The Current State of Psychology:
An Identity Crisis or a More Integrated Form of Knowledge

Patricia T. C. Ho-Asjoe,
Anthony M. T. Sawada, &
Cory R. Tymich
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University

Abstract

Some theorists argue that psychology is too fragmented; it is caught between differing perspectives, ultimately resulting in tension and discontent. The authors of this paper argue that this perspective is correct, however, human phenomena is complex, varied and cannot be explained in the terms of one perspective. Furthermore, having various paradigms allows psychology to be in a unique position where it is able to view a problem or an issue from various angles, analogous to the viewing of a Necker cube. A review of articles published and books reviewed in the Canadian Journal of Psychology from the years 1984 - 1988, indicates that all paradigms are represented in the material. Moreover, the vast array of topics indicate that one paradigm or perspective would not be able to fully address all these topics. These findings are consistent with the authors' claim that a dialectical view of approach and method results in a more progressive, integrated form of knowledge within the realm of psychology.

 

 

Some theorists argue that psychology is too fragmented; it is caught between differing perspectives, ultimately resulting in tension and discontent. This quandary could lead to an overly narrow specialization of the psychology discipline; thus, threatening to destroy the very fabric of psychology by creating destructive rifts within the discipline. Eventually, this could lead to the separation of the various parts of psychology.

In some respects, this argument is correct. Psychology definitely has many different approaches or paradigms. It is also true that there is often tension and discontent between these various paradigms. Unlike the so-called 'pure' sciences, there is no one answer to any given psychological problem or issue.

Human phenomena is vastly complex and varied. No two humans are the same; their actions are purely subjective. Furthermore, people operate not only on a physical level, but also on biological, psychological, and sociological levels. It would be impossible for all these levels of human phenomena to be explained by one single law or principle.

For some critics of the discipline of psychology, this may be a bitter pill to swallow. What these critics seem to overlook is the fact that psychology is uniquely positioned to draw information from a vast amount of other disciplines, ranging from philosophy to neuroscience. This dialectical view allows psychologists to look at psychological problems or issues from many different angles.

This concept is analogous to the viewing of a Necker cube. There is no "right" or "wrong" way to view a Necker cube. While one person may see the cube as slanting downward, another may prefer to see it as slanting upward, or even shifting between two perspectives. Either way provides insight into what is being perceived, in the same manner that having various perspectives allows psychology the unique position of choosing different approaches to solve psychological problems or issues.

The history of science teaches us that there has never been one way of seeing the world. There has always been a combination of two world views; Naturwissenschaft (Natural Science) and Geisteswissenschaft (Human Science). Psychology's own history tells us that some of the great individuals in psychology have been driven by their passion for both world views. Examples of this phenomenon include Sigmund Freud, William James and Wundt Wilhem, who struggled between the two world views in developing their theories, only to conclude that a dialectic of both world views was possible.

It can be argued that psychology has a similar identity crisis; its various perspectives pulling in different directions. However, this view is too superficial, only touching the surface of what psychology is today. Instead of thinking of psychology as suffering from an identity crisis, it should be considered to be a dialectic of various paradigms. Each paradigm has its own approach and method to the complex and varied actions of humans. Moreover, these actions operate on various levels: physical, biological, psychological, and sociological.

No one paradigm is going to be able to address all aspects of human phenomena. Each paradigm may be able to tackle one aspect, but never the whole experience. Therefore, it is important for psychology to look at a problem or an issue from various angles. This is only possible through the dialectical integration of all the various paradigms. Furthermore, having various paradigms contributes to competition between perspectives, which helps psychology progress since it pushes each paradigm to revise and improve its theories.

Instead of hampering psychology as some may argue, it appears that this is really an asset. There is no one set dominant paradigm within psychology. The pendulum shifts between the various paradigms. When the current dominant paradigm is no longer able to account for some aspect of psychology, another paradigm comes to dominate. This allows the various paradigms to compete, as well as influences each other while one paradigm dominates and, at the same time, all other paradigms are represented in one form or another. In essence, this dialectical view of approach and method results in a more progressive, integrated form of knowledge within the realm of psychology.

