A Brief History of the Society for General Psychology (Division 1 of the American Psychological Association)

By Deborah Johnson

The Society for General Psychology promotes “general psychology and interdisciplinary inquiry” as a distinctive approach for correcting overly narrow perspectives and fragmentation in the field of psychology. The Society encourages psychologists to employ multiple theoretical, methodological, cultural, and historical perspectives in order to construct a greater understanding of individual and social life and recognizes excellence among those who undertake this work.

As one of the 19 charter divisions of the reorganized American Psychological Association (APA), the history of the Society for General Psychology is intertwined with the story of APA’s reorganization. Established in 1892, APA membership was predominately academic until the 1920s, when growth in applied fields of psychology led to many non-academic psychologists seeking membership in the organization. Relations between the scientifically oriented academic psychologists and the applied psychologists were rarely easy, eventually resulting in the applied psychologists forming their own organization, the American Association of Applied Psychologists (AAAP) in 1937. During the same period, psychologists concerned about the social and economic issues raised by the Depression formed the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) in 1936 to conduct and drawn upon psychological research to address these issues. Both organizations functioned independently, but were affiliated with APA.

In 1945, these three organizations were brought together within the newly reorganized APA. Anew APA purpose statement was crafted, stating that: “The object of the American Psychological Association shall be to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare” (Wertheimer & King, 1996). To accommodate the diverse interests of this enlarged membership, APA’s new bylaws structured the organization as a federation, with 19 divisions designed to serve as relatively independent homes for the organizations newly heterogenous membership.

APA’s new divisional structure included a division of General Psychology, which was designed as a home for those uninterested in belonging to one of the 18 other specialized charter divisions. Initially APA’s bylaws required that APA members must join a division and specified that those indicating “no preference” would be assigned to the General Psychology division. (Dewsbury, 2014; Wertheimer & King, 1996). Although many psychologists with broad interests chose to join the Division 1 because of its non-specialist character, many others were just assigned to the division by default. No doubt this method of ‘recruiting’ boosted the size of the Division 1’s initial membership, but it was a short-lived membership strategy. In 1946, APA members overwhelmingly voted to eliminate the ‘default placement’ clause from the APA bylaws (Dewsbury, 2014).

Determined to move beyond Division 1’s reputation as “the place for those not interested in other divisions” early leaders of the division, such as Anne Anastasi and Norman Munn, attempted to articulate a distinctive identity for the division of General Psychology. They convincingly argued that the division should serve those objecting to the fractionation or fragmentation of psychology enshrined in APA’s divisional structure. As Michael Wertheimer noted, “Since its establishment, Division 1 has been concerned with keeping all of psychology in a single fold, if not a single mold. (Wertheimer, 1996, p. 27).

While Division 1 continues to struggle to give substantive meaning to ‘general psychology’, the core notion of it serving as a corrective to narrowness and fragmentation in psychology remains. What shifts and evolves are variations in the strategies proposed for achieving a more integrated ‘general psychology’ including the question of whether such integration is desirable. The shape of these struggles can be discerned in the evolution of Div. 1 Mission statements. Historically many of these statements advocated for unification of the field of psychology, presumably through the construction of comprehensive theoretical frameworks. However, more recent statements indirectly challenge the assumptions that such unification of psychology is possible or desirable. Instead, they argue we should focus upon enriching our knowledge of human functioning by promoting fruitful collaborations among those employing diverse perspectives on human functioning, including perspectives from disciplines outside psychology. The enormous breadth of such collaborative work raises the question of whether, in fact, all of psychology can and should be kept “in a single fold” (Koch, 1993). Thus the enterprise of General Psychology must also include critiques of its own desire to ‘cure’ fragmentation.

The current activities of Division 1 reveal further strategies for addressing fragmentation in psychology. Our prestigious awards program commemorates those individuals who, throughout their career, have integrated knowledge across psychology’s subfields and drawn upon other disciplines (Ernest Hilgard Lifetime Achievement Award). We honor recent books and articles which integrate subfields of psychology and across psychology and other disciplines (the William James Book Award and the George Miller Best Article Award). We recognize and reward excellent integrative research by outstanding graduate students (Anne Anastasi Awards) and by students presenting posters at our conventions. Our flagship journal, The Review of General Psychology, publishes articles from authors who have employed multiple perspectives in their discussions of an issue or topic, or who inform us of relevant insights from new sources (e.g., other disciplines and new contexts), or who have provided critiques of narrow vision in psychology. A perusal of this work reveals the value of the critical and constructive integrative approach advocated and promoted by the Society for General Psychology (APA Division 1).


Dewsbury, D. A. (2014). The origin of Division 1 and its presidents. The General Psychologist, 49, pp. 10-12.

Koch, S. (1993). "Psychology" or "The Psychological Studies"? American Psychologist, 48, pp. 902-904.

Wertheimer, M. & King, D. B. (1996). A history of Division 1 (General Psychology). In D. A.
Dewsbury (ed.) Unification through division: Histories of the divisions of the American
Psychological Association.
(Vol. 1, pp. 9-40).