In this issue

Presidential Column: Examining Approaches to Integrative Activity in Psychology

The mission of Div. 1, to promote integration of multiple perspectives, lies somewhere between the monistic cyclopean vision and the many eyes of the pluralistic toad.
By Deborah F. Johnson, PhD

Deborah Johnson In my first presidential column, I noted the tendency of both American politicians and some members of the public to focus too narrowly on familiar, ignoring apparent limitations on the geographic and cultural borders we are willing to cross to understand and assist others, and psychologists may also exhibit this tendency to focus narrowly on familiar/preferred approaches, thereby limiting our discipline's breadth of understanding, depth of compassion and relevance to the everyday world.

In his well-known essay The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953), Isaiah Berlin revived a Greek parable that divided thinkers into those who know one big thing well versus those who know many things. The life of a hedgehog involves a commitment to fashioning a single principle, theory or perspective, revealing all meaning and significance in the world. Foxes, in Berlin's account, believe that the world is much too complex to be accurately understood employing a single principle, theory or perspective.

In "The Cyclops and the twelve-eyed toad" (2007), Wayne Viney employed William James' views on monism and pluralism to frame a discussion of hedgehog-like and fox-like approaches in the field of psychology. Viney noted that in seeking unity, cyclopean (or monistic) approaches sometimes lead to narrow, closed off approaches in psychology. As James wrote, monistic perspectives "carve out order by leaving the messy parts out." The pluralistic perspective of the 12-eyed toad (coined from an optician shop in Boulder, Col., where Viney taught) remains open to all perspectives. This approach is considerably messier. James described his pluralism as a "turbid, muddled, gothic sort of an affair without a sweeping outline and with little pictorial nobility". Viney noted that the differing approaches located in APA's 54 different divisions is a sign of the messy state of psychology; a sign that leads some to worry about the fragmentation of psychology.

The mission of Div. 1, to promote integration of multiple perspectives, lies somewhere between the monistic cyclopean vision and the many eyes of the pluralistic toad. Our prestigious awards recognize careers of individuals who have encouraged integration of knowledge across the subfields of psychology and contributions from other disciplines (Ernest Hilgard Lifetime Achievement Award) as well as recent books and articles that exemplify that spirit (William James Book Award and George Miller Best Article Award). We have heard from many Div. 1 members that the integrative character of general psychology is the key factor that led them to join. Our flagship journal, The Review of General Psychology, seeks to publish articles that cross-cut the traditional sub-disciplines of psychology, bridge gaps between these sub-disciplines and related fields or focus on topics that transcend the traditional sub-disciplines of psychology.

Though our goal is to support integration it is not always clear whether that integration is designed to produce a cyclopean version of unity or to include the more open, pluralistic vision of the 12-eyed toad. Though James expressed concern about monistic orientations that seek unity for the sake of unity, he also recognized that we require some forms of coherence. He wrote "if [the world's] manyness were so irremedial as to permit no union of its parts…our minds…would be like eyes trying to look in opposite directions." A discussion of multiple ways to achieve the division's vision of integrative general psychology(ies) is sorely needed.

There's a huge body of literature, books articles and conferences on inter-disciplinarity and integration, including a few that I have found useful for thinking about these issues (Newell, 2013, Repko & Szostak, 2016, & Thompson-Klein, 2004). Strategies for bridging gaps across disciplines include multi-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approaches. I will discuss each approach in turn and suggest some preliminary ways we might think about them based on Viney's discussion of the monism versus pluralism debate. (Note: there are many distinct definitions of these terms, so I will try to be as clear as possible regarding my definitions-in-use.)

Chart At the first level are attempts to employ multiple disciplinary perspectives to investigate an issue or problem. Such a multi-disciplinary approach may simply survey and compare these disciplinary approaches without a concerted effort at systematic integration. Such encounters between different disciplines might succeed in generating a better understanding of their distinctive approaches and an appreciation for their disciplinary difference. However, without systematic integration, each discipline will retain much of its original character. In early stages, climate science research appears to have taken such a form, with each of several disciplines having a voice at the table.

Similarly cross-disciplinary approaches (as defined by Newell, 2013) lack the systematic integration requisite for true inter-disciplinary work. Cross-disciplinary approaches may "link" through the sharing (or borrowing) of a concept, theory or method. Though a discipline may expand its investigative tool-kit via exchange, the imported concept, theory or method has frequently been decontextualized from its original domain, smoothed down, as it were, to fit the new disciplinary context. Thus little common ground is developed to bridge the disciplines nor has there been any transformation or enlargement of each discipline that would enable them to generate innovative insights. In other words, the cyclopean vision of each discipline is unlikely to have been challenged by this encounter, and the disciplinary fragmentation that frequently accompanies disciplines is not dissipated.

Which is not to say that these encounters lack value, as they plant the seeds for future interdisciplinary work. While these two approaches are important precursors of interdisciplinary work, they do fall short of genuine interdisciplinary work because the integrative conceptual work that enlarges and transforms each of the participating disciplines is absent. In Newell and Repko's description of true interdisciplinary, the work of integration leads to a shift in the questions we ask, and therefore the insights we can generate.

There is another level of connecting and coordinating among disciplines that is increasingly part of conversations about integration — trans-disciplinarity.  My limited understanding of trans-disciplinarity is that it is called for when action on complex social problems and broad questions of policy, require involvement across disciplines including consultation with stakeholder communities. In such work (e.g., sustainability initiatives), bounded disciplinary knowledge becomes less important than the problem and its context. Trans-disciplinarity is presented as work that crosses "many disciplinary boundaries to create a holistic approach, which does not reduce humans or theory or reality to a single level shaped by a single logic but remains open to all disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences and the arts."

Challenge #1

Interdisciplinary work requires open-mindedness, especially a willingness to take a close look at fields one might otherwise dismiss. It also requires a willingness to move beyond either/or thinking and to accept that inclusive both/and thinking is also worth fostering. How do we develop these conceptual skills?

Challenge #2

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach requires individuals who have been steeped in more than one disciplinary approach. As our advanced training programs become more narrowly focused, how will young psychologists acquire this breadth? What modifications to the professional reward system might facilitate the development of knowledge and skills for such interdisciplinary work?

Challenge #3

Can our interdisciplinary approaches be too narrow? Some integrative and interdisciplinary integration may only involve closely related disciplines, with similar assumptions or methods. Broadening the scope of interdisciplinary work to include disciplines like anthropology, sociology, literature and others that shed light on human experience might be necessary and certainly would be fruitful.

What approaches to integrative activity in psychology would you support?  How might you act to incorporate such approaches into your work?


Newell, W. H. (2013).  The state of the field:  Interdisciplinary Theory. Issues in Interdisciplinary Research, 31, 22-43.

Repko, A. & Szostak, R. (2016). Interdisciplinary research:  Process and theory, (3rd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage Publication

Thompson-Klein, J. (2004). Interdisciplinarity and complexity: An evolving relationship. E:CO, 6(1-2), 2-10.

Viney, W. (1989). The Cyclops and the twelve-eyed toad. American Psychologist, 44(10), 1261-1265.