Merton, Mesmerists, and More in JHBS 2010

The first issue of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences for 2010 has just been released online. The winter 2010 issue of JHBS includes four all new articles which explore topics as diverse as mesmerism, race relations, and the golden section, as well as eight book reviews.

In “Merton as Harvard Sociologist: Engagment, Thematic Continuities, and Institutional Linkages” Lawrence Nichols, Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University, examines the importance of the years sociologist Robert Merton (pictured at right) spent at Harvard University. Early intersections of mesmerism and Asian mind-body practices are explored in “The Mesmerists Inquire about “Oriental Mind Powers”: West Meets East in the Search for the Universal Trance,” by David Schmit, of the Department of Psychology at St. Catherine’s University, while in “The Individual and “The General Situation”: The Tension Barometer and the Race Problem at the University of Chicago, 1947-1954″ Leah Gordon, of the School of Education at Stanford University, investigates the triumph of individualistic conceptions of the cause of racial oppression in the post-war United States. In the final article, John Benjafield, Professor Emeritus at Brock University, explores the use of the concept of the golden section in early American psychology.

David T. Schmit, “The Mesmerists Inquire about “Oriental Mind Powers”: West Meets East in the Search for the Universal Trance.” The abstract reads:

Contemporary interest in Asian meditation raises questions about when Westerners began investigating these practices. A synopsis of Western-originating scientific meditation research is followed by a brief introduction to mesmerism. Next, the unappreciated ways the mesmerists explored Oriental mind powers is recounted. How the mesmerists’ cultural positioning, philosophy, and interest in mind–body practices facilitated their inquiries of Oriental medicine and Hindu contemplative practices is explored, followed by a consideration of why these investigations were unique for the era. The way this work subverted Western cultural imperialism is examined. A consideration of the historical continuities and discontinuities between the mesmerists’ inquiries and twentieth-century meditation research concludes the article.

Leah N. Gordon, “The Individual and “The General Situation”: The Tension Barometer and the Race Problem at the University of Chicago, 1947-1954.” The abstract reads:

This article explains how social theories that posited white attitudes as the root of racial injustice gained traction in postwar social thought. Examining the production of a “tension barometer,” an attitude survey that scholars from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Education, Training, and Research in Race Relations created to predict interracial violence, I chart vigorous debate over the nature and causes of racial oppression in the critical postwar decades. Available—and unavailable—social scientific frameworks, activists’ interests, and emerging anticommunism, the Committee’s history shows, created an environment where individualistic conceptions of “the race problem” won out, despite critique.

Lawrence T. Nichols, “Merton as Harvard Sociologist: Engagement, Thematic Continuities, and Institutional Linkages.” The abstract reads:

In this paper I explore the significance of the initial decade of Robert K. Merton’s graduate and professional career, from 1931, when he entered the new doctoral program in sociology at Harvard, until 1939, when he joined the Department of Sociology at Tulane University as an associate professor and acting chairperson. Drawing on archival sources, as well as the professional literature, I examine how Merton engaged the exceptionally rich, interdisciplinary context of Harvard in the 1930s, including both interpersonal networks and diverse intellectual perspectives. In particular, I identify connections between Merton’s early writing, “oral publications” and teaching, and three locally developed and dominant paradigms of sociology. Following an assessment of the influence of Merton’s works published from 1934 to 1939, I trace continuities between Merton’s achievements at Harvard and his subsequent teaching and research at Tulane and Columbia. I conclude that a fuller appreciation of Merton’s “less noticed” decade in Cambridge is indispensable for understanding his overall career, and that it clarifies linkages across sociological work at three universities in the mid-twentieth century.

John G. Benjafield, “The Golden Section and American Psychology, 1892-1938.” The abstract reads:

The golden section has been said by many to be the most beautiful proportion. Fechner was the first to investigate it experimentally, and several late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American psychologists followed up on his work. Among these were four prominent names: Lightner Witmer (1867–1956), Edward L. Thorndike (1874–1949), Robert S. Woodworth (1869–1962), and Robert M. Ogden (1877–1959). Why did such well-known psychologists bother with the golden section? In attempting to answer this question we discovered that the golden section was surprisingly well known during this period, not only in psychology but also in advertising and design. It would have been entirely congruent with their stature for prominent psychologists to take an interest in it.

Reviewed books in the winter 2010 issue of JHBS include:

Ellen Herman. Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States.

Benjamin A. Elman. A Cultural History of Modern Science in China.

Warwick Anderson. The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen.

Libby Schweber. Disciplining Statistics: Demography and Vital Statistics in France and England, 1830–1885.

Mark Edmundson. The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days.

Anne C. Rose. Psychology and Selfhood in the Segregated South.

Barry S. Godfrey, Paul Lawrence, and Chris A. Williams. History and Crime.

Christopher Lane. Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness.

A response by Christopher Lane to the review of his book is also included in the issue.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.