Who are we again? The Identity Crisis of I-O Psychologists

Topic: Professional Identity
Publication: Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice
Article: Organizational Psychology and the Tipping Point of Professional Identity
Authors: Ann Marie Ryan and J. Kevin Ford
Selected Commentary Authors: Muchinsky, Shanock, Rogelberg, and Heggestad
Reviewed  By: Samantha Paustian-Underdahl

If someone asked you who I-O psychologists are, what would you say? In explaining this profession to another person, how would you distinguish the field of I-O psychology from management, human resources, and industrial relations? If you are having trouble explaining I-O psychology, don’t worry – so do a lot of other people. Ryan and Ford (2010) argue that organizational psychology has an identity problem and is at a critical ‘tipping point’ in terms of maintaining its distinctiveness as a field. They believe that several recent and ongoing debates about professional issues within the field of I-O psychology are symptoms of an identity problem: a lack of visibility to key decision makers in organizations (Rotolo, 2009), debates over the appropriateness of licensure (Macey, 2002), and concern over the lack of influence over public policy (Pulakos, 1999).

The authors discuss research on identity formation and change in order to help readers better understand what may be happening within the profession. Albert and Whetten (1985) defined organizational identity as a set of attributes that are central, enduring, and distinctive. In an update, Whetten (2006) described the attributes that are most helpful as ‘‘those that have repeatedly demonstrated their value as distinguishing organizational features’’ (p. 221). Ryan and Ford argue that identity claims of organizational psychologists must include knowledge distinctly associated with organizational psychology as well as the skill to generate new knowledge. They believe that organizational psychology can be differentiated from other professional fields by the knowledge we create and possess, rather than by the tasks we do.

The authors make two assumptions regarding the tipping point of organizational psychologists’ identities:

“The identity of organizational psychologists is at a tipping point in that distinction in identity from human resources and organizational behavior (HR/OB) professionals has become blurred to the point that claimed aspects of positive distinctiveness are not widely agreed upon, clear, or valued” (p. 244).

“The identity of organizational psychology is at a tipping point in that significant numbers of entrants to the field undergo identity customizations and emerge without ‘‘organizational psychologist’’ as a deep-structure identity” (p. 245).

Ryan and Ford present four alternative future scenarios to stimulate thinking and discussion on developing the profession’s future. The focus of these scenarios is on graduate education and training programs related to organizational psychology. One scenario is that organizational psychology programs remain true to their historical vision, and strengthen their identity. The second scenario is that PhD training in organizational psychology in psychology departments morphs into interdisciplinary programs (as has occurred for neuroscience and cognitive science). The third scenario is that PhD training for research becomes the purview of different programs than those focused on practice (such as PsyD or master’s-level applied programs). The final scenario is that PhD training in organizational psychology in psychology departments slowly fades to extinction (similar to trends in counseling psychology).

Selected Commentaries:

The article was followed by several wide-ranging commentaries. Commentators included I-O psychologists working in a wide variety of settings: psychology departments, human resource functions in organizations, business schools, interdisciplinary programs, and HR products and services firms.

Muchinsky (2010) argues that professionals outside of I-O psychology are just as capable of creating and sharing organizational psychological research as those who have been trained in psychology. He believes that the value of organizational psychology comes from the knowledge gained and shared that relates to organizational research, regardless of who actually produces the knowledge.

Shanock, Rogelberg, and Heggestad (2010) agree with Muchinsky’s sentiments as they share their own experiences of working in an interdisciplinary Organizational Science PhD program. The authors confirm that researchers in I-O psychology study many of the same issues studied by scholars in other disciplines. Differences may exist however in the foundational perspectives, theoretical groundings, and, in many cases, distinct methodologies used by researchers of distinct, but related disciplines.

In conclusion, the focal article and it’s commentaries highlight the value of organizational research, whether or not that research is conducted by those formally trained in psychology or other related disciplines. Further, there seems to be a general agreement on what should be central and distinctive about the field of organizational psychology, but there is a sense that the management of this identity could be improved.

Focal article:

Ryan, A. M., & Ford, J. K. (2010). Organizational
psychology and the tipping point of professional identity. Industrial and
Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 3, 241–258.


Muchinsky, P. M. (2010). A means not an end. Industrial
and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice
, 3, 269–271.

Shanock, L. R., Rogelberg, S. G., & Heggestad, E.
D. (2010). A view into the future of organizational psychology: Our experiences
with an interdisciplinary approach to graduate education. Industrial and
Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on

Science and Practice, 3, 272–276.


Macey, W. (2002). The licensing of I-O psychologists.
The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist. June 9, 2010, from
www.siop.org/TIP/backissues/ TIPJan02/02licensing.aspx

Pulakos, E. (1999). A message from your president.
The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist. Retrieved June 9, 2010, from
www.siop.org/tip/backissues/ tipjan99/1Pulaskos.aspx

Rotolo, C. T. (2009). Making I-O psychology more
visible: Mommy, I want to be an I-O psychologist when I grow up. The
Industrial-Organizational Psychologist. June 9, 2010, from www.siop.org/tip/july09/18rotolo.aspx

Whetten, D. A. (2006). Albert and Whetten revisited: Strengthening
the concept of organizational identity. Journal of Management Inquiry, 15, 219–234.