The New Paradigm in Psychology
Wendy Stainton Rogers
Research School, The Open University
Up until quite recently the vast bulk of work done under the heading of ‘psychology’ was experimentally based. It took positivism as its theoretical foundation and used an hypothetico-deductive approach for investigating behaviour and experience, seeking to objectively define elements of human behaviour and measure how these vary according to different conditions. This nomothetic approach was intended to identify the universal laws that govern what people feel and think and do, and hence the ‘laws of human behaviour’.
Interpretative social psychology
However, over the last twenty or so years, this has changed. The first significant social psychological challenge to positivism was ‘interpretational social psychology’. It was offered in slightly different versions by people like Ken Gergen and Edward Samson in the USA, Rom Harré in Britain and Serge Moscovici in France. Their ‘new improved model’ of psychology was most notable in its critique of the methods used for studying the social. First, they argued against studying social phenomena experimentally, arguing that what goes on in the laboratory tells us little of any significance about the social aspects of how people think, act and feel in real-life settings. What experimentation does, they argued, is to treat people as ‘idealised automata’ that can be studied ‘in bland, anomic environments’ (Harré, 1979). This profoundly undervalues the inventiveness and subtlety of the way people make sense of their social world, and the critical importance of the socio-cultural context within which they commonly do so.
Equally they criticised conventional qualitative approaches (such as interviews) pointing out that these are social events ‘heavy with ambiguity, and shot-through with efforts at self-presentation by both the interviewer and interviewee.’ (Harré, 1979). They especially criticised the kinds of analysis applied, which sought to standardise responses according to a preconceived framework, that ironed out diversity and failed to capture the ingenuity and inventiveness of people’s thinking. And psychometric methods fared no better under their critique. So far as these are concerned, Harré argued:
The use of questionnaires with limited range questions ... which effectively preclude elaborations and reinterpretations ... means that the concepts deployed are predetermined. The effect of this is to produce not a representation of the social world being studied, but the representation of the shadow cast upon the social world by the prior conceptual apparatus deployed by the person who constructed the questionnaire
Harré, 1979: 115
They therefore proposed a ‘new psychology’ which stresses the interpretational nature of human meaning-making, and which investigates the purposive, rule-making and rule-following, constructive aspects of personhood and social interaction. However, for all its critique of methods, its main impact of was on theory. Apart from a few exceptions (see, for example, Antaki 1981), there was no immediate spate of methodological innovation. This early challenge to the mainstream did, though, set the scene for what was to come later – a much more fundamental shift towards the study of discourse, and the drawing in of theorising from other disciplines (such as cultural and media studies) into the field of psychology, which has come to be called the ‘new paradigm’.
A new paradigm for psychology
There are various ways in which this new paradigm can be described – such as ‘social constructionist psychology’, ‘critical psychology’, ‘discursive psychology’ or even ‘postmodern psychology’. My purpose in this lecture is to describe what is ‘new’ about this new paradigm – how it differs from the traditional approach, and to explain why it has been increasingly adopted. I will also say why I believe it offers us an exciting and functional way forward; how, because it allows us to ask rather different kinds of research questions and opens up a diverse range of new methods, it can be much more effective for studying those aspects of human experience and action which are salient to how we live our lives, and hence more useful in addressing the kinds of practical issues and problems that really matter. I will argue that the new paradigm can make a real and crucial difference to the contribution that psychology can make to improving the quality of people’s lives and our ability to tackle the social, economic, civil and environmental problems that we face in the 21st Century.
