Psychological Objects, Practice, and History (1993)
Abstract: The theories of modern psychology always appear as components of complex formations that also have two other components, namely, specific empirical domains and sets of practices employed in the construction of such domains and of the corresponding theories. These formations can only be fully understood through historical analysis, for they are historical products. Their content comprises "psychological objects", which are the things psychologists take themselves to be investigating and theorizing about. Such psychological objects are not to be confused with natural objects, for they are crucially shaped by the theoretical constructive activity and by the practical intervention of psychological communities. The historical situation of these communities influences their construction of psychological objects in that it provides the criteria of legitimacy by which specific constructive activities and their products are judged. This does not mean that psychological objects can be reduced to the status of "nothing but" socio-historical constructions, though it does mean that the categories with which the discipline of Psychology works can never be accepted as "natural kinds" and that its research practices lose their supramundane status.
1. Against Abstractionism
Once upon a time people were very confident that they knew exactly what they
meant when they spoke of psychological theory. Psychological
theories were sets of theoretical propositions expressed in statements that were
quite different from empirical statements and from directions for action. The
reduction of theories to sentences made it particularly easy to make rigid
distinctions between what was theoretical and what was not (Mandler & Kessen, 1959). It also
gave expression to the disembodiment of theory. Theories existed essentially as
written statements, and thus could be discussed in isolation from any real life
Alas, we have long lost our theoretical innocence and are no longer comfortable
with this kind of abstractionism. On the one hand, we have gained some
appreciation of the immense difficulties that stand in the way of any hard and
fast distinction between the theoretical and the empirical, and on the other
hand, we have become much more interested in the pragmatic or use aspect of
theories (Hesse, 1980; Manicas, 1987; Putnam, 1981).
Of course, it is still possible to discuss theories in the abstract, as long as
we are clear about the distinction between the objects of such discussion and
the world in which theories normally are put to use. Abstracted theories are a
construction of metatheorists; they exist only in a Popperian "third world" of
pure forms (Popper, 1972) whose relationship to other worlds is by no means
clear. Now, while there may be psychological theories that, one suspects, were
invented primarily so they could be featured in textbooks, most of us would
regard this as a perversion. For the real purpose of theories, surely, is not to
provide grist for the metatheoretical mill, but to help in the explanation of
events and to guide action.
In the world of psychological research that gives rise to them, psychological
theories are co-ordinated to specific empirical domains which they are supposed
to explain in some way. Although psychological theories often make claims to
generality beyond specific empirical domains, they would not be taken seriously
if they had not first established some plausibility in the context of a
particular array of empirical results. The more general claims of Gestalt
theory, of neo-behaviorist
theories, of psychoanalytic theory, would have counted for little if each had
not been able to point to an array of empirical facts that provided specific
illustrations of these claims; facts, moreover, that generally would not have
existed without the theoretical orientation in question.
There was, after all, a major change in the way in which the game of Psychology
was played before and after 1879 (or thereabouts). Earlier, it was quite
acceptable to make theoretical claims that relied only on everyday experience to
give them a concrete meaning. But that did not help any would-be psychologist
very much in the twentieth century. To establish its credentials as a serious
candidate, a modern psychological theory must be able to point to some empirical
domain in which it seems to work particularly well, or to some practical results
which would not have been obtained without it.
When we try to put the relationship between the theoretical and the empirical
domain in historical perspective we need to avoid two opposed positions that are
both equally mistaken. Among those who devote their lives to empirical research
there is a widespread and understandable sentiment that theories formulated
before psychology became an experimental science need not be taken seriously.
This is often expressed in a categorical distinction between 'theory' and
'speculation', so that theories from the pre-experimental period need not even
be recognized as theories but can be dismissed as speculation.
Of course, the naive empiricism on which this point of view relies is very
difficult to defend if challenged, but that is no reason to fall into the
opposite error of analyzing theoretical positions as though it did not matter
fundamentally whether they had empirical and practical correlates or not. Some
such belief seems to be implied in attempts to analyze the history of psychology
from Aristotle to the present in terms of timeless theoretical "prescriptions"
(Watson, 1967), unchanging basic polarities, and so on. Theoretical contests did
move to a different arena when the subordination of theoretical discourse to
empirical research became the order of the day. But how are we to understand
this change? Are we to understand it simply as a transition from mere
speculation to a disciplined respect for reality? If we find the monumental
assumptions of naive empiricism too hard to swallow, this will not be a viable
perspective. The alternative is to look more closely at what can be established
What can be established is that there was a change in the social context within
which theoretical claims had to be justified. In the nineteenth century it was
still possible for individuals who had no relevant professional or academic
affiliations whatever to make theoretical contributions to psychology that were
taken every bit as seriously as the contributions of those who had such
affiliations. It did not occur even to those who disagreed with the
psychological ideas of John Stuart Mill or Herbert Spencer, for example, to
reject them on the grounds that these men were mere amateurs whose competence in
research had not been certified by an appropriate institution or professional
community. Their theories were discussed in the same breath as those of men such
as Alexander Bain who did happen to have academic positions. Such affiliations
were simply not relevant in establishing theoretical credibility. In other
words, the distinction between experts and laymen lacked the rigid institutional
basis that it was soon to acquire.
It is true that for most of the nineteenth century this distinction was more
marked in Germany than in Britain or France. But this was only because many of
the institutional features that were soon to become the norm everywhere first
ripened in nineteenth century Germany. In this respect psychology was simply
part of a ubiquitous trend. What is of general interest here is the change in
the manner of justifying theoretical claims that these social developments
entailed. As long as the differentiation of expert and lay publics is poorly
developed it is sufficient to ground one's theoretical claims in the beliefs,
assumptions, and experiences that are common to those who share a particular
cultural tradition. In the case of psychology this meant relating one's
contributions to the conventions and questions of an ongoing philosophical
discourse, that of British empiricism, for example. Through this medium
psychological ideas could be made directly accessible to a relatively broad
public without having to be filtered by any elaborate institutional safeguards
erected by an organized group of professionals.
Those days are gone forever. Modern psychology is an affair for experts, and
those experts owe their status in large measure to their monopoly over the
production of precisely those empirical domains which are considered
for the proper assessment of psychological theories. Such theories are produced
by and for members of the expert group in the first instance and only affect the
lay public indirectly. There is a discourse of experts in which psychological
ideas must find a place, and that discourse is governed by the norm of empirical
relevance. Ideas which lack empirical relevance (as defined by the expert group)
will not be permitted to enter expert discourse and will at best survive only in
The relationship between theory and data is reciprocal, a fact that needs some
emphasis, because so often only the explanation of data by theory is mentioned.
But conversely, it is the empirical co-ordinates which bring the dry bones of
theory to life. It is easy to forget this, because we are generally familiar
with the empirical co-ordinates of psychological theories and take them for
granted. But what sense would we make of stimulus-response theory without some
knowledge of animal learning experiments, what sense of field theory without
perceptual demonstrations, what sense of Freudian theory without any
illustrative dreams or case histories?
