Searching for Unity in a Fragmented Field

Unity will only be achieved if we understand why we are fragmented.

Posted Sep 27, 2013

It is once again time to elect a new president of the American Psychological Association, and, as is often the case, a major theme of the presidential nominees is the need for more unity in the field. Jeffrey Magnavita is an outstanding candidate who started the Unified Psychotherapy Project and has authored many articles on the topic of unification. Another candidate Kurt Geisinger writes, “My campaign theme reflects the unifying goal: One psychology, with APA as its core. Psychology must bridge seamlessly across its different domains and portray them as an integrated whole.” Barry Anton similarly proclaims, “Combining our disparate perspectives and numerous strengths into a united voice is key to advocating for our science, our practice, our education and training, and our public interests. Separately, we will fail; collectively, we will succeed.” The other two candidates offer comparable themes about the importance unity and core identity and values of the discipline.

Despite the regular calls for unity by APA Presidents and Candidates, it remains the case that psychology is massively fragmented at its core. It is important to understand why this is so because attempts to unify the field will fail without a clear understanding our fragmentation. The reason we are fragmented is at the very center of the discipline. Every psychologist and student of psychology should know that there is no general agreement about what psychology is. There is no shared definition, no clear subject matter. Although you might see in textbooks the definition of psychology as “the science of behavior and mental processes,” you should know that this does not clear up ancient philosophical problems or effectively set the stage for defining what we are. Definitions of psychology like the APA offers (see here) result in even more muddle about the field.

Related to problems of definition is the problem that psychologists still don’t agree on the basic identity of the field, whether it is is predominantly of a science (akin to biology) or a scientifically grounded health profession (akin to medicine). Those emphasizing the need for unity, like the presidential candidates quoted above, tend to make the point that psychological science needs practice and psychological practice needs science and therefore the field can and should readily embrace both. The problem with this view is that it fails to acknowledge the fact that the identity, goals, and methods of science are radically different than that of applied practice and require radically different competencies and policies to be regulated. That is the problem with trying to yoke the science and the profession together under a single identity. Other disciplines are clear about this and create different disciplines with different identities. Biology is separate from medicine; sociology is separate from social work; physics is separate from engineering. In psychology, we have psychology and, well, psychology. It is not enough to say that because research needs practice to be relevant and practice needs research to be credible then we are all one and the same. Consider the science/practice question this way “Is our identity more like a basic science like biology or a health profession like medicine?” Different psychologists will answer this question in fundamentally different ways. Given this foundational split, just saying we should all get along under the banner of unity is not really all that helpful.

The history of psychology reveals clearly why the discipline is fragmented. Building off of Fetchner’s work in psychophysics, Wundt founded psychology as a distinct discipline. He identified its subject matter very clearly. For him, psychology was the science of human conscious experience, primarily studied in the lab via trained introspectionists, with the goal field being to identify the basic structural elements that go into sensations, images and feelings. It was explicitly not applied in nature, but a scientific endeavor designed to achieve basic knowledge. Similarly, Titchener, Wundt’s American successor who coined the term structuralism, explicitly denied the idea that psychology related to animals or children or had policy implications for human betterment. William James and other early American psychologists, influenced by the theory of evolution and pragmatic philosophy, argued that the structuralist vision was too narrow and not terribly useful. The key questions for James and the functionalists were focused on things like, “How does the mind work in the real world?”, and “How do animals and people adapt to their environment in healthy or unhealthy ways?”

Behaviorism emerged in America just after the turn of the century, and, in direct contrast to both the structuralists and functionalists, it declared that the focus on consciousness dooms psychology to wallow in subjectivity and fails to produce cumulative knowledge based on objective reality. The solution for the behaviorists was to banish consciousness from the lexicon of psychologists and identify the discipline as being a natural science of animal behavior, realized by experimentally analyzing stimuli and responses in the lab. Behaviorism dominated much of American academic psychology for fifty years or so. Thus for a long time, the identity of a psychologist in America was one who studies the learning patterns of rats and pigeons and other animals in the lab.

