More on pluralism, bloat, and usefulness: A response to Tony Ward’s post

Ian V. McPhail

To start my reply to Prof. Ward’s response, it is probably best to outline where he and I agree on some of the topics covered on the blog and in his recently published work. First, we both agree that there is a need for more and better conceptual work in forensic psychology. Ward and Beech, as well as Mann and colleagues, make the point that the time has come for more in-depth theoretical work to deepen our understanding of the psychological constructs that cause sexual violence. Mann et al. are right to suggest that the field is probably at a point when empirical research has identified a good swath of psychological constructs that are ripe for theoretical development. And Prof. Ward is right to point out that more conceptual work needs to be done, that the current state of affairs can be aptly described as impoverished, and that conceptual work is necessary for progress.

Second, I believe we both agree on a pluralistic approach to theory development. In a few words: that myriad disciplines can be used to describe the psychological constructs causal of sexual violence.

Beyond these points, Prof. Ward makes a number of good suggestions for strategies theorists may take when constructing theories of sexual violence (e.g., identifying clinical phenomenon before constructing theory; that individual researchers and theorists can and will be guided by their own interests).

I think we generally agree on these points. While I don’t think I misunderstand his arguments as he suggested, I do think that our views diverge in interesting and important directions. This divergence may lead to different ways of going about the business of developing theory in the field. That is to say, the divergence is non-trivial.

Integrative Pluralism in Practice

In his response, Prof. Ward appears to have taken exception to my saying that integrative pluralism may lead to “bloated” theories. This was a secondary point I was making in my initial post, but a quick look at the math may make my point a bit more clear. A theoretical attempt that wishes to achieve integrative pluralism and do well at explaining sexual violence will likely be less than slender, shall we say. Table 2 in Mann et al.’s article shows there are at least 20 dynamic risk factors that are empirically supported and are ripe for theoretical development. If we want to assume that any one of these risk factors could be explained by molecular, neurobiological, psychoanalytic, genetic, epi-genetic, sociological, social genomic, experiential, existential, constructivist, social cognitive, cultural, historical, anthropological, and evolutionary approaches, then we might be faced with an integrative theory that is tasked with discussing 50-200+ mini-theories. And I’ll be bold enough to say: that would be one hell of a bloated theory! Even if I limit the strength of my interpretation to conform to Prof. Ward’s idea of loosely linked “local theories”, there will still be a set of constructs that need description by multiple approaches and these, in turn, will need to be integrated. In practice, integrative pluralism may be problematic in this sense.

A Few Lingering Questions

A certain amount of vagueness also exists in Prof. Ward’s presentation of integrative pluralism. And this vagueness in presentation leaves me with questions on a number of different issues. I ask these questions, not in an adversarial or rhetorical manner, but rather with the thought that attempts to answer these, or similar, questions will lead to a better presentation of the associated ideas. (There is always implicitness that exists in any given theory, even in the hard sciences, so the process of further explanation is likely always required.)

A few questions of a rather abstracted and philosophic nature arise: do we integrate theories that take different stances on certain epistemological/meta-physical issues (i.e., human agency)? How are these kinds of conflicts addressed in an integrative effort? Or, are these conflicts ignored? Can we even make sense of these conflicts in a meaningful way? Didn’t Prof. Ward criticize Finkelhor’s 1984 model for doing just such a thing? (However, I’m not certain I want to hold a 13 year old idea against Prof. Ward.) And do we keep in mind and create links with all theories on the phenomenon of interest? Or are we selective on the ones we try to link up with our own work? How far back in time do we go? While this last question may seem absurd, Prof. Ward suggests a course of action that is marred with complexity and he has not offered suitable advice on ways forward.

In addition, as he cited in his post, how do we achieve this “coalition of friendly theories that are consistent with each other and that accept what each has to offer from an explanatory viewpoint“? Putting theories side by side in a friendly coalition is a vague way of describing a complex cognitive task. Even the early exemplar of integrative pluralism that Prof. Ward cites, Beech and Mitchell’s work on attachment problems in sexual offenders, appears to privilege neurobiological explanations and the resultant chemical treatments of neurobiological problems.

