York prof receives the Charlotte & Karl Bühler Award

A poet and a philosopher at heart, York Professor Emeritus David Rennie credits the openness of the University’s Department of Psychology with allowing him the freedom to pursue his interest in humanistic psychology. That interest that has led to Rennie and the department being named recipients of the Charlotte & Karl Bühler Award by the Society of Humanistic Psychology, a division of the American Psychological Association (APA).

The award goes to an institution, and an individual associated with that institution, that has made an outstanding and lasting contribution to humanistic psychology. It is the first time since the year 2000 that the award is being given out and Rennie is thrilled that he and the Department of Psychology as a whole are being given this recognition.

Right: David Rennie

“York and this department have been kind of special,” says Rennie. “In the early days, it was formed by some great thinkers.” Rennie, a senior scholar who has taught at York since 1970, mentions founders of the department such as David Bakan, Neil Agnew, Laura Rice, Malcolm Westcott, Juan Pascual-Leone, Ian Howard, Sandra Pyke and Kurt Danziger as having influenced the direction of the department. 

“In this rich environment emerged a specialization in history and theory of psychology; a psychotherapy research emphasis on therapeutic process as opposed to outcome; several experiential approaches to psychotherapy; and the application of qualitative research methods,” says Rennie. All these developments either have taken into account or have expressed directly humanistic psychology, which emphasizes human experience, agency and freedom.

“The atmosphere in the department was broad enough that I felt like I could look into humanistic psychology without fear of reprisals,” says Rennie, undergraduate director of the department from 1985 to 1988 and graduate program director from 2000 to 2004. “Our department is not unique, but it’s very exceptional for being a centre for humanistic psychology.”

Rennie was hesitant at first to move away from the conventional research approach to psychology, drawn from natural science in its quest for predictive relationships among variables measured quantitatively and evaluated statistically. Eventually, however, he made a radical shift to qualitative research methodology as a way of interpreting and representing clients’ reported experiences of psychotherapy.  

It was the late 1970s when Rennie made this turn. In the years following, he became a leading exponent of the application of grounded theory method of qualitative research to psychology, spearheaded by an article written with two of his students, Jeffrey Phillips and Georgia Quartaro, and published in Canadian Psychology in 1988 – “Grounded Theory: A Promising Approach to Conceptualization in Psychology?”

Humanistic psychology has its roots in the 1950s and is considered an alternative to psychoanalysis and behaviourism. As Rennie writes in The Humanistic Psychologist (2007), “Psychology was seen to have reduced persons to unconscious drives and wishes, on the one hand, and to behaviours controlled by environmental contingencies, on the other.”  What the humanistic psychology founders did was to take cognition, emotion, feeling, will, morality, ethics and esthetics into account along with intrapersonal, interpersonal and transpersonal relationships.

“In humanistic psychology, people are conscious agents and they make their own choices and create their own psychotherapeutic effects through their interaction with their therapists,” says Rennie. “The idea is if we don’t work through the feelings, nothing will be changed. If we start feeling differently, we’ll start thinking differently and an experiential shift can occur.”

He maintains that it’s what the romantics, philosophers and poets have been saying all along – it’s necessary to understand, recognize and work through one’s feelings before healing can occur.

What Rennie would like to see now is qualitative researchers united under a single meta-theory parallel to the positivist meta-theory supporting conventional research methods in psychology and related disciplines. He is exploring the extent to which the methodical form of hermeneutics, where the latter is broadly defined as the interpretation of text, might serve this purpose. In a related way, he feels that to the extent that gains are made in this respect, humanistic psychology as a world-view would benefit as well. 

Rennie is author of Client-centred Counselling: An Experiential Approach (Sage, 1998), and co-editor of Psychotherapy Research: Narrative and Paradigmatic Approaches (Sage, 1992) and of Qualitative Psychotherapy Research: Methods and Methodology (2nd Ed., Pabst, 2006). He was awarded the Faculty of Arts Teaching Award in 1988 and the Faculty of Graduate Studies Teaching Award in 1996. He is Fellow of both the Canadian and American psychological associations and is a past president of the Society for Humanistic Psychology of the APA.

Rennie will present an address and receive the Charlotte & Karl Bühler Award on his behalf and that of York’s during the APA’s 117th annual convention in Toronto, Aug. 6-9, 2009. For more information, visit the APA Web site or the Society of Humanistic Psychology Web site.