Puzzle without a picture

Introducing Psychological Research
October 18, 1996

This book presents some 60 research studies said to "reflect the discipline of psychology". It is not a collection of reprints but of summaries of "research" papers from several broad areas of psychology. Each summary is followed by a brief evaluation of the original and some questions for the reader, mainly about methodology.

The authors are coy about intended readership but, from descriptions of their personal backgrounds, I infer that this includes A-level students as well as undergraduates. In support of this view is that John Searle's 40-page article "Minds, brains and programmes" is given five pages, most taken up by an introduction, a discussion and suggested questions.

My first reaction was that the publishers were joining academics in drawing attention to government underfunding of universities to the point where in their libraries, as the authors put it, "many of the important articles are not readily available". Then I thought it was an even greater indictment of British secondary education since the readers are told: "Even if you have access to a good library, then it takes a long time to search out the material you are looking for, and when you find the original research study, it is often written in an impenetrable style." That might be true of some articles summarised here, but ten come from Scientific American, whose reputation for lucidity is reasonably secure; and which already publishes collections of reprints. Since the median length of the original papers is about seven pages, it ought not to be too great a mental effort to understand them.

The authors are right that reading journal articles is a skill needing to be developed but I am dubious whether their approach will help much. The devil is often in the detail of the design and procedures of an investigation and few of the studies considered here are especially complex, and the summaries gloss over such detail. It is even more difficult to accept their claim to be illustrating how psychology has developed over the years. Most papers come from the 1950s to 1980s; and within each section the articles are on rather disparate topics giving little sense of continuity. I also find it difficult to understand the sequencing of subject areas. If the aim is to introduce students to evaluating psychological research, why start with social psychology, where the methodological problems are especially difficult, and the selected articles not without flaws?

The real problem with this book is that students are not offered a wider context from which to appreciate the value of any study. It is like being given a jigsaw puzzle without a picture of the final composite and with many pieces missing. The authors offer an introduction of about a page for each article and two pages for each area, but little is provided on how separate areas relate to one another, or their relative importance. This may give the student a distorted view of psychological research, suggesting it consists of testing an isolated hypothesis whose validity can be established by a single study.

This book is a packaged mystery tour of psychology, possibly helpful to politically correct A-level tutors, but not to be recommended to any but the laziest of university staff and students.

Robert Audley is emeritus professor of psychology, University College London.

Introducing Psychological Research: Sixty Studies that Shape Psychology

Author - Philip Banyard and Andrew Grayson
ISBN - 0 333 62004 6
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £40.00
Pages - 506

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