Past history and 2001 hall of fame

Psychology in Britain
March 23, 2001

Dating the emergence of any scientific discipline has always been a matter of strategic decision-making rather than historical recognition. Most of the natural sciences use significant discoveries as their starting points, even though official recognition and institutionalisation of the discipline usually come many decades, and sometimes centuries, later. But then in most sciences there is kudos in being seen as old and well established.

Interestingly, psychology takes the opposite view -or at least, the editors of Psychology in Britain do. Early attempts to systematise interest in psychology such as the 1875 Psychological Society of Great Britain are acknowledged but largely dismissed as unsuccessful. Even earlier psychological discoveries that might have been identified as the beginning of the discipline are entirely ignored. In fact, it is clear that the real establishment of psychology in Britain is deemed to have been the founding of the British Psychological Society in 1901. Perhaps this should not surprise us -the book, after all, is published by the BPS (jointly with the Science Museum) and is part of a series of initiatives designed to mark the society's centenary.

However, the 15 essays that make up the first part of the book cover far more than just the establishment of psychology before and within the BPS. The first five essays are largely concerned with those topics, but the next ten essays cover a range of other areas: psychology at war, 1914-1945; Susan Isaacs and the psychoanalytic school; Sherrington and psychophysiology; the psychology department at the Maudsley Hospital and its pioneering work on behaviour therapy; the development of memory research, of behavioural approaches and of social psychology in the 1930s; and mechanical models of mind in postwar Britain. There is also an account of the career of Tom Pear at Manchester, which is an interesting study of the marginalisation of an individual whose emphasis on human values did not fit in with the rigid experimentalism of mid-century psychology.

If you were looking in this book for a history of psychological ideas though, you would be likely to be disappointed. Theoretical content is mainly taken as given. There is, obviously, reference to schools of thought and areas of interest; but only in so far as they indicate alliances and social groupings within the growing profession. Which is fine as far as it goes, but one feels that perhaps it sometimes goes too far, producing a tendency to focus entirely on administrative issues and to ignore the issues and implications arising from the social context.

The lack of socio-political contextualisation is my main caveat about the first section of this book. Mid-20th-century psychology attempted to explain everything -even mass social movements -in terms of the psychology of the individual, and disregarded social, economic and political factors. Although many modern psychologists recognise that there are other influences at large within society, ignoring the importance of other areas of knowledge is still a regrettably recurrent tendency within our discipline. I found a striking parallel in the way that most of the essays in this book look at psychology's history purely in terms of the contributions of individuals and committees, as if these were somehow uninfluenced by wider social changes.

Those individuals and committees were unquestionably important, but the Zeitgeist of their times was equally so. The emphasis on exclusivity that so characterised the growth of professional psychology of the 1930s, for example, has to be seen in the context of modernism and the growing social significance of the professional expert. The tensions between the amateur and the professional in the early years of the society reflect developments in the other sciences and professions, and occur in the context of a growing dominance of meritocracy and a rapidly changing social base. It is naive to think that individuals exert their influence independently of society, and amateurish to engage in historical analysis without recognition of the importance of social contexts.

On the other hand, so much of the history of psychology in Britain has indeed been of the "gentleman's club" variety that it is perhaps understandable for the focus of interest to be perceived in terms of the activities of particular individuals. In that context, I regret there is so little documentation of the sea change that occurred during the 1980s and 1990s, as professional psychologists reoriented themselves to come to terms with what it meant to be a modern, accountable professional, rather than a privileged member of a closed elite. For the most part, the book is a history of psychology up to about 1970, rather than a documentation of the full century. That is unfortunate given the immense changes that have since taken place within the discipline and to its institutions.

There is also little recognition of wider forms of influence, even within psychology itself. For example, it would have been interesting to note how many of the Maudsley psychologists went on to become professors in the new psychology departments of the postwar universities -a phenomenon that ensured that the Maudsley's influence spread across the academic side of psych-ology, as well as within its professional arena.

Similarly, the effect of the growing concern about animal ethics within psychology was manifest not only in the actions of committees and working parties, but also in departmental practices. During the 1970s, as public concerns grew, some academic departments changed their course requirements to make animal-behaviour experiments optional rather than compulsory for undergraduates, and later to exclude them altogether. Other departments made promotional capital from covering only human psychology. These wider influences resulted in part from the activities of committees and working parties and in part from growing public concern, but they too contribute to psychology's history and to its present.

Having said all that, this is a fascinating book. It contains a wealth of detailed information that -if read with an open mind and a willingness to fill in the aforementioned gaps -is extremely illuminating. And the best has been saved for the end. The final third of the book consists of personal reflections. Michael Argyle, Alan Baddeley, Margaret Boden, David Duncan, Fay Fransella, Richard Gregory, Rom Harre, Gustav Jahoda, John and Elizabeth Newsome, Michael Rutter and Peter Wason all describe how they became involved in their particular field. Best of all, their reminiscences are focused on the work for which they have become best known and they have resisted the temptation to talk about later developments or current interests. My impression is that this selection from British psychology's hall of fame will ultimately become the best-known part of the book. They will be invaluable supplementary material for students and teachers and they add life and interest to what is otherwise an extremely specialised book.

Nicky Hayes is lecturer in social psychology, University of Bradford.

Psychology in Britain: Historical Essays and Personal Reflections

Editor - G. C. Bunn, A. D. Lovie and G. D. Richards
ISBN - 1 85433 332 1
Publisher - BPS Books /Science Museum
Price - £26.95
Pages - 495

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