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By Richard Stevens

Psychology is a discipline with changing fashions and orthodoxies. How has it changed during the 40 years that OUPS has been going?
In many respects, psychology has remained much the same, in others it has undergone radical change. When I was a student, behaviourism was the vogue. Methodology dominated content. Behaviour was considered a product of environmental influence. It was considered more important that a piece of research fitted natural science criteria, regardless of how trivial it might be. The methodological tail wagged the psychology dog. By the time that OUPS was founded in 1974, the dominant paradigm had become experimental cognitive psychology. Methodology still remained dominant and still does for much of psychology but it began to be applied to the study of the way we think.

What we have seen in particular during the period in which OUPS has flourished, is a gradual broadening of the theoretical base for psychology. The OU Social Psychology courses with their emphasis on a multi-perspective approach to understanding behavior and experience have been one of the groundbreakers for this.

Early on, for example, what was known as ethological psychology (the study of the behaviour of organisms in natural surroundings) was only regarded as of peripheral interest. And in psychology more generally, the idea of instinct or the biological control of behaviour was heresy. In the lifetime of OUPS, we have seen the rise and increasing acceptance of evolutionary psychology which has transformed our understanding of why we behave as we do.

In the sixties and seventies, humanistic psychology also began to have influence in some parts of psychology. Although as a movement it was relatively short-lived, its influence has remained with us - both in clinical and health psychology, and also in the interest in well-being and personal development that has been taken up by positive psychology.

Psychoanalysis has had varying fortunes. For many if not most Psychology degree courses it has been regarded as irrelevant because of its lack of a scientific base. But it stubbornly refuses to go away. It has also featured in OU courses and its concepts and ideas still underpin a lot of clinical practice if not research.

Social constructionism is premised on the idea that what fundamentally underpins what is it is to be human are our social practices and the way we talk about things. This was once the province ofliterature and some aspects of sociology. In the last years of the twentieth century and the first years of this, it began to impact on psychology proper (and began to feature in OU courses). Again, though like humanistic psychology, it may well be that it’s influence as a major paradigm will be short-lived while a residue will remain.

Perhaps the biggest change in recent years and perhaps now the most influential of all the paradigms has been the rise of neuroscience. Many hopes have been pinned on the potential of brain scans, for  example, for revealing what is going on in the human mind. And some have presumed that if we can understand the physiological and biochemical processes within the brain then we will solve the secrets of the human mind. Whether or not this promise can be fulfilled was the theme of the OUPS conference at Warwick in July of this year. On the positive side, it was argued that neuroscience does hold great promise as a means of understanding the biological basis of behaviour and mental states, in terms of which parts of the brain do what. It has already proved its worth in terms of techniques for the relief of distress in patients suffering pain and Parkinson’s disease, amongst other conditions. It has also given some insight into the possible nature of conscious awareness of those in so-called vegetative states. However, some delegates argued that its claims have been exaggerated and a more balanced approach is needed in which traditional psychological methods have an important place.

Although there has been scientific progress to greater understanding in specific areas of psychology like neuroscience, it still remains an open question how much of the varied phenomena of human experience can be effectively subjected to the methods which have proved so successful in the physical sciences. The human mind, while premised on a material base, is different to matter. It is comprised of meanings and symbols which require their own kind of understanding and investigation. What psychology still lacks is a framework which can link and interface the very different attributes and aspects of being human.

Dr Richard Stevens, who is currently a Vice President of OUPS, was previously Head of Psychology at the OU. Richard was one of the first members of the Open University Psychology Department, joining from Trinity College, Dublin where he was previously Lecturer in Psychology. He has been active with OUPS since it was initiated in the early 1970s. He was Chair of the first Social Psychology course at the OU (D305), contributed to all but the most recent of the Introductory courses in Psychology and the Social Sciences Foundation courses. He has been an active tutor for many years at OUPS events and has organized and chaired several of the General Conferences including those on Consciousness, Key thinkers in Psychology (‘Mindshapers’) and the Psychology of Well-being.

This article originally appeared in News & Views August 2014.


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