therapy and research – part 2

(this is part 2 of my reflections on the connection between therapy and research, started yesterday).

in traditional research, an answer to a research question can be formulated quite easily because a) the things, people, and processes involved with the research are controlled as much as possible, and b) the answer to the research question is given in a theoretical context: “yes, we have determined that medication X is better than medication Y for 40% of the people under condition A and condition B.” science almost exclusively deals with general affairs (that’s one of the reasons why people think science is objective; now don’t get me started on that).

whether medication X worked better for joe or mary is of not the question asked in traditional science, and neither is the fact that mary’s reaction to medication X caused her to get so sick that she lost a week at work and couldn’t care for her elderly mother. traditional science deals with messiness by removing it from the equation.

on the other hand, messiness and subjectivity are the domains of therapy; the ramifications of mary not being able to look after her aging mother can be the subject of several sessions. such messiness is also the realm of certain types of scientific research – ethnographic research, for example. so we could say that when it comes to drawing conclusions, there are similarities between therapy and some forms of research but not traditional research.

where therapy and research differ the most is the systematic, methodical, planned approach. of course, therapists differ widely on how methodical they are. some work within the framework of a very strong system while others meander wherever the client takes them.

however, even the most methodical therapists i’ve met are not nearly as methodical as scientists. it is very difficult, if not impossible, (and, most would say, not recommended) to plan every step in therapy.

conversely, such planning and systematic, methodical work is of paramount importance in many research projects (although it doesn’t happen as much in science as popular lore and research 101 at your local college would have you believe).

however, the great distinction is that the intent in research is methodical, systematic work. in therapy the intent is quite different: it is supportive of and follows the messy, chaotic experience of everyday life.

finally, i mentioned that research is informed by the research that came before it. in most situations, research just adds another little curlicue of knowledge – thomas kuhn, one of the most important workers in the field, in his book the structure of scientific revolutions, called it “puzzle solving”. most research consists in adding, changing, repositioning and removing small pieces of the puzzle, and does not change the puzzle itself.

while therapy is informed by this kind of history, and often spends quite a bit of time looking into the client’s past, often the hope in therapy is for a profound transformation.

but not so fast – many clients see a therapist for less than 5 sessions. i haven’t read any in-depth studies on length of therapy but from my experience both as a counsellor and as someone who’s conducted quite a bit of research on personal transformations, i would say that in the vast majority, people who see a therapist for 5 sessions or less do exactly what most research does: they deal with a small piece of the puzzle.

so we could say that the hope is for both therapy and research to make sweeping changes or grand discoveries – and the reality in most cases is that in both cases, the results are a little bit more of the everyday variety. let’s hope, too, that in therapy, the big picture is the same as in research: without this type of small, day-to-day puzzle solving, we’d be a sorry lot.

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