Prof Debbie Kaminer
The Science of Psychology Standing Committee is a newly constituted committee within PsySSA. In broad terms, the aim of the committee is to provide guidance to the PsySSA Executive regarding key issues related to scientific developments, priorities and challenges within the discipline in South Africa. This is indeed an interesting and apposite time for the formation of such a committee. Within the current decolonial moment in South African tertiary institutions and South African society more broadly, the notion of a ‘science of psychology’ requires some careful interrogation and navigation.
Psychology students and academics at our universities are increasingly questioning the relevance of psychological theories with firm Euro-American roots, and psychology training programmes and practitioners are likewise grappling with the applicability of ‘Northern’ psychological intervention models to ‘Southern’ contexts of endemic inequality and cultural diversity. Often these debates centre on the content of what exactly should be taught or practised within the discipline, debates which run the danger of falling into rather rigid binaries; for example, that human experience is either wholly universal or entirely local, or that African and Euro-American psychologies are fundamentally different and mutually exclusive knowledge systems. Engaging with these different perspectives while creating a space that can hold and nurture epistemological complexity can indeed be challenging.
An illustrative example was provided by the committee’s first task from the PsySSA Executive in 2016, which was to comment on the International Declaration on Core Competences in Professional Psychology, developed by the International Project on Competence in Psychology (IPCP) and supported by the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP) and the International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS). The goal of the IPCP was to develop “a global agreement on identifying the benchmark competences that define professional psychology”, and it involved an extensive and very thorough process of international consultation over several years. The final guidelines contain twelve competences for psychological practitioners (each with a set of operationalised descriptors) that can inform a standardised approach to evaluating practitioner competence across different countries.
On one hand it can be argued that this kind of international benchmarking can be valuable in an increasingly globalised world, and the twelve competences (such as ‘acts professionally’, ‘practices ethically’ or ‘operates as an evidence-based practitioner’) are broad enough that they do not dictate the specific content of what practitioner trainings in different contexts should deliver. On the other hand, some implicit epistemological biases can be identified in many of the competences. For example, the competences of “operates as an evidence-based practitioner” and “follows accepted best practice in psychology”` fail to acknowledge the historical unevenness in processes of psychological knowledge production across regions. Whose “evidence” and “best practices” are being referenced here? Which knowledges are being privileged, and where do they come from? The guidelines contain some assumptions of universality in the meaning of terms like “evidence” and “best practices”, but these could certainly be contested. This may particularly be the case in contexts of systematic inequality and marginalisation, where practitioners may adopt a more explicitly emancipatory orientation in their practice that would evaluate “evidence” of “effectiveness”, and “best practices”, in very particular ways that may not conform to those valued in the global North.
Despite their lengthy and inclusive development process, the guidelines demonstrate some of the complexities of attempting international scientific benchmarking in psychology without a careful critical appraisal of the assumptions and implications that underlie claims of “science” and “scientific” within the discipline. The Science of Psychology Standing Committee hopes to contribute to the creation of spaces for ongoing engagement with the complexities of developing a contextually embedded and contextually responsive ‘science of psychology’ in South Africa, a conversation which needs to include the voices of students, academics, trainers, practitioners and clients.