Senior director's column

Senior Director's Column--Convention

From an international perspective, the convention offers opportunities for us to explore our principles, procedures, assumptions, and theories, and to ask where they are the same, where they overlap, and where they differ in ways that will teach us about the unitary or diverse nature of our discipline and our cultures.

By Merry Bullock, PhD

This issue of Psychology International is being published just before the 2008 APA convention begins in Boston, Massachusetts, and just after many international psychology meetings around the world, including a number in Germany (the International Congress of Psychology in Berlin (see article this issue), the International Association of Cross Cultural Psychology congress in Bremen, the biennial meetings of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development in Wurzburg) and elsewhere (for example the International Congress on the Teaching of Psychology in St. Petersburg).

What is a convention and what is its purpose? The word “convention” actually has several meanings, each applicable in its own way, especially in an international context. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary provides three meanings:

Main Entry: con·ven·tion
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French or Latin; Middle French, from Latin convention-, conventio, from convenire
Date: 15th century

1 a: agreement, contract b: an agreement between states for regulation of matters affecting all of them c: a compact between opposing commanders especially concerning prisoner exchange or armistice d: a general agreement about basic principles or procedures; also : a principle or procedure accepted as true or correct by convention

2 a: the summoning or convening of an assembly b: an assembly of persons met for a common purpose; especially: a meeting of the delegates of a political party for the purpose of formulating a platform and selecting candidates for office c: the usually state or national organization of a religious denomination

3 a: usage or custom especially in social matters b: a rule of conduct or behavior c: a practice in bidding or playing that conveys information between partners in a card game (as bridge) d: an established technique, practice, or device (as in the theater)

The second meaning, “an assembly of persons met for a common purpose”, is the clear nomenclature for the APA meeting – APA’s conventions are large, in the 16 thousand participant range, with a common purpose of exploring psychology topics. But how well do the other definitions fit? The first refers to the development of common principles or procedures; the third to usage, custom, or norms of conduct or behavior.

To some degree, of course, the APA convention, like the annual meeting of any large member organization, does impose norms, common rules, and procedures. We all learn to convey our talks in 15 minute chunks (unless honored to be a plenary or keynote speaker, in which case we might take a 50 minute hour!), or to compose ideas into a readable and visually pleasing poster, and we probably learn “convention attire” and “convention greetings” by observation. The convention is also a venue in which APA provides a wealth of information on its official sets of rules and expectations – the APA code of ethics, publishing practices, and the like, and convention also hosts the APA Council of Representatives meetings where APA’s rules, regulations, principles and policies are forged.

From an international perspective, the APA convention as well as other regular meetings of psychologists offer multiple opportunities for us, as a discipline, to explore the third sense of “convention”-- to explore our principles, procedures, assumptions and theories, and to ask where they are the same, where they overlap, and where they differ in ways that will teach us about the unitary or diverse nature of our discipline and our cultures. 

Thinking about convention in this third sense, common usage or procedures, also provides an opportunity to explore the challenges of promoting international mobility, interaction and exchange while respecting local and cultural differences. Here are just a few examples:

  • This summer the International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS) and the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP) endorsed a “set of ethical principles for psychologists”. These 5 principles, generated over several years of workshops, presentations and broad international discussion, are intended to provide a universal ethical framework.

  • At the same time, APA has begun to ask whether regional activities, for example by the European Federation of Psychology Associations (EFPA), to develop common standards for psychology education and training, especially education leading to the practice of psychology, is even thinkable in the context of the global community. Last year APA convened a task force to explore international issues concerning quality assurance in psychology education and training and to offer advice on possible ways that APA might address these issues. The report of this task force, subtitled “APA as learning partner” is available online for review and comment (comment period has now closed).

  • There is active interest in internationalizing the curriculum, supporting the belief that maintaining a common core to psychology requires examples, models and data from around the world. This interest is evident in the summer 2008 conference in St. Petersburg on the teaching of psychology, in the theme of this year’s APA Education Leadership Conference, “Internationalizing the Curriculum”, and in working groups across APA governance and Divisions on the topic.

If you are heading to international meetings, keep these senses of convention in mind: looking for commonalities but acknowledging differences, exploring similarities but recognizing the deep cultural influences on our models and questions. Exploring similarities and differences and evaluating our models requires something that we as psychologists, whether researchers, practitioners, teachers or students, are trained to be good at–listening, observation, critical thinking, and excitement at finding connections.