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There are good and bad ways to "internationalize" psychology

Posted on 15 Nov | 0 comments
Photo by Jebulon (Creative Commons License)
Photo by Jebulon (Creative Commons License)

The new vogue within the American Psychological Association has been to encourage a greater awareness of the ways that psychology can be elevated to a more international status. The Existential-Humanistic position is in agreement with this effort, but offers a totally different take on what that means.  Most psychologists, especially those trained strictly in the tradition of cognitive behaviorism, maintain that their brand of science is the only acceptable scientific definition of reality. Their effort is geared toward importing this definition of psychology world-wide in what the Existential-Humanistic psychologist would call the New Colonialism. The implicit assumption of this point of view is that ‘We have the truth; everyone else does not, so they need to be educated about what that is.’  This is also true in specific subfields of psychology. Researchers in the psychology of religion generally promote only the measurement of religious behavior,  and sometimes tend to confound a personal knowledge of their own religious upbringing for religion in general among all human beings and then make egregious claims about religions, especially non-Western ones, outside the sphere of  Judeo-Christians’ theistic monism.

The new emphasis on the internationalization of psychology then takes two primary forms: Are we going to tell other cultures what psychology is, without specifying what “psychology” means, when it really represents the epistemology of reductionistic empiricism? Or are we going to listen to what others cultures have to say about their own unique understanding of psychology an try to come up with a global psychology of world mental health. This would involve emphasizing not only listening instead of always telling, but focusing on not the importation of the Western model, but what has been labeled indigenous psychologies within those cultures.   A case in point comes from a recent discussion on the Division 36 List Serve [Psychology of Religion].  Professors from the University of Macao have been studying a large population of Chinese subjects longitudinally and inquired about data sets and methods in use by other psychologists of religion. My response was, “Dear Friends”:

“This is a paradoxical question for me that you ask, as you appear to be studying a non-Western  population using Western methods of reductionistic empiricism. Just from what you have given us as clues so far, organized religion and generic spirituality within the person are conflated, such as the alleged correlation between 'religiosity' and 'church attendance, ' which is, after all, only correlational an not causal and usually carried off by psychologists who conflate generic spirituality with denominational membership in a organized religion who are themselves likely to attend church with their families.

One might gain important insights as a psychologist by dialoguing with scholars in comparative religions, especially those more knowledgeable about the history of Chinese religions. In that dialogue one would discover that the relations between what is a religion and what is not is quite different in Chinese culture than Western trained psychologists are capable of acknowledging. Herilee G. Creel, who didn't believe that there ever was such a real person as Lao-tzu, still acknowledged this different relationship that ethnic Chinese have with their own traditions, when he acknowledged both Confucianism and Taoism as the principle traditional religions indigenous to Chinese culture, Mahayana Buddhism being a later accretion because of its close affinity to major constructs in Taoism.  Confucianism is often claimed to be an ethical system, not a religion, but my studies have suggested that this is not the way the Chinese person views the matter. So it has been said that “the Chinese business man is both a Confucianist and a Taoist, and when he succeeds in business he is a Confucianist and when he fails he is a Taoist." Only an ethnic Chinese person would really understand this, as failure is actually a mark of success in mystical Taoism.

If you were to study the religious affiliations of your ethnic Chinese sample, I am sure you would find most would report having membership in the major Christian denominations. There will be a number of Buddhists, of course, but then a large group of 'atheists" or 'of no religion.' But scratch the surface with any one of your subjects and a different picture will emerge if you ask what was the religious direction of their parents and then grandparents, and possibly even their parents. Another clue will be found in the answer of your subjects to the presence or absence of the family alter in their home when they were growing up. A description of the icons kept there and their meaning I think would be most revealing with regard to personal and collective attitudes toward indigenous Chinese spirituality.”

Here we have al least two important elements that contribute to our discussion. First is that the Existential-Humanistic tradition in American psychology has long been the advocate of indigenous psychologies especially from non-Western cultures.  William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) is a case in point, as is Jung’s various commentaries on the Asian traditions, especially his psychological commentary to The Secret of the Golden Flower (1928). Aldus Huxley and Alan Watts were avid interpreters of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist traditions to Humanistic psychologists in the West. Gordon Willard Allport was on the Board of Psychologia, the international journal of Psychology in the Orient, and he promoted the work of what led to Swami Akhilananda’s Hindu Psychology (1946). Gardner and Lois Murphy edited Asian Psychology (1968). Huston Smith has been a key interpreter of Asian traditions today, as has the work of Herbert Finegarette, who has focused specifically on the Confucian tradition and modern humanistic psychology.

Second, if we were to study more closely the indigenous psychologies of each culture—their mythologies, folk lore, religious texts, great heroes and heroines, and so on, and abstract out indigenous concepts of personality and consciousness, we would see how each has established a standard for the ideal personality in that culture and what constitutes mental health within that domain. Psychiatrists and psychologists in the West mainly advocate extending objective measurement, the DSM, and Big Pharma in the so-called globalization of mental health. Imagine, in contrast, an Atlas of World Mythology, where the mythic systems and ideals of the self-actualized human being in different cultures become an alternative standard, redefining even Western psychological science  by putting it in its rightful place as one more indigenous psychology among a host of other equally viable ones, each one understood within the context of its own cultural setting.

-- Eugene Taylor

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