Fundamentally, the basis of psychology’s ‘new paradigm’ is a challenge to Modernism – the set of values and practices which emerged out of the historical period of the 18th Century European Enlightenment. Modernity is sometimes called the ‘Post-Enlightenment project’, since it was (and is) motivated by the conviction that humankind can – and, crucially, should – create a better world through its own efforts (rather than, say, relying upon the benevolence of God). In order to do this it sought to replace irrationality and disorder with reason and rationality; to move on from knowledge based on superstitious beliefs (whether informed by religion, magic or the arcane) to knowledge gained by rational means, primarily through scientific methods of empirical inquiry. Modernism is thus seen as the end-state in a three stage developmental theory of civilisation:
This ‘up the mountain’ tale of human progress (cf. Kitzinger, 1987) views science as a superior source of knowledge. It regards all other sources (such as magic, religion and traditional folklore) as invalid – not really knowledge at all, but merely ‘beliefs’ and ‘myths’. At the very core of Modernity is thus a rhetoric of scientific truth.
The new paradigm shares with Modernism some of its values and principles – the conviction that our endeavours should be directed to ‘making a better world’ through purposive and strategic actions (both individual and colective) that are well-informed by gaining a better understanding of how people think and act. However, its theorisation is much less naïve. It makes us much more wary about assuming that it is possible to rely on scientific objactivity alone to guide our actions, in ways that pretend no moral analysis needs to be applied. Indeed, it questions the very assumption of objectivity, arguing that this is an illusion – and, at times, a dangerous one – that has been used to bolster the power of elites. By insisting that issues of power ned to be considered, the new paradigm radically transforms the whole way in which psychologists go about their research and theorisation. To understand how and why it is necessary to look at what is entailed in the challenge to Modernism.
Psychology’s new paradigm arose within a broader theoretical turn which can be described as Postmodernism. At first sight it looks as though Postmodernism is being offered as a further, fourth stage in the progression set out above. But within its own theorisation, this is not what it claims to be. Its proponents see it instead as a fundamentally different conceptualisation of what constitutes knowledge. It challenges the central claim of Modernism to have access to a single, coherent, real world of nature which lies ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered; and it denies that science is the sole authority over what constitutes knowledge. Postmodernists contend, instead, that there are a multiplicity of alternative realities, each one of which is made – and made real – by way of human meaning-making. Another way of putting this is that our realities are the products of ‘representational labour’. In broad terms, this is what is implied by Berger and Luckmann's (1967)‘social construction of reality’.
A central concept, both of Postmodernism and social constructionism is that of reification – the process by which concepts and ideas (such as ‘attitudes’, ‘personality’ and ‘intelligence’) become ‘thingified’ – turned from mere ideas into things. Reification treats ideas as though they have a real, material existence – as though they really and truly are ‘things-in-the-world’. Certainly they appear to us to be real, and that is the power of reification. Just as the fisherman lures a trout onto his hook by convincing it that some neatly tied feathers are a juicy fly, so too does reification lure us into seeing ideas as real things – and we find it very difficult to resist the illusion. The theory of Postmodernism is based on uncovering this process of reification, and making visible to us the illusions through which we understand the world.
It is important to recognise what is being argued here. Postmodernism is not simply a matter of viewing different individuals or groups as having different perspectives on the world, which make them interpret it in diverse ways. This relativism still implies there is a single ‘world’ (i.e. an objective, physically-present, real world) on which it is possible to have different perspectives. Rather Postmodernists assert that every world, and every thing-in-the-world – as each individual and collective knows it and interprets it – is always a product of human meaning-making. In other words, Postmodernism accepts that there are material, physical objects which constitute the world; and that things happen in this world. But it asserts that we can never know these directly – all we can ever know are our ideas about them. An example might help here to explain what is being claimed. A good one is elegantly provided by Sedgwick (1982), when he argued that:
The fracture of a septuagenarian's femur has, within the world of nature, no more significance than the snapping of an autumn leaf from its twig: the invasion of a human organism by cholera germs carries with it no more the stamp of ‘illness’ than does the souring of milk by other forms of bacteria.
What Sedgwick is saying here is that when an old woman breaks her leg, we think of this as ‘an injury’. But it only has meaning and significance to us as an injury because of our concern, as humans, about human suffering. By contrast, when, in the Autumn, the leaves turn golden and red on the trees and then fall, we do not see this as the tree being ‘injured’, but as undergoing a natural biological process. Equally, when milk is soured, it is our own concerns that tell us what is going on. If we want to use the milk to make coffee, then we view the milk as ‘sour’ and hence useless. But if we wanted to make yoghurt, our perception would be different. As long as the ‘right’ bacteria do the souring, we would see it as just what we wanted!
