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Giving Away a World of Psychology

Highlighting the mission and activities of the International Beliefs and Values Institute.

By Craig N. Shealy

by Craig N. Shealy, PhD
International Beliefs and Values Institute

Because psychology and psychologists are at the very heart of our organization, I have been asked to highlight the mission and activities of the International Beliefs and Values Institute or IBAVI at James Madison University in Virginia (http://www.jmu.edu/ibavi). Along the way, I hope to illustrate that we psychologists must reach over and across our disciplinary walls—to other colleagues, constituencies, cultures, and countries—if we are to “give psychology away” (Miller, 1969) not only within the United States, but to the public we can and should learn from, and serve, all over the world. 

IBAVI Impetus

Wishing to examine and understand the underlying psychology of September 11, 2001--and dissatisfied with the proclaimed explanations of etiology at the time (e.g., “they attacked us for our freedom”)--an interdisciplinary group of academic colleagues at James Madison University began meeting to discuss how our scholarly and professional activities were relevant to these and other real world events. As our conversations evolved, it seemed to us that far too much of our research was intended for consumption by a relatively narrow group of like-minded colleagues in still smaller subfields within our individual academic disciplines. Rarely did we seek out the perspectives of colleagues from fields other than our own; seldom did we attempt to engage the public or policy-makers in anything approximating open dialogue, where we had as much to learn as we did to teach. 

Throughout our conversations, the broader global context loomed large, encompassing not only 9/11, but a wide range of issues and concerns, including--but by no means limited to--global warming (and related evidence of environmental degradation across the planet), the international actions, policies, and practices of the United States (often mediated by implicit and unspoken beliefs and values), and our declining standing and status as a nation (illustrated by global polling data and our actual experiences during international travel). Although we lamented the apparent conclusion by non-academics that the academy was often removed from such “real world” issues and concerns, we eventually concluded that this perception was largely of our own making.

The formation of the IBAVI was our attempt to grapple with these issues and concerns through an interdisciplinary, international, and cross-college forum that was designed to

  • Address the great interest in beliefs and values by academics, policy makers, and the public at large;

  • Counter a perception that the academy is biased, irrelevant, or elitist;

  • Highlight the crucial role of higher education in producing an accountable, reflective, and enlightened citizenry;

  • Facilitate interdisciplinary dialogue among colleagues who share an interest in “beliefs” and “values,” broadly defined; 

  • Build upon related and extant scholarly, grant-based, educational, professional, and outreach activities;

  • Illustrate how beliefs and values mediate national and international actions, policies, and practices across multiple domains (e.g., religion, politics, gender, culture, environment);

  • Translate research and theory into accessible form and relevant action for a real world audience;

  • Define and make better sense of beliefs and values (e.g., issues of etiology, maintenance, transformation); and

  • Promote respectful and meaningful civil discourse that is pluralistic, critically-minded, self-reflective, and grounded in sound scholarship. In the end, this process—championed by an enlightened provost and inspired deans, administrators, and faculty colleagues from across our university—culminated in the development of the IBAVI and its mission, purpose, and rationale.

IBAVI Mission, Purpose, and Rationale

The mission of the International Beliefs and Values Institute (IBAVI) is to examine, describe, and explain the linkages between the implicit or explicit beliefs and values of individuals, groups, organizations, governments, and societies around the world and those actions, policies, or practices that are demonstrably grounded in or legitimized by these specific beliefs and values. 

The purpose of the IBAVI is to demonstrate that human beliefs and values are:

  • Central mediating processes for behavior at individual and societal levels, but they may or may not be "known" (i.e., may be implicit or non-conscious), and are not necessarily logically grounded;

  • Determined by an individual's history, larger culture, and unique Zeitgeist, inculcated over time, and may or may not transcend (i.e., may be relative to) a specific time and place;

  • Acquired and maintained via complex interactions among developmental, affective, and attributional processes; and

  • Inextricably and ultimately linked to the actions, policies, and practices of individuals, groups, organizations, governments, and societies around the world.

The rationale for the IBAVI derives from analysis of recent events and available evidence suggesting that it is neither unreasonable nor alarmist to conclude that we are placing ourselves at increasing risk of causing negative and potentially irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet. As such, a critical mass of the world's population must come to understand that the actions, policies, and practices of individuals, groups, organizations, governments, and societies are mediated by beliefs and values that may be highly subjective, non-conscious, and self-serving rather than just, equitable, rational, and sustainable. Such understanding must be sufficiently achieved in the near future by a substantial proportion of the world's population—as well as those who are in positions of relative power and influence—and subsequently translated into relevant actions, policies, and practices.

To accomplish these goals, we hope to encourage the international academic community--in concert with allied individuals and organizations in the public and private sectors--to become much more proactive and deliberate, organize and direct its vast analytic capacity toward an understanding of these real world issues, and translate what we discover and assemble into terms that can be readily apprehended by the academy, policy makers, and the public at large.