Since developing a good theory is exceptionally complex and takes a great deal of time, when does the theory get integrated with others explaining the same (or similar) phenomena? If we also accept Imre Lakatos’s idea of “adhocness” (see here or here), this likely means that theories will be under a constant state of revision, given the accumulation of relevant empirical results. When do we re-integrate revised theories? Does this impact upon the “loose linkages” with other theories in the integration? Do we then have to revise the other theories in the integration as well?

Points of Departure

An important point of departure comes from what Prof. Ward stated in his response (and stated in a more subtle form in two recent articles) when we consider alternatives to integration and working within what he described as the “constraints of consistency” when developing theory.

Pluralism in forensic psychology will lead to many theories that do not necessarily agree with one another, nor should they. Agreement of available theories might actually be a sign of regression or stagnation within the status quo of describing psychological phenomenon (i.e., no/few new ideas are forthcoming). Foreign and unique theories that do not agree with the current status quo might actually represent real progress (p. 55, Feyerabend, 1975). This likely means that, as opposed to what Prof. Ward stated, a “division of labor” and “creating conceptual links with other domains” so that we have “a friendly coalition” of theory may not be the most advantageous way of doing things and might cause some young theorists to miss important, previously unexplored avenues of inquiry. (e.g., if I am working on an avenue laid out by someone else, how can I be inventing some new way of conceptualizing things?) Agreement as a standard of scientific merit seems rather limiting and new theory might inherently disagree with some of the agreed upon facts in a field of study (p. 65 & 68, Feyerabend, 1975). Such disagreement may even push us further along the path of understanding a phenomenon.

As Prof. Ward puts his position forward, he does not bring up the dangers inherent in such an approach and indeed characterizes it as a responsibility of the theorist to submit to the “constraints of consistency” when incorporating others work. What he implicitly calls irresponsible, certain giants of science and the philosophy of science call necessary for progress! (e.g., scientific revolutions are not case studies in consistency.) Attempting to keep in mind and work within the constraints of others’ work might actually hinder progress, because existing work generates knowledge that is formulated in its own words, and if a theorist is using a different language (so to speak), distorting their own theory for the sake of “consistency” and “agreement” seems to be a disservice to their efforts. Maybe my aversion to this kind of approach is best summed up like this: “Science needs people who are adaptable and inventive, not rigid imitators of ‘established’ behavioural patterns” (p. 215, Feyerabend, 1975).

Probably a better reason why this kind of constriction of theoretical efforts is potentially to be avoided: if our field is currently impoverished theoretically, then creating restraints on theorists’ efforts and methodological options before we get started may potentially impede the progress Prof. Ward would like to see emerge in the field. Instead of restricting theoretical activities within a limited few methods, we may be better served by encouraging a stronger pluralism that is not too terribly concerned with integration and the “constraints of consistency”. Indeed, there are a great many limitations and obstacles restricting the work of a scientist/theorist (“the properties of [her] instruments, the amount of money available, the intelligence of [her] assistants (…), physical, physiological, sociological, historical constraints”, footnote 15, p. 187, Feyerabend, 1975). The work of Lakatos and Feyerabend at least frees the scientist/theorist from methodological constraints, and it is the position I am advocating. At least how I am construing it here, Prof. Ward’s position inherently places some limitations on the activity of scientists and theorists that I would rather avoid.

A last point from my original post I want to discuss a bit further deals with the usefulness of theory. I suggested that theories ought to be useful (being a pragmatist, as if I could make any other argument!). Prof. Ward, in his response on this blog and in his recent article, laments that clinicians have largely ignored theory. I haven’t polled clinicians in the field, so I won’t say what the actual state of affairs looks like on ground level, but it seems unfair to point a finger uncritically at clinicians. We need to consider the possibility that a theory, if it has not been taken up enthusiastically by those working in the field, may not be entirely useful in solving the problems that need to be solved on a daily basis when working with offender populations. And if this is the case, we need to think more about and debate more thoroughly how the theories of sexual violence that are developed can be useful in everyday work. That is, our theories should provide some cash value for obtaining ‘the good’ we desire to achieve.


Suggested citation:
McPhail, I. V. (2014, August 4). More on pluralism, bloat, and usefulness: A response to Tony Ward’s post [Weblog post]. Retrieved from

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