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Unity: Fuzzy Terminology


[Photo by larryosan]

More criticism of attempts to unify psychology which, as you will see, don’t much impress me. Lilienfeld (2004) responds to Henriques’ article by asking whether attempting to define psychology is worth the trouble. Lilienfeld (2004) argues that there is little utility in defining psychology more precisely – after all biologists (apparently) have some difficulty in defining what life is. The word ‘psychology’ is inherently ‘fuzzy’ and unity would simply encourage ‘turf-wars’ between psychology and sociology, ethology and so on.

My response: Don’t pretend there aren’t different levels of satisfaction with a definition. I would guess the biologist would be able to define biology, however imprecisely, much quicker than the psychologist would be able to define psychology. No one is claiming that biology is perfectly unified, what Henriques argues is that biology is relatively more unified or, alternatively, less disorganised, than psychology.

I also don’t think that the encouragement of ‘turf-wars’ is a justifiable reason to avoid defining psychology. Imagine: “Let’s not define psychology properly, it might cause trouble.” Surely you’ve got to have some common ground before you can start a proper argument – otherwise all the shouting is pointless.

The second prong of Lilienfeld (2004) argument is aimed at Henriques’ claim that unity in psychology will help to narrow the gap between research and practice. Lilienfeld (2004) argues, however, that there is a group of clinical psychologists who would hang on to their belief in ‘clinical intuition’ whatever theoretical unifying rabbits were pulled out of the hat. Instead better training is required.

My response: Perhaps it is the very disunity and disorganisation of psychology that repels clinical psychologists from the scientific side of the discipline. However much you tell someone to refer to the research literature, if it’s incomprehensibly fragmented then it’s going to be practically useless in real life clinical situations. Training, presumably in the form of forcing noses into the academic journals, won’t solve the problem.

Lilienfeld (2004) Defining Psychology: Is It Worth the Trouble? (Abstract)
Read more PsyBlog posts on Unity in Psychology

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