Psychological thought has developed constantly over the centuries. In the present day, this wide and varied subject area can be divided broadly into the following areas: behaviourism, evolutionary psychology, biological psychology (including neuroscience), cognitive psychology, experimental social psychology, psychoanalysis, humanistic psychology, psychometrics and social constructionism. This list—and by no means is it complete—can be further subdivided into many more specific processes of psychological explanation. It is inevitable that these perspectives, to a certain extent, will have some areas of commonality, or, at least, will be complementary; some points of view will conflict and psychologists’ claims will remain exclusive; while other arguments, having no point of contact, will simply co-exist. It is extremely important for psychologists to consider the relationships between these theories. Researchers should take into account what is known as the three Cs—in a chosen area of study, perspectives either (1) conflict, (2) complement each other or (3) co-exist (Cooper & Roth, 2007). The purpose of this report is not to outline the main tenets of these approaches, but, rather, to evaluate the proposition that different perspectives in the field of psychology co-exist rather than conflict each other: the author will focus on the DSE212 handbook, Book 2.
Although it is beyond the scope of this report to categorize each of the outlined perspectives still further, it would, nevertheless, be useful to refer to other subdivisions of the above approaches to psychology.
In the first instance, the author will be looking at sex and gender. This topic has fascinated scientists over the years and has been controversial; it is also a good example of how one topic can encompass different levels of analysis. Generally speaking, a biological psychologist would focus on hormonal activity, genes, the differences and similarities between female and male brains, and the biological factors associated with behavioural and cognitive gender differences; a psychologist working within the evolutionary perspective would consider optimal reproductive styles of males and females, parental investment, sexual competitiveness and male commitment; social constructionists would discuss gender stereotypes, social identity, the importance of school for gender-specific behaviour, and the struggle for equality; and psychoanalysts, depending on his or her school of thought, would speak of the importance of sexuality and gender relations in the development of the self and, more specifically, on oedipal themes, the development of the ego/super ego, identification and the symbolization of the penis.
All four perspectives seek to explain the differences and similarities between males and females. The biological approach provides evidence of the differences between male and female hormones, brain regions and genetic characteristics. However, it does not attempt to address the question of human experience. So, on its own, it does not provide any information about the psychology of the sexes. Biological psychology, therefore, co-exists with the social constructionist prospective—the two approaches neither conflict not do they complement each other. Social constructionist psychologists have concentrated on how individuals develop their sense of identity through their social interaction—at school, and with parents and friends. They argue that, as soon as a baby is ‘labelled’ a girl or a boy, he or she is dressed in blue or pink clothes and begins his or her life-long journey where (s)he discovers his or her unique identity through ‘male-’ or ‘femaleness’ respectively.
Although both within the hermeneutic tradition, psychoanalytic theory and social constructionism generally conflict. Freudian psychoanalysts concentrate on early aggressive and libidinal drives and the internalization of meanings concerning sexual difference. A central theme is the oedipal conflict. In early childhood, a boy discovers that he has a penis and fantasizes about removing the father and keeping the mother—a source of care, love and attention—all to himself. Again, according to Freud, girls envy boys because they do not possess this symbolically powerful external genitalia. However, this theory conflicts with the social constructivist prospective because it does not account for how boys and girls later interact and discover their gender identity at school. It does not take into account the fact that girls often obtain gender equality and even superiority possibly due to the fact that they are able better to connect with the female dominant teaching staff present at primary schools.
Evolutionary psychology, like the biological prospective, embraces the scientific approach. Through it investigation of human sexual, parental, emotional and protective type behaviours, it seeks to elucidate the differences between the sexes. But, while it looks at the behaviour of primates tens of millions of years ago, it does not look specifically at the complex behaviour of humans today. Does it therefore conflict with the social constructionist perspective? Certainly. However, evolutionary researchers stress that the male and female feelings are unconscious—that is to say, that they are archetypal predispositions that underpin our behaviour. Further, Buss (2000) said that more understanding of our ancestral heritage could help us to understand and prepare for difficult instances within modern-day relationships.
Now, for some examples in the context of life span development. Evolutionary psychologists stress the importance of having a secure, protective base. This protective base is of primordial importance for females because it is an indication of male commitment, and it ensures that she has a safe place during the long process of rearing her children. It is complementary with psychoanalytic theory—specifically attachment theory—because it is vital that a child has a secure place so that he can develop his ability to explore the outside world knowing that he can return home at any time (Bowlby, 1988).
Bowlby, a developmental psychologist and attachment theorist, combined psychoanalytic theory, looking at the relationship between mother and infant, cybernetics, ethology, neuroscience, and how complex networks of neurons in the amygdala imprint information about their emotional environment, evolutionary theory and primordial instinct, object relations theory as well as developmental psychology. It is clear that he saw many of the above perspectives as complementary. Of note, he explained that individuals had a primary drive, and that they had a primary attachment with the mother. Here, object relations theory complements both evolutionary and biological perspectives. He also emphasized that the internal working model set up here was essential for future relationships (Bowlby, 2000). Erikson (1950), essentially a psychoanalyst, also complements the social constructivist approach with his psychosocial model of development.
An evolutionary psychologist, by contrast, might say that adaptive future relationships will help secure future offspring, while Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, focussing on the ages 0-2, 2-6, 6-12 and over 12 years of age, and which concentrates on first sequences, concrete operations and, finally, abstract reason seems to co-exist with evolutionary psychology and social constructionist theory. Some might argue that Piaget was also an evolutionary psychologist because he, like Darwin, observed his own children in order to draw conclusions about cognitive development.
In essence, Piaget’s theory of genetic epistemology refers to the study of intelligence in relation to one’s adaptation to their personal environment. Thus, this theory draws from cognitive and social constructionist thought. But, why are certain people better than others at particular skills? For example, take a woman who is a highly successful opera singer. She might be good because she was repeatedly played classical music in the womb and this subliminal and transferiential musical education gave her an innate ability to sing beautifully well (biological). On the other hand, she might have heard her mother sing and, consciously or otherwise, realized that this ability attracted the attention of the father (psychoanalytic). Another theory is that she realized that singing gave her an advantage and prestige over the other girls in the class (interpersonal/social constructionist), or even that a rival sibling had experienced this first and she wanted the same for herself. She might have been blessed with a genetic make-up which gave her particularly proportioned vocal chords which made a beautiful sound and, with little practice, would be able to develop rapidly (biological). By contrast, she might have worked extremely hard on her voice (behavioural). Further, she might have had an archetypal pre-disposition to sing, with an innate knowledge that it attracts good quality mates (evolutionary). It is likely, however, that the singer was affected by a number of environmental and historical contexts—this is the basis of developmental contextualism.
This report, with its many examples, has shown that psychology is a complex, multi-faceted discipline which, although some theories co-exist and have little point of contact, draws from information across many perspectives. It is the juxtaposition of opposing perspectives which makes psychology a challenging and constantly evolving subject.
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Bowlby, J (1988). A secure base: clinical applications of attachment theory. (Routledge: London).
Buss DM (2000). The evolution of happiness. American Psychologist, 55:15-23.
Cooper T & Roth I, eds. (2007). DSE212 Challenging Psychological Issues. (Open University Press: Milton Keynes).
Erikson EH (1950). Childhood and Society. (Norton: New York).