Relativism And Realism Debates

Should psychology pursue the path of realism or relativism? Critically discuss the implications of the relativism – realism debate for psychology.

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In the field of psychology, there is a debate amongst psychologists about which scientific approach to take when it comes to studying psychology. Whilst some psychologists prefer the realism approach, other psychologists prefer a different approach, relativism. The debate argues over which approach is the best theory for psychology to adopt; how research should be conducted, what assumptions can be made by psychologists, and which approach is the best way to gain knowledge about the world. So what is realism and what is relativism? Realism is what could be considered ‘mainstream’ psychology, where knowledge about the world can be acquired through methodical and systematic experimentation. Fletcher (1996) states that realism is focused mainly on behaviour, and that empirical research is the ‘cornerstone of the scientific method’ (pp. 409). This approach is widely used in psychology to study behaviour and to gain ‘facts’ about the world, which can be used to build psychological theories (Cacioppo, Semin & Bertson, 2004, pp 215). Relativism, on the other hand, offers an alternative approach to realism. Relativism argues that the world is created by the human mind, and the realism approach is ‘no more rational or trustworthy than ordinary thinking’ (Fletcher, 1996, pp. 410). Cacioppo, Semin and Bertson (2004) suggest that the relativism approach argues that ‘theoreticians should recognize that all forms of theories are worthwhile and the key is to evaluate the relative informativeness of each theory’ (pp.219). This indicates that all theories are valid, but they are based upon the relative ideas and assumptions of the theoretician that put it forward. These relative ideas and assumptions of the theoretician are based on societal contexts which ‘are part of the defining statement’ (Kagan, 1964, pp.131), meaning that what is stated is relative to the state of the individual and the context it is said in. But which approach should psychologists take and what does this mean for psychology?

The realism and relativism debate has been ongoing for a long time in the field of philosophy and more recently, psychology (Fletcher, 1996; Parker, 1998). In the field of philosophy, an empiricism approach has been widely abandoned in favour of a relativistic approach (Fletcher, 1996, pp. 410). However there is little consensus about which is the best approach to adopt by psychologists. There are arguments both for and against relativism and realism, and there are benefits to both approaches. This essay will look at both realism and relativism as philosophical approaches to psychology and which approach is more appropriate for the field.

The realistic approach to psychology has been used in most psychological research that uses an experimental design. The assumption of the realism approach is that there is a real world that can be tested to establish facts; which experiments adopt to establish facts about behaviour. This, in a way, lends support for itself in psychology; by creating theories that can be tested, psychologists are able to predict behaviour, which is what some would say is the central aim of psychology (Gergen, 1973, pp. 317). Haig (2005) suggests that realism alone can offer an all-encompassing approach to psychology. It is argued by Haig (2005) that whilst there can be no proof that realism is a deficient philosophy for psychology, there is no need for other philosophical approaches to the field. However, it can be noted that this would be a very realist view; Haig (2005) needs proof that realism is deficient before it can be considered deficient. Whereas from a relativist point of view, proof would not be needed for realism to be considered a deficient philosophy, it would be relative to the context and person stating that it is deficient. This poses a problem; if realism is based on facts and wants proof that it does not provide an adequate philosophy, and relativism does not need facts or proof that realism is not an adequate philosophy, then a consensus of which approach is the most appropriate for psychology can never be made.

One argument by Sankey (2004) suggests that the physical existence of the world provides evidence for a realist approach. It is suggested that the existence of the world around us does not depend on our thoughts, perceptions or experiences of it, it just exists. Whatever way we think about the world, or try to change parts of it (constructing buildings, growing crops, polluting the environment etc, pp.63), we did not create the world itself. It is argued that from this, human thoughts do not create the conception of reality, it is physically around us and this lends support to the realism approach. This would seem plausible, the fact that there are physical objects around us, that we can touch and interact with would suggest that there is a real world, and that we can acquire knowledge about that world. Sankey (2004) goes on to suggest that ‘Mental representations are but a small part of a greater reality in which we find ourselves embedded. Any philosophy which seeks to ground our conception of reality on our own mental representations commits the fundamental error of anthropocentrism, and should therefore be dismissed as fatally flawed,’ (pp.64). This suggests that by assuming that reality is evaluated exclusively through human representations of the world, relativism is flawed. It can also be noted that if relativists argue that all theories are worthwhile, then this argument by Sankey (2004) is perfectly reasonable in providing evidence for the realism approach. However, one thing that may go against this argument by Sankey (2004) is that there is no way of knowing whether everyone perceives the physical world around us in the same way or not. This means that the physical world as evidence for realism could be perceived in many different ways, suggesting that in fact a relativist approach is more appropriate for studying psychology.

