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Unity in Psychology: Possibility or Pipedream?
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:2202-2202. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.11.2202
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Louisville, Ky.

Edited by Robert J. Sternberg, Ph.D. Washington, D.C., American Psychological Association, 2005, 185 pp., $39.95.

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This tidy, somewhat brief book is made up of 10 chapters devoted to the issue of unity in psychology. A broad range of perspectives is represented—from Sternberg’s opening chapter, suggesting unity in multiple domains, to Kimble’s chapter, reflecting a career-long attempt to formulate an overarching theory of human behavior that could serve as a consensus-building focal point. Others propose social relevance (Levant), diversity (Denmark and Krauss), and methodology (Fishman and Messer; Rychlak) as unifying themes. The final chapter, by Staats, is a cogent summary of the differences between preunified science (psychology in its present state) and unified science (toward which psychology will probably move, although, as in all other sciences, this will take a very long time).

The chapters are uniformly well written, clear, and sensible. Indeed, I found myself swayed by arguments internal to each chapter. Gardner’s reprise of his 1992 article asking whether we should bury psychology or praise it is a genuine delight. He suggests, by the way, that much of psychology is being "cannibalized" by other sciences, perhaps leaving psychology with the study of a "person-centered trio" of personality, self, and will.

At the core of this book is a decades-long soul-searching (or "brain-searching," according to one colleague) journey seeking to answer the question of whether psychology is a "real" science. Unlike psychiatry, which appears to have largely resolved its identity crisis by out-sourcing psychoanalysis to the humanities, at least some groups within psychology continue to wonder if we measure up to the "hard sciences." (I must confess to a strong urge to slip into analytic interpretation here.) Departments of psychology have morphed into departments of psychological sciences, brain sciences, cognitive sciences, behavioral sciences, or some permutation thereof, the unifying theme being "science."

Do read this book, although not for the goal of reaching an answer. It is inevitable that by the end of the 10 chapters you will conclude that unity is hopeless. As Staats points out, the road to unity was much easier at a time when there were fewer scientists, less information, and less sophisticated technology. The increase in all three will make unity less and less likely over time. There is more to the agenda, however, than scientific unity. There are also professional issues that speak to status, money, and power. This facet of unity is best captured in the chapter by Fowler (former Executive Director of the American Psychological Association) and Bullock. It seems to me that this form of unity, although of substantial importance to the guild of psychology, does not befit the remaining chapters’ focus on the science of psychology. Then again, this entire edited volume is about the many faces of psychology.

Two of psychology’s most revered clinical scientists—Paul Meehl and Phil Holzman—were trained analysts who maintained active therapy practices while simultaneously conducting rigorous research in other areas. They seemed not to be bothered by the "lack of unity" in their understanding of psychology but, rather, appreciated that some complexities are resistant to unified views. For my own position, therefore, I can only conclude that what was good enough for them will be good enough for me.




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