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A Sociocultural–Constructionist Epistemology for the Psychology of Aginglocked

  • Roger L. PetersonRoger L. PetersonDepartment of Clinical Psychology, Antioch University New England
  •  and Katherine A. LambosKatherine A. LambosDepartment of Clinical Psychology, Antioch University New England


A sociocultural-constructionist epistemology stands alongside more traditional psychology epistemologies for the study of aging. These positions are not commensurable. Based on Donald Peterson’s classic position on how science and practice differ in fundamental ways, on his view of “disciplined inquiry,” and Trierweiler’s view of the “local clinical scientist,” this epistemological position is more-directly relevant to practice. Within the constructionist context, it emphasizes the importance of “local” as a key level of description, along with particular levels of local knowledge. All of this is consistent with Knight’s Contextual Adult Lifespan Theory. Bruner’s ideas on cultural psychology and how culture is embedded in narrative take these ideas further. They are consistent with Bruner’s metacomments on epistemology.


This article is about epistemology as it pertains to psychological theories and aging. The investigation of aging requires two sets of epistemological ideas. On one hand is the traditional physical/biological epistemology that applies to a group of phenomena in aging and aspects of the field of psychology. To state the obvious, the dimensions of dementia, or more specifically Alzheimer’s, of a variety of diseases and the consequences of aging, and of the other elements of bodily deterioration all need to be approached through traditional epistemologies. These aspects of epistemology are discussed by O’Donohue (2013) and in earlier work by one of the current authors (Peterson & Peterson, 1997).

On the other hand is the emphasis of this article, a sociocultural–constructionist vision of epistemology. It is no doubt an oversimplification, but it is possible to sketch out the difference between the two: The stories your grandma told you about the influences on your family growing up may seem different when retold later, but your car is probably still located in the parking lot where you left it yesterday. This article then will focus more on the clinical/experiential side, that is, grandma’s stories. As Donald Peterson pointed out in his classic 1991 paper, professional psychology is not the simple and straightforward application of psychological science to professional activities—it is not traditional applied science. Some of the very best studies of aging incorporate both groups of epistemologies. A great example is George Vaillant’s Aging well (2003). It integrates long narratives about people’s lives with local data comparisons within the cohort of the Harvard Longitudinal Study group. To this are added health data and diagnostic labels. Going further, works such as Handbook of theories of aging (Bengston & Settersten, 2016) draw on epistemologies from a wide variety of related disciplines.


This article begins by exploring Donald Peterson’s (1991) classic position on how science and practice differ. His position foreshadows Kirschner’s (2010, p. 766) epistemological vision of a “strongly constitutive sociocultural psychology.” This position is then seen in the context of social constructionism. In Section 4 the key ideas of “disciplined inquiry” and the “local clinical scientist” are briefly explicated. They introduce the importance of “local,” which is described in Section 5 along with an exposition of levels of local knowledge. This is followed by Section 6, focusing on integrating Jerome Bruner’s ideas on cultural psychology. Bruner shows how culture is embodied in narrative. After that, context is briefly discussed in Section 7, followed a summary of the contextual adult lifespan theory for adapting psychotherapy (CALTAP) developed by Knight and Pachana (2015). Finally, taking a higher level perspective, the problem of incommensurability is described along with Bruner’s metacomments on epistemology in Sections 10 and 11. All of this should be part of a broad and general education in professional psychology (Zlotlow, Nelson, & Peterson, 2011).