Making sense of theory gets us involved in the content of empirical data. But
data, as we know only too well, are not raw givens - they are symbolic
constructions that are reproduced in the pages of journals and text books. Like
all such constructions they have form as well as content; they are arranged in
the form of statistical tables, for example, or in the form of graphs, or in the
narrative form of a case history. Right away we can see that empirical domains
may differ, not only in their content, but also in their form. And that opens up
new possibilities for the interrelationship of theory and empirical data in
psychology. If theories have to be co-ordinated to empirical domains to be taken
seriously, the structure of those domains becomes relevant for the work of
theory construction. If my theory has to justify itself by its ability to
explain statistical relationships among measurable variables, for example, its
statements will have to be cast in a mould determined by this task. But if, on
the other hand, the theoretical task lies in making sense of an unfolding case
history, a different type of theoretical formulation would do the job much more
If empirical domains are never just jumbles of independent atomic facts but are
always very carefully arranged structures, that implies that there must be some
rules, explicit or implicit, for the erection of such structures.
Such rules cover the two stages through which the construction of an array of
empirical data typically proceeds. In the first stage investigators procure
subjects for their research and then put them in a specially structured
situation in order to obtain a product called 'raw data'. In the second stage
these raw data are then treated according to various rules in order to produce
the data that appear in research publications. Of course, rules operate also at
the first stage and regulate the selection of subjects as well as the conduct of
all participants in the research situation, investigators included (Danziger,
It is necessary to discard the old doctrine of 'epistemic individualism',
according to which scientific knowledge is a product of an interaction between
investigator and nature. We know quite well that it is not an isolated
investigator who confronts nature but some group of investigators. Moreover, in
psychological experiments on human subjects, the group involved in the
production of knowledge consists not just of investigators but also of those who
are the source of raw data. In the research process, knowledge generation is
accomplished collectively and not individually. Like all social activity, this
collective enterprise is governed by definite rules as well as by the interests
of those who participate in it. These social conditions will be reflected in the
form of the product (Whitley, 1984). Psychological investigators and subjects
whose interests differ, and whose activity in the research situation is governed
by different norms and traditions, will generate different kinds of knowledge
products. Because of the intimate link between theories and empirical domains
investigators with divergent interests and activity norms will also produce
This embeddedness of theories in certain patterns of collective activity and
their empirical products sets limits to what can be achieved by an evaluation of
theories against empirical data. Such a procedure may be acceptable in the
context of Kuhnian "normal science" (Kuhn, 1970), but it leads to problems as
soon as we take a broader perspective since the empirical data that are
available have been produced according to certain rules. Among other things,
these rules determine which criteria are considered relevant for the selection
of subjects, what types of social psychological relationships between
experimenters and subjects are regarded as desirable, what constraints shall be
imposed on the behavior of subjects and of experimenters, which aspects of the
experimental situation are held to be unproblematic and which problematic, what
shall be recorded and what not recorded, what format experimental records should
take, what transformations of 'raw' data are permissible, what must be and what
need not be communicated in published accounts of investigations, what form
these published accounts should take, including the form in which 'findings' are
communicated, and so on. The conduct of empirical research in modern psychology
is hedged around by a myriad of rules and conventions, many of them implicit,
many of them never seriously questioned. Among these are rules that affect the
conduct of subjects even more drastically than they affect the conduct of
In light of this it is necessary to make a clear distinction between the natural
order of the world that can be imagined to exist without the psychologist's
intervention and the empirical order that psychologists help to create by their
intervention. What research produces is an artifactual empirical order whose
relationship to the natural order is problematical. We would be begging all the
important questions if we were to begin by assuming that the empirical order
mirrors the natural order. Possibly it does, but if we want to ground assertions
about the relationship between the two orders in anything other than blind
faith, we have to, begin by recognizing that the empirical order is first of all
a construction, a product of rule governed intervention in some natural process.
The question of 'realism' is a perfectly legitimate question, but it is a
question that belongs at the end, not the beginning, of any inquiry about the
relationship between theory and evidence.
The 'evidence' that provides the necessary empirical context for modern
psychological theories does not consist of bits of the natural world, but of the
products that result from the highly conventionalized constructive activities of
psychologists. What happens in the modern period is that a constructed empirical
order interposes itself between psychological theory and the order of natural
processes. Any claimed correspondence between theory and natural order is
discounted if theory is not able to justify itself in terms of an empirical
order constructed by following a specific set of rules. The fate of
psychoanalytic theory in mainstream psychology provides a well-known
Of course, psychology never had just one empirical order, it always had several.
Unanimity about the proper way of constructing an empirical order always eluded
it. Psychoanalysis, for example, developed elaborate rules and procedures for
constructing an empirical order, but its rules differed from those of
experimental psychology in many quite fundamental respects. However, it is not
necessary to limit oneself to such radical discrepancies. Historically, the
empirical order characteristic of experimental psychology was based on rules
that differed from those operative in the construction of an empirical order
based on the employment of mental tests, a difference that was large enough to
lead to talk of "two psychologies" (Cronbach, 1957). Even within experimental
psychology there is considerable divergence in the rules of empirical
construction that have been favored at different times by different groups of
investigators (Danziger, 1990a). The rules governing the construction of an
empirical domain in Wundt’s Leipzig laboratory were not the same as those
operative in most of mid-twentieth century American psychology.
An empirical order produced by the employment of a particular set of rules for
the conduct of investigation may be called an empirical domain. Thus, one
can speak of the empirical domains of psycho-analysis, of group intelligence
testing, of 'systematic experimental introspection', and so on. The rules
employed in the construction of different empirical domains may overlap to
varying degrees, thus rendering comparison between different domains less or
more problematical. Clearly, comparing the results of experimental introspection
with those of mental testing would be highly problematical, but comparing the
results of group and individual testing would be less so.
During the modern period theoretical positions in psychology have had to have a
primary link to particular empirical domains, though they often claimed to have
validity beyond those domains. Theories that claimed
only a general
validity without a special empirical domain that was peculiarly theirs were
likely to be dismissed as unscientific speculations and, therefore, not to be
This co-ordination of theories with particular empirical domains gives rise to a
special set of difficulties when theories are to be compared and judged as to
their relative validity. Most of the time, psychological theories do not travel
well. Take them out of their appropriate empirical environment and they seem
like fish out of water.
because the rules used
construction of empirical domains tend to be based on the same fundamental
theories devised for the explanation of these domains. If one abstracts theories
from their proper empirical context and tries to apply them in an empirical
context constructed on fundamentally different, perhaps opposite, principles,
one is either engaging
meaningless or self-contradictory exercise of implicitly changing the theory
into one that makes different assumptions about the nature of its object than
the original theory. One is then no longer dealing with the original theory but
some transformation of it (Danziger, 1985a; 1988).
