Feature

How science should inform multicultural practice — and how multicultural practice should inform scientific inquiry — was a central theme of the seventh National Multicultural Conference and Summit held in Seattle. The Jan. 27–28 summit, attended by more than 900 psychologists and students, was hosted by APA Divisions 17 (Society for Counseling Psychology), 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women), 44 (Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues) and 45 (Society of the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues).

In opening the conference, summit coordinator Cisco Sánchez, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine, set the stage for in-depth presentations on the contributions, importance and deficiencies of science as it applies to multicultural theory and practice. Sánchez described the conference’s goal of recognizing not only the tension between basic and applied science, but also the contributions that each has made to the other. The ultimate goal, he said, is to find ways to better bridge science and practice in order to create more communication and respect between the two.

“Psychologists in different subdisciplines and work settings may not communicate with one another, even if they are interested in the same issues,” Sánchez observed. “Our hope is that the summit will stimulate discussion about the impasse between science and practice and foster collaborations among the attendees in ways that ultimately serve the public interest.”

In addition to Sánchez, the other members of the summit coordinating team were Roger L. Worthington PhD, University of Missouri; Debra Kawahara, PhD, Alliant International University; and Lisa Rey Thomas, PhD, University of Washington.

Lead-off keynote speaker Ana Mari Cauce, PhD, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, postulated that multicultural psychology is strongly rooted in science, but in a science that is broad and that recognizes there are culturally specific and universal experiences and constructs in people’s lives. The assumption in most research is that there are universal, generalizable experiences, she said, while the assumption in multicultural psychology is that there are both universal and culturally specific phenomena. Multicultural psychotherapy emphasizes the culturally specific phenomena. “We don’t live in a homogeneous world, but one in which people differ from each other in important ways,” Cauce said. Science needs to do a better job of assessing those differences and measuring the impact of culturally specific experiences, she asserted.

Multicultural psychology doesn’t attempt to overthrow traditional psychology, added Cauce, yet within multicultural psychology, there is a “clear emphasis on context and culture; on complexity rather than parsimony.…For too long, we have been a psychology in which the prototypical study groups have been white rats and white college students.”

To appropriately research and understand today’s highly diverse society, psychology will need a broader array of research methods, Cauce said. “Border crossing,” that is, reaching across the divides within science, is crucial to solving society’s most vexing problems, she concluded.

In a second keynote address, Joseph P. Gone, PhD, of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, who studies culture and mental health in American Indian communities, posed the question: “Is psychological science acultural?” He said that the challenge of applying mainstream and evidence-based interventions within American Indian communities, for example, is that few of these interventions were developed for use in native communities, nor do they typically consider American Indian cultural norms — a problem he identified as the “monocultural” flavor of evidence-based practice in psychology and the mental health fields. But Gone also voiced skepticism for claims by native behavioral health advocates who believe locally derived interventions don’t need to be evaluated.

“I am skeptical of routine claims by American Indian behavioral health advocates that ‘we already know what works in our community’ as an argument for dismissing empirically supported interventions in favor of culturally local interventions that have never been systematically evaluated,” Gone said.

Gone believes it is possible in principle to evaluate efficacy claims — of the use of sweat lodges for substance abuse, for example — by using a range of scientific methods to discriminate between the plausibility of competing causal explanations. “My point is there is nothing intrinsic to science or psychological science that restricts me from engaging in ‘pro-native’ evaluation projects of this kind,” he said.

Like Cauce, Gone cautioned that a psychological science that is too narrow will only produce findings that are “sterile and impoverished.”

While retaining “some faith” in the traditional methods of psychological science to answer some questions, Gone said that there is plenty of justification for taking psychological inquiry beyond the limited bounds of measurement, control and quantification.

“Despite the advantages of scientific inquiry for addressing certain kinds of causal questions, I believe that our discipline would benefit from great support for robust methodological pluralism,” Gone said.