Donald Peterson on the Differences Between Science and Practice

Just as the ideas about the physical/biological and the social/cultural sides of psychology differ, Donald Peterson (1991) saw that “science and practice differ in fundamental ways” (p. 425). “Science begins and ends in a body of systematic knowledge. Basic research begins with a conception, which guides investigation, whose results either refute or sustain a proposition derived from the conception . . . In the interest of precision they limit the scope of inquiry and control extraneous influences” (pp. 425–426). In brief, this summarizes the traditional epistemology of psychology:

Professional activity begins and ends in the condition of the client. Whether the client is an individual, a group, or an organization, the responsibility of the practitioner is to help improve the client’s functional effectiveness. The practitioner does not choose the issue to examine; the client does. The simplifications and controls that are essential to science cannot be imposed in practice. Each problem must be addressed as it occurs in nature, as an open, living process in all its complexity, often in a political context that requires certain forms of action and prohibits others . . . The needs of the client, not the need for general knowledge, drive the study. Instead of starting with science and applying what we know for sure, we start with the client and apply all the useful knowledge we can find. If some of the knowledge is qualitative or “humanistic,” we work within it not because we are muddle-headed or tender-minded, but because that is the form of knowledge that provides the best understanding of the client.

(Peterson, 1991, p. 426)

Don Peterson’s characterization of the clinical situations foreshadowed the more detailed and formal statement of this position by Kirshner (2010 p. 766; see also Kirschner & Martin, 2010a, 2010b) using the rubric “strongly constitutive sociocultural psychology.” It “summarized a number of shared themes and commitments found in several of the most enduring and influential of these approaches: social constructionist, discursive, hermeneutic, dialogical, and neo-Vygotskian psychologies” (Kirschner & Martin, 2010b, p. 766).

Gone (2011, p. 241) has a similar list which includes (among others): “phenomenological psychology, hermeneutic psychology, discursive psychology, dialogical psychology, constructionist psychology, and indeed, multicultural psychology.”

One new group, clinical scientists, wants to return to the extremely conservative physical/biological emphasis (e.g., Baker, McFall, & Shoham, 2009). In contrast, interpersonalists and constructionists (e.g., Gergen, 2015) find that view limited, flawed, and perhaps even bankrupt. Though they take a different position than the one expounded here, Henriques and Sternberg (2004) present a thoughtful inclusive view. They quote the very lines from Don Peterson (1991) that have just been quoted.

An Understated Social Constructionism

The position that is being developed is an understated version of social constructionism. For something to be verified, our conviction depends on the general agreement of people. It does not depend on truth as demonstrated by positivistic evidence. It is most similar to the pragmatic constructionism put forward by Richard Rorty (1991). Rorty himself said that his sort of pragmatism was endearingly called, by Clark Gilmour, the “new fuzziness,” because it blurs those distinctions between the objective and the subjective and between fact and value which the historical conception of rationality has developed (Peterson & Peterson, 1997). Rorty said, “We fuzzies would like to substitute the idea of ‘unforced agreement’ for that of ‘objectivity’” (Rorty, 1991, p. 38). This viewpoint leads to an immersion in contextual thinking and ultimately to some version of social constructionism as a way of understanding the world (e.g., Gergen, 2015). The social constructionism here has a pragmatic flavor and is not in conflict with a socially relevant science (Peterson & Peterson, 1997).

Pragmatic social constructionism explicates how ideas come to be used in life and therefore in psychological culture. It is substantially different from the more extreme versions that have leftist or feminist critiques as necessary element. These are sometimes put forward as central, potentially discrediting, elements of social constructionist thinking (O’Donohue, 2013, pp. 119–134).

“Disciplined Inquiry” and the “Local Clinical Scientist”

Donald Peterson (1991; along with Peterson, Peterson, Abrams, & Stricker, 1997; Peterson, Peterson, Abrams, Stricker, & Ducheny, 2010; and Peterson, Peterson, Stricker, Abrams, & Ducheny, 2015) identified a process called “disciplined inquiry.” A very similar set of ideas was developed by Trierweiler and Striker as the “local clinical scientist” (e.g., Peterson & Trierweiler, 1999; Trierweiler & Stricker, 1998; Trierweiler, Stricker, & Peterson, 2010). According to Trierweiler (1992, pp. 10–11) portrayal of the local clinical scientist:

The guiding metaphor becomes a Sherlock Holmes or a Jane Marple standing in direct confrontation with the constraints, mysteries, banalities, and surprises of unique realities, rather than the distant, conservative, skeptical, and abstractly speculative university-based scientist most of us have struggled with in our professional identities.