One consequence of this state of affairs is particularly relevant for the
discussion of the history-theory relationship. It becomes apparent that if one
treats abstracted theoretical propositions as historical entities one
is committing the category
mistake of confusing the history of metatheory with the history of theory. For
the latter, the appropriate
are not theories abstracted from their special empirical context but
complex formations made up of three intimately linked components, a theoretical
component, empirical products, and an action component that embodies particular
rules of construction. Leaving aside many questions of detail, this is the
common denominator implied in the general thrust of philosophies of science
which deal in
"paradigms", "research programmes", and "research traditions" (Kuhn, 1970;
Lakatos, 1970; Laudan, 1977).
however, are obviously historical formations, and their analysis and assessment
have to take place in a historical framework. It is always possible to abstract
any of the components of a research
theory, data, or
rules of investigation and subject them to a trans-historical treatment, as
though they had some kind of
There is a
tradition which sanctions such a procedure. But once we refuse to take the
assumptions of abstractionism for granted it becomes only too obvious that most
claims for the universality of theories, empirical results, and rules of
investigation have only a minimal initial plausibility.
The alternative is to begin by questioning the initial plausibility of
universalistic claims. This means putting the onus of establishing some
plausibility for trans-historical claims on those who want to make them. Once we
withdraw our commitment to the assumptions on which the abstractionist framework
is based the discussion must shift onto historical ground. For the formations of
which a body of theory, of data, of research practice, was a part before it was
abstracted are historical formations. This historical framework is often ignored
or dismissed as irrelevant because many psychologists do not believe that there
is any practical alternative to the position of naive universalism that they are
accustomed to. The alternative to naive universalism, however, is not
necessarily relativism. Even an enlightened universalism has no choice but to
take the historical framework into account if it is to establish some initial
plausibility for any of its trans-historical claims.
2. Psychological Objects
Recognizing the need to study historically constituted epistemic domains is one
thing, finding the means to do so is another. Here we have to be wary of the
conceptual traps left behind by the older traditions of psychological
historiography. Those traditions, as is now generally recognized, have a
strongly "justificationist" character (Ash, 1983; Samelson, 1974; Stocking,
1965; Young, 1966). In the past, the histories of psychology written by and for
psychologists tended to organize the historical material in terms of categories
taken from currently popular disciplinary beliefs and practices. This made it
particularly easy to present the past in terms of gradual progress towards the
present. Certain philosophical commitments that formed part of this 'presentist’
bias are particularly relevant to our discussion.
There was, for example, a sharp separation of 'theories' and 'empirical
findings'. Such a separation has great practical utility in the context of
ongoing psychological research where most of what happens has to be taken for
granted, so that attention can be concentrated on that tiny portion which is
being questioned. But in a historical context this separation of the theoretical
and the empirical only has the effect of removing the most interesting aspects
of epistemic domains from view. The category of 'empirical findings' is
particularly loaded with ideological freight because of the usual implication
that 'empirical' means 'prior to any interpretation' , and that 'findings' means
the data have simply been 'found' by the investigators rather than carefully
constructed by them. Within this framework history becomes a catalogue of what
was 'found' plus an account of successive attempts at interpreting what was
found. The model here is the 'literature review', commonly encountered in
The counterpart to the category of 'empirical findings' is of course the
category of abstracted theory which we have already had occasion to question. A
different conceptual framework is required for talking about embedded theory.
In the previous section I referred to theories being co-ordinated to empirical
domains because of the familiarity of terms like 'theoretical' and 'empirical'.
But this way of putting things can be misleading if it suggests that the
separation between the empirical and the theoretical is fundamental, while their
relationship is secondary. This is, of course, the reverse of what is intended
here. What is intended is to do justice to the fact that before modern
psychological discourse can be split into a theoretical and an empirical part
there are certain primitives for which this division is irrelevant. I will refer
to these primitives, which psychologists usually take as given, as
'psychological objects'. They are simply the things that psychologists take to
be their proper objects of investigation or professional practice.
Psychological objects may be certain categories of people, such as experimental
subjects, or the 'clients' of counsellors. Such categories of people exist only
as the objects of the psychologist's intervention, and they would not exist at
all if it were not for that intervention. It is the psychologist's own
professional activity that creates these categories in the first place. If there
were no psychologists, these categories of people would not exist. In other
words, the psychologist can never investigate any 'natural' human category
directly; he/she must constitute an object of investigation in the course of
that investigation. The persons who, voluntarily or under duress, play the part
assigned to them by psychologists in situations constituted by psychologists,
have become members of a category of persons that has no members outside these
situations. This does not mean that there are no relationships between
psychological objects and other objects in the world, but the nature of these
relationships obviously cannot be discovered by psychological investigation
because they cannot be concerned with anything but psychological objects.
Categories of people are far from being the only kind of psychological object.
At least as important are the categories in terms of which psychology organizes
its subject matter. Such categories as 'learning', 'motivation', 'intelligence',
'behavior', 'personality', and so forth are not 'natural kinds' but are posited
specifically as the objects of psychological investigation and intervention. Of
course, any of these terms can be used in contexts other than that of
psychological investigation, but a glance at a good dictionary followed by a
brief perusal of some of the relevant psychological research literature would be
enough to convince anyone who still needs convincing that the objects addressed
by psychological research are not the same as the objects posited by the
categories of lay discourse. Indeed, psychologists have often insisted on this.
As in the case of the psychological objects that are categories of people, we
are dealing with objects that are constituted specifically by and for the
purpose of psychological investigation and intervention (Gergen, 1982). Again,
this does not mean that these objects have no links with objects outside
disciplinary psychological discourse, but the nature of these links cannot be
discovered by the methods of psychological investigation that necessarily
constitute their own objects and none other.
Does this analysis imply a kind of disciplinary solipsism? Certainly there is an
unmistakable tendency in that direction. It is a tendency that is greatly
strengthened by the homogenization of psychological methods and by demands for
the uniformity of permissible categories of psychological discourse. Two things
have, however, counteracted this solipsistic trend. One is the internal disunity
of the subject which has entailed the positing of fundamentally different
psychological objects by fundamentally different means. The other countervailing
factor arises out of the fact that the relationship of disciplinary psychology
to the world outside it is not just a cognitive one but also involves an
exercise of power and influence by which parts of the world are to some extent
changed in psychology's image. Where the categories of psychological
investigation are imposed as categories of institutional practice, in
educational and treatment facilities for example, the reference of these
categories undoubtedly extends beyond disciplinary boundaries, not however,
because they reflect some independent state of affairs, but because they have
helped to create the reality to which they refer (Braginsky & Braginsky, 1974;
Rose, 1988; Walkerdine, 1984). The popular diffusion of psychological categories
may produce an analogous effect even where there has been no direct professional
intervention (MacIntyre, 1985; Shotter, 1975).
These now widely recognized phenomena still leave open the question of possible
links between psychological objects and other kinds of objects, a question
which, as has been indicated, cannot be answered by psychological means. To
address such questions a different level of discourse has to be adopted. In some
sense such discourse would undoubtedly be metatheoretical. But it is not an
analysis of psychological theories that is required here, for reasons that have
already been outlined. Such theories commonly refer to psychological objects
whose existence and natural status they take for granted. It is not the adequacy
of the theories in explaining psychological objects which is at issue here, but
the constitution of those objects themselves. That constitution is a social
process, which is part of human history. Certainly, psychologists are always
recreating the objects of their investigation in the course of investigating
them, but they are not free to do so at random. They are constrained by
historically constituted structures, both cognitive and practical. Psychological
objects are also the products of history and can only be understood as such.
