Becoming a Psychologist-Historian

Kelli Vaughn-BlountIn the latest issue of the American Journal of Psychology, 122(1), Kelli Vaughn-Blount (pictured left) answers — with co-authors Alexandra Rutherford, David Baker, and Deborah Johnson — two key questions: Why do history in psychology?  And how do I get started?

More than 40 years ago, psychologist-historian Robert Watson argued that the study of history was of particular salience to psychology. In this article we explore the relationship between psychology and history and argue that the psychologist-­historian plays a vital role in the discipline of psychology. We provide a brief overview of the emergence of the history of psychology as a professional subdiscipline, describe who psychologist­-historians are, explain why they are needed, and detail how to join their ranks. We argue that increasing historical sophistication among psychologists will have beneficial effects on research and teaching, and we invite all psychologists to participate in the making of psychology’s history.

We wrote to Vaughn-Blount and asked to take us behind-the-scenes on her decision to write this article. This is what she said.

The origins of this article are rather interesting in that it developed from a panel on the same topic at the 2007 APA conference in San Francisco. The idea for the panel came from the combination of a rather well timed question from Alexandra Rutherford and my frustrations, as a student, in trying to find information and formal training in the area. The conference panel included the four authors as well as James Capshew, James Goodwin, Christopher Green, Ann Johnson, and Elisabeth Johnston. It was an immensely interesting discussion as well as a rather largely attended event.  Fortunately for us, one person unable to attend was the AJP History Editor, Alfred Fuchs, who later invited us to submit the article.

The article not only expands on the initial concept of specializing in the area but also offers information for those who have instructional or casual interests in the history of psychology. It is obviously not meant to be the only resource pursed in but it does offer beginners some basic resources with which to start. We also made a point to address the psychological discipline as a whole regarding the value of incorporating history into the discipline as well as the growing need for psychologist-historians within the departmental framework.

I am personally rather proud of this work and will continue to be an advocate for the integration of history into the teaching of all psychology as well as preparing of future faculty resources. We may have attempted a rather tall order for one article but I think we pulled it off.  Ultimately, the readers will be the ones to make the final decision. (Vaughn-Blount, personal communication, 11 Feb 2009)

The article includes several useful lists for those unfamiliar with the subdiscipline: important dates (p. 120), readings (p. 125), and internet resources (p. 126).  There’s also a “pocket guide” describing how learning how to do history helps quicken students’ critical thinking (p. 122).

This article seems destined for inclusion as required reading in introductory history courses.

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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