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January 27, 2006

Students of a subject are guided by textbooks that represent the consensus.

Harriet Swain tracks the rise and fall of works in the psychology canon as the knowledge base expands and emphases shift

Anyone wanting a subtle way to find out the age of a psychologist should ask which edition of Hilgard's Introduction to Psychology they studied as an undergraduate. Now in its 14th edition and no longer authored by Ernest Hilgard, who died five years ago aged 97, the book was first published in 1953 and has remained a stalwart of university reading lists ever since.

Nobody quite knows why it has survived the competition from other equally comprehensive works. Some suggest that it stood out as one of the first psychology textbooks to be reasonably reader-friendly. Others say the publishers have been assiduous in bringing out up-to-date editions. But for many its appeal is its sheer familiarity. Mark Griffiths, a professor in the department of psychology at Nottingham Trent University who is known for his work on addiction and gambling, was a student of Hilgard's fourth edition. He says: "Once you know a book, and know your way around it, you tend to use the next edition when it comes. It's not that you don't update, but it is easy if you have a scheme or framework to hang things on."

Hilgard isn't the only basic psychology textbook with a comfort factor. Angus Gellatly, professor of cognitive psychology at the Open University and chair of the Association of Heads of Psychology Departments, was brought up on Woodworth and Schlosberg's Experimental Psychology , also first published in the 1950s. While teaching at Keele, he used Douglas A. Bernstein's Psychology , now in its seventh edition, because that was the department's favourite at the time.

Annie Trapp, deputy director of the Higher Education Academy Psychology Network, cites Psychology by Henry Gleitman, Alan J. Fridlund and Daniel Reisberg and Psychology: The Science of Behaviour , as more recent popular introductory texts - Gleitman's fifth edition was published in 1999, Carlson's second European edition in 2004 - while Richard D. Gross's Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour also has its devotees.

But last year, Blackwell, in conjunction with the British Psychological Society, brought out another "definitive introductory text" designed to offer a newer framework on which lecturers could hang their courses, The significance of Psychology , edited by Miles Hewstone, Frank D. Fincham and Jonathan Foster, is not only the boost it is likely to receive from the BPS link, but the nationality of its lead editor. As a UK academic, Hewstone is rare in a field dominated by authors based in the US.

This is because psychology has been a phenomenon in the US for much longer than in this country. It is only recently that its popularity here has offered writers and publishers big enough prizes to make breaking free from US influence worthwhile. One author who has done it is Michael Eysenck, whose Simply Psychology (1996) and Psychology: An Integrated Approach (2002) are popular choices on UK book lists. But, on the whole, most lecturers and most students become used to turning to the US for the core of the subject.

Not that differences between UK and US approaches have gone unnoticed. In one attempt to address neglected European audiences, Mark McDermott from the University of East London teamed up with two Dutch academics in the 1990s to give a European perspective to Philip Zimbardo's classic text Psychology and Life . The resulting Psychology: A European Text tries to break away from the predominantly scientific and quantitative approach of American psychology to apply the more empirical and qualitative methods of European research. European and US psychology also varies in the relative strengths of specialist areas. While Europe tends to be stronger in social psychology and discourse analysis, America dominates in neuroscience and biological psychology.

Once undergraduates have consulted their introductory texts, what they find on their book lists will depend very much on these specialisms. Those studying social psychology will probably be directed towards Hewstone and Wolfgang Stroebe's Introduction to Social Psychology or Michael A. Hogg and Graham M. Vaughan's Social Psychology, both of which approach the subject from a European angle. Paul Sander, principal lecturer in psychology at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, says this is important because the differences between US and UK approaches are particularly marked in this area.

In the biological psychology field, Peter Wright, chair of the qualifying exam board at the BPS, praises Neil Carlson's Physiology of Behaviour for the regular revisions that keep it up to date, well illustrated and useful for back-up material. But British authors are beginning to make their mark.

One of Blackwell's new top sellers is Understanding Biological Psychology by Philip J. Corr from Swansea University. In the developmental psychology field, one of Blackwell's bestsellers is Understanding Children's Development by Peter K. Smith, Helen Cowie and Mark Blades, which is strong on international coverage, and the "lively and topical" An Introduction to Developmental Psychology, edited by Alan Slater and Gavin Bremner. Uta Frith's Autism is also among the top five sellers.

In relatively new specialist areas such as health and forensic psychology, key texts are less well established. And there are some areas such as gay and lesbian psychology - and, most recently, cyber-psychology - in which the field is wide open. Griffiths, who predicts that cyber-psychology will be the next big thing, cites Adam Joinson, who has written about the psychology of internet behaviour as one to watch, but he says that there is as yet no standard textbook on the subject.

One influence that those setting book lists have to bear in mind is the curriculum dictated by the BPS, the basis for many university courses. The society regularly revises the emphasis of this curriculum - a few years ago it was changed to stress the importance of teaching the cultural and historical contexts of psychology - and lecturers will take careful note of these shifts. Information for those applying to take the BPS qualifying exam includes a list of recommended reading, and many universities use this as a guide for their own recommendations. But Wright says that the BPS's book list has to focus on works that are accessible to students who do not have easy access to a university library, which means concentrating on books. What fills reading lists on most second and third-year university courses are highly individualised lists of journal articles.

Berenice Mahoney, senior lecturer at the Institute of Health and Social Care, University College Worcester, is conducting a Higher Education Academy project into understandings of psychology at degree level. She says the emphasis in book lists on journals and primary sources has increased.

She attributes this to the web, which has made them more accessible.

Students are encouraged to use textbooks as only a secondary source of theory and empirical evidence, she says, and search engines such as Psychinfo mean that they no longer have to spend hours trawling through library indices. "The function of textbooks has changed from being the definitive source of information written down to being a signpost," Mahoney says.

Richard Latto, chair of the BPS Psychology Education Board, disagrees. He says students are more textbook dependent than ever and complain when they have not been able to read an article because they couldn't find it on the web, when the journal has been sitting in the library all along. But he acknowledges that the web has transformed textbooks. Where once they simply gave web versions of the paper text, publishers now offer links to other websites and journal articles as part of the package.

Eloise Key, marketing manager in psychology at Blackwell, says more lecturers are making choices based on a book's supplementary materials, such as the instructor's manual. Even Hilgard, now edited by a team led by Edward E. Smith, comes with a wealth of web material, making it slightly less familiar to those who first picked it up as undergraduates more than 50 years ago.

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