Graduate Training: Transactional-Ecological Psychology
A detailed listing of my formal education is available elsewhere on this website, but I’d like to say a few words about my professional background and psychological orientation.
After college in the late 60’s at the University of Rochester–where the influence of Harvard’s Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) and Timothy Leary was strong–I taught elementary school for a few years, including in a Montessori- and Summerhill-flavored alternative school in New York State which my (now) wife and I co-founded. My first experience as a psychotherapist was in Boston in the mid-1970’s, where I obtained a Masters degree from Northeastern University, and worked in a suburban mental health center seeing both children and adults. I quickly realized that the best way to help kids was to involve their families, and over the next four years I availed myself of the rich offerings in family therapy from both the Cambridge Family Institute and the Society for Family Therapy and Research.
For my doctoral studies, I chose Nashville’s Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, because the program—based on the scientist-practitioner model of psychology–acknowledged the value of a systems approach in doing clinical work, and it embraced what it called a transactional-ecological epistemology in teaching science and research. Based in part on the writings of educator John Dewey, transactionalism basically says that there is a fluid and essential “transaction” that takes place between someone trying to know something—either a scientist or a practitioner–and the thing coming to be known. In other words there exists an underlying unity between the knower and the known, each impacting the other.
Sociologists see this as Berger and Luckmann’s social constructionism, and in physics, it harkens back to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which very roughly states that in the act of examining nuclear particles, we cannot help but affect their behavior. This is because in order to “see” them, i.e., to measure either their location or their movement, you have to add energy to the system, and as it turns out, this moves them around so they’re not where they were before you started “looking.”
The implication here for psychological research and intervention is that one must recognize the impact of the researcher (or therapist) on the data (or the people) being examined, (or helped). And vice versa…we are affected by the work we do, and if we don’t monitor and understand this bi-directional phenomenon, things go awry. It is both a heady and a humbling world view, and one which the psycho-dynamically inclined among us will recognize as underscoring the need to deal with transference and counter-transference.
The ecological part is less mind-expanding, and consistent with Urie Bronfenbrenner’s nested systems and bioecological model of development, it posits that all living organisms exist in environments which exert a crucial role in their development. It follows, then, that in order to understand these organisms–whether they are viruses, people, or whole families and communities–we have to understand the complex contexts in which they live.
You can see how this kind of graduate program was a good fit for someone who’d already developed a family systems orientation. And the fact that Peabody allowed its students to specialize in both clinical psychology and community psychology prepared me take on several different professional roles after I graduated. These have continued to define me to this day.