Turf Wars in Academia (or the Feasibility of Being a Social Psychologist and an Evolutionary Psychologist at the Same Time!)
ON ACADEMIC TURF WARS AND EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY
Turf wars in academia? To any academic, this is like asking if there are peanuts in peanut butter or socks in a sock drawer or clowns in a clown car. You bet.
Like lots of us (I’m guessing), I don’t entirely understand it. But it seems that our common tendency to categorize things (see Atran, 1995) makes people like to sort information into categories. People can be uncomfortable conceptualizing something as existing in multiple categories simultaneously. How can a dolphin be a marine animal and a mammal at the same time?! How can a lobster be both an invertebrate and a tasty meal?!
I was recently surprised to find that my fondness for evolutionary approaches to human social behavior is somehow seen by some as putting me in the category of “evolutionary psychologist” and not “social psychologist.” Really? I have to say, while I’m a big fan of the expression of multiple perspectives on intellectual issues, this conception just seems a bit myopic to me. And here’s why:
Being “an evolutionary psychologist,” in my mind, at least, essentially corresponds to being a scholar of human behavior who takes evolutionary principles into account in understanding why people do what they do (Geher, 2006). In this sense, “evolutionary psychology” is a perspective that can be applied to understanding all facets of human behavior.
And evolutionary psychology has, in recent years, been famously successful in helping illuminate our understanding of phenomena ranging across the spectrum of human behavior. This perspective has illuminated our understanding of the effects of hormones on behavior (e.g., Miller, Tybur, & Jordan, 2007), cognitive neuroscience (Cosmides & Tooby, 2005), developmental psychology (Heerwagen & Orians, 2002), and social psychological processes (e.g., Haselton & Buss, 2000) – among a battery of other classes of behavior.
Leda Cosmides is NOT an evolutionary psychologist AS OPPOSED TO a cognitive psychologist. That’s silly! She’s both. She’s a world-renowned cognitive psychologist who applies an evolutionary approach to her understanding of cognitive processes. To necessitate that a scholar must be X OR Y is simply to miss a major point.
As behavioral scientists, we’re all in this thing together – we’re doing our best to help the world gain a better understanding of human behavior. That’s at least moderately important in my book. Forcing behavioral scientists into pigeon holes based on traditional categories within the woefully-slow-to-budge world of academia is not particularly progressive.
WHAT IS SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY?
This leads to my next point regarding this whole turf-war thing – just what is social psychology? Of course, this question depends largely on which textbook you happen to have open at a given time. But I have a PhD in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire, so, if you don’t mind me being a smidge presumptuous, allow me:
Social psychology is the part of psychology that addresses human behavior in terms of social context. It focuses on how behavior is affected by other people and by all socially relevant situational factors. It also addresses internal, psychological processes – such as cognition, emotion, and motivation – as they pertain to the social world.
I just came up with that right now, but I’m guessing if you have a social psychology textbook in front of you, you’ll find that this answer’s in the ballpark.
Is social psychology somehow incongruous from the idea of using our understanding of evolutionary processes to shed light on human behavior? Not at all. If a “social psychologist” is someone who studies human social behavior, and an “evolutionary psychologist” is someone who uses evolution as a tool to understand behavior writ large, then certainly there’s room for someone to use evolutionary principles to understand human social behavior! Heck, there’s plenty of room.
Maybe this is why Greg Webster’s (2007) recent analysis of the content of articles of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (the premier journal in the field of social psychology) found that articles incorporating evolutionary approaches have been steadily on the rise – and this trend is still in motion as I type.
Like many social psychologists, I study the nature of interpersonal relationships (studying such phenomena as the ability to estimate the desires of potential mates; see Geher, 2009). Informed by an evolutionary framework, my scholarship often examines behavior in light of evolutionary forces such as natural and sexual selection (see Geher & Miller, 2008).
So I consider myself a social psychologist AND an evolutionary psychologist. I also consider myself a decent cook and an almost-average roller hockey player. You can be more than one thing at a time!
EVOLUTIONARY PSCYHOLOGY ON THE SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY NETWORK!
Please, don’t take my word for it. I’ve got some data for you. The Social Psychology Network (SPN), overseen by Scott Plous, is one of the greatest online resources in all of psychology. Dedicated to the field of social psychology, this online database includes information on graduate programs in social psychology, links regarding online studies in social psychology, curricular resources, and – relevant to the current line of reasoning – profiles of social psychologists from far and wide. For most profiles, the “number of visits” (or “hits”) is presented. This number gives a quick indication of the impact of particular scholars.
In a quick analysis to substantiate the point of this blog, I checked out the SPN profiles of several psychologists whom I know as both “social psychologist” and “evolutionary psychologist.” Here are just a few examples – including the number of hits their profiles have received within the past few years:
David Buss: 25,350*
Doug Kenrick: 21,312*
David Schmitt: 25,701*
Jeffrey Simpson: 10,414**
Note that these numbers were retrieved from www.socialpsychology.org on September 27, 2010
*Profile created June 9, 2001
** Profile created July 18, 2003
I’m not going to present a comparison of matched “non evolutionary social psychologists” now – that’d stray from the point of this blog! My point in this section is simply this: Look – these scholars are huge – they’re renowned – they are all making major impacts on our understanding of human behavior. Importantly, these data are from the Social Psychology Network. These hits represent how well these scholars are known AS SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGISTS. Yet when you hear a name like David Buss, you hear “EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGIST” as well. If “evolutionary psychologist” and “social psychologist” were mutually exclusive terms, you probably wouldn’t see “evolutionary psychologists” featured in such a prolific manner on the SPN site.
THINK OUTSIDE THE TURF
David Sloan Wilson (2007) suggested that the “ivory tower” be renamed “the ivory archipelago” – a moniker owing to how isolated the different areas of academia are from one another. He’s right. As scholars, we can do the world a favor by refusing to adhere to traditional categories of academia. Allowing ourselves to “think outside the turf,” so to speak, has extraordinary potential to help us see things that we just wouldn’t see otherwise.
My EvoS blog, “Building Darwin’s Bridges,” is about the power of evolutionary theory in helping us understand the world – but it’s about more than that. It’s about helping bridge the many islands of the ivory archipelago and getting students (and we’re all students) to open their minds to the many connections that await their courageous intellectual adventures.
And in case I didn’t make it clear, yes, I think someone can be a “social psychologist” and an “evolutionary psychologist” concurrently.
Atran, S. (1995). Causal constraints on categories and categorical constraints on biological reasoning across cultures. In D. Sperber, D. Premack, & A. J. Premack (Eds.), Causal cognition: A multidisciplinary debate (pp. 205-233). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2005). Neurocognitive adaptations for
social exchange. In D. M. Buss (Ed.), The handbook of evolutionary
psychology (pp. 584–627). New York: Wiley.
Geher, G. (2009). Accuracy and Oversexualization in Cross-Sex Mind-Reading: An Adaptationist Approach. Evolutionary Psychology, 7, 331-347.
Geher, G., & Miller, G. F. (Eds., 2008). Mating Intelligence: Sex, Relationships, and the Mind’s Reproductive System. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Heerwagen, J. H., & Orians, G. H. (2002). The ecological world of
children. In P. H. Kahn, Jr., & S.R. Kellert (Eds.), Children and nature:
Psychological, sociocultural, and evolutionary investigations (pp.
29–64). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Miller, G. F., Tybur, J., & Jordan, B. (2007). Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap-dancers: Economic evidence for human estrus? Evolution and Human Behavior