More specifically, the IBAVI maintains that we must establish a more just, equitable, rational, and sustainable world order, in which

  • Conflicts can be resolved through dialogue, reason, mutual understanding, and reconciliation;

  • Human and minority rights are demonstrably respected and protected;

  • The ecosystem and natural resources upon which life depends are secured and preserved;

  • Individuals and groups are neither persecuted nor denied equal access to education or social, legal, political, and economic resources for arbitrary and capricious reasons (e.g., of ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, political views, religious faith or lack thereof, social and economic status, or family lineage);

  • Educational systems deliberately expose students of all ages to the perspectives and experiences of individuals, groups, and cultures around the world; and

  • Tolerance and understanding supplant hatred and violence in matters of cultural difference and religious faith.

IBAVI Scholarship and Education

Since its formal inception in 2004, we have sought to implement the IBAVI’s mission through a wide range of scholarly activities, including the promotion of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research on the etiology and maintenance of beliefs, values, and worldviews, dissemination of research in accessible media and materials, development of web-based resources, and co-sponsorship of scholarly events. The IBAVI also showcases and supports a variety of projects at the undergraduate, masters, and doctoral level, develops and coordinates grant proposals, and promotes interdisciplinary scholarship. 

Complementary to this scholarly emphasis, the IBAVI sponsors and engages in a range of educational initiatives designed to promote a greater understanding of the “what,” “how,” and “why” of beliefs and values -- that is, how, why, and under what circumstances human beliefs and values are acquired, maintained, and/or transformed. Finally, as the following examples illustrate, several IBAVI initiatives exist at the intersection of scholarship and education. 

Applied Research—Assessment of International Learning 

Faculty and students often contend that international education can be powerfully transformative of beliefs and values about self, others, and the world at large. However, more research, theory, and data are needed to support such convictions, particularly in an era of assessment, accountability, and competition for limited resources.  To understand better who learns what and why, and under what circumstances, the IBAVI has partnered with other institutions and organizations to examine the processes and outcomes of international learning
(see http://www.forumea.org/research-bevi.htm).

Video Series—Making Sense of Beliefs and Values: A World of Views

Currently in development, this video series examines beliefs and values around the world through the contemporary and historic lens of religion, politics, ethnicity, gender, art, war, the environment, and belief/value transformation. As part of this series, we are documenting the processes by which beliefs and values are modified and transformed over time as a result of participation in a targeted university course—Making Sense of Beliefs and Values: A Guided Tour for Global Citizens (see http://www.jmu.edu/ibavi/IBAVI_course.pdf).

International Conference—Sustainable Visions and Values: Calling the Global Academy to Action

We are planning a conference to bring together international delegates from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences to

  • Review the “visions and values” of recent and selected international conferences,

  • Synthesize the findings of such conferences across a series of target goals and objectives, and

  • Translate such findings into interdisciplinary programs of inquiry and policy development that are sustainable and relevant to the global academic community, policy makers, and the public at large (see http://www.jmu.edu/ibavi/svvconference.pdf).  

Giving Away a World of Psychology: Concluding Thoughts

Even a cursory glance across the scholarly and applied landscape of psychology reveals that we are increasingly internationalized, at least in word, and often in deed. From the emphases of recent APA presidents, to the increasing valuation of cross cultural research, teaching, and practice, to burgeoning academic and professional collaboration with international colleagues, delegations, and organizations, such trends and developments augur well for the long-term vitality and relevance of psychology as a field of inquiry and practice, locally, nationally, and internationally. For those colleagues who want to participate in this global process, and give away a world of psychology, here are a few concluding thoughts. 

Think Globally. Act Globally. 

Whatever your particular goals and objectives, if you aspire to work internationally, it is necessary but not sufficient to “act locally.” Review and get involved with international organizations and initiatives within our broader field and profession such as the activities of the APA’s Committee on International Relations in Psychology (for a comprehensive listing of international psychological organizations, visit this Web page) or APA’s Division 52, International Psychology (see http://internationalpsychology.net/home/). 

Live and work outside the box. 

As psychologists, our knowledge, skills, and values have relevance to a wide range of issues and applications around the world (e.g., strategies for emotional and behavioral change; crisis intervention with individuals, families, groups, and communities; knowledge of program development and evaluation; familiarity with research design and methods; consultation, supervisory, and leadership skills; ability to understand, mediate, and resolve conflict). These competencies are needed more than ever around the globe, and psychology and psychologists must imagine and create more opportunities for ourselves, our field and profession, and especially our students, if we are to engage in a more culturally sensitive, effective, and relevant manner with these real world needs and issues.

Prepare to learn from and play well with others. 

If you are interested in working internationally, and want to learn how you may be of service, it will help to approach your experience and process with “beginner’s mind.” You may not know what you do not know; your theories, interventions, and solutions may not be relevant or appropriate. The epistemologies that are inculcated in us from our training and culture may inadvertently limit our skill and effectiveness. Finally, although you may be given great deference because of your title or degree, do not assume such behavior from others has anything to do with you personally (it may be culturally mediated) or worse, that it is justified. You are first and foremost a guest in another culture and context. In the end, through your words and deeds, take every opportunity to refute the lamentable stereotype of the “ugly American” who always knows best. 
    
As ambassadors from our wonderful field and profession, we have much to teach and even more to learn from our global encounters. Actively seek out collaborative opportunities with international psychologists and kindred spirits from across the interdisciplinary spectrum, and you, your work, and our current students and future leaders will be immeasurably enriched. Ψ