Psychology is commonly defined as the “scientific” study of human behaviour and cognitive processes. Broadly speaking the discussion focuses on the different branches of psychology, and if they are indeed scientific. However, it is integral in this debate to understand exactly the major features of a science, in order to judge if psychology is in fact one. There must be a definable subject matter – this changed from conscious human thought to human and non-human behaviour, then to cognitive processes within psychology’s first eighty years as a separate discipline. Also, theory construction is important. This represents an attempt to explain observed phenomena, such as Watson’s attempt to account for human and non-human behaviour in terms of classical conditioning, and Skinner’s subsequent attempt to do the same with operant conditioning.
Any science must have hypotheses and indeed test them. This involves making specific predictions about the behaviour under certain specified conditions, for example, predicting that by combining the sight of a rat with the sound of an iron bar banging behind his head, a small child will learn to fear the rat, as is the case of Little Albert (1923). Also, empirical methods are used in scientific fields to collect data, relevant to the hypothesis being tested, as is the case in many psychological experiments, such as the use of brain scanning in Dement and Kleitman’s 1957 study. Science is meant to be objective and unbiased. It should be free of values and discover the truths about what it is studying. Positivism is the view that science is objective and a study of what is real. For example, schizophrenia, when diagnosed as being caused due to excess dopamine, is being studied in a scientific manner.
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The explanation does not take into account any cultural customs or individual differences that might lead to ‘schizophrenic’ behaviour. However, even in scientific research like this, the person who is doing the diagnosing has his or her own views and may misinterpret behaviour because of his or her own subjective biases. For example, if someone talks about hearing voices, they may be referring to a spiritual experience, but a medical practitioner might well diagnose schizophrenia. So objective, the value-free study is not easy, because the scientist has views and biases, and cultural or other issues are perhaps important factors. Some say that a truly objective study is not possible and that a scientific approach to the study of people is not desirable.
Definitions of psychology have changed during its lifetime, largely reflecting the influence and contributions of its major theoretical approaches or orientations. Kline (1998) argued that the different approaches within the field of psychology should be seen as self-contained disciplines, as well as different facets of the same discipline. He argued that a field of study can only be legitimately considered science if a majority of its workers subscribe to a common, global perspective or ‘paradigm’. According to Kuhn, a philosopher of science, this means that psychology is “pre-paradigmatic” – it lacks a paradigm, without which it is still in a state of “pre-science”. Whether psychology has, or ever had, the paradigm is hotly debated. Others believe that psychology has already undergone two revolutions, and is now in a stage of normal science, with cognitive psychology the current paradigm.
A third view, which represents a blend of the first two, is that psychology currently, and simultaneously, has a number of paradigms. For example, Smith and Cowie (1991) identify psychoanalysis, behaviourism, information-processing and cognitive-developmental approaches as paradigms. Davidson and Neale (1994) claimed that there are ‘four major paradigms of contemporary psychology’, namely the biological, psychodynamic, learning and cognitive. With regards to which perspectives are regarded as ‘scientific’, and which are not, the majority lies with ‘scientific’. There are four perspectives that clearly lie under ‘scientific’, behavioural, cognitive, cognitive-developmental and physiological. The psychodynamic and humanistic perspectives are argued to be idiographic, in that they look at individual differences, instead of universal laws.
The social approach can be seen as an intermediate, as, although it appreciates that there is a strong element of science involved in psychology, for example, the treatment of some mental disorders, it focuses on social and environmental factors. For example, the biological perspective is said to be scientific fundamentally because it looks at the biological functioning of every human being and searches for reasons and solutions which can be applied nomothetically. It focuses on biological behaviour, which can be empirically tested, and findings generalised. It emphasises the importance of the nervous system and the importance of genetics on behaviour. These aims are clearly scientific, and the methods used are scientific – empirically measured, hypothesised and nomothetic. One example of this is the medical approach to mental illness. The biological approach suggests that schizophrenia could be down to several factors, such as genetics or a chemical imbalance.
The psychodynamic approach, however, has been criticised as being ‘unscientific’. Many of Freud’s theories are not able to be tested, and many of his studies, because empirical measures cannot be applied, remain firmly in theory and cannot be tested, they are difficult to operationalise – it is impossible to test if the unconscious exists if we are by nature meant to be unaware of it. One could however argue that we cannot prove that it does not exist either. The majority of the approaches suggest that psychology is in fact a science, but within the field of psychology, in order for it to be classified as a science, each of its perspectives should be seen as scientific. The humanistic approach, a so-called “third force” between behaviourism and the psychodynamic approaches, is idiographic, since it studies the individual, and holistic, as it looks at the whole person. A scientific approach for general laws will not capture this active interacting individual, and so the humanistic approach uses methods that are not scientific.
The issue of psychology as a science is cloudy. On the one hand, psychology is a science. The subject matter is behaviour, including mental aspects of behaviour such as memory, and the subject matter is divided up for study. Variables are measured and carefully controlled to a point. Laboratories are often used in an effort to improve controls – controls are as thorough as possible, so that general laws about behaviour can be built. On the other hand, psychology can be viewed not as a science, as it does not aim at scientific principles to measure the whole world. In many areas of psychology, there is no attempt to generalise from some human behaviour to all human behaviour. The social representation theory focuses on interactions, and the humanistic theory focuses on self-actualisation and the individual’s experiences and actions. Where there is a focus on interactions between people, and on the individual’s experiences, scientific methods are not useful.
Non-scientific methods include case studies and unstructured interviews. If a method is not scientific, it aims for good validity, in-depth material about someone or a small group, qualitative data and richness of data that is not found by isolating variables, as in many psychological studies. Psychology as a separate field of study grew out of several other disciplines, both scientific (such as physiology) and non-scientific (in particular philosophy). For much of its life as an independent discipline, and through what some call revolutions and paradigm shifts, it has taken the natural sciences as its model. Ultimately, whatever a particular science may claim to have discovered about the phenomena it studies, scientific activity remains just one aspect of human behaviour. I feel that psychology should be viewed as a science, even if it does not concur with traditional scientific specifications.