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Recipient of the 2004 SIOP Distinguished Professional Contributions Award

Postmodernism and Applied Psychology: A Long Road

Frank J. Landy
CEO: Litigation Support Group
SHL North America


If one were to ask an applied psychologist what postmodern thought has to do with his or her activities, they would likely be uncomprehending. To be sure, they might recognize this as a term that might apply to philosophy, literature, or the arts, but not to the practice of applied psychology. But they would be wrong. They simply do not connect the emerging rejection of universal psychological principles in the workplace with the postmodern paradigm. It may not be important that such a connection be apparent. But for the broader issue of how reality is to be construed and how theories of worker behavior will evolve, the exploration of that connection is critical. In this essay, I will trace the emergence of postmodern thought in the practice of applied psychology. 

A Brief Summary of Postmodernism and Psychology

Postmodernism is a school of thoughta philosophythat has characterized a debate in art, literature, drama, music, and the social sciences for the past 50 years. In postmodernism, the emphasis is on how objects are perceived rather than what is perceived. It rejects standard or orthodox ways of interpretation, favoring fragmentation rather than consolidation. It rejects grand narratives in favor of mini-narratives (Klages, 2003). It is a local rather than global perspective. In psychology, it would embrace the rejection of any universal laws of behavior. It would also embrace the notion of knowledge as a social construction. From this perspective, an individuals social environment would be expected to play a major role not only in what experience an individual will have, but in how that experience will be interpreted (Hevern, 2003). Applied psychology, certainly historically, and to a certain extent currently, is classic rather than postmodern. This theme will be pursued in the next sections. 

The Transition from Philosophy to Psychology:  Wilhelm Wundt and Psychological Universals

In the latter half of the 19th century, a void appeared between philosophy on the one hand and medicine/physiology on the other. The debate about the duality of mind and body was an old one, but Wilhelm Wundt proposed to study the question through the use of laboratory techniques for exploring consciousness, particularly as displayed through sensory processes and reaction time. At approximately the same time in America, William James embarked on a similar mission. In developing the new psychology, Wundt was intent on demonstrating both that this new domain was different from existing domains and that it was capable of isolating universal principles of consciousnesslawsmuch like those being discovered by chemists, physicists, and biologists. To Wundts way of thinking, the clearest path to establishing the credibility of this new science was through the identification of psychological laws by means of experimentationthe hallmark of science. Thus, by founding a psychological laboratory and studying processes that to that point had largely been examined only through philosophical means, he could quickly establish the credibility of psychology (Landy, 1997). 

Wundt attracted many students from around the world who were captivated by this new science, and he trained them in his techniques of experimentation in his laboratory. In short order, laboratories that were identical in every way to Wundts Leipzig laboratory began to appear in different countries, most notably Britain and the United States. The students of Wundt went so far as to construct (and often trade pieces of equipment) their laboratories as replicas of Wundts. And of course they studied the same processes that had formed the core of Wundts interestsensory processes and reaction time. 

But a problem arose. In the course of the experimentation done by Wundt and his students, they discovered that not all subjects reacted the same way. There was variation around an averagewhat we have come to call variance and measure as a standard deviation. At that time, there was nothing standard about a deviation. It represented a challenge to the concept of universal laws. Rather than recognizing this variation as a legitimate expression of reliable individual differences, it was taken as a symptom of poor instrumentation or sloppy procedure. 

One of Wundts early students was Hugo Mnsterberg, who would embark on a long and successful career first as the director of the experimental laboratory of William James at Harvard and later as the Chairman of that same department and one of the founders of applied psychology. Mnsterberg was fascinated by the differences he noticed among subjects and sought to publish those results. Wundt refused to permit the publication of results that might undermine the search for universal laws of consciousness. Similarly, James McKeen Cattell, while studying with Wundt, also became as intrigued with the seemingly reliable differences in the responses of experimental subjects as Wundt was with the similarities of those respondents. It was in Wundts laboratory that the groundwork for the new field of differential psychology was laid. Shortly after Mnsterberg left Wundts laboratory (and control) in 1886 for a post at Heidelberg University, he published his findings on individual differences. And shortly after leaving Leipzig in 1888, Cattell joined forces with Francis Galton in London and provided some psychological dimensions with which Galton might further demonstrate the evolutionary principles proposed by Galtons cousin Charles Darwin. 

The Emergence of Differential Psychology

After a year with Galton, Cattell returned to America and assumed a position at the University of Pennsylvania and later at Columbia University. His work with Galton had led to the development of the first mental test, largely a test of what we would now call intelligence. Similar tests were developed by Binet and Simon in France for use in the French school system. For the next 35 years, research would revolve around the demonstration that (a) intelligence could be measured using mental tests, (b) individuals varied in the amount of intelligence they possessed, and (c) intelligence test scores could be used to predict palpable outcomes such as success and adjustment in school and at work. The essence of the new specialty area that came to be known as differential psychology was the fact and importance of individual differences in psychological attributes (Landy, 1997). 

