Positivism in Psychology: Historical & Contemporary Problems // Review

Article excerpt

This series of articles, edited by Tolman in Recent Research in Psychology, had its origins in earlier discussions by the Western Canadian Theoretical Psychology Group of CPA. The 12 articles together address the general problem of the continual impact of positivism and its permutations on the way we psychologists think about our discipline and conduct research. Individually, the chapters of this volume reflect diverse and specific themes, which are framed within their own historical scope.

Although the title might initially dissuade those not theoretically inclined to venture a reading, there are two outstanding reasons why this collection of articles is valuable to the psychology community at large. The general reader here has the opportunity to examine the historical background which has shaped psychology as a discipline, and to be educated in the basic vocabulary which characterizes the positivist approach in psychology. This tutelage were taken seriously, researchers would find cause to reflect on the methodologies which drive their own research, as well as that of psychology in general. On the other hand, there is enough specificity in the chapters to engage theoretical psychologists who are well versed in psychology's legacy from scientific empiricism, and who are already in a position to comment on the past and future impact of this legacy.

The articles seem to comprise three sections. In the first section, core problems with psychology's embrace of positivism are discussed. Baker lays the groundwork in the first chapter by describing the primary postulate of positivism as the idea of an objective reality driven by a mechanistic model. For psychology, the result has been to strip the person from psychology. The human subject here becomes a set of variables in an experimental situation controlled by an omniscient investigator.

The impact of this scenario is expanded in two following chapters. Stam speaks of the "unspoken grammar" of positivism which comprises psychology's hypotheticodeductive focus, experimental methods, and statistical analyses. Evidence of this implicit grammar is garnered in Stam's review of several articles in one issue of Psychological Review, all of which depend on this grammar to meet the basic publishing criteria. It is a sobering thought that widespread acceptance of this grammar has insulated researchers from the theoretical aspects of their own work. Kuiken, Wild, and Schopflocher suggest that the empiricist and positivist positions have actively discounted studies which seek to describe, or classify, naturally occurring phenomena. The rhetoric of causal induction and operational definitions permeates psychological research, and has discouraged psychologists from engaging in classificatory research strategies. Any researcher who has grappled personally with inductive methods will appreciate the significance of the insights of this chapter.

Several articles evaluate specific applications of positivism or its variants. Tolman, for example, examines the implications of neopositivism for perception theory. Mills traces the historical development of operational definitions, and by doing so, he also elaborates the principle of "arithromorphizing of data" which has become part of the grammar of measurement in psychology. The legacy of operationalism is reviewed by Rogers in his discussion of testing. When the chapters by Mills and Rogers are viewed together, the reader is forced to evaluate why pre - determination of measures, although problematic from a theoretical stance, continues to cloud psychology's view of alternative methodologies. …