Why Rocks Roll Downhill…and Why Psychology is a Science

rolling rock

My first experience of studying Psychology was a rather disappointing one. As a Sociology undergraduate, I had to take a class in ‘Social Psychology’, of which I remember very little, other than trying to revise for an exam on ‘Group Dynamics’ the night before … this was very frustrating, as it seemed to involve a lot of jargon, and the idea that a group is just like a little machine, with the people as cogs, and group consensus (or conflict) as the ‘output’. This didn’t seem to have anything to do with groups, or society, or indeed people at all.

The Psychology lecturers weren’t bad at their jobs, just prisoners of the curriculum. Back then (in the early 90’s) mainstream Social Psychology had what I’d now call an ‘atomistic’ approach to self and society… It assumed that people are isolated units with a more or less stable personality structure (like atoms). Put them together in different combinations (two extroverts and an introvert, for example) and you get a predictable result, just as combining two hydrogen molecules and one of oxygen makes water. The molecules are still the same, but just in a different combination. Even then, as an undergraduate, I could see that this didn’t make sense. People don’t have pre-existing ‘personalities’ which are fixed for all time before they meet another human being, and never change. If you take the famous ‘Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory’ at different times in your life, you might change from an ‘extrovert’ to an ‘introvert’. As Berger and Luckmann put it in The Social Construction of Reality – we are ‘world open’, constantly changing through our constant involvement with others, from birth to death.

Fortunately, I later met other Psychologists who had escaped this kind of rigid thinking, and I realised how fascinating Psychology could be. I also worked out what the problem was with my old undergraduate course – it was copying an outdated model taken from natural science. When Aristotle established the first version of the laws of physics, he argued that a rock rolls downhill because it has a ‘property’ which makes it roll down hills – just like an innate ‘personality trait’ supposedly makes someone ‘grumpy’ or ‘outgoing’.  Modern physics argues that it is the interaction between the rock, a sloping surface and gravity, which leads to the rock rolling downhill. In the same way, social constructionist Psychologists would say that my sense of self is open and constantly changing as I interact with other people, with social structures, and with the symbols, ideas and ways of life of the culture in which I live. Laws explaining how rocks and molecules ‘behave’ are essential to science, of course. But the laws of science change as science changes. There is no ultimate proof that the laws of Physics or Chemistry are ‘real’ – they simply help us better understand what we want to understand about the world. So it is not unscientific for the laws of Psychology to change and develop, too.

Our MA in Interdisciplinary Psychology is a course in Scientific Psychology. We see science as more than a set of readings on a graph, and we know that people are not atoms, or molecules. This understanding of people as complex beings who are constantly changing in interaction with each other is much closer to the insights of contemporary Physics than the lifeless ‘Group Dynamics’ I had to cram for an exam twenty years ago. This new view of science, and Psychology’s place in it is at the heart of the MA. On the module Critical Methodologies, we first explore the ways in which Philosophers of Science (many of them practising scientists) have redefined our understanding of ‘Science’ in the last half century. Writers such as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend have challenged the idea that there is one single, universal scientific method. They have shown us how science involves creativity and imagination – playing with the rules as well as following the rules. In the second half of the module we then explore what kind of Psychological Science we can do if we free ourselves of outdated and mechanical understandings of what Science should be.

Conrad Russell is Course Leader of the MA in Interdisciplinary Psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University

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