Empiricism - Questions for Today and Tomorrow
This is the full version of an essay written by Sharlene
Weitzman as an assignment in her Morita Programme studies. An abridged version
was published in the Summer 2003 issue of Play for Life. It highlights the need
to balance the use of technology to gather quantitative evidence with the need
to preserve a humane approach in play therapy.
A printable PDF version is available click HERE.
'If there is one lesson that I have drawn from my travels,
it is that cultural and biological diversity are far more that the foundation
of stability, they are an article of faith, a fundamental truth that dictates
the way things are supposed to be. If diversity is a source of wonder, its
opposite—the ubiquitous condensation to some blandly amorphous and singularly
generic modern culture that I have witnessed in all parts of the world—is a
source of dismay.
We are living in the midst of an ecological catastrophe
every bit as tragic as that of the slaughter of the buffalo and the passenger
pigeon. Wherever one looks, there are governmental policies that are equally
blind, economic rationales equally compelling. All memory is convulsed in an
upheaval of violence. There is a fire burning over the earth, taking with it
plants, animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom.
Quelling this flame and reinventing the poetry of diversity is the most
important challenge of our times.'
(Davis, 1998, p. 231).
In a response to the League of Nations International
Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, Albert Einstein wrote to Sigmund Freud
in their 1932 correspondence, Why War?
I feel elated that through a request of the League of
Nations I have been given the unique opportunity to discuss with you those
questions, which in the present state of world affairs appear to me to be the
most important ones facing civilization. Is there a way to liberate mankind
from the doom of war? Although it has become common knowledge that because of
technological progress a threat to our very existence is the fundamental part
of this question, the most ardent efforts at solving it have failed to a
frightening degree. Isn’t it gratifying that some of those who practically and
professionally concerned with this problem now wish, out of a certain feeling
of powerlessness, to learn from those men whose scientific work has given them
an insight into the depth of human wishes and feelings. In this exchange of
ideas, I cannot do much more than try to define the question and, by dealing
with the more superficial attempts at a solution, enable you to discuss the
problem from the vantage point of your profound knowledge of human instincts. I
trust that you will be able to point out educational methods which might, in an
apolitical way, remove psychological obstacles at which the psychologically
untrained may only guess, whose connections and nature he cannot judge.
In light of recent world events, I have found this
correspondence and the notions of psychology, science, technology and expertise
that are relayed in terms of the threat of war to be remarkably relevant and
applicable in today’s global climate.
Further, I am struck by the pungency that the notion of
technology and the role it plays in the social sciences, specifically child
psychotherapy and play therapy, is as relevant in our discussions today,
perhaps even more so than it was 70 years ago. I find myself asking if we have
found any answers in the last century to the same questions we continue to
pose? That being an attempt, to discover
the true causes of human behaviour, those unseen processes of the mind which
take place in response to external events and other stimuli (Hunt, 1993, p.7).
I find this topic to be of primary importance in the field of child psychology,
specifically in the research realm as it continues to move rapidly in the
direction of a quantitative and scientifically motivated format in an attempt
to categorize people in their human lives.
Empiricism is the mode of the day. As such, what role is
technology playing in the field of child psychology and play therapy? George
Grant notes in his essay, Faith and Multiversity that.
The helping professions-psychiatrists, social workers etc.
are important means of bringing people under objective control. This is largely
done by the claim that they understand families better than families understand
themselves (Grant, 1986, p. 53).
In essence the individual and the primacy of their own
expertise about themselves has been negated with an increasing emphasis being
placed on the expertise of objective scientific inquiry. In the field of child
psychology today, value and emphasis is being placed upon objectifying
individuals and families. This is done by completing research based upon
assessment tools. These tools are formulated to make conclusions based upon
predetermined generalized factors. The importance and value of the individual
and their family as an expert about themselves and the observation of that
individual that was critical to Piaget’s theoretical approach with children,
has the potential to become virtually nullified and made obsolete by these
assessment and evaluation tools.
As Einstein pointed out above, technological advancements,
despite modernist assumptions otherwise, are not without their limitations.