This paper intends to address the issue of the dialectic of various approaches and methods. In particular, it will highlight a specific time period, between 1984 - 1988, in the Canadian Journal of Psychology. There will be an attempt to show that there is indeed a dialectic of paradigms within this time period in the form of published material and books reviewed. This section will be broken into three separate parts to accommodate input from each author. Each will discuss a specific part of the time period mentioned earlier.

In doing so, the authors will attempt to establish that each of the paradigms are represented. This will be done by classifying each of the articles into a paradigm or perspective. The paradigms used to do this classifying, as defined in I. G. Sarason's Abnormal Psychology: The problem of maladaptive behavior, follow:

  1. Biological Perspective - views bodily disturbances as the cause of disordered behavior. The bodily disturbance, may be due to a genetic defect, an injury or infection before or after birth, or to a more or less temporary physiological malfunction caused by some condition present at a particular time.
  2. Psychodynamic Perspective - Is based on the idea that thoughts and emotions are important causes of behavior.
  3. Behavioral Perspective - focuses on behavior as a response to stimuli in the environment. Example - Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning and Social
  4. Cognitive Perspective - focuses on how people acquire and interpret information and use it in problem-solving. Each person develops schemata that contain information about different domains in a person's life.
  5. Community Perspective - focuses on the failure of social support systems as the cause of maladaptations. Emphasis on preventive intervention such as special programs in schools and programs for specific groups in high risk. Eg., addicts.
  6. Historical Perspective - focuses on looking at some aspect of psychology from the past and its relationship to psychology today.

Review from January 1984 to July 1985

In reviewing the material from the Canadian Journal of Psychology from January 1984 through July 1985, it soon became apparent that no one paradigm truly dominated the articles and the books reviewed. The perspectives, as well as, topics chosen were diverse.

Of the 65 different articles and books reviewed, there were nine that could be classified as coming from a biological perspective, seven that could be classified as coming from a psychodynamic perspective, eight that could be classified as coming from a behavioral perspective, twelve that could be classified as coming from a cognitive perspective, sixteen that could be classified as coming from a community perspective, nine that could be classified as coming from a historical perspective, and four that did not fit into any of the above classifications and were left unclassified.

The vast range of topics and subjects classified indicate that all perspectives or paradigms were represented in this time period. Moreover, the difference between the highest and lowest number of articles and book reviews was not great: the highest being the sixteen articles and book reviews from a community perspective and the lowest being the seven articles and book reviews from the psychodynamic perspective.

Since there was representation from all different paradigms, this complements the argument that there exists a sort of competition between various paradigms. However, it should be noted that particular topics seem to be approached from the perspective of a particular paradigm. This observation may indicate that various paradigms are not really in direct competition, since they usually tackle different psychological problems or issues.

For example, a psychological problem such as adolescence self-esteem probably would not be approached from a biological perspective. It is more likely that such an issue would be approached from a community perspective. This is not to say that such an issue cannot be viewed from any other perspective, but rather that it is more likely to be viewed from a community perspective.

Another important factor noted is the fact that there are also vast number of topics or issues relating to the psychological realm. In particular, a special convention issue was included in the material reviewed for this time period. The topics from the annual meeting of the Canadian Psychological Association included everything from alcohol and the family, to physiological reasons for seizures. This vast array of topics indicates that not only is it useful to have various paradigms, but it can be argued that it is necessary to have different paradigms when dealing with the wide range of psychological topics.

Overall, the material in the Canadian Journal of Psychology, from January 1984: Volume 25, No. 1 to July 1985: Volume 26, No. 3, indicated that there are vast amounts of psychological topics and issues, and that there is representation of all the different psychological paradigms. This finding is consistent with the notion that there is room for many different perspectives in the domain of psychology.

Review from October 1985 to April 1987

In reviewing the articles from October 1985 to April 1987, we realize that psychology is progressing in a dialectical way, leading to an approach that is liberated from stagnation. Researchers today are using different perspectives all together to generate a more complete and integrated knowledge of interest.

Of a total of some 63 different articles and books reviewed, there were eleven that could be classified as coming from a biological perspective, six that could be classified as coming from a psychodynamic perspective, nine that could be classified as coming from a behavioral perspective, nine that could be classified as coming from a cognitive perspective, eleven that could be classified as coming from a community perspective, four that could be classified as coming from a historical perspective, and thirteen that did not fit into any of the above classifications and were left unclassified. Nine of the thirteen articles that were unclassified were about the development and future of psychology in terms of teaching, training programs, university's psychology faculty, other professional issues, and suggestions to improve the quality of psychological research and experiments.