Nevertheless, there are colleagues who seem not to understand either of these ideas. This appears to be why: If one tries to attach them to the traditional, largely limiting, physical/biological psychology epistemology, local clinical science just seems less scientific, of lower quality. As in the quotation by Donald Peterson in Section 2, local clinical science refers to professional activities, not to the creation of traditional scientific knowledge. Local clinical science focuses on scientific data and reasoning relevant to small, local cultural groups, not large pools. It requires a largely different set of assumptions. At best, it seems apparent that local clinical science was an integral and inherent part of each psychologist’s practice.

Emphasis on the Local

As indicated, the epistemology that focuses on aging here emphasizes the local, rather than the universal. The social/cultural perspective offers a much more profound critique of traditional epistemology, one that fits with clinical practice, an emphasis on diversity, and this article’s focus on aging. In the past 20 or so years, Peterson has increasingly wondered what the psychological profession would have been like if it had been created by anthropologists and everyone was “clinical anthropologists.” We would be paying attention to much smaller, local groups with shared ways of creating meaning; as Geertz (1983, p. 172) said, local knowledge, embedded in a local culture and a local community, supports “a distinctive manner of imagining the real.” Small homogeneous samples cannot be seen as representing the general population. Most people would never have imagined that some truth, if there were such a thing, could be found by examining a bunch of 18-year-old Psych 100 students as “subjects”—except if that truth was about Psych 100 students at a certain time in history, say local to Purdue University when Peterson was in graduate school. It would be wonderful if this view, dominant in the 1960s, had disappeared. But this does not appear to be the case.

As Trierweiler (1992, p. 9) put it, “the domain of discourse for the clinician is fundamentally local, specific, and open (in the sense of uncontrollable) as opposed to universal, general, and closed.” Some of the best ideas in the Peterson and Peterson (1997) paper on epistemology focused on local cultures. Local clinical science is not a matter of error or being second best, it is a matter of focus. Conventional dictionary definitions of local are fundamentally spatial. In the postmodern era, local can be seen as technologically expanded to refer a shared language and meaning-making identifiable in a particular group and relevant to a particular area of concern and a directly relevant focus. People are part of many local cultures, which generate an array of characterizing narratives (Bruner, 1990, 2002, 2004).

Here is a brief summary of some of these ideas. The defining element of a local culture is implicit or explicit sharing of a sense of assumptive reality in an area of common concern or discourse. The actions people take within their personal and professional roles define their realities, sometimes exposing differences demanding action in the social world and making the assumptive reality visible even to oneself (Peterson, 1993). People tend to repeat actions that seem to them to work, therefore creating an accumulated pragmatic local reality. This sort of enactment of an array of social roles may be necessary to protect the diversity of imaginings, cultures, opinions, and individuals. It is not that an essential reality is distorted by each of the following levels of local knowledge and culture. Instead, a perspective becomes a pragmatic reality as it is enacted in this manner. At this point, at least seven classes of local knowledge that intersect in the professional psychology enterprise can be delineated (Peterson & Peterson, 1997). When a professional psychologist and a client enter into a therapeutic or consultative relationship, they become part of a shared, co-constructed, local community, even as small as two (Anderson & Goolishian, 1988), which has implicitly agreed to develop a local reality via the methods, techniques, ideas, and narratives of the psychology of the day and the region as they understand them (cf. Geertz, 1983), with at best only very partial legitimation by university science (Trierweiler & Stricker, 1992). Of course, at each level there remain differences between the views of individual participants. Depending on the issues or concerns that are part of a particular conversation or require action, we are each a member of an array of particular local communities that share a set of stories and a way of thinking and imagining in which we each can feel understood (cf. Peterson & Lax, 1993). Each of these local cultures has a version directly relevant to aging. Some examples from Vaillant (2003) are given.


