Is psychology a science and should its empirical methodology be continued with?
Fundamental to our understanding of the broadness of psychological research is the resolution of the controversy of whether psychology is a science or not. Most psychological literature strongly promotes psychology in this regard but questions still remain to the legitimacy of the claim. It is important to acknowledge that a substantial part of this controversy is due to lack of a distinct and agreed definition of science itself. However, after outlining an appropriate outline of science for psychology, this article will discuss some major concerns with this controversy. It will essentially contest the claim that psychology is a science from the positivist empiricist view and in doing so will question whether the scientific method in which research is conducted should be replaced.
As mentioned, defining the term science is not a straightforward process. Much of this controversy relies on the broadness of definition used. Throughout history, approaches such as reductionism, determinism, positivism and others have all attempted to explain what psychology is (Gross, 2007). For the purpose of this article, the positivist empiricist view of science has been adopted as it arguably has had the largest influence on mainstream psychological research to date (Gross, 2007). Basically this definition asserts that psychology operates through an objective process of discovery based on an empirical methodology. This methodology is applied to subject matter and then leads to unbiased universal principles (Dana, 1987). To assess this view correctly, an evaluation of the objectivity and validity of the methodology and subject matter of psychological research must be undertaken.
Firstly, the issue of methodology in psychology appears straightforward. Good psychological practice asserts that a scientific process of discovery in research should be adhered to (Breakwell, 2006). This positivist empiricist methodology involves formulating hypothesis from observations of the world and empirically testing such hypothesises. Then interpreting the results and publishing the implications. This, in turn, leads to testable theories or avenues for further research (Breakwell, 2006). Psychological research for the most part adheres to this scientific methodology and therefore, is argued that psychology does fit the scientific bill (Lutus, 2009). However, just because psychologists adhere to this methodology it does not mean that psychology fully fits the positivist empiricist model and furthermore it does not mean that it is the most appropriate methodology for psychological research. To resolve these issues, the subject matter researched must be taken into account.
When we turn our focus to the subject matter in psychological research, strong concerns are evident in this regard. As alluded to earlier, science is an objective process to obtain universal principles. Universal principles mean that external validity must exist (Sue, 1999). This is currently not the case in psychology. The subject matter that psychologists study predominately consists of human beings. This is a major issue for psychology as human beings are by their nature intrinsically different and subjective (Meehl, 1978). From this, it is extremely difficult for researchers to effectively explain the first person experience of the subject matter from their third person perspective. In this way, subject matter variance in a psychology study can often be seen as a severe limitation for others evaluating it (Cronbach, as cited in Meehl, 1978). Accepted sciences, such as physics and chemistry, have subject matter that does not entail this problem. However, such serious concerns with subject matter in psychology negate it as a positivist empiricist science. Furthermore, if the subject matter is not objective and thus fails to lend itself to external validity should the positivist empiricist methodology still be adhered to?
As already discussed in the lecture series, gender and cultural differences are controversies still existing in psychology. The prevalence of such issues directly goes against the possibility of psychology being a science in the way it is being currently conducted. It makes it impossible for methodological results to be universally applied across the population (Gross, 2007). In reality, this lack of external validity also reflects the issue already discussed of the subjective nature of the subject matter. Gender and cultural differences highlight the variation that can easily exist between subject matter. Cultural differences themselves can vary in their form, as religion, region and social class all exist as their own culture set (Cohen, 2010). This obstacle to constructing universal laws is out of tune with the positivist empiricist approach. It occurs too often in psychological theory that you can not accurately and definitely predict that an individual’s results will support the theory being tested.
A further alarming issue with subject matter is the concern over the context or setting in which the subject matter is studied. Through the positivist empiricist methodology, psychological researchers attempt to control for many confounding variables, including the environment (Bevan, 1991). However, the environment is known to play a major role in many human operations, including memory (Rule, Garrett & Ambady, 2010). The logic of studying humans in laboratories must therefore be questioned. Although, it is an attempt to address objectivity, the omission of a natural environment takes much away from our understanding of the human (Bevan, 1991). Reducing the environment of the subject matter is in no way a solution to reducing its subjectivity that refutes the science model outlined.
Ethics in psychology is a further area where the claim that psychological research based on the scientific method is weakened. One of the main concerns with ethics in psychology is the issue of double obligation. This basically poses the dilemma of whether it is reasonable to harm a small number of individuals for the greater universal good (Gross, 2007). Ethics in psychology strongly attests that the individual must be protected even if the community loses out (The Psychological Society of Ireland, 2003). Take the example of a psychologist attempting to understand a specific behaviour pattern by removing brain tissue. Ethically this cannot be conducted on a fully functioning human being although the results may hugely benefit the community. The options thus are carrying out the research on animals or on appropriately brain damaged individuals (Lutus, 2009). In both these cases, external validity of the results is a major issue. This example clearly indicates the hindrance of ethics for psychology in its scientific claims. As already discussed, science is concerned with universal principles and this ethical obstacle in psychology hinders the possibility of this being achieved. This further illustrates the issue of the subject matter in psychology. There exists a moral and ethical attachment which is not part of an objective scientific framework.
