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SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

versão On-line ISSN 2071-0763
versão impressa ISSN 0258-5200

SA j. ind. Psychol. vol.36 no.1 Johannesburg Jan. 2010




An overview of industrial and organisational psychology research in South Africa: a preliminary study



Dries Schreuder; Melinde Coetzee

Department of Industrial and Organisational Psychology, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa

Correspondence to




ORIENTATION: The generation and development of knowledge for the benefit of the discipline of industrial and organisational psychology by means of research is a core academic focus.
RESEARCH PURPOSE: The purpose of this study was to explore general research trends in the field of industrial and organisational psychology in South Africa from 1950 to 2008.
MOTIVATION FOR STUDY: Research in the field tends to be influenced by either the changing needs of business or the occupational or personal fields of interest of academics, which often lead to an overemphasis on specific subdisciplines at the expense of others. This research aims to critically review dominant trends in the research focus areas in the field, in the light of present challenges in the changing work context. Recommendations are also made for possible future research.
RESEARCH DESIGN, APPROACH AND METHOD: A broad systematic review was carried out to analyse documented published and accredited South African research in the field (n = 2501).
MAIN FINDINGS: Although there has been a proportional decline in personnel psychology research since 1990, there has been a proportional increase in both organisational psychology and employee wellness research since 1980 and 1990, respectively. Some areas of the industrial and organisational psychology field appear to be consistently under-researched.
PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS: The insights derived from the findings can be used by academia and researchers in the field to plan future research initiatives.
CONTRIBUTION/VALUE-ADD: The findings provide preliminary insights that contribute to the body of knowledge concerned with the industrial and organisational psychology field in the South African context.

Keywords: career psychology; employee- and organisational well-being; personnel psychology; psychometrics; organisational psychology




Key focus of the study

Industrial and organisational (I/O) psychology as an applied division of psychology is both an academic and an applied field concerned with the study of human behaviour related to work, organisations and productivity in a particular type of location, that is, almost any kind of organisation (Cascio, 2001; SIOP, 1999). In the academic field, different topics in the various subfields of I/O psychology are studied (both theoretically and empirically) to generate new knowledge and solutions, with a view to addressing the critical challenges and issues stemming from the particular socio-economic contexts in which organisations are located. Applied I/O psychology uses the psychological principles and the new knowledge and solutions generated by research to solve problems in the work context (Bergh, 2009; Coetzee & Schreuder, 2010). The present study is located within the academic domain and focuses on research trends from 1950 to 2008 in I/O psychology as an established discipline in the South African context.

Background to the study

As depicted in Figure 1, I/O psychology and its research focus areas have evolved to address the changing needs of societies and organisations and to generate new knowledge and technology with a view to dealing with the demands of globally and nationally changing contexts. As far as the field's historical roots are concerned, research in I/O psychology in the United States started to evolve at the beginning of the 20th century when the United States entered the First World War and the testing and placement of army recruits became important (Landy & Conte, 2010). Studies in personnel selection, work methods and job design were originally carried out as early as 1913 (Katzell & Austin, 1992), and continued to be important during and after the Second World War. While the knowledge base and techniques for applying selection, placement, evaluation and appraisal to specific situations were refined during World War II, and the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, organisational psychology took on the role of equal partner with industrial psychology, and hence the reference to the field as I/O psychology (Levy, 2006). Areas such as organisational dynamics, work groups and leadership, and employee morale also became important focus areas, along with improving productivity and reducing counterproductive behaviour such as absenteeism and turnover (Landy & Conte, 2010). During the mid-1960s to mid-1980s organisational topics such as work motivation, job attitudes and job characteristics also became prominent, along with a continued interest in mental ability tests (Levy, 2006).

During the last 15 - 20 years (the mid-1980s to the present), the field of I/O psychology has grown very assuming an increasingly important role in understanding and predicting work behaviour. Issues of worker well-being, work-family balance, the experience of work by workers, an ageing workforce, multi-cultural and cross-cultural issues, ethical leader behaviour and world poverty are currently some of the emerging trends in the United States (Landy & Conte, 2010).

