The eleven issues and debates in the gce 2015 specification



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Issues and debates themes


The eleven issues and debates in the GCE 2015 specification

• Ethical issues in research (animal and human).



• Practical issues in the design and implementation of research.



• Reductionism in the explanation of behaviour.



• Comparisons between ways of explaining behaviour using different themes.



• Psychology as a science.



• Cultural and gender issues within psychological research.



• The role of both nature and nurture within psychology.



• An understanding of how psychological understanding has developed over time.



• The use of psychology in social control.



• The use of psychological knowledge within society.



• Issues related to socially sensitive research.



Issues and debates linked to methodology in psychology

Methodology is a strong theme throughout the GCE 2015 specification. There are various issues and debates that can be discussed when learning about methodology in psychology as presented in the specification:

• Ethical issues in research (animal and human).

• Practical issues in the design and implementation of research.

• Psychology as a science.
1. Ethics: psychological research can be said to be limited by ethical issues, both when using humans and when using animals in research. However, research cannot be carried out without ethical issues being fully explained beforehand and the research being agreed by some sort of ethical committee or person in charge.

Although research psychology has paid attention to safeguarding of children for quite some time, in recent years there have been many changes to the requirements of the codes of research ethics. The types of issues concerning the role of ethics which could be discussed may include: the changes to ethical requirements over time; how research may be limited by ethics; how studies can be carried out ethically; and how ethical principles can be arrived at.



2. Practical issues: research methodology is a large and varied field, with the many research questions requiring both differing methods and design decisions. There are practical issues to be considered when doing research in psychology. These can range from whether to choose qualitative or quantitative data, to whether experiments lack the validity sufficient to make them worthwhile (or to be justified in ethical terms). These are some ideas for debates that can be had in the area of practical issues in the design and implementation of research.

3. Psychology as a science: the debate about whether psychology is a science or not is an old one, and researchers and academics still take sides on this debate. On the one hand, there is a drive toward more valid data; gathering qualitative and in depth data; hearing the voice of the participant; and having real data on which to form policy decisions. On the other hand, there is the focus on quantitative data and hypothesis testing; looking for reliable data; and producing 'cause and effect' conclusions from which to build a sound body of knowledge. This hypothesis-testing side of the debate represents the 'science' side, and the more qualitative valid side is the 'non-science' side. This debate is about methodology because it concerns the way in which studies are carried out, for example, whether within a scientific paradigm (positivist) or within a social constructionism paradigm (where reality is constructed by people(s) and as such is there to explore rather than to explain in a scientific manner).


Issues and debates linked to psychology in society

Psychological research tends to be done for a reason. Sometimes it is to further academic knowledge but often, even if it is also for academic purposes, it is to consider issues around policy and practice in society. If psychological research is used by society, this can help the individual; however, it can also benefit the majority or a particular group to the detriment of the individual:

• The use of psychology in social control.

• The use of psychological knowledge within society.

• Issues related to socially sensitive research.
1. Social control: psychology has been used across many societies as a form of social control. Much of the discussion in this area focuses on treatments or therapies, which can be said to control a person’s behaviour. As long as an individual is in control of their treatment or therapy this may be considered acceptable, however, there are at least two areas for consideration. One deals with the power of the therapist; if the therapist has power, then the individual probably has not, which does not appear to be an ethical situation. Another area looks at who decides whether a person needs treatment or therapy. When society decides that an individual must undergo treatment there is the issue of the individual’s freedom (and possibly dignity) to consider. There are other ways in which psychology can be involved in social control as well, such as in criminological psychology, where a knowledge of the characteristics of the defendant can be used to manipulate a situation.

Discussions may also consider situations where social control can also be used to effect positive outcomes, such as controlling crowd behaviour for the sake of a minority group (e.g. prejudice in psychology) or controlling anti-social behaviour for the sake of members of society (the majority perhaps?).



2. Using psychological knowledge in society: issues of social control are about using psychological knowledge in society, but there are wider applications of psychological knowledge too. The key questions considered for each topic area highlight how psychological knowledge is used in society, such as how drug therapy can be used to help those with drug addiction (Biological and Health Psychology).

3. Issues related to socially sensitive research: much research in psychology is socially sensitive, though perhaps some is more socially sensitive than other research. Milgram carried out studies to see if the Germans were different, and he found that they were not. Americans were found to be willing to give electric shocks of what they believed to be a high voltage to people they did not know, in obedience to orders from an authority figure. Imagine what would have happened if Milgram had found that Germans (for example) were different? Of course he did not, it is important to remember that. However, asking these sorts of questions shows how psychology can involve socially sensitive issues. Social psychology includes socially sensitive issues around obedience and prejudice. The causes of drug addiction (Health Psychology) and crime (Criminological Psychology), as well as developmental issues such as with autism (Child Psychology), may all address socially sensitive areas such as the role of the family.

