Paradigm, No. 16 (May, 1995)

Psychology Textbooks: Creating the Subject

Martin Skinner

Department of Psychology,
The University of Warwick,
Coventry CV4 7AL.

The purpose of this paper is to look at the way the subject of Psychology is treated at introductory level in textbooks; to examine why it appears the way it does in these books; and to discuss the effect this may have on how the subject is seen by those who study Psychology through them. The paper aims to look at some of the practical realities of Psychology courses in universities and at colleges and the effect of these realities on the producing and selling of textbooks. The contention is that such practical (as opposed to academic) factors influence the appearance of textbooks and that these, in turn, affect how the subject is perceived. These appearances affect not only Psychology’s apparent scope and curriculum but also its broader image in terms of its appeal, social relevance and general ‘ease of approach’ as a discipline and subject for study at degree level. There is a two-way relationship between the textbook and the subject. Feeding into this interaction are the practicalities of the presentation of the subject at degree level which influence the appearance of textbooks which, in turn, affect the perception of the subject.

Arguably the first textbook in Psychology, and certainly the most cited and celebrated, is William James’ Principles of Psychology. This was published in 1890, in two volumes and with more than 1300 pages. Notable texts followed, including a shortened version of James’ Principles (James, 1892), and others by Stout (1899), Ward (1918) and McDougall (1923). These texts were hardly for a mass market, since at that time there were four departments of Psychology. Many of the early textbooks were presumably for a small but growing number of undergraduates and established academics in related disciplines such as Philosophy, Physiology, and Education. Furthermore, the texts could not make reference to many original empirical studies since there were so few. Rather, they tended to be extensive, and sometimes difficult, systematisations of the subject written to define the new field of Psychology and to orientate future study.

The third decade of this century marked a change in the development of Psychology textbooks. The change could be said to coincide with the publication in 1921 (1922 in the UK) of R. S. Woodworth’s Psychology, A Study of Mental Life. This book was able to refer more to original sources than could previous texts. It claims, in the preface, to be aimed at ‘the beginner’. It has diagrams, and exercises at the ends of chapters. Woodworth was a teacher as well as a researcher and this text is based on mimeographed sheets used as lecture notes in introductory classes at Columbia University. It has a different ‘feel’ about it compared with the earlier generation of texts and marks the start of a new generation. It was a widely used and long-lived text, going through 19 editions until, in 1949, it was revised by D.G. Marquis in a 20th edition as Woodworth and Marquis (1949). This, too, was a successful text, still in print in 1963 when it was published in Methuen’s University Paperback series.

R. S. Woodworth was also responsible for one of the most influential textbooks on purely experimental Psychology. In 1938 (1939 in the UK) Methuen published his Experimental Psychology. This book was famously revised and reprinted as Woodworth and Schlosberg (1950) with a fourth reprint of the 1954 third edition appearing as late as 1966. By the third edition the appearance of the book was in many ways rather modern and indicative of things to come. The paper is glossier; there are photographs as well as diagrams and tables and the text, unlike earlier books, is printed in two columns per page. The graphics are professionally executed. (There is an acknowledgement to Frank H. Lee, Professor of Graphics at Columbia University where Woodworth was a professor.) In other ways, because the book was more self-consciously styled according to contemporary fashions, the text font looks dated in a way that the classic fonts of earlier books do not. Thus a book which attempted to look modern, and presumably did at the time, has come to look somewhat more dated than much older texts, thereby proving that nothing dates like fashion.

By the end of the 1960s textbooks were beginning to take the form of those currently in use with wide margins, plenty of white space on the page, portions of the text separated into boxes, photographs and illustrations, sometimes incidental to the text and apparently chosen primarily for making the text attractive. As printing techniques have developed, the introductory texts have become more uniformly colourful and visually appealing. Most of these changes came with new textbooks, some through revisions of old: Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith and Bem (1993), for example, began life 11 editions ago as Hilgard (1953). Currently, most Psychology textbooks tend to represent a rather uniform phenomenon. They are almost exclusively American, large, good value in student editions, and full of colourful diagrams, photographs and help and study boxes. The photographs, naturally enough, depict US culture: family life, street scenes, politicians, institutions and practices. The use of photographs is extensive; their purpose to make the text appear more friendly. The photographs illuminate what, according to the text, research has discovered by showing people apparently performing that behaviour. The content and captioning of the pictures tends, accordingly, to be quite incidental and banal. Overall, the textbooks have a ‘coffee-table’ feel to them: one could entertain oneself just by flicking through them, looking at the photographs and reading the captions. These textbooks are essentially friendly and indicate a subject of social appeal and relevance. This may be quite different from the reality of studying Psychology beyond introductory level, at least in the UK.

Today Psychology is a ubiquitous and broad-ranging subject which continues to grow in terms of research output, professional development and popularity as a higher education subject. Its principal perspectives on behaviour are biological and neurological, cognitive and information processing, developmental, social, and clinical and abnormal. It has evolved into professions in the fields of Clinical, Educational and Occupational Psychology. It has become an integral part of the training of social workers, nurses, police officers and managers.

