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Psychology and history: CuSP viewpoints

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Wednesday, 20 Jan 2021, 13:31

In recent meetings, the Culture and Social Psychology group have been revisiting some of the ‘big debates’ within the psychology discipline. In December 2020, invited by Sebastian Bartos, members discussed the relevance of history to psychology.

Psychology and history have an awkward relationship. Most students will be taught about the history of the discipline as part of a recognised topic ‘Conceptual and Historical Issues in Psychology’, commonly referred to as CHIP - a somewhat dismissive acronym (an Open University CHIP resource can be accessed here https://www.open.edu/openlearn/chip ). One relevant issue is whether psychology should be categorised as a science (the planned topic for another CuSP meeting, in February 2021) in contrast to history, which is generally located with the arts and humanities. A scientific status is often associated with a claim that psychological knowledge is ahistorical and universal, providing once and for all ‘truths’ about people and their behaviour, regardless of ‘who’, ‘where’ or ‘when’. Many psychologists, especially social psychologists, would challenge this, claiming instead knowledge must be contextualised, and what holds for people in one situation may not be ‘true’ for others, in a different place and time.

At the CuSP meeting, academics from the group talked about the relevance of history to their research.

Dr David Jones researches mental health and criminal behaviour. He described how in one research project he found that care for the mentally ill continued to be dominated by the closure of the UK’s asylums (in the 1980s) because new forms of community care variously mirrored or reacted to the earlier provision. In David’s words, the asylums ‘cast a long shadow’, both on understandings and treatments of mental health, and this shadow needed to recognised. 

Read more about David Jones here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/dwj88

Dr David Kaposi is currently re-examining some of the most famous research in the history of psychology, Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience. David pointed out that the relation between psychology and history is further complicated by the need also to consider historiography, the writing of history and, more generally, the forms of record-keeping that conventionally support it. Researchers who use archived material and written accounts need to understand the circumstances and assumptions that shaped what was recorded and also, therefore, what was omitted. It’s not appropriate to treat ‘history’ as a neutral record of the past.

Read more about David Kaposi here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/dk3936

Examples that supported this point were evident in Prof. Peter Hegarty’s discussion of the particular relevance of history to his research on intersex surgery. He noted that over time there have been shifts not only in terminology, with earlier terms now seen as pejorative (e.g. ‘hermaphrodite’), but also in the medical focus brought to intersex (for example, on chromosomes or hormones).

Read more about Peter Hegarty here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/ph8658

Dr Johanna Motzkau offered further examples from her research on children as witnesses, and the extent to which their voices are listened to, and heard. A key premise of her research is that ‘each instant of listening is shaped by and expresses political, social and experiential circumstances, i.e. cultures’ (Motzkau and Lee, 2021). So, again, it is necessary to understand the history of an encounter, including a research encounter, and of the problem being investigated.

Read more about Johanna Motzkau here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/jfm238

Dr Rose Capdevila discussed the more general relevance of history to academic research, including how the values that prevail within a particular period, for instance, in favour of or against competitiveness, or ‘niceness’, or collaboration, will shape the research and its findings. Moreover, history is often linked to memory, and the value we place on remembering the past, including past researchers. Rose quoted Sara Ahmed: ‘Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before.’ (Ahmed, 2017, p.15).

Read more about Rose Capdevila here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/jfm238

Finally, Dr Sebastian Bartos used the lens of psychology to explore people’s personal understanding of history. In the UK, both laws and public opinions on sexuality have changed over the last 50 years. This provides an opportunity to talk to people about historical change they have personally witnessed – and their understating can be surprisingly nuanced.

Read more about Sebastian Bartos here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/sb42739




Sara Ahmed (2017) Living a feminist life. Durham and London: Duke University Press.


Johanna Motzkau and Nick Lee (2021, in development) ‘Cultures of listening: psychology, resonance, justice’

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