History of the Human Sciences Special Issue: Psychology and its Publics

It is my pleasure to direct AHP readers to a just released special issue of History of the Human Science on Psychology and its Publics, guest edited by Michael Pettit and myself. The issue includes articles tackling a diverse array of topics on psychology’s relationship with the public, including: the public psychology of sentimentalism and the guillotine during the French Revolution; the construction of an attitudinal public in concert with the development of questionnaires; the dissemination of Albert Ellis’s rational therapy via popular media forms; the public’s interaction with psychological ideas via the graphic novel Watchmen and its queer history; the function of sexual assault surveys in structuring rape’s ontology and politicizing rape as a social issue; and consideration of the ontology of the public through the lens of deliberative public opinion. Thanks to all our contributors for their wonderful and thought provoking work!

In advance of the issue’s release I was also interviewed about the rationale and aims of the special issue by History of the Human Sciences editor-in-chief Felicity Callard. Read that interview in full here.

Full titles, authors, and abstracts for the pieces in the special issue follow below.

“Psychology and its publics,” by Michael Pettit and Jacy L. Young. Abstract:

This paper introduces the special issue dedicated to ‘Psychology and its Publics’. The question of the relationship between psychologists and the wider public has been a central matter of concern to the historiography of psychology. Where critical historians tend to assume a pliant audience, eager to adopt psychological categories, psychologists themselves often complain about the public misunderstanding of them. Ironically, both accounts share a flattened understanding of the public. We turn to research on the public understanding of science (PUS), the public engagement with science (PES) and communications studies to develop a rich account of the circuitry that ties together psychological experts and their subjects.

“The unfailing machine: Mechanical arts, sentimental publics and the guillotine in revolutionary France,” by Edward Jones-Imhotep. Abstract:

This article explores how the pre-eminent public psychology of the French Revolution – sentimentalism – shaped the necessity, understanding and construction of its most iconic public machine. The guillotine provided a solution to the problem of public executions in an age of both sentiment and reason. It was designed to rationalize punishment and make it more humane; but it was also designed to guard against the psychological effects of older, more variable and unpredictable methods of public execution on a sentimental public. That public, contemporaries argued, required executions performed by an unfailing technology. Rather than focus on the role of the guillotine after 1793, the article explores how the implacable mechanical action that helped produce the Reign of Terror and multiply the cadavers of medical science was demanded by the guillotine’s origins as a sentimental machine.

“Numbering the mind: Questionnaires and the attitudinal public,” by Jacy L. Young. Abstract:

During the interwar years psychologists Louis Leon Thurstone and Rensis Likert produced newly standardized forms of questionnaires. Both built on developments in mental testing, including the use of restricted sets of answers and the emergence of statistical techniques, to create questionnaires that employed numerical scaling. This transformation in shape of questionnaires was intimately tied up with both psychologists’ nominal subject of investigation: attitudes. Efforts to render psychology a socially valuable and influential science spurred psychologists to create sophisticated and increasingly precise means of measuring social attitudes. Reducing mental dispositions to mere numbers on a scale, these developments also initiated new relationships between psychology and the public. Rather than engage a wide spectrum of the public directly in the research process, questionnaire research was limited to those within academic circles. Even so, research with questionnaires aimed to comment on attitudes in the public more broadly. The kind of ‘thin description’ afforded by numerical scales, though used to measure individual psychological subjects, afforded psychologists the opportunity to craft their vision of an increasingly attitudinal public, one positioned as best governed with the aid of psychological expertise.

“Albert Ellis, rational therapy and the media of ‘modern’ emotional management,” Luke Stark. Abstract:

This article explores the development of therapeutic psychological techniques for emotional management as exemplified by Albert Ellis’s development of rational therapy (RT) in the 1950s and 1960s. A precursor to contemporary Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), rational therapy conceptualized emotion as manageable through scientific self-narration. The article examines how Ellis’s immersion in media techniques and forms accessible to a general audience shaped his focus on a new language for clinical practice inspired by behaviorist principles, and how much this ‘clarified’ language exemplifies the application of ‘high modernist ideology’ to the treatment of the postwar American psychological subject.

“Rorschach tests and Rorschach vigilantes: Queering the history of psychology in Watchmen,” by Katherine Hubbard and Peter Hegarty. Abstract:

One of the clearest signs that Psychology has impacted popular culture is the public’s familiarity with the Rorschach ink-blot test. An excellent example of the Rorschach in popular culture can be found in Watchmen, the comic/graphic novel written by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1987). In the mid-20th century Psychology had an especially contentious relationship with comics; some psychologists were very anxious about the impact comics had on young people, whereas others wrote comics to subvert dominant norms about gender and sexuality. Yet historians of Psychology have had almost nothing to say about this popular and critically acclaimed novel. We read Watchmen here for its narratives that most concern the history of Psychology. We focus on such themes as anti-psychiatry, sexual violence, homophobia, lesbian erasure and social psychological research on bystander intervention. We argue it is possible to align Psychology and comics more closely despite their sometimes contentious history. In doing so we demonstrate the active role of the public in the history of the Rorschach, and the public engagement of Psychology via comics, and also reveal what is possible when historians consider comics within their histories.

“Surveying rape: Feminist social science and the ontological politics of sexual assault,” by Alexandra Rutherford. Abstract:

College campus-based surveys of sexual assault in the United States have generated one of the most high-profile and contentious figures in the history of social science: the ‘1 in 5’ statistic. Referring to the number of women who have experienced either attempted or completed sexual assault since their time in college, ‘1 in 5’ has done significant work in making the prevalence of this experience legible to the public and to policy-makers. Here I examine how sexual assault surveys have participated in structuring the ontology of date/acquaintance rape from the 1980s to today. I review the foundational work of feminist social scientists Diana Russell and Mary Koss, with particular attention to the methodological practices through which the concept of the ‘hidden’ or ‘unacknowledged’ rape victim emerged. I then examine a selection of early 21st-century sexual assault surveys and highlight the ongoing preoccupation with survey methodology in responses to their results. I argue that the survey itself has been a central actor in the ontological politics of sexual assault, and only by closely attending to its performativity can we understand the paradoxical persistence both of critical responses to the ‘1 in 5’ statistic and of its effective deployment in anti-violence policy.

“Deliberative public opinion: Development of a social construct,” by Kieran C. O’Doherty. Abstract:

Generally, public opinion is measured via polls or survey instruments, with a majority of responses in a particular direction taken to indicate the presence of a given ‘public opinion’. However, discursive psychological and related scholarship has shown that the ontological status of both individual opinion and public opinion is highly suspect. In the first part of this article I draw on this body of work to demonstrate that there is currently no meaningful theoretical foundation for the construct of public opinion as it is typically measured in surveys, polls, or focus groups. I then argue that there is a particular sense in which the construct of public opinion does make sense. In deliberative democratic forums participants engage in dialogue with the aim of coming to collective positions on particular issues. Here I draw on examples of deliberative democratic forums conducted on the social and ethical implications of science and technology. Conversation between participants in deliberative democratic forums is ideally characterized by individuals becoming informed about the issues being discussed, respectful interactions between participants, individuals being open to changing their positions, and a convergence towards collective positions in the interest of formulating civic solutions. The end-product of deliberation on a given issue might thus be termed a deliberative public opinion. ‘Deliberative public opinion’ is neither a cognitive nor an aggregate construct, but rather a socio-historical product. Criteria for its legitimacy rely on the inclusiveness of diversity of perspectives and the degree to which collective positions are defensible to a larger society.

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.