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Psychology and Controversy:
Points for Discussion

Dennis R. Fox

1984 Unpublished

I wrote this while I was a graduate student, describing a discussion group I was organizing among MSU's social psychology grad students (and a few faculty). I had tried to raise issues I was writing about at the time. It worked out fairly well, until it petered out....

Though my style has changed a bit, I'm still trying to raise many of the same issues (see related papers listed at the bottom).

This paper was never published, although at one point it was accepted by a social psychology newsletter. Until a new editor wanted more revisions than I had time to do...


Social and clinical psychologists have been faulted in the past decade for, among other things, placing a disproportionate emphasis on how people behave given the status quo rather than on how society might be altered in order to help make human behavior more fulfilling. Despite widespread criticism, however, most psychologists have generally gone about their professional lives with little alteration. At Michigan State University, several professors and graduate students organized a discussion group to examine controversial issues related to psychology as a field. Such groups are suggested as one way to break through the pluralistic ignorance that may be hindering social psychology's potential as a force for significant social change.


The presence of a regular column in the Society for the Advancement of Social Psychology Newsletter on the overlap of social, clinical, and counseling psychology is a welcome attack on the isolation that comes with overspecialization. Social psychologists all too often have little contact with other psychologists. One result is a widespread failure to adequately take into account the context in which social psychology is embedded.

This failure, of course, is not limited to social psychologists. A year ago, for example, I sat in on a three-week segment of a seminar for first-year graduate students in clinical psychology; the focus of the segment was community psychology. The reaction of most of the students was overwhelmingly hostile to the notions that clinical psychologists have a responsibility to look beyond the immediate mental health problems of their clients, that they should become more aware of how the larger society helps create those problems in the first place, and that it is important to consider how psychologists might become forces for change. As a student of social psychology who is interested in the interaction between people and the society around them, I was somewhat taken aback by the refusal of a dozen future clinicians to step out of their traditional role even in the classroom.

It should be obvious that many social psychologists often react the same way, and with just as much vehemence. True, clinical psychologists can in general be faulted for being more concerned with helping their clients adjust to the demands of the status quo than with helping them learn to change those demands; it is just as true, however, that social psychologists are generally guilty of taking the current framework of society as a given as they investigate behavior rather than looking at how that framework might be changed so that people can learn to behave differently.

These criticisms of psychology's intimate connections to the status quo--especially the connections of social and clinical psychology--are not new. Especially within the past fifteen years, the role that psychologists play in maintaining rather than changing society has been increasingly examined (e.g., Caplan & Nelson, 1973; Gergen, 1973; Sampson, 1981; Sarason, 1981). And, of course, psychologists have been criticized on other (often related) grounds as well, particularly for refusing to question their own assumptions about method and theory (e.g., Harré & Secord, 1972) and for their excessive "self limiting" specialization (Bevan, 1982). Yet despite such criticism, most psychologists go about their professional careers seemingly oblivious to their critics.

In the Psychology Department at Michigan State University, a handful of professors and graduate students organized a discussion group in the fall of 1983, titled "Psychology and Controversy," to focus on these and other issues. One of our goals was to bring together people from different areas of psychology; the issues discussed were, thus, relevant not only to clinical and social psychologists, but to others as well. Although support for the group has now dissipated and its future existence is in doubt, there have been positive results. My purpose here is to describe our development and to urge members of other departments to consider instituting such a group (or -- perhaps more likely to be successful -- a similar graduate-level seminar) as a means of legitimizing the critical approach to the field that is necessary if psychology is to take a constructive stance in relation to society.

At MSU, notices announcing the first meeting of the Psychology and Controversy group were distributed to all faculty members and graduate students, along with a list of tentative topics and the names and phone numbers of five contacts (three students and two professors from five different areas of psychology). The listed topics covered a wide spectrum:


Psychology and Society's Status Quo
  • Do the values of psychologists (as teachers, researchers, therapists, and consultants) prevent significant social change?
  • Is there such a thing as "objectivity"? Should there be?

