The Seventeenth Annual National
Institute on the Teaching of Psychology January 4-7, 1995
St. Petersburg Beach, Florida
Post-modernism, Social Constructionism: Where is Psychology?
Grace B. Dyrud
Augsburg College
Science - Another Myth?

Several instances of baboon organ implants have been attempted on humans in the last decade. While recent attempts have emphasized experimentation with drugs to overcome the predictable rejection, the argument regarding success of a 1984 attempt represents a conflict between two views of "reality".

At Loma Linda Medical Center in California, a cardiac surgeon implanted a baboon heart in an infant. The scientific view, based on molecular research, held that the evolutionary (genetic) distance between the baboon and the child is too great; there is no chance of success. The surgeon who had done the transplant, Dr. Bailey, was asked about the problem of evolutionary distance. "According to Norman Swan, an Australian doctor who conducted the interview for the Australian Broadcasting Company, Bailey replied that he was a Seventh-day Adventist; Adventists are creationists-they simply do not believe in Darwinian evolution" (Lowenstein, 1993, p. 28). The infant survived 20 days.

The two positions above represent two "world views" or two "views of reality or truth" that result in very different decisions. In this case, the infant dies either way. In other cases, such as those involving Christian Scientists witholding insulin from diabetics, the consequences can be very different. In several well publicized cases, the diabetic child of Christian Scientist parents died for lack of insulin, but certainly could have lived with normal treatment. In the past perhaps we have considered these events as religion vs. science.

But now such arguments can be revisited in the light of postmodernist thought. In psychology this movement is called social constructionism (Bohan, 1990; Riger, 1992). Postmodernists have argued that reality is based in the beholder (Rorty, 1989), an idea that has been around in philosophy at least since the eighteenth century when Hume challenged the nature of reality. (Boring, 1950). While not totally new, the present philosophy of postmodernism can serve as the philosophical foundation for significant changes in the future of psychology.

The concept of each of us constructing our own reality supposedly frees us from ideologies and their constraints. Consequently, one could develop the impression from such discussions that we are then free from all constraints and that every idea is then as good as every other idea. Absolute relativism! That sounds good to many people as they think of religious and political ideologies and the constraints those ideologies put on solving problems in our nation. Such relativism can also provide a philosophy for more acceptance of cultural diversity. But the implications of postmodernism go farther.

Even science can be considered yet another "dogma or ideology" (Smith, 1994), on a par with every other ideology, apparently. Postmodernists argue that science, including psychology, does not reflect reality, but invents it. (Bohan, 1990; Howard, 1991; Riger, 1992; Rorty, 1989).

As psychology faculty and students, how can we understand the arguments and participate in the discussion? What are the ramifications of postmodernism or social constructionism for psychology?

First, we ask the question, "Is this subjective view of reality really a new point of view?" Hume, for example, concluded that the mind was based on information from the senses and that the fundamental reality was in the mind. After careful philosophical analysis, he could not find sensory evidence for God, causation, or even self (Boring, 1950). He concluded that this approach had gone as far as possible. Hume obviously wrestled with the question of the location of immediate reality. So the position on subjective reality of postmodernism does not seem to be entirely new. The view that even scientists invent constructions that represent reality has been a widely accepted derivation of the earlier philosophical views of reality (Mach, 1910/1942).

What does seem to be new is the extent of the attack on science and scientific methods. Empirical methods have been attacked as too narrow, male dominated, and value-laden (Bohan, 1990; Longino and Hammonds, 1990). Science is not necessarily even superior to other methods for analyzing reality (Rorty, 1989; 1994).

M. Brewster Smith, 1994, in reaction to Gergen, 1991, wrote, "I am alarmed by the extent to which just such an extreme version of antiscientific relativism is gaining prominence at the margins of mainstream psychology". Smith goes on to state that constructive correction to a logical positivistic emphasis can result from the postmodernist focus, but "What I see as most unfortunate, however, is the tendency ... to give up the conception of science ... as simply optional myths on all fours with religious or political dogmas and ideologies."

The attacks on science and scientific psychology seem to come primarily from segments of three sometimes overlapping groups: feminists, postmodernists, and cognitive psychologists.