Local Knowledge of Particular Events through Experience. The first class of local knowledge is composed of specific events with identifiable participants and observers in real time—being there. To use Vaillant’s book (2003) as an example, there are his descriptions of the homes of the people he interviewed and their behaviors.


Local Knowledge of Particular Situations through Information. The second class is the information gathered or brought together about particular situations, interactions, and events, perhaps beginning with personal experience, and including the results of observations, interviewing, testing, surveys, or other sorts of data collected more systematically. Vaillant (2003) explicitly compares the circumstances of a small number of people.


Local Knowledge of Individual People. The third class is the narratives of people and their lives, the local knowledge of clients and psychologists as individual people. Given the focus on aging, this includes gender, age, occupational history, or shared illnesses or disabilities. Vaillant’s (2003) narratives of participants embody this sort of local knowledge.


Local Knowledge of Regional, Ethnic, and Racial Groups. The fourth class is narratives connected with groups of people such as those in specific locales and geographical regions and those with racial and ethnic connections and identifications. Aging has different cultural meanings among different ethnic, racial, and regional groups. Sometimes a single community can have a number of such local cultures.


Local Knowledge of Organizations, Institutions, and Third Parties. The fifth class are the narratives from organizations and institutions to which the participants are connected, the local knowledge of “third parties.” This refers to such groups as those which compose universities or professional organizations, as well as, in the case of professional services, the social and service delivery contexts, the ethics of particular professional and theoretical orientation groups, and sociopolitical organizations. This includes not only the local visions of aging of patients in different hospitals and retirement communities but also the organizations designed to serve them.


Local Knowledge of a Discipline. This class is the local knowledge of a particular field of inquiry, such as psychology, which is gained, broadly speaking, from the study, research, and practice of the discipline. Lawyers, too, for example, would have a particular local knowledge which includes both the law and how it applies to a particular local situation. Psychology, of course, contains a multiplicity of working local realities and epistemologies. Known groups of psychologists with whom some psychologists definitely belong or do not belong have developed their local vision of reality, which for them at the time becomes the “real” psychology. The local realities even within psychology are often unshared, such as those based on differences in culture, between genders, among ethnicities, between experimental and professional psychology, or within professional psychology between theoretical orientations, or between areas of focus. In spite of their training to the contrary, many psychologists, perhaps like most other human beings, seem to be captured by one local narrative from one local culture.


Local Knowledge Embedded in Grand Narratives. All of the preceding classes of local knowledge are situated in a seventh class of knowledge—the grander narratives of particular political, social, and historical contexts (Hawkesworth, 1989), such as American gender narratives, the great narrative of progress, and religious beliefs. These include a variety of broader cultural visions of aging that appear in film, video, books, and social media.

Integrating Bruner’s Cultural Psychology

In what are called the National Council of Schools and Programs of Professional Psychology (NCSPP) model papers (Kenkel & Peterson, 2010; Peterson et al., 1997, 2010, 2015), there is a long description of Marie, a 48-year-old Catholic women of French Canadian ethnicity living in New Hampshire. In this narrative, there were also social class issues. Though this was put forward as an exemplar of diversity, Jerome Bruner has called this cultural psychology (Bruner, 2007b, 2008; Mattingly, Lutkehaus, & Throop, 2008). Since cultural psychology is not yet a common perspective, this thinking is spelled out in detail. More recently, Kirschner (2010, p. 766) uses the term “strongly constitutive sociocultural psychology.” The use of the word “cultural” in the context of the epistemology of aging has important consequences.

