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Theories, Models, and Science in Community Psychology

Theories, Models, and Science in Community Psychology by  Jacob Kraemer Tebes

Author(s): Jacob Kraemer Tebes


I appreciate the opportunity to comment on the paper by Jason, Stevens, Ram, Miller, Beasley, and Gleason (2016) entitled, “Theories in the Field of Community Psychology.” The authors tackle an important, but often neglected issue – the use of theories in science – and consider how well theories in community psychology advance scientific inquiry. Jason et al. (2016) provide a valuable service to our field in their examination of theories in community psychology, and specifically, theories in three major areas: ecological theory, sense of community, and empowerment. Their brief review of theory in each area provides a useful summary and a call to action for further specification of theory. They have started a conversation vital to our field’s future. Despite my enthusiasm for several parts of their paper, I have a number of concerns. These include the authors’: 1) assumptions about contemporary science, 2) assessment of theories in community psychology relative to those in other fields in psychology, 3) overemphasis on theory as opposed to models in science, and 4) lack of attention to other epistemologies in community psychology that hold scientific promise for our field. I discuss each of these briefly below.


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I appreciate the opportunity to comment on the paper by Jason, Stevens, Ram, Miller, Beasley, and Gleason (2016) entitled, “Theories in the Field of Community Psychology.” The authors tackle an important, but often neglected issue – the use of theories in science – and consider how well theories in community psychology advance scientific inquiry. Jason et al. (2016) provide a valuable service to our field in their examination of theories in community psychology, and specifically, theories in three major areas: ecological theory, sense of community, and empowerment. Their brief review of theory in each area provides a useful summary and a call to action for further specification of theory. They have started a conversation vital to our field’s future.

Despite my enthusiasm for several parts of their paper, I have a number of concerns. These include the authors’: 1) assumptions about contemporary science, 2) assessment of theories in community psychology relative to those in other fields in psychology, 3) overemphasis on theory as opposed to models in science, and 4) lack of attention to other epistemologies in community psychology that hold scientific promise for our field. I discuss each of these briefly below.

Assumptions about contemporary science

The authors’ implicit view of science is based on a philosophy of science known as logical empiricism, which is a twentieth century adaptation and extension of nineteenth century logical positivism (Tebes, 2012). Logical empiricism replaced positivism because it offered a practical way – the (hypothetico-deductive) scientific method – to conduct science; in which a researcher begins with an a priori hypothesis derived from theory that is then tested inductively by observations made under specific conditions (McGuire, 1986). Until about the 1960s, this was the standard way to do science, and was defensible in the philosophy of science. However, as philosophers noted at the time, this view assumed that observations were independent of theory, when in fact, they were constrained by the very theories they purported to test (Popper, 1935/1959). Kuhn (1962/1970) and other philosophers of science showed that theories, and the paradigms in which they were embedded, were shaped by extra-scientific factors – social, historical, cultural, and psychological forces – that influenced the norms and acceptability of a given theory among scientists. As a result, the implicit assumptions underlying the standard view of science based on logical empiricism were inherently flawed (Longino, 2013). As Gergen (1988) has noted, one cannot separate out “observational language from theoretical presuppositions” (p. 2) because theories determine “what counts as evidence, confirmation and discomfirmation” (p. 3). Further, because words acquire meaning within specific contexts and theories are posited in language that is context-free, “there is no viable account of how it is that theories actually predict phenomena in nature (Gergen, 1988, p. 3). Thus, if observations and the language used to describe them are flawed representations of reality subject to extra-scientific factors, theories in science are an imperfect “house of cards” upon which conceptions of reality are based.

The above critiques are well known and have been made by philosophers of science (e.g., Bhaskar, 1975; Giere, 2006; Longino, 2013; Morgan & Morrison, 1999), scholars in the social sciences (e.g., Manicas & Second, 1983; Manicas, 2006; McGuire, 1986, 1989), and community psychologists (Tebes, 2005, 2012; Tebes, Thai, & Matlin, 2014; Trickett & Espino, 1994). I am sure the authors know them well. However, the authors’ extended discussion of Reichenbach’s (1938) “context of discovery” vs. “context of justification,” and its central place in their argument, suggests that there is a disconnect between their knowledge of this history and its implications for the importance of theories in science, and in community psychology.