In the UK this growth has been matched by an enormous increase in the popularity of the subject at undergraduate level. The first Psychology ‘A’ levels were taken little more than 25 years ago. By 1987, 8,000 candidates were sitting the Associated Examining Board’s Psychology ‘A’-level and by 1994 the number had risen to 21,000. The 1980’s were associated with a number of changes in political, social and economic outlook, which in turn influenced the aspirations and expectations of graduating students. Accordingly, business studies and law have become the most popular university courses, but close behind them comes Psychology.

With the growth in importance and popularity of Psychology has come an enormous increase in the number and range of courses teaching it in universities and colleges, together with a corresponding increase in the number of textbooks produced and sold. Most Psychology courses in higher education in the UK are three-year courses with teaching in the first year based at least partly on a basic textbook. The pattern is slightly different in the USA, the source of the vast majority of introductory text-books, where the undergraduate courses are modular and usually last four years. In the USA, however, the same basic pattern exists, with large first-year introductory classes based on an introductory textbook

It is almost impossible to state exactly the numbers studying Psychology in the UK and publishers are understandably reluctant to give details of their own participation in this market. The Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) lists some 85 institutions offering at least one Psychology degree course. This would suggest that about 4,000 students in higher education are studying Psychology. There are possibly another 15,000 students in further education colleges and other establishments taking A-levels, GNVQ, Access, and professional courses with Psychology components. This brings the number up to publishers’ estimates of around 20,000 introductory Psychology students each year. At £20 per text, a potential market of about £400,000 would be a reasonable estimate. This is divided between a relatively short list of fewer than 10 texts, with three probably accounting for as much as 75%. These front runners in the UK are Atkinson et al. (1993), Gleitman (1991), and Gross (1992).

It is not obvious why these books should have made it to the position of front-runners since what is good about them is more or less shared by many other competitors. Atkinson et al. and Gleitman both offer comprehensive and up-to-date coverage of the biological, cognitive, developmental social and pathological aspects of human behaviour, as do most Psychology texts. They are both attractive to look at without compromising scholarship; a feature shared by slightly fewer. Part of the popularity of Atkinson lies in an authority due quite simply to having been about for so long. Gleitman, on the other hand is more recent, and certainly has the individual style of a single-author undertaking. That Gleitman was educated in Europe before emigrating to the USA may explain certain uncommon features in his book’s choice of subject matter, which might well endear it to British users. For example, there is an unusually extensive psychoanalytic discussion of personality and coverage of the biological bases of social behaviour not found in US texts. US Psychology was never much influenced by the European tradition of ethology which links social behaviour to its evolutionary and biological foundations. Gross, on the other hand, is quite different in having a UK author but having made some moves towards US production values. Gross is the number one text in UK colleges teaching A-level and Access courses, but it has as yet made few if any inroads into the US market.

The UK market is small compared with that in the USA. The World List of Universities (1990) lists some 1400 institutes of higher education in the USA. If only half of these teach Psychology courses with an average annual intake of 100, the total US introductory Psychology textbook market would be 70,000 or £1.4 million. This is an estimate of university and college ‘major’ courses only, in Psychology. In fact, publishers estimate the number taking introductory Psychology courses in the US to be as high as 500,000 each year. At £20 per text, this would indicate a potential market of as much as £10 million each year. This market is shared among a fairly small number of textbooks, with Atkinson et al. (1993) and Gleitman (1991) and one or two others probably accounting for more than half of this market, despite the fact that Quereshi (1993)1 counts 52 introductory texts published or revised between 1980 and 1989. Then there is the world market, since English-language textbooks are used extensively in Europe, Australia and the Far East. Then there are translations: Atkinson et al. reports itself to have been translated into Russian, Spanish, French, Chinese, German and Portuguese. So there is a large and potentially lucrative market for Psychology textbooks -- and the more appealing the text the more likely it will sell.

To understand what makes a textbook appealing and, in turn, the effect the textbooks have on the subject (as opposed to the subject’s effect on the textbooks) one must consider how and why the textbooks are written, are adopted by the lecturers and course tutors, and used by student readers.

On how and why they are written, one needs to consider the immense amount of work, breadth of reading and understanding required to produce a textbook today in Psychology.

Psychology is a broad subject in which there has been an exponential growth in research output in the last 40 or 50 years. It involves disciplines as diverse as physiology, biochemistry, linguistics and sociology. In the university departments teaching most of the natural sciences, it might well be the case that a majority of academics could lecture on several topics at first-year, and possibly even at second-year levels: not the case in Psychology departments where the fragmentation of the subject has led to somewhat isolated sub-disciplines and likewise isolated sub-disciplinarians.

However, the rewards of encompassing and integrating these sub-disciplines can be great. A large American university might have an enrolment of a thousand or more on its introductory Psychology module and this number alone might make an introductory text viable, before even considering the national and international markets. For one (or two) people to author a modern text is a huge undertaking, notwithstanding the fact that other textbooks seem to be used as sources for new ones, thus tending to produce a consensus on Psychology’s curriculum. Considerations of the size of the market, investment of time and the likely reward possibly lie behind the fact that while there have been introductory textbooks produced in the UK, they have tended to be authored by groups of five or six members of a particular department of Psychology; Wright, Taylor, Davies, Taylor, Sluckin, Lee and Reason (1970) and Lloyd, Mayes, Manstead, Meudell and Wagner (1984). Such books have tended to be written by a number of specialists, each covering his or her own area of Psychology. The books are also more cheaply produced with none of the colour, friendliness and implied personal and social relevance characteristic of US counterparts.