Critics of Scientific Methodology


Some feminist positions criticize science and scientific methods for being too narrow, too European, white male dominated, and value laden (Bohan, 1990; Longino and Hammonds, 1990). An example of such "science" is the decades long effort to document lesser ability of women, even to the point of looking for brain parts that might be smaller in women. This example suggests that values enter into decisions in science, even directing what questions will be asked (Bohan, 1990).

Another example in which cultural values seem to have played an important role is in biological classification. Linneaus' classification of mammals is based on "gender politics", according to Schiebinger, 1993. The class of mammals is based on mammae which are functional (milk producing) for only one-half of this group (the females) and even in females are functional for a relatively short time. A more gender neutral term such as the "hollow eared ones (Aurecaviga" could have been more descriptive of the entire class (Schiebinger, 1993, p. 41). However, at the time Linneaus developed this classification, there was great interest in the female breast, comparison and ideal shape, and also a movement to get upper class women to nurse their own babies. For convenience and preservation of their own breast shape, upper class women hired other lower class women to nurse their upper class babies. Linneaus was a leader in the movement to change this situation, to go back to nature and do as other animals do and nurse their own young. The use of wet nurses meant that babies were deprived of their mothers' milk. Women should return to "their rightful place as loving and caring mothers" (Schiebinger, 1993, p.70). Such returning to nature would improve the moral and economic state of affairs.

The classification of mammals according to mammae "provided a solution to the place of mankind within nature and ultimately of womankind within European culture" (Schiebinger, 1993, p. 74).


Nicholson (1993) in an editorial in Science stated that the postmodern movement is anti-science. He quotes Holtan who states that while this movement (postmodernism) is as yet a minority, the movement includes people in prominent circles who can influence a cultural shift.

According to postmodernism, traditional research methods, including those of psychology, are simply part of their context or environment, and not necessarily methods for acquiring new information. The methods, the questions and the findings are too intertwined with cultural values to be considered value-free. Too often the findings are just validation of views already present in society (Bohan, 1990; Riger, 1992). The value of science is being questioned. Science is blamed for our problems. It has promised too much. Science is considered "intrusive and dangerous". These are all statements which have appeared in recent publications (Nicolson, 1993).

Cognitive psychologists

At the present time the most controversial direction within psychology which involves postmodernist ideas is cognitive psychology, or at least certain elements of it. A definition of cognitive science is that it is a combination of cognitive psychology and brain science or neuroscience. Until his death Skinner warned of the anti-scientific drift of psychology as exemplified in part by cognitive psychology. "Rather than observe what people actually did, one could simply ask them what they would probably do" (Skinner, 1989).

According to Skinner (1989), feelings and states have emotional (and I might add literary) appeal. "But has any introspectively observed feeling or state of mind yet been unambiguously identified in either mental or physical terms?"

Social psychology, for example, has become so cognitive that the social psychological description of motivation and emotion practically excludes physiology, stated Putnam (1994). She has devised methods to bring back feeling and physiology into the scheme.

An example of a cognitive theory is CEST (cognitive-experiential self theory) which assumes that there are two systems in adaptation, rational and experiential. According to this theory, people construct an implicit model of the world (reality) that contains a world theory and a self theory and connecting propositions (Epstein, 1994). This theory clearly appears to be a "mental process" theory, somewhat removed from behavior.

One of the most active controversies within psychology involves Sperry's claim that cognitive psychology represents a revolution within psychology (Sperry, 1993; 1994). Sperry claims that there are "emergent properties" of consciousness that cause changes in brain states in addition to being the result of brain states. Mental states are not the same as brain states. Mental events can influence subsequent brain states. Aside from arguments of how new his ideas are, the big issue is the definition of mental states and whether his hypotheses are scientific and are subject to rigors of scientific methodology. (Comments on Sperry's ideas appear in the Comment section of Sept. 1994 American Psychologist.)

Boneau's (1992) article regarding the future of psychology suggests that Skinner may have been atypical of behaviorists, but that he is not as extreme as manycognitive psychologists are. After conducting a survey of senior psychologists, Boneau quoted, "A behavioral orientation is good discipline for the psychologist as scientist; rejection of that discipline opens the flood gates to a great deal that is not science. The kooks are flocking to cognitive psychology, and not all of them are on the outside looking in" (p.1586).

