What is Descriptive Psychology?
Robert Brill Ph.D.
Descriptive Psychology is an approach to psychology first conceptualized and designed in Boulder, Colorado in the 1960’s. What is most distinctive about Descriptive Psychology is the emphasis on the accurate and complete description of persons, their actions, and the world in which they live. Non-Descriptive Psychological study (conventional psychology) is focused on attempting to develop theories to explain psychological phenomena and looking for possible underlying causes. In Descriptive Psychology the interest is in the accurate and complete description of human phenomena.
The idea of a central role for description in psychology is somewhat distinctive. However, in most scientific fields a comprehensive description of an area of interest is an important first step. Scientific literature is filled with the careful description of natural phenomena (geological strata, species of birds, different types of clouds, galaxies, or the social practices of a foreign culture). Now with Descriptive Psychology there is a comprehensive description or articulation of person, behavior, and real-world phenomena.
In Descriptive Psychology conceptual tools (e.g., parametric analyses, paradigm case formulations) are used to design an inter-related set of descriptions of human phenomena. The full set of these descriptions fit together naturally, because the real-world phenomena they represent fit together. In Descriptive Psychology the complex aspects of humankind are related in an integrated, understandably expansive production (referred to a the “person concept”). This conceptual production is then, in turn, applied to an array of different applications. Descriptive psychological works are therefore, either fundamental additions to the “person concept,” or applications of this network to many areas of psychology, social sciences and beyond. It can be seen that Descriptive Psychology is a different type of psychology.
It is useful to point out a related idea. The descriptive articulating activities are pre-empirical in nature; they are not based on the results of doing experiments. A review of articles on the website (Ossorio, Bergner, Singer) should help clarify the important pre-empirical-empirical distinction. One important idea is that a substantive review of the philosophy of science does not support the logical necessity that psychology be in its current form (with an emphasizes conducting experiments and verifying psychological theories). Descriptive Psychology is an on-going attempt to put aside history and proceed with this fresh new start. Many have found the resultant production and its applications refreshing.
It is interesting to note that at times those associated with the development of Descriptive Psychology admit that the resultant robustness of the discipline was somewhat unanticipated. This vigor is seen in the broad and elegant nature of the overall construct and the surprising range of applications (e.g. computer programming, spirituality, moral judgment, business practices, even the identification of galaxies). An at-times-mentioned downside of the discipline is that it is not well-appreciated in mainstream psychology. It is good to keep in mind that Descriptive Psychology is not designed to fit-in or be what is expected. It is designed to be useful and widely applied.
The Descriptive Psychology website is a sampling of discussions of the discipline and its applications, a number of links to ongoing works and publications, and a list of Society for Descriptive Psychology members. There is also information about the SDP Annual Conference often held in Colorado. Please let us know if you have any questions, your thoughts, or if you would like to join the intellectually stimulating and growing Society for Descriptive Psychology (student memberships are available).