As explained thus far, psychology can not fully be regarded as a science in the positivist empiricist model which it has derived its methodology from. A number of fundamental problems exist with validity and objectivity. Due to individual differences, context and ethical issues this article concludes that psychology cannot be described as a science model on which it has based itself. It must be noted that psychology is a relative newcomer in the field of science but whether it should be in this field is certainly contentious. Perhaps such difficulties can be overcome as psychology grows and our understanding of the subject matter becomes less ambiguous. In the mean time however, since the subject matter is an issue, perhaps the method used to study it should be altered. This being the case, the question of whether it should base itself on this very model must be asked. More pertinently, is the use of the empirical model for research the best methodology for psychology to use? If the subject matter is not scientific then should the method be?
When discussing whether the scientific methodology should be kept, a huge issue must surround the tools used. Although the methodology is scientifically sound, large amounts of published psychological research are conducted using scales that are not one hundred percent valid, a necessity for the scientific model outlined. Thus, concerns exist over what level of results can be truly inferred statistically from scales (Meehl, 1978). Further on to this the issue of questionnaires and self reporting from subject matter entails major issues for the scientific methodology used. Wording, format and context are all issues that can interfere with the response from the subject matter (Schwarz, 1999). In line with these issues, concerns such as social desirability, evaluation apprehension and demand characteristics all go against the positivist empiricist model as they deny psychology external validity. If this is the case, that the tools used to help implement the scientific methodology do not uphold its basic principles, then should it be continued?
Further to this concern is the use of statistical testing. Although commonly utilised in research psychology, it has no place in the science model outlined earlier. Statistical tests are not a core aspect of the scientific model in which psychological research is based (Anderson, Burnham & Thompson, 2000). The lack of external validity already outlined is heightened by the fact that such inaccuracy is taken into account when reporting results from psychological research. It is common practice to say that results are significant if they can be generalised to ninety-five percent of the population. In science, one hundred percent validity is necessary. In this way significance testing is a major problem for psychology that it does not appear to be addressing (Curran, 2009). The fact that statistical testing does not fit into the scientific framework makes the continued teaching of the method in the majority of psychology courses surprising and worrying (Schmidt, 1996). As with the tools used to impose the scientific methodology, the tests used to undertake it are open to strong criticism. As this is the case, perhaps an alternative to the scientific model must be found. Attempts to apply it in psychology cannot succeed as it is currently being conducted.
In this regard, it important to note that more established sciences also have issues with methodology being discussed. Psychology is often stated as being envious of physics (Dewsbury, 2009). However, physics is itself moving away from the idea that the methodology can provide universal and predictable resolutions to questions (Gross, 2007). Why then does psychology still persist in following these ideals? Even in the psychology field, the empirical approach hinders the progression of an integrated understanding of our thought and actions (Dewsbury, 2009). For example, research students will often conduct research that is narrow and localised to a particular aspect of a topic. This is not just an issue with students but also with qualified researchers who essentially are specialists in their selected domain of psychology. Positivist empiricist science looks for broader, universal results rather than specific understandings of narrow concepts. However, psychology is using its methodology in an insular nature (Dewsbury, 2009). A new approach is necessary where theory and experimentation are integrated effectively.
Finding an alternative option is a worthwhile dilemma that psychology must attempt to address. Our understanding of scientific processes needs to be enhanced so that an improved methodology is discovered (Bevan, 1991). Furthermore, psychologists need to examine their own ideologies to make them more aware of what psychology is trying to achieve. Bevan asserts that the methodology that psychologists should use is one that ensures external validity. As already mentioned, the scientific method still has validity issues for psychology. Psychologists should not pay heed or worry to methodologies that are not classified as scientific. More so, they should be careful and critical to select a methodology that does offer validity (Bevan, 1991).
Meta-analysis is an option offered by some as it integrates statistics from previous studies in the area (Curran, 2009). However, this solution is futile as it does nothing to eliminate the use of the scientific method. It just uses the results obtained in a different and possibly more effective way, but it still fails to rectify the problem. As outlined quantitative research has a number of fundamental flaws so an automatic alternative avenue would be that of qualitative research. Qualitative research is open ended and allows for a more representative view from the subject matter than the scientific method cannot produce. It gives a more real understanding to their experiences and behaviours in context (Henwood & Pidgeon, 1993). However, limitations with this approach exist as well. Through the reading of literature surrounding this topic, it is difficult to find a sound alternative to the scientific model. Some claim that this is due to a lack of effort on psychologists behalf (Dewsbury, 2009). More time and encouragement is needed in psychology to explore new methodological possibilities so that psychology may become less controversial and more assured of its progress.
In conclusion, psychology appears to be stuck in an outdated and incompatible method of research. This article has strongly rejected psychology as a science of empiricism and positivism in which it has largely grounded itself. Major issues with validity and objectivity of subject matter are ones that are not easily resolved. However, a scientific methodology in this regard is still persisted with. The final conclusion this article wishes to make is that psychologists need to spend more time searching for the best research procedure rather than continuing to undertake research with unsound scientific methods that cannot achieve what they claim to.
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