Einstein points out one pitfall as, being able to grasp the structure of an
argument as a measure of success despite any hands on experience. In pointing
this out, the greatest scientific mind of the 20th Century sums up the
limitations of science and technology. His words have a resonance today that is
as relevant in the world climate, as they were stunningly simplistic in their
As a brilliant thinker, Einstein was given a choice of whom
he wished to correspond with and which topic to address. As an objective,
scientific thinker, he chose to communicate with the 20th century’s most famous
researcher of human instincts, Sigmund Freud. By virtue of this choice,
Einstein further, conveys the inability of the scientific mind, therefore
process, to understand the complexities of human nature and the human
condition. At the same time, he espouses the benefits of the objectivity that
science can offer when trying to filter through complex human issues.
It seems increasingly apparent that the world of science and
technology and that of social or human sciences is interwoven and cannot, in a
modern time such as this, be used independently to address social issues.
George Grant pontificates on this topic in his essay Thinking About Technology.
The mobilization of the objective arts and sciences at their
apogee comes more and more to be unified around the planning and control of
human activity. What must be emphasized here is that the new technologies of
both human and non-human nature have been the dominant responses to the crisis
caused by technology itself. This illustrates how technology is the pervasive
mode of being in our political and social lives.
(Grant, 1996, p.17).
Grant further discusses the domino effect the role of
technology plays in our human/social and political lives, specifically during
times of crisis, such as the one we are currently experiencing. Grant states
The political response to these interlocking emergencies has
been a call to even greater mobilization of technology, which illustrates the
determining power of our technological representation of reality. More
technology is needed to meet the emergencies which technology has produced.
(Grant, 1986, p.16).
These remarks by Grant are in sync with the thoughts
expressed above by Einstein, although the time frame between the two is 54
years. In carrying this line of thought further, the determining nature of
technology (science and research) on the social sciences (psychology) has been
seen in attempts over the last eighty years to professionalize and technologize
the field. Grant further notes that in professionalizing the field, we have
become elite experts about the people we work with. In doing so, The profession
has become a chief instrument for tightening social control (p.16).
To summarize the discussion so far, technology exists and
the creation of technology further creates more technology. Objectivity is a
direct result of technology as there are tools ascribed to each technological
process. Those who claim exclusive rights to the tools of a particular
technology (research) are considered experts or professionals within the field
of that technology. In so far as this argument goes, the people that technology
is designed to work with, no longer hold claim to being experts about
themselves. Rather, the professionals within the field of that technology are
now considered experts about the whole of the clients’ experience. This begs
the question in the technological age; does the client have a voice?
The influence of behaviourism in the early part of the last
century moved child psychology to be research oriented. Behaviourism
concentrated on determining norms as shown by the advent of standardized mental
testing (Hunt, 1993, p. 354). This was evident in Hall’s child study movement
which focused on experimentation and data gathering (Hunt, 1993, p. 354). In
response to the question, does the client have a voice, Hall may have stated
that the client does not have an individual voice, rather that there is a
collective voice in research that determines norms.
On the other hand, Piaget placed the highest value on
knowledge based on the experiences of both the client and the professional. In
this belief he created modern developmental psychology. Piaget believed in
utilizing the dialectic of research and theory and watched children play, while
also playing with them. He developed his theories based upon this dialectic.
While research, often painstaking (Hunt, 1993, p. 355) was a major component of
his studies, this research was practically based upon experience. Thus, his
compulsion with epistemology was influenced by both the spirit of the times, by
Darwinian biological determinism combined with concepts of the cognitive
process (Hunt, 1993, p.355). This belief in the advancement of human kind
through metamorphosis of accumulated experience created an advancement of
psychology that was unprecedented although limited by Piaget’s theory that
development ended in the late teen years. It was however, Piaget’s brilliance
in recognizing the value of the dialectic that has influenced modern psychology
to combine technology/research with practical application and thus, the focus
on efficacy of treatment protocols.
Of primary importance to the flavour of this essay, is an
understanding of the integral part that play, playing with and the playing of
children, has had in developing this psychology. While Freud had alluded to the
importance of childhood experiences on the development of ones psyche, he spoke
in terms of sexuality, thus alienating him from the puritans who believe that
children do not possess inherent sexual characteristics (Hunt, pp. 196). On the
other hand, Piaget embraced the notion of the child as innocent, developing and
influenced not only by their biological processes, but the processes of their
interaction with the world, answering the age-old question of nature verses
nurture. For Piaget a large part of that interaction involved his participation
in the process of play.
