Psychology: Status, Issues and Controversies

By Trinder, John | Journal of Australian Studies, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Psychology: Status, Issues and Controversies


Trinder, John, Journal of Australian Studies


Psychology has a relatively recent history in Australia. Although the first department of Psychology was established in 1929 at the University of Sydney, similar developments did not occur in other universities until after the second world war. This was in contrast with Europe and most particularly North America, where departments of Psychology flourished in the early part of the century. Nevertheless, since the late 1940s there has been substantial growth of the discipline within Australia, mirroring similar developments in other countries. While the organisational origins of Psychology in Australia were through the British Psychological Society, the greatest intellectual influence has been the United States.

Broadly defined, Psychology is the science of (human) behaviour. As such it is a very diverse discipline, on the one hand sharing with Physiology an interest in the biological bases of behaviour, and on the other sharing with Sociology a concern with society and behaviour. In a similar fashion Psychology contributes to fields as disparate as Cognitive Science, Philosophy, Health, Psychiatry, Organisational Management and Education. Thus, at this time Psychology is an integral part of many students' education. The popularity of Psychology appears to be a consequence of four major factors: its intrinsic interest; its perceived relevance to life in modern society; its role as a helping profession; and its utility in the job market.

In placing Psychology within the context of the social sciences it is important to note that in its origins, Psychology as a science was primarily influenced by the physical and biological sciences. Indeed, this emphasis remains predominant today and, as discussed below, strongly influences debate on contentious issues within the discipline. Further, this ideological identification has meant Psychology has been relatively, though not uniformly, isolated from ideas, such as for example, postmodernism and globalism, which have strongly influenced other fields within the social sciences.

In a similar vein, in comparison to other social sciences, Psychology is, in many of its areas of interest, relatively independent of culture (the relativity of this statement is emphasised). There is, for example, no field of `Australian Psychology'. As a consequence, the prevailing influences on Psychology have been from international sources, although local issues play a more important role at an organisational and administrative level.

Structure of Psychology programs

Undergraduate programs

A brief description of undergraduate programs has been presented because the structure of postgraduate training in Psychology cannot be appreciated without considering the nature of undergraduate training in the discipline.

At an undergraduate level Psychology is typically taken as part of a generalist degree, as for example in faculties of science or arts. While some universities offer specialist degrees in Psychology, the structure of these degrees does not differ significantly from generalist degrees. In each case a substantial portion of subjects are taken outside Psychology. To major in Psychology, or to complete an accredited course (see below), approximately 125 of 300 points, or a little over 40 per cent of the course, must be taken in Psychology. Most departments offer additional courses, although it would be unusual for a student to take more than 175 points in Psychology. In the fourth or honours year, all 100 points are taken in Psychology, with approximately half being research work and half course work. Thus, at an undergraduate level, Psychology is much like other social science disciplines.

There is a heavy emphasis in the undergraduate curriculum on research and quantitative methods. The broad basic content areas covered include biological, social, developmental and cognitive aspects of behaviour (see Healy and Franklin 1998 for full list of recommended topics). …

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