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An Interview with 2008 APA President Alan Kazdin

An interview with the 2008 APA President, Alan E. Kazdin, the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University and Director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, an outpatient treatment service for children and families.

By Amena Hassan

by Amena Hassan, APA Office of International Affairs

2008 APA President, Alan E. Kazdin is the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University and Director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, an outpatient treatment service for children and families. He received his PhD in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University.

Prior to coming to Yale, he was on the faculty of The Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. At Yale, he has been Chairman of the Psychology Department, Director of the Yale Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine, and Director of Child Psychiatric Services, Yale-New Haven Hospital. Kazdin is a licensed clinical psychologist, a Diplomate of the American Board of Professional Psychology, and a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science, and the Association for the Advancement of Science. He is the recipient of several APA awards and has authored numerous articles.

Psychology International: One of your goals mentioned in the Monitor was to partner with international organizations to expand psychology's impact. How can APA reach this objective?

Kazdin: I think there are two major ways. One is internal. We need to look to ourselves a little more. What are we doing to prepare ourselves for a multicultural world? We ought to be training in diversity and culture at the undergraduate and graduate level. In an age of globalization, we need academic background on the influence of culture and cultural sensitivities in doing all of the work that psychologists do. International work is about a view of psychology that is relevant to peoples of the world. One way to reach this objective is to focus on our training and to develop our collaborations.

Another way is to identify common problems across cultures and to share in the solution seeking process. For example, in the United States, most individuals in need of mental health services do not receive them. This is a problem world wide. The shared problem serves as an opportunity to work with other countries in a systematic way. We need solutions that are feasible and sensitive to cultural conditions.

There are multi-site studies in the United States and across cultures that are going on. There is a cancer treatment trial that is beginning now across multiple countries. The model is one in which there are shared problems across many countries and to more than one cultural group within a country. Multi country studies are opportunities to address critical problems and to improve collaborations and cultural sensitivities more generally. As one example, one of my presidential initiatives is violence against women and children. This is a global problem. How can we partner with other countries to understand the different variations and to develop multiple interventions to combat these? More generally, the question for our field and APA is how do we partner with other countries to create an understanding in basic science, clinical work and reaching out to address common problems?

PI: Do you have any advice for psychologists who wish to assume a more international perspective and how APA as an organization might help to foster that?

Kazdin: We are all working in some specific area (whether that is prevention, neuroscience, cognition, etc). There would be great utility if APA could facilitate a “match making” role. If we could better catalogue research activities and interests of colleagues in other countries, we might be able to establish projects and shared goals more easily. So, one way to help is to catalogue research and interests going on in other countries. For example, anyone in the US can obtain information about federal grants and to learn who is working in what area and the nature of the project. It would be useful to develop a database that permitted something analogous across countries. Also, we could schedule convention events (panels, discussions) to bring people together to share agendas. Financial incentives could be provided for developing shared projects. The idea would be to foster cross cultural and cross national perspectives. Related, we could provide fellowships for students to do summer or full year training experiences that would facilitate research. Students often bring faculty together. Students who are working in an area could go to another country and work in the same research area—creating bridges. When a student comes to work in a lab, they bring what they are working on from their home lab. The labs in the different countries are like the flowers and those students are like bees that are cross-pollinating information. We need to catalogue research areas for people working on those interests and then foster visits and collaborations.

APA divisions might be a natural way to help foster collaborations. So many divisions are working on issues that are cross cultural or ought to be because they are not uniquely relevant to “American” Psychology. Many problems are world problems—energy conservation, global warming, transmission of diseases, prenatal care, violence and exploitation. It would be very useful to develop small collaborations where, for example, cities from two different countries work together to show there could be impact and interventions that are relevant and effective cross culturally. Significant problems could unite us in collaborative work.

PI: Some APA members are excited about the prospects of international outreach and activities; others believe that APA, as a national organization, should focus within its own borders and leave international activities to international organizations. How do you feel about these two perspectives?