In 1946 research in I/O psychology came into its own in South Africa with the establishment of the National Institute for Personnel Research (NIPR). Since then, studies have been undertaken into a wide range of subjects related to the various subdisciplines in the field. Simon Biesheuvel (the then Director of the NIPR) is generally regarded as the father of industrial psychology in South Africa (Schreuder, 2001). His research on the selection of flight crews and his presentation of a number of scientific papers made him one of the most respected psychological researchers in the country (Biesheuvel, 1984). The establishment of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in 1969, and the research that subsequently followed, made a significant contribution to the development of the I/O psychology discipline in South Africa. The research contributions of the HSRC's Institute of Manpower Research and Institute of Statistical Research were particularly significant to the evolution of I/O psychology in South Africa (Raubenheimer, 1974)

Historically, numerous researchers have questioned the extent to which I/O psychology research was needs-driven and problem-orientated (Augustyn & Cillié, 2008; Katzell & Austin, 1992; Moalusi, 2001; Pietersen, 2005; Schreuder, 2001; Sweder & Fiske 1986; Van Vuuren, 2006; Veldsman, 2001). Dunnette (1990) asked whether practitioners of I/O psychology are using the best the field has to offer and whether the science and practice of the discipline have a synergistic impact on each other. He came to the unsettling conclusion that I/O psychology is not faring well. He blamed this state of affairs on, among other things, the burden of the publication process, and continued by saying that the published material does clearly suggest that a potentially serious schism exists between the academic (science) and applied (practice) aspects of the discipline.

According to Augustyn and Cillié (2008), the schism between science and practice still exists in South Africa. They argue that the research contributions of academics and practitioners are often not needs-driven and problem-orientated; instead, academics and practitioners seem rather to 'keep their pets, have their fun, suffer their delusions, keep their secrets, and ask their questions' (Augustyn & Cillié, 2008, p. 71). Research in the I/O psychology field often appears to be a function of data availability - the norm being the recycling of available data in the pursuit of 'hot topics'. In academic circles, those who try to apply knowledge in their teaching and consulting to organisations are often (almost bizarrely) labelled 'practitioners', while their colleagues who publish (irrespective of the quality or the usefulness of the publications) are labelled 'academics'. Driven by the zeal to either 'publish or perish', academics appear to be mostly concerned about the quantity rather than the actual relevance of their research outputs. Augustyn and Cillié (2008) posit that what is often missing in research publications is convincing arguments for the significance of the research questions - often leaving readers with the question 'so what?' As a result, published research is, in reality, often discounted by the captains of industry 'as a waste of time' (Augustyn & Cillié, 2008, p.71); industry often regards research contributions as impractical and of little relevance in solving the people-related business problems that occur in industry and commerce.

Research purpose

As noted earlier, research in I/O psychology tends to be influenced by either the shifting needs of business and the occupational or the personal fields of interest of academics, which often leads to an overemphasis on specific subdisciplines at the expense of others. The purpose of the present study is to explore trends in research focus areas in the field of I/O psychology in South Africa from 1950 to 2008, and to critically review the dominant trends in the light of present challenges in the changing work context.

Trends from the research literature

Industrial and organisational psychology and subdisciplines

Industrial and organisational psychology can be defined as the scientific study of people within their work environment, which includes the application of psychological principles, theory and research to the work setting (Landy & Conte, 2004; Riggio, 2009). I/O psychology has two objectives: firstly, to conduct research in an effort to increase knowledge and understanding of human work behaviour; and secondly, to apply that knowledge to improve work behaviour, the work environment and the psychological conditions of workers. In other words, I/O psychologists are trained to be both scientists and practitioners, in what is referred to as the scientist-practitioner model (Riggio, 2009).

Although the name of the field is not a generally agreed-upon the 1970s (Muchinsky, Kriek & Schreuder, 2005). Industrial psychology, historically called personnel psychology, is the study of how individuals behave within work settings. Organisational psychology is closely related to industrial or personnel psychology, and concerns the study of work at the organisational level, to understand how workers function in an organisation and how the organisation functions as a whole (Coetzee & Schreuder, 2010).

According to the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), the coordinating body for all registered health professions (including psychologists) in South Africa, industrial psychologists practise in business or industrial settings with the general aim of directly benefiting the economic well-being of the organisation. They are concerned with people functioning effectively in relation to their working environments. Their areas of expertise include:

• recruitment and selection

• training, appraisal and review

• vocational guidance and career development

• industrial relations

• occupational health and safety

• planning technological and organisational change

• organisational behaviour

• ergonomics

• consumer behaviour

• job redesign

• marketing.

(HPCSA, n.d.)

For the purpose of the present study the following recognised fields of I/O psychology were used as a framework for determining research trends in the field (Landy & Conte, 2010).

