Scientific psychology

This piece of writing will firstly outline the assumptions asserted by, and the approaches used in scientific psychology before discussing a number of perspectives that in more recent years have challenged the traditional scientific paradigm. It will outline some common beliefs and alternative views about science and the ‘scientific method’, embracing the constructionist approach, the humanistic view and feminist perspectives – each of which have to a lesser or greater extent and at varying times, opposed the traditional scientific psychology.

Furthermore, the essay will briefly identify and discuss the methods employed by each and show how such methodologies can be offered up as a broader critique of scientific psychology. The French philosopher Descartes was the first to discriminate between mind and matter (philosophical dualism), which in turn had an important impact on the development of both psychology as a science and science in general (Gross, 2005). Dualism meant that scientists were able to treat matter as inert and distinct from human beings, enabling them to describe the world in an objective way without reference to the observer.

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It was objectivity that became the ideal for science, and was extended to the study of human behaviour in the mid 1800’s. Objectivity in this sense is encapsulated in Comte’s philosophy of positivism (Bem & de Jong, 1997). Comte suggested that in order for humankind to arrive at ‘positive truths’ about the world (truths that are distinct from theological or metaphysical truths; pseudoscience), scientific exploration, the objective collection of data and the judgement of facts would be necessary.

Positivism argued that all sciences should depend upon the same methods for discovering positive truths about the world and asserted that there should be no significant differences between sciences such as physics, biology, chemistry and psychology. Psychologists have indeed tried to maintain scientific credibility through the use of controlled observations of various kinds in an attempt to repeat the success of the better established sciences ever since Wilheim Wundt opened the first scientific psychological laboratory in Germany in 1879.

Psychology, particularly in the 1920’s and 1930’s sought for a firmer, more systematic and scientific foothold. It came perhaps, in the form of behaviourism, which dominated mainstream psychology for over thirty years and demonstrated exactly how the scientific model could be successfully applied to psychology. Analytical thinking within the scientific framework is crucial, logical, structured, rigorous and involves the application of general formal principles to a case in order to demonstrate an associated truth in that particular case.

This particular mode of thought characterised the idea of the hypothetico-deductive model used in scientific psychology. The hypothetico-deductive method proposes that scientific enquiry proceeds in a formulaic sequence involving deductive and inductive reasoning. Such inquiry proceeds by formulating a hypothesis in a way that it could be falsified by a test on observable data.

This formal, constrained and analytical mode of thinking has historically been seen as the only respectable mode of thought for scientists and has been used to tell apart the more vague unscientific approaches of psychoanalytic, humanistic and sociological forms of psychology. Those in favour of the scientific approach are likely to argue that analytic reasoning is the only valid form of reasoning and reject anything else. However, according to Mcghee (2001) a more recently adopted mode of thinking in psychology is synthetic thought.

Synthetic thinking is a more fluid, creative and expansive way of thinking about science and has increasingly been seen as a key component in theory building (McGuire, 1997). According to Peplau and Conrad (1989), much of the phenomena studied by psychologists is extremely complex and multifaceted and does not necessarily lend itself to simple explanation in highly structured mathematical or formal ways. As such, non-scientific researchers tend adopt a wide range of analogies or other informal, and adventurous modes of thought to clarify their thinking.

The growing dissatisfaction with the theories, assumptions, methods and applications of scientific psychology led to a number of radically different approaches. Social constructionism for instance, generates a different set of assumptions about subject matter, methods and epistemology, and asserts that many of the things that we believe to be ‘natural’, ‘real, or ‘true’ about the world are in fact created by language, culture and history (Mahoney, 1995; Dietz, 2000).

According to Gergen (1973), all knowledge, including psychological knowledge, is historically and culturally specific and therefore if a researcher is to fully understand the underpinnings of human behaviour, he must extend the enquiry beyond the individual and into the social, political and economic realms. Burr (2002) asserts that the scientific approach concentrates too much on decontextualised laboratory behaviour and ignores the real-world contexts that give human action its meaning.

Furthermore, positivists fail to acknowledge the underlying structures and processes of human interactions and experience by trying to make sense of human affairs in terms of neutral, discrete, objective and measurable behaviour (McGee, 2001). Whilst scientific or experimental and constructionist perspectives differ in many ways, it is the issue of psychological reality that divides them most fervently. The realism-relativism debate is one that has intrigued philosophers and psychologists alike for decades and raises important questions about the nature, scope and limitations of knowledge.

According to constructionists, an individual’s knowledge of the world is relative to the perspective that he or she brings to it (relativism). For example, flowers in a garden seen through the eyes of a child might mean something very different than when the same flowers are seen by a plant and flower expert. In this example, both the boy and expert make sense of what they see through interpretations from prior knowledge structures.

From a more rigid scientific perspective however, realism asserts that knowledge corresponds to reality, with real things in the world and thus positivists are likely to only address the local and immediate context of the action of looking at flowers (or indeed any other behaviour). Gergen (1985) argues that behaviours carry no meaning in themselves and depend wholly on interpretation for their meaning and because such categories of interpretation come and go in culture over time, perceptions of behaviours will also change over time.

To this end then, according to constructionists, there is no universal equations that can be applied to human behaviour and thus no fixed determination of causes as is often promoted in scientific approach. It is not surprising then, given the complex and reciprocal nature of the relationship between the individual and their environment, which social constructionist views have provided a useful guide for practitioners in the field of psychology, who attempt to uncover the ways in which individuals and groups participate in the creation of their perceived reality.