Psychology's Own Status Quo

  • Why are so many philosophers of science criticizing psychology's attempt to be an experimental, quantitative science?
  • Why are psychologists who criticize psychology so often ignored?
  • Should we encourage qualitative research as a respectable alternative to the dominant quantitative approach?
  • What are the consequences of the common perception (by both proponents and opponents) that qualitative methodology is a "women's" methodology?
  • Have psychologists become too specialized? Is it possible to be a generalist?
  • What can psychologists learn from the other social sciences?

Psychology as Education

  • What is the purpose of teaching psychology to undergraduates?
  • Are we doing a good job? Do we care?
  • Has graduate student "education" given way to "job training"?
  • Why are mentors needed? Why are they so hard to find?
  • Do minority and women students have special needs that are not being met?

Psychology as Career

  • Has "publish or perish" outlived its usefulness?
  • Should faculty selection and tenure committees change their criteria?
  • Is raising these issues hazardous to one's career? If not, why do so many people think it is? If yes, what does that say about psychology as an intellectual pursuit?


Before the first meeting, a number of potential participants indicated a great deal of curiosity about who would attend. Several expressed both interest and generalized apprehension about being perceived as a troublemaker--some in fact declined to publicly add their names to the list of people sponsoring the group.

As it turned out, the first (partly organizational) meeting was attended on a Tuesday evening by twelve students and six professors. Spurred on by a jug of wine, we discussed the topic "Psychology and Recurring Questions: Are These Discussions a Waste of Time?" The participants, from all areas of psychology, came with a variety of perspectives and objectives, and much of the initial discussion concerned personal feelings about the importance of the proposed topics. For some, it seemed to be an intellectual exercise; for others, it was a chance to find like-minded people in the large department; for still others, there was the hope of eventually making changes in the normal practice of psychology both in the department and in the field as a whole--though I should point out that several participants specifically stated that they do not want the group to deal with departmental issues, and this underlying difference in approach served as one source of our eventual drop in participation.

At that first meeting, we decided to continue gathering every other Tuesday evening. We held three more meetings during the fall, two meetings during the winter term, and one (so far) in the spring. Leaflets announcing all meetings were distributed in advance, usually with topics and, for those who were interested, selected journal articles related to the topic. Topics, format, and "target" articles (where used) were as follows:

1. General Organizational Meeting

2. Specialization in Psychology--General Discussion (Bevan, 1982; Mann, 1982)

3. Future of Psychology--with Professor Hiram Fitzgerald (Bevan, 1982; Sarason, 1981a, 1981b)

4. Philosophical Criticisms of the Quantitative Approach to Social Science--with Professors Richard Peterson and Al Cafagna (Manicas & Secord, 1983)

5. The Hazards of Studying the Profession of Psychology--General Discussion (Peters & Ceci, 1982; Sieber, 1983)

6. The Viability of the Scientist/Practitioner Model in Psychology--with Professor Kevin Ford

7. Social Structure and Psychology--with Sociology Professor Philip Marcus


Attendance at the four fall-term meetings varied between 13 and 19, with about a dozen regulars and another dozen who attended once or twice. In the winter and spring, however, attendance dropped to six or seven, though several of those who continued to attend said they enjoyed the smaller meetings more than the larger ones: despite this, the momentum appears to be lost and there is little apparent enthusiasm for continuing to organize the group.

The reasons for the decline in interest include the perhaps inevitable time pressures of participants, combined with the loss of novelty as the year progressed. Some participants also expressed other views: that the discussions were inconclusive; that they sometimes became too focused on departmental politics; and that discussions sometimes became arguments that brought out interpersonal hostilities. One additional factor that kept numbers down from the beginning was that several of the more politically oriented women in the department, who were supportive of the Psychology and Controversy group, indicated that they wouldn't attend because they were already participating in a university-wide Women's Research Group that dealt with many of the same issues.

Despite the decline in participation and the probable end of the group as an ongoing concern, there have been several important benefits. Perhaps the most useful outcome of the discussions was the chance for graduate students in particular to come into contact with other students and professors on an informal basis, to find out what others think about a variety of issues. The group served as a place to find common ground for a variety of academic and nonacademic purposes ranging from socializing to committee selection to advocacy for change. This increased awareness of different areas within the department extended to other departments as well: One of the philosophy professors who was invited to a meeting, for example, later invited two participants to talk to his undergraduate course on Ethical Issues in Social Science.

