Senior Director's Column

Senior Director's Column: Psychology Then and Now

The strong attention paid to multiculturalism in the US reminds psychology that there are vast cultural differences in meaning, value, and behavior that need to merit serious attention in our theories, models, and explanations.

By Merry Bullock, PhD

This spring, at the semi-annual meetings of the Committee on International Relations in Psychology (CIRP), long time CIRP colleague and friend Henry David handed me a file of correspondence concerning international psychology and APA. This file included copies of letters, notes and talks written from the 1950s to the 1970s and provided a wonderful tour into the past and a vision of the present.

The letters discussed ideas for convention activities in 1958 (a symposium where representatives from APA divisions and offices discussed their international activities), 1959 (a roundtable on “Reciprocal Influences in International Psychology”) and 1960 (a Panel discussion on the 1960 International Congress of Psychology). They also detailed plans for chartering an airplane to take US psychologists to the 1957 international Congress and again to one in 1960 (apparently at least two of the psychologists aboard one of these charters met and subsequently married), and letters outlining a need to coordinate Division and central APA activities in the international arena.  They also provided some nostalgic reminders – for example dues to the IAAP were $3.00 in 1960; it was possible to fill a charter jet with psychologists, and so many prominent names from our field’s history were also prominent in international psychology. There were letters from the some of the giants of the time – Leon Festinger, Otto Klineberg, Fritz Heider, James Gibson, Neal Miller, George Kelly, Lee Cronbach, and others; the origins of the letters, including one from A. R. Luria anticipating a visit by US colleagues to Moscow, remind us of the many contexts in which psychology has devleoped.

But looking at the documents as a whole, I wondered how much has really changed in the last 50 years in the internationalization of psychology. Certainly there has been enormous growth in travel and communication, in technology, and in psychology programs and organizations around the globe. But the issues that were rife then (increasing collaboration, supporting colleagues,, promoting a more humble US reputation abroad, lamenting the lack of information in the US about psychology elsewhere) are still rife now. In the late 1950’s two psychologists, Joseph Seminara and George Peters, sent a survey to 288 international affiliates asking about impressions of American psychology. The stereotype of American psychology described by respondents was that it was technologically advanced, of reasonably high quality, but theoretically weak, and provincial in being unaware of literature produced outside the US. As one Swedish respondent put it “There is a belief in some people that psychology began two decades ago [remember, this was 1958] in the US”.  In his introduction to a convention Round Table called “Reciprocal Influences in International Psychology” Henry David (in 1959) called on colleagues to “break down provincialism and facilitate communication across linguistic and other cultural barriers…”

What progress can we cite today? Certainly the numbers of US psychologists involved in international activities has increased; just witness Division 52’s consistent increases in membership. And there are initiatives to internationalize the curriculum, to promote the development of abstracting services for non-English journals, and to disseminate information about psychology around the world to colleagues in the US. The strong attention paid to multiculturalism in the US also reminds psychology that there are vast cultural differences in meaning, value and behavior that need to merit serious attention in our theories, models and explanations, although it is not clear that cultural differences are taken as inspiration to the development of more deep and encompassing models rather than subcategories of existing ones.

But have our ideas of psychology expanded? Do we read journals in languages other than English? Is our collective knowledge informed by research, models and perspectives from outside the countries in which psychology has long been an established discipline?  By these criteria we seem as much at the start of internationalization as we were 50 years ago. Despite vastly increased awareness of the value and importance of internationalization and of international exchange, psychology remains a largely domestic discipline in the US. Overall, only 5% of students in APA accredited doctoral programs are foreign national students (data from APA Office of Accreditation) compared with around 30% in all science and technology fields and comparable numbers in health fields. The numbers of US psychology scholars who take Fulbright or other foreign exchange opportunities is proportionately low across the social sciences (as an example according to the online Fulbright scholar directories, in 2007 there were 11 psychology Fulbright scholars compared with 59 in political science, 21 in economics, 22 in sociology and 28 in anthropology). Thus it is no surprise that our international colleagues still see psychology as largely US dominated and insular.

This summer there are some stellar opportunities to foster the internationalization of our understanding, including a teaching of psychology conference in Russia, an International Congress of Psychology in Germany, countless smaller meetings of many international psychology organizations, as well as annual meetings of the 90 or more national associations of psychology held throughout the year. Even if you are not able to attend in person, the websites for these conferences offer a wealth of ways to contact our colleagues around the world and usher in the next 50 years as the time when psychology became truly global in its family.