Next, there is the matter of how and why textbooks might be adopted by introductory course directors who have not themselves written a textbook. Textbooks are coming more and more to offer a self-contained course of study with tutors’ guides, booklets of seminar and essay topics, computerised test-banks for assessment, etc. The cost of such marketing, including free inspection copies for lecturers adopting the book, are built into the cost of the book, which means that only books with large anticipated runs can be marketed in this attractive way. With larger class sizes and increasing pressure on lecturers’ time, the purchasing of a course ‘off-the-shelf’ is becoming increasingly attractive. A comprehensive textbook saves the time-consuming production of additional material in the form of photocopied articles and notes. It also ensures that students can have easy access to information and are spared the situation of scores, hundreds even, chasing the same few sources. Part of the answer to how and why the introductory textbooks are adopted in the USA also involves the choosing of courses by students. The majority of the takers of an introductory course in the American modular degree system will be taking it as a ‘minor’ rather than a ‘major’; hence they will probably not go on to take more specialised and advanced courses. For ‘minors’ the course may well be optional, whereas it would be compulsory for ‘majors’. Campus bookshops tend to have large piles of introductory course textbooks with the course name, code timetable and enrolment details displayed above. The appeal of the text often dictates the appeal of the course and where student enrolment affects the status and funding of the course, a user-friendly textbook can increase enrolment numbers.

As to how and why introductory textbooks are used by the student readers, in the UK and presumably anywhere where the course is compulsory, the case tends to be simple; students use whatever book the course organisers have adopted and ordered through the university or college bookshop. What students would look for if they had a choice, and do look for when a choice exists, is a text from which they can easily extract well-prepared and presented information to back up lecture notes, prepare for seminars, write essays, and revise for exams. Current introductory textbooks do this quite well. There is a tendency for Psychology undergraduates to be more strategic in their studies than they once were and the style of today’s textbooks certainly does not hinder this particular approach to learning.

So we are left with a popular subject, producing popular textbooks which, in turn, make the subject more popular. Students coming into Psychology who have done little more than peruse a textbook or two, may not be aware of the subject’s technical, methodological and statistical aspects, and of the fact that it tends to deal with human behaviour and mental life at a level often far removed from everyday personal and social relevance. They may be disappointed to find that the attractiveness of the subject does not match that initially encountered in introductory textbooks. They are confronted by a literature and image of Psychology steeped in the idioms, appearances and institutions of another culture and they may be left with a particular, rather uniform, view of the syllabus and scope of the subject.

Of course, textbooks from William James onwards, including Woodworth’s textbooks, have always contributed to the appearance and style of the subject in their own ways. In this sense there is nothing new about the effects of textbooks on the subject. Perhaps Psychology’s textbooks are still producing a system of psychology just as the early texts in the subject attempted to. However, part of the system proffered now is strongly ‘cultural’, both at the level of a nation and its institutions and at the level of subject-appearance. Another part of the system involves attraction and perceived personal and social relevance. For better or worse, that is the effect of Psychology’s introductory textbooks on their subject.

 

Notes

1. Quereshi ‘Contents of Introductory textbooks’ (1993).

 

References

Atkinson, R. L, Atkinson, R.C., Smith, E. E. & Bem, D. J. Introduction to Psychology, 11th edn. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1993).

Gleitman, H. Psychology, 3rd edn. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991).

Gross, R. D. Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, 2nd edn. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1992).

James, W. The Principles of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1890).

James, W. Psychology: The Briefer Course (New York: Henry Holt, 1892).

Leahy, T. H. A History of Psychology, 2nd edn. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1987).

Lloyd, P., Mayes, A., Manstead, A. S. R., Meudell, P. R. & Wagner, H. L. Introduction to Psychology (Fontana, 1984).

The World List of Universities, 18th edn. (M. Stockton Press, 1990).

McDougall, W. An Outline of Psychology (London: Methuen, 1923).

Quereshi, M. Y. ‘The contents of introductory textbooks: A follow-up’. Teaching of Psychology, 20 (1993), pp. 218-222.

Stout, G. F. A. Manual of Psychology (Oxford: University Tutorial Press Ltd., 1899).

Ward, J. Psychological Principles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1918).

Woodworth, R. S. Psychology (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1921), Reprinted 1929, 1934.

Woodworth, R. S. Experimental Psychology (London: Methuen, 1939).

Woodworth, R. S. & Marquis, D. G. Psychology (London: Methuen, 1949).

Woodworth, R.S. & Schlosberg, H. Experimental Psychology (Methuen, 1950).

Wright, D., Taylor, A, Davis, D. R., Sluckin, W., Lee, S.G.M., & Reason, J.T. Introducing Psychology: An Experimental Approach (Penguin, 1970).

 


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