The authors repeatedly return to the distinction made by Reichenbach (1938) – that is, the context of discovery vs. the context of justification, which philosophers refer to as the DJ distinction (Hoyningen-Huene, 2006) – as central to why theories in community psychology do not quite measure up as scientific. However, as philosophers since Kuhn have maintained, this distinction is less relevant for theory and science if one accepts Kuhn’s central thesis: that the practice of science is inextricably embedded in social, historical, cultural, and psychological factors (Hoyningen-Huene, 2006). For Kuhn (1962/1970), the DJ distinction is mostly a false dichotomy since the context of justification is just as embedded in extra-scientific factors as those that shape the context of discovery (Hoyningen-Huene, 2006; Nickles, 1980). The authors are mindful of this issue, and cite work that has sought a rapprochement between the proponents and critics of the DJ distinction (Hoyningen-Huene, 2006). The authors note that such a rapprochement seeks to establish a “normative perspective” among scholars for “the evaluation of scientific claims” (Hoyningen-Huene, 2006, p. 130). However, after summarizing the adequacy of theories in community psychology, they return to characterizing the DJ distinction as one between conducting “exploratory” research vs. research that seeks to “develop a good theory” and that utilizes “rigorous methods” (Jason et al., 2016, p. 18). Consistent with Kuhn and with other critics of the DJ distinction, I would argue that both types of DJ research – discovery and justification – are effectively exploratory and both use rigorous methods, depending on the context of inquiry and questions examined.

Status of theory in community psychology relative to theory in other fields in psychology

Another concern I have is that, when it comes to theory development, Jason et al. (2016) hold community psychology to a higher standard than other fields in psychology. More specifically, if community psychology has yet to produce adequate theories for scientific inquiry, one must ask: Compared to what? I give two examples to illustrate the complexity of answering this question generally for psychology, and specifically for community psychology.

A well-developed theory in social psychology is the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB, Ajzen, 1985), which is an extension of the Theory of Reasoned Action (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975). TPB stipulates that intention immediately precedes a given behavior and itself has three intersecting influences: one’s attitude toward the behavior, subjective norms about the behavior, and perceived behavioral control (Azjen, 2015). Each of these influences is further affected, respectively, by one’s beliefs about the likely consequences of the behavior, normative expectations for others important to the person faced with the behavioral choice, and various factors that control effective behavioral performance. TPB has been widely studied in a variety of health contexts related to health behavior change and public health. Its specificity has enabled the theory to be examined carefully in both cross-sectional and longitudinal observational studies as well as in randomized controlled trials (Azjen, 2015; Sniehotta, Presseau, & Arauja-Soares, 2014). The utility of the theory has had mixed assessments as a theory of behavior change, but it has been useful as a theory to specify conditions under which behavioral intentions result in specific behaviors (Azjen, 2015; Sniehotta et al., 2014). My guess is that Jason et al. (2016) would regard TPB a theory to which community psychologists should aspire, and I would agree.

In another example, in the fields of neuropsychology, physiological psychology, and cognitive science there has been considerable research conducted on the proposed theoretical principles of equipotentiality and mass action (Lashley, 1929, 1950). Mass action (Lashley [1929] originally called it mass function) refers to the notion that the brain functions as an integrated system (mass action) in which specific neurons, when necessary, can take on functions ordinarily carried out by other neurons (equipotentiality). Lashley based his theory on ablation studies of rats, and we now know that his observations were the result of how he measured performance; he used an approach that was standard at the time and produced results which challenged the prevailing models of the brain which emphasized localization of function (Elliott & Carson, 2000). Nevertheless, Lashley’s theory about equipotentiality and mass action in the first half of the 20th century was enormously influential theoretically in explaining how laboratory animals and some humans could recover specific functions, such as speech and language, despite having lesions in regions of the brain usually associated with those functions. However, as scientists were able to map brain functions with greater precision, the original principles were shown to have less utility because of previously unrecognized interconnections within the brain that accounted for the observed effects (Elliott & Carson, 2000). Despite these limitations, the influence of Lashley’s theoretical principles were considerable as scientists conceptualized the brain as an integrated neural network (Hebb, 1949), and identified pervasive and distributed brain functions, including those for cognition, language, and action (Hagoort, 2005; Sporns, 2011; Willems & Hagoort, 2007).

