In a recent general critique of Psychology, Catherine Raeff (2019) follows up on Michael Billig’s (2013) analysis, pointing out that psychological science, in its currently dominant style, is a science of things and not of people. In brief, it is a science–or a collection of sciences–in which people (supposedly the primary targets of investigation) are absent. By focusing on things, e.g., traits, scores, sub-personal cognitive or neural functions, we tend to construct a rather static image in which variables are the main players and what we discover consists of various relationships among these variables. The image gives the impression of universal regularity, but that impression is neither faithful to matters of fact (hence, e.g., the crisis of replicability) nor has anything to do with people, their activities, relationships, and development (what we might call the crisis of subject-matter).
Like Raeff, I admire Michael Billig’s work and have been influenced by him (see, for example, my 2015 interview with Billig). Moreover, consistent with Raeff’s position, I have argued against the pervasive focus on psychological building blocks, and against regarding the study of those building blocks as pre-requisite to a synthetic/holistic approach to psychology (Gozli & Deng, 2018). I have also argued for distinguishing the patterns and stabilities that result from placing people in normatively- and descriptively- fixed contexts (e.g., an experiment) from patterns and stabilities outside such contrived contexts (Gozli, 2017). Raeff’s arguments run along similar lines, though they are broader in scope, more informed by her work in developmental psychology, and more explicit about human relationships. Moreover, Raeff’s critique appears to be connected to a broader institutional critique and the current professionalization of research psychology, with its standards of evaluating success. There is already some trace of this in the article:
Contemporary psychologists typically identify themselves in terms of their particular area of specialization, and academic job advertisements typically specify a particular area of psychology.Raeff (2019, p. 8)
Indeed, a new research hire is expected to set up a lab upon arrival and begin drilling deep into a highly specialized subfield. There is little room for exploration, risk-taking, playing with the norms and disciplinary boundaries, at least if one wishes to “succeed”! This reminds me of another article by Billig (2012), Undisciplined Beginnings…, where he describes his career path. We see there how critique of psychological research can be tied to a critique of cultural/institutional norms within the profession. Similarly, I believe what Raeff is aiming at will be even more effectively accomplished if it accompanies a discussion of what research psychologists do, the norms to which they are subjected, how those norms regulate their actions and self construal, and so forth. But, for the time being, let us return to the main premise of Raeff’s article.
Why Focus on People?
A skeptical reader might ask: Why should we focus on people? We cannot here rely on the tautological response that, “We ought to focus on people because psychology is the study of people!”, but should formulate our response in terms of some epistemic advantage that comes with taking persons-and-actions as our units of analysis.
Understanding action holistically […] permits thinking about whole people, rather than treating people in terms of fragmented bits of behavior, or as collections of fragmented variables. A whole person can be defined as someone who acts in relation to others, and whose action is made up of multiple and interrelated constitutive, psychological, and developmental processes.Raeff (2019, p. 20)
Ultimately, a process-relational conceptualization of action can transform psychology into a science of understanding the dynamic complexities of how people act in relation to others in all corners of the world.Raeff (2019, p. 21)
In other words, by neglecting the person, we neglect attributes and relations that are intrinsic to being a person. As a consequence, we miss the explanatory resources that come with noticing those attributes and relations. Knowing, for instance, that a person is capable of reflective and deliberate action, and that the person’s current actions is sensitive to their history of reflective and deliberate actions, enables us to recognize more potential sources of change (Smedslund, 2012).
Being mindful of persons and their activities also prevents us from seeing psychological phenomena as isolable and repeatable when in fact they are not isolable and repeatable (Mammen, 2017; Smedslund, 2016). Pressing a button might be repeatable in some relevant sense, but borrowing money from a friend or betraying someone’s trust are not repeatable.
I find Raeff’s arguments careful and compelling, though I’d like to see more concrete examples in her follow-up papers. In general, criticizing the mainstream assumptions and methods will be more effective if we anchor our abstract arguments to concrete examples from research. Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t see the use of concrete examples from research as aggressive and confrontational, but rather as bridge-building between a given critical stance and the target of critique. Without concrete examples, it would be difficult to see the effects–the pragmatic value–of the critique.