Benefits of Postmodernism in Psychology

At least some strains of postmodernism seem to pose a threat to science, including psychology. Have the concepts of postmodernism had any influence in psychology?

Illustrations of postmodernism have already appeared in various facets of psychology. Perhaps postmodernists or social constructionists have not caused the phenomena, but simply have called our attention to changing views consistent with postmodernism. The following positions within psychology seem to be consistent with postmodernism.

Reconstructing History

A postmodernist view may be necessary to reconstruct the history of psychology in a way that includes women and minorities who had made contributions in psychology, but have been omitted or devalued in psychology's history. If history has been constructed in a way that women and minorities have been omitted, it can be reconstructed to replace them within psychology's history. Currently active efforts are being made to reconstruct the history of psychology with more emphasis on women and minorities (Bohan, 1990).


Theories of therapy appear to have benefited from a postmodern philosophy. Howard, 1991, has developed the concept of personal narratives in the therapeutic process. As therapists encourage clients to treat their theories, individual actions, experiences, and beliefs as their own "stories", they are encouraging individual social realities. With the help of the therapist, the client can create a story that helps mental health, rather than one which fosters mental illness. This provides a framework for reality that is "relative" and may not be exactly as it happened. How one views one's past has relevance for present and future mental health. If all points of view are equally valid, then the therapist has a basis for being more accepting and non-judgmental and can even assist in the production of a story which provides for better mental health (Howard, 1991).

According to Riger, 1992, these stories or accounts are not just descriptions of experience, but they show context (environmental) and power effects. One's own story, then, gives evidence of influence and power relationships as seen by the narrator. This broadens the personal narrative from self to a larger social reality that has been constructed by the client. The construction of personal realities by individuals appears to be consistent with ideas of postmodernism.

Future Directions for Psychology

According to Mahoney (1989), there are diverse expressions of psychology beyond the "confines of behaviorism". Rorty (1994) states, "Sociologists and psychologists might stop asking themselves whether they are following rigorous scientific procedures, and start asking themselves whether they have any suggestions to make to their fellow-citizens about how our lives, or our institutions should be changed?" Without claims for scientific methodology, what would distinguish psychologists from many other folks who have suggestions for change?

While still a postmodernist, Shotter (1993) has attempted to move away from the cognitive concept of representation in mental life and a personal view of reality to an emphasis on social interaction as a source of knowledge. He has suggested reorientations in major topics in psychology, though he states that "there are no universally accepted systems of knowledge to which to appeal" (Shotter, 1993, p. 35). He seems to support the role of intellectuals interpreting various communities' experiences.

We have seen that people in the field of psychology have apparently "picked and chosen" postmodern ideas that suit their purposes. Some of these changes may be completely defensible, others may not. Which are which? Is postmodernism the rationale for which changes?

Where do we go from here? Does methodology not matter? Can we do anything we choose without concern for outcomes or constraints? If our goal is to represent the world in a way which best promotes our objectives, there are limitations or constraints in our choice of methodology.

While the removal of some kinds of constraints may be helpful to the continuing quest for new information, the concept of total constraint removal may not advance that quest. We should perhaps distinguish between ideological constraints (those created by teaching or induced from one's world view) and empirical constraints which are subject to scientific study. Consequences do prod ce constraints on our behavior. Certainly, our view of reality does not necessarily relieve us of all consequences.

In an effort to develop some common criteria for judging the value of our view of reality, perhaps consequences are a good starting place. The constraints of consequences have been important in psychology's history, for example, Darwin's natural selection concept and its application to behavior. Darwin developed the natural selection concept to account for the observation that some plants and animals survive while others do not. There is variation within plant and animal species. Those variations which are advantageous in specific environments enable individuals to survive and reproduce, an obvious example of the effect of consequences provided by the environment.

The concept of variation and natural selection is evident in psychology also; behavior which results in positive consequences tends to be repeated. Again, consequences become a determiner of future actions.

