Psychology Essay

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Psychology is the scientific study of individual behavior and mental processes. Psychologists divide their work into pure and applied fields. Pure researchers have adopted the investigative methods of the natural sciences (i.e. positivist empiricism and variants) and study the fundamental processes that are said to undergird human behavior. Applied practitioners have pursued ”in the world” applications of psychological research such as clinical and counseling psychology.

Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) is considered the ”father” of experimental psychology since he founded the first psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany in 1879. Wundt pioneered the method of introspection and gave rise to structuralist psychology. Structuralism assumed that psychological processes could be reduced to more basic elements. Introspection sought these elements by pairing the methods of psychophysics with rigorous self-observation of internal states. Recent debates over Wundt’s legacy have questioned the centrality of experimental methods to his research program. Indeed, Wundt dedicated the last 20 years of his career to the development of a cultural psychology, published as the 10-volume Volkerpsychologie (”folk psychology”) in which he argued that higher level psychological phenomena could only be understood through the comparative, historical, and interpretive methods of the human sciences.

Historians note two further influences on early psychological research (Danziger 1990). French clinical practice, exemplified in the work of Jean Martin Charcot (1825-93), provided the impetus for a psychology modeled on the medical relationship between doctor and patient. A third model was developed by Francis Galton (1822-1911) who drew on educational testing techniques from English and French schools to develop psychometric measures of, for example, intelligence.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century scientific psychology moved from Germany to America and emerged in two forms: functionalism and behaviorism. William James (1842-1910) introduced the ”New Psychology” of functionalism which drew on Darwinian evolutionary theory, and conceived of human beings as entities always in relationship to their environments. John Watson (1878-1958) radicalized American functionalism through the introduction of behaviorist psychology. In his 1913 manifesto ”Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It” Watson argued that psychologists should take as their objects of study only overt, directly visible phenomena such as the movements of organisms. The principles of behaviorism were further extended by Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-90) who developed the field of radical behaviorism and conducted research on ”operant conditioning.”

Despite the expectation that behaviorism would become the foundation for scientific psychology it was under heavy attack by the 1950s. Within psychology it became apparent that complex human behaviors could not be explained by reference to external conditioning processes alone. From outside of psychology, the linguist Noam Chomsky demonstrated the inadequacy of behaviorist concepts for the explanation of even the simplest verbal behaviors. Since the 1960s, cognitive psychology has been the dominant approach in experimental psychology. Encouraged by the invention of the electronic computer and research in cybernetic theory, cognitive psychologists took the computer as analogue for the human mind and cognitive processes. More recently cognitive psychology has allied itself with neuroscience to create the influential field of cognitive neuroscience.

Despite the dominance of scientifically based psychology, since its beginnings psychology has also been a contested field. Against the reductionist explanations offered by mainstream psychology, human science approaches advocate a holistic understanding of human beings. In turn of the century Germany this was represented by gestalt psychology, and later the social psychology of German-American immigrant Kurt Lewin. This alternative was also reflected in the humanist movement of the 1960s, and more recently in Amedeo Giorgi’s phenomenological research program.

Reflecting a concern for sociological issues, other psychologists have addressed questions of exclusion and ideology. Marxist critics argue that mainstream psychology is a bourgeois enterprise that reflects the concerns and interests of capital, and promotes an American version of the human subject. In contrast, Marxist psychologies have offered conceptions of human psychology grounded in material-historic conditions. Since the 1970s we have also seen the development of feminist psychologies. Feminist critics argue that as it has been practiced scientific psychology reflects primarily male interests and thus its findings are irrelevant to the lives of women. While some feminists argue for greater equality within the discipline, others insist that the scientific method itself is antithetical to the interests of women. Feminist alternatives have been advanced under the umbrella of standpoint theory, which focuses on explicating the unique character of women’s experience, and poststructuralist theory, which relies upon the methods of deconstruction to demonstrate the manner in which psychology is implicated in the constructions of femininity, masculinity, gender and sexuality. Psychology has also been shaped by work in postcolonial and anti-racist theory. Critics argue two points. First, by claiming relationships between race and psychological capacities like ”intelligence” some psychologists (e.g. Francis Galton and Phillip Rushton) have advanced racist agendas. Second, even when not overtly racist, psychologists frequently impose western psychological constructs (intelligence, personality, attention) in their analysis of non-western subjects. As an alternative, postcolonial psychologists develop approaches grounded in the language and practices of indigenous communities.

Though these critical psychologies have remained for the most part on the periphery, recent years have seen the emergence of a formidable metatheoretical alternative to the positivist mainstream: social constructionism. This approach grows out of critiques of science offered by Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Peter Winch, Charles Taylor, and others. It draws upon French post-structuralism, pragmatism and ordinary language philosophy and places discourse and language use at the center of psychological analysis. It also offers a relational conception of persons to counter the individualism that dominates mainstream psychology. Though there is ongoing debate, with its focus on critique, the constructionist metatheory has united critical psychological alternatives. In this regard, as it moves into the twenty-first century psychology is well-equipped to provide normative, critical, and interdisciplinary knowledge.


  1. Danziger, K. (1990) Constructing the Subject: Historical Origins of Psychological Research. Cambridge University Press, New York.
  2. Holzkamp, K. (1972) Kritische Psychologie: Vobereitende Arbeiten (Critical Psychology: Preparatory Works).
  3. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main. Teo, T. (2005) The Critique of Psychology: From Kant to Postcolonial Theory. Springer, New York.
  4. Wilkinson, S. & Kitzinger, C. (1996). Feminism and Discourse: Psychological Perspectives. Sage, London.

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