Although some of the articles emphasized only one paradigm, many of them can be classified into more than one perspective. For example, the article about the treatment of obesity in children explored cause and treatment of obesity in children, how this disorder affects their behavior, and how social impact affects their behavior. The article included genetic factors, biological factors, and environmental factors, which can be classified into the biological perspective. Another fact, the lack of social support lowering children's self-esteem and causing maladaptations, belongs in the community perspective. Providing children with psychological benefits and teaching them to adopt eating and exercise habits -- behavioral perspectives -- played an important role in treatment. Obese children joining behavioral programs with expectations of looking normal made them follow program rules; another example belonging to the psychodynamic perspective.

Review from July 1987 to April 1988

Reviewing the articles from July 1987 to April 1988, also revealed a wide disparity among the different paradigms of psychology. Of a total of some 44 different articles and books reviewed, there were three that could be classified as coming from a biological perspective, one that could be classified as coming from a psychodynamic perspective, four that could be classified as coming from a behavioral perspective, eight that could be classified as coming from a cognitive perspective, fourteen that could be classified as coming from a community perspective, and a special edition in January 1988 focused its entire twelve articles on the industrial organizational perspective.

This disparity again displays the use of different paradigms to tackle different psychological issues. There also seems to be a trend toward integrating many paradigms to analyze different issues. This dialectical or contextual approach was apparent in at least four of the forty-four articles that were reviewed. It appears the dialectical approach has been shared by many of today's psychologists and has been given much emphasis in psychological literature.

Conclusions

The material reviewed for this paper indicated that there is indeed a representation of psychological perspectives in the articles published and the books reviewed for the 1984 through 1988 issues of the Canadian Journal of Psychology. Furthermore, since certain topics lent themselves better to a particular approach, it was established that they tended to be paradigm specific; however, many of them could be classified into more than one psychological perspective.

As stated earlier, there are no right or wrong answers to questions of the mind, when the mind is purely subjective and unique to every individual. Human phenomena operates on many different levels: physical, biological, psychological, and sociological. To explain all of these levels with just one paradigm would be limiting. This explains the need for many different paradigms and a dialectical approach, allowing psychology to see human phenomena from many different angles, analogous to viewing a Necker cube.

Another way of thinking about this issue would be to compare psychology to music. In some respects, various paradigms in psychology can be compared to the different forms of music. All forms add something to the discipline, or art, of music. To think of musical forms separately is limiting. For example, if a classical musician was to say that all forms of music outside of classical are worthless, the notion would be thought of as ridiculous, because classical music does not satisfy everyone's musical needs at all times.

While this may seem like a philosophical argument, it is actually more of a statement about people. Each person is different; all external and internal events are interpreted subjectively by that individual. There is no one simple answer or law explaining people and their actions. Therefore, it is important to allow many different perspectives into the realm of psychology to form a better understanding, a more integrated, and complete knowledge.

The emphasis of paradigms in the history of psychology has shifted from biological to psychodynamic, then from the psychodynamic to behavioral and cognitive perspectives. The adaptation of a dialectical approach has provided psychologists today with a more dynamic explanation of the many phenomena that has been researched and studied.

Rigid theorists completely dedicated to one perspective may still exist; however, the review of the 1984 through 1988 issues of the Canadian Journal of Psychology has emphasized the variety of perspectives that have been adopted over the history of psychology. It has revealed that many theorists have adopted a dialectical approach that integrates more than one paradigm to explain a phenomenon.

The bottom line seems to be, despite what some theorists may argue, there is indeed room for many paradigms within psychology. Moreover, a dialectical approach is necessary, as well as, practical when addressing issues that are filled with numerous variables that are sometimes impossible to control.

Psychology, as a whole, therefore progresses because paradigms compete as well as influence one another while they co-exist. The future of the discipline of psychology may depend upon the use of psychology's unique position, namely drawing from a wide range of ideas and being able to approach problems and issues with the integration of many paradigms to better understand the complex and varied phenomena of the human mind.

References

Sarason, I. G., & Sarason, B. R., Abnormal Psychology: The problem of maladaptive behavior., 7th. ed., New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993.