (has power
structure remained the same? has it been altered?). Another way to
think about this continuum of amelioration-transformation is to ask
the What, Who, When, Why and How of transformation. I think that
systematizing an evaluation protocol for the transformative value of
research and action in community psychology will go a long way in
both clarifying the value of what we do, and pushing the field
forward towards more effective interventions for meaning-making,
mattering, and thriving.
I have made an attempt to tackle an aspect of this challenge, namely
the power imbalance, through the construct of psychopolitical validity.
Epistemic psychopolitical validity refers to the role of power and
injustice in explaining psychosocial phenomena of interest to
community psychologists. Transformative psychopolitical validity, in
turn, refers to changes in the balance of power to foster distributive and
procedural justice (Prilleltensky, 2008). Raising awareness about the
need to address power differences, as Hernández Plaza and colleagues
do in the special issue, is an important step in pairing wellness with
fairness and mattering with thriving. Pairing wellness with fairness
brings attention to the nexus between thriving and mattering.
Let me be clear though that no one owns the term transformation,
and some practitioners and researchers may claim that their work is
indeed transformational. The problem is that for some, transformation
is happening only at the individual level, not at the systemic level.
Then, as I suggest above, it may be that the construct of transformation
needs to be further refined for more precision. It may be possible to
talk about individual transformation or group transformation,
without necessarily policy or social transformation. That may be a
more accurate way to describe some interventions. For instance, the
Better Beginnings Better Futures project may be a powerful
individual, school, or community transformation tool, without
necessarily generating social transformation and social justice at the
If we circumscribe transformation to a specific ecological level
(individual, family, workplace, etc.) and within a particular domain
of life (physical health, mental health, occupational well-being, etc.),
we may develop a more precise language for transformation. That
way of thinking may do justice to the transformational efforts of
many community psychologists, without creating the illusion that
everything we call transformation is systems change. I invite
community psychologists to debate the usefulness of this proposal.
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