Clearly, Lashley did not have a fully developed theory of the brain in articulating his principles of equipotentiality and mass action, and once they were assessed using more varied measurement approaches, they did not survive what Jason et al. (2016) would consider the context of justification. However, their influence as a model of brain function was quite significant, and arguably, quite relevant to contemporary theories of the brain. Their abiding influence represents the value of the context of discovery in science and how models of behavior can have enormous scientific influence, even in the absence of a well-articulated theory.

In my view, Jason et al.’s (2016) analysis of ecological theory is similar in many ways to Lashley’s principles of equipotentiality and mass action. Jason et al. (2016) summarize ecological theory as described by Kelly (1968; 2006) as well as Bronfenbrenner (1979), noting that Kelly’s emphasis on interdependence, cycling of resources, adaptation, and succession provides somewhat greater specificity than Bronfenbrenner’s embedded socio-ecological contexts for human development. However, for both aspects of ecological theory as used in community psychology, Jason et al. (2016) correctly point out that this “theory” operates mostly as a “framework” because it provides a basis for specifying various models and hypotheses, but not specific predictions based on the theory. This is very similar to what Lashley introduced to neuropsychology when he proposed a theoretical framework for the brain that described the two principles of equipotentiality and mass action. Lashley’s framework was not a fully developed theory of the brain, but it stimulated subsequent productive science on the brain; ecological theory has had a similar impact on science in community psychology.

Overemphasis on theory as opposed to models in science

The authors focus their paper on theories in the field of community psychology. However, in recent years, a number of philosophers of science (Frigg & Hartmann, 2012; Giere, 2006, 2010; Morgan & Morrison, 1999; Nersessian, 2006) have emphasized the centrality of models, even more so than theories, to advance science. Although the authors make a case for the value of theory, I think much of what takes actually place in science – especially when doing research in what the authors would refer to as the context of discovery – involves conceptualizing and testing models. Models represent some middle ground between theory and observation, are intended as representations of the world, and are usually tied to the contexts in which observations take place (Frigg & Hartmann, 2012; Giere, 2006; Nersessian, 2006). This view is consistent with Jason et al. (2016), although to be fair, they did not go into any depth describing models. One value of models is that they are non-linguistic; that is, they are less constrained by language as a representation of the world (Giere, 1988; Morrison & Morgan, 1999). This allows models to transcend some of the limitations of language endemic to theory. As a result, models function as physical, graphical, mathematical, or computational depictions of the world (Frigg & Hartmann, 2012; Haig, 2013; Nersessian, 2006) that serve as autonomous agents between theories and observations to mediate their relationship (Morrison & Morgan, 1999). This affords scientists freedom to characterize the world apart from the language of theory (Giere, 2010), thus producing more useful, accurate, and locally-grounded observations (Dunbar, 1999; Giere, 2010). Examples of this are found in studies of how scientists think; their use of model building through analogous reasoning and distributed cognition in teams illustrates how science advances in the context of discovery (Dunbar, 1999, 2000; Nersessian, 2006).

Since community psychology is centrally focused on action and inquiry that is culturally situated and local, and often involves participatory approaches with various stakeholders, a focus on model-building over theory-building is likely to have significant benefits for advancing science. There are numerous successful examples of how such collaborative, culturally grounded research has advanced action as well as science in the field (Allen & Mohatt, 2014; Andrews et al., 2012; Brodsky, 2009; Jason, 2013; Tebes et al., 2014).

