A science outshone by soaps

January 5, 1996

Nicholas Tucker surveys the crisis in academic psychology.

Psychology as a field of academic study presents an ambiguous front. Take-up among undergraduates is growing. Places in A-level courses are filled at record speed. But within university departments, different intellectual approaches to the subject show no sign of coming together.

There is nothing new in this situation and little inhibition about discussing its many contradictions. One such discussion took place recently at Sussex University, under the auspices of the South Eastern Open University Psychological Society. Four prominent rebels were asked to describe where psychology might be in the next 50 years, and whether they saw any possibility of greater unification.

Ian Parker from Manchester Metropolitan University saw an opportunity for greater coherence in the development of "cyberpsychology". By abolishing all body language, gender and class considerations, the new "nettiquette" made possible by our third industrial revolution may lead to different definitions of what constitutes selfhood. For a future generation of cybernauts, virtual reality may become as important as reality when defining oneself, he said.

Liam Hudson, visiting professor at London Tavistock Clinic, disagreed. Distrustful of cyberspace, he urged psychology to return to essential human interests. He said that over-preoccupation in the past with establishing psychology as a respectable science had led to arid university courses. This was unnecessary because extensive knowledge about what human beings are like is now available. Many psychoanalysts for example have a wide understanding of what people most worry about, based on daily contact with patients. Whether psychoanalytic theories are right or wrong, psychoanalysts are addressing human problems in a way that psychologists should copy. This theme was developed by Neil Frude from Cardiff University. A Martian arriving on earth could learn a great deal about geology from any reputable textbook, he said. But should the Martian want to understand humans, soap operas would offer a better guide than any standard psychology work. This is because academic psychologists feel safer with physiological processes like colour vision than they do with human problems that vary widely across different cultures. Psychologists' experience with patients finds few echoes in degree work. One solution would be to arrange a final divorce between the hard science and the more humanistic camps in academic psychology, thus ending a marriage that has long proved uneasy and sometimes downright quarrelsome, said Frude.

Ron Harre from Oxford University weighed in against the cult of psychological scientism that ignores a wider cultural context. The discursive psychology Harre now champions takes its leads from philosophy, psychiatry and other adjoining areas. It claims that within any relationship the ultimate meaning of what is happening is always something that has to be jointly constructed by the participants. Just as ethology rescued animals from their role as laboratory robots, so discursive psychology insists that it is humans who use their brains, rather than brains that use humans. Computer models of artificial intelligence that overlook this neglect the importance of the person, just as crude behaviourism did 50 years ago. Bringing "What is it like to be me?" back into the frame is the main achievement of discursive psychology.

But the root cause of psychology's problems as a science will still take a long time to rectify. Subjects like physics have built up over the centuries a solid core of tried and tested knowledge and research techniques. Psychology has no such received wisdom. It is doughnut shaped, with a black hole in the middle where its established truths should be. Yet any science that felt it had come up with some final answers to important questions about human nature would be suspect. Human nature changes under different circumstances; the particular science of human nature can never expect to achieve a sense of permanence.

The best that psychologists can do by way of understanding will probably never be good enough. For the four rebel psychologists this is still not an argument for allowing too many academic psychologists to get away with what is clearly second best when it comes to explaining us to each other.

Nicholas Tucker is lecturer in child psychology at the University of Sussex.

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