The question whether psychology can be considered a science or not has been a topic of the experts’ debates for decades. Eventually, no consensus has been reached, yet most arguments have narrowed to several assumptions. Some specialists believe that it is not the science because now it faces a period when no paradigm has been formed yet. It is characterized by diversity of schools and approaches and, according to Kuhn, the absence of universally adopted concepts and methods of a research. Hence, it might become the science and might not, according to this viewpoint, while there is another more optimistic one that claims that psychology is going to be the science. Other experts deny any scientific component of psychology explaining that its subject matter is too subjective to be researched in an objective way. There is an opinion that says yes and no meaning that psychology is partially the science and partially not. Finally, some scholars believe that it is the science indeed. It is a discipline using the scientific methodology. However, even among the most dedicated proponents of the view of psychology being the science there is no consensus on what section of science it should be referred to. Thus, the question remains open. Whatever the answers are, it is worth being studied thoroughly to look for a justified argument.
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In order to decide to what extent psychology can be considered the science, it is necessary to have a look at basic definitions of science and its methods. As it is most typically described, science is, “The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation [scientific method], and theoretical explanation of phenomena. Such activities restricted to a class of natural phenomena. Such activities applied to an object of inquiry or study” (Siepman, 1999). In fact, the extent to which this definition can be applicable to psychology refers mostly to the use of scientific methods. When experts describe a general pattern of the scientific method, they point out that it includes several steps. The first one is the examination of a phenomenon and gathering data that would reveal certain regulations. They would form patterns or cause-effect connections. Secondly, a scientist has to create a hypothesis that would clarify the reasons or mechanisms of the previously discovered patterns. After that the scholar can use this hypothesis in practice to predict how things are going to work according to it and see whether predictions have come true. Finally, experiments and tests are carried out to see to what extent the conclusions are reliable. Thus, these tests have to be multilateral and independent from one another. However, when considering a real situation with what disciplines are believed to be sciences, it is quite clear that not all of them stick to that algorithm. For instance, the scientific method and experiments are not fully applicable in all cases. It is a reason why dilemma arises whether it is the science or not. There are actually two ways to resolve it: either to recognize that some discipline (such as psychology, in our case) is not the science or to state that the definition of science through its methods is not quite accurate. In that case, as the researcher claims, it should be made clear that
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The scientific method should only be applied to experimentation when appropriate and not be used in the determination of what is or is not science, nor should it have any application in defining what is a hypothesis, theory, fact, or law…Science [should be defined] as the “the field of study which attempts to describe and understand the nature of the universe in whole or part. (Siepman, 1999)
What is Psychology?
When defining psychology, it should be noted that the scope of this discipline is quite broad. It is both theoretical and practical. I It is most generally interested in human mind and behavior as well as ensuring mental health. As a medical dictionary defines it, psychology is “The profession (clinical psychology), scholarly discipline (academic psychology), and science (research psychology) concerned with the behavior of humans and animals, and related mental and physiologic processes” ( Nordqvist, 2009). Dealing with humans, it should be noted that a task of studying their mind and actions is quite complex. This is why debates arise around the statement that it is possible to make such a subjective matter as human soul the material for a real science. All scientifically justified methods and experiments may be involved. Whether we should agree or not, people’s typical reactions to certain situations are used in psychological studies for the purpose of better understanding the regulations that lie behind human behavior.
There are several ways of how psychology is classified, such as the branches of psychology, schools, or approaches. When speaking about branches, it should be noted that the classification deals with dividing the scope and purposes of the discipline. From this perspective, there can be mentioned such branches as clinical psychology, social psychology, forensic psychology, occupational psychology, health psychology, and some others. As we can see each of them studies a certain aspect of human mind and behavior applied to the certain field of human activities. For example, occupational psychology investigates accurate characteristics of the person’s behavior with respect to a profession, including performance, loyalty, and so on. There is also another way to classify the branches of psychology as based on a certain theory or method of research. Thus, in this context, we can speak about psychoanalysis, behavioral, cognitive psychology, structuralism, functionalism, humanism, and others. Without going into details on each of them, behavioral and cognitive schools of thoughts will be further considered in order to answer the dilemma on whether the scientific nature of psychology is relevant and to what extent.
