Research Methods for Environmental Psychology
How did we get here? I don’t mean biologically; I mean to the point where we are sharing a book about how to do research in environmental psychology. You will have your story; here is mine. Like many others, I was initially drawn to psychology because of its potential to help people with emotional and cognitive difficulties. I entered graduate school as a student in clinical psychology, even though I had worked as an undergraduate assistant for a professor (Robert Sommer) who was curious about such things as how people tended to space themselves from others and whether one’s choice of study areas influenced academic performance. These studies were driven partly by pure curiosity about how humans operate in their daily environments, and partly by the goal of informing environmental design from the person outward rather than from the building inward. Put another way, these studies sought to discover fundamental principles of human behavior, which could then be translated into practice by talented designers, who would create people‐centered optimal environments.
I slowly realized that I was more suited and more interested in these questions and goals than I was in being a clinical psychologist. At about the same time, in the late 1960s, what we had been doing acquired a name, environmental psychology.1 In some senses, having a name makes something real, or at least more real. Activity becomes legitimized, recognized, and organized. After dropping out of graduate school (I also dropped out of kindergarten, but that is another story) and contemplating my future in a cabin on a remote island that had no electricity or running water, or even any furniture, I knew I had to be engaged in discovering the principles and aiding the practice as an environmental psychologist. I went back to graduate school, and here I am, 45 years later.
Why this personal story? Frankly, it is an attempt to connect with you, the reader, who also probably did not enter your post‐secondary education with a ringing declaration that “I want to be an environmental psychologist!” Your story undoubtedly differs from mine in its details, but I suspect that in broad terms it is the same. At some point you discovered environmental psychology, you were intrigued, and here you are.
So, where is it exactly that you are? You may well have entered this big house through a variety of doors. Do you want to conduct fundamental research, that is to learn how humans interact with their physical environments (without any particular or immediate application to saving the planet or designing better buildings)? If so, welcome to the big house; this book has chapters for you. Do you want to understand how the physical environment impacts people in negative and positive ways? We have space in the big house for you, too. I know … you want to learn how and why people are damaging the only planet we have available to live on. Yes, of course, this big house has space for you, as well. All this book’s editor expects is that you respect and tolerate others in the house who have different goals. Environmental psychology needs all of you, just as medicine needs fundamental biochemistry, knowledge about pathogens and paths to health, those whose practice focuses on the usual but important run of flu and fractures, and activist physicians who are willing to put their lives on the line by going to the front lines of the latest dangerous epidemic or war.
That is why the book has four protagonists, whom you will meet at the beginning of each chapter. I hope you will see a bit or a lot of yourself in one of these characters. They are all just now entering graduate school. Maria, Ethan, Gabriel, and Annabelle share a house and are friends who met through school or work. All four happen to be dedicated to environmental psychology, but they vary in their interests within the field and in their backgrounds.
Maria has a undergraduate degree in psychology, with a minor in neuroscience. She believes that knowledge advances best when strong and clear scientific methods are employed. She feels most comfortable in the laboratory, but she is willing to leave the lab to work on problems as long as the issue can be worked on with scientific methods. Privately, she is skeptical about the validity of field studies. Ethan also has an undergraduate degree in psychology, but his minor was in sociology. He prefers to study environmental issues in the community, through surveys, interviews, and talking to community members. He believes that lab studies have their place, but ecological validity trumps the value of the confined laboratory. He is not so private about his belief that you can’t be sure of any finding that isn’t verified in the community. He belongs to three activist organizations.
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