Psychology’s unnerving diversity

By Matthew Bennett; Copyright 2000

I’ve recently been reflecting on the unnerving diversity that characterizes contemporary psychology. Most of us have learned to value diversity, because having diversity implies a richness of choice which leads to novel solutions and fewer “blind spots.” But when does diversity become unnerving? At what point do we recognize that we are close to fulfilling the prophecies of William Butler Yeats, when “things fall apart, the center does not hold?”


What attracted me to psychology in the first place was the writings of Jung, who seemed to have found a sort of spiritual edge to the world, a perspective from which it seemed possible to gaze through the veil of temporal realities into a more generative world of spiritual potential, where, to use Jung’s phrasing, we have discovered that the gods and goddesses are psychological factors. Jung’s vision of psychology, the one which turned me on to the field in the first place, was tantamount to contemplating the mystery of that profound revelation and its implications for all of us.
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The morning dew of my Jungian instincts evaporated in the hot noonday sun of my college psychology courses, which cast psychology as the conditioning of rats in mazes, and psychologists as careful scorekeepers of empirical data on clipboards, and psychological thinking as the construction of Skinnerian dystopian fantasies in which the world will move on levers of operant conditioning (the question of who would decide what behaviors would be rewarded, and based on what principles, sent me into the kind of quiet rages that only drunk undergraduates can feel).

My clinical training suggested that psychology is a kind of healthcare discipline, in which licensed professionals approach mental disease systems with the diagnostic sensibilities of medical doctors, and with the same consensual realities as defined by agency regulatory authority, insurance company policy, and pharmaceutical industry forces.


My first work experiences out of school, primarily at community mental health agencies, taught me yet another perspective on psychology.  A psychologist according to county mental health is often just an unusually expensive social worker or case manager, and our mental health clients often approached me with the same expectations as they would members of those other disciplines: they said I could get bus tokens here…help me apply for social security…I need to get custody of my kids back…homeless services said I had to come here for a diagnosis before I can get a bed.

Along the way I’ve heard many other perspectives to add to the welter of opinions:  psychology is social justice, psychology is a kind of political tool, psychology is a subset of neurology, and psychology is an instrument of cultural oppression.

The discordance manifests at every level of inquiry in our discipline.  What is trauma?  Is it an anxiety disorder based on dysfunctional response to experiences beyond the pale of usual human experience?  Is it a normative response of the culturally repressed?  Is it increased negative feedback sensitivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis?  Is it an epiphenomenon of craven politicians and the military industrial complex? Is it an instrument of patriarchal oppression?

Yes…the diversity becomes unnerving.

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