Behavioral psychology, or behaviorism as a school of thought, emerged in 1913 due to the efforts of an American psychologist, John. B. Watson. He was an opponent to functionalist and structural approaches. He had been dissatisfied by the fact that they had moved away too much from objectivity that the real science should be based on. He proposed to shift a focus of study from human mind to human behavior. He disagreed with an idea that behavior is a result of an inner process in the person’s psyche. Instead, he suggested that behavior was simply a reaction to external stimuli transmitted from the outer world. This approach, thus, was extremely interesting in the way how the mechanism was working when a person adopted one or another kind of behavior, stimulated by an environment. It was B.F. Skinner who had become one of the most ardent and renowned followers of Watson in the United States. He formulated some general principles of the approach, such as, for instance, an idea that the major goal of psychology was to predict and to control human behavior. The purpose was also related as well as “to discover functional relations which prevail between measurable aspects of behavior and various conditions and events in the life of the organism” ( Delprato, 1992, p. 1507). He used scientific experiments as a part of his methodology. He spoke of independent environmental and dependent behavioral variables (p.1508). Hence, behaviorists believed that no matter what traits of character the person had and what individual aspects of his personality were available, their behavior had been conditioned by the environment. There are two types of conditioning: classical and operant. Classical conditioning is
A technique used in behavioral training in which a naturally occurring stimulus is paired with a response. Next, a previously neutral stimulus is paired with the naturally occurring stimulus. Eventually, the previously neutral stimulus comes to evoke the response without the presence of the naturally occurring stimulus. (Cherry, n. d.)
Operant conditioning, in its turn, is based on the system of punishments and rewards. It should be also noted that behaviorism is deeply rooted in materialism, claiming that physical reality is the only one that exists. Thus, any dualism of material and ideal is rejected. In this sense, the theory is quite sympathetic of biology and Darwin’s teachings on the species. In fact, the whole system of this school of thought insists that the person is a human animal to a large extent. Due to this approach, many critics accuse behaviorism of being shallow. Only behavior is its subject matter and no interest is taken in human mind and inner impulses. On the other hand, however, it is also true that behaviorism is true to scientific methodology. It has contributed to the development of psychology in that direction.
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In contrast to behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology focuses, according to its name, in everything to deal with “cognition” that is obtaining knowledge and experience, memory, mental processes, thinking etc. Thus, human mind rather than behavior is a subject matter to this branch of psychology. As it emerged in 1950s as a movement to oppose behavioral psychology, it naturally wanted to feel gaps of the latter and shift attention from environmental stimuli to aspects of an individual. The concept “cognitive psychology” was first applied in 1967 by Ulric Neisser who gave his own definition to cognition. In his words, it includes “all processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. It is concerned with these processes even when they operate in the absence of relevant stimulation, as in images and hallucinations” ( Cherry, n. d.). Thus, he states that every psychological phenomenon is cognitive, because human mind is involved in every process of a person’s life. It is true that the subject matter of cognitive psychology is not so easily observed as behavioral one. However, it is also true that cognitive school, like behaviorism, relies on scientific methods.
Is Psychology a Science?
Based on the previously discussed information on branches of psychology, it is worth trying to answer a question whether we still can consider psychology a science. Speaking about behavioral theory, it should be noted that their vision of reality simply did not presuppose any other interpretation of psychology except scientific one. First of all, their materialism practically denied existence of internal motivations and declared external stimuli the only conditioning elements, which was common for all people. Behaviorist believed that a person, as a human animal, is subject to biological definition and can be trained to act in a certain way by mean of punishment and reward. It also should be noted that because behaviorism only focuses on behavior as something that can be objectively observed and studied. This fact makes the application of scientific methods much easier than for some other branches, such as psychoanalysis, for instance. Unlike psychoanalysis, no subjective assumptions can be made without any proof by the means of research.
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As behaviorism relies on scientific methodology, objective observations and calculated results, it can be stated that psychology is a science from a behaviorist point of view. However, it is impossible to deny that it is just one dimension of psychology that does not bring a label of science to the whole discipline. In the same way, even though a cognitive school focuses on a more subjective aspect of a mental process and storing information, it rejects non-scientific methods. It does not rest on subjective assumptions. This school uses a scientific research with elaborated methodology to prove their findings as reliable. However, in the same way, cognitive psychology represents just one aspect of the whole scope. So, even though it can be stated that cognitive psychology is scientific, it does not make the whole discipline estimated in the same way.
The question is what conclusions can be made. It is quite true that the scope of the discipline conventionally called psychology is too large to encompass and transform it into something that would exactly correspond to the definition of science. At the same time, the history of psychology and its findings are quite rich in many aspects. The differences between schools, no matter how confined they have been to a limited focus, have served it good. Due to the fact that narrow fields have been thoroughly studied by schools like behaviorism and cognitive psychology, a set of valuable scientific methodology has been gathered. It is a step for psychology to become the science in a natural process of evolution. It is true though that the very scope of the discipline will be reconsidered, as a split between scientific and non-scientific psychology would be even more significant. As James Bray notices, “in response to these changing environments, many areas of study are dropping the word psychology from their names—for example, developmental science, cognitive science, neuroscience” (Bray, 2010, p. 357). This statement means that the very word psychology as it was understood in the past seems to have discredited itself in terms of the scientific relevance. Yet, as it can be seen, a trend of movement in direction to becoming the science gets stronger. There is an attempt on a part of scientific psychology to get rid of all elements, which could be treated as non-scientific. Thus, a kind of clearance is expecting for the discipline in the course of crisis on a way of evolution.
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