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SIOP’s Identity Crisis: What’s In a Name?

2009 May 15
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by Richard N. Landers
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SIOP Small LogoMy field’s principle organization, the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology, has been recently debating a name change.  It’s a topic about which many feel passionately.  I’ve been resisting joining the fray because I haven’t been sure where I stood on the issue, and frankly, I’m still not 100%.  But I thought I’d lay out the various perspectives as I understand them and see what you think.

The problem is this: I/O psychology has historically not always been called I/O psychology, and even today, isn’t called I/O psychology in many countries outside of the U.S.A.  The United Kingdom, for example, typically refers to I/O as occupational psychology.  In continental Europe, it’s work psychology, although there’s a modern trend toward work and organizational psychology.  In Australia, it’s most often simply organizational psychology (see Warr, 2006).  This creates a lack of brand identity – in I/O, we know these are all essentially the same thing, but outside of I/O, it’s not nearly so clear.  Add to the problem that within the United States, according to many of the comments on the pages above, many don’t refer to our field as I/O psychology to their own clients.  Efforts to create competitive advantage by practicing I/O psychologists leads them to create their own label to which their clients will respond best – for example, if your clients tend to think of industrial as manufacturing and organizational as people helping you redesign your closets, then it makes financial sense to refer to yourself by a different term.

This lack of brand identity is a problem only if I/O psychologists want to make a global impact, which is the goal of SIOP.  As more people become aware of I/O psychology and its role in the world, the more likely that I/O psychologists will be able to influence with science how work is conducted.  Without such an identity, it is harder to be taken seriously; when SIOP approaches those in power with suggestions for how to improve work in the United States, the reaction we don’t want is, “What is I/O psychology?”

So what does this have to do with changing the name of a single organization?  Since SIOP represents the interests of I/O psychology in the United States, changing the name of SIOP effectively changes the name of I/O psychology in the United States.  Although it wouldn’t be immediate, educational programs would eventually change the names of the their degree programs, and the old name would gradually fade into history.

This has happened before.  And if you don’t want a short history lesson, I suggest skipping to the next paragraph.  Originally, I/O in the U.S.A. was probably considered economic psychology or business psychology (see Koppes and Pickren, 2006).  The term industrial psychology probably came about due to the 1913 book byHugo Munsterberg, one of the early proponents of I/O, Psychology and Industrial Efficiency, although the term was not popularized until Morris Viteles several decades later.  In 1937, the American Association of Applied Psychology (AAAP) created the Business and Industrial Psychology division, while in 1945, the AAAP merged with the American Psychological Association to form Division 14 (SIOP’s current division), then called Industrial and Business Psychology.  Ghiselli and Brown published a very popular textbook in 1948, called Personnel and Industrial Psychology, which encouraged adoption of the term “personnel.”  The Hawthorne studies, often cited as the birth of the topics typically studied in organizational psychology, were conducted in the 1920s-1930s, although not written about until the 1940s.  These topics were typically more employee-focused (like leadership and teamwork), while topics in industrial psychology were more about shaping personnel (like selection and training).  In 1962, Divison 14 was renamed Industrial Psychology, and in 1973, reflecting the increasing popularity of organizational psychology, finally became Industrial and Organizational Psychology, where it remains today.

Thus we have historically and continue to have a bit of an identity crisis.  Topics traditionally considered organizational psychology are much more popular these days than those in industrial psychology (see Landers, 2009), although both literatures are sizable.  Some believe the split is arbitrary anyway; after all, all of it refers to psychology at work, right?

There are several specific criticism of I/O psychology as well, which you can see in greater detail here.  I will address my stance on each, one by one.

  1. There are too many syllables and the name is too long.
    This is certainly true, but there are many memorable organizations or groups with longer names.  The acts and marketing efforts of I/O will have a greater impact than shortening the name ever will, but still – I see the problem.
  2. “Industrial” is an archaic term.
    Well, sure.  But so any other term we choose eventually will be.  There is no reason to think that “work” or “organizational” will be the in vogue term even a decade from now.  Is a name change every few decades really the solution to this problem?
  3. No other international societies continue to use the term “industrial.”
    This is a problem, but I think it’s quite arrogant of SIOP to think that it will lead the way in choosing a new name for the field internationally.  If the concern really is to re-brand the field worldwide, then why aren’t we consulting with those other organizations before changing our name?
  4. No one knows what I/O means anyway.
    This is definitely a problem, but one shared across more areas than I/O, and not necessarily one solved with a name change alone.  How many laymen do you think really know the difference between human factors, counseling, clinical, social, and cognitive?  If SIOP becomes SOP, do you really think anyone is going to suddenly say, “Of course you’re not a therapist!  The differences are so clear now!”
  5. Having I and O tends to split people that self-identify with either I or O.
    Of this list, I think this entry is the most important.  The I/O split these days is somewhat artificial; most psychologists research or practice some combination of the two.  But at the same time, changing the name from SIOP to SOP pretty clearly says “I is no longer a part of what we do,” which I think simply is not true.  Our heritage lies firmly along both I and O; it doesn’t seem right to drop one for the other.  If any change is appropriate, it should be a total change: perhaps to work or occupational psychology.  But cutting out one area for the other just seems wrong.

So as of now, I am firmly against changing the name to SOP, although change seems like a good idea. I just don’t know to what.  Perhaps we should go with the suggestion from Pablo Xia: let’s just call ourselves Bob.

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