Furthermore, since psychological conceptions tend to differ amongst cultures, Constructionists, are likely to employ cross-cultural methods and engage in ethnographic research – that is research that focuses on the sociology of meaning through ‘close field’ observation of sociocultural phenomenon. This involves ‘chain sampling’ to obtain participants or ‘informants’, who are interviewed multiple times using information from previous ‘informants’ to illicit clarification on the empirical areas of investigation.

When employing the ethnographic method, researchers gain entrance into the culture under investigation which is termed ‘cultural immersion’, and may live in the culture for lengthy periods of time, often up to a year. These investigators use their ‘informants’ to gain access to other ‘informants’ (a subject who is representative of that culture), then gather data in the form of observational transcripts and interview recordings.

Another major bone of contention for some psychologists is that the scientific approach holds a reductionist perspective, claiming that any complex systems, such as human beings, can be understood from studying the properties of its parts. Accordingly, systems are broken down into their components and each piece is studied individually. Only when those individual components are fully understood can the dynamics of the whole be derived.

The humanistic approach, which began to emerge in the 1960’s and has increasingly become a powerful force in psychology offers a different perspective, emphasising the person as a whole within the context of their entire life history. Influenced heavily by the psychology of William James and existential psychology, the humanistic perspective relies on the general principle of holism, the idea that all properties of a system cannot be determined or indeed explained by its components parts alone.

In contrast to the scientific approach, humanists do not reject those approaches outside its own paradigm, but instead attempt to unify them, thus integrating both objective and subjective, private and public aspects of the person, providing a more complete picture of the individual (Shaw, 1988). According to Rogers (1985), psychology must treat its subject matter as fully human, which means acknowledging individuals as interpreters of themselves and their world. Behaviour must therefore be understood in terms of the individual’s subjective experience from the perspective of the actor (from a phenomenological perspective).

This idea contrasts with the positivist views expressed in the scientific approach, which attempts to study a person from the position of a detached observer. In the humanistic view, the individual is seen as the expert, since he/she is the only one who can explain the meaning of a particular behaviour, not the researcher or therapist. As a reaction to behaviourism and psychoanalysis, the humanistic approach has its roots in existentialist thought, and prefers to employ qualitative research methods in opposition to its more positivist and empiricist counterparts.

Furthermore, humanistic psychologists regard scientific psychology’s use of quantitative methods as misguided and instead are more likely to employ methods that involve direct participation in the setting under investigation, observation, in depth interviews and the analysis of documents such as diaries and other personal accounts. Finally, let us briefly consider another perspective that in more recent years has sought to challenge the traditional assumptions of scientific psychology in a vigorous and unrelentless fashion – that of Feminism.

Feminism is a belief or discourse that posits the rights of women to be equal to those of men in political, economic and social matters. Undoubtedly, Feminism has changed predominant perspectives in a vast range of areas within western society (Peplau ; Conrad, 1989), including work, culture, law and indeed psychology. In recent years, feminist psychologists have argued against the dangers of sexist bias in research and, according to Rose (1986), because women have been oppressed members of society and were outsiders among scientists, women’s experiences and insights provide a truer basis for knowledge than do men’s.

Feminists believe that science can never be fully objective or value-neutral because science is in itself a human activity and is invariably influenced by the beliefs and values of the practitioner (Lott, 1985). Keller (1982) goes on to boldly argue that the very ideology of Western science is a ‘projection of a specifically male consciousness’ that results from boy’s experiences in childhood and that there is too much emphasis on power and control.

According to McHuge, Koeske & Frieze (1986), an inequality between the researcher and the research participant emerges when the experimenter is male and the subject is female, which serves to ‘reinforce the imposition of male definitions of reality on females’. Further Feminist criticism of the scientific method accuses experiments of ‘context stripping’ in which concepts, environments and social interactions are stripped away from their original contexts by the research methods employed (mainly laboratory experiences with their non natural environment) and thus disregarding the complexities that characterise the real world.

Harding (1986) emphasises the need for a totally new approach to psychology that would replace traditional scientific methods. She further goes on to acknowledge that such a shift is currently taking place. This new approach which she terms the ‘successor science’ emphasises the move away from agentic experimental and quantitative approaches (those that manipulate subjects and the environment) towards a more ‘communal’ non-experimental and qualitative approach, that is based on the cooperation of the experimenter and subject, a mutual appreciation for natural contexts, free expression of thought, feeling and impulse.

Feminist psychology does not reject the positivistic methods used in psychological research, in fact some feminist experimentation uses these conventional techniques, however these methods are adjusted to meet feminist principles. Research methods employed by feminist psychologists are likely to include many of the standard qualitative methods (Piltcher and Coffey, 1996) such as document analysis, interviews and observations. However, Feminist researchers, as with the constructionists, are sensitive to ethnological studies.

Additionally, researchers are likely to employ historical or structuralist deconstruction – a technique that involves trying to understand the assumptions and internal contradictions of a subject through analysing their language either in verbal or written form. Semiological analysis, a technique which involves the study of the signs and gestures people use in everyday life to convey messages to others in various environments, is also a popular and accepted method in research practise for feminist’s psychologists.

In conclusion then, it is easy to see a range of psychological perspectives that question the traditional assumptions of the scientific approach to the study of psychological phenomenon. The constructionist perspective is often highly critical of the scientific method, and emphasises the realism-relativism argument whilst maintaining that knowledge in psychology is culturally and historically specific. Humanistic perspectives relied on the idea of holism, highlighting the private and public aspects of a person.

Feminists have questioned the authority and dominance of male scientists and suggest that science can never be fully objective or value-neutral. We have seen that constructionist, humanist and Feminist thinkers each offer powerful and convincing arguments in opposition to the scientific approach to psychology, and each clearly do have a place in psychology since their contribution to a more fully enriched and broadly effective psychology is undeniable.