Cover story

Senior Director's Column: International Engagement - for Psychology and for Development

An important professional activity outside the usual “job description” is service to the discipline through a variety of activities that support its development.

By Merry Bullock, PhD

Psychology International (September-October 2007)


by Merry Bullock, PhD, Senior Director

An important professional activity outside the usual “job description” is service to the discipline through a variety of activities that support its development. For Psychology, these include providing expertise as a reviewer or a mentor, serving on committees or boards for a psychological organization, working to promote public awareness of the role of psychology in addressing educational, health, social and other societal needs, and the like. Much of this service takes place within one’s own work institution or through involvement with national psychology organizations. Another growing and important path for service to the discipline is in the international arena, through service to multinational or global organizations or through mentoring and service to foster national-international connections.

Such service can take place at the individual level through mentoring, being a host, or sponsoring an international psychologist. At the organizational level it takes place by serving on committees or boards that develop programs and policies, or by representing psychology in international venues or organizations. For example, within APA such international service by serving on the Committee for International Relations in Psychology (CIRP), through active participation in Division 52 (the international division) or in the many Division sections or committees devoted to international needs, or by representing APA in international venues such as the United Nations (where a team of 6 representatives and 2 associates promote psychology within the UN NGO community) or international networks (such as the International Network on Lesbian, Gay, & Bisexual Concerns & Gender Identity Issues in Psychology). Other routes for service include the US National Committee for Psychology, a committee housed in the National Academy of Sciences that informs the academy about international psychology issues and that functions as the US member of the International Union of Psychological Sciences or the Boards or international committees of more specialized psychology organizations in social, developmental, comparative, community, educational psychology and the like, or work in inter-disciplinary health and science groups (such as the AAAS). International psychology organizations such as the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP) or the International Council of Psychologists (ICP) or other more specialized organizations (see www.apa.org/international/intlorgs.pdf for a list of organizations) offer further possibilities at the individual level, as does participation in international/interdisciplinary research and policy projects.

To some, international service has acquired the reputation of being a sinecure for international travel. In practice, this is far from accurate! Most international organizations are idea rich but resource poor, and rely on their members and committees to provide yeoman work and resources – indeed the many activities of such global organizations as the International Council of Science (ICSU see www.icsu.org), the International Social Sciences Council or the International Union of Psychological Science (www.iupsys.org) are achieved on comparatively small budgets that rely on substantial individual initiative, leveraging with other organizations and sharing expertise and resources. In addition, those who opt for serving the discipline through international activities often make a time commitment “for the long haul” that spans many years, as becoming known and effective in international organizations whose conferences are in biennial or even quadrennial cycles and whose committees work across large distances requires persistence over longer time spans than within-country activities.

As individuals, beyond specific collaborations and friendships, each of us can contribute to international service by becoming knowledgeable about international organizations, committees and activities, by exploring the web pages of global organizations such as WHO, the UN, UNESCO, ICSU and the like to understand the range of issues and programs relevant to psychology, and by joining international and interdisciplinary organizations whose goals are to affect international policies, programs and development. We can also attend international conferences, mentor international students in the US, and read and write for journals with an international focus and international readership.

Effective international service requires a deep understanding that despite some shared history and intellectual roots, neither people nor psychology nor psychologists are of a single mould, and effective action requires continued vigilance and attention to differences in expectation, assumption and custom. To this end, the Committee on International Relations in Psychology (CIRP) is beginning implementation of one of the international GOALS activities – Diplomacy for Psychologists – by exploring mechanisms for educating psychologists about psychology in other countries.

Of course, although broad knowledge of psychology is crucial for effective international service, the implementation of psychological knowledge in policy and programs may require more attention to understanding how history and culture help determine the issues important to different areas of the world, and to understanding how psychological constructs may vary across language and culture. Recent research shows us that even seemingly universal processes of visual perception vary across culture (in what is perceived as central and peripheral and in what is remembered from a visual scene) and language. Although English seems to have become the lingua franca (sic) of psychology for most of the world, both interaction and understanding are enhanced with increased language familiarity and knowledge Just as one example – at the recent SIP (Sociedad Interamericana de Psicologia) meetings in Mexico City, it was clear that those colleagues with even a partial knowledge of Spanish were able to engage in more frequent, casual, and rich interactions with the many colleagues from Spanish speaking North-, Central, South America, and those colleagues with a richer understanding of the history and culture of the many countries represented at the meeting had a stronger context with which to understand the talks. To this end the Office of International Affairs (OIA) and CIRP are developing web and other informational content about psychology in multiple languages (as is APA generally), and the ongoing work on internationalizing the curriculum calls for increased emphasis on learning a foreign language as part of culturally sensitive psychology training.

Although international service to psychology requires personal cost in terms of work, resources, and commitment, it is of course tremendously rewarding at an individual and organizational level – it contributes to the development of the discipline and to personal, life long learning. We hope that those of you who attended the APA convention this year took the opportunity to explore the plentiful international programming (there were more than 340 presentations by international colleagues), to interact with the record number of international colleagues from over 50 countries, and had an opportunity to listen to and speak with the Presidents and representatives of national and regional psychology organizations from over 20 countries from around the world who were invited as APA President Sharon Brehm’s special guests (see article, this issue). Ψ