Of course, during the period that behaviorism dominated academic psychology, Freud’s psychoanalysis attracted an enormous amount of attention in the population at large and in the humanities, both because of the fascinating, rich, and unexpected picture it painted of the human condition and the fact that it presumably offered a way to understand and treat psychopathology. In direct contrast to behaviorism, the primary subject matter of psychoanalysis was the dynamic unconscious and its relationship to conscious thought and society at large. In addition, psychoanalysis was explicitly offered as a method of treatment.

In the 1940s and 1950s, another paradigm emerged. Humanistic psychologists began to pay particular attention to philosophy and values, the positive aspects of human potential, the importance of the relationship in psychotherapy, and challenged both psychoanalysis and behaviorism as offering problematic, deterministic, and reductionistic pictures of the human condition. Thus for some time, American psychology had three radically different paradigms.

In the 60s and 70s the cognitive movement in psychology caught fire. Through the development of artificial intelligence and computational theory and experimental cognitive psychology with pioneers like George Miller, a paradigm was born that argued that “the mind” can be conceptualized and researched as an information processing system. In a separate but also related development, cognitive psychotherapy was born via Beck and Ellis in the 1960s and 70s. The cognitive approach(es) clearly resulted in some bridge building between the other three major schools, but it was, itself, a fuzzy approach with many different elements and aspects. The one thing it most certainly did not do was mesh well with radical behaviorism in scientific epistemology and to this day cognitive and behavioral scientists have fundamental disagreements about the nature of the field (see here and here). Interesetingly, in the practice field, cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy meshed quite well, so that we have "cognitive-behavioral therapy" which is often defined in contrast to psychodynamic or humanistic approaches.

Although the cognitive approach offered some bridge building, it has not resulted in a clear paradigm and over the last few decades the diversity of perspectives has only increased. Social constructionism and perspectives like feminism and critical theory, along with continental philosophy and postmodernist approaches have gained traction, challenging the dominant modernistic views. At the same time, the need to ground the human mind in an understanding of evolutionary theory gave rise to evolutionary psychology. But these are very different angles and the tension between the cultural/postmodern psychologists and the evolutionary/natural science psychologists adds one more dimension of fragmentation to an already chaotic field.

Given all of this, it is amazing there still is even a field to call psychology. How has it hung together? Basically, the field has retreated to behavioral science methodology broadly defined, such that now, if there is a discipline called “psychology”, it does not really refer to a subject matter with a coherent understanding, but it consists of individuals who either develop knowledge based on behavioral science methodology or who work to apply some form of psychological scientific methods or treatments to human betterment (see APA definition). However, as I recently pointed out in a Review of General Psychology article, although this makes for a flexible discipline, unification via a shared reliance on the scientific method is a weak intellectual solution for a multitude of reasons.

The bottom line is that the field of psychology is pre-paradigmatic. There is no shared subject matter, no clear definition, no identity. It is basically mush. A review of the over 50 divisions of the APA, which range from Behavioral Neuroscience to Psychoanalysis to Military Psychology confirms this point. So, what’s a potential APA president to do? Without an effective map of the situation, not much. The focus will inevitably be on the political pragmatics of the need to “hang together” else we will “hang separately” because the discipline would have so much more effective political and educational power if it could in fact speak with a harmonized voice. Although true at the political level, the call for unity rings hollow unless the diversity of foundational opinions about the field’s definition, subject matter, and identity are addressed.

All this leads to the basic question: Is there is a credible way to transform the discipline of psychology from its current, chaotic, fragmented, pre-paradigmatic state into a more coherent, paradigmatic whole? My life’s work has been on explaining why such a perspective is possible and why it would revolutionize the field of psychology if it were adopted. But such a perspective requires psychologists to stop focusing all their attention on data driven claims grounded in partial paradigms and start the process of re-examining the conceptual underpinnings of the field to determine if such a unified view is genuinely viable.

If you are not familiar with my work and are curious about how it accomplishes this claim, see here, here, and here from some material which articulates my perspective about how psychology could be effectively transformed into a fully paradigmatic discipline with this new view.