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Desai Launches New Field of Structural Psychology

May 25, 2023

Growing up in a collective culture, facing racial discrimination, practicing Zen, being a dancer, and other core experiences have shaped the research interests of Miraj U. Desai, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and a researcher with the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health (PRCH).

Zen Master Seung Sahn’s concept of together action, and the experiential insight that racial discrimination and other problems often have collective entities and actors behind them, have been fellow travelers in Desai’s life and scholarly journey. Likewise, his ancestors and family – hailing from Gujarat, the same state Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi was from – and his culture had a profound impact on him.

“It’s in the water, so to speak,” Desai said. “These influences are not always explicitly present in a research article, but they’re always there. They’re always here, with me. I try to use all the toolsets available to me, both academic—with my training in clinical psychology and phenomenology—and generational.”

Those academic and generational experiences have come together in the Structural Health and Psychology (SHP) Lab, where Desai investigates the structural bases of health, equity, and inequity, as well as in a new field Desai created, called structural psychology. Structural psychology spans the entire translational science spectrum, inclusive of basic, clinical, community, and population health research.

“Many of our greatest global and social problems today - from health inequity to climate change to political and economic instability - have structures at their core: systems, institutions, bureaucracies, and collectives,” Desai said. “However, my own field of psychology sometimes struggles to engage these more collective actors, due its historical focus on individual-level issues and problems.

“For instance, something like health inequity involves collective causes – like inter-institutional policies and procedures – leading to collective community impacts. Our aim is to help psychology better engage these problems of the commons, of the collective.”

Desai formally launched the field of structural psychology during the 2023 Michael Dinoff Memorial Lecture at the University of Alabama. The Michael Dinoff Memorial Lecture in the Department of Psychology invites scholars who are “noteworthy contributors to the field of psychology whose work has wide-ranging implications for understanding human behavior.”

Past lecturers have included Albert Bandura, Nadine Kaslow, Stephen C. Hayes, David Barlow, Elizabeth Klonoff, and Scott Lilienfeld.

Desai began his career at Yale as a predoctoral and then postdoctoral fellow. He was later hired as an associate research scientist, receiving a Yale Center for Clinical Investigation (YCCI) Scholar Award soon thereafter. He was promoted to assistant professor in 2021. Over the course of his time at Yale, Desai has received mentorship from Larry Davidson, PhD, professor of psychiatry. The SHP Lab was founded in December 2022 by Desai, with the goal of not just implementing a space to conduct research but of creating a broader community.

SHP Lab members include research associate Kimberly Blackman, research assistants Kimberly Guy and Luz Ocasio; associate research scientists Janan Wyatt, PhD, and Anthony Pavlo, PhD (who also serves as lab coordinator); and several affiliates.

Desai said it was evident early on that the lab wasn’t just a lab, “but a potential movement that drew others in.”

“Movements are so essential to advancing collective wellbeing and liberation,” Desai said, echoing a point central to his book, Travel and Movement in Clinical Psychology: The World Outside the Clinic. “What we’re trying to do is advance movement in these structures that sometimes can harm us. When you build a field it’s not for the sake of doing it. It’s to draw in other people and provide a clear contribution to tackling major problems and promoting structural health.”

Desai and his lab have used structural psychology to evaluate “how bureaucracies can produce psychosocial conditions whereby patients are viewed, not as persons, but as things of various kinds – such as charts, agenda items, paperwork, budget figures, racialized and gendered profiles – which can greatly compromise their health care, particularly when aggregated to the system level,” he explained.

“Structural psychology has also helped us demonstrate the power of social movements and community-based organizations in advancing collective well-being and public mental health. In this work, we are quickly seeing how much of modern life depends on these collective processes, which have an outsized impact on health and social outcomes.”

The lab has received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to study how health inequity relates to psychological and organismic processes associated with higher-order systems and institutions, such as collective perception, intentionality, judgment, emotions, and behavior.

“These involve individuals and yet transcend them. We study both levels. We hope to offer a distinct and complementary psychological perspective to other fields addressing related issues, such as sociology, epidemiology, economics, ecology, the humanities, biology, and beyond.”

Submitted by Jordan Sisson on May 24, 2023