Perhaps it was Piaget’s lack of formal training in
psychology and his interest in natural science, further combined with his role
as a father, which allowed him to view the cognitive development of a child as
a unique yet quantifiable experience. However, maturation remained an
unexplored area for Piaget although today, modern neuroscientific research is
providing further information in this field. With the advent of
developmentalism, child psychology became a legitimate area of scientific inquiry.
This lead to further study within infant development on topics such as:
maturation (Dennis), perception (Franz), personality & attachment (Bolwby
& Ainsworth) psychoanalytical development (Anna Freud) behaviourism (Klein
& Tustin), (Winnicott), lifespan development (Erikson), moral development
Play therapy and studies with children have focused on the
social learning views and the role of play in the developmental process.
(Sroufe and Cooper). Sroufe and Cooper speak about play as a forum for learning
self-control in a social context (Hunt, 1993, p.374). Piaget also believed that
morality developed within the context of game playing (Hunt, p.379). And so the
field began to develop as a unique, independent area of inquiry.
Play Therapy has its roots in a plethora of disciplines
including: Anthropology, Sociology, Social Work, Education, Psychiatry and
Psychology. With Freud’s psychoanalytical approach to therapy and the discovery
of the psyche, combined with Jung’s unconscious and symbolism, the stage was
set for the inevitable development of play therapy.
The turn of the twentieth century was a milestone in the
development of western civilized society. Charles Darwin had written his Origin
of the Species and Sigmund Freud was discovering the inner workings of the
human mind and spirit. The impressionists were alive and thriving and the
surreal movement was developing out of the notion that inner symbols could be
expressed through the medium of art. The western world was ripe for the advent
of play as therapy.
Piaget’s theory of cognitive developmentalism was
established and with it, a man not formally educated in psychology, discovered
the enormous and far reaching implications of play as a way of tapping into the
inner self through external expression in a realm that was taken for granted
for centuries, the realm of play.
He began the empiricist approach to studying the validity
and reliability of play as a medium for expression and analysis and the
therapeutic components inherent in play. In my opinion, Piaget was most
successful in his ability to balance nature verses nurture. Perhaps this came
out of his perspective as a father and a scientist. From these early
beginnings, psychology has branched off into many areas including,
psycholinguistics, neuropsychology, clinical, academic and social psychology to
name a few.
With the advent of Bowlby and his theories of attachment,
child psychology and play therapy became firmly entrenched as sound and
relevant areas of study. Separation and attachment theories use play as one of
the primary areas of assessment with respect to parental meeting of needs.
Bowlby’s theories have had far reaching implications for child psychology and
play therapy, as he laid the foundation for much of today’s continued work on
the importance, relevance and validity of meeting a child’s need throughout the
initial stages of development and the implications of not doing so on later
mental health. Today studies in topics such as: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity
Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Behavioural Disorders, Developmental Disorders,
Physical, Sexual and Emotional Abuse, Substance Abuse, Gender Identity
Disorders, Eating Disorders, Communication Disorder, Abuse and Neglect,
Depressions, Anxieties and Fears, all point to the role of attachment, pre and
post natal in the forming of a healthy person. Even the Diagnostic Statistics
Manual IV is now inclusive of childhood disorders. Developmentalist approaches
created a milieu in which that theory is inherent in today’s psychology,
whereas prior to Piaget it was not.
Within the field of play therapy there are different
theories that form the basis of a practitioner’s involvement with their client.
These theories include: psychoanalytical, release and structured, client
centred, focal, behavioural, gestalt, Jungian, filial, theraplay, humanistic,
cognitive/behavioural and eclectic. Determining the value of directive verses
non-directive approaches also influences ones work with children. Choosing
tools to use when working with children also influences our level of
involvement in the play therapy process.
However, according to Russ in her article, Play
Psychotherapy Research State of the Science, despite the existence of these
theories, the literature, need/s to be integrated into a theoretical framework
that leads to the establishment of a systemic program of research and clinical
In our modern world where funding is based on facts, there
is a necessity for play therapy research that creates assessment and diagnostic
tools. There is a necessity for valid, rigorous, methodologically sound
research that will encourage play therapy to develop as a field of intervention
that is proven to be effective. This can be accomplished by developing a formatted
and well-documented approach to meeting the needs of children. In response to
this need, the development of interventions that have universal application
will ensure service implementation that is appropriate and effective. This is
the major goal of empiricism. This also allows for assessment of practitioner’s
interventions and ultimately will lead to implementing the most appropriate and
effective interventions for each client, while ensuring individual
accountability for therapists.
