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According to Merriam Webster (2008), science is a, “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method”, with scientific method in five steps being, “observation/research, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation and conclusion.” (sciencemadesimple.com, 2006). With this to consider, is psychology a science and if so, to what extent. It would be fair to say that psychology has not always been looked on as a science and its early roots were in fact based in philosophy.
This fact is highlighted in the word itself, Greek in origin, psyche meaning soul and logos meaning the study of a subject (Sdorow & Rickabaugh, 2002). However, the modern concept of psychology as a science was founded in 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt created the first experimental laboratory relating to the subject. He believed it was possible to base the study of psychology on the same principles and methodology of the sciences (Passer & Smith, 2007). His approach became known as Structuralism and using a method of introspection, he was able to test a variety of sensory stimuli on participants who were then expected to explain their inner experiences.
Based on this quantifiable results could be produced and hypotheses could be confirmed or discarded based on this information, therefore following the scientific method. This laid the foundations for psychology to be treated as a science and began to lead to the development of the six main perspectives within the discipline. Each of the perspectives is based on a different explanation as to why people behave in certain ways.
They also use different ways in which to reach their conclusions and it is this that will determine to what extent psychology can be a science. The Behavioural perspective moved on from Wundt’s’ work in that it was felt that observable behaviour rather than inner consciousness acting on external influences (Passer & Smith, 2007) should be the basis of psychology. John Watson was the founder of this insight. He felt that humans and their behaviour on the whole were a result of their external learning experiences and his work was continued by others such as BF Skinner. His own study area was in relation to how the external factors affected behaviour which he researched through studies of rats and pigeons in controlled laboratory situations.
As the perspective itself is based on testing observable stimuli and responses this then fits within the science remit outlined in the introduction. On the other hand, the Humanistic perspective argued that experiments could not give provide the full picture when studying human behaviour. They believed human behaviour could not be reproduced or predicted as humans are individuals. As a result, through this perspective it would be difficult to produce any quantifiable data through the scientific method leaving it questionable as to whether or not through this perspective, psychology could be considered a science. It is not only the perspectives which influence to what extent psychology can be considered a science but also the methods which are used to research the hypotheses created. There are three main types of research psychologists’use when attempting to study behaviour. Descriptive research is one form. This would be where the researcher records what they have viewed in a situation in a methodical and organised way. Naturalistic observation, a form of descriptive research, is where the participants are viewed in their natural surroundings (Sdorow & Rickabaugh, 2002).
Case studies are another form, carried out on individuals in order to glean in- depth information on rare psychological illnesses. It is not possible to repeat either of the methods to replicate results or further test a hypothesis. Also, variables cannot be controlled. Nor is it possible to make generalisations therefore not allowing predictions for future behaviours. It is not possible to follow the scientific method as outlined within the introduction with either research type; therefore psychology could not be considered a science using these methods alone. Surveys are a further example of descriptive research. These can be carried out as interviews or questionnaires and can be carried out face to face or even over the telephone. The key advantage of this form is that many people can be surveyed by comparison to observation or case study. Unless the sample is entirely random it would be impossible to make generalisations using the results.
However, the results produced from surveys can be replicated and repeated and essentially fulfil the scientific method previously outlined and as a whole, descriptive research would fulfil the description credential of the scientific goals and also account for the observation/research idea in the scientific method outlined within the introduction, allowing suggestion that psychology could be considered a science. The second form of research is known as correlation research. In this the researcher would measurea variable and then a second and then use the statistical information produced in order to confirm if the two variables are related (Passer & Smith, 2007). They argue however, that there can often be a third variable which is unaccounted for and can affect the results. This in itself however does not affect whether or not this method can be looked at as influencing the extent to which psychology can be looked upon as a science as this is something that can happen within any of the disciplines during research of a hypotheses.
Experimentalresearch the final of the three is used to look at the cause and effect, something which neither of the others can be used for. Experiments use a random sample of participants often separated into two or more groups, one being a control, in order to test the validity of a hypotheses. Results would be taken from all groups in order to statistically compare them to the original concept. This would be the closest to the scientific method as the experiments can be repeated or modified and the results can be replicated in order to prove or disprove. In conclusion, it is possible to consider psychology as a science to its fullest extent if those involved in the studies are able to accept and use more than one perspective and methodology in order to complete their research. According to Viney (1989, as quoted by Sdorow & Rickabaugh, 2002) this is what William James, founder of the functionalist perspective, intended all along.
Passer, M.W., & Smith R.E., (Eds) (2007) Psychology The science of mind and behaviour (3rd Ed.) New York, USA: McGraw-Hill Hogg, M.A., & Vaughan G. M., (Eds) (2002) Social Psychology (3rd Ed.) Essex, UK: Pearson Education Ltd Science. (2008). In Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved October 14, 2008, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/science Understanding and using the Scientific Method (2006). Retrieved October 14, 2008, from http://sciencemadesimple.com/scientific_method.html
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