The historicity of psychological objects has three aspects: construction, use,
and reference, and in what follows I shall consider each of these in turn.
First of all, psychological objects have to be understood as constructed
objects. They are not found lying around in nature. Our experiences and actions
do not bear little tags, supplied by nature, that identify them as instances of
motivation, a personality trait, or a bit of information. They have to be
construed as such. Experiences do not naturally arrange themselves in the form
of statistical series; they have to be arranged accordingly. People have to
agree to act as experimental subjects and modify their conduct in terms of the
structure of that role. To understand psychological objects we need some
understanding of the way in which they are constituted. But that is something
that has changed historically. Psychological categories, rules for producing
acceptable data, and rules for arranging research situations have all been
subject to quite drastic changes, and we have little hope of understanding the
constitution of psychological objects without some understanding of these
Secondly, the construction of psychological objects is an intentional activity.
People are instigated by certain purposes when engaging in this activity or
changing it. Of course, the purposes which psychological objects serve need not
only be the purposes of those who have produced them. But in any case, these
objects have certain uses, and the uses they have depend on historical
circumstances. It is only to be expected that different circumstances will favor
different objects. To understand why the historical development of psychology
has favored certain objects over others, some appreciation of the uses of
psychological objects is indispensable.
Finally, psychological objects have a reference to a world outside them. A
category like 'learning', for example, is not meant only as a label for what
humans and animals do in certain situations set up by psychologists but is meant
also to cover important aspects of people's conduct outside these situations.
Experimental subjects are not supposed to represent only themselves, but their
conduct is expected to be relevant to large groups of people who did not
participate in any investigation. Traditionally, questions of reference have
been answered on the assumption that psychological objects are natural objects.
But if we recognize them as constructed historical objects, the problem of their
reference will have to be approached rather differently. We will return to this
issue in the last section.
3. Categorical Construction
In considering the constructive activity of which psychological objects are the products, a distinction must be made between two aspects. On the one hand, the construction of psychological objects involves some kind of thought-work, the development of certain categorical frameworks, and the fitting of instances into such frameworks. Categories such as 'motivation' or 'association' have to be invented, and the domain of their applicability has to be worked out. But in the twentieth century it has become obvious that the construction of psychological objects is not just a matter of cognitive reordering but also involves practical intervention. Apparatus has to be built, experimental subjects have to be co-opted and instructed, rating scales and tests have to be assembled, records have to be made, and so on. Of course, in the real world, cognitive reordering and practical intervention are closely linked, but if we do not keep them analytically distinct we will miss many important questions and historically important developments.
Before we can consider this further some remarks on the thought-work involved in
the construction of psychological objects are necessary. A collective enterprise
like modern psychology can only proceed if the active participants are able to
communicate effectively about their subject matter. To do this they must share a
common framework for organizing their experience. For example, there has to be
an implicit agreement that there is a category of events labelled 'motivational'
or 'emotional' or 'perceptual' which can be distinguished from other events and
about whose basic features there is a large measure of pre-understanding.
Without this, no concrete research problems could be formulated, no particular
relevance could be assigned to observations, and no specific theories pertaining
to these categories of events could be formulated.
But where does this kind of implicit agreement come from? A first answer can be
supplied by referring to the process of professional socialization that members
of the discipline are put through before they receive their certification. But
that answer only pushes the problem one step back. It tells us nothing about the
nature of the cognitive framework in terms of which the discipline organizes the
experience of its members, and it tells us nothing about how and why the
discipline came to adopt this particular framework and not one of the many
conceivable alternatives. Such questions become much more difficult to escape
when historical studies oblige us to recognize that the framework in terms of
which the discipline has organized its work has changed considerably over time
and will undoubtedly continue to change.
The embeddedness of the professional culture in a broader, shared, cultural
matrix provides material for a more satisfactory kind of answer. Certainly, this
broader matrix provided the basis on which the more specific shared
understandings of the profession could develop historically and on which
the fate of professional products continues to depend. This perspective
also makes us aware of the fact that different cultures have used very different
frameworks for constructing domains that we would categorize as psychological (Heelas
& Lock, 1981; Lutz & White, 1986; Shweder & Bourne, 1984; White & Kirkpatrick,
1985). Moreover, the cultures within which modern psychology developed have a
long history of reconstructing what eventually would become the modern
Part of the historical study of psychological objects is, therefore, concerned with
the development of key categories which were eventually appropriated by modern
psychology. This type of study stands in sharp contrast to what is still the
most common approach to the pre-history of the discipline. That approach is
characterized by a thoroughgoing naturalism which assumes that the categories of
modern psychology refer to 'natural kinds' that exist as such independently of
anything the psychologist might think or do. Accordingly, pre-modern psychology
can be divided into two parts; one part which can be dismissed because it
manifestly is not concerned
with psychological reality as currently defined, and another part, which is
salvageable because it can be interpreted as 'anticipating' modern insights. The
concern in this type of historiography is to maximize historical continuity in
order to furnish modern psychology with an impressive pedigree, and to denigrate
anything which is completely resistant to this endeavor.
By contrast, the historiography of psychological objects takes their constructed
character as primary and brackets out the question of their possible
correspondence with some psychological reality beyond themselves. This point of
renders the historian much more sensitive to the discontinuities in psychology's
'long past' than the traditional approach. So much so, in fact, that the
question arises whether the history of psychology has a subject at all (Smith,
1988). This is because, on closer investigation, one finds that most of the
basic categories that were to play an important role in twentieth century
psychology do not correspond to earlier categories at all. 'Behavior',
'personality', 'intelligence', and so forth, were invented at about the same
time as modern psychology, or later. They can only be made to correspond to
earlier categories by assuming that they accurately reflect a natural structure
of the real world which was also reflected, though imperfectly, by some earlier
sets of categories. Once we withdraw our assent to this dubious assumption, we
are able to investigate what the old historiography obscured, namely, historical
changes in the construction of psychological objects and the reasons for them.
Even where basic categories have a history that is longer than that of modern
psychology, it turns out that that history is relatively brief in almost all
cases. This is true, for example, of such categories as 'stimulation',
'sensation', 'perception', 'association', 'motivation', and 'emotion'.
Historians of psychology are, therefore, faced with a choice. They can assume
that these categories accurately represent the 'natural' divisions of their
subject matter which must be taken for granted. In that case one's historical
account is taken to be about different theories
motivation, and so forth, because where the underlying objective reality is
taken to be fixed in the form of event types represented in our preferred
category system, all that remains is variation in theories
types of events. Quite apart from the cultural imperialism implied by this
approach, it blinds one to the possibility of constructing psychological objects
themselves in fundamentally different ways. The alternative course is to take
the constructed character of psychological objects as primary and to direct
one's attention to the historical process of construction.
