The American Psychological Association was founded in 1892 with 31 members and grew quickly after World War II. Today, APA is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, with more than 115,700 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students as its members. APA also has 54 divisions in subfields of psychology.
APA was founded in July 1892 by a small group of men interested in what they called “the new psychology.” The group elected 31 individuals, including themselves, to membership, with G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) as its first president.
APA’s first meeting was held in December 1892 at the University of Pennsylvania. The basic governance of the APA consisted of a council with an executive committee. This structure has continued to the beginning of the twenty-first century: Today, APA has a Council of Representatives with a Board of Directors.
APA’s founding was part of a large number of changes occurring in the United States then, including:
The emergence of academic disciplines such as psychology, economics, political science, biochemistry and physiology. These new disciplines quickly developed advanced degrees that provided credentials to validate the disciplines’ members as experts.
The progressive movement in politics, which called for a more efficient, less corrupt, social order.
The synergy of these two developments — specialized expertise and rationalized government — helped create the need for trained personnel to fill the new professional niches created by the demands for a more efficient society. Membership growth of the APA was modest over its first 50 years.
However, in 1926 a new class of non-voting membership was formed: associate members. Most of the growth occurred in that class after 1926, so that there were 2,079 associate members in 1940. Many of these associates were individuals doing practical or applied work in psychology, and who also belonged to one of the applied associations that emerged in this time.
World War II and Its Effects
Realizing that the growth of applied psychology represented a potential threat to its preeminence, the leaders of APA reorganized during World War II. Under this reorganization plan APA merged with other psychological organizations resulting in a broader association organized around an increasingly diffuse conceptualization of psychology.
Now the association's scope included professional practice and the promotion of human welfare as well as the practice of the science of psychology. This flexibility in scope has remained to the present.
Psychology boomed after the end of World War II with the greatest increase in membership coming between 1945 and 1970. Several factors fueled this growth:
Many returning servicemen saw the great need for better psychological services firsthand during the war. There was special interest in the domains of clinical and applied psychology.
The GI Bill, the new Veterans Administration Clinical Psychology training program, and the creation of the National Institute of Mental Health contributed to the increased interest in psychology.
For the first time psychology was a field, in both science and practice, that was richly funded for training and research. This was, as one scholar termed it, The Golden Age of Psychology.
The rapid and incredible growth in APA's membership reflected these trends as membership grew 630 percent from 1945 to 1970, from 4,183 to 30,839. By comparison, from 1970 to 2000, APA membership grew to 88,500 with another 70,500 affiliates.
A new divisional structure grew out of the reorganization plan during World War II and helped facilitate this growth. Now members could join a special interest group within APA and find other like-minded members. This also facilitated the fragmentation of psychology and pushed the field away from any sense of unity that it may have held prior to the war.
Nineteen divisions were approved in 1944, with the two most numerous being clinical and personnel (now counseling). This reflected the sectional structure of the American Association of Applied Psychology (AAAP), which had emerged in 1937 as the chief rival to APA and had been the main reason for the reorganization.
Because the Psychometric Society (Div. 4) decided not to join, and after Div. 11 (Abnormal Psychology and Psychotherapy) merged with Div. 12 (Clinical Psychology), the number of active divisions was reduced to 17.
Growth in the number of divisions was slow until the 1960s. Only three more were added, in part because many of the older members, then in leadership positions, were quite resistant to increasing the number of divisions.
From 1960 to 2007, 34 more divisions were formed bringing the total to 54. Many of the newer divisions reflect the growth of particular practice areas, e.g., Div. 50 (Society of Addiction Psychology). However there has also been growth in special interest areas that belie any simple science/practice dichotomy, such as the Society for the Psychology of Women, Society for the History of Psychology, International Psychology, Media Psychology, or the Society for the Study of Men and Masculinity.
Dewsbury, D.A. (1997). On the evolution of divisions. American Psychologist, 52, 733-741.
Evans, R. B., Sexton, V.S., & Cadwallader, T.C. (Eds.), The American Psychological Association: A Historical Perspective . Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Fernberger, S.W. (1932). The American Psychological Association: A historical summary, 1892-1930. Psychological Bulletin, 29, 1-89.
Guthrie, R.V. (1998). Even the rat was white: A historical view of psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Pickren, W.E. & Schneider, S.F. [Eds.]. (2005). Psychology and the National Institute of Mental Health: A Historical Analysis of Science, Practice, and Policy . Washington, D.C.: APA Books.