Bedwetting & Cold War Social Science in Isis

The June 2010 issue of Isis, the official journal of the History of Science Society, has just been released online. Included in this issue are a number of articles of interest to historians of psychology, many of them featured as part of a Focus section dedicated to New Perspectives on Science and the Cold War.

In the first section of the issue, Deborah Blythe Doroshow explores how classical conditioning principles were used by psychologists in the 1930s to create a bedwetting alarm. The Focus section includes three articles on social science during the Cold War. These tackle the nature of social science during the Cold Ward, mathematical models of rationality that developed during this period, and the science fiction-esque goals of social science. All the articles featured in the Focus section are currently available online for free. Titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“An Alarming Solution: Bedwetting, Medicine, and Behavioral Conditioning in Mid-Twentieth-Century America,” By Deborah Blythe Doroshow, Program in the History of Science and Medicine, Yale University. The abstract reads:

This article explores the history of the bedwetting alarm, invented in 1938 by two psychologists to cure enuresis, or bedwetting, using the principles of classical conditioning. Infused with the optimism of behaviorism, the bedwetting alarm unexpectedly proved difficult to implement in practice, bearing a multitude of unanticipated complications that hindered its widespread acceptance. Introduced as a medical and psychological technology, in practice the alarm was also a child-rearing device, encouraging the kind of behavioristic attitudes that had prompted its initial development, while simultaneously promoting the child-centered approach that would become dominant in the early 1950s. The life story of the bedwetting alarm muddies the traditional account of how childrearing theories progressed in tidy succession, suggesting both that behavioristic approaches did not die out in the 1930s and that elements of permissive child-rearing were being considered earlier than we traditionally assume.

“Mathematical Models, Rational Choice, and the Search for Cold War Culture,” by Paul Erickson, Department of History, Wesleyan University. The abstract reads:

A key feature of the social, behavioral, and biological sciences after World War II has been the widespread adoption of new mathematical techniques drawn from cybernetics, information theory, and theories of rational choice. Historians of science have typically sought to explain this adoption either by reference to military patronage, or to a characteristic Cold War culture or discursive framework strongly shaped by the concerns of national security. This essay explores several episodes in the history of game theory—a mathematical theory of rational choice—that demonstrate the limits of such explanations. Military funding was indeed critical to game theory’s early development in the 1940s. However, the theory’s subsequent spread across disciplines ranging from political science to evolutionary biology was the result of a diverse collection of debates about the nature of “rationality” and “choice” that marked the Cold War era. These debates are not easily reduced to the national security imperatives that have been the focus of much historiography to date.

“Social Science in the Cold War,” by David C. Engerman, Department of History, Brandeis University. The abstract reads:

This essay examines ways in which American social science in the late twentieth century was—and was not—a creature of the Cold War. It identifies important work by historians that calls into question the assumption that all social science during the Cold War amounts to “Cold War social science.” These historians attribute significant agency to social scientists, showing how they were enmeshed in both long-running disciplinary discussions and new institutional environments. Key trends in this scholarship include a broadening historical perspective to see social scientists in the Cold War as responding to the ideas of their scholarly predecessors; identifying the institutional legacies of World War II; and examining in close detail the products of extramural—especially governmental—funding. The result is a view of social science in the Cold War in which national security concerns are relevant, but with varied and often unexpected impacts on intellectual life.

“’Hypothetical Machines’: The Science Fiction Dreams of Cold War Social Science,” by Rebecca Lemov, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University. The abstract reads:

The introspectometer was a “hypothetical machine” Robert K. Merton introduced in the course of a 1956 how-to manual describing an actual research technique, the focused interview. This technique, in turn, formed the basis of wartime morale research and consumer behavior studies as well as perhaps the most ubiquitous social science tool, the focus group. This essay explores a new perspective on Cold War social science made possible by comparing two kinds of apparatuses: one real, the other imaginary. Even as Merton explored the nightmare potential of such machines, he suggested that the clear aim of social science was to build them or their functional equivalent: recording machines to access a person’s experiential stream of reality, with the ability to turn this stream into real-time data. In this way, the introspectometer marks and symbolizes a broader entry during the Cold War of science-fiction-style aspirations into methodological prescriptions and procedural manuals. This essay considers the growth of the genre of methodological visions and revisions, painstakingly argued and absorbed, but punctuated by sci-fi aims to transform “the human” and build newly penetrating machines. It also considers the place of the nearly real-, and the artificial “near-substitute” as part of an experimental urge that animated these sciences.

Book Review:

John C. Burnham. Accident Prone: A History of Technology, Psychology, and Misfits of the Machine Age. Reviewed by Robert W. Seidel.

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.

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