Kazdin: I do not subscribe to either of these views. The issue for our field is that psychology, whether our basic science, services, and clinical work are subject matters of the world. Diversity and cultural identity moderate the understanding of this subject matter. That is, the relations among variables related to characteristics of the problem or the solutions are likely to vary as a function of culture. Understanding phenomena requires understanding the conditions that influence their expression—this brings us to a cultural and diversity world view.

There is another facet that makes diversity and cross cultural work that is no less critical. As most students experience, universities require mastery of a foreign language as part of undergraduate work. The rationale is two-fold: to understand another culture but also, in the process, to better one’s own. Our sensitivity to another culture alerts us to many of the ways of our own that now can be seen in better perspective and in context. The insights come sometimes when a student switches from saying, “She speaks a foreign language” with the recognition that “we are all speaking a foreign language”. One culture is not the given, starting point. I would argue that cross cultural diversity, and international studies are central if one wants to do research on diversity and cross culture topics but also if one wants to grasp what is going on in one’s own culture. As it turns out, in the United States we have a wonderfully diverse culture and this alone argues for the importance and centrality of diversity and cross cultural studies.

PI: Which areas have particular urgency or offer particular opportunities for APA members in the international arena?

Kazdin: I believe opportunities emerge from felt problems shared across two or more countries. Problems often help align resources, interest, and will. For example, energy conservation, obesity, malnutrition, and infant mortality are all examples of problems felt widely across our community of nations. We have to choose areas that will mobilize interest and could have impact. International work and interdisciplinary work on HIV/AIDS convey the model. We begin by bringing countries and investigators together committed to shared goals.

Before I mentioned cataloguing interests of investigators in different countries. We almost need international “personals” of people who are sharing the same agenda with descriptions such as “Researcher looking for other psychologists to work on a project, collaborate, and so on. Intellectual matchmaking for collaboration on problems would be wonderful. Attending meetings is fine and sometimes collaborations begin there, but as often as not participants go home and wait for the next conference. Perhaps we could use conferences more to cement collaborative relations and shared commitments on problems and solutions. Rather than present papers, perhaps emphases should be on making connections that can be enduring to collaborate on specific problems. Some of this goes on of course—our challenge, can we foster more.

PI: You also mentioned that diversity is more than inclusion; it is understanding. What did you mean by that?

Kazdin: Inclusion sometimes means ensuring that “everyone is at the table”, i.e., that all the groups are represented. This is a critical precondition but by itself does not ensure that much else happens once people get up from the table. So we begin with all at the table, and then move to an agenda that moves to understanding and action on critical problems and topics of our field. I envision fostering diversity, ethnic, and cultural studies as mainstream topics that begin in undergraduate and continue in graduate training. I include in that training experiences in other cultures. Overall, as we sit at the table, we need a plan that goes from inclusion, to understanding, to action. The world is multicultural and our core training ought to reflect how that fact influences theories and findings.

PI: What is your specific expertise that will add to your particular international interests?

Kazdin: I have not special expertise. As many other researchers, I have worked on projects in other countries or presented workshops to individuals in practice. That work does not reflect international expertise. As odd as it sounds, I believe absence of international expertise is not a weakness here. It keeps me from recounting one of my special experiences that I now think every one should have or pushing a personal agenda because I worked on a problem in a culture, and so on. The importance of diversity, culture, and identity do not emanate from expertise, but rather from a vision of what psychology ought to be, namely, a field relevant to the world. Introductory psychology books often vary widely in their definition of psychology. I cannot imagine any of them noting that the definition is about “American psychology”.

Our psychology is for the world. We might be called the American Psychological Association but it does not mean we are here only to understand and study just American psychology. Even if we were then it should include more of the Latin/South American nations also. Globalization is not just economic; it has to do with our way of thinking. One person’s and one country’s problem is like a butterfly flapping its wings with its effects that reverberate throughout the world.

For example, are we concerned energy use and recycling of wastes in the United States or everywhere? Do we want better diets and health care for young children in some countries or all countries? Isolation from other countries is not really a possibility. Psychology can contribute to a better world by improved understanding of our many topics and understanding how they influence and are influenced by different perspectives and backgrounds. My hope would be to make the case that diversity, culture, and identity are central to our field.