Postmodern theorising denies that things have any actual reality, but accepts that things have a practical reality – their ‘thinghood’ serves pragmatic purposes. Viewing an old woman’s broken leg as an injury rather than a natural process of biology encourages us to provide medical treatment for it, and so to stop the woman’s suffering and allow her to go on living her life. We need to understand the events and phenomena of the world as real, in order to go about living our daily lives, and in order to do the things that need to be done for our lives to ‘work’. We need to build roads, educate children, grow food and so on – and to do these things we need to treat our world as though it is constituted of real things (such as roads, education and food) rather than ideas. Equally Posmodernism accepts that science is a useful technology for gaining certain kinds of knowledge – about, say, whether certain medical treatments are effective, or the the properties of the materials that we need in order to build roads.
Postmodernism is not, therefore, antagonistic to treating ideas as if they were real things. It recognises that we need to do so in order to carry on our everyday lives. Neither is it anti-science. Rather it contests the assumption that scientific method is the only route to gain knowledge. It argues that science has a limited range of utility – it is only useful in some situations.
This is where psychology comes into the argument. Informed by social constructionist and Postmodern theorising, psychologists have proposed the new paradigm to challenge the Modernist claim that scientific method is the best and only way of understanding and investigating how and why people think, act and feel as they do. New paradigm psychologists stress that it is essential to recognise psychological phenomena – such as as ‘attitudes’, ‘personality’ and ‘intelligence’ – for what they are: not real phenomena but constructions of reality that are the products of human meaning-making. Treating them as real things traps us into thinking we can bjectively define them, measure them, and, by doing so, discover the ‘laws of human behaviour’ by which they operate. We cannot, and to believe that we can is an illusion that has led psychology down a wrong turning.
Another example should help here, and this time I will take it directly from psychology. Psychologists have worked very hard to try to discover the laws by which people decide how to act – for example, in relation to taking risks with their health (such as smoking, or having unprotected sex with casual partners). They have devised a number of models – such as Ajzen and Fishbein’s Model of Reasoned Action (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1972), Rosenstock’s Health Beliefs Model (Rosenstock, 1966) or Wallston and Wallston’s Health Locus of Control Model (Wallston and Wallston, 1981) – in order to try to do this.
All of these models have proved very poor indeed at predicting how people behave, even when tested on people coming from the same culture (mainly the USA) as the psychologists who created them. The main reason for this (as I have argued in detail in Stainton Rogers, 1991) is that people’s thinking and reasoning, their motivation and the impact of their emotions and feelings are vastly too complex to be tackled by such simple models. And the models are simple because positivist methods cannot cope with anything else. They require researchers to strip away complexity and focus attention on just a very few elements – variables – which can be manipulated and measured in order to test the hypotheis. The trouble is that this reductionism removes just those very elements that are likely to be crucial when people take risks – the things that make us human rather than machines.
The real problem comes, however, as soon as you try to apply such models to people from other cultures. In this situation they are completely useless. This is because our taken-for-granted ideas about illness and disease, and even the concept of ‘risk’ are understood very differently. Just to give one illustration, in my research I looked at the ways different people responded to the Health Locus of Control Scale. Whereas people from traditional English culture understood the words ‘fate’ and ‘chance’ as almost equivalent (which is what the scale designers did too), a Hindu doctor treated them as complete opposites. To him ‘fate’ had a very particular meaning, quite different from that of ‘chance’.