Whilst the realist approach lends support to the experimental side of psychology; enabling a psychologist to assume what they have found to be factual and free from representations, there is an increasing number of psychologists and psychological fields that are adopting a more relativist approach. These include social constructivism, discourse analysis and feminist psychology (Fletcher, 1996). But why adopt a relativist approach when a realism approach has been used so widely in the ‘mainstream’ field of psychology? There are several arguments against using a realist philosophy for psychology. One argument that is highlighted by Fletcher (1996) is the idea that the empiricism approach to a lot of psychological research is based on a set of ‘rules’ set out by psychologists that all experiments adhere to, for example significance levels (p.411). There is a question of why those particular values are deemed significant and why others are not, and what made those values significant. It can be supposed that somewhere along the line, humans decided what results could be considered significant and what results could not. This provides evidence for the relativism approach; everything is relative to the person’s thoughts, assumptions and experiences. In this case results may only be significant to some people whilst the same set of results could be completely insignificant to others. However, because of the significance values used in the methodology employed by the realism approach, results that could seem significant to some people are deemed insignificant by the constraints of realist psychology. Rosnow and Rosethal (1989) criticise the methods of analysing data, stating that ‘determining the particular level of significance of the data at which a null hypothesis will be rejected is essentially a personal decision,’ (pp.1277) which strengthens the argument that psychology is based on social constructs and is relative to the psychologist. The relativist argument that realist methods are too dichotomous is also supported by Loftus (1996).

Relativists have also rejected realist arguments that because we can physically touch and interact with our environment that this proves the world is real and that it can be tested in order to gain knowledge (e.g. Sankey, 2004). Edwards, Ashmore and Potter (1995) identified two arguments used against relativism, (being able to touch furniture and the reality of death) and argue that these are still socially constructed. Edwards, Ashmore and Potter (1995) suggest that a realist would hit a table and the resulting sound shows it is physical, and not socially constructed. The table, in the eyes of a realist, would be a real object that can be touched, physically in the real world. However, what Edwards, Ashmore and Potter (1995) argue is that the table, whilst displaying physical properties is still a socially constructed object. The person that hits the table experiences it as real, but only the part that is touched by the hand. In addition to this, how does anybody else watching the table being hit know it is real (pp.29)? It is also argued that by hitting the table, it does not prove that table’s ‘continuing existence’ (pp.29), nor does it prove that everything else around that table and other objects in the world exists. This highlights a flaw in what realists would count as evidence that the world is real and free from human interpretations.

Edwards, Ashmore and Potter (1995) also state that a realist would use death as evidence for a world that is free from human perceptions. It is said that a realist would ask how a relativist can question whether death is a reality or not. To dispute that death is a reality would seem immoral and it would be impossible to say that the death of something or someone is just a social construct. However, it is argued by Edwards, Ashmore and Potter (1995) that even death is socially constructed. It is suggested that when you look at death and everything that relates to it, for example, ‘resurrection, the afterlife, survival of the spirit, the non-simultaneous criteria of brain death, the point when life support might as well be switched off, cryogenic suspension, the precise (how precise?) moment of death,’ (pp. 36), it becomes clear that there is a lot of social construction surrounding death. Along with the different ways it is possible to die, it is stated that ‘everyone knows, these are categories which are as constructed as can be,’ (pp.36). This is a convincing argument for relativism; there are things in the world that appear to be reality, physical and factual. However, as shown in the case of death, there are more components to death than just the ‘umbrella’ term which are clearly socially constructed. When someone dies, are they truly dead? What if they are, instead, reincarnated as something else? In a realist world, these questions would seem scientifically impossible to test which leads to the question of whether death can really be established as fact and a realistic truth. The way in which we would class someone as ‘dead’ is only to the extent of our own knowledge, tools and assumptions, but this would mean death has to be classed as a social construct and not free of human interpretation.