More philosophical issues and debates around knowledge


Psychology grew from philosophy and the sciences. It is a relatively new subject and maintains its philosophical roots. Some issues and debates fit into the 'philosophy' side of psychology, though issues and debates do not tend to fit neatly into packages. This is separated in this part of this document to enable discussion rather than to say certain 'issues and debates' fit into certain area alone.

• Cultural and gender issues within psychological research.

• The role of both nature and nurture within psychology.

• Reductionism in the explanation of behaviour.


1. Culture and gender: although issues of culture and gender can relate to society (we call these 'social constructs'), they also link to wider issues around fairness and equality, which can be seen as philosophical ideas to be debated.

Culture can affect the individual in how they see the world, such as with regard to how mental health is diagnosed (Clinical Psychology), or which attachment type is most common (Child Psychology). Cross-cultural studies can help to see what can be considered in humans to be a 'universal law', and what is culturally given or learned.

Gender is also said to be constructed rather than a given. We can say that sex is allocated at conception according to genes (Biological Psychology). Gender behaviour, however, can be driven by environment and culture and can link to issues such as mental health disorders like anorexia nervosa (Clinical Psychology).

As culture and gender both involve discussion about how they are constructed and issues around nature-nurture, they are combined into one issue and debate in this specification.



2. Nature-nurture: the role of nature-nurture is also a philosophical debate, though linked to methodology in psychology. We assume that who we are and who we become comes from our nature and biology or our nurture and environmental influences. The issue is how far we are 'nature' and how far we are 'nurture'. Generally the discussion is around specific issues such as personality (Social Psychology and other areas), gender (Social Psychology and other areas), developmental issues like autism (Child Psychology), and mental health issues (Clinical Psychology). The division is not as clear cut as it might seem as environment issues affect the growing foetus and biological issues affect the developing child and adult.

3. Reductionism: reductionism is about methodology in many ways, and links to how studies are done as well as whether psychology is a science or not. However, it also fits into a philosophical debate about reductionism and holism. Reductionism is about looking at the parts of something or someone and from the parts building up knowledge to understand the whole person. Holism is about considering the whole thing, the whole person, for example. A holistic view considers all aspects of a subject: nature and nurture, as well as culture and gender. Holistic research could involve an ethnographic study or a case study, to cover all aspects of an individual (such as a case study of someone with schizophrenia in Clinical Psychology). A lot of psychology is reductionist, following its scientific focus. A reductionist approach is seen in experiments looking at the unreliability of eye witness memory (Criminological Psychology) or seeing how recreational drugs work at the synapse (Biological and Health Psychology).

General issues and debates around psychology

As well as issues about methodology, philosophical issues and issues around how psychological understanding is used in society, there are a few other issues and debates mentioned in this specification. The first is about how psychology has developed over time, from its philosophical underpinnings. The second is about how different themes are used to explain behaviour. This is not just about the themes of nature and nurture, but about the different disciplines in psychology:

• An understanding of how psychological understanding has developed over time.

• Comparisons between ways of explaining behaviour using different themes.


1. Development over time: psychology has developed over time both in its areas of research interest and in its methodology.

With regards to the research areas, the specification includes examples of this development, such as Milgram's work on obedience in 1963 and Burger's work to replicate Milgram in 2009 (Social Psychology). In Biological Psychology, Freud's views about aggression are considered, to contrast with the biological ideas relating to how the brain is linked to behaviour. A psychodynamic theme can help to explain aggression, as can a biological one (or more than one biological explanation). Freud worked at the turn of the twentieth century and work on uncovering causes of aggression has developed since that time (biological approach). This example compares the different ways in which aggression can be explained using different themes and shows how psychological understanding has developed over time. There are many other examples in the specification of how psychology has changed over time



Methodology has changed over time too. Scientific approaches, such as experiments and quantitative data that can be statistically tested, have been predominant in psychology for a long while. In 1920, Watson and Rayner used controls and a single case experiment to look at how a phobia might develop using principles of classical conditioning (Learning Theories). Elizabeth Loftus is still carrying out experiments to look at the unreliability of eye witness memory (Criminological Psychology). In addition, there has been a growth in the use of qualitative data in many areas, particularly in childhood studies (Child Psychology) but also in other areas, such as outcome studies with regard to cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and other therapies (Clinical Psychology). Having started from an approach of introspection in the late 1800’s, and then looking at measurable behaviour from around 1930, psychology has now gone back to wanting to find out about people's feelings, attitudes and experiences.

2. Using different themes: as has already been discussed, both psychodynamic and biological psychology can explain aggression (Biological Psychology), and other features of human behaviour can be similarly explained using different themes. Within a subject area there can be different theories based on a different set of assumptions. For example, there are two theories of prejudice in the specification, which whilst they draw on some similar assumptions have different focuses (Social Psychology). Memory is explained using four different theories, within which there are many different themes used to explain mental health disorders (Clinical Psychology).


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