History of Psychology in The Psychologist

The just released December 2010 special issue of the British Psychological Society‘s general interest publication, The Psychologist, is dedicated to 150 years of experimental psychology, as this year marks the 150th anniversary of Gustav Fechner’s Psychophysics (see AHP‘s previous post on this anniversary here). Included in this issue are a number of short pieces by prominent scholars in the history of psychology, as well an interview with AHP‘s own Christopher Green. Authors, titles, and abstracts follow below.

“The experimental psychologist’s fallacy.” Geoff Bunn introduces a special issue marking the 150th Anniversary of Gustav Fechner’s Elements of Psychophysics. The abstract reads:

Considered by some psychologists to be the ‘founding father’ of experimental psychology, Gustav Fechner (1801–1887) was, to some extent, an uncompromisingly hardnosed materialist. Yet there was also a more conciliatory and spiritual side to his thinking. In 1835, for example, in his Little Book on Life After Death, Fechner argued that consciousness can be sustained by different ontological systems. The work of many of the great psychologists has subsequently incorporated similarly antagonistic dualisms. But these ineradicable tensions are ultimately a function not of the idiosyncrasies of individual biography but of the highly ambiguous nature of psychological knowledge itself.

“Fechner’s Elemente – ‘an establishment of its own’.” Daniel N. Robinson on the 150th anniversary of a text that many consider to be the first in experimental psychology. The abstract reads:

Fechner’s attempt to place psychology on the firm foundations of experimental science was undertaken in a sceptical intellectual atmosphere still philosophically dominated by post- Kantian thought. The challenges facing Fechner included not merely the persistent issue of mind–body relations but comparably fundamental questions in philosophy of science, the nature of measurement and the essential character of theory and explanation in science. Despite these hurdles, he succeeded in outlining a ‘biophysics of mental life’ that many see as the foundation of experimental psychology.

“Women in early 20th-century experimental psychology.” Elizabeth Valentine profiles three women at the forefront of the development of the discipline. The abstract reads:

What role did women play in the early days of psychology in Britain? Did they conform to the female stereotype of ‘caring’ practitioners rather than to the male stereotype of unemotional scientists? Did they show a preference for ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard topics? This article discusses the work of three women – Beatrice Edgell, Victoria Hazlitt and May Smith – who, despite being in a tiny minority with the odds stacked against them, overcame barriers, pioneered methods and made original theoretical contributions to experimental psychology. In many cases their work anticipated later developments by several decades.

“Founding fathers.” David K. Robinson on an important meeting of minds at Leipzig University.

“The misdirected quest.” Peter Lamont on how early psychologists turned to the grand wizards in an effort to transform illusions into a reality. The abstract reads:

Psychologists are supposed to be experts on how people think and behave. Yet magicians have always displayed a more wonderful ability to direct thoughts and actions. Thus, every now and again, for well over a century, psychologists have tried to understand how magicians do it. So, in their magical quest to discover the secret reality behind the illusion, how have psychologists done?

“Loss of innocence in the Torres Straits.” Graham Richards looks at nine methodological lessons of a highly successful failure. The abstract reads:

How better to introduce students to the problems of psychological research than to consider the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits between Australia and Papua New Guinea? The expedition, involving some of the finest psychologists of the era, was plagued by methodological and practical problems. From the reports, the modern experimental psychologist can learn numerous lessons. Perhaps most interestingly, the affair can serve as a masterclass in how to produce a research report in the face of humble findings.

“Choice, confusion and consciousness.” Philip Barnard with some experimental highlights from the influential Applied Psychology Research Unit. The abstract reads:

Empirical research conducted in the laboratory, in the clinic or in the field naturally forms the foundations on which our practical applications of psychology are built. Yet as theoretical frameworks change over time, as new communities of practice evolve, and as the reservoir of empirical findings becomes increasingly vast, connections between past research and current practice can all too easily get lost. Since its formation in 1944, the MRC Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge has played a major part in shaping both theory and practice. Its innovative and creative research culture is illustrated here by three examples from wartime to the present.

“Bartlett speaks: What makes a good experimental psychologist?” Extracts from a recording of Frederic Charles Bartlett speaking made in 1959 by John C. Kenna, the Society’s first Honorary Archivist. No abstract provided.

“One on One …with Christopher Green: Professor of Psychology at York University, Canada, and blogger on the history of psychology.” No abstract provided. Additional interview questions are available on The Psychologist website.

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.