Here is a link to Brad Jesness’s review of my book, which I read with interest. The review is posted on ResearchGate as a “comment”, and I decided to respond to it here for the sake of convenience. Brad (and others) could continue the thread either here or on RG.

I wasn’t expecting much of a reaction to my book, so I am grateful to have received Brad’s thoughts. He is very generous in his assessment, despite his general antipathy toward philosophy and qualitative analysis. More importantly, he has correctly identified important themes that emerge as the result of my analyses: certain lines of research being tautological, uninformative, unsurprising, trivial, ambiguous; certain concepts being misused and misrepresented in experimental research; psychologists’ self-serving framing about (marketing of) their own research findings; so on and so forth.

Brad is also right in recognizing that one of the goals of my work is to identify the agency of the researcher. The phrase “human agency” in the book title fills two placeholders. On one hand, it refers to the agency that is at times distorted by a particular method of research/discourse (agency of the participant). On the other hand, it refers to the agency that distorts the former agency (agency of the researcher).

Levels of Control

There is a point I should clarify with regard to the levels of control (Chapter 3). This should already be clear in the chapter, but I’d like to emphasize it here in response to Brad’s commentary.

The three levels (superordinate, basic-level, and subordinate) aren’t fixed, objective categories. One person’s subordinate goal is another person’s basic-level goal (depending on their focus, experience, expertise, etc.). The reason behind identifying the levels of control, therefore, isn’t to answer questions like, “what is the basic-level goal in this behavior?” Instead, the discussion of levels comes after a particular goal has already been picked–identified as basic-level–which anchors the rest of our analysis: Given that goal G is identified (either by researcher or by the participant), what is the goal within which G is embedded (superordinate goal) and what are the set of goals which enact G and ‘bring it to life’ (subordinate goals)?

No Prescription

Let us now move to the question of “fixing scientific psychology”, as Brad puts it. The book is not intended as an advice-giving vehicle. Rather than telling researchers how they ought to conduct their research (this is not the type of relationship I’d like to have with my readers), I offer a description of the states of affairs within an organized conceptual framework. The next step, if there is any, regarding how experimental research in various fields can/should change, isn’t up to me. As my friend, Johannes Niederhauser, likes to say: Philosophers do not tell others what to do. And neither do I.

Needless to say, I cannot summarize the book here. It is written to be read in its original form, from beginning to end. Let me just say this. My goal was to represent experimental psychology in its current state, to analyze the scope of “successful” (i.e., published in prestigious journals) research, to ask whether they live up to their promises, to ask whether they are as clear and unambiguous as the researchers claim, and so forth. As such, my primary aim was to understand, rather than to change. The reader who follows along carefully will, I hope, have a sharper and deeper view of experimental psychology, but s/he will not be pushed in any particular direction. I wrote the book as a thinking tool, not as a tool for “converting” others to my path.

Wouldn’t trying to “convert” others to my style of research be a performative contradiction? A theme in the book is about noticing situations where the research participant becomes subordinate to the goal of the researcher, and how researchers themselves become subordinate to taken-for-granted norms of the academic culture. Standing outside this pattern–as I’d like to do–means refusing to take up superordinate position in relation to others, encouraging them make their own decisions.

Brad offers an interesting alternative to the contemporary experimental psychology, based on studying spontaneous patterns of behavior. If I understand him correctly, he sees the task of an empirical psychologist to be identifying patterns of situated goal-directed action, which are hierarchically organized, and tracking those patterns—and how they change—through the development of the organism-situation relationship (with special reference to Piaget). I am sympathetic to such a project, and I might engage with it later on. For now, however, the armchair beckons, and my attachment to the proverbial armchair (the seat of rebellion against contemporary psychology) prevents me from such a commitment.