But it is not just a question of terminology. Many of the processes which are treated by Psychology as universal prove to be anything but. They are not ‘laws’ at all, but conventions that are highly culture-specific. And once we recognise that this is what they are – customs and rule-systems that are always ‘local’ (only applicable in certain social spaces) and always ‘time contingent’ (only operating in certain historical times) – then the search for universal ‘laws of human nature’ becomes as pointless as the alchemists attempts to turn lead into gold. In different times and different places quite other ‘laws’ will apply. What this means is that all that positivist research in social psychology can ever discover are local and contingent operating rules.
This is not the impression one gets by looking back at traditional social psychology textbooks. They are packed full of empirical ‘demonstrations’ of such laws: the fundamental attribution error; cognitive dissonance; learned helplessness (the list, if not endless, is certainly a long one). The obvious reaction is that if these are no more than the manifestations of local and contingent operating rules, why, then, can they be observed in the laboratory? The answer a Postmodernist would give is that whenever a social psychological experiment ‘works’(that is, its experimental hypothesis is given support by the data obtained) what we are seeing is not some revelation of a general principle of how social processes operate. All that is going on is a demonstration that the experimenter and the subjects of her/his experiment share a common set of operating rules. Indeed, how else could the experimenter come up with a plausible hypothesis in the first place?
Postmodernism thus offers a profound challenge to everything that traditional, scientistic social psychology holds dear. It challenges the foundations (empiricism, objectivity, hypothetico-deductive methods) upon which mainstream psychology has been constructed.
How the new paradigm differs from traditional psychology
Rejecting positivism and hypothetico-deductive methods does not mean that there is nothing left to study. Rather, it means changing what gets studied, and asking rather different research questions. Instead of trying to find out about the ‘facts’ of how social life and social processes operate, new paradigm psychologists examine the very thing that gives rise to the positivist’s problem – the representational systems (the term generally used is discourse) by which and through which our ‘realities’ are constituted.
From about the 1980s a growing number of social psychologists therefore turned to investigating discourse, drawing from literary, hermeneutic and semiotic theorising in order to find out about how knowledge is ‘storied into being’ (c.f. Curt, 1994). As examples, Sarbin (1986) has proposed the use of narrative as a ‘root metaphor’ for psychological analysis; literary techniques (such as dialogue between a formal cast of dramatis personae) have come (back) into vogue as critical teaching devices (e.g. Woolgar, 1988; Edwards and Potter, 1992); Shotter and Gergen (1989) have adopted a textual analytic for exploring identity; Parker (1992) has argued for examining the dynamics of discourse as a means to investigate the social world; and Billig (1988) has explored what he calls new forms of ‘dilemmatics’. Thus the new psychological paradigm offers a different approach to knowledge, changes the research questions asked, and adopts rather different research methods to do so.
A new approach to knowledge
Possibly the most helpful way to explain the different approach that the new paradigm takes to knowledge by is as a summary of the main contrasts between old and new, which I have set out in Figure 1.
Figure 1: A comparison of traditional and new paradigm approaches to knowledge
A new approach to research
In consequence of this different approach to knowledge, the new paradigm adopts a different strategy for conducting research. Again, this is best understood by comparing the old with the new paradigm, which I have set out in Figure 2. The general term that applies to these approaches is ‘discursive’, which forms the basis of the methods adopted within the new paradigm.
Figure 2: A comparison of traditional and new paradigm approaches to research
New paradigm methods
‘Discourse’ is an increasingly popular term which, although drawn originally from linguistics, has, within in postmodern theorising, acquired a wider meaning than simply a section of speech or writing. It is used by new paradigm researchers to address the constructive, productive and pragmatic aspects of language use, rather than its merely descriptive or representational aspects. This shift of focus has come about through the recognition that language can never neutrally describe the world, because language itself is an active part of making the world.
But the analysis of discourse is not a search ‘behind’ the words people use for their cognitions, motivations or other psychological entities – that from a positivistic perspective, would be seen as underlying language. Rather, talk and other texts are seen as social practices which are productive of experience, and which construct the realities in which we live. Potter, Edwards and Wetherell, (1993) see discourse analysis a being ‘the theory of, and method of studying, social practices and the actions that constitute them.’ (p. 383). Probably the best entrée into this kind of work is Ian Parker's (1992) book: Discourse Dynamics: Critical Analysis for Social and Individual Psychology. However, it has become so popular recently, and is used for such a wide range of different purposes and in so many different ways it is worth spending a little time examining precisely what is meant by ‘discourse analysis’.