As soon as one does this one has to take seriously the coherent quality of
psychological discourse. By this I do not mean grammatical coherence, of course,
but conceptual coherence. This is what was implied by my earlier use of terms
like 'framework'. Typically, psychological objects are not constructed one by
one, independently of each other, but in a coherent system. By this I do not
only mean the 'systems' associated with certain individuals, but, more
importantly, the kind of coherence which makes productive discourse among a
group of individuals possible. The elaboration of psychological objects has been
a collective enterprise made possible by the fact that these objects are
reproduced by many individuals who share what .might be called the relevant
principles of construction. This process
best when these principles are not deliberately employed but are simply taken
for granted and allowed to do their work spontaneously. Then everyone knows
without any argument what is meant when different kinds of
objects are referred to. When this shared pre-understanding is not present,
psychological discourse typically loses its coherence and misunderstandings
abound. The fate of culturally alien psychological systems in North America,
like that of Wundt, of the Gestaltists, of phenomenology, of depth psychology,
abundantly documented examples of this course of events (Ash, 1985; Blumenthal,
1980; Burnham, 1967; Henle, 1980; Jennings, 1986).
In studying the history of psychological objects we cannot therefore dispense
with a search for the 'principles of construction' that give internal coherence
to different kinds of psychological discourse. What has to be avoided is the
transfer of isolated bits from one coherent framework to a totally different
one, while assuming that those pieces retain their identity in the new
conceptual context. They do not. The nature of the parts depends on the
principles according to which the whole has been constructed.
But talk of 'principles' in this connection can be misleading, because it
suggests a far more explicit and deliberate process than one actually
encounters. Typically, these 'principles' do their work behind the scenes so
that their products are not recognized as constructions at all but
accepted as part of
the natural order of the world. Although further historical investigation of the
operation of such 'principles' is needed I suspect that metaphorical transfer
plays a particularly important role in the way they function. It seems that
psychological objects are often constructed by
with other objects. This analogy may be quite explicit, as in the
mechanical analogies familiar to historians of psychology; or, more pervasively,
the analogy may be implicit, as when the mind is conceived in terms of a
population of separate ideas, sensations, or other units which relate to each
other much like the independent citizens of a liberal state. In general,
principles of psychological organization often seem to have had metaphorical
links with principles of social organization, the structure of the one domain
functioning as an apparent confirmation of the structure of the other.
In the present context some hints about the thought-work involved in the
construction of psychological objects must suffice. I have elaborated on these
(Danziger 1983a, 1990b). It is important, however, to emphasize that this
thought-work is accomplished in the context of a discourse that has many
participants. Thought-work, therefore, should not be seen simply as the activity
of independent thinkers but as the product of a "thought collective" (Fleck,
1979). One consequence of this is that there is generally a practical aspect to
what may on the surface appear as purely intellectual constructions. The
invitation to think about matters in a certain way is, at least by implication,
an invitation to act in a certain way (Schön, 1979). By defining objects of
interest in a particular way, attention is focused on certain features rather
than others, specific expectations are aroused, and hence priorities for
practical action are established. For instance, it is difficult to define
psychological objects in terms of the metaphor of psychological energy without
putting on the agenda quite practical questions of energy control, as the
relevant psychological literature from Bain to Freud seems to indicate.
4. Practical Construction
In twentieth century psychology the practical implications of psychological
discourse have not disappeared, but the practical aspect of the discipline now
involves much more than a by-product of what was essentially thought-work. The
practical aspect has assumed primary importance in the construction of
psychological objects. There is a new group of psychological specialists who are
in the main defined by their activity of constructing psychological objects
through direct practical intervention. They claim, and to a large extent have
achieved, a monopoly in the construction of psychological objects, and they have
done so on the basis of their practical expertise, not on the basis of their
thought-work. One consequence of this development has been a proliferation in
the variety of psychological objects. To the product of thought-work there have
now been added the products of practical work in the laboratory and in the
field. As indicated earlier, these products are human, as in the case of
experimental subjects, as well as symbolic, as in the case of arrays of
empirical data. In either case, the nature of the products reflects specific
features of the constructive activity which has generated them.
Thus, during the history of modern psychology various patterns of practice have
been employed to construct the research 'subject', the human source of
psychological data (Danziger, 1985b). In the early days of experimental
psychology the subject whose reactions and reports supplied the empirical basis
for psychological knowledge claims was generally a colleague, a friend, or
someone with whom one interacted regularly as teacher or as student. In any
case, the research relationship was based on openness and on the trust that had
developed in the course of a relationship that also existed outside the
laboratory. The atmosphere was collaborative, and experimenters and subjects
frequently exchanged roles. One may contrast this pattern of experimental
practice with others in which experimenters and subjects are strangers to one
another, whose only contact extends over the often very brief, and always
heavily circumscribed period of experimental interaction. In other cases the
participants in the research situation might know one another, but their
relationship would be highly structured in an extremely asymmetrical way, so
that insight into the research situation and power to dispose over the
arrangements and products would be confined to the experimenters.
Of course, the traditional ideology of the discipline denied that such
differences had any relevance for the 'empirical' knowledge generated in
experimental situations. This was because psychology refused to define itself as
a social science but took itself to be concerned purely with facts of nature.
Accordingly, the most basic psychological object of all was the abstract,
isolated individual whom it actually attempted to construct in its research
situations, though without much practical success. The abstract subject of
psychological research was a product of some heavy thought-work which managed to
leave in the shadows a crucial part of what the practical activity of a
psychologist was daily producing in the laboratory. Even when - several
generations later - the discipline finally came to recognize that psychological
research situations were social situations it simply assimilated this insight
within the framework of its
assumptions. The social aspect of these situations was limited to social
psychological factors, which meant that they could be categorized as ahistorical,
natural events, like other psychological events, and investigated by the natural
scientific methods of experimentation (Rosenthal & Rosnow, 1969; Rosenthal &
Rubin, 1978). Moreover, the 'effects' of these factors were categorized as ‘artifacts’
of research, as though the activity of psychologists could be readily divided
into a social part that produced ‘artifacts' and another, presumably asocial
part, that yielded true facts of nature.
Such a division, however, is itself highly artificial (Farr, 1978). At most, one
might make a distinction between those aspects of the social practice of
investigators that depend on their interaction with their research subjects, and
those aspects which are relatively immune to such effects. But the latter are no
less social than the former, for they depend on the interaction of investigators
with other investigators and with the whole social world of current disciplinary
practices in which any particular investigation is embedded. All empirical
products of special investigative procedures are artifactual in that they would
not exist but for those procedures and would exist in a different way if those
procedures were significantly altered. Those procedures, however, are a product
of the history of the discipline and are
at all times regulated by prevailing disciplinary norms, institutional
structures, control over resources, and so on. Such factors determine not only
the social psychology of psychological experiments, but the social structure of
the investigative situation. These kinds of relationships, however, cannot
usually be studied experimentally but require historical investigation. Even the
above distinction between those effects that depend on investigators'
interactions with their research subjects and those that depend on their
interactions with their colleagues breaks down historically at a time when
research subjects and colleagues are the same.
