How do people manage conflicting social identities? Does power change us, and if so, how? Can leaders' personality traits predict war or peace? How does our culture affect the way we act in the world?

Such meaty questions occupy University of Michigan faculty and students in the psychology department's new graduate program, Personality and Social Contexts, launched in September. The area replaces two traditional ones--organizational and personality psychology--and reflects both faculties' bent toward examining the individual in context, whether in such day-to-day arenas as schools and doctors' offices or in larger ones, such as a country's changing political climate, says associate professor Fiona Lee, PhD, former chair of the organizational area. As is true for students in all of the department's nine areas, those taking the new personality and social contexts track will receive a doctorate in psychology rather than in the specific area, she notes.

"Both of our areas were saying that the labels didn't really capture what we do," says Lee, who helped to form the new area. Organizational faculty were studying many settings besides businesses, and personality faculty were examining individuals in families, schools and society at large as much as they were exploring individual differences. "We thought, 'The boundaries between these areas don't make sense any more,'" she says.

Consequently, the new area will not only combine work in the former areas, but will attempt to create a new subdiscipline based on the many directions such work can go--whether it is examining the way Hong Kong residents attributed events before and after the Chinese takeover in 1997 or the way African Americans experience and cope with racial discrimination, says department chair Richard Gonzalez, PhD.

"By bringing this faculty together and putting a new curriculum on the map," he says, "we hope to create a new area that examines individual differences in all kinds of contexts." The faculty will do this via five interrelated themes--identity, culture, oppression, power and motivation--that likewise proved to be common ground once the two areas started talking, he notes.

Personality and social contexts--in context

The creation of the new program area squares with a trend toward creating interdisciplinary programs that involve psychology (see articles on combined programs in the September gradPSYCH and novel graduate training in the March Monitor), and more particularly, with a much smaller movement toward establishing intradisciplinary programs that combine areas within the field, experts say.

Such approaches are much-needed in a discipline that is increasingly balkanized, believes Edward Diener, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The University of Illinois itself hosted a similar intradisciplinary area in community psychology, personality psychology and social ecology from the 1970s to the 1990s, he notes. While the area produced a lot of good research, many of its faculty retired, says Diener, and it ended up merging with other divisions of the school's psychology department.

"This type of program brings together our expertise from different areas and leads again to broad intellectual interchange," Diener says. Also notable is the new area's focus on addressing real-world issues--increasingly important in an age of sobering and complex realities, Diener says.

"A highly ranked program such as the University of Michigan will be a catalyst for the field to get more involved in real-world applications of our knowledge," he says.

Creating a new area won't be easy given the realities of academe, acknowledges Gonzalez, the department chair. That's not because the area is not a worthy research focus, he says, but because the field is structured in such a way that the "reward system" of journals, awards and tenure decisions, for example, all relate to specific subdisciplines. "We'll have to deal with some realistic barriers to integration," he says.

Fortunately, the university, and consequently the psychology faculty, already boast a long track record of encouraging and promoting interdisciplinary research, Lee says, so the move should be fairly natural.

"At Michigan, people are always crossing boundaries, interacting with people outside the area, the department, the school--it's a very common part of our everyday research life," she says. "The new area just formally acknowledges that."

A wealth of methods

Students interested in the pioneering area will find another draw: Faculty are expert in about two dozen research methodologies, from traditional lab studies to archival methods to biopsychosocial assessment, notes area chair Robert Sellers, PhD, former chair of the personality area. Students will be encouraged to use as many methods as seem appropriate to illuminate a research question, thus lending greater richness to any given topic, he says.

Take a grad student interested in identity. Theoretically, he notes, the student could work with faculty member Abigail Stewart, PhD, who uses ethnographic and other qualitative studies to examine how identity variables morph across the lifespan; with Sellers, who uses paper-and-pencil tests and diary studies to probe the significance and meaning of various aspects of identity; and with faculty member Margaret Shih, PhD, who uses traditional lab studies to look at how identity issues intersect with specific tasks such as academic performance.

This multipronged approach "will give you a much richer picture of identity than if you were working with any one of us alone," Sellers says. "And it will give you a great toolbox as you're developing your career."

Prospective students also will find an array of existing projects to provide impetus for their own work. Sellers, for instance, is examining African-American racial identity, showing that the salience a person places on her racial identity and the context she is in can affect her health and mental health. Lee has looked at the relative nature of power, showing how the same person can be powerful at work, but not at home. Faculty member David Winter, PhD, studies how people's middle-age identities blend their early expertise and background with later life changes such as job and family, and how those factors influence their hopes and fears for older age. Meanwhile, Phillip Akatsu, PhD, examines how cultural backgrounds affect the way people seek help and the responses they receive from service providers.

Students who see the program as a "right fit" will be turned on by these opportunities rather than threatened by them, Gonzalez comments. Indeed, several grad students who had been on track in other areas will be taking the new curriculum in the fall, he notes.

"This might not be an appropriate area for students who only want to do lab research in experimental design," he says. "But for those who are open-minded about the research questions and methodologies, it is a great opportunity."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

The deadline to apply for September 2006 admission to the University of Michigan's Personality and Social Contexts area is Dec. 15. Students are only admitted in the fall.