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Context, Subjectivity, and Psychological Research: Impressions of the 2009 SPSSI Program at the APA Convention
By Sara McClelland, University of Michigan, Michigan Society of Fellows

Often when we go to APA conventions, the sheer size of the meeting, the huge crowds, and rushing from one end of the convention center to the other can make it seem like being a psychologist has nothing to do with the outside world or with actual people, especially as we sit huddled in darkened rooms staring at PowerPoint slides. But then – you hear someone give talk, or a discussant opens up an idea in a way that inspires you, or you get to meet someone who you’ve always admired -- and then you know you’re in the right place. This year, I was fortunate to have all three of these things happen.

I had the pleasure of beginning and ending my time in Toronto with conversations with two luminaries in SPSSI’s history: Beatrice Wright and Herb Kelman. These interviews are part of the historical narrative that SPSSI historian Alexandra Rutherford is organizing to celebrate SPSSI’s 75th anniversary in 2011. Over the course of their interviews, Drs. Wright and Kelman recounted their intellectual, academic, and personal stories which cut across the twentieth century, beginning with their early introduction to psychology, their mentors, their own students, and the obstacles each faced as they continued to do research, sometimes within climates and contexts that pushed their work to the margins.

Interestingly, both attended Brooklyn College which is part of the City University of New York, and recounted stories about how the faculty they met there encouraged them to pursue graduate studies in psychology. In addition to their shared undergraduate education, World War II – and war in general – played a major role in both Dr. Wright and Kelman’s lives and in their research. Dr. Wright recounted an anecdote about her graduate advisor, Kurt Lewin, worrying about the safety of his mother in Berlin in 1942 while he was on the faculty at the University of Iowa. This small piece of intimate knowledge about Lewin profoundly reminded me that psychology’s historical figures were, of course, deeply affected by the events unfolding around them. Dr. Wright also detailed for us how the war shaped her own research on disability as veterans returned home with psychological and physical changes that could not be ignored. Dr. Wright’s research broke new ground in articulating the civil rights of those with disabilities – a topic which until her research had been virtually untouched. This work continues to influence the disability rights movement and rehabilitation services for veterans today.

Dr. Kelman, whose research has consistently examined the effects and proliferation of war across the globe, talked about the genesis of his work when he talked about how McCarthyism affected him personally, as well as his research on peace and conflict resolution. These stories made clear how intimately connected our research can be with the world around us. It also reminded me of the power of subjectivity in creating research questions that are shaped by current events and, in turn, reach out to shape national conversations using psychological insight. We have often traded the word subjectivity in for its cousin objectivity, but these conversations with SPSSI elders emphasized and renewed the generative power of subjectivity. Over the course of my interviews with each of them, I was reminded how our work as psychologists so often bends around the curves of current events, stretches to keep up with the hurried winds of national debate, and twists to reflect back the nuances of what it means to be psychologist concerned with social issues.

These themes continued throughout the convention and reoccurred as I listened to three other psychologists make these same connections in their own ways. The first was Michelle Fine in her APA plenary, “Taking It to the Streets – What Motivates Young People During Times of Great Inequity.” The second was Susan Opotow in her SPSSI Presidential Address, “Moral Exclusion: Looking at Past Injustice.” The third was Ruthellen Josselson who was a discussant on my own panel which concerned using narrative methods to study social justice issues. In each of these talks, the speaker described the act of linking – linking data with social issues, linking current events with historical ones, linking research methods with political ones. These links are profound; they, like the anecdote about Lewin’s mother in Berlin during WWII, remind us that the researcher is never isolated or without history. This is, of course, often described simply as paying attention to “context,” but in each of the conversations and talks that I heard throughout my five days in Toronto, I understood much more. Context and subjectivity are terms that have come to represent shorthand for psychologists to refer to various macro and micro influences on research. But these two words on their own do not draw sufficient attention to the way that they are each connected to each other. Context and subjectivity can stand in for ‘the world outside’ and ‘the world inside me,’ but it is the synergy between them that deserves our attention.
Throughout the APA convention, I heard researchers trying hard to capture aspects of each – some, for example, including contextual variables in their analytic and/or theoretical models; others working to understand how the subjectivity of the researcher influences findings. What intrigued me most however, were those speakers whom I heard attempting to bring these two terms together in ways that encouraged new insights into psychological research, the world, and ourselves. Context and subjectivity are terms that come in and out of favor in our discipline, but listening to Beatrice Wright and Herb Kelman’s experiences reverberate throughout the talks at APA, I had faith that these words, together and in unison, would continue to reveal themselves and inspire new thinking. I look forward to seeing how we bring these concepts alive in subsequent meetings, in our on-going research, and in how we pay homage to our impressive lineage of psychologists engaged with social issues.


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