The very late and very partial recognition on the part of psychologists that
there is anything at all social about their research activity is not so
surprising when one considers the categories in terms of which they think and
communicate about their own practice. These categories are part of a scientistic
rhetoric that expresses their deeply felt claim to the status of natural
scientists. What they do as investigators of psychological problems they
categorize as ‘methodology’, 'procedure', or 'technique'; terms which were
derived from work with non-human objects. Talk couched in these terms conveys a
pervasive suggestion that the practices described by it lack the distinctive
social qualities that are commonly associated with human interaction. Instead,
the illusion is generated that here we have a sphere of practice which is
regulated purely by logical and technical considerations.
It is difficult to extricate oneself from this web of illusion as long as one
continues to use the old terms and the categories that they represent. If one
aims at an analysis of the discipline that is not constrained by the limitations
of the discipline's own ideology it seems preferable to work with categories
more suited to the task. That is why I have been speaking of the "practice", or
more specifically, the "investigative practice" (Danziger, 1990a) of
psychologists, rather than of their 'methods'. These practices are made up of
everything that psychologists do as social agents when they construct
psychological objects. The category of investigative practice, therefore,
includes not only what psychologists do in a research context, but also what
they do in their professional work in clinical or educational contexts.
That applies no less to the products which the conventional terminology labels
'empirical' than to those which it labels 'theoretical'. Typically, the
construction of empirical objects takes place in two phases. In the first phase,
a number of participants work together in defined investigative situations to
produce 'raw data'. The work of the participants proceeds according to strict
rules that govern their inter-relationship. In the second phase the
investigators manipulate the record that constitutes the raw data so as to
produce a form of product that is publishable according to the conventions of
the day. This process also is governed by strict rules that have nevertheless
seen considerable historical modification. Needless to say, investigators'
knowledge of these rules in large measure determines what aspects of the
investigative interaction are considered worth recording and, therefore, worth
eliciting. For instance, an investigator who knows that lengthy introspective
reports are not publishable is not likely to ask for them or to take them
seriously as recorded data if they are spontaneously offered.
This example, however, has only a limited relevance to the present analysis,
because it operates on the level of the individual investigator. Now, in looking
at the practices of investigators it is necessary to introduce a distinction
that is analogous to the distinction already made in connection with the
behavior of experimental subjects. Just as in the case of the latter we must
distinguish between the social psychology of individual subjects and the social
structure of the investigative situation within which subjects have to act, so
in the case of investigators we have to distinguish between the motives and
actions of individuals and the social patterns prevailing in the discipline to
which the individual investigator has to react. From the point of view of the
individual actor and its social psychological analysis the prevailing social
patterns, whether they regulate the structure of the investigative situation or
the nature of publishable data, can be taken for granted. But from the point of
view of the discipline and its historical development, it is precisely these
social patterns that are the major object of interest. This requires a different
level of analysis, one which is necessarily historical.
There is a connection between a purely individualistic level of analysis and the
tendency to think of investigative practices in terms of purely technical
considerations. From the point of view of the individual investigator the choice
of procedures may indeed often be reduced to essentially technical, and that is
to say, rational, considerations. But this is only possible because the
historical development of the discipline has predetermined the nature and the
variety of alternatives that are available to the individual investigator at a
particular time. Although investigators may be making choices that are rational,
given the situation in which they find themselves, there is absolutely no
guarantee that these choices will somehow add up to a rational course of
development for the discipline as a whole. In fact, the history of twentieth
century psychology provides little or no support for such an implicit "Hidden
Hand” model of development. Major changes in the favored patterns of
investigative practice seem to have depended more on shifts in the goals of
investigation than on a rational choice of means with constant fixed goals.
In dealing with the construction of empirical objects one has, therefore, to
distinguish between specific instances of such objects, produced at a particular
time and place, and the general features of such objects which characterize them
over extended historical periods and in numerous locations. The
intra-disciplinary rules for producing empirical objects can take on the
appearance of purely technical rules as long as the general features of those
objects are taken for granted. Thus, rules for producing good introspective
reports can appear to be based on purely technical considerations, as long as it
is accepted that the desired product will have the form of an introspective
report. The same applies to the explicit rules used in the construction of
empirical objects that have the form of a statistical aggregation of individual
performance measures. Variations in such rules are governed by technical
questions of finding the best means for arriving at a given end. But variations
in the ends themselves, that is, in the general type of empirical object
desired, are not reducible to technical questions within the discipline. Such
variations are only explicable on a level of historical inquiry which takes
disciplinary patterns and trends as its subject matter.
Because of the extraordinary hold which a positivist understanding of their own
activity has exerted on psychologists, and because of the justificationist
commitment of much of the relevant historiography, little attention has been
paid to an analysis of the general features of empirical objects in modern
psychology. The one major exception is constituted by the historical switch from
introspective to behavioral data, which could not be overlooked, because it was
accompanied by a great deal of noise. But the amount of noise that accompanies a
historical change is not an index of its importance in the long run. There were
other profound changes in the general features of desirable empirical objects
within psychology which were quite pervasive, although they generated relatively
little intra-disciplinary debate. The change from data representing the
attributes of individuals to data representing the differences between
individuals is one example of a long term trend that is of profound significance
for the knowledge base of the discipline (Danziger, 1987a; 1990a), yet few
psychologists gave much thought to it. Another example is the imposition of a
serial form on the behavior of experimental subjects and on the fundamental
psychological objects known as "stimuli" (Danziger, 1987c; 1990a).
Given the categories in which psychologists reflected their own activity, such
developments were usually conceptualized as technical changes. But they were
quite different from true technical changes because they were not simply an
improvement in the means for achieving a constant goal but involved a profound
change in the goal itself. In the course of time psychologists changed the
nature of the empirical objects they wanted to construct, and at any one time
there were usually groups of investigators with varying investments in preferred
types of knowledge object. These investments were not based on a rational choice
of means but represented commitments of an altogether different sort. To display
the origins of these commitments, a broader historical canvas is required.
5. Establishing the Enterprise
The production of psychological objects requires scarce resources which have
somehow to be diverted from alternative employment and put to work on some
disciplinary task. Although fixed investments in space and apparatus had some
importance, the most significant social resource mobilized by psychology was
always the time and trained skill of investigators and practitioners. The more
these resources are made available for this purpose within a particular society,
the more the production of psychological objects will flourish. As investigators
and practitioners, members of the discipline have an interest in this
mobilization of resources and historically they have taken determined steps to
advance this interest (Ash, 1980; Geuter, 1987; Reed, 1987; Samelson, 1979). It
should be noted that one is dealing here with a social
interest, that is,
a function of social position and not of individual psychology. So, for this
interest to be an important factor in the behavior of an individual, it is also
necessary that the disciplinary affiliation be quite salient for that person,
relative to his or her other affiliiations.
