Rather than solicit speculative proposals to unify the field, or to describe how it is already unified, I solicited short manifestos from existing approaches. Twenty one statements are being prepared, each representing a particular, already existing, research-active sub-discipline of psychology. It is my hope that these articles will start a larger conversation that will demonstrate the close connections between several of these emerging and established approaches. Even though each one is small (most would only boast a few hundred adherents), together they represent quite a large number of psychologists.
The approaches differ in terms of the breadth of unification they propose, and in terms of the “level” at which they are attempting to unify various sub-disciplines. This was intentional. The volume aims to make clear that there are a variety of well-developed approaches to psychology being actively pursued. More details to come.
The Negative Message
Editing through the papers, an ambitious task, to say the least, one frustration sticks out... Many authors cannot seem to get past their current status as a marginalized member of the field. I tried to avoid this problem through explicit instruction to the authors, telling them:
I have tried describing the desired papers in various ways, and some have found each description appealing: manifesto, vision statement, wish list, or just the instructions to ‘explain how things would be different if you were in charge of psychology’. Especially if you are thinking in terms of the latter, I would like to reemphasize that one function of the word restriction is to encourage people to write a forward-looking presentation, showing a bold image for the future of the field. This is in contrast with the compare and contrast pieces we have all seen, which typically spend considerable space bashing the current state of the field. (Some criticism is certainly allowed, but it should not be the emphasis.)Despite those guidelines, several papers have used a considerable amount of space trying to explain a) why the current system is unacceptable, and b) how their approach fixes these horrible, horrible flaws. As I have suggested previously, in some of my discussions of Ecological Psychology, I think this is a bad approach.
Many people who might be open to a new way of think, will not be open if you start out by telling them they are stupid, and that they have dedicated their lives to a flawed and potentially amoral profession (yes, a few authors have even suggested that mainstream psychology might be amoral).
Also, given that your audience is mostly professionals, interested most directly in either their next experiment or their next patient, it doesn't get you very far to just focus on abstract theoretical points. Newtonian mechanics might have some deep philosophical problems, but frankly it is quite useful and most engineers don't need to worry about quantum or relativistic effects. Even if you find someone genuinely interested in "getting it right", they are probably still most concerned with doing studies that get it right, or doing therapeutic interventions that get it right. That is, if you have a better system, they are much more interested in learning about your better system than in learning about the flaws in the thing they are ready to give up if you can effectively sell your approach.
This is really hard. No one is writing me an article about mainstream approaches, everyone is representing a position frustrated by its lack of traction in the field. Thus, in professional contexts, we are all used to having to explain how we are different from the mainstream. A core set of 'differences from the mainstream' has become crucial to our identity. I have mentioned this before in my discussions of Ecological Psychology. I have been trying to convince the field that it is time to come together and produce a textbook. Though the attempt is currently floundering, many seemed interested at first. However, most of those interested wanted to focus on how to best contrast our approach with the mainstream cognitive approach. "Who cares about that?" I asked, "Freshmen and sophomores are not yet indoctrinated, and so we don't need to contrast. Worse, you might actually be teaching them to think the way you don't want, actively building in resistance to what you will teach them next." Some of the younger members of the field seemed to get my point, but the more senior members of the field were so wedded to the conflict-narrative, that it seemed they could not imagining describing the field without a negative focus, a focus on what the field is not.
The Positive Message
Perhaps at some point in the initial formation of a new field, the negative orientation is necessary. This type of posturing, with an emphasis on the distinction between your approach and the more popular alternative, likely serves a crucial social function. In addition, when an approach is newly-formed, there might not be much else to discuss - the core of the field is that it contains contrasting properties. However, all of the authors invited to contribute to the special issue represent approaches that could move beyond this attitude. Now that the approaches have been around for a sufficient amount of time, and grown to sufficient size, the core of each approach now is a body of work, done by members of the sub-discipline. That is, what distinguishes these approaches from the "pipe dream" models of unification is that each is an active field of research, with a substantial group of followers.
As late as 1940, the American Psychological Association had 644 members (along with around 2,000 affiliated practitioners). I mention this to add perspective to our current notion of minority positions in the field. I am not pointing that out because I think a few hundred adherents is a major success today, I am point that out because I don't think anyone would deny that Psychology, as field, was getting a lot done in its early decades. Several of the approaches to be represented in the special issue, though 'marginalized' by today's standards, represent more active researchers than there were in the entire field 100 years ago. Those researchers have, so far as I can tell in every case, created a body of work worth sharing: there are paradigmatic examples of methods and success, novel findings, and progressive building of ideas.
These approaches have each grown to the point where it is possible to lead with the positive side of their message. They could simply work through their paradigmatic examples, and put their successes on display. That is, they could demonstrate, through concrete example, how their approach produces novel findings and/or successful interventions.
Why, when you have the option of making a positive pitch, would you focus on decades old identity crises? Though most would reject Freud with disdain, it seems pretty clearly like an instance of fixation due to (academic) childhood trauma. Alas, I'm not sure what can be done to help people see the alternative possibility. In my unique position, I can attempt heavy-handed editing, but I dislike that approach, and is not available as a more general solution. My intuition is that the time is ripe to make fundamental progress towards unifying psychology, outside the mainstream, several isolated groups are converging rapidly upon similar ideas. But this progress will be squandered if the many groups cannot explain their positions in a (primarily) positive manner. Is there any chance this obstacle can be overcome?
I would love to hear some thoughts....