Theory of Knowledge

A unified approach to psychology and philosophy

Psychology's Fragmentation Trap

The state of psychology today is...fragmented.

What is the state of psychology today? In some ways the field is thriving. According to the Princeton Review, it ranks as the second most popular undergraduate major. Progress is being made in studying the brain, consciousness, and human relationships. Quantitative methodology has made great strides via computers in allowing researchers to employ complicated statistical analyses, such as structural equation and multilevel modeling. And mental health is certainly getting lots of attention with more people are using mental health services than ever before, and we now know psychotherapy (generally speaking) is an effective intervention. So is all good?

Although in our ADD culture this superficial glance might result in a positive conclusion for our field, a more thoughtful analysis results in serious cause for concern. Why? Because psychology suffers from what Charles Knudsen called “a fragmentation trap”.

Knudsen argued that social sciences function best when they operate in a fruitful sweet spot between the extremes of a rigid unification (the unification trap) and a fragmented pluralism (the fragmentation trap). The unification trap occurs when there is a self-reinforcing process where the exploitation of an existing research program completely comes to dominate the exploration of new paradigms. He argued that post-World War II economics is a good example of a social science that fell into the unification trap. During that period, the mathematical modeling of rational utility was the fully dominant mode of thought about economics, such that all challenges to this approach were squashed before seeing the light of day.

In contrast to the unification trap in which one conception is overly dominant, the fragmentation trap occurs when new theories and research paradigms are introduced without replacing older theories, such that there is a massive proliferation of ideas. The value in the field is placed on novelty and uniqueness and researchers in such fields see their role as almost solely generating new contributions, as opposed to testing and building on existing ideas. When this becomes widespread there is no chain of coherence through time; thus, no authentic accumulation of knowledge. Instead, what predominates is a mentality of “fad & fashion” that results in new approaches being introduced into a field at a faster and faster speed. This leads to the problem of “information overload” and results in students of the field being confronted with a bewildering diversity of theories that they will have no chance of fully digesting.

Moreover, the fragmentation trap results in the historical dimension of the field being lost, and an overall difficulty in discerning a digestible general body of knowledge. Instead, it is experienced as a morass. The problem is self-reinforcing because newer contributions are introduced into the field without facing any demand that they somehow should solve problems that earlier contributions had been unable to solve. I just recently came across Knudsen’s article and what was so interesting to me was how well it characterized the field of human psychology, even though he does not mention psychology specifically at all.

Theorists in psychology have long been aware of the problem of fragmentation. It is intimately related to what I call the "Problem of Psychology". To get an appreciation for what the fragmentation trap means for the deep state of psychological knowledge, I’ll end this blog with some quotes that make the point. It is a point I remind my students of it frequently, when I crassly point out that, “No one knows what the f#@k psychology is.”

Some Quotes on Psychology’s Fragmentation

It is simply a sad fact that in [human] psychology theories rise and decline, come and go, more as a function of baffled boredom than anything else; and the enterprise shows a disturbing absence of that cumulative character that is so impressive in disciplines like astronomy, molecular biology and genetics. (Paul Meehl, 1978/1992, p. 524)

We have a surfeit of facts. What we do not have, and most of us in the quiet of our nights know it, is an overarching conception of context in which we can put these facts and, having done so, the truth then stands a chance of emerging. (Seymour Sarason, 1989, p. 279)

The 19th-century belief that psychology can be an integral discipline, which led to its institutionalization as an independent science, has been disconfirmed on every day of the 112 years since its presumptive founding. When the details of that history are attended to, the patent tendency has been toward theoretical and substantial fractionation (and increasing insularity among the “specialities”), not toward integration. (Sigmund Koch, 1992)

Psychology has so many unrelated elements of knowledge with so much mutual discreditation, inconsistency, redundancy, and controversy that abstracting general meaning is a great problem. There is a crisis, moreover, because the disunification feeds on itself and, left unchanged, will continue to grow. (Arthur Staats, 1991, p. 899)

We persevere in looking at small questions instead of large ones and our view of the forest is forever obscured by the trees…Over the years I have found a disturbingly large proportion of the papers I have read to be trivial, some even contrived. The intellectual processes behind them too often have lacked clarity and crispness; manuscripts have been marked by a mindless and routine recitation of detail, more often submerging rather than elevating understanding. (William Bevan, 1992).

 Psychology simply cannot be defined; indeed, it cannot even be easily characterized… Psychology is what scientists and philosophers of various persuasions have created to try to fulfill the need to understand the minds and behaviors of various organisms from the most primitive to the most complex…It is an attempt to understand what has so far pretty much escaped understanding, and any effort to circumscribe it or box it in is to imply that something is known about the edges of our knowledge, and that must be wrong. (Reber, 1995, p. 617)

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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