One can think of examples of individuals in the history of American psychology
for whom the affiliation with this particular discipline was not particularly
salient. Dewey, Judd, and the older James come to mind. But it is significant
that such examples are most likely to be found early in the history of the
discipline. On the whole, and increasingly so as the discipline developed, the
disciplinary affiliation seems to have been extremely important for American
psychologists, so that disciplinary interests dominated their professional
lives. One factor which undoubtedly promoted this pattern was the internal
organization of American universities in terms of discipline-based departments
(Harwood, 1987). A complex of other factors was undoubtedly also involved, such
as the relative weakness of more traditional alternative affiliations, and the
close link between collective and individual social mobility through the
securing of professional advantages (Sarfatti Larson, 1977). These factors also
became more important elsewhere in the course of time, but they emerged
particularly early and strongly in the history of American psychology. For this
reason American psychology takes on the status of a paradigm case for the
influence of disciplinary interests on disciplinary practices.
What the discipline required above everything else for establishing and
expanding its operations was legitimacy. In order to mobilize the resources on
which its life as a discipline depended, it had to show that what it did and
what it produced was valuable, by the standards prevailing in its society. In
the case of American psychology, there were three criteria which were of
constant and overwhelming importance in establishing legitimacy. What the
discipline had to show was that it was (a) useful, (b) scientific, and (c)
individualistic. (This is not to suggest that in the American context the
distinction between these three criteria was always perfectly clear to the
In a pragmatic civilization the question of utility was unavoidable for an
ambitious intellectual enterprise, and American psychologists, beginning with
William James (1892), certainly lost no time stressing the potential practical
usefulness of their endeavors (Danziger, 1979). Many of their early claims were
wildly optimistic in this regard and it was obvious that deeds would have to
quickly follow words if the latter were not to sound completely empty. The early
investigative practices of the discipline would have to be adapted so as to
produce psychological objects that were indeed useful on a significant scale.
This led to some quite fundamental transformations which resulted in vast
differences between most of American psychology and more traditional European
models during the period between
World War I and II (Danziger, 1987b).
But what was most significant about this development was the way in which useful
knowledge was defined. In the always dominant interpretation, usefulness meant
useful to agencies of social control, of management, of institutional
administration. Certainly, psychology promised great benefits to individuals,
but in the dominant model these benefits accrued to individuals as the objects
of agencies of social control, schools, clinics, personnel departments, and so
forth. The possibility of a psychology that might be directly useful to
individuals was looked at askance, tainted as it was with the label of
'popularization'. There is nothing surprising in this, for while a few
individuals might profit privately from an alternative psychology, the
advancement of the discipline as a whole depended on its alliance with existing
centers of organized social power (Napoli, 1980).
Such centers, however, were only interested in certain kinds of psychological
knowledge objects. They were interested in knowledge that would permit a
rationalization of institutional practices - in both senses of
'rationalization'. The contributions of psychologists were acceptable insofar as
they permitted defined institutional goals to be achieved more efficiently and
insofar as they provided a legitimization for institutional practices that might
arouse doubts or opposition. Psychological knowledge objects which depended on
the statistical construction of' individual differences in performance measures
were nicely in accord with the requirements of social institutions for which the
grading and sorting of individuals was an important function. As a result, the
psychological objects that flourished in these practical contexts were largely
of this type (Danziger, 1987a; 1990a).
This undeniable practical success ensured paradigm status for the investigative
practices on which it was based. With very few exceptions American psychologists
came to take it for granted that the kind of knowledge which would be socially
useful was statistically constructed knowledge. Because of the continuing need
to legitimize even so-called 'pure' research on grounds of ultimate social
usefulness, this conviction was readily translated into norms of investigative
practice that became pervasive throughout the discipline.
The consequences of this process were all the more noticeable because they
converged with a major effect of the second criterion used to establish the
legitimacy of psychology's investigative practices. If the enterprise of modern
psychology was to succeed, it was imperative that it be recognized as
'scientific', not only by those in control of relevant resources, but also by
potential recruits to the discipline, and by the practitioners themselves, whose
belief in the worth of their work was often closely tied up with their faith in
'science'. The reason for the quotation marks around 'science' is that the
operative factor in this situation was constituted by certain commonly held
beliefs about the nature of science, in fact, an ideology of science. Often,
these beliefs seem to have been based on the most superficial appraisal of
scientific activity that involved, for instance, an assimilation of the concept
of science to the concept of technology, or a non-comprehending imitation of
such practices as experimentation and quantification. This kind of thing
certainly left its mark on the investigative practices of psychology and, in
extreme cases, could reduce them to a ritual that ended up having more in common
with magic than with science.
A more sophisticated version of the criterion of scientificity took the form of
a belief that, in order to qualify as a science, psychology had to devote itself
to the search for universal, and, therefore, ahistorical, 'laws' of human
behavior. However, psychological phenomena typically lacked the stability and
consistency of the phenomena studied by physical science and, therefore,
provided a poor basis for the display of such laws. The most commonly chosen way
around this problem involved reducing variations in the conduct of different
individuals to quantitative form by constructing appropriate investigative
situations, and then treating these variations as 'individual differences' on
some supposed underlying dimension or 'variable'. The point is that this
procedure was based on the reification of a continuous dimension that remained
identical for all individuals (Harré, 1979, p.l08; Lamiell, 1987; Valsiner,
1986). With this implicit assumption, generalization across individuals seemed
unproblematical, and the formulation of universal 'laws' became possible. The
alternative possibility, that the 'observed' individual differences (which were
in fact the products of careful construction) might have been manifestations of
an underlying discontinuity, was not a viable option for those who regarded
these procedures as a necessary guarantee for psychology's scientific status.
By contrast, with such subtle contrivances, establishing the legitimacy of
psychology through its conformity to culturally sanctioned individualism was a
relatively simple matter. In fact, it would have required a major effort to
escape from the grip of this cultural (and political) imperative (Harré, 1984).
Wundt made that effort in his Völkerpsychologie
(Danziger, 1983b), but
that certainly won him no accolades from his erstwhile disciples. Abstract
individuals, who contained within themselves all the tendencies that made for
good or ill in human social life, were hardly an invention of modern psychology.
The ground was well prepared, both in the form of the theoretical objects of
pre-modern psychology, and in the form of the social practices of those
educational, medical, and military institutions for which psychology later
attempted to provide useful supplementary services (Rose, 1985). All that was
necessary was that the continuities be preserved, both on the theoretical and on
the practical level. So psychological tests continued in the tradition of
competitive performance comparison among isolated individuals that had been
established by the nineteenth century examination system. The experimental
method was used as a means for prying individuals loose from the social
formations in which they lived out their lives and treating them as abstract
'subjects'. This made it natural to construct human behavior as the product of
the propensities of socially isolated individuals (Lave, 1988).
