When standard measurement meets messy genitalia: Lessons from 20th century phallometry and cervimetry

AHP readers may be interested in a new piece in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science: “When standard measurement meets messy genitalia: Lessons from 20th century phallometry and cervimetry” by Rebecca L. Jackson and Merlin Wassermann. Abstract:

This paper examines two episodes in the history and philosophy of phallometry and cervimetry in the second half of the 20th century. Phallometry is the measurement of the human penis with special devices (phallometers) in a psychophysiological context, while cervimetry is the measurement of the cervix in laboring women (by hand or by cervimeter). Despite decades of efforts to standardize these measuring practices, we still have only non-standard ways of measuring the dynamics of the cervix during labor as well as penile tumescence during arousal. We adopt the lens of “messiness” as an analytic tool in order to trace historical actors’ methodological assumptions, goals, and decisions that were involved in their measuring practices. It will be argued that, far from being an a priori attribute, the “messiness” of biomedical phenomena (and how to best respond to it) depends on the actors’ methodological priorities. What is “messy” is actively shaped (and re-shaped) by researchers’ instrumental assumptions and theoretical commitments, as demonstrated in their method of measuring. This paper also offers a preview of early findings from our current research on the history of cervical measurement (Jackson) and phallic measurement (Wassermann). Drawing on primary source material we have analyzed, the argument will be developed in two parts. First, in the context of phallometry research: Two different and eventually diametrically opposed methodological approaches developed when confronted with “messy” human bodies and minds, a divergence which still exists today. Second, in the case of cervimetry research: “messiness” emerged when researchers tried to standardize the measurement of the human cervix, to no avail. Ironically, today’s “messy” practice of measuring the cervix by hand has been continually justified by knowledge gained in the continued pursuit (and failure) of standardized replacements of this method.

The settler colonial roots and neoliberal afterlife of Problem Behavior Theory

A new open-access piece in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences will interest AHP readers: “The settler colonial roots and neoliberal afterlife of Problem Behavior Theory,” Theo Di Castri. Abstract:

Problem Behavior Theory (PBT) is an influential psychosocial theory that has shaped—and continues to shape—much research on adolescent development in the United States and abroad. It is the product of over a half-century of research conducted by psychologists-cum-behavioral scientists Lee and Richard Jessor. This article engages two striking features of the history of PBT. First, it tracks how, and to what effect, a theory elaborated to explain the so-called “deviant behavior” of a group of Native Americans was extended to explain the “problem behavior” of white, middle-class, settler youth, before coming to circulate as a universal theory of adolescent behavior. Second, it explores how a theory that was meant to explain individual behaviors by connecting them to their larger social contexts came to be embraced by researchers who have been criticized for doing precisely the opposite. To do so, this article draws from Indigenous and Settler Colonial Studies scholarship and sheds light on how the logics of settler colonialism and neoliberalism have participated in the coproduction of PBT and its reception

“Angela’s psych squad”: Black psychology against the American carceral state in 1970s

A new piece in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences will interest AHP readers: ““Angela’s psych squad”: Black psychology against the American carceral state in 1970s,” Michael Pettit. Abstract:

This article examines the duality of the Black psychology movement in the United States as both a distinctly American and a postcolonial approach to mental health. The Westside Community Mental Health Center in San Francisco served as the organizational hub for the Association for Black Psychologists (ABPsi) in the 1970s. The Westside clinicians understood forensic psychology as a kind of preventative care as California, more so than any other state, was seduced by the eugenic dream of human improvement through therapeutic interventions in schools and prisons intended to correct the wayward deviant. Their community’s mental wellbeing required dismantling the interlinked disciplinary apparatus which disproportionately surveyed, tracked, and confined young Black men. These psychologists mounted a legal challenge to the use of intelligence testing to sort Black children in schools, seeking to replace standardized tests with “dynamic assessments” inspired by Israeli psychologist Reuven Feuerstein’s work with refugee children. They consulted on the voir dire process in the highly politicized Angela Davis trial to minimize the presence of racially prejudiced jurors. They offered expert testimony on the psychological damage of solitary confinement on behalf of prison activists. The Westside team artfully developed and deployed the psychological concept of “bias” in their confrontations with local manifestations of the American carceral state. In their theoretical writings, these psychologists reflected upon their historical positionality, understanding themselves as products of the decolonial moment. Bay Area encounters with Third World internationalism, the Black Panther Party (BPP), the Nation of Islam, and community-led substance abuse programs shaped clinical care at Westside and inspired the Afrocentric consciousness many came to espouse. ABPsi initially had a significant impact on the historically white American Psychological Association’s training practices. However, the two organizations split over the IQ controversy at a moment when psychologists became increasingly enmeshed in the criminal justice system

