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Psychology and Formalisation

Phenomenology, Ethnomethodology and Statistics


Anita Williams

This book revisits psychology’s appropriation of natural scientific methods. The author argues that, in order to overcome ongoing methodological debates in psychology, it is necessary to confront the problem of formalisation contained in the appropriation of methods of natural science. By doing so, the subject matter of psychology – the human being – and questions about the meaning of human existence can be brought to the centre of the discipline. Drawing on Garfinkel, Sacks, Edwards and Potter, the author sees ethnomethodologically informed qualitative methods, which stem from phenomenology, as a possible alternative to statistical methods, but ultimately finds these methods to be just another method of formalisation.She returns to Husserlian phenomenology as a way to critique the centrality of method in psychology and shows that the adoption of natural scientific methods in psychology is part of the larger push to formalise and objectify all aspects of human existence.

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Conclusion: Psychology and Formalisation


Objectification is a matter of method, founded upon prescientific data of experience. Mathematical method ‘constructs,’ out of intuitive representation, ideal objects and teaches how to deal with them operatively and systematically. It does not produce things out of other things in the manner of handwork; it produces ideas. Ideas arise through a peculiar sort of mental accomplishment: idealization (Husserl 1970 [1936], 348, emphasis in original).

The book started as a search to find an alternative method in psychology that was not based upon natural scientific methods, which I initially took to be equivalent to quantitative methods. I was searching for a method that took seriously that a person always lives in the world with other people and cannot be understood outside the social context in which they find themselves. In line with critical and qualitative approaches to psychological research, I saw psychologists, who use quantitative methods, as attempting to explain social situations through individual characteristics.1 Moreover, this approach—to explain the social world through individual characteristics—risks reducing genuinely social problems to supposedly measurable individual problems. Reducing problems to individual ones directs people to find individual solutions, foreclosing the possibility to see their problem as reflective of larger societal issues, which may be in need of critique. I sought out qualitative methods because qualitative researchers focus on investigating how people talk to one another as a way to understand broader discursive formations that reveal social issues, such as inequality, power and individualisation. Qualitative researchers start...

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