Gone’s (2011 p. 235) description of culture is thought-provoking and stimulating:

[F]or the purposes of this discussion, culture may be understood to be shared, patterned, and historically reproduced symbolic practices that both facilitate and constrain meaningful human existence . . . practices are key to this conceptualization of culture, with specific reference to routinized actions (whether by thought, deed, or word) that people undertake in their lives. Culture is shared because the practices of interest are learned from others—there can be no culture of one (although it is also true that not everyone shares equally in knowledge of, access to, or facility with such practices). Culture is patterned because the practices of interest are organized and utilized systematically in order to be intelligible to others—they are not randomly recreated with each usage. Culture is historically reproduced in that subsequent generations are socialized into facility with the practices of their communities—and yet, despite the intergenerational durability of such practices, younger generations might innovate over time allowing for cultural dynamism as well. Finally, cultural practices are symbolic in that they allow for the ascription and communication of meaning or intelligibility to others—language is an obvious instance in this regard.

In distilling these qualities to conceptual shorthand, culture may thus be understood as communal patterns of activity, interaction, and interpretation (or perhaps even more simply as shared beliefs and practices).

Here is an elaboration of the definition of cultural psychology since it is everywhere and in the center of things, consistent with Bruner’s argument that the creation of meaning is at the center of our understanding of human beings. According to Mattingly et al. (2008, p. 147),

cultural psychology . . . is not merely descriptive but . . . works to delimit a universal appreciation of culture's impact on mental processes. Bruner’s furthering of such a perspective is based in his view that it is universally the case that culture: (1) delimits and routinizes the ordinary, (2) limits and defines the possible, and (3) offers a means to makes sense of breaches or violations to what is otherwise culturally expected. It is thus through narrative, or storytelling, that individual actors are able to mediate transactions between the ordinary, the unexpected, and the possible.

Bruner (2004, pp. 694–695) takes the next step to argue that narrative is the way in which cultural psychology is formed:

The heart of my argument is this: eventually the culturally shaped cognitive and linguistic processes that guide the self-telling of life narratives achieve the power to structure perceptual experience, to organize memory, to segment and purpose-build the very “events” of a life. In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives. And given the cultural shaping to which I referred, we also become variants of the culture’s canonical forms. I cannot imagine a more important psychological research project than one that addresses itself to the “development of autobiography”—how our way of telling about ourselves changes, and how these accounts come to take control of our ways of life.

Therefore, it follows that to understand people who are aging we must delve deeply into their culture. This includes what it means to be growing old, what it means to have health issues, how these change within families and within a variety of professional, ethnic, religious groups. Also, we are obliged to understand the culture in which elderly people grew up and came to maturity (Knight, 2004). As suggested, these cultures are fundamentally local. The information to be gathered is in the form of narratives.

Insufficient attention is still paid to social class and socio-economic status (SES) (Rorty, 1999) as separate from ethnic diversity. It is certainly part of a cultural frame and of key importance in the lives of older people. Social class issues seem to have vanished from curricula, except maybe in social psychology courses. Perhaps the concept is too political at this time in history (Rorty, 1999). Rorty pointed out that there are Women’s Studies and African-American Studies, but no Trailer Park Studies. Until then, there will be no clear emphasis on social class. To take a stronger stand, social class has to be a key area within the study of cultural psychology.


In trying to understand the group of people we consider to be aging, psychology’s lack of attention to context is almost unbelievable (Peterson, 2005; Peterson, Vincent, & Fechter-Leggett, 2014). In spite of the efforts of many, it is increasingly clear that a largely asocial professional psychology is still widespread. There are four reasons: First, primarily this has happened because the central theories in this profession are internal and intrapsychic whether we are looking at cognitive theory or psychodynamic theory. In many programs, systemic theory and family therapy is something of an add-on. Second, the large-scale development of the work of professional psychologists in the United States came during the 1980s when insurance was generous in paying for long-term emotional therapy. This reinforced the practice of studying a person’s inner life over a long period. Of course, this is no longer the case. Third, while evidence-based practice has become extremely important, this is overshadowed by data on the importance of relationships (Wampold & Imel, 2015), which seems to diminish the significance of narrow presentations about the variety of useful cognitive behavioral interventions. Fourth, until recently, clinical psychology has all but ignored sociology as it applies to some traditional areas, such as cognition (Brekhus, 2015).

