PhD scholarship opportunity in Theory & History of Psychology, University of Groningen

A PhD scholarship opportunity in Theory & History of Psychology is available at the University of Groningen. More details below and full details here.

The Theory and History of Psychology department at the University of Groningen is seeking to recruit a talented student for research leading to the PhD. The student is expected to develop her/his research under the direction of Prof. Dr. Annette Mülberger (promotor), together with Dr. Jeremy Burman or Dr. Stephan Schleim (as co-promotor). The student will conduct original historical research, report results via peer-reviewed publications and conference presentations, and ultimately deliver a PhD thesis related to one of the three topics indicated below. The PhD student will receive a four-year scholarship and, thereby, enrol in the Graduate School of the Behavioural and Social Sciences

Topic 1: Intelligence and meritocracy: Testing in the 20th century

Intelligence testing is a crucial field of research in our contemporary society, and a common social and professional practice. Despite this, it remains controversial: on the one hand it represents a widely accepted tool for psychological assessment, but on the other hand it also reinforces histories of social discrimination. It imposes social order and, paradoxically, has become a crucial tool of governance in democratic and meritocratic societies. And testing is becoming ever more entrenched: during the 20th century, there has been an exponential increase in new tests designed to measure different kinds of “intelligence” (variously defined) linked to different cognitive and social variables with different goals and ends. At the same time, however, psychologists have also repeatedly lamented the lack of conceptual consensus and critical (overall) analysis.

Until now, four basic kinds of research have been conducted: a) the development and validation of new tests and assessments that are sold on the market and used for assessments and research; b) studies of differences between individuals and groups; c) theories about intelligence and different related cognitive capacities; and d) methodological reappraisals of previous testing, exposing mistakes in past analyses or applying new statistical methods to derive new insights (without examining the underlying assumptions). Broadly speaking, these different projects have also become siloed: there is not much dialogue between these lines of work. They persist, in isolation, because they serve different societal or professional interests.

Possible research questions on the theme: how was intelligence conceptualized, operationalized, and measured in different places and institutions? Which other psychological traits, attitudes, skills, or variables were tested alongside intelligence? Why did different tests or test-types become popular or prestigious in different times and places? How were these tests and testing activities legitimized by testers, and for what purposes were the tests conducted? What methodological problems did they face? Were there successful replications? What happened afterward to those who were tested? Which psychological theories or implicit ideas about mental life can be deduced from the testing itself and how do these connect to mainstream conceptualizations in psychology? Under what conditions was testing conceived to be a good idea? What meta-theories justified their beliefs? How has “merit” been differently conceived?

Topic 2: Human-kinds: Differential psychology and typologies

Francis Galton is widely known as the father of “eugenics,” and is also often presented as the founder of “differential” psychology: the science of human (psychological) differences. For such studies, researchers assumed as the starting point “natural” differences such as race, gender, age, social class, physiology, and the like. Then they compared the resulting measurements between “natural” groups in order to see if there were differences in reaction time, perception threshold, language skills, attitudes, thinking styles, etc. In other cases, after testing a great number of subjects, researchers deduced from the data certain patterns and within-group differences; distinguishing between the quick and the slow, the intelligent and the “retarded,” “geniuses” and “morons,” etc. These kinds of categorizations—and the overarching goal of constructing typologies of human kinds representing the differences that could power evolutionary change—continue to this day, although using different language and usually without explicitly eugenicist goals.

Biotypology, for example, was presented as a science of the individual and used morphological, physiological, and psychological assessments to determine human types. Influential typologies were developed by Ernst Kretschmer (1888-1964), Nicola Pende (1880-1970), and Erich Jaensch (1883-1940). Their followers often embraced a holistic view of the organism, and connected psychological traits to bodily constitution, social class, and cultural and anthropological conditions. These practices became very popular in the 1930s in Europe, the Americas (especially Argentina and Brazil), and beyond. Other more contemporary examples of typological thinking include constitutional medicine and theories about personality types, sometimes presented as diagnostics, that are used to this day by psychologists, physicians, and educators.

Possible research questions on the theme: To whom and why were psychological typologies appealing? Were they scientific, or based only on popular wisdom? What kind of debates surrounded their implementation in different national and institutional settings? For what purposes were they used? What consequences did such classifications have for individuals?

Topic 3: Psychology under Franco: Between neo-Scholasticism and foreign appropriations

After the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), progressive psychologists such as E. Mira went into exile while others such as J. Mallart decided to stay. As a result, the intellectual landscape underwent a dramatic change. The institutional landscape also changed, especially after the new regime solidified its power: it took over the schools, research centres, and universities. In order to foster the state religion—a very conservative Roman Catholicism—the government also required that a neo-scholastic view be taught in philosophy and psychology. Together, these changes constitute a rupture; a broad external change that can be investigated for its impact on the psychological science of the time.

The interest of Catholics in modern science was sparked by Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), which called for a restoration of Christian philosophy and particularly of a reengagement with Thomism. Scholarship by Cardinal Désiré Mercier at the University of Louvain represents an important landmark in this progressive form of scholasticism. As did the founding of the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, in Milan, by psychologist Agostino Gemelli in 1921. Following a call by the Vatican to seek out the “harmony” between science and faith, scholars in Spain working in the 1940s and 1950s also promoted neo-scholastic psychology. (Recognizable leaders of this movement included the Jesuit Fernando Maria Palmés and Manuel Barbado Viejo.)

At the same time, while neo-scholasticism flourished, there was also an attempt made by psychologists to strengthen connections with foreign psychologists. Two European psychologists were of central importance in the orientation and institutionalisation of psychology in Spain in the period between 1950 and 1970: A. Michotte and J. Piaget. Although this connection is well known among historians of psychology, there is still much research to do related to the political, religious, and scientific motives and influences involved.

Possible research questions on the theme: To what extent was psychology after the Civil War different from or similar to the situation before the War? Which national and international networks did Spanish scholars establish and participate in during the Franco era? What role did Michotte and Piaget play in that setting? What was the intersection between the religious and scientific contexts, and to what extent did this influence their psychological research? How did Spanish psychologists try to combine and legitimize research in modern (experimental, positivist, applied) psychology and connect this with a Catholic (moral) worldview?

The PhD candidate should:
• have a master’s degree
• have a bachelor or master’s degree in psychology, history, history of science or sociology of science
• have some experience working with historical methods and source materials
• be fluent in English (both oral and written)
• be willing to work in Groningen, in an international and interdisciplinary environment

Full details can be found here.

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.