There is much merit in science and research, there is also
much potential for dehumanizing the experiences of children. An awareness of
this potential pitfall is integral to providing interventions that are
developed based upon individual needs. Mark Barnes reminds us that, Healing
occurs below jaw level. Getting stuck up in our heads only serves to stop or
delay the process. (Barnes, 1996, p.141.). Science and empiricism remain
important tools that will promote the growth of the field, let us not forget
that intuition, feeling and empathy for the client are equally important.
Despite the value of empiricism and the necessity for it to
receive funding for programs, there remains an inherent dilemma the in child
psychology and play therapy. This dilemma is in the importance of recognizing
the uniqueness of the individual while recognizing and utilizing the gained
knowledge through research and technology/empiricism. This is not a new
dilemma, but a pervasive and persistent one. This responsibility falls to
individual practitioners. While human beings share certain aspects of the human
condition, each experience, like each person and child is unique unto himself
or herself. It is this challenge that makes the field endlessly interesting and
infinitely ripe for study.
If the inherent goodness of technology/empiricism is
questioned, then an examination of the growing trend towards it’s use of
technological tools within the field of child psychotherapy/play therapy is
critical if the field/profession is to remain reflective and just. As
post-modern theories question the core of the human sciences, so did modernism
question the practice before it’s time. In 70 years will the same questions be
asked of today’s practice and of future practice?
In a world in which the foreseeable future holds the
continued exponential growth of technological intrusion in the lives of human
beings, recognizing that technology creates connections between agencies in
society on many levels is of vital importance. Utilizing technology to make
connections with clients is an increasing challenge within the field of child
psychology and play therapy.
Despite the integral role of computers and the tools that
accompany them in the field of psychotherapy, the therapist can still maintain
a subjective and pivotal role in determining the nature of the relationship
with the client. There is optimism in this fact. The future of the field will
be determined by the continued ability of individual therapists to retain this
power as well as, the ability of agencies and governments to encourage this.
Observation, questionnaires, data collection, experimentation, correlation
analysis, mental testing, emotional development, morality testing, must also be
used to accomplish these goals.
Despite efforts to place people into categories and even
within the constraints that these categories impose, the individual therapist
can continue to value the primacy of the therapeutic relationship and the
uniqueness of the individual client. This can be done in an effort to determine
services for children and their family that takes into account their individual
needs. Working for the good of the whole by working for the good of the
Freud reiterated this sentiment when he replied to
Einstein’s inquiry regarding war. He did so by speaking about human nature as
dichotomous, love and hate, pacifism and destructiveness. These forces, like
those of technology and human beings are interwoven and rarely act
independently of one another. The field of play therapy will continue to develop
within it’s own dialectic or dichotomy, empiricism and clinical intervention.
Although this may be accomplished conversely, by working for the good of the
individual by working for the good of the whole. This will be accomplished
through relevant and valid research within the field related to specific areas
Freud also says that through the process of civilization
continuing to prioritise the intellect over instinct, we may be able to
eradicate our inherent tendencies to aggression and destruction (he was clearly
a pessimist). In other words, utopia through intellectual supremacy. Will
science, research, empiricism bring us to this utopian state of being? Can
science and technology continue to move us in this direction? If we use it to
dehumanize and objectify people while concurrently increasing the rift between
the professional and layperson, history has and continues to show us that the
end result will not be successful.
If we follow Piaget’s notion of cognitive development, play
therapy does not appear to be in its infancy. It is a toddler who is influenced
today by therapists, academics researchers and the children and families it
serves. It will be critical for all of these parties to play a role in creating
a body of research that quantifiably establishes, how play helps, what it helps
with, can we teach good play skills, and how the therapist can use play most
effectively to help the child (Russ, pp.366).
There is a necessity for assessment and diagnostic tools
that can be used in a systemic fashion. There is the need for a consistent
assessment of when intervention is needed for children. To date, there exist
some assessment tools, yet they are not broadly used. Russ (1995) mentions some
of these scales including the Affect in Play Scale and the State-Trait Anxiety
Inventory for Children. More often than not, however, when a child is referred
for therapy there is no valid assessment of whether therapy will in fact be
helpful and if it is in fact a necessary intervention.