Lack of attention to other epistemologies in community psychology that hold scientific promise

The authors’ scope was ambitious – Theories in the Field of Community Psychology – and so it is natural that they were unable to incorporate most of the relevant work related to their topic. One area that needs further consideration is other major epistemologies in community psychology and their implications for scientific inquiry. The term epistemology refers to how one comes to know the world and to make knowledge claims about it (Tebes, 2005). I conclude this commentary with a brief discussion of this issue and its implications.

As noted at the outset of this essay, the authors adopted a framework for science grounded in logical empiricism, a view no longer accepted by philosophers of science. What replaced logical empiricism in philosophy was various forms of realism (Bhaskar, 1975; Giere, 2006; Harre, 2009; Manicas & Secord, 1983). This view holds that there is a reality “out there” independent of one’s construction of it (i.e., realism) and that the natural world, including human beings, can be known (albeit imperfectly) through direct engagement and observation (i.e., naturalism) (Tebes, 2005, 2016). For scientists, the shift from logical empiricism has had little practical consequence; they retained the scientific method but accepted its philosophical limitations by adopting a pragmatic solution; that is, a stance that allows for theoretical and methodological pluralism in which no method or theory is considered, a priori, to be better than another (Tebes, 2005, 2012). Certainly scientists have their biases about which theories and methods they find most useful, but norms are generally established within each field for what constitutes scientific inquiry. Within methodology, this pragmatic solution has come to be known as “critical multiplism” (Cook, 1985; Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002).

Realist philosophies of science depart from the approach adopted by the authors because they do not regard explanation and prediction as the sine qua non of science, but rather, one component of a broader science that seeks to describe how phenomena interact in the world (Manicas, 2006). Theory directs the scientist “to provide an understanding of the processes which jointly produce the contingent outcomes of experience” (Manicas, 2006, p. 1). In this view, understanding the interactions of various aspects of the world is what science is all about, and theories – in the natural and social sciences – determine where scientists should look.

Giere (2006)’s scientific perspectivism is another realist philosophy of science that further emphasizes how observations of the world are a distinctively human activity; they constitute a perspectival reality from the point of view of the observer, something I have written about elsewhere in describing perspectivism, which I have argued is a foundational, constructivist philosophy of science for our field (Tebes, 2012, 2016; Tebes et al., 2014). Although the authors briefly summarize perspectivism in their paper, I believe they do not fully appreciate the implications of perspectivism for their thesis: that while science may include a focus on explanation and prediction, those are not its only or even primary purposes. The scientist seeks to construct a contextualized understanding of the natural world for various purposes, such as understanding and action as well as explanation and prediction. Thus, the task for contemporary science is broader than it was for logical empiricism, and requires more pluralistic theories, models, methods, and voices.

Community psychology embraces a number of epistemological traditions relevant to this task that the authors do not address. Along with perspectivism, our field also has strong philosophical roots in pragmatism, feminism, and critical theory, which elsewhere I have argued serve as foundations for a philosophy of science of community psychology (Tebes, 2016).

Pragmatism (Biesta, 2010; Dewey, 1905; Mertens, 2007; Vanderstraeten, 2002) provides a basis for understanding meaning and action, including action research, mixed methods, and program evaluation (Biesta, 2010; Tebes, 2016). The interdependence in our field between practice and research or social action and science is consistent with Dewey’s emphasis on action as the source of knowledge. Feminism and critical theory have contributed essential frameworks, theories, and models to advance scientific understanding in community psychology, often in direct resistance to the standard view of science embodied by logical empiricism (Campbell & Wasco, 2000; Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010; Tebes, 2016). As a central foundation for community psychology, feminism’s contribution to our field’s scientific inquiry has emphasized situated knowing, participatory approaches, diverse methods, and action (Bond, Hill, Mulvey, & Terenzio, 2000; Campbell & Wasco, 2000; Haraway, 1988; Harding, 1986; Lather, 1991; Longino, 1990, 2013; Riger, 1992). Critical theory, as another philosophical foundation for community psychology, has focused on human experiences of power and oppression as well as resistance, emancipation, and liberation through individual and collective action (Fox, Prilleltensky, & Austin, 2009; Horkheimer, 1931/1993; Mart?´n-Baro, 1994; Mertens, 2007; Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010; Teo, 2015). Each of these approaches has moved our field away from a logical empiricist approach to science to one that embraces catalytic or transformative change (Lather, 1991; Mertens, 2007).