A discourse analytic approach to studying how people, say, understand and take action does not (as would traditional approaches) assume that what is at stake is an investigation of, say, the beliefs that individuals hold – for example, about the causes of illness. Rather, it seeks to find out about the different discourses that are available to people, which enable them to make sense of (in this case) why people get ill. In this it is very different from approaches such as personal construct theory, since it is concerned with what is ‘common property’ (albeit in a particular socio-cultural setting, at a particular point in history).
The kinds of questions asked about them are:
· What are the discourses that are available?
· Where are these discourses coming from? How and from where were they ‘knowledged into being’?
· For what purposes are they – and can they – be used? What conduct do they prescribe, and what conduct do they prohibit?
· Whose purposes to they serve?
· How do they impact upon each other? Which one(s) are dominant? Which one(s) are thereby ‘covered up’?
These are very different research questions. No longer is there any concern about whether the knowledge promoted by each discourse is ‘true’ or not (given there is no benchmark against which to judge ‘the truth’). There is no attempt to distinguish ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’. Instead the interest lies in the relationship, in particular, between power and knowledge – in who gains (and gains what) and who loses (and loses what) when, say, one particular discourse gains dominance over all the others.
Probably the best known proponents of discursive approaches in psychology are Potter and Wetherell (1987) whose book Discourse and Social Psychology has become something of a ‘bible’ for initiates. Many psychologists make the assumption that Potter and Wetherell’s is the only version of discourse analysis around. The analysis of discourse has, however, a much longer history, and comes in a number of versions. These can be conceived as falling along three main strands: Verstehen approaches, Micro-discourse analysis and Macro-discourse analysis.
This approach has strong links to methods used in anthropology, phenomenological sociology and humanistic psychology. The goal of research is to gain ‘understanding’ (Verstehen) by attending to how sense is made of a topic or issue by the account-giver . Researchers seek to avoid imposing interpretation, but rather aspire to ‘give voice’ to the views being expressed. A good example is the notion of ‘reflective research’, as described by Shakespeare, Atkinson and French (1993), where researchers see themselves as seeking to engage others in the research endeavour in a more participative, less exploitative manner than is the case with traditional psychological methods. In other words, it is discursive to the extent that it centres around trying to gain access, in a non-intrusive manner, to the ways people formulate their beliefs, understandings and representations of their world and the significant events in their lives.
This is the approach of Potter and Wetherell (1987) and Billig et al (1988). It focuses on language, since it regards this as central to all social activities, and draws extensively from semiotics, speech act theory and ethnomethodology. It is more theoretically radical and overtly interpretative than the Verstehen approach in that it is sited more explicitly within a social constructionist theory of knowledge (c.f. Berger and Luckmann, op cit), and seeks to explore the discursive functions to which language is put in different situations.
The ‘discourse’ studied is usually talk (such as transcriptions of meetings or counselling sessions). The things people say in such conversations are viewed as constructed from a pre-existing, shared manifold of ‘linguistic repertoires’, predicated upon collective ideas (i.e. discourses). These are seen to act as resources from which people weave arguments, explanations, descriptions and so on, to meet different rhetorical purposes and functions, which shift as the conversation progresses. There is (though Potter and Wetherell deny it) considerable theoretical overlap with the social representations theory of Moscovici, (see, for example, Moscovici, 1984). This approach can be thought of as the micro-level of discourse analysis, in that the focus of interest is generally on very fine-grained scrutiny of short extracts of talk. The research questions being posed are ”what is this person, in this part of the conversation, seeking to achieve? And what discourse(s) are they drawing on to do so?”.