I never promised you a rose garden.… When landscape architecture becomes a laboratory for the Anthropocene

AHP readers may be interested in a new piece in History of the Human Sciences: “I never promised you a rose garden.… When landscape architecture becomes a laboratory for the Anthropocene,” Henriette Steiner. Abstract:

In the summer of 2017, wildflower seeds were spread on a large, empty open space close to a motorway flyover just outside Copenhagen, Denmark. This was an effort to use non-mechanical methods to prepare the soil for an ‘urban forest’ to be established on the site, since the flowers’ roots would penetrate the ground and enable the planned new trees to settle. As a result, the site was transformed into a gorgeous meadow, and all summer long Copenhageners were invited to come and pick the flowers. In this article, I critically examine different aspects of this project – including the role of design, the perception of nature–culture relationships, climate change, and flower-picking as an event – in relation to my personal experience of visiting this meadow both on-site and on social media. The different temporalities that clash at the site give rise to conflicting interpretations, and I suggest that the meadow can be seen as a living plant archive of the Anthropocene, both physically and digitally. In doing so, I introduce and critique key conceptual pairs, including archive/death and bloom/decay, suggested by Lee Edelman’s queer cross-reading of Jacques Derrida’s ‘Archive Fever’ and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I thereby contrast flower motifs pertaining to the cycles of blooming, decay, and nature’s (failed) eternal return in the meadow with the expansive futurity of the digitally mediated archive.

On the persistence of race: Unique skulls and average tissue depths in the practice of forensic craniofacial depiction

AHP readers may be interested in a new open access piece in Social Studies of Science: “On the persistence of race: Unique skulls and average tissue depths in the practice of forensic craniofacial depiction,” by Lisette Jong. Abstract:

The (re-)surfacing of race in forensic practices has received plenty of attention from STS scholars, especially in connection with modern forensic genetic technologies. In this article, I describe the making of facial depictions based on the skulls of unknown deceased individuals. Based on ethnographic research in the field of craniofacial identification and forensic art, I present a material-semiotic analysis of how race comes to matter in the face-making process. The analysis sheds light on how race as a translation device enables oscillation between the individual skull and population data, and allows for slippage between categories that otherwise do not neatly map on to one another. The subsuming logic of race is ingrained – in that it sits at the bases of standard choices and tools – in methods and technologies. However, the skull does not easily let itself be reduced to a racial type. Moreover, the careful efforts of practitioners to articulate the individual characteristics of each skull provide clues for how similarities and differences can be done without the effect of producing race. Such methods value the skull itself as an object of interest, rather than treat it as a vehicle for practicing race science. I argue that efforts to undo the persistence of race in forensic anthropology should focus critical attention on the socio-material configuration of methods and technologies, including data practices and reference standards.

How family charts became Mendelian: The changing content of pedigrees and its impact on the consolidation of genetic theory

AHP readers may be interested in a new piece in History of the Human Sciences: “How family charts became Mendelian: The changing content of pedigrees and its impact on the consolidation of genetic theory,” by Amir Teicher. Abstract:

This article offers a close examination of a small selection of pedigrees taken from German Mendelian and eugenic scholarship of the 1920s and 1930s. It examines the procedures that became customary for presenting data on human inherited pathologies, as well as the frequent changes in the information content of those charts. Relevant biographical and genealogical data was removed, and important indications regarding the diagnostic methods applied by the investigating scholar were lost, as soon as a pedigree was charted or reproduced. Data on healthy individuals was condensed, leading to an emphasis on the hereditary burden of pathological traits. At times, healthy individuals were entirely omitted, as were exogenous martial partners. These modifications paved the way for further theoretical amendments, including the addition of ‘carrier’ status to chosen individuals along the pedigree. With this addition, these pedigrees changed their ontological status, from empirical records of human reproduction to partially hypothetical illustrations of Mendelian theory itself. This process was complemented by the representation of theoretical genetic models in the format of a human pedigree. A comparison to practices of charting pedigrees still common today suggests that the processes hereby revealed are far from exceptional. In line with the ideas put forward by Ludwik Fleck, they are interpreted as germane to the way scientific ideas are communicated and propagated and to the scientific culture of genetics. The article also offers a refinement to Fleck’s analysis of textbook construction, which highlights the extent to which textbook examples differ from the original data on which they are based.


