Tuesday, 22 October 2013

-Is Psychology anything more than the mirror of societal ideology? -

The everyday business of the scientific endeavour constitutes the search for verifiable, testable and repeatable claims about reality. Some of the time something rather amazing and intrinsic of the universe can be accurately characterised. If this happens then science is able to make solid predictions that turn out to be empirically supported by data. If this scenario happens reliably and consistently, then this characterisation of the universe, or theory, can begin to be considered an accurate model of reality with predictive capability, a law of science.

'Hard', or 'basic', sciences such as Physics or Chemistry (this should hopefully not infer that the study of fundamental particles is by any means 'easy') deals with the simple stuff, in principle. Compared with biological systems, matter is relatively simple. It is this 'simplicity' that allows magnificent, evidence based, laws to be appropriately defined and extrapolated across the whole expanse of space and time.

From many points of view, homo sapiens are very very complicated.
Our physical anatomy, or our deep and diverse Psychological and Sociological profiles just aren't simple. This makes us two things:
          1. Inexplicably fascinating.
          2. Challenging to study in the same fashion as a 'Hard              scientist'.

This complexity was daunting for early Psychology, making it particularly difficult for it to gain ground as it is more challenging, or perhaps inappropriate, to aim for timeless laws that transcend culture regarding human behaviour. This is one of the reasons why, as a 2nd/3rd year Psychology student, I gave myself the challenge of undermining my somewhat 'essentialist, reductionist, empiricist, physiological, stati-cist, quantitavist' position, which had been fuelled by a realisation that my biological perspective of human Psychology was far from holistic. At the time I felt that this approach had caused my thinking to become somewhat rigid and stagnant.

This post is the resulting arguments constructed based on a previous essay/presentation gave as an undergraduate.

" The fruitful produce of Darwin's theory of Evolution by natural selection combined with Crick and Watson's double helix model of DNA, has allowed grand advancements in a multitude of scientific areas and also provided the ideologically awaited affirmation that humans are continuous with nature. Through this realisation comparative Psychology was born and unfortunately contributed to the misuse of mental testing and other historical horrors. In addition, the notion that behavioural phenomena are susceptible to unchangeable genetic law, allowed a harmonious interaction between the natural and behavioural sciences. To paraphrase Richard Lewontin, this move was not surprising as it is common for one practise that worked in one domain to be stretched into another. This leads me into my first criticism of Psychology."

"1. Reification of Mental Constructs

There has been many a conceptual error during the labelling of psychological phenomena. It is perhaps too obvious to mention that 'intelligence' is not, moreover cannot, be a real tangible object. It is very easy to pick apart the usual accepted meaning for the word, but when you think about it, its reification as something that is actually, physically, present and available for numerical measurement has triggered many historical misconceptions that typically sustained racial prejudices. With the luxury of hindsight we can acknowledge that whilst there may genes for the shapes of our heads, there is not one for the shape of our thoughts.

Further, the conceptual premises of statistics paves the way for error as Psychologists can often assume that numbers are representing a substrate that requires you to believe is "out there", waiting to be measured. It is inescapable that science is conducted within a specific social epoch, laden with the current ideological reign. "A child should be able to attend to a task for at least X amounts of minutes".  The reification, labelling and the testing and categorisation of developmental norms in order to support the present ideology has been detrimental. Let us not forget that science itself, as a practise, is a social activity. This means that the contemporary political exigencies reflect the scientific investigations of the time."

"2. My second criticism: Thoughts are not granular.
Atomisation is the useful method of breaking up a complex object or entity into its smallest components. This provides a starting point for inquiry as you can ask basic questions, the answers of which can then be extrapolated to explain aspects of the whole system. It was by this method that the social sciences made their original manifestoes in order to be in line with and considered scientific by the majority of the 'hard' scientists of the day. Atomisation via the guise of memetics has been used to study psychological phenomena, behaviour and culture and was therefore awarded legitimate status.

