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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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Introduction: Psychology, Ethnomethodology and Phenomenology


In this book, I argue that psychological methods, despite claims to the contrary, continue to be based upon methods adopted from the natural sciences. In particular, methods used in psychology are underpinned by the concept that there is an objective standpoint from which to view human behaviour.1 Thus, psychological researchers assume that through their methods they can establish general unchanging patterns in human characteristics that explain and predict the way people act in the world.2 Through adopting methods from natural science, psychology presupposes that the human condition can be understood, categorised, explained and predicted in the same way as rocks and trees. Psychologists specifically investigate people but, by using methods based on natural science, they are forced to admit that meaningful human experience is either irrelevant or inaccessible to their investigations of human behaviour.

I reconsider the ‘methodological’ appropriation of the objective standpoint by engaging with the quantitative-qualitative debate in psychology. I argue that the problem associated with the adoption of natural scientific method, either acknowledged or unacknowledged, cannot be resolved by replacing quantitative methods with qualitative methods. To substantiate this claim, I pay close attention to the framework of ethnomethodology (EM) as an exemplar of a selfproclaimed ‘non-scientific’ qualitative approach to social research, including psychology. On the quantitative side of the debate, I focus on personality psychology and testing as a typical example of a natural scientific approach to research in psychology. I demonstrate that the statistical examinations of personality and discursive psychological investigations of...

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