Results (consequences) of our predictions in therapy and research studies are basic to our work in both theoretical research and practical applications. Even the legal system recognizes the importance of scientific methodology. The U.S. Supreme Court case, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals (1993) states that the methodology of generating hypotheses and testing them to see if they can be falsified distinguishes scientific methodology from other methodologies. A basic component of scientific methodology is the test of falsifiability. Mach (1910/1942) noted the principle of falsification by pointing out, "where neither confirmation nor refutation is possible, science is not concerned."

Postmodernist views do not rule out falsifiability as a methodology. Rorty (1994) allows for methodologies other than scientific methodology, and agrees that certain fields in psychology, such as cognitive psychology may not be sciences. However, methodology is not the issue. The issue is whether psychologists' endeavors have utility for society, according to Rorty. Then the question that we as psychologists must ask ourselves is, "What distinguishes psychologists from any other group with an agenda in society?"

Even Sperry (1994) who argued for emergent properties of consciousness considered "the truths and worldview of science are taken to be more valid, real, and dependable than any other." Can psychologists develop a basis for our utility for society without scientific methodology?

Anther criterion, besides falsifiability and results, which can help our judgments is replicability, part of the scientific method. Replicability can serve as confirmation and correction for "individual reality" or bias. It seems that the principle of parsimony (favoring the simplest theory that will account for the data) could also be usefully applied to some current psychological theories.

Social sciences, including psychology with all its points of view, seem especially vulnerable to postmodernist philosophy and show signs of changing in ways consistent with postmodernism. Psychologists need to survey the field and develop and, perhaps, reiterate goals and basic criteria for judging their own views of reality.

Selected References

Bohan, J. S. (1990). Contextual history: A framework for replacing women in the history of psychology. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 14, 213-228.

Boneau, A. C. (1992). Observations on psychology"s past and future. American Psychologist, 47, 1486-1596.

Boring, E. G. (1950). A history of experimental psychology. 2nd edn. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc.

Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (1993). WL 224478 (U.S.).

Epstein, S. (1994). Integration of the cognitive and the psychodynamic unconscious. American Psychologist, 49, 709-724.

Giddens, T. (1991). Modernity and identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Gergen, K. J. (1991). The saturated self: dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. New York: Basic Books.

Gergen, K. J. (1994). Exploring the postmodern: Perils or potentials? American Psychologist, 49, 412-416.

Howard, G. (1991). Culture tales. American Psychologist, 48, 878-887.

Longino, H. E. and Hammonds, E. (1990). Conflicts and tensions in feminist study of gender and science. In Conflicts in feminism. Ed. M. Hirsch, and E. F. Keller. New York: Routledge.

Keller, E. F. (1985). Reflections on gender and science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lowenstein, J. (1993). Commentary: The transplant gap. Discover, 14:6, 26-29.

Mach, E. (1910/1942). The economy of science. In E. Mach, The science of Mechanics (578-596). La Salle, IL and London: The Open Court Publishing Co.

Mahoney, M. (1989). Scientific psychology and radical behaviorism: important distinctions based in scientism and objectivism. American Psychologist, 44, 1372-1377.

Nicholson. R. (1993). Editorial: postmodernism. Science, 261 (July), 143.

Putnam, L. (1994). Putting the feeling back into emotion and the pleasure back into psychophysiology. Paper at The sixteenth annual national institute of the teaching of psychology, January 2-5, 1994.

Riger, S. (1992). Epistemological debates, feminist voices: Science, social values, and the study of women. American Psychologist, 47, 730-740.

Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.

Rorty, R. (1994). Does academic freedom have philosophical presuppositions? Academe, 80:6, 52-63.

Schiebinger, L. (1993). Nature's body: gender in the making of modern science. Boston: Beacon Press.

Skinner, B. F. (1989). Recent issues in the analysis of behavior. Columbus, Toronto, London and Melbourne: Merrill Publishing Conmpany.

Shotter, J. (1993). Cultural politics of everyday life. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.

Smith, M. B. (1994). Selfhood at risk: Postmodern perils and the perils of postmodernism. American Psychologist, 49, 405-411.

Sperry, R. (1993). The impact and promise of the cognitive revolution. American Psychologist, 48, 878-885.

Sperry, R. (1994). A powerful paradigm made stronger. Psychological Science Agenda, 7:5, 10-11, 13.