Here the discourse analytic work is located most specifically of the three approaches within Postmodern theorising. It draws extensively from French theory, especially the work of Foucault and his concern with the relationships between power and knowledge. The analysis is far more macro in its focus, attending primarily to the collective properties of discourse. It is here that there is concern both with the ‘textuality’ of discourse (i.e. its functions, uses and ability to wield power) and its socio-cultural ‘tectonics’ (i.e. the ways in which discourse is produced, and how discourses impinge upon one another). The approach is less concerned with what particular individuals say in particular settings than with the way discourse operates more generally and more globally as a social and cultural resource to be used in human activities and endeavours. Thus rather than fine-grained analysis of, say, segments of conversation, the methods used are more taxonomic, seeking to identify and describe, for any particular topic or issue, what are the main discourses in play. These include forms of cultural analysis (e.g. the scrutiny of media such as movies, television programmes and newspaper articles) and Q methodology (see, for example, Curt, op cit; Stainton Rogers, W., 1991; Stainton Rogers et al , 1995). The kind of research question being posed is ”In respect to this topic, what discourses are available, how are they deployed and what can they be used to achieve?”.
The benefits of the new paradigm
As I have stated already, new paradigm psychology allows us to ask different kinds of research questions, and offers new methodological approaches to address these questions. In this final section of my lecture I will illustrate some of the benefits that these offer.
Asking different research questions
Instead of seeking to ‘discover’ the ‘universal laws of human nature’, the new paradigm is much more modest. It sets itself much more minimal agendas, focussing on specific issues and problems chosen because they are of practicalvalue. A good example is a study conducted by Eccleston et al (1997) into people’s understanding of the causes of chronic pain. It is clearly sited within the new paradigm for a number of reasons. First, and crucially, it does not assume that doctors have superior knowledge to their patients who are suffering from chronic pain. Rather is looks at both of their understandings, and analyses them in parallel ways. This study found that doctors and patients tended to have very different understandings of what causes chronic pain. The patients were convinced – and felt very strongly – that chronic pain always has a physical cause. It is a real illness, that requires medical treatment. Such beliefes have traditionally been treated by psychologists as self-serving; as absolving patients from any sense of blame or responsibility, or of being ‘weak’ because their pain was not real but, say, a psychological defense mechanism. By contrast the doctors’ understanding was that chronic pain is the result of dysfunctional learning. An incident causing acute pain (such as a back injury) arose fear and anxiety, and the patient responded by limiting their behaviour and adopting a ‘sick role’. Gradually the pain became a ‘way of life’. This understanding was particularly strongly expressed by doctors working in clinics for chronic pain, which used cognitive restructuring techniques to help patients learn to manage their illness. This research allowed for an interpretetion that the doctors’ understanding was equally self-serving. Not only did it absolve doctors from blame or responsibility for their failure to find a diagnosis and therefore any cure, it endorsed the approach they were taking to treatment. This study has the potential for considerable practical application, encouraging doctors to be more reflexive about their own motives and to gain insight into those of their patients.
A similar new paradigm study by Bianchi and Popper (2000) (see also Bianchi et al, 2000) has explored the interplay between risk taking in sexual behaviour, alcohol consumption and socio-cultural influences among young men serving in the army. It used a combination of methods including case study, focus groups and questionnaires, and gave a highly rich set of data about how these various factors may come to play in sexual risk taking. It was able to provide guidelines for education programmes that could be used by the Army to reduce risk-taking bahaviour.
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Traditionally, psychology has viewed positivism as its theoretical foundation and quantitative methods as its usual means of enquiry. But we are now seeing the emergence of a new paradigm for psychology. This introduces new ways of theorising about people’s thinking and actions – and hence asks rather different research questions about its subject. As a consequence the paradigm introduces a range of new methods for empirical inquiry, and new forms of analysis of the information obtained. This lecture is intended to provide a general overview of the new paradigm for psychology. It begins by setting out how and why it differs from the traditional approach, and then examines some of its implications.
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