Has method become a tyrant?

Jonathan Livingstone on a potential barrier to the profession.

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir! (Dickens: Hard Times)

The Society is interested in barriers to the profession, and I’d like to suggest a major one: the predominant and narrow focus on, even obsession with, Method. A blinkered concern with the form at the expense of content. 

The problem with the discipline’s conception and application of scientific method, in my experience, is that it excludes alternative approaches to acquisition of knowledge, for example the faculties of reason, curiosity and experience. Method is deemed the primary criterion of value when, in fact, Method has never provided any knowledge about human motivations and behaviour. Many contributions from scholars who might have much to contribute to Psychology are discouraged because, for the Method zealots, ideas not validated by Method are not valuable. Maslow, in the first chapter of Motivation and Personality, expressed a similar sentiment, more eloquently, more than 65 years ago. It seems nothing has changed. 

I recently completed a Master’s degree in Psychology at an English university, where Method was overvalued and ideas punitively undervalued, not by all lecturers but by a number, including those who held sway in the course delivery. One lecturer justified her mark by reference to my use of linguistic con­tractions, rhetorical question, and reordering of the steps of the forensic model that was applied. Modification of the model was explicitly made to enhance the quality of the answer, but the innovation was treated as an error. Another lecturer’s negative comments, about the only qualitative assignment in the course, primarily referred to Method. For example, ‘It would be more appropriate to include definitions in the introduction’; and ‘Additional details are required about the procedure and materials’, including, ‘where was the data collected from? . . . how was interview schedule designed?’ This ‘information’ was required, even though it was unknown and unknowable because the research data was provided for the students for the purpose of the assignment. Procedure is apparently so important that it should be fabricated in order to demonstrate how well the student can adhere to procedure. 

In these and some other assignments, the quality and pertinence of original ideas, insights and arguments (notionally acknowledged in some of the marking criteria) were completely ignored. My research dissertation, inspired by Black Lives Matter movement, might as well have been about sand: there was no engagement by the examiner with its contribution in terms of ideas, arguments or content of findings. When adherence to Method, requiring conformity to extremely rigid and formalised procedures, is the most important criterion of value, the quality of the ideas and the substance of the arguments require only cursory consideration, and count for virtually nothing. 

Nobody says this explicitly, of course; or have not to me. To say it would be acknowledgement; and it is too ludicrous to be admitted. It is therefore obfuscated and disavowed. My attempts to understand the wide discrepancy in the marks I received have led to this understanding. 

The rigidity can be explained in the context of an insecure discipline eager to be seen as a legitimate science; or, perhaps, fearful of not being judged a science and limiting its purview in order to pre-empt objections. The margins of the discipline are possibly vaguer than formerly. Qualitative work is at least ostensibly countenanced. A part of just one of ten psychology modules in my course related to qualitative psychology – not even a whole module! The module was taught by a lecturer who declared himself unqualified to evaluate qualitative psychology, and evaluated students’ qualitative work according to adherence to Method. This condescending gesture of inclusion demonstrated the Methodological imperative was no less hegemonic, excluding and penalising when applied to qualitative psychology.

Most Psychology course lectures at my university (with notable exceptions) were one way. Students’ interventions were discouraged, except when seeking clarification. The sense was that Psychology as factual information should be imparted, not discussed or debated. Imagination and experience are counterproductive to the consumption of facts. Interpretation is an impertin­ence in the ingestion of facts. Adherence to Method is the true and only measure of value. Divergence from Method is divergence from value. 

But this dogged demand for adherence to Method has a very high price. The demand constricts and paralyses thought and inhibits innovative thinking. Original ideas, by definition, require freedom and will not be confined within circumscribed bounds. The academic discipline of Psychology attracts, retains and rewards adherents to procedure – procedure that asserts the authority of numbers and, I have noted, has no compar­able conscience for the precision of language. Those who are attracted to Psychology but are not fascinated by Method and statistics (if I am permitted to generalise from my experience) are discouraged and their work denigrated. My wife tells me that my CMI–university partnership award in Creativity, Change and Innovation is incompatible with achievement in Psychology. The marginalising, the suppression, of dissident voices stifles intellectual debate, blinkers ideas, and blocks the advance­ment of knowledge, all contributing to an unfulfilled and insecure discipline. 

Many theories and much knowledge about human motivations and behaviour are cur­rently unknown and unknowable to the academic discipline because they are not approved by the guardians of Method, and are there­fore generally unavailable to our profession. Adherence to Method, a quantitative measure, is mistaken for the measure of quality. Method has an important place in the discipline, but should certainly not circumscribe all contri­butions. Method has become a tyrant. Rather than enhancing psychological inquiry, it paralyses it. Its role and remit urgently need to be recalibrated. This is an imperative long, long overdue. But Method, like any longstanding tyrant, will do all it can to hold its ground. The powers opposing it are very weak indeed. 

Jonathan Livingstone - Therapy & Coaching

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