Personnel psychology is regarded as one of the oldest and more traditional fields of I/O psychology (Muchinsky et al., 2005). This field is concerned with the scientific study of individual differences in work settings, and includes activities such as job analysis and criterion development; psychological assessment, employee selection and placement; employee reward and remuneration; employee training and development; career development support; employee performance evaluation; attracting and retaining scarce and critical talent; and encouraging adherence to employment-related legislation. As a subdiscipline of I/O psychology, personnel psychology represents the overlap between psychology and human resource management (Coetzee & Schreuder, 2010).

Organisational psychology focuses on the influence organisations have on the attitudes and behaviour of their employees. While personnel psychology is more concerned with individual-level issues, organisational psychology aims to study work at the organisational level in order to understand how workers function in an organisation and how the organisation functions as a whole. Typical activities include: the promotion of job satisfaction, group dynamics and teamwork, decision-making, inter-personal conflict, motivation, power, communication, organisational change, culture and climate, organisational citizenship behaviour, organisational commitment and employee engagement, quality of work life, employee and organisational wellness, leadership development and training, and organisational design, structure and development (Bergh, 2009; Coetzee & Schreuder, 2010).

Career psychology is concerned with the interplay between individuals and environments and attempts to describe the nature of the patterns of positions held and resultant experiences during an individual's lifespan (Arnold & Randall, 2010). This subdiscipline focuses on providing models and explanations for organisational career-related activities such as the following:

• the origin and measurement of individual aptitudes

• personality

• interests and career orientations

• motives and values' how individual, social, chance and environmental factors shape educational and training experiences

• employee employability

• career embeddedness and mobility

• experiences of career well-being

• job and career satisfaction

• career agency

• early work history

• occupational choice

• organisational/job choice and career movements after organisational entry

• work/family issues

• career plateaus

• retirement planning.

(SIOP, 1999)

Knowledge of organisational practices related to personnel psychology and organisational psychology (i.e. I/O psychology) assist in understanding specific career issues and challenges faced by certain groups such as people with disabilities women and historically disadvantaged ethnic groups (Coetzee, 2010; SIOP, 1999).

Psychological assessment involves psychometrics, which refers to the development and utilisation of various types of assessment instruments to measure, predict, interpret and communicate distinguishing characteristics of individuals for a variety of work-related purposes, such as selection (hiring, promotion, placement), successful work performance and development (career planning, skill and competency building, rehabilitation, employee counselling). The psychological assessment of individuals may help the organisation achieve person-environment fit and person-job/career fit within the specific organisational context (department or work group) (Bergh, 2009; SIOP, 1999).

Ergonomics is concerned with the human-machine interface or the interactions between humans and systems, such as production systems, communication networks and decision-making processes. The focus is on the design of equipment, IT systems, human-computer interaction, workplaces and the work itself, and specifically takes into account human factors such as physique, intelligence, emotion and patterns of social interaction (Bergh, 2009). The underlying goal is to modify the work environment so that it is more compatible with the characteristics of human beings, thus obtaining a better fit between humans and their work-related activities (Macleod, 1995). Ergonomics also studies the interactions between human physical capabilities and problematic conditions related to the health and safety of employees in the workplace in an attempt to understand the limits of performance and the negative effects of certain factors on workers. These factors include hazardous environmental conditions, such as those caused by toxic substances, loud noises, blinding light and noxious odours (SIOP, 1999).

Consumer psychology is the study of the psychological aspects of consumer behaviour. It is the systematic study of the relationship between the producers or distributors and consumers (actual or potential recipients) of goods and services. This may involve market research into consumer product preferences, consumer attitudes and motivation, buying habits and patterns, brand preferences, media research (including the effectiveness of advertisements and commercials), estimating the demand for products or services, and the study of people's economic expectations (SIOP, 1999).

Employee and organisational well-being positive psychology paradigm focuses on facilitating positive psychological capital or resources in organisations and employees regarded as important in keeping them healthy and resilient to hardships. Health-promoting factors that are encouraged are an internal locus of control, positive emotions, hope, optimism, self-efficacy, personal hardiness and a sense of coherence (Bergh, 2009). Stress-related factors studied are organisational structure and job design, such as shift work, or the requirements of particular tasks and sources of organisational stress that may influence performance, commitment and attitudinal variables related to downsizing, harassment, work-family pressures and outsourcing (SIOP, 1999). Stress, job burnout, violation of psychological contracts, job insecurity and downsizing remain the most popular topics for study in I/O psychology (Rothmann & Cilliers, 2007). Employee wellness has become a popular field of the study in I/O psychology since 1990.

Employment relations, better known as labour or indus