Monday, January 17, 2011

On "Pasta"

My systems and theories class was rather... interesting. I had a number of difficulties with the class, not the least of which involved the professor. That said, one of the ongoing assignments was worthy of note.

For many of the "theories" we covered, we were expected to write a little summary, answering a series of ten questions. I've already posted one set of my answers to these here. At the end of the class, however, we were expected to answer these questions for ourselves. The professor called this "making pasta". I call the process of "making pasta" from assorted theories along the lines which he suggested "highly unethical", "academically dishonest", or "bullshitting" -- depending on what, exactly, you intend to do with this "pasta" after you "make" it.

That said, I did answer the questions anyway. I just didn't pick up elements willy-nilly from assorted "theories" based on their personal and ideological appeal.

It occurs to me that these answers may be of interest to assorted and sundry readers of this blog. So, without further ado...

1-How does the theory conceptualize the basic beliefs about people? Does the theory see people as "good", "bad", neutral, capable of growth, proactive or reactive to the environment?

Theories and theoretical positions are valid within a clinical environment to the extent that they either are supported by the available empirical evidence ("are accurate") and/or have been demonstrated to improve client outcomes ("are useful"). Theories which possess accuracy but have yet to demonstrate utility can be justified on the grounds of improving understanding; theories which have demonstrated utility but lack accuracy can be justified on the grounds of the ethical principle of benevolence. Theories that have neither property have no business anywhere near clients in a clinical environment.

While some basic propositions about humanity are answerable by the currently available evidence (e.g. the available research on education, development, and cultural differences strongly supports the idea that people are capable of learning), others are not. By definition, answers to such questions are speculation or assumptions; representing them as other than this, if done for financial or academic gain, constitutes fraud.

2-How does the theory describe the function of personality? What is the purpose of our "personality"; what needs does the personality meet?

Assumptions about human nature are dangerous for counselors and their clients. They should be avoided whenever possible. At the moment, the available empirical evidence does not even begin to answer this question. No clinical technique should be predicated on answers which do not exist.

3-How does the theory describe the "structure" of personality? What IS our personality? What does it consist of?

The current state of knowledge about personality and individual differences are such that we can say things about it (e.g. that extroversion typically remains fairly constant over time; that people who report that they prefer showers over baths statistically tend to be more extroverted than those who do not) but cannot say much beyond that. Again, assumptions hurt clients and should be avoided where possible.

4-How does the theory describe how we develop into a "normal person"?

While developmental psychologists have done a fairly good job of mapping out the general bounds of the developmental path which a statistical majority of people follow from the context of Piagetian constructionism, assumptions such as the belief that deviation from this path must necessarily be harmful are, by their nature, both biased and bigoted.

Generally speaking, mental health isn't – in the sense that it is impossible to define "mental health" except as an absence of and lack of vulnerability to problems. This same problem is why medicine is defined as the science and practice of treating and preventing disease rather than as the promotion of good health.

Assumptions such as the regularly-made assumption that an individual must conform to some preconceived notion of "functioning" to be "healthy" have no place in clinical practice.

5-How does the theory describe how we develop into "abnormal" people?

Problems with psychological components can arise from a variety of sources.
These can be environmental in nature (e.g. exogenic depression induced by parental mortality), biological in nature (e.g. forgetfulness induced by traumatic brain injury), social in nature (e.g. lack of assertiveness and ability to self-advocate induced by pervasive prejudice and paternalism), historical in nature (e.g. emotional scars left by traumatic experiences), or have a completely different nature which I couldn't think of when writing this. Assumptions in this regard have a distinct tendency to harm clients (i.e. assumptions on the cause of a specific problem can be and often are wrong, and treatment methods selected based on incorrect assumptions tend to be unnecessarily ineffective and/or harmful).

6-How does the theory conceptualize the process of counseling? How does it work, in general?

Counseling is defined (Merriam-Webster) as "professional guidance of the individual by utilizing psychological methods especially in collecting case history data, using various techniques of the personal interview, and testing interests and aptitudes".

Or, in other words, counseling someone means finding out what the problem is and helping them decide on a course of action to take about it. In common use, assisting or guiding the person in implementing the course decided on is also considered part of the counseling process.

7-How does the theory conceptualize the specific techniques of counseling?

Evaluation procedures, regardless of their theoretical origins, are acceptable to the extent that they have been shown to produce valid data. Therapies are acceptable to the extent that they have been shown to improve client outcomes. Tests and therapies which are not supported by the available empirical evidence should be considered inaccurate and/or harmful by default and have no business being practiced in practice outside of an IRB-approved research protocol.

8-How does the theory conceptualize the roles/responsibilities of the counselor?

The counselor's role is, by definition, to help the client arrive at a solution to the presenting problem.

9-How does the theory conceptualize the roles/responsibilities of the client?

The client's responsibility is to arrive at a solution to the presenting problem.

10-What is the utility of the theory -- strengths, weaknesses, limitation, applicability?

Theories are valid to the extent to which they explain existing data and predict future data. Good theories possess two properties which most of those we've studied have lacked: domain-specificity and falsifiability. A theory which possesses domain-specificity attempts to explain only a limited set of information; grand, over-arching theories of everything tend to be wrong more often than not. A theory which is falsifiable is testable and does not attempt to explain away data which does not fit its predictions. Good theories are typically constructed to fit the data they are attempting to explain rather than according to the author's ideological prejudices.

When evaluated by this standard, which is considered incredibly basic in the field of detecting pseudoscience and health fraud, the vast majority of the theories we've studied in this class come out extremely poorly. In the absence of good theories, the best option is generally to practice as atheoretically as possible.

There are some things which I'd change if I were writing this today. There are many more things which I wouldn't. In any case, there are many little nuggets of interest in here...

1 comment:

  1. Alexander, I used to slap up some of my academic work to my blog .. not for others' interest, but so that I could find it later.