Part of the lack of emphasis on context is economic. There are at least three aspects. First, economics are at the foundation of social class. The class in which one grew up and (sometimes different) the class in which one has lived has to do with a family’s economics and associated attitudes. Second, the relatively recent federal underwriting of Medicare in the United States and, therefore, the availability of mental health services will come to influence how we understand the psychology of aging. Third, the debt many doctoral-level psychologists accumulate determine what services will be offered. At this point there is a shortage of psychologists serving the aging. However, there are many jobs available.

There is also a cultural and ethnic context, as described in the discussion of local cultures. It is impossible to understand the meaning of an older person’s (or maybe anyone’s) experience without understanding their cultural background (including religion) and ethnicity.

Contextual Adult Lifespan Theory for Adapting Psychotherapy (CALTAP)

The CALTAP was developed by Knight and Pachana (2015; Knight, 2004). Though they do not frame it as an epistemological position, it seems to be entirely consistent with Kirschner (2010, p. 766) “strongly constitutive sociocultural psychology.” They may have saved themselves some philosophical grief by putting this position forward as a way of illuminating the clinical situation for aging clients. It seems to be derived from the clinical situation just as Don Peterson recommended in the quote in Section 2.

Knight and Pachana (2015) emphasize “social context, cohort differences, and interacting influences of culture and cohort” (p. 4). Cohort differences interact with cultural differences in complex ways. The authors put forward the argument that “cohort refers to a group of people born within a certain time span who share a sense of group identity” (p. 11) and draw attention to psychologists’ need to understand what was happening in the person’s world 20 years after his or her birth, upon coming into adulthood. Of course, this is true of all clients. It is just more apparent when there are 30 years’ difference between the ages of client and therapist. Where both are from similar cohorts it just doesn’t show. Knight and Pachana (2015) warn us not to confuse differences due to developmental aging with those between cohorts. Their work fits very well with the long discussion of local cultures.

The Case of “Marie” 20 Years Later

The case of “Marie” is designed to exemplify the sociocultural–constructionist epistemology that has been presented. If it is successful, it will follow Vaillant’s example of a narrative presentation of a person who is aging. It is a composite clinical vignette, which reports little of the usual inquiry about personal and family history and the length, depth, and breadth of the concerns and symptoms that brought the client to the psychologist. Instead this case is presented almost entirely in a social-cultural frame. Peterson has aged Marie by 20 years, about the same amount of time since Peterson et al. (1997) wrote the original version. To many the latter exemplified diversity, economic, and local concerns in clinical work well. It is put forward as a good example of strongly constitutive sociocultural psychology.