These four philosophical foundations for our field – perspectivism, pragmatism, feminism, and critical theory – have overlapping constructivist epistemologies with implications for science in community psychology (Tebes, 2016). In future work, the authors may wish to incorporate these into their analysis, and discuss how each offers opportunities for scientific theory- and model-building for community psychology.


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Jacob Kraemer Tebes Jacob Kraemer Tebes

Jacob Kraemer Tebes is a community/clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychiatry (Psychology), in the Child Study Center, and in Public Health at Yale University; Director of the Division of Prevention and Community Research; and Director of The Consultation Center.  He also serves as Chief Psychologist at the Connecticut Mental Health Center and is Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Community Psychology. His professional activities include research, practice, teaching, and administration, mostly related to issues of equity and social justice. His scholarship focuses on resilience promotion, the prevention of adolescent substance use, integrating cultural perspectives into practice and research, and the implications of philosophy of science for community research and community psychology.  Dr. Tebes also trains and consults to public agencies and community-based organizations on program implementation and systems reform, and on building and sustaining evaluation capacity. Finally, he teaches postdoctoral and doctoral fellows in community research and practice, and is the Program Director of a NIDA T32 postdoctoral research training program in substance abuse prevention.

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Leonard Jason (DePaul University) July 11, 2016

Within the last article in this special issue, titled: Our Reflections on the Reactions to “Theories in the Field of Community Psychology”, Leonard A. Jason, Ed Stevens, Daphna Ram, Steven A. Miller, Christopher R. Beasley, and Kristen Gleason wrote the following reaction to this article:

"For Tebes (2016), because models are less conceptual, they can help science progress, and we believe that if there is enough persuasive evidence that a given model 'works,' it can lead to a broader conceptual picture, which we would refer to as a theory. But we continue to believe that frameworks, models, and the like need to have some kind of underlying motivational direction, i.e. a theory that provides a broader and empirically addressable explanation for how the social world works. Models may encompass a representation of a single theory (e.g., per Figure 1 in the original paper by Jason et al., 2016), or models may represent a collection of theories. In other words, a model represents the measures and their relations that are jointly being tested to give evidence of a theory’s validity. Therefore, a misspecified model or a poorly measured model may mask or attenuate evidence relative to the theoretical assertion.

[. . .]

Tebes (2016) suggests that four philosophical foundations for our field – perspectivism, pragmatism, feminism, and critical theory move our field away from a logical empiricist approach, to one that 'embraces catalytic or transformative change' (p.7). Critical theory often places an evaluative outcome on the purpose and therefore the utility of the phenomena. However, if we want to reduce racism, for example, we want theories that can help us predict, describe, and explain the development and eradication of racism. Feminist theory is another lens, which provides people a perspective to organize and aggregate evidence that describes and predicts and explains phenomena. Tebes (2016) appears to believe that one can adopt perspectivist, feminist, critical, and action oriented approaches and still be an advocate for the traditional scientific method; yet at the same time, he believes our field needs to move away from logical empiricist approaches. Tebes and authors of other reaction papers believe that this traditional scientific method is often quite limited because they perceive the theories are constrained by narrowly defined parameters and contexts.

