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The Language of PsychologyAPA Style as Epistemology
Robert Madigan, Susan Johnson, and Patricia LintonUniversity of Alaska, Anchorage
The Publication Manual of the American PsychologicalAssociation (4th ed., APA, 1994) is a guide for many as-pects of professional writing for psychologists. In this ar-ticle, the authors propose that APA style involves morethan a set of explicit guidelines for presenting information;it also incorporates a variety of unarticulated practicesthat reflect fundamental attitudes and values of psychol-ogists. The authors examine some of the less obviouscharacteristics of APA style to show how they support thediscipline's commitment to the empirical method and thediscipline's view of itself as a cumulative, collaborativeenterprise. Students who enter the field of psychology ac-quire psychology's language conventions, and in doing sothey also come to implicitly endorse important values oftheir discipline.
I t might be argued that all American psychologists,regardless of specialty, share at least two common ed-ucational experiences: a course in statistics and ex-posure to the Publication Manual of the American Psy-chological Association. "APA style" (e.g., Gelfand &Walker, 1990a) has come to refer to this well-developedsystem of writing conventions that includes informationon how to organize empirical reports, how to referencepublished works, and how to solve dozens of other tech-nical problems that arise in the preparation of a manu-script. But the use of APA style has spread far beyondsettings in which manuscripts are readied for publication.Psychology curricula typically require that competencein APA style be demonstrated in class papers, theses, anddissertations. Indeed, the use of APA style has becomecommon even in disciplines outside psychology, such aseducation and nursing. Contemporary English compo-sition textbooks (e.g., Hacker, 1992) present APA styleas an established standard on a par with the venerable"MLA style" (Achtert & Gibaldi, 1985).
Although fully appreciating its ubiquitous presencein the discipline, we argue in this article that APA styleplays an even greater role in psychology than it mightappear. We propose that APA style is not just a collectionof arbitrary stylistic conventions but also encapsulatesthe core values and epistemology of the discipline. APAstyle is itself a model for thinking about psychologicalphenomena and serves as an important socialization ex-perience for psychologists. We show in this article thatthe subtleties of APA style make its mastery a challenging
task that is frequently underestimated by both studentsand professors.
APA Style as a Writing GenreAlthough familiarity with APA style prose makes it seemunremarkable, it is nonetheless a specialized genre ofwriting that differs in many ways from writing found inother disciplines. Figure 1 shows a comparison of featuresof academic writing drawn from scholarly journals in lit-erary criticism, history, and two areas of psychology. Weobtained these data by examining the first 25 articlespublished in 1992 in representative journals of each dis-cipline.
Although these textual differences may seem minor,they have major rhetorical consequences that give eachdiscipline its own characteristic voice. Subheadings arenot common in literary criticism and history but arewidely used in psychology. By announcing the next majortopic, subheadings reduce the need for authors to incor-porate transitional passages to connect major sections.When subheadings are standardized, as in most psy-chology journals, the organizational structure they imposecontributes to the communication between writer andreader by creating specific expectations about forthcominginformation. The extensive use of discursive footnotes indisciplines such as literary criticism and history has theeffect of establishing a second, parallel text that the authorcan use to rhetorical advantage. Writers in literary criti-cism, for example, exhibit sophistication in distributingimportant points between the main text and discursivefootnotes. Figure 1 also shows that writers in psychologyfrequently cite other published work but rarely quote di-rectly from them. Citing previous work by paraphraserather than by direct quotation is a convention that affectsboth the flow and feel of the resulting text. Paraphrasegives an author more flexibility in presenting another'spoint. Although not shown in Figure 1, most articles inpsychology are the work of multiple authors, whereas thearticles reviewed from the other disciplines were almostwithout exception the work of a single author. The meannumber of authors in articles sampled from two psy-
Gary R. VandenBos served as action editor for this article.An earlier version of this article was presented at the Fifth Annual
Conference of the American Psychological Society, Chicago, IL, June26, 1993.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed toRobert Madigan, Department of Psychology, University of Alaska An-chorage, Anchorage, AK 99508.
