Narrating survival and change in Guatemala and South Africa: The politics of representation and a liberatory community psychology

Brandon Hamber, Brinton Lykes, Martin Terre Blanche

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

104 Citations (Scopus)


Peace accords and international interventions have contributed to the suspension of armed conflict and the censuring of repressive regimes in many parts of the world. Some governments and their opposition parties have agreed to the establishment of commissions or other bodies designed to create historical records of the violations of human rights and foster conditions that facilitate reparatory and reconciliatory processes. This paper explores selected roles that community psychologists have played in this process of remembering the past and constructing new identities towards creating a more just future. With reference to two community groups (in Guatemala and South Africa) we show how efforts to “speak out” about one’s own experiences of political and military repression involve complex representational politics that go beyond the simple binary opposition of silencing versus giving voice. The Guatemalan group consisted of Mayan Ixil women who, together with the first author, used participatory action research and the PhotoVoice technique to produce a book about their past and present struggles. The South African group, working within the ambit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in collaboration with the third author and others, explored ways of speaking about their roles in apartheid and post-apartheid society. Although both these initiatives can be seen as moments in on-going struggles to overcome externally-imposed repressive practices that censor the voices of marginalized communities, they also serve to dispel overly romanticized notions of “univocal” communities now liberated to express themselves in an unmediated and unequivocal fashion. The paper discusses how each group of women instead entered into subtly nuanced relationships with community psychologists involving a continual interplay between the authenticity of their self-representational accounts and the requirements of the discursive technologies into which they were being inducted and the material conditions within their sites of struggle. In both cases the group’s agenda also evolved over time, so that what emerged was not so much a particular account of themselves, or even the development of a particular “voice” for speaking about themselves, but an unfolding process—for the groups and for the community psychologists who accompanied them—of becoming active players in the postmodern, mediated world of self-representational politics and social struggle.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)79-90
JournalAmerican Journal of Community Psychology
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 2003


  • narratives of survival and change
  • participatory research
  • politics of representation
  • Guatemala
  • South Africa


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