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We agree with Tebes (2016) that feminism, critical theory, and action-oriented research explore areas that many scientists have not subjected to the same types of empirical testing or empirical constraints, and these approaches can provide researchers with new ideas and views of the world. One could argue that these approaches should have an evidence based narrative that argues for cause and effect of catalytic or transformative change. This would allow an independent observer to conclude these foundations have led to an understanding that would allow a predictive result, if similar efforts were undertaken. If context plays such a significant role that results cannot be predictive, the field could continue to investigate these contextual boundaries or conditions. Each lens should demonstrate that it provides some usefulness in a better understanding of a phenomena and the mechanisms by which outcomes can be achieved.

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Although Tebes (2016) suggests four underlying philosophies as an emphasis for the field rather than theory, we believe these philosophies can guide our theory construction rather than supplant them. For example, realism, perspectivism, and the resulting critical multiplism suggest a need for a variety of theories to help explain phenomena from a variety of perspectives. Given the current dearth of community science theory, this perspective may be needed for a complete understanding of phenomena. We could be leading the way in integrating context into multilevel theory development. Similarly, feminism and critical philosophies can inform theory development by suggesting processes and outcomes of participatory, diverse, and action-oriented approaches as well as theories associated with oppression and liberation. For example, there has been some discussion of third-order change, but there is currently no cohesive underlying theory of the process for such change to occur. Robinson et al. (2016) have written about this process in a community context, and participatory, diverse, and action-oriented approaches to building community capacity seem to be a natural fit with such processes.

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Tebes (2016) maintains that the underlying the view of science based on logical empiricism is inherently flawed due to lack of independence from political, cultural, and social influences. This conclusion does argue for greater participation by diverse voices. Ultimately, scientific theories persist or diminish based on their utility. We disagree that logical empiricism lacks validity due to the possibility of bias from those funding and performing research. That is to say that a systemic bias should be identifiable, and that random bias should be eliminated by multiple observations. Tebes (2016) is right to point out that current philosophies of science are characterized by realism; we do not eschew describing how 'phenomena interact in the world' (Tebes, 2016, p.6), but focus on explanation and prediction. Logical empiricism is not overturned by a realist perspective, but expanded by it; we do not address arguments of realism (which some of the authors are very sympathetic to), but focus on aspects of prediction and explanation. For a more thorough discussion of realism with some inquiry into logical empiricsm, see recent work by Haig and Evers (2016). Some (e.g., Psillos, 2011) have argued that Reichenbach’s program was to set up the foundation for realism. Rejecting perspectives sympathetic to explanation and prediction means arguing against evidence and theory, and placing our field outside the purview of the scientific endeavor.

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For many in our field, it appears that what is most important is that change be produced, and explications about the mechanisms of change receive far less attention. This stance is rooted in community psychology’s origins in quasi politically-motivated activism. In this respect, community psychology offers a valuable perspective on social problems and social change, and a way of knowing. In our view, however, these goals need not be inconsistent with scientific rigor. It is the nature of humans to view the world through a socio-cultural lens. This has been an issue for physical science too, such as with Galileo, who was famously rejected by contemporaries because his views were not compatible with the world-view of the then dominant catholic church. The church’s views thus stood in the way of scientific progress for quite a long time. However, feminism, critical theory, and action-oriented research are themselves based on certain assumptions regarding how the world works—the fact that these assumptions may differ from mainstream cultural views or prevailing scientific conceptualizations does not necessarily mean that they are correct. Approaches need to be investigated scientifically, and if they are not, then there is little basis for evaluating them, any more than there is for evaluating theological views. Scientific methods give us the only known way to see whether one’s assumptions are compatible with observations, and thus provide an antidote for 'action' based on unverified and possibly incorrect or materially incomplete assumptions.

In addition, we fully endorse exploratory research, and we do not argue for simply confirmatory testing. But even in exploratory work, theory generation, theory support, and theory disconfirmation should be part of the discussion process. At the end of this process, one can take in all the gathered evidence, from disparate methods, and ask what are the theoretical implications of the evidence. We continue to feel that evidence should point the field in directions that create knowledge accumulatively rather than as isolated evidence or narratives that stand alone."

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Keywords: Theory, Science, Community Psychology, Framework