428 June 1995 American PsychologistCopyright 1995 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0OO3-O66X/95/$2.00
Vol. 50, No. 6, 428-436
RobertMadiganPhoto by MemoryMakers Photography
chology journals was 2.5 and 2.8, respectively. It is likelythat multiple authorship works against distinctive lan-guage usage and tends to produce more subdued prose.
The textual differences captured by Figure 1 are il-lustrative, not exhaustive. Although the characteristics ofdisciplinary writing styles have only recently receivedcareful attention, there is considerable support for theexistence of a number of academic writing genres. Ba-zerman (1981) has examined scholarly articles from bi-ology, sociology, and literary criticism and has concludedthat each is distinctive. MacDonald (1989) has proposedthat the development of concepts in written work proceedsin fundamentally different ways in different disciplines.Writers in the humanities introduce ideas with a discus-sion of particular cases and then proceed to more generalconclusions. In the social sciences, writers begin with aconsideration of general principles in the introduction,move to a particular data set, and then return to generalprinciples. These structural differences are reflected inthe many details of texts produced in different specialtyareas (MacDonald, 1992).
Skilled writers must not only master the general rhe-torical approach favored in their disciplines but must alsodevelop a myriad of subtle stylistic nuances that separatenovice and expert writers. Berkencotter, Huckin, andAckerman (1988) described the difficulties an accom-plished writer in the humanities experienced as he ac-quired a research-oriented writing style in graduateschool. Textual features admired in the humanitiessounded "off register" in his new discipline and markedhis writing as the work of an outsider. A considerableamount of effort was necessary to unlearn comfortablestylistic preferences and to develop the new ones necessaryto give his writing the voice of an expert in the field.Psychology professors sometimes encounter a similar sit-uation when students change their academic majors latein their college careers. These students may find that a
formerly successful writing style produces criticism fromtheir new professors.
Distinctive writing genres such as APA style are de-fined by the practices of complex networks of writers andreaders. Bizzell (1986) has used the term discourse com-munity to refer to a group of individuals who share com-mon goals and beliefs and who have established mecha-nisms for communication. Texts within the discoursecommunity are produced and judged in relation to thecommunity's implicit norms. The community's writinggenre serves as both a model for writers and as a templatefor readers (Todorov, 1990). Both writers and readerscome to find prose that contains the typical textual fea-tures of the discourse community to be appropriate, per-suasive, and interesting.
APA Style and Paradigmatic Thinking
APA style codifies the writing practices of a large discoursecommunity. It has evolved along with psychology.VandenBos (1992) reported that the APA began its jour-nals program in 1923. By 1929, an APA committeeprinted a seven-page writer's guide in the PsychologicalBulletin. The document grew to 42 pages in 1944.The title "Publication Manual" was first used in 1952,and new revisions followed in 1957, 1967, 1974, and1983. By 1990, annual sales exceeded 200,000 copies(VandenBos, 1992). The 1994 revision is 368 pages. Eachedition has communicated the standards of its time forreporting empirical studies.
These developments may be viewed from a socio-cultural perspective wherein APA style richly reflects psy-chology's intellectual milieu, in which agreement abouttrivial details can carry with it agreement about morefundamental matters. For example, APA guidelines havemirrored changes in psychology's concept of a personwho serves as a "subject" in a psychological investigation.Although the current view is that subjects (now termedparticipants; American Psychological Association, 1994,
SusanJohnsonPhoto by Tukako Tosa/Ryo Photo Wings, Ltd.
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Patricia LintonPhoto by MemoryMakers Photography
p. 49) are anonymous, interchangeable, and distinct fromexperimenters, this was not always the case (Danziger,1990). During much of psychology's early history, studieswere reported in which participants were explicitly namedindividuals who were frequently the authors of the report.Changes in the nature of the research participant reflecteda shift in the social structure of the psychological labo-ratory that had far reaching effects, ultimately impactingthe types of data collected and the methods used to an-alyze them (Danziger, 1990