Toward a More Humane Psychology

In the previous pages I have briefly sketched what I consider to be some of the problems of contemporary American psychology, including an institutional blindness to certain social problems. On this page I will indicate some trends in the field of psychology that I believe are positive and hopeful, auguring a more just and humane discipline.

One trend is the move toward a broader range of research strategies, qualitative as well as quantitative. For example, on the previous page I criticized psychological research on attitudes for accommodating itself too readily to powerful institutions. One of the factors that has contributed to this accommodation has been the tendency of research psychologists to rely unquestioningly on quantitative research methods that aim to isolate and manipulate variables. Such isolation and manipulation is part of a larger technology of prediction and control, as exemplified in the science of influencing attitudes. Of course, attitudes can be influenced for good or for ill; but it seems reasonable to assume that persons and groups with the resources to exploit these technologies of prediction and control for purposes of increasing their own power, status and wealth will also be those who are most able and likely to make use of them. In contrast, qualitative methods like in-depth interviewing are not particularly useful for prediction and control, but they are especially effective in opening up and exploring personal ideas, values and experiences (Jackson, 2015a; 2015b). As such, these methods are potentially democratic in respects that quantitative methods cannot be, and they would therefore seem to have an important role to play in investigating important aspects of public opinion and other psychological phenomena like those mentioned on the previous page. This is not to argue that all research in psychology should be qualitative – just that qualitative methods have an important role to play. To be sure, there are also legitimate questions about the scope and validity of qualitative methods and the proper relationship between qualitative and quantitative approaches, but there is an increasingly sophisticated literature addressing these issues (for example, see Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; see also Jackson (2015a) for a discussion of the qualitative/quantitative gap, and the possibilities of reconciliation and mixed methods research).

Another source of psychology’s institutional blindness to social issues is an over-reliance on the individualist model – that is, a tendency to understand psychological phenomena in terms of intra-individual traits and dynamics. On the previous page, I gave examples of this with regard to research on aggression and psychopathology; but the individualist model limits psychological insights across a wide range of issues. For example, the study of personality is one in which intra-individual traits and factors would seem to hold an obvious importance, and this is reflected in a great deal of psychological research on traits, attitudes, values, etc. However, knowing that a person has certain traits, attitudes and values is often surprisingly uninformative unless one also knows how the person is positioned in his or her unique social context (personal and familial history, social roles and obligations, religious and ethnic identity, etc.). For such reasons, the field of social psychology has become a central one within the larger discipline. But even social psychologists often redirect attention to the individual by analyzing social phenomena in relation to individual abilities and dispositions, such as locus of control, expectancies, and buffering variables. Hobfoll (1998) has pointed out that focusing on such individual factors adds little to the understanding of important social problems like poverty, job loss, and discrimination, but serves, instead, to steer attention away from the more fundamental societal dynamics that create these problems.

Psychologists sometimes resist the kind of perspective I am advocating here because they feel that it is more the province of sociology or social work than psychology. And this brings me to a final way in which psychology needs to change, and is changing. The field of psychology – and, indeed, all the fields of social inquiry – are gradually coming to recognize the artificiality of the boundaries that separate them and the importance of interdisciplinarity. During the first century (or more) of their development, social disciplines like psychology, sociology, anthropology, political studies and economics needed to refine their theories and methods and achieve a high degree of autonomy and differentiation. Now – in an era when disciplinary knowledge has become ultra-specialized and often questionable in its relevance to real-world problems – we need to look more at how knowledge across these fields can be integrated. Doing so is a formidable challenge, one that requires examining, critiquing and reworking some of our most fundamental concepts and assumptions. I have tried to indicate in these pages what some of this work may entail for the discipline of psychology.

In the following section I will give examples of some areas of psychology in which adherence to dominant values, assumptions and methods has led psychologists to minimize or ignore important evidence, to side with groups and institutions that hold power, and to reinforce significant forms of injustice.