Some might feel that a group such as ours is not really necessary to increase within-department interaction, that such interaction should be a natural outcome of departmental institutions. Some of the participants in our group, however, talked of their feelings of isolation in general and of their lack of contact with those in other interest areas in particular. One participant at the first meeting, for example, talked about her surprise--"astonishment," actually--that anyone else was interested in the proposed topics; she said she had long considered the issues raised crucial for her own work as a psychologist, but had thought she was alone in the department in her concerns. This reaction, perhaps to be expected, illustrates a point made many decades ago by Katz and Schanck (1938), who noted that often "people will stay in line because their fellows do, yet, if they only knew that their comrades wanted to kick over the traces too, the institutional conformity of the group would quickly vanish" (p. 174). Contrary to the notion of false consensus (Ross, Greene, & House, 1977), whereby dissatisfied people would assume that most others share their dissatisfaction, the process of pluralistic ignorance may be more prevalent among psychologists who are unhappy with the general business-as-usual approach of their peers; those who are dissatisfied may be incorrectly assuming that they are alone in their views, and their consequent reluctance to seek changes in psychology's norms may be, as Newcomb (1950) noted in another context, "usually interpreted as consent" (p. 608). Newcomb added that

If and when individuals who disapprove of the norms begin to communicate with one another, a new subgroup, with its own set of norms, begins to take the place of the former state of pluralistic ignorance. This new group may take steps to influence other members of the larger group.... In such ways social movements of all kinds are born. (pp. 608-609)

Our group may no longer exist as an organized discussion group, though the framework now exists for occasional meetings, and we have had an impact. Perhaps coincidentally--and perhaps not--after informal discussions a year ago that led to the creation of the Psychology and Controversy group, and after the leaflet announcing the beginning of the group last fall was distributed, the weekly "brown bag discussions" of the Social Psychology Interest Group took on a new format. Traditionally, the brown bags consisted of social psychology professors and grad students summarizing their recent research. This past year, however, the brown bags more often than not have consisted of bringing in guest speakers from other interest groups and other departments, some of them to talk about topics similar to those in the Controversy Group. Whether this change was spurred on by the presence of people in the department who raised these issues is difficult to determine, but the possibility is there. (I should add that the initial impetus for the discussion group came primarily from social psychology students, though most of the social psychology faculty never attended a meeting.)

Social psychology has the potential to be a force for radical social change that can help transform the society around us in a direction more in keeping with improved quality of life for all. Only by asking the right questions, however, can that potential be realized. Perhaps the growing awareness that other psychologists have similar concerns will help us break through the passive acceptance that now seems so pervasive.

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Bevan, W. (1982). A sermon of sorts in three plus parts. American Psychologist, 37, 1303-1322.

Caplan, N., & Nelson, S. (1973). On being useful: The nature and consequences of psychological research on social problems. American Psychologist, 2 8, 199-211.

Gergen, K. J. (1973). Social psychology as history. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 309-320.

Harré, R., & Secord, P. F. (1972). The explanation of social behavior. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams.

Katz, D., & Schanck, R. L. (1938). Social psychology. New York: Wiley.

Manicas, P. T., & Secord, P. F. (1983). Implications for psychology of the new philosophy of science. American Psychologist, 38, 399-413.

Mann, R. D. (1982). The curriculum and context of psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 9, 9-14,

Newcomb, T. M. (1950). Social psychology. New York: Dryden Press.

Peters, D. P., & Ceci, S. J., (1982). Peer-review practices of psychological journals: The fate of published articles, submitted again. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 5, 187-255.

Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The false consensus phenomenon: An attributional bias in self perception and social perception processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 279-301.

Sampson, E. E. (1981). Cognitive psychology as ideology. American Psychologist, 36, 730-743.

Sarason, S. B. (1981a). An asocial psychology and a misdirected clinical psychology. American Psychologist, 36, 827-836.

Sarason, S. B. (1981b). Psychology misdirected. New York: Free Press.

Sieber, J. e. (Ed.). (1983). Whose ethics? On the perils and dilemmas of studying powerful persons [Special Issue].SASP Newsletter, 9(August).

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