There were differences among psychologists about the measurement and definition of intelligence. In America, E.L. Thorndike proposed an associationist theory suggesting that intelligence was defined as the number of connections that comprised the neural network of any individual (Landy, in press). These connections could be influenced by both genetic makeup and environmental experiences. In Britain, Spearman had proposed a theory of intelligence, based largely on statistical analyses, predicated on the presence of a large general intelligence factor and several smaller specific factors. But even though they might have disagreed on the definition and measurement of intelligence, they certainly agreed that the construct of intelligence was universal and universally influenced behavior in palpable ways. 

One might think that differential psychology would have led to a deconstructed view of human behavior. It did not, at least not in applied psychology. As recently as 1975, the variable considered most important in predicting valued outcomes (school and work success) remained intelligence. Further, this view permeated most of western applied psychology. In some senses, the legacy of Wundtthe propositions of universal laws of behaviorwas alive and well. 

More recently, the emergence of a viable psychometric theory of normal personality, dubbed the Big Five, has resulted in a dilution of the intelligence-centered theory of behavior in applied psychology, but it has not resulted in any wavering in either the commonly held psychometric view that there are any variables or circumstances that might make the propositions regarding personality and intelligence less than universal (Landy and Conte, 2004).

Some Voices in the Wilderness

Until the mid 1970s, many applied (most notably psychometricians and industrial and organizational) psychologists had argued that social group and culture (both organizational and national) should be studied by social psychologists or sociologists, but not applied psychologists. In part, this was definitional because differential psychology (the domain of most psychometricians) was confined to the study of individual differences. But at this point, two streams of research appeared that questioned the value of both the search for universals and the glorification of the individual as the sole or most appropriate unit of analysis. 

The first research line dealt with the issue of levels of analysis. In short, this analytic stream suggested that in addition to the contribution of individual differences to the prediction and understanding of individual behavior, one might profitably include group level variables, such as work group, department, or even organizational level variables. Examples of group level variables would be group cohesion or group satisfaction; a department variable might be line versus staff status of the department; an organizational level variable might include private versus governmental organization, or commercial sector in which the organization operated (e.g. transportation, investment banking, or manufacturing). When variables at levels higher than the individual were added to the predictive equation, predictive accuracy increased. Although this type of analysis required more sophisticated statistical models and considerably larger and more complex data sets, the researchers were pleased with the increased power of their theories and models to account for individual behavior. They were only vaguely aware that they were documenting the importance of multiple psychological realities. They were demonstrating that an individual could at the same time be an individual, be a member of a group, a member of a department, and a member of an organization, and that each of these memberships exerted both a unique and an interactive effect on the behavior and perception of the individual. 

The second line of illustrative research was done in the area of organizational staffing. In the 1970s (and to a large degree even now), the conventional wisdom in organizational theory and culture had been that organizations mold people to meet the social expectations of that organization. In its most optimistic form, this view of organizational reality suggested that organizational reality could be constructed regardless of the individuals who populated that organization. In effect, this was a universalist view with a malleability provision. The universal was that individuals come to an organization as a form of tabula rasa, ready for molding. A novel perspective was offered by a theory known as the attractionselectionattrition (ASA) model of organizational staffing (Schneider, 1987). The ASA model proposed that organizations directly or unconsciously sought individuals who fit the culture of the organization. Schneider proposed that the people make the place. The culture was defined by the founder of the organization (or often by simply the culture imposed by senior leaders of that organization). When incorrect decisions were made, and individuals who did not fit the organizational culture were nevertheless inadvertently hired, these individuals were eventually rejected by the organizations either through formal means (e.g. termination) or informal means (e.g. making work demands that could not be met). The view of the ASA model was that people make the organization, not the other way around. As was the case with the levels of analysis example provided above, the ASA model implied a number of alternative realities, at least across organizations. The ASA model was a more explicit rejection of the universalist position of contemporary organizational research and theory. It proposed that organizations create a clear and palpable reality and then enforce that reality through a series of decisions including recruiting and selecting individuals, as well as forcing individuals out of the organization if necessary. It is important to keep in mind that this fit was not unidirectional. It was also proposed that individuals choose organizations that fit their individual interpretation of reality. 

These two streams of researchlevels of analysis and ASA theorywere clear indications that a paradigm that acknowledged multiple realities was essential for making progress in the understanding of behavior in the work place. In other words, the postmodern viewpoint was just as relevant to applied psychology as it was to art and literature. I will now address a much larger application of the postmodern paradigm to work behavior.

The Changing Nature of Work

The last 2 decades have seen a paradigmatic shift in the work context. I will concentrate on just one of these changesthe globalization of work. Massive changes in both the sociopolitical world and the economic world have made the nature of work considerably more multicultural. An example of both a sociopolitical and an economic change was the formation of the European Union. The end of the Warsaw Pact alliance is another example of a sociopolitical change with economic ramifications. In North America, the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) altered the balance of trade and commerce among Mexico, the U.S., and Canada. Changes like these led to radically different worker migration throughout the world. As an example, in an Australian auto assembly plant in 2004, more than 58 first languages were represented on the production floor. This is in contrast to less than 15 languages in the years preceding 1985. A similar shift is seen in most industrialized nations. The most important implication of this shift in worker migration patterns is that the workplace is now multicultural in a way that it had never been before. To be sure, there had always been the immigrant or foreign worker seen as the outlier in the host culture. But now in many countries, it is the worker born and raised in the host country who is in the minority. 