There is a need for the development of creative, effective
service-delivery models. Trained child psychotherapists/play therapist could
implement these. Part of this process is the need to assess each child, before,
during and after the therapeutic process takes place. There have been studies
that show the effectiveness of play therapy interventions, yet the
methodological soundness of many has been questioned. Interestingly many have
historically failed to have a control group as part of the study. In attempting
to avoid this type of invalid or questionable research Weisz (1993), in Russ
(1995) refers to studies that show positive results as those that, zoom in on
specific problems with careful planning of the intervention (Russ, pp.379). As
well, there is notation of the value in, including children (in research) who
are not clinic-referred, having homogeneous samples, and by having a focal
problem that the therapy is focused on (Russ, pp.380).
It appears that the future direction of the field of child
psychology and play therapy is in the area of cognitive-behavioural treatment.
This is proving to be an area of research where valid studies have shown the
effectiveness of play therapy interventions. This is as result of the nature of
cognitive-behavioural interventions and their focus on specific treatment goals
(Russ, pp.379). Conversely there has been limited research into the affective
benefits of play therapy interventions (Russ, 1995). The future assessment,
diagnostic and clinical models will also need to be inclusive in the area of
Research in child development, specifically infant mental
health and attachment regulation, speaks to the importance of play in the
development of the executive functions. It does not take a huge leap of faith
for those in the field of child psychotherapy to realize the implications of
this on the field of play therapy. However, there must be a leap taken in the
area of research to fill the gap between what is known in the field of child
development as empirically sound and effective and what will be proven to be
sound and effective play therapy interventions.
what will be proven to be sound and effective play therapy
This research must also include evaluation methods in
identifying and determining the effectiveness, beyond the most obvious and
widely used tool to date, which is observation of a positive change or
elimination of the concerning or challenging behaviour. Doing this will mean
implementing longitudinal studies that track the behavioural, cognitive and
affective changes over the course of time. Where will the money come form for this
type of research? It is a cyclical debate.
Completing research that determines the efficacy of play
therapy interventions will create increased funding for future research?
Scholars can conduct research, but this can exclude the input of the hands on clinician
in the process. As such, it would be most efficacious for individual case
studies to be completed by therapist practicing in the field. While this is not
practical for all, due to realistic constraints, for those who can accomplish
such studies, the benefits will be great. A corollary of the benefits will be
in adding to the limited literature that is empirically based and sound. In
doing so future meta-analysis will prove to have a more profound impact on
verifying the validity the field as a whole.
And so we return to Freud and Einstein, yet another
dichotomy. Freud, a man of the humanities, Einstein, a man of empiricism,
everywhere we turn there is a dialectic. However, there is no such dialectic
when these two men discuss war. Despite Freud’s belief that human nature
strives towards it’s own destruction (the death instinct), both he and Einstein
are clear that civilization and culturisation move us away from this
destructive mode. In my interpretation, Freud is saying that knowledge creates
positive change. In doing so, the knowledge that children can gain through the
play therapy process, be it directive or non-directive, internalized or
externalized, is a knowledge that will move them towards healing. Let us
combine the dialectic of technology and research with practical application and
thus develop an efficacious treatment protocol. Let us not forget how effective
Piaget was in balancing the value of empiricism with the value of hands on
clinical intervention. Of all of the things he has contributed to the field, in
my opinion this was his greatest achievement.
We are currently waging a war on terrorism. A war that has
resulted in despairingly huge rifts between the ideals and realities of
different cultures. As Marx put it, the haves and the have-nots. Desperation
leads to fanaticism and to a disregard for human life. Separation of people
through many means, but through technology and science specifically only works
to further the differences amongst people. The contradiction of technology in human
services is that it means to move people to integration while conversely acting
as a mechanism of categorization and separation.
This notion is applicable on a global scale, on a
governmental scale, on an agency and field scale and on an individual level.
Separation of the client from the service and the service provider only
exacerbates the already cumbersome division that can exist between them as
professional and layperson. While it is possible for individual clinician’s to
utilize technology while maintaining a sense of humanism in their work, this is
not an expectation or requirement in the field as a whole. It is important, fundamental
in fact, that this humanism not be lost, but rather fostered into the
technological processes by which we perform our jobs. If we are successful in
accomplishing this task, technology will look very different. Let us not forget
the poetry of diversity rather, let us use technology and research as a tool to
improve application without losing the art of play as a creative endeavour that
cannot be put into a formula.