Division News

A message from the division president

General psychology may mean a unified psychology, a pluralistic approach or the need for foundational principles in psychology

By Wade E. Pickren

When we look back over the Presidential themes and addresses of the Society for General Psychology, we can see that the term General Psychology has been deployed in many ways. For some, it has meant a unified psychology, for others it has indicated a pluralistic approach, and for some, it has referred to the need for foundational principles in psychology.

I realize that my three examples only begin to indicate the plasticity and flexibility of the term. It is possible to see this plasticity as a weakness, but I prefer to see it as opening exciting intellectual possibilities. For any field or discipline or profession to endure, it must hold within itself the possibility of renewal so that each generation can articulate a new expression of the field. Such, I believe, is the case with General Psychology.

Allow me to give one example. Over the last 20-30 years, much of what has traditionally been called psychology has recast itself as cognitive science, neuroscience, social neuroscience, etc. Developments in these “new” fields have been terribly exciting and have garnered much well-deserved attention. However, there has been a heavy price paid in regard to psychology. Many of these new fields have taken a highly reductionistic approach to understanding psychological processes. Many of the research findings are discussed only in terms of the brain or neural events. Often, this has been so much so that the person — the human being — has been hard to find. While reductionistic explanations are appealing — after all, they appear to “explain” some aspect of human behavior — upon closer examination they may actually explain very little of felt human experience. One result has been a divorce, or at least a separation, from much of what people experience about themselves as psychological beings. This often leads to a disconnect between psychological science and everyday experience, begetting the question Ludy Benjamin asked some years ago: “Why don’t they understand us?” 

Thus, from where I stand, I see a great possibility for General Psychology. Although I find colonialist language distasteful, allow me to use it metaphorically. There is a vast territory of psychological experience that has been virtually abandoned by European and North American psychologists. (Interestingly, this is not the case in other countries and cultures, many of them former colonies, e.g., India). We can colonize this territory with a fresh vision of general psychology that resonates with what many human beings experience about themselves as psychological persons. General Psychology would be that which speaks to emotions, human relationships, and the felt experience of spirituality, and that which offers possibilities for addressing human needs and problems. And these are only some of the possibilities.

But APA Division One, Society for General Psychology, cannot do it alone. We must align ourselves with like-minded psychologists and thinkers in many other areas. Among APA divisions, we are likely to find colleagues we can work with in historical, theoretical, humanistic, and social psychology, as well as many in the helping professions of psychology.

In light of these possibilities, Division 1 Program Chair for 2013, Lisa Osbeck, is creating a program for Honolulu that will make a start toward this expression of general psychology. We have forged relationships with colleagues and leaders in APA Divisions 9, 24, 26, 32 and 39, as well as with scientists and theorists from other fields. I hope you will join us by preparing and submitting papers, symposia and posters that articulate your own expression of General Psychology.