The shift in the demographics of a given workforce is not simply the result of the actions of individual workers to seek work in countries other than their country of origin. The globalization of work is also the result of the emergence of an increasing number of multinational companies, mergers between companies from different countries, and the acquisition of one company by another in a different country. The result of these actions, both by individual workers and by organizations, has been to highlight the different realities that are defined by national culture (Landy and Conte, 2004). 

A Theory of National Culture in the Work Context

Over 30 years ago, a Dutch IBM engineer/statistician/operations research professional named Geert Hofstede wondered about the extent to which IBM worldwide could be characterized by a single organizational culture. The commonly accepted definition of culture in the behavioral sciences is a system of shared beliefs or values. Hofstede developed and administered an extensive questionnaire to IBM employees and received responses from over 70,000 of these employees who worked in IBM facilities in more than 60 countries. (Hofstede, 1980; 2001). He applied sophisticated statistical analyses to the responses and identified five overarching factors that could be used to characterize a national culture. In their simplest form, these factors and their definitions as applicable to the workplace are as follows:

Individualism vs. Collectivism: the degree to which individuals are expected to look after themselves versus remaining integrated into groups (usually the family).

Power Distance: the degree to which less powerful members of an organization expect and accept an unequal distribution of power

Uncertainty Avoidance: the extent to which members of a culture feel comfortable in unstructured situations

Masculinity vs. Femininity: Masculine cultures tend to emphasize accomplishment and technical performance while feminine cultures tend to emphasize interpersonal relationships and communication

Long-Term vs. Short-Term Orientation: the extent to which members of a culture expect immediate versus delayed gratification of their material, social, and emotional needs

The implications of this approach to national culture are substantial, particular in the world of work. Consider the simple concept of team work. Collectivist cultures are more compatible with the formation of teams than individualist cultures. Thus joint ventures between Japan (a collectivist culture) and the United States (an individualist culture) would likely result in some resistance from American workers when a team environment is imposed on an American individualist culture. Similarly, the Swedish culture and the American culture are at opposite ends of the masculinity dimension. Swedes emphasize interpersonal interaction and process at work but Americans emphasize productivity and accomplishment of business goals. Thus, an American expatriate manager in Stockholm emphasizing business goals or a Swedish expatriate manager in New York City emphasizing interpersonal interaction or process goals will experience some resistance from employees of the host country. Similar examples could be presented for the dimensions of uncertainty avoidance, power distance, and time orientation. But these examples will suffice to make the point. National culture represents a reality that influences the perceptions of the members of that culture. The influence of that culture is not recognized until it is contrasted with a different culture. This is inevitably the case in multinational companies and in companies where the workforce is multicultural either by design or circumstances of worker migration.

A common response from organizations is to either deny the influence of culture or to impose a single culture. In the first instance, the view is that because we are all working toward the same endvprofitability and survivalwe all share a common set of beliefs and values. Although it may be true that all members of the organization share a common goal, it is not necessarily true that they all agree on the pathway to that goal. It is culture that defines that pathway. In the second instance, the organization believes that members can simply sublimate their natural (i.e. cultural) instincts and accept the values of the host country. Neither of these approaches is likely to be successful. Cultural reality is enduring and deep seated. It can neither be blended nor ignored. Thus, the most effective way to deal with this cultural reality is to acknowledge differences and to construct a reality within the organization that permits their expression in the service of meeting organizational goals. 

Concluding Comments

In this essay, I have tried to identify the expression of postmodern thought in some selected instances in industrial and organizational psychology. There are many others that might have been illustrated but these examples should suffice. It has become clear that the search for universal laws of behavior must be abandoned. It has also become clear that there is no need to despair and sink into the morass of implied or inferred chaos (the theme of modernism). Progress in the evolution of the behavioral sciences in general, and in applied psychology in particular, will likely depend on the willingness of leading researchers and theorists to embrace the possibilities afforded by a world of multiple alternative realitiesthe postmodern paradigm.


     Hevern, B., W. (2003). Philosophical perspectives. In Narrative Psychology: Internet and Resource Guide. LeMoyne College, Syracuse, NY: Author.
     Hofstede, G. (1980). Cultures Consequences: International Differences in Work-related Values. Beverly Hills, CA.: Sage.
     Hofstede, G. (2001) Cultures consequences (2nd Edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
     Klages, M. (2003). http://www.colorado.edu/English/Klages/pomo.html.
     Landy, F. J. (in press). The long, frustrating, fruitless search for social intelligence. In K. R. Murphy (Ed.) The emotional intelligence bandwagon: The struggle between science and marketing for the soul of EI. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.
     Landy, F. J. (1997). Early influences on the development of industrial and organizational psychology. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82, 97-129.
     Landy, F. J. and Conte, J. (2004) Work in the 21st century: An introduction to industrial and organizational psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill. 
     Schneider, B. (1987). The people make the place. Personnel Psychology, 40, 437-453.


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