What happened to theory in the 21st century?

The last two decades have brought to psychology a renewed attempt to integrate both new forms of cognition (embodied, distributed cognition) as well as integrating the neurosciences into the mainstream of the discipline.  Hence theory in its traditional form continues apace, if by traditional we mean something like the systematic and formal appraisal of research findings, speculative arguments emerging from those findings and some rather loose attempts to predict psychological phenomena based on developments in other research areas.

When looking for the import of the new neuro-cognitive sciences one need look no further than certain philosophers of mind, as well as neurologists who have promised us a brave new world with such tantalizing titles as Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind, and Language (Daniel Dennett in 2007) and Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (Antonio Damasio in 2010).  Like their books on consciousness in the 1990s, however, these commentaries on the current fashions of the day promise more than they offer.

Is theory in the social sciences, and psychology in particular, to be confined to the dictates of the neuro and cognitive sciences?  Hardly.  While post-modernism and its cognates (post-structuralism among them) were retrenching and while the ‘new’ brain sciences threatened to devour what was left of the discipline, psychology’s many ‘others’ continued to produce a steady diet of theory that was neither mainstream neuro-cognitive nor dedicated to a relativist project of linguistic and lingual jouissance.  In our recent 20th anniversary issue of Theory & Psychology published in December 2010 we celebrated these traditions, both critical and positive.

Among these papers are clear calls for a renewed effort in theory construction, a tradition that has survived despite the long positivist and mechanistic traditions of psychology.  For example, Gerd Gigerenzer issued a plea for an end to the toothbrush view of theories – the notion that everyone has their own but wouldn’t be caught dead using someone else’s.  Much of what is called theory in psychology he argues is often merely a surrogate for theory, not an actual theory itself.  These surrogates can consist of ‘circular restatements’ of theories, the ‘one-word explanation’ and the ‘list of dichotomies’ form of theorizing.  He proceeds to give a number of cogent examples in psychology, all of which point to the paucity of theory production and integration.

What is interesting about our special issue, however, is not only the renewed call for theory but also the wide range of possibilities that theorists have posited as possible alternatives.  Obviously not everything can be integrated, some theory must be wrong, some theory will wither on the vine, and others will continue to develop.  But the house of psychology remains sufficiently large to support broad alternative visions of the discipline.

What determines what theory will survive and what will not?  If anything has become clear over the last decades, it is rarely a crucial empirical test or the provision of testable outcomes that turn out to be giant slayers.  These can be important of course in restricted tests but theories are much more complex than that: they thrive in cultural contexts that affect the professional identities of the investigators, they allow the psychologist to promulgate particular views of human nature in opposition to others, they live independent lives in epistemic cultures that thrive under certain social conditions that the theorist may not be fully aware of in the first instance.

Hence theories are often tokens of membership, they indicate which club you belong to or, more importantly, which one you wish to join.  They also propose certain views of human domains that may be ignored in other circles, or may be a route to new understandings and practices.  In that sense, the ‘catholic’ nature of theoretical psychology ought to be championed and continued attempts at unification should be resisted for that very reason.

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Thank you Mr. Stam for writing this article. As a psychologist I strongly agree with you. As a young scientist I feel that I need to add one point. Being thrown out in the life in between the Master, where one could more or less “pick” a theory and use it and the life as a Ph.D. student often economic factors make us beliefers in one “theoretic religion” or the other. It doesn’t even have to be ones own professor, but rather a current trend in the specific scientific community and the monetary pressure that makes one change ones theory… Read more »

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