Spitting on my sources: Depression, DNA, and the ambivalent historian

A new perspective piece in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences will interest AHP readers: “Spitting on my sources: Depression, DNA, and the ambivalent historian,” by Rachel Louise Moran. Abstract:

While writing a book on the history of postpartum depression in the United States, I became interested in an ongoing study about possible genetic markers of postpartum mental illness. I participated in the first step, an online survey. When I qualified for the next step, saliva collection, I was torn over whether or not to continue. Making this decision required reflecting on some overlapping issues: gender, medicalization, genetic research, and the political functions of DNA donation. In this perspectives essay, I explore tensions around situating myself in my historical research project.

Religion and civilization in the sociology of Norbert Elias: Fantasy–reality balances in long-term perspective

A new piece in History of the Human Sciences may interest AHP readers: “Religion and civilization in the sociology of Norbert Elias: Fantasy–reality balances in long-term perspective,” by Andrew Linklater. Abstract:

Many sociologists have drawn attention to the puzzling absence of a detailed discussion of religion in Elias’s investigation of the European civilizing process. Elias did not develop a sociology of religion, but he did not overlook the importance of beliefs in the ‘spirit world’ in the history of human societies. In his writings such convictions were described as fantasy images that could be contrasted with ‘reality-congruent’ knowledge claims. Elias placed fantasy–reality balances, whether religious or secular, at the centre of the analysis of how societies have dealt with collective fears that arise in response to largely uncontrolled conditions. He located religious orientations within a broader framework of analysis regarding fantasy–reality balances in the first human groups and in current state-organized societies. Elias stressed how balances changed in ‘civilized’ societies with the rise of the natural sciences. But his writings emphasized the continuing influence of fantasy images in technologically sophisticated societies, particularly in the context of national and international power struggles. His analysis of how fantasy images acquired considerable influence under conditions of fear is important for studies of social responses to global challenges including climate change. Connections with Weber’s sociology of religion point the way to theoretically informed empirical research on balances between fantasy and reality-congruence in a tumultuous and unpredictable era.

Sin embodied: Priest-psychiatrist Asser Stenbäck and the psychosomatic approach to human problems

AHP readers will be interested in a new piece in History of the Human Sciences: “Sin embodied: Priest-psychiatrist Asser Stenbäck and the psychosomatic approach to human problems,” by Eve-Riina Hyrkäs. Abstract:

Combining theological and medical perspectives is indispensable for the historical study of the interconnections between mind, body, and soul. This article explores these relations through the history of Finnish psychosomatic medicine, and uses published and archival materials to examine the intellectual biography of the Finland-Swedish theologian turned psychiatrist Asser Stenbäck (1913–2006). Stenbäck’s career, which evolved from priesthood to psychiatry and politics, reveals a great deal about the tensions between religion and medicine, the spiritual and scientific groups that impinged upon psychosomatic medicine, and ideas on how health and Christian morality were interconnected. The biographical approach is adopted to unearth the values encoded in medical concepts, and through this, to point towards another, underexplored dimension of the health–religion relationship. In addition to their emotional aspect, religious doctrines are intended to organise life and give it meaning. Stenbäck’s ideas tied these experiential and normative spheres together by defending an irrationalist substratum of the world in the secular age of medicine. His work illustrates how the inner experience of faith can become both medically and politically purposive. It is worth combining these perspectives in historical research as well in order to better understand how the theological, medical, and political worlds are in dialogue when it comes to human problems.

Crimes of Passion and Psychiatry in Early Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A new piece in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences may interest AHP readers: “Crimes of Passion and Psychiatry in Early Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,” Manuella Meyer. Abstract:

This article examines how early twentieth-century crime of passion trials constructed medical insanity and criminal responsibility by litigating varied interpretations of masculine decision making. Specifically, it looks at how defense lawyers used and applied psychiatric knowledge to their clients’ benefit and how psychiatrists, in turn, (re)asserted control over that knowledge by condemning its misuse. The way that these medico-legal narratives played out in the courtroom during crime of passion trials, and in the public discourses that surrounded them, ultimately brought a smoldering competition between distinct understandings of modern masculinity into sharp focus.