Memetics is considered by some to be the attempt to stretch the previously successful practises of the physical sciences into the domains of thought and culture. A join between mind and matter, physical science and humanistic thinking. The abolition of dualism.

The meme is considered the smallest unit of culture or meaning. Is the search for the smallest unit of culture an inappropriate premise to begin with? Caution must be given when models of physical concepts intend to investigate social constructs. Atomist styles of inquiry may be incommensurable with the requirements of studying culture and psychological phenomena.

Is there such a need to divide the person up? Which part of a humans psychology truly works in isolation? The social human is indeed a nexus, a point in time between past baggage, the present, and future expectation. I would argue that a single level of explanation will always be inadequate to fully explain a whole being/system. Each level of explanation relates to a few of all the different contexts that comprise a human. The well known "5 Ways of Looking at Frogs" analogy describes 5 biologists (Physiologist; Ethologist; Developmentalist; Evolutionist; Molecular), who witness a frog jumping into a lake. Who then take turns in debating the explanation of the cause of the frogs behaviour. The analogy illustrates that each explanation has its own validity, despite it being a limited non-holistic explanation. Even Darwin himself notes the obvious pitfalls when ideas are inappropriately inflated. Genetics concerns biology and the grandiose claims of genetic determinism are not warranted to explain outside of their remit. Cultural, linguistic, ethical, and psychological phenomena clearly reside outside of the explanatory power of genetics.  

The natural sciences deal with matter that can be reduced to its constituent parts, its origin, and then bits can be added back on to rebuild, allowing the evolution of an appropriate holistic understanding. I am arguing that psychological phenomena and culture are not constituted by tiny pieces of psychological phenomena and culture. Both of these concepts do not have distinct units. Psychology cannot be separated into isolated, robust, free-standing units. One subset of explanations to be considered as a partial contribution to the whole story. Specific explanations entirely depend on the question being addressed. Comprehension requires a multitude of perspectives. None the less, psychology is forced by submission to become more scientific and thus more fundamental and atomistic."

"3. My third criticism: Shortcomings of Reductionism
Genetic determinism advocates various tricks of imagery and phraseology like "It's only natural for boys to...". The popular guise is misleading as it suggests singular causes between the gene and its supposed phenotypic counterpart. By understanding that this argument utilises evidence that then misrepresents a simplistic cause, we see that altering or deleting parts of the genome of course will provide you with atypical development. This is different from saying that gene X causes what is normally going on in the presence of the original gene. By analogy we can argue that because a puncture brings a bus to a halt it is air that cause the bus to move.

Genes are simply unable to express themselves, they rely on developmental systems that utilise genes as a resource within many biochemical processes at many levels: Intracellulary, extracellulary, intercellulary. Evidence from compromised genetics is interesting, however to suggest causation between a gene and a specific temperment is exploited via a linear relationship and to deny the organic interaction between the numerous levels in between gene and behaviour, is immature. You cannot predict human development, however you can predict the circumstances that would allow individuals to flourish.

Instead of inheriting a determined genetic tapestry, do we actually inherit a set of developmental processes? The inability to conflate biological and social mechanisms shows either an ignorance of the ever present social context that organisms inhabit, or views humanity as something that autonomously developed, free from the essential processes that compose us. Many psychological properties pertain to our social interactions, brains interacting with another brain causes the occurrence of emergent phenomena. Therefore individual psychological systems are inconceivable. Does this mean that our psychology is purely physiological? Well perhaps not.

In conclusion, biological determinist perspectives of Psychology are a confluence of political necessity with an ideologically formed view of nature. It is a clever way of legitimising societal ideology. Reification of psychological phenomena such as intelligence by mental testing is an error deeply built into an overstretched atomistic system that characterises natural science. We have to be aware that in making social structures we are bringing to the study of society an already formed social study."

Psychology is more than a mirror, it actively creates a cycle of reinforcing culturally bound stereotypes of behaviour, and via the media, the mirror of Psychology morphs our images of ourselves and then recommends the medicating of the minority.

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