Education Leadership Conference

Psychology departments can do more to cultivate different theoretical and epistemological perspectives, argued 2005 ELC presenters.

"There is a kind of ethnocentrism that is inherent in our different education and training cultures," explained Roger L. Peterson, PhD, chair of Antioch New England Graduate School's clinical psychology department. For example, he said, research-oriented, modernist academic "cultures" have different theoretical stances from practice-oriented, integrative ones. While psychologists in these different cultures don't have to agree, he said, they should engage each other respectfully.

Indeed, the ability to appreciate others' theoretical standpoints makes for a richer academic environment, presenters said.

An exploration of thought

For example, presenter Jill Morawski, PhD, a psychology, women's studies and science and society professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, suggested that the field's traditional ways of thinking might benefit from alternative perspectives.

Some of the core and alternative theories she explored include:

  • Mainstream thought contends that psychological researchers or therapists can separate themselves from what they observe, and that psychologists' values don't interfere with their science-based work. But other theories-such as in dynamic nominalism-purport that people change as a result of being observed and classified.

  • Psychologists seeking to understand behavior and disorders try to reduce experience to its most basic parts-and assume that those parts are universal, that people develop and think in the same ways according to a standard set of "rules." In the process, they neglect models-such as wholeism, emergence and Gestalt-that instead see human experience as varied and individualistic, she said.

  • Though mainstream psychology places a premium on quantitative research, other theorists contend that qualitative research can uniquely shed light on the human experience.

For instance, she said, theorists who advocate "standpoint epistemology" contend that the scientific method does not accurately represent the experience of all humankind. They also challenge the assumption that it's possible to know another person better than they know themselves and suggest that researchers cannot discount a person's environment, but instead must always consider it in their analyses.

"Standpoint, both of the observer and the observed, and experience-again, both of the observer and the subject of the observer-are inseparable from the process of knowledge-making, according to the standpoint theorists," said Morawski.

Even renowned psychologist-philosopher William James, she noted, argued alternative epistemologies, such as that there are many ways to know the world, and that the observer is inescapably present in the production of knowledge about the world.

Theory as illuminator

These countering epistemologies seldom coexist peacefully in psychology training, noted Peterson. Rather, he said, academic psychology departments today are typically modernist in theory, while professional departments, in his view, are more integrative or postmodern.

"Models have become flags on the end of pikes, flown by cultural groups, under which they can rally," said Peterson. "Let's lower the war flags and use these models in a smaller and more peaceful way to illuminate education and training."

He urged conference attendees to think about how theoretical camps can develop cross-cultural conversations.

"We need to find ways to see and then acknowledge the weaknesses, shortcomings and differences of cultures in public conversations," he explained.

Psychologist Steven D. Hollon, PhD, presented an example of such an effort: the recent APA Presidential Task Force on Evidence-Based Practice in Psychology, of which he was a member. The group of diverse researchers and practitioners talked through their widely divergent views on evidence-based practice to reach a compromise definition and policy statement, recently approved by APA's Council of Representatives.

The group members drew on their respective research and practice backgrounds to define the term as "the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture and preferences" and went on to discuss the term's implication for clinical practice. More on the report can be found at