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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2006
A New "Interdisciplinary" Area: Personality and Social Contexts
Fiona Lee, University of Michigan

Have you been asked: "Are you a division 8, division 9, or division 14?"
"Where did you send your paper–section 1, section 2, or section 3?"
These questions may not make sense to some of you, but most professional psychologists understand what these numbers refer to. The first question refers to membership in specific APA divisions–Division 8 is Social and Personality Psychology, Division 9 is Psychological Study of Social Issues, and Division 14 is Industrial/Organizational Psychology. The second question refers to the three sections of one of the premier journals in psychology, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Section 1 publishes studies on attitudes and social cognition, Section 2 on interpersonal relations and group processes, and Section 3 on personality processes and individual differences. Psychology is a big field, and these are different ways the field is segmented to make it smaller and more manageable.
Although most psychologists understand these divisions and segments, few of us can easily categorize ourselves neatly into one of these divisions or subareas. Psychologists who are interested in individual differences often look at how these differences "play out" in the context of real-world problems, situations, and social structures. Or, psychologists examining intergroup behaviors often look at the cognitive mechanisms underlying group differences and group dynamics. Likewise, experimental social psychologists often consider implications of their findings in field settings such as schools, business, or communities.
Indeed, when we ask questions about why people think, feel, or act a certain way, the answer is never just about "personality," nor is the answer just about "the context." The reality is, the answers to most questions psychologists ask rest on some combination of individual differences, the immediate situation surrounding the event, and the broader social context (the person's gender, class and race; the workplace, neighborhood, or school in which the event takes place; and the larger culture and it's historical-political backdrop).
In the fall of 2005, the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan started a new area, Personality and Social Contexts, that acknowledges this reality. This new area is focused on the interplay of individual differences and social contexts. Faculty research in this new area focuses specifically on how individual differences are channeled and constrained by the immediate situation as well as broader social contexts (including gender, family, schools, neighborhoods, social class, workplaces, organizations, communities, political structures, religion, ethnicity, culture, and history). The Personality and Social Contexts area is committed to the study of psychology in all these different contexts.
Evolution of a New Area
The psychology department at the University of Michigan is not the only place that has created such an interdisciplinary area. Institutions such as University of Illinois or Harvard University have also established similar areas in the past. But how did this new area of Personality and Social Contexts come into being? "This was a bottom-up process that emerged from the faculty in our Personality and Organizational areas," said Richard Gonzalez, the chair of the Psychology Department at Michigan. "Faculty in both of these areas recognized that their research had evolved. For instance, much of the research conducted by the Personality faculty not only focused on personality characteristics, but also on how individual differences are expressed within the context of relationships, neighborhoods, workplaces, and cultures. Along the same vein, the Organizational faculty had taken a broad view of organizations, beyond industrial/business settings, to include many different types of collectives such as social identities (like gender and ethnicity), communities, and culture. There are so many synergies in the research between the two groups that it surprises me we haven't done this sooner."
Creating a new interdisciplinary area, however, is not easy. Traditional boundaries between the various areas of specialization in psychology are reinforced by each subfield's emphasis on different sets of journals, different professional meetings, and different professional awards. One important ingredient for making it work is a larger university ethos that favors and encourages interdisciplinary work. For example, the University of Michigan has long been one of the top academic institutions for interdisciplinary research and scholarship. This is reflected in Michigan's psychology department, where many faculty members hold joint appointments in other departments and schools. In this setting, creating an interdisciplinary area fits well with the direction of the larger department and the university.
Core Research Themes–Identity, Motivation, Power, Oppression, and Culture
Research in the Personality and Social Contexts area is astonishingly broad in substance and orientation. Faculty members in the new Personality and Social Contexts area have backgrounds in social psychology, community psychology, clinical psychology, and developmental psychology. Further, faculty members hold joint appointments or affiliations with Women's Studies, Organizational Studies, American Cultures, School of Social Work, and School of Business.
Scholars and researchers from such varied backgrounds and disciplinary training engage in intellectual exchange around five broad themes:
  1. Identity or the balance of internally experienced and socially reflected selves. For example, researchers in this new area examine a conceptual framework for understanding African Americans' racial identity and how this relates to psychological functioning. Also, there is research examining how multiple social identities (such as being female and being Asian) contribute to resilience among individuals facing potentially negative social stereotypes.
  2. Motivation or forces that energize, direct, and select behavior. For example, researchers in the new area study the psychobiological causes, correlates, and consequences of implicit motives. On the more applied side, there is research on personality factors that motivate participation in social change movements.
  3. Power or processes by which one person affects the behavior and emotions of others. For example, there is research examining how being powerful or powerless affects individuals, as well as how power motivation is related to power behavior in everyday life, in political behaviors, during war and peace, and in the course of history.
  4. Oppression or negative psychological effects of hierarchical social structures. For example, some research centers on the oppression of individuals in the social context of work, focusing in particular on sexual harassment and workplace incivility. Other research addresses many different aspects of oppression, including gender, class, race, sexuality, and their intersections.
  5. Culture or shared beliefs, practices, symbols, and meanings that bind groups together. For example, researchers examine intracultural variation in beliefs about gender, caste, social class, race and ethnicity, and social location. Also, some researchers investigate how culture and ethnicity affect individuals' decisions about help seeking while others examine multicultural organizational and community change strategies.
Selected research questions in the new Personality and Social Contexts area are listed in Table 1.
Expertise and Training in Multiple Methods
The breadth of research expertise represented in the Personality and Social Contexts area is not only reflected in the breadth of topics and research questions, but also in a wide range of methods. For example, researchers in the area have expertise in standard personality inventories and scales, content analysis and narrative methods, survey methods, secondary analysis of archived datasets, interviews and observations, case studies and life history analysis, feminist and ethnographic methods, cross-cultural perspectives and methods, projective techniques, bio-psychological and psycho-physiological assessment, measurement of cognitive processes, archival methods, program evaluation, and laboratory experimentation.
Most researchers trained in this area will be employing multiple methods to triangulate their findings. Take a student interested in the topic of identity. In the new Personality and Social Contexts area, the student can work with multiple faculty members. For instance, the student can work with one faculty member who uses ethnographic methods to examine how identity changes over the lifespan; with a second faculty member who uses survey and diary studies to probe the meaning and significance of specific aspects of identity; and with a third faculty member who uses experimental laboratory studies to study how identity affects performance. Such an approach to academic scholarship not only creates a much better way of understanding a complex psychological concept such as identity, but also provides students with a useful "toolbox" of multiple methodologies that can be used throughout her career.
For students who are open-minded about multiple approaches to psychological phenomenon, this new interdisciplinary area provides a unique opportunity. Students who want to find out more information about this new area of Personality and Social Contexts can go to the website

Fiona Lee, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology and management and organizations at the University of Michigan. She obtained her BA in economics and psychology from Scripps College (CA), and her PhD in social psychology from Harvard University (MA). Her research examines how power, social identities, and cultural values affect individuals. Specifically, she asks the following questions: (a) how does power affect the way people see themselves and others? (b) how do individuals manage conflicts from being members of multiple social groups--such as Asian and American, or women and business? and (c) how do cultures and groups reflect their values, and how do these values affect the individual members of these collectives?

Copyright 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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