June 05, 2006

Psychology ≅ 10-100 x Linguistics?

Why is the field of psychology (in the United States) roughly 10 to 100 times bigger than the field of linguistics, depending on how you quantify things? Is this a logical consequence of the two fields' relative amounts of intellectual interest and social importance? Or is it largely a historical accident? Back in January of 2005, I gave a talk at Stanford ("A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Past 150 Years of Linguistics", Stanford University, 1/28/2005; blog post, pdf of slides) in which I argued for the "historical accident" theory.

I was reminded of this issue by an exchange of letters in the March 2006 issue of Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America.

Stephen Levinson's letter ("Language in the 21st Century", Language, vol. 82, no. 1, 2006) and Brian Josephs' reply ("Language in the 21st century: An assessment and a reply") are both well worth reading in their entirety, and so I've put up an unauthorized .html copy for those of you who are not LSA members. But what caught my attention was a particular numerical comparison in Dr. Levinson's letter.

Current trends are for journals to reflect the vibrancy of their fields, the increasing bodies of accessible data, the growing diversity of professional associations, and the rapidity of scientific developments. Compare, for example, the American Psychology Association [sic] (with 49 journals), or the American Anthropological Association (with 24 journals), publishing thousands of articles a year with online supporting data, and serving their (admittedly larger) memberships with highly ranked outlets for a large portion of their work. In contrast, Language publishes only about 20 articles a year, restricts concurrent multiple submissions by the same authors, has no online supporting data, and spends many of its precious pages on book notices and reviews. [emphasis added]

In my Stanford talk, I offered several alternative methods of quantification, which gave ratios between 1:14 and 1:38. Google hits for {"linguistics department"} were then 60,900, compared to 1,010,000 for {"psychology department"}, yielding a ratio of 1:14. (The numbers are now 307,000 and 5,470,000, for a ratio of 1:18.) Based on (unverified) figures from a publisher's rep, I estimated about 50,000 enrollments per year in undergraduate introductory linguistics courses in the U.S., compared to about 1,500,000 enrollments in undergraduate psychology courses, for a ratio of 1:30. I estimated the Linguistic Society of America's membership at 4,000, and the American Psychological Association membership at 150,000, for a ratio of 1:38.

Dr. Levinson offers a ratio of LSA journals vs. APA journals at 1:49, and a ratio of articles published annually in those journals of 20 to "thousands", which is presumably < 20:2000 = 1:100.

These methods of quantification are all highly imperfect, but I think we can conclude that the collection of disciplines calling themselves "psychology" is one to two orders of magnitude larger than the collection of disciplines calling themselves "linguistics".

Of course, one critical difference is that psychology developed as a "big tent" within which many different and often fractious subdisciplines co-exist uneasily: clinical psychology, social psychology, experimental psychology, physiological psychology, and so on. To achieve a comparable level of integration, you'd need to combine the LSA (with its 4,000 members), the ASHA (with its 123,000 members), the speech communication section of the ASA, the ACL, much of the MLA and even the ATA -- and for that matter, some fraction of the APA and AAA, since most psycholinguists are in psychology departments and most anthropological linguists are in anthropology departments. (There are also relevant fragments of several other large disciplines.)

Such disciplinary integration is by no means an unmixed blessing -- tensions within the APA led to the creation of the 15,000-member Association for Psychological Science (originally the American Psychological Society) in 1988. This history of the APA offers an interesting perspective on its alternation between inclusion and exclusion over earlier decades, and describes the 1988 schism this way:

Dissatisfaction from academic and experimental psychologists over what appeared to be the takeover of APA by the applied fields and public advocacy motivated the creation of the Assembly of Scientific and Applied Psychologists. However, the reorganization proposal that had taken years to prepare failed to receive a majority vote of the membership in 1988. These stresses and others within APA led to the establishment of the American Psychological Society as an alternative organization to APA.

There are several smaller overlapping groups as well, including the Cognitive Science Society, but despite these centrifugal tendencies, the fact remains that during the 20th century, psychology as a discipline evolved and maintained a remarkable degree of integration. The history of anthropology in America is similar, but the contrast with the discipline of linguistics is a stark one. Although the systematic -- and even scientific -- study of language began much earlier, linguistics as a discipline crystallized much later, and grew more slowly, and adopted a more exclusionary stance from the beginning.

In my opinion, this is not simply a terminological issue. While it's true that many speech and language professionals call themselves something other than "linguists", that needn't prevent them from being as well trained and analytically sharp as anyone could wish. Nor is this mainly an issue of how the academic pie is divided, though I think that question is worth discussing. Rather, I'm concerned about the effect on the general education of the population at large. Many if not most American professionals -- doctors, lawyers, teachers and so on -- have taken at least one course in psychology. I don't know how much they learn and retain, but at least the discipline of psychology usually gets a shot at teaching them something. In contrast, as this blog has often had reason to note, most Americans -- intellectuals and ordinary citizens alike -- are never taught how to analyze or even describe the sound of a word, the structure of a sentence, the logic of an argument, or the flow of a discourse. When they need to address personal, professional or public-policy issues that deal with language, they're on their own, and it shows.

And increasingly, the same can be said of professionals whose job descriptions involve practical linguistic analysis as a core activity. The fraction of language teachers, reading teachers, writing teachers and the like who ever acquire any significant skills in elementary linguistic analysis is lower than it has been at any time in the history of our civilization. While there are many reasons for this, the disciplinary weakness of the field of linguistics is surely one of them.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 5, 2006 01:41 PM