As presented, there is support for adopting a realist philosophy and there is support for adopting a relativist philosophy. So which approach is best for psychology? As previously stated, Fletcher (1996) highlights that realism has been overlooked in favour of a relativist approach in several areas of psychology, in particular, social constructivism, discourse analysis and feminist psychology. Within feminist psychology there has been an increasing use of relativist philosophy. A paper by Riger (1992) suggests that relativism is the most appropriate approach for studying women and feminism in psychology. It is suggested that gender is a socially constructed phenomenon; we are members of gender through our thoughts and actions rather than just ‘having’ the gender of male and female. In addition to this, it is argued that the relations between men and women are a result of patterns of ‘social organisation’ (pp.737). Therefore, it is suggested that psychology as a discipline should consider the social context of gender and women’s activity, promoting the use of a relativist philosophy in this particular branch of psychology. Support for a relativist approach in psychology is provided by Hepburn (2000), who points out the advantages to using such a philosophy in feminist psychology. It is stated that relativism ‘clears the way for addressing the many competing versions, contingencies, arguments and agendas that go with doing feminist research’ (pp.103). This suggests that the relativist assumption that all theories are valid, allows for the many different paths of research in feminist psychology to occur. Therefore, it also has to be considered whether a realist approach would be appropriate for feminist psychology. Gender differences in empiricist research do not take the social context and human perceptions of those gender differences, which could mean that psychologists who follow a realist approach to psychology may not know every reason for those gender differences. Therefore, it can be questioned whether or not empiricism really does gain factual knowledge about the world, if it does not take into account everything that could contribute to those facts. In this case, it would seem that for feminist psychology, realism would not be the most appropriate philosophy to adopt.

In contrast, there are some that promote realism within feminist psychology. New (1998) defends realism as the most appropriate philosophy for feminist psychology to adopt. It is stated by New (1998) that ‘despite realism’s current resounding unpopularity among feminist theorists, they cannot do without it,’ (pp.366) suggesting that whilst relativism is popular within feminist psychology, there is also a need for realism. It is argued that realism is needed to understand the underlying concepts in the history of feminist psychology and to understand the knowledge that has already been obtained of feminist psychology, and this cannot be done without assuming that the relativist social constructions are also true. This could mean that in psychology, you cannot have relativism without realism. In order to understand the knowledge that is gained through a relativist approach it may mean that realism is also needed. In other words, if relativism argues that gender differences are a social construction, then they have to assume that these social constructions are true and real. New (1998) adds to this by suggesting that when arguing the case for relativism, relativists have to regress to realism in order to articulate the case. In addition to this, Parker (1999) supports realism in other branches of psychology. In his paper against relativism in psychology, Parker (1999) points out that some psychologists believe realism warrants psychology as a ‘real’ science. Therefore, this could mean that by adopting a realist approach psychology could be put in the same category as what are commonly called ‘real’ sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology. This has implications for psychology as a science and not just for psychologists either. If psychology is classed as a real science, the results of psychological research may carry more weight in everyday life, where not everyone is aware of the debate between realism and relativism.

Therefore, as presented with the example of feminist psychology, there is a strong case for both realism and relativism within psychology. This leaves the question of which approach to adopt for psychology up in the air; the debate seems to have no solid consensus of which approach to adopt. Even in the case of feminist psychology, which is suggested to have predominantly accepted the relativist approach, there are still some that argue for a realist philosophy (e.g. New, 1998). However, there may be other philosophical approaches more appropriate for psychology. For example, Cacioppo, Semin and Bertson (2004) evaluate instrumentalism as an approach for psychology. According to Cacioppo, Semin and Bertson (2004), the aim of instrumentalism is ‘not to discover truth,’ but instead aims to construct ‘intellectual structures that provide adequate predictions of what is observed’ (pp.217). Therefore, whilst not searching for the ‘truth’ like realism or proving that instead everything that is thought to be true is instead a social construction, like relativism, instrumentalism provides a way of predicting and describing what is observed rather than persistently debating whether what is observed is true or not. In a way, instrumentalism positions itself in between realism and relativism, it just utilises the observations without having to assume whether it is real or not. So, aside from realism and relativism, would this be a better approach for psychology? Instrumentalism would seem to be a compromise between the two approaches and so this could be the path psychology should pursue. As highlighted by New (1998), it seems relativism cannot be without realism and as highlighted by Edwards, Ashmore and Potter (1995) it is argued realism cannot be without relativism. Therefore, as the debate between realism and relativism can become blurred, it may be that instrumentalism is a more suitable approach to psychology. In conclusion, with no consensus between realists and relativists, it is unclear whether psychology should pursue the path of realism and relativism. As proposed by Cacioppo, Semin and Bertson (2004) an integrated approach between realism and instrumentalism may be the ‘best’ approach for psychology.

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