Recent Reviews of Clinical Psychology in Britain: Historical Perspectives

AHP is happy to reprint two recent reviews of the new book Clinical Psychology in Britain: Historical Perspectives (announced on AHP here). These reviews were first published in the December 2015 issue of Clinical Psychology Forum, the house publication of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology. The full reviews follow below.

Review by Tony Wainright

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
George Santayana, The Life of Reason, 1905

This book marks an important milestone in the history of clinical psychology in the UK, with 2016 being the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Division of Clinical Psychology. People are still around (some of the authors) who remember the founding of the NHS, which also closely marked the beginning of the profession.

I found that the best way of getting the most out of the book was to start with the last chapter – the editors’ collective reflections on writing it – and then go to the introduction. This provides a very helpful frame in which the other chapters can be viewed. They have very different writing styles; as they point out, some are clinicians, some are academics, some are historians; some have relatively mainstream views, some have much more radical and critical approaches. The editors have done an excellent job of making this all seem part of the fabric of the profession – diversity and variety being positive and generating creative energy.

In a short review it is not possible to cover all the chapters and full details of the book chapters are available on the Society’s History of Psychology Centre website.

Understanding the profession today is immensely enhanced by this book. The chapter by Pilgrim and Patel is particularly powerful in locating the emergence of the profession following the enormous upheaval of post-war politics, and charting its course through the swinging sixties to the present day.

In addition (and this is a theme that runs through many of the chapters), the legacy of the philosophical tradition – what they describe as the ‘empirical idiom’ – and the eugenic ideas of Galton and Pearson, laid the foundations for the distinctive brand of clinical psychology that we find in the UK. The tensions that have been evident between, for example, cognitive behavioural therapy and psychoanalysis are much better understood when taking this long view.

My particular interest is in the way ethics has developed in the profession over the years. This is discussed to some degree in chapters 2 and 4, and the final chapter, 25, but it is not addressed head on. I think this is a regrettable omission, and would have preferred there to be a specific chapter on this. However, it is woven into the other chapters and discussed well.

In the final chapter, the editors note that there are different kinds of histories. They have tried to avoid producing one that is simply a self-serving celebration of professional successes. They have done well in giving us a well-balanced, warts-and-all account.

Tony Wainwright
Academic Director, Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, University of Exeter


Review by Paul Beckley

Why do we need a book on the history of clinical psychology in Britain?’, I found myself pondering as I sat down to read this book. Furthermore, in the telling of this history, what stories will be privileged over delegitimated untold others? Will the tone be one that is largely self-congratulating and biased, given that it is principally written by members of the profession (as opposed to professional historians), with presumably vested interests in its image?

What became clear from the outset is the authors’ endeavours to carefully attend to some of these questions by identifying defining moments in the genesis of the profession, key changes and transitions (e.g. the inception of the NHS and clinical psychology’s continual battle to establish itself outside the paternal and ever-looming shadow of medicine).

The book is split into six parts: Part 1 gives an account of the history of psychology from mid-19th-century America and Germany to the development of the NHS. It also gives a critical account of service user movement. I wondered, however, if it could have benefited from an explicit contribution by a service user. Part 2 discusses the historical context from the 1920s and the emergence of clinical psychology in the post-war context to the commencement of the training of clinical psychologists. Part 3 documents the identity crisis of the profession as it tried (and still tries) to straddle the ‘scientist’ and ‘professional’ roles. Part 4 details the profession’s journey from one that was mainly focused on working with children to working increasingly with a wider client group. Part 5 examines the national and international context, with reflections and views on future directions in Part 6.

Although inevitably celebratory and descriptive in parts, my concerns that the historical account of a profession written by ‘insiders’ could be a largely self-aggrandising were put to rest by the critical stance with which the authors considered the profession’s unedifying history in Britain – particularly when considering inadequate service user involvement and Britain’s at times uncomfortable and shielded past of empiricism, faith in eugenics, and of post-colonial racism as embedded in processes within clinical psychology.

So why do we need a book on the history of clinical psychology in Britain? It has often been said that an understanding of the past can help one understand where one may go in the future. This book gives a comprehensive and critical account which will be of interest to not only psychologists at different stages of qualification but perhaps to others with interests in the socio-political and economic context within which mental health services developed in the UK.

Dr Paul Beckley
Recently qualified clinical psychologist

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.