Senior Director's Column

Internationalization in psychology and in APA: A process, not an outcome

Merry Bullock, PhD, discusses the meaning of the term internationalization and how the APA Office of International Affairs implements this at the core of its activities.

By Merry Bullock, PhD

Merry Bullock, PhDThe term “international” and “internationalization” are now commonplace in science, education, and practice circles. What does internationalization mean for psychology and what does it mean for APA? 

There are some who consider internationalization as an outcome. This might be quantified, for example, through demographics. An organization is international if it has a certain percentage of foreign members; a curriculum is international if it includes foreign content, a program is international if it includes students from outside the country. Meanwhile, others measure this outcome through outreach efforts. An organization is international if it has exchange programs; a program is international if it includes field trips outside the country, and a person is international if they frequently travel across their national borders widely.

What these approaches to defining internationalization fail to capture is that in its broadest sense, internationalization is a process in which a person, organization or program comes to understand themselves in a global context, is aware of the assumptions and perspectives of their own specific history and culture, and appreciates the diversity of perspectives of the broader transnational, transcultural and transdisciplinary community. Thus, internationalization entails recognizing the amazing variation in human behaviors, norms, explanation systems, conceptual structures and modes of interaction. It also requires recognizing that basic “truths” of human behavior may rather be norms true of a specific culture, time or place. Thus, the “givens” of gender-specific behavior, the goals of adolescence or “optimal” child-rearing practices may be just as variable internationally as dialect or greeting style, and just as valid as “ways of being.” This is not an easy task — we rarely question our assumptions of what is normative, obvious or canonical, and we rarely see our own cultural norms as one variation among many. In addition to intellectual pluralism, internationalization also requires awareness of global, historical power relations and how this has influenced “canonical” views of behavior. We no longer can assume that models of behavior or of psychological intervention developed in one place or culture will translate seamlessly to another.

This perspective carries recommendations for how psychology might approach internationalization. It suggests that a first step in “internationalizing” the discipline is not just to promote international exposure or content, but to promote examination of our own and others’ cultural assumptions, and how they have helped create a psychology we have assumed is universal. This is a rather uncomfortable task for U.S. psychology to undertake because it also entails addressing how the dominance of North American/Western perspectives has been interpreted by others. Many aspects of the definition of U.S. psychology — as a doctoral level, science based discipline that that accepts only a limited set of behavioral constructs or explanation systems, are not shared universally. But we now know that there are rich explanations systems (sometimes called indigenous belief systems) with powerful psychological consequences. We also now know that many “universal” behavioral constructs from personality structure, to identity, to developmental phases have important, culturally specific aspects. Bringing this knowledge, sometimes called “indigenous psychologies” to “mainstream” psychology is not just a matter of exposure. It requires acknowledging that there are historical patterns of power, privilege and dominance that have marginalized voices “outside” the mainstream, and it requires promoting an inclusive, validating approach to examining other psychologies. Such a perspective also carries implications for APA, which could serve as a leader in what it has coined as a “learning partner” — inviting genuine conversation with others about the roles, goals and position of psychology as a science, practice and discipline.

These issues are at the heart of APA’s Committee on International Relations (CIRP)’s 2014 priorities of infusing an international perspective at APA and addressing internationalization in graduate education. They are also at the core of APA’s memorandum of understanding partnerships with the national psychology organizations in more than a dozen countries, where the goal is to promote dialogue, exchange and mutual learning.

In the spirit of conversation, we invite your input and understanding of internationalization. Please send your comments to the Office of International Affairs, subject header “Internationalization.”