Originally, Marie was a 48-year-old; now she is 68. She is a divorced woman of French Canadian ethnicity who was at that time 20 years ago experiencing depression and anxiety across many areas of her life. “Worrying, worrying, always worrying,” she said. She got angry at small things and physically “doesn’t feel right.” Everything seemed to have some sort of problem connected with it. Marie managed a small family-owned grocery store in semi-rural New Hampshire, which she had taken over from and for her partially retired parents, who still call her Marie-Claire. She began working there in her 20s, a little over 40 years ago. She learned to work very hard, to take care of her neighbors, and to be a part of French Canadian/Catholic group in her small community. If one looked through old phone books, every fifth person had what seemed to be a French name. Much later, her parents didn’t have much for retirement beyond their house, the store, Social Security, and Medicare. Her dad died a decade ago, when Marie was 58, from complications of type 2 diabetes; he had had serious symptoms for years before he and Marie came to understand their consequences. Marie is overweight and now also has type 2 diabetes. Both parents “drank more wine than they should have.” Before his death, her dad had early signs of dementia, perhaps from alcohol. She has worries for her store’s future because a huge, big-city chain grocery store established a shop a few miles away. Perhaps out of her neighbors’ goodness of heart, her store is still going, albeit barely. Although divorced for a decade, when Marie was 48 she again began to “date” her ex-husband, Jacques, who was then 56. He had said that he was now too old for the “wandering ways I used to have.” He ran a small sawmill for another 15 years before he had a coronary. His old friends and coworkers called him Frenchy, not because he had an accent, but because his dad had a slight one and that was his nickname. In her late 40s, Marie found herself going back to the same Catholic church she left when she “threw Jacques out” a few years before the divorce. She cherishes her old acquaintances of French Canadian blood. After the death of her dad and her husband and with her aging mother living with her, at age 68 Marie has become increasingly religious. Her son John (whom the family calls Jack), now 39, (barely) finished his studies at the local college, got married, has a decent job, and had a child, now 15. Marie thinks he, too, has been moderately depressed most of his life, though she is worried that she is now nearing her “breaking point.” Referred to a therapist at 48, after being convinced by an acquaintance, Marie knew of no one in her family or among her close friends who had ever seen a psychologist. She was not quite clear about what she and the clinician were supposed to do. But they did some good work together for about three years. Questioned about her current psychological state, she stated that, until recently, she had been doing pretty well. But she was lonely living with just her mom and having dinner once a week at her son’s. She worried that her small retirement and Social Security, even with Medicare, was just not going to be enough. At 68, she decided to give therapy another chance.

No doubt, any scientifically trained clinician would immediately think about the evidence-based cognitive and interpersonal treatments for depression, along with those for anxiety. If Marie had a family doctor she trusted (she still doesn’t), there probably should be an immediate referral to him, perhaps for antidepressant medication. Still, the clinician wonders what to do when Marie says, “But I don’t like him, he doesn’t listen, spends almost no time with me, and has to remind himself of my name by looking at the chart. I don’t have any other doctors. He is a new guy.” Already in the vignette are manifestations of the Holmes–Marple metaphor. The clinician’s general knowledge (and perhaps intuition or orientation?) supplies the initial leads that move toward the world rather than intrapsychic material: The information about the history and the local community applies. Marie’s economic worries are likely to be real, perhaps even more serious than she thinks. From the contemporary clinician’s knowledge of local history comes information about the French Canadian immigrants’ movement to New Hampshire. Some came to work in the then thriving New Hampshire mills, as a result of the economic situation in Canada about the time when Marie’s grandparents were young adults. Given that history, does the economic struggle of the store have special family meaning, as such a business was likely to have been the essence of security earlier in the century? Or is this inappropriately applying a stereotype? What needs to be known about Catholicism, particularly Marie’s version, and the meaning of her divorce in this context and, again in the context, apparently, of Jacques’ affairs, and what is the meaning of religion having become increasingly important? There was a beneficial reconciliation with Jacques, but now what remains is loneliness. How well has John really done? Can Marie count on him and his wife? Do John and his wife need therapy? How much of this is Marie’s depressed point of view? What expertise is there for aging people in the community? What role regarding her mom’s health does Marie feel she needs to play or feel obliged to play? Is this a problem with the U.S. economy not taking good enough care of aging citizens? Medicare will now pay for therapy; can she afford the copays or a secondary insurance? What other supportive or psychoeducational community resources are available?

Of course, the list of issues and concerns to be addressed by the local clinical scientist is much longer and would be clearer if a comparable report of the initial conversation about symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and relevant data had been portrayed here. Not only does this broadened line of inquiry—social-cultural psychology—help psychologists understand Marie more deeply and richly, it strongly encourages a treatment plan that includes a greater emphasis on a stress-coping approach and related literature. To conduct even this new “initial interview” in a meaningful fashion, the local clinical scientist clinician needs to know and systematically include a substantial amount of relevant local knowledge, in addition to that associated primarily with professional psychology.

