Learning the Languages of Research: Transcending Illiteracy and Indifference

By McMullen, Linda M. | Canadian Psychology, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Learning the Languages of Research: Transcending Illiteracy and Indifference


McMullen, Linda M., Canadian Psychology


Abstract

Although approaches to research other than experimentation and quasi-experimentation have recently become more prevalent in psychology, resistance to these approaches continues. Outright condemnation may have diminished, but equally powerful forms of resistance - illiteracy and indifference - remain. The nature and consequences of these forms of resistance are explored, particularly with respect to undergraduate education. I suggest we need to realize more fully how learning both traditional and alternative approaches informs our understanding of the other, and we need to encourage the growth of what Collini (1993) refers to as "the intellectual equivalent of bilingualism," a capacity to exercise the language of both kinds of approaches and to engage in a mutually intelligible exchange of views.

In 1963, four years after delivering the Rede Lecture at Cambridge, C. P. Snow responded to the controversy sparked by his description of the gulf between what he termed the "two cultures" (i.e., the literary intellectuals and the natural scientists). In this response, he acknowledged that his views were shaped by his being an Englishman, and that in the United States the cultural divide between the humanists and the natural scientists was not nearly as sharp. As evidence, he cited a body of intellectual opinion from persons in a variety of fields, including social history, sociology, demography, political science, economics, and psychology - in others words, the social sciences. And of the budding existence of this "third culture," he said, "When it comes, some of the difficulties of communication will at last be softened: for such a culture has, just to do its job, to be on speaking terms with the scientific one" (p. 71, italics added).

Although Snow is well known for his writings on the cultures of research and scholarly work, his view that the social sciences can (perhaps, must) speak the language of both the humanities and the natural sciences is not new, particularly with respect to psychology. As convincingly demonstrated by Danziger (1979), Wilhelm Wundt maintained that psychology consisted of two complementary halves, each of which was connected to a particular set of methods: physiological or individual psychology that was most often best investigated through experimental methods, and social or ethnopsychology that could only be investigated through nonexperimental methods. Wundt's views were, of course, not widely shared by many of his contemporaries, and certainly not by many of his successors. During much of the 20th century, psychology was based primarily on a positivist philosophy of science, defined almost exclusively as a natural science, and focused on the use of the experimental method. It is only within the latter years of this century that an accelerating questioning of the usefulness of this near-- exclusive definition has occurred, concomitant with a serious search for methods other than experimentation.

Ironically, however, even in the present age of methodological pluralism, there is a deep gulf (perhaps somewhat akin to the divide that separated Snow's two cultures) between those in the field of psychology who can speak the languages of both the experimental (including quasi-experimental) methods and alternative methods, and those who speak only the languages of the former. In this article, I want to address the question of receptivity and resistance to incorporating alternative methods in psychology by focusing on what I believe are two powerful forms of resistance - illiteracy and indifference. Before describing these forms of resistance and their consequences, I consider briefly the question of naming.

What Words are We to Use?

Recent discussions of the expansion of methods available for psychological research are increasingly framed within the quantitative-qualitative binary. As Rogers (2001) persuasively argues, however, the use of the term qualitative is problematic on at least two grounds. …

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