The purpose of these necessarily highly condensed examples is merely to provide
some illustration for my general suggestion that the knowledge constituting
activities of psychologists are heavily implicated in their project of
legitimating their discipline and expanding its claim on limited social
resources. Historically, this project has entailed a profound accommodation to
prevailing ideologies and culturally sanctioned prejudices. So, far from being a
guarantee of objectivity, or 'scientific neutrality' , the investigative
practices favored by psychologists have in fact served as a medium through which
various social interests and ideological positions have been reflected in the
objects that were the products of those practices. Moreover, these interests and
ideologies were not just those of the psychologists who were directly involved.
For in their efforts at establishing, legitimizing, and expanding their sector
of the knowledge industry, psychologists, like others in a similar position (Latour,
1987), were obliged to enter into alliances with established centers of social
power, and thus to ensure broad conformity of their own practices with the
requirements of their allies. The specific social alliances of psychologists
varied from country to country and from one historical period to another, and
this is reflected in the variety of psychological objects produced in different
places at different times.
6. Objects and Objectivity
At this point, if not much earlier, the question of sociological reductionism
obviously arises. Does the analysis of the psychological knowledge generating
enterprise which I have presented entail the consequence that psychological
knowledge claims are nothing but the reflection of sociological factors? Are
such claims ever true with respect to a reality that exists independently of the
social conditions that have produced these claims?
A first observation to be made in reply to such questions is that nothing in the approach I have outlined necessarily entails sociological reductionism as a consequence. The fact that psychological objects have a social origin and use does not mean that that is all they 'really' refer to. In principle, there is no reason why the social production of a symbolic structure should prevent it having all kinds of features, including that of objective reference. As Joseph Rouse (1987) puts it:
one need not doubt the existence of the bewildering array of overlapping kinds
uncovered by high energy physics (hadrons, leptons, fermions,
bosons, baryons, mesons,
etc.) to suggest
that their existence is intertwined
with the interests and practices of physicists (p.223)
When it comes to more mundane elements of social life, like natural language, we
do not regard objective reference and social involvement as being incompatible,
but for some reason we become jittery where the products of science are
concerned. I suspect that this special sensitivity is a consequence of the fact
that we are heirs to an essentially magical attitude toward science. It used to
be thought that science was the product of a special relationship that
individual investigators had established with Nature. Anything social was felt
to contaminate this special relationship (Bloor, 1976). One might characterize
this view as the 'immaculate conception' theory of scientific production. Its
denial does rob science of the sacred quality it has had for many, but that does
not mean that it is, therefore, to be equated with illusion.
Two sets of beliefs, which long formed part of mainstream psychology's
philosophical underpinnings are, however, to be regarded as illusory. One
concerns the naturalistic assumption that the fundamental categories of
present-day psychology constitute accurate representations of natural kinds. The
other set of beliefs forms part of psychology's still strong positivist heritage
and revolves around the notion of 'methodology' as a species of purely rational
technique, theoretically and ethically neutral.
It is true that, as Putnam (1981, p. 52) puts it: "We cut up the world into objects when we introduce one or another scheme of description." What this means is that representations of reality do not have an intrinsic objective reference which is entirely independent of their historical origin and use. However, this
... does not deny that there are experiential
inputs to knowledge;... but
it does deny that there are any inputs which are not themselves shaped by our
concepts, by the vocabulary we use to report and describe them, or any
inputs which admit of only one description, independent of all conceptual
choices. (Putnam, 1981, p.54; italics in the original)
Thus, to say that investigators "cut up the world into objects", including
psychological objects, obviously assumes that there is a world to be cut up.
However, it is a position that warns against the identification of our
constructed categories with the "natural kinds" of the world that exist outside
the framework of our descriptions and practices (Lakoff, 1987).
It does not follow from this that one set of categories and practices is as good
as another, that 'anything goes'. We do have defensible ways of assessing the
value of different frameworks, though simple-minded empiricism is obviously not
one of them (Bhaskar, 1979). The comparison of theory and data always involves
some conceptual framework and some set of practices that are taken for granted
in such comparisons. We can, however, compare different sets of categories and
practices with each other in terms of such criteria as the 'depth' of their
explanatory schemes (Miller, 1987), and the social consequences of their
practices (Harré, 1986). Much of the material for such comparisons will have to
be historical, for, as has been argued here, the structures to be compared are
historical and not logical structures.
The criterion of practical consequence becomes particularly significant when we
appreciate that the relationship between psychological categories, as well as
practices, and the reality to which they relate cannot often be a passively
reflective one. Psychological objects have at least the potential to function as
self-fulfilling prophecies. To the extent that human beings are 'self-defining
animals' they are likely to be affected by the knowledge claims and practices of
psychologists, and the more successful the discipline is in establishing and
expanding its operations, the more pronounced this effect is likely to be.
Psychology not only investigates people as other sciences investigate moons and
dinosaurs, it also teaches people how to think about themselves and how to act.
It does this involuntarily by its socially granted power to cast people in
certain roles and by the prestige of expertise which surrounds its knowledge
claims. Its relationship to the reality it is trying to represent is more
complicated than that of astronomy or paleontology. Ultimately, psychology
cannot leave itself out of its account of the reality with which it deals.
Reflexivity will always be more important for the work of psychologists than it
is for the work of straightforward natural scientists. Unfortunately,
psychologists have been more prepared to accept this fact of life on the level
of individual investigations than on the level of the discipline or its
Because of psychology's peculiar relationship to its subject matter the question
of the correspondence of its knowledge claims to a reality that exists
independently of them cannot be resolved ahistorically. It is quite possible for
a psychological generalization to be true for one historical period, or setting,
and not for another. Moreover, a change in this respect might well depend on the
social context of psychological knowledge production. Who are the consumers and
beneficiaries of psychological knowledge, apart from psychologists themselves?
What kind of knowledge do these consumers and beneficiaries require and how do
they modify human life with its help (Danziger, 1990a; Kasschau & Kessel, 1980;
Miller, 1969)? The question of the relationship of psychology to what it depicts
is as much one of impact as one of reflection.
To say, as I have done, that the knowledge producers' interest in legitimation
is heavily implicated in the kind of knowledge produced is to suggest that their
relationships with powerful social groups and institutions must be taken into
account in trying to understand the nature of the product. Psychological
knowledge is not only produced by
but also for
people with particular interests and preferences. Epistemological and moral
questions, therefore, tend to become linked.
Psychological objects vary greatly in the generality of their reference. For many of them, the claim that they refer to anything outside the world of psychological investigation is based on pure faith. In other cases, the boundaries of their applicability seem to be set by the extension of specific cultural conventions and institutional structures. It is possible that in some cases these boundaries enclose a very large area, so large in fact, that the limits are of relatively minor practical importance. But we will never be able to establish any of this if we start with the a priori assumption that psychological 'findings' are facts of nature, and that it is the task of psychology to reveal the universal natural 'laws' that underlie these findings. Our only hope of establishing the reach of psychological knowledge is not to take its universality for granted at the outset, but to treat each of its products as a historically embedded achievement. Only when we understand something of this historical embeddedness of specific psychological objects and practices are we in a position to formulate intelligent questions about their possible historical transcendence.
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