The Problem of Incommensurability

Psychology has been plagued by the problem of incommensurability. This means that there are not only no common measures, but that the underlying phenomena are fundamentally different. Far beyond the possibility for inclusion in this article, philosophers such as Kuhn, Feyeraband, and Popper have spent many words on this and related issues. In his book on emotion, Kagan (2007, p. 194), for example, talks about how words, acts, and biology are incommensurable, and he might add culture as well. When thinking about aging, it is easy to be impressed with the findings of studies based on neuroimaging, but they are not commensurate with cultural psychology. The two epistemologies presented by Kirschner and Martin (2010a, 2010b) speak of different phenomena and are not commensurable. This is a substantial and unacknowledged problem for psychology.

Bruner’s Metacomments on Epistemology

There is a wondrous YouTube presentation by the creator of cognitive psychology Jerome Bruner called Cultivating the possible (2007). He died in the summer of 2015 at age 100. He derived three principles, three attitudes, which both serve as warning and empower the vision of new views of epistemology: the multiplicity principle, the perspectival principle, and the comparative principle. The multiplicity principle (I) says that any way of “accounting for or for ‘explaining’ any set of events or phenomena in the world is always to be taken as one of several that may be possible” (Bruner, 2007, video). For example, when the cohort effect is examined, it is important to remember that different cohort effects were present and available during the same time period. As the understanding of an aging person grows and develops, that person, him or herself, and his or her therapist may come to see things differently. The multiplicity principle underlies the presentation of alternative epistemologies.

The perspectival principle (II) principle says “that all generalizations are products of the particular perspective that one adopts toward the world of events with which one is dealing. It follows then, that their verifiability also depends upon the perspective one has chosen. There is no truth ‘from nowhere’” (Bruner, 2007, video). The supposed truths in this article come from a heritage of interpersonal theory and mentoring from Cliff Swensen (1973), Robert Carson (1969, 2009), and Donald Peterson (1968), and, from more of a distance, the social constructionist work of Kenneth Gergen (2015), and, of course, from Bruner. This is a strongly interpersonal perspective, one that emphasizes early adult experiences. To state the obvious, people have important experiences both earlier and later in life.

The comparative principle (III) says “that the range and power of any explanation one may offer is always in some measure dependent upon an awareness not only of the perspective in which it is framed, but also upon an awareness of the perspectives that have been excluded (Bruner, 2007, video).

In a word, one always knows the world in the light of the perspective in which it is framed, but also upon an awareness of the perspectives that have been excluded” (Bruner, 2007, video).” n the process of making sense of another’s experience, there is always something not yet thought of or considered. A social/cultural epistemology opens up thinking rather than constricting it.


A number of important conclusions can be offered:


The understanding of aging requires obtaining information from multiple epistemologies. Because it has been underused, at least one of these ought to be from sociocultural constructionist perspectives like the one that has been presented here. This is particularly important to gain the knowledge necessary to help clients.


Culture delimits the ordinary, defines the possible, and makes sense of breaches or violations. Cultures determines the self-telling of narratives about what it means to grow old in all of its elements.


The processes of “disciplined inquiry” and “local clinical science” deserve scrutiny by clinicians as very useful ways to apply knowledge to particular clients.


Context, particularly social and economic context, is a necessary part of the knowledge required to provide service to the elderly. It is a key element of understanding, as central as physical health. Much of what they face is economic, whether it be day to day issues, the possibility of retirement, or the cost and availability of nursing homes and retirement communities in the clients’ home area. Social class issues are embedded in these dilemmas.


Local cultures as they impact on particular aging clients are important on many levels. The nationwide culture of aging is far too varied. A clinician needs to know the particular client’s culture surrounding his or her religion or ethnicity in a certain part of the country at a certain time in history.


As Bruner teaches us, important, indeed crucial material, is embedded in narratives. And there is always more than one answer to every important question.


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