Roger Barker and Oskaloosa, Kansas as Laboratory

AHP readers interested in the history of ecological and environmental psychology will be interested in a recent piece in Harper’s Magazine (unfortunately accessible in full only to subscribers). In “Our Town: How Roger Barker made Oskaloosa, Kansas, His Laboratory” writer Ariel Sabar describes Barker’s Oskaloosa based “behavior settings” research. He also tracks down one of his research participants, Raymond, the title character of Barker’s study One Boy’s Day. As Sabar describes,

Not long after moving to Oskaloosa, a town of 725 people in the hills of northeastern Kansas, Roger Barker, the new chair of the psychology department at the University of Kansas, approached a young couple who lived near him with a request: Might a group of researchers follow their seven-year-old son around for a day, documenting the boy’s every word and movement?

Jack Birch, a salesman at the town hardware store, and his wife, Joan, a clerk at the county courthouse, said yes, and on April 26, 1949, eight observers with timers and clipboards, working in half-hour shifts, assembled a minute-by-minute account of an ordinary day in the life of Raymond Birch.

Harper & Row published the report in 1951 as One Boy’s Day. An editor of The New York Times Magazine found the book interesting enough to pay Oskaloosa a visit. In an August 1951 article she rhapsodized about how Barker and his colleagues “brought child psychology out of the laboratory to study children in their natural habitat, much as a botanist goes into the fields to study flowers.” Townspeople knew the good that came from agricultural research stations, so they accepted “the idea that perhaps some day as much can be known about raising children as raising corn.”

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.