Executive Director's Column

Big Dog…Little Dog

Scholarly societies come in all varieties, filling different niches and satisfying different needs.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

One of my favorite early reader books is Big Dog…Little Dog by P. D. Eastman. It is the simple story of two dogs, Fred and Ted. Fred is the big, green dog. Ted is the little, red dog. They are good friends. Each recognizes and respects the other’s needs, abilities, and interests. They get along, and they solve problems together.

Scholarly societies are a lot like Fred and Ted. They come in all varieties, filling different niches and satisfying different needs. And yes, some are big and some are small.

The small, specialized societies have many unique qualities. They offer meetings and journals that cater to well-defined and circumscribed scholarly pursuits. The annual or biannual conventions offer a place where colleagues and students with very similar interests gather, exchange information, talk about the latest trends, and sustain very good friendships. Everyone speaks the same scholarly language. In the general scheme of things, there is little diversity in opinion or outlook.

The large, omnibus societies have different qualities. They too offer meetings and journals, but ones that tend to appeal to a large number of diverse scholarly pursuits. Their conventions tend to be large and busy, not small and intimate. Those who attend may share only very remote connections, with many different scholarly languages being spoken. In the general scheme of things, there is substantial diversity in opinion and outlook.

The small societies are often managed at a small scale--a small membership, a small budget, a small (usually volunteer) staff, and limited resources. They are able to cater well to members’ immediate interests and needs, but can do little more.

The big societies tend to be managed at a larger scale--a large membership, a big budget, a large professional staff, and deep resources. They can sustain very sizeable scholarly publication programs, maintain a lobbying and advocacy presence in Washington and elsewhere, develop and support standards and guidelines, and convene smaller groups to meet almost anywhere and anytime.

The small societies have very special appeal. Those of us who work in narrowly defined slices of sub-disciplines derive some of our greatest professional satisfaction from the handful of small societies to which we belong. We share a lot in common with the other members – we look alike, we talk alike, we think alike. We are birds of a feather flocking together.

The large societies seem to have less appeal. The diversity that almost always characterizes the membership creates differences in opinions, thoughts, and values. This often leads to conflict and distrust, and a less comfortable environment. The resources and influence of large societies often invites resentment and contempt, even among their own members.

Add to this mix the competition for members. Almost every scholarly society requires payment of dues or fees, and each wants its members to attend its own meetings. The average scholar’s budget can sustain only so many memberships and allow for only so many expensive conventions. When push comes to shove, the special appeal of small societies often wins out.

APA is one of the big dogs. A large professional and scientific society, serving virtually all dimensions of the large discipline of psychology. No other psychology society has the resources or staffing offered by APA. No other psychology society has the depth or the breadth of APA’s publishing program, lobbying presence, advocacy reach, or convening ability. No other psychology society counts among its membership the same breadth and diversity of the discipline of psychology. And no other psychology society must accommodate the diversity of opinion and dissenting viewpoints that characterize the membership of APA.

Big dogs have their problems. Little dogs do too. No size is perfect, but each offers unique advantages and special qualities. The great discipline of psychology is enriched by its own diversity, including the healthy functioning of its big dogs and its small dogs.

I cherish my membership in the small specialty societies to which I belong and with which I most strongly identify. Yet, I devote most of my professional energy to working with the largest professional society. I do it because I want to see psychology maintain and grow its presence on the national and international stages of science. This is the work of big dogs.