Executive Director's Column
Where’s the Science?
By Steven Breckler, PhD
The discipline of psychology can be divided and sub-divided in many ways. The organization of the APA office itself reflects one such division, with a Directorate devoted to the science of psychology, a second to the practice of psychology, a third to education, and a fourth to psychology in the public interest. This structure is not at all arbitrary - it reflects quite closely the distinct identities that psychologists tend to assume. Of course, the unfortunate consequence of dividing is that it creates a demand to choose. Are you in science, or are you in practice? Choose one, please.
The membership divisions of APA reflect another way of representing disciplinary diversity. APA currently supports 53 divisions, from general psychology (Division 1) to pharmacotherapy (Division 55), from experimental psychology (Division 3) to clinical neuropsychology (Division 40), and almost everything you can imagine in between. The divisional architecture, like the APA office, is not arbitrary. The divisions reflect the major subfields of our discipline. Yet, once again, it creates a demand to choose. You may join as many as you like. But is your primary affiliation with Division 7 (Developmental Psychology) or Division 37 (Child, Youth, and Family Services)? Choose one, please.
The need to classify and identify applies to Divisions as well as to individuals. It seems important to know whether a Division belongs to Science, Practice, Education, or Public Interest (or something else entirely). Most of the single-digit Divisions (3, 5, 6, 7, 8) are typically identified as Science Divisions. The practice of psychology - clinical psychology, counseling psychology, psychotherapy - is more commonly represented among the higher double-digit Divisions. Some Divisions identify closely with Education (e.g., 2 and 15), and others with Public Interest (e.g., 9, 35, 44, and 45).
I understand the need for people to classify and categorize. Still, for the sake of our discipline, we need to resist the temptation. For one thing, it leaves too many out. Although many of the APA Divisions fit neatly into one or another category, many others do not. Where does the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (Division 14) fit? How about the Society for Consumer Psychology (Division 23), or the American Psychology-Law Society (Division 41)? These are important and valued Divisions of APA, yet none of them fit squarely into the science/practice/education/public interest quartet.
It is informative to ask why such Divisions do not fit neatly into one category or another. One important reason is that they actually fit into two or more. These Divisions are themselves diverse and category-spanning. Some of what their members do is clearly science, some is practice, and much is the integration of science and practice and the application of psychology in everyday settings. The work represented by these Divisions is often leading-edge science, mixed with the clinical and non-clinical practice of psychology, and typically offering insight into public interest and presenting educational challenges and opportunities.
Even when a Division does fit neatly into one category or another, the act of categorizing creates a false portrayal of unity in purpose and methods. A psychologist who identifies principally with practice can still do science; a teacher of psychology whose work centers in the classroom can still engage in the practice of psychology; a bench scientist can still be motivated by and ultimately apply science to matters of significant public interest. Forcing a person or a group into a single category implies an irrelevance to the other categories. That is not productive, nor is it typically correct.
Perhaps the most serious consequence of categorizing is one that strikes closest to the home of science at APA. It is true that a handful of single-digit Divisions do concentrate mostly on the basic science of psychology. Those Divisions represent the backbone of scientific psychology - experimental psychology, social psychology, developmental psychology, behavioral neuroscience, comparative psychology, measurement, and statistics. But it would be very misleading to conclude that these are the only places where you can find scientific psychology. Indeed, science can be found in almost every one of APA's 53 Divisions. Science may not occupy center stage in each one, and in some cases it may be a very small part of what they do. Still, that should not diminish the scientific value or importance of what those psychologists have to offer.
The category-spanning Divisions of APA enjoy an enviable position. They have multiple homes within the organization. Whenever someone asks me where the science is at APA, I always reply that it is everywhere. The Science Directorate welcomes all science that is done in support of psychology, regardless of Divisional origin, Directorate identity, or affiliation with other scientific societies.