Executive Director's Column

A Discipline by Any Other Name?

If psychology is not the discipline we all share in common, then what is? And does it matter? Perhaps the problem is that psychology is no longer the unified and unifying discipline it once was.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

Those of us who identify most closely with the science of psychology dread the inevitable question asked by those whom we meet for the first time: What do you do? Do you tell them you are a psychologist? Or do you avoid the lengthy qualifiers, and draw on another term instead? Perhaps you identify yourself as a behavioral scientist, a cognitive scientist, a neuroscientist, or some other term that avoids the uncomfortable discussion that is about to ensue.

I'm sure we've all had this experience, and it makes for good story telling during the social hours of scientific meetings. Yet, at the root of this phenomenon is a fundamentally important problem for the future of our discipline. Is psychology the discipline we all share in common? If it is, then why are we sometimes reluctant to identify ourselves as psychologists?

If psychology is not the discipline we all share in common, then what is? And does it matter? I think the choice of how we name ourselves is important, and that we should understand the consequences of shedding our identity as psychologists before we jump ship.

Perhaps the problem is that psychology is no longer the unified and unifying discipline it once was. As our field grows in breadth and diversity, we may be spawning new disciplines - ones that have their origin in the "old" field of psychology, but that are now distinctly different species. An evolution of this sort will naturally carry with it some awkward transitions, including some confusion about our disciplinary identity and how we choose to name ourselves.

A variation on this perspective goes back to the way I framed the problem at the outset. The confusion we are trying to avoid when someone asks us what we do is the assumption that all psychologists are clinical psychologists. Once you tell someone you are a psychologist, you must then explain that you don't do therapy, you don't do counseling, you don't interpret dreams, and that you don't help people with their problems (at least, not in the way that most people assume about psychologists).

Most of us can solve this awkward conversation by calling ourselves something other than a psychologist. And for most of us, this works. For purposes of describing what we do, and who we are, we often do not need to invoke the term psychology. It also raises an interesting question: Who among us still depends on the identification with psychology?

This is a serious matter. I think the answer is that practicing psychologists - especially those who exemplify the common stereotype - are the ones who depend most on the identity with the discipline of psychology. To lose that identity could mean the loss of livelihood and the opportunity to practice.

For those who engage in the science of psychology, an occasional change in name or identify is perfectly acceptable - perhaps even desirable. For those who engage in the practice of psychology, however, the name is the brand. It is not easily changed. Indeed, the practice community of psychology works hard to establish psychology as the profession that can help. Its identity with the brand name is crucial. For many of us, this is reason enough to stay with psychology as the unifying disciplinary identity.

I recognize that others see it quite differently - that the stereotypical identification of psychology with the practice of psychology offers strong incentive to deliberately widen the gap between science and practice. This is where consequences need to be more fully understood.

If we all go off in our own directions, we gain the satisfaction of pursuing our own narrow sets of interests. And we get to call ourselves whatever we want. Indeed, this seems to be the current trend. Smaller, specialized organizations are growing in popularity. They provide a comfortable and fulfilling professional environment to mix with others who share our own narrow sets of interest. They also constrain the kinds of goals that can be achieved - the financial and human resources are limiting.

The contrast is to organize ourselves in much larger professional units. By joining together - especially in the form of large professional societies such as APA - we are able to pursue far more ambitious goals. We can advocate in support of federal funding, we can publish high-quality journals, we can pool resources to support those among us in need. These are all costly activities - both in financial and human capital. We can afford them, but only if we join together in large numbers.

I think a good argument can be made for both forms of organizing. Finding a name for the smaller units is easy to do. The challenge is naming the larger ones - finding a label to represent the common denominator. We will be hard-pressed to find one that works any better than psychology. That's why - at least for now - I call myself a psychologist.