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An “overstatement” on psychological research: What is a dissertation?

The face, the form, the content of psychology, both as a science and as a profession, is changing, and changing rapidly. We are passing through a period when irreversible developments are occurring that will alter the daily activities of very many of us, whether in teaching, research, or the application of our findings in society. If they have not already done so.

This is long overdue.

It is not an identity crisis–we have never been seriously puzzled by the questions who we are and what we are doing. The experimental psychologist has always had his image: He is an “experimentalis.” He studies scientific methodology. He is a “scientist” (read “physicist”). Nor has the clinical psychologist had any serious image problem. He has been Janus–facing two ways . . . on the one hand he is a scientist (read an “experimental psychologist”). On the other hand, he is a professional (read “physician”).

The “pure” types, through their reading of philosophies of science, have become imitation physicists. The “clinical” types, through their somewhat different reading, and through their undergraduate and graduate training have followed the lead of imitators of physicists.

This may appear a harsh and overstated judgment. But the puny achievements of psychology surely indicate that something has been wrong, something lacking. We have learned to do some things very well. We have generated almost nothing by way of stable basic principles, although some are stated that are so vague as to be all but inapplicable to the specific case. We have very little to show for years of “experimental research.” There is stupendous volume of experimental literature, to be sure–much of it relevant either to physiology or to the technical achievements of the physical sciences. But not to the behavior we encounter every day. Not to teaching children, not to aiding others. Not even to speeding the “recovery of the patient.”

With few exceptions, innovations and innovative thinking have come, not from experimental-theoretical breakthroughs by people in the immediate field, but by accident (rauwolfia), by desperation (crisis intervention), and especially in the clinical field, by borrowing. “Outsiders” of one sort or another have produced. Chemists. Ethologists. Tim Leary. In clinical problems the outsiders include non-clinical psychologists: the “social-industrial” psychologists; the Skinnerians.

One may ask why. Here’s one man’s opinion–it can at least serve as a basis for argument.

Psychology has, in a very real sense, never been a science in its own right–developing its own research methods and techniques from its own data. late to develop as a science, it has borrowed uncritically the concepts of earlier, more fully-developed sciences, and their experimental and research methodologies. We have tried, by emulating the late stages of the development of physics, and by leaning on statements based on the self-examination of philosophers (whether Locke and Hobbes–or Leibniz and Kant) to bypass the critical first-stage in the development of every science–the period of “observation” and “description.” The critical period which, in chemistry overlapped with the long history of alchemy, and in astronomy with astrology. The period when, in biology and geology, expedition after expedition moved over the face of the globe, and individual scientists dedicated themselves to the painstaking gathering, description, and classification of specimens, gathering on hands and knees, in tents, through whole seasons and years. Our museums filled up. In the scientific literature of these fields, hundreds upon thousands of dissertations consist in the observational data yielded by gathering, describing, and classifying natural phenomena–descriptions of flowers, of rocks, of insects–of tribes, ruins, artifacts.

This is in marked contrast with the psychologist’s “experimental” methodology. It is now about time we considered the possibility that we need to go back and start over again–or for at least some of us to. It’s about time (at least 100 years late) to start doing what psychologists should have done in the first place. Finding out what and where and when, which people–living objects–do, and ‘think’ and ‘feel’ specific things.

It’s about time more of us started on the straightforward job of developing a descriptive methodology. The job of recognizing that observing and reporting upon the functioning of an individual, of individuals in a group, of groups, and of social method, constitutes “research” and yields scientific data and statements. No “experimental design.” No “independent variables.” No, not even any “controls,” in any conventional sense. If an experiment at all, then simple-minded ones, with minimal assumptions, statistical or otherwise.

Solely, the serious, accurate, unbiased (‘objective’) description and classification of observations, and the report thereof.


A dissertation is a report of research. And research–the research most desperately needed now–is descriptive research. “Public-phenomenological” research. Research that generates hard, indisputable, unambiguous statements, or numbers, or television tapes. This, I think, is what we mean by facts. Their “generality,” that is, the relationship of a new set of facts to other already established facts, will need to be demonstrated. Howe generality can, and should, and will be established, will depend in each instance, on the specifics of the observations.

Why this memo, now? The immediate instigation is hard to specify, but perhaps it’s a question of putting your money where your mouth is–or vice versa.

It is certainly not an “off the top of the head” phenomenon. It’s one man’s reaction to teaching the history of psychology in the context of the other sciences, to facing unanswered questions, and to wondering why so much effort by psychologists has yielded so little of empirical, theoretical, and social value. It comes from the desert that operation analysis seems to reveal. It comes from questioning “information theory”–Chomskyian bathynoetic fantasy–“inferential” (but not descriptive) statistics, Experimental Design, and many other fads and bandwagons that have marked the listing of our science–respectable vacua all. It comes from possible new kinds of things–from innovation, exploratory, and challenging viewpoints. From the strides made and achieved through the purely observational methods of ethology; from the as yet limited domains in which simple experimental procedures have been carried out. From asking how the fresh interests and activities directed toward, and carried out in, the community can contribute.

And it was said a couple of weeks ago, in the ‘ad’ for a “Social Psychologists.” Its implicit criticisms of “social psychology” apply not equally well, but even more to experimental, industrial, and clinical psychologists.

Observational and descriptive research is not solely “acceptable,” it is indispensable. It is needed. Let’s get started on it.

Research that will make “Social Action” possible, and plausible.

Let’s have innovative research. “Live” dissertations. Dissertations on what people do, and say, and think in this real world, and not solely in the 8X8 sound-proof cubicle, or on the answer sheet for the set of questions.

Let’s work towards developing methods that will enable the “new” to stand as respectable and as valued as the “old” which will continue.

It should be no wonder that Herman Hesse turns people on–and that tarotology and astrology can be accepted by “the Young” with more conviction than either the JEP or the Psychoanalytic Quarterly.

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