Almost all psychological researchers would agree to these critiques in private conversation. Their continuing efforts within the natural-scientific tradition has to do with the fact that the tradition continues to yield results that are meaningful from within their paradigms. The critic’s task, in my view, is two-sided–we ought to make sense of the success of the mainstream while at the same time placing that success within a broader context of human concerns, which reveals its shortcomings and, in some cases, its misguidedness.
People vs. Objects
Before closing, let me also briefly touch on the main point of disagreement. In several places in the article, Raeff distinguishes a proper psychological scope (attention to people and their actions) from a natural-scientific scope (objects). The natural-scientific attitude is appropriate, she holds, when applied to objects but it is not appropriate when applied to people.
Analyzing objectively includes conceptualizing a phenomenon as an object that does not express individuality and that does not interpret experience subjectively. Insofar as physical objects neither experience the world subjectively nor express individuality, it makes sense to analyze natural science objects objectively.Raeff (2019, p. 8)
I would not set up the dichotomy between objects and people. Instead, it would seems more apt to distinguish between two approaches that could be applied both to objects and to people (Mammen, 2017). Here is an example:
On my shelves I have a miniature model of the CN Tower (Toronto). It’s made of metal, has a certain size, texture, weight, etc. In short, it could be analyzed from the perspective of physical sciences, in terms of general attributes and laws. From such a perspective this model of the CN Tower is replaceable. It is equivalent to other models of the same kind.
It is also true that the CN-Tower model was given to me as a parting gift by my doctoral advisor in 2015, and that it has been accompanying me since then, during my postdoctoral days in Leiden and during my life in Macao. It represent a history, an affective bond, and a sentiment. From this perspective, the model is not replaceable. Now, it is critical to note that the psychological attributes of such an object are not private. They do not reside in my head. If I die, the model does not lose its psychological significance. Its significance, the way of viewing it that recognizes its significance, is available within a larger domain, recognizable by others. It is a domain that does not depend on any one person.
Take another example from the same shelf: Daniel Robinson’s book An Intellectual History of Psychology, which has been with me for almost a decade. Its meaning changed recently, after the author passed away, and now I usually cannot read it without thinking about his absence. Again, the psychologically significant dimensions of the book do not reside in my mind. They don’t belong to any one person. They consist of fact about the world. As Jens Mammen wrote:
Our world has a historical depth both in a personal and a societal context, and it frames our actions far beyond the objects’ “natural” qualities.Mammen & Gozli (2019, p. 191)
This is why I have such a strong affinity with Mammen’s (2017) theoretical framework. It shows that the mistake does not begin in the moment we turn from objects to people. It begins before that point, in our regard for objects. This view, I believe, is ultimately sympathetic, and in harmony with, Raeff’s critique: We will lose sight of what is present in the psychological domain, people, their activities, their histories, etc., if we focus on replaceable building blocks of nature, things that possess universal features, devoid of historical depth. This selective regard doesn’t show up just in psychological thinking. It is a way of looking (and not-looking) at the world at large.
Billig, M. (2012). Undisciplined beginnings, academic success, and discursive psychology. British Journal of Social Psychology, 51(3), 413-424.
Billig, M. (2013). Learn to write badly: How to succeed in the social sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge.
Gozli, D. G. (2017). Behaviour versus performance: the veiled commitment of experimental psychology. Theory & Psychology, 27(6), 741-758.
Gozli, D. G. & Deng, W. (2018). Building blocks of psychology: On remaking the unkept promises of early schools. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 52(1), 1-24.
Mammen, J. (2017). A New Logical Foundation for Psychology. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-67783-5
Mammen, J., & Gozli, D. (2019). Rebellion, theory, and dialogue: An interview with Jens Mammen. Human Arenas, 2(2), 186-199.
Raeff, C. (2019). From objects to acting: Repopulating psychology with people who act. Theory & Psychology, 0959354319844603.
Smedslund, J. (2012). Psycho‐logic: Some thoughts and after‐thoughts. Scandinavian journal of psychology, 53(4), 295-302.
Smedslund, J. (2016). Why psychology cannot be an empirical science. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 50(2), 185-195.