Sunday, September 17, 2017

Psychology at the Crossroads -- Again

I have a growing interest in studying the history of psychology, particularly the history of my own Department (Dawson, 2013). One of the surprising consequences of this work is that I sometimes find myself viewing current Departmental problems in a historical context.

 For example, one Departmental debate that arises every few months, and which has reached very high levels of administration, concerns what Faculty the Department of Psychology should be formally part of. We are in the almost unique position of having official status in both the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Science; this unique position has been the cause of considerable angst over the past year and a half.

 Interestingly, a little bit of history and reading indicates how this unique situation came to be. The Department of Psychology became an independent unit at the University of Alberta in 1960, splitting away from Philosophy. Its first Head was Joseph R. Royce; Royce was attracted to this position because the University of Alberta promised resources for his expensive research on behavior genetics (Royce, 1978). Royce was still Head when the Faculty of Arts and Science split into two separate faculties in 1963. In other words, it was Royce who was largely responsible for Psychology keeping a toehold in each faculty.

 Why did a behavior geneticist make this surprising administrative decision? Why did Royce not break away from Arts? Royce had a diverse and far-reaching vision of the discipline of psychology. For instance, he argued that it was a mistake to accept the general definition of psychology being ‘the science of behavior’. Instead, Royce believed that it was better to define psychology as ‘the study of behavior’. Replacing ‘science’ with ‘study’ opened the possibility for psychology to use a broader range of methodologies.

 Royce’s broad vision of the discipline was presented in a 1962 talk that became the opening chapter in his book Psychology and the symbol (Royce, 1965). Its title was “Psychology at the Crossroads between the Sciences and the Humanities”. For Royce, this crossroads was not a moment – unlike today -- of deciding to choose one direction or the other. Instead, the crossroads was an intersection, where psychology necessarily had to integrate the methods of both the sciences and the humanities. Royce recognized that psychology is “both scientific and humanistic, both experimental and clinical”.

 Given this position, it is hardly surprising that Royce’s also saw that it was necessary to attach the Department of Psychology to both the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Arts. This remarkable decision arose naturally from Royce’s unique and broad vision. To me, it is clear that his goal was to offer the Department of Psychology the potential to explore broader, interdisciplinary initiatives than would be possible in a department with a more traditional organization.

 Recently, administrators seem to have lost sight of this possibility, focusing only on the complications that our unique structure produces. My own hope is that my Department is given an opportunity to stop viewing its current structure as problematic, and instead uses its advantages to become the kind of department that Royce imagined as its first Head. A Department that did so would be an exciting one to be a part of, and could bring some unique opportunities to the University at large.

Dawson, M.R.W. (2013). A case study in Gantt charts as historiophoty: A Century of Psychology at the University of Alberta. History of Psychology, 16(2), 145-157.
Royce, J.R. (1965). Psychology and the Symbol. New York: Random House.
Royce, J.R. (1978). The life style of a theory-oriented generalist in a time of empirical specialists. In T. S. Krawiec (Ed.), The Psychologists (pp. 222-259). New York: Oxford University Press.