Psychology in the 21st century
Psychology in the 21st century

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Psychology in the 21st century

2.2 Researching ourselves

Psychology aims to provide understandings of us, as humans. At a personal level this closeness to our private concerns draws us in and excites us. However, since psychologists are humans, and hence are researching issues just as relevant to themselves as to their research participants, they can be attracted towards researching certain topics and maybe away from others. This is perhaps more evident for psychological research that is most clearly of social relevance. At a societal level all kinds of social, cultural and political pressures, explicit or subtle, can influence or dictate what kinds of psychology, which topics and which theories, are given priority and funding. Until relatively recently, for example, it was difficult to obtain funding for research that was based on qualitative methods. This was because there was an erroneous belief in psychology, and in the culture more generally, that qualitative research could only help in gaining very specific and idiosyncratic understandings of particular individuals and could not make any useful contribution to broader understandings of people and psychological processes.

At a more personal level, what might psychologists bring to their theorising and research? Think about Freud. Many writers have speculated on what might have influenced Freud's work. One of his basic propositions was that all small boys, at approximately 5 years of age, are in love with and possessive about their mothers, seeing their fathers as frightening rivals. He called this the ‘Oedipus complex’. We don't have to think too hard to realise that there could be a link between Freud's idea that the Oedipus complex is universal (applies to all male children in all cultures) and Freud's own childhood. He was the eldest son of a young and reputedly beautiful second wife to his elderly father. Another example, where the early personal life of the influential psychologist, Erik Erikson, may have affected his later theorising about the difficulty of finding an identity during adolescence.

Figure 3
Figure 3 Freud and his mother (1872)

It is possible also that our desires, beliefs and ideologies define not only what we want to study but also how we interpret our findings. Bradley (1989) alerts us to this possibility in relation to the study of children when he argues that different theorists have found support for their own theories from their observations of children. This indicates that personal values and beliefs are important in influencing the ways in which we view the world. Suppose you were engaged in an observational study of the effect on children's aggressive behaviour of viewing aggression on television. If you felt strongly about this issue, your observations of the way that children play after watching aggressive programmes might be biased by what you believe. It would be difficult to be objective because your own feelings, beliefs and values (your subjectivity) would have affected the evidence. Personal prejudices, cognitive biases, ‘bad days’ and unconscious factors can affect what we ‘see’ when we observe other people. We shall see later in this course how the experimental method has endeavoured to minimise this kind of subjectivity, whilst other approaches – those concerned essentially with meanings and with people's inner worlds – have used subjectivity (people's reflections on themselves) itself as a form of data.


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