Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century

AHP readers may be interested in a new book on the history of cultural anthropology focused on Franz Boas and his women students. Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century is described by the publisher as follows:

A dazzling group portrait of Franz Boas, the founder of cultural anthropology, and his circle of women scientists, who upended American notions of race, gender, and sexuality in the 1920s and 1930s–a sweeping chronicle of how our society began to question the basic ways we understand other cultures and ourselves.

At the end of the 19th century, everyone knew that people were defined by their race and sex and were fated by birth and biology to be more or less intelligent, able, nurturing, or warlike. But one rogue researcher looked at the data and decided everyone was wrong. Franz Boas was the very image of a mad scientist: a wild-haired immigrant with a thick German accent. By the 1920s he was also the foundational thinker and public face of a new school of thought at Columbia University called cultural anthropology. He proposed that cultures did not exist on a continuum from primitive to advanced. Instead, every society solves the same basic problems–from childrearing to how to live well–with its own set of rules, beliefs, and taboos.

Boas’s students were some of the century’s intellectual stars: Margaret Mead, the outspoken field researcher whose Coming of Age in Samoa is one of the most widely read works of social science of all time; Ruth Benedict, the great love of Mead’s life, whose research shaped post-Second World War Japan; Ella Deloria, the Dakota Sioux activist who preserved the traditions of Native Americans of the Great Plains; and Zora Neale Hurston, whose studies under Boas fed directly into her now-classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Together, they mapped vanishing civilizations from the Arctic to the South Pacific and overturned the relationship between biology and behavior. Their work reshaped how we think of women and men, normalcy and deviance, and re-created our place in a world of many cultures and value systems.

Gods of the Upper Air is a page-turning narrative of radical ideas and adventurous lives, a history rich in scandal, romance, and rivalry, and a genesis story of the fluid conceptions of identity that define our present moment.

Ninth Annual History of Psychology Centre Stories of Psychology Day 7 November 2019

On November 7th, 2019 the BPS History of Psychology Centre (HoPC) and the BPS History and Philosophy of Psychology Section are hosting the 9th Annual Stories of Psychology Day. Registration is required for the event. Full details below.

Ninth Annual History of Psychology Centre Stories of Psychology Day 7 November 2019 10am – 4pm

Friends House, Euston Road, London

How have past and present psychologists interacted with the public to provide an understanding of social issues and anxieties, such as the threat of war, economics, technology and political upheaval?

Historians and psychologists will be discussing this issues in front of an audience of members, academics and the wider public.

The first session will consider the changing messages given and the second will focus on the medium used by public psychologists from pre-war BBC radio talks to current multi-channel and social media outlets.

A round table of media psychologists will discuss their current and future role.

Cost £18 including buffet lunch (registration is essential)

For more information and to register www.bps.org.uk/stories

Special Issue: Psychology and psychiatry in the global world: Historical perspectives

A special issue of History of Psychology on the topic of “Psychology and psychiatry in the global world: Historical perspectives” is now online. Full details below.

“Psychology and psychiatry in the global world: Historical perspectives,” by Pols, Hans; Wu, Harry Yi-Jui. Abstract:

Introduces articles in the special issue of History of Psychology, Psychology and Psychiatry in the Global World Part I. The special issue seeks to consolidate and extend the historical analysis of psychology and psychiatry in the global world by bringing together seven articles detailing how theories, techniques, and practices have been translated, adapted, and appropriated in the colonial and postcolonial eras. The contributions demonstrate that it is fruitful to conduct research in the history of psychiatry and psychology together as broader ideational frameworks such as social Darwinism, eugenics, degeneration, and mental hygiene have inspired the development of psychological and psychiatric insights as well as the adoption of their intervention strategies worldwide.

“Racial degeneration, mental hygiene, and the beginning of Peruvian psychiatry, 1922–1934,” Rios-Molina, Andres. Abstract:

Between 1922 and 1934, three pamphlets and a series of articles on mental hygiene were published in important newspapers in Lima, Peru. Their authors were Hermilio Valdizán and Honorio Delgado, two members of the first generation of psychiatrists in the country. These mass publications aimed to educate the population on what mental illness was, as well as its causes and symptoms. In addition, they sought to promote the figure of the psychiatrist as a specialist in “madness” whose recommendations should be heeded in family life. To that end, these publications contained true cases, related in melodramatic language, in order to reach a broader audience. Beyond their educative intention, these publications used ideas that Peruvian elites held about racial differentiation, because they were aimed at White and mestizo readers and had the express intention of preventing racial “degeneration.” The analysis of this primary source material is complemented with other texts by Valdizán that sought to comprehend the manifestations of insanity among Native Peruvians, for which he used degeneration theory to explain the degree of “backwardness” observed among the races that were considered inferior. This article seeks to analyze the viewpoints held on racial differences by the most significant members of Peru’s first generation of psychiatrists, in which degeneration theory was key in explaining the differences between human groups and in justifying the superiority of Whites and Western culture in the Peruvian state’s mestizo identity initiative.

Child delinquency and intelligence testing at Santiago’s Juvenile Court, Chile, 1929–1942,” Vetö, Silvana. Abstract:

This article deals with intelligence testing conducted at Santiago’s Juvenile Court, in Chile, between 1929 and 1942. It is based on an analysis of 56 court records containing psychological or psychopedagogical reports filed by the Section for Observation and Classification at Santiago’s House of Juveniles, an institution created in 1929 as part of the Juvenile Protection Law. To understand the purposes for juvenile intelligence testing in this field, several articles published at the time by the key actors involved in these institutions will also be analyzed. The results of this research signal, first, that psychology did indeed play a role in the juvenile justice system by laying the groundwork for the idea that it was necessary to measure and diagnose intelligence. The Binet–Simon Intelligence Scale, developed in France between 1904 and 1911 and adapted for Chile between 1922 and 1925, was systematically administered to juveniles in Santiago’s Juvenile Court; the results were deployed as technical–scientific recommendations at the service of the presiding juvenile judge. On the one hand, this instrument, supposedly scientific and objective, helped legitimize the nascent field of psychology. On the other, it emerged as a useful tool in its own right to assess children. Second, the notions of intelligence underpinning these practices, while certainly in debt to the American approaches from which they were appropriated, managed to forge a more balanced stance between nature and nurture, positioning intelligence testing as a way of conceiving of and planning to prevent crime and reeducate juveniles.

“Picturing ethnopsychology: A colonial psychiatrist’s struggles to examine Javanese minds, 1910–1925,” Broere, Sebastiaan. Abstract:

This article explores C. F. Engelhard’s struggles to construct psychometric devices for the Netherlands Indies between 1910 and 1925. A young Dutch psychiatrist, Engelhard moved to the Netherlands Indies in 1916, where he applied his clinical experience to subject Javanese individuals to mental assessment devices. He imagined that basic picture tests and one’s orientation in time provided apt solutions to the cross-cultural challenges facing him. To turn his prototypes into actual tests, Engelhard had to leave his daily work environment and move into the surrounding villages. Aided by local chiefs and his assistant, Soekirman, he managed to set up temporary testing sites, where he examined hundreds of Javanese individuals. Yet despite his attempts to transform Javanese farmers into subjects capable of taking a psychological test, the Javanese remained free to make—or fail to make—meaning out of Engelhard’s images. Even though the psychiatrist went to great lengths in taking into account the particular social and cultural features of psychological practice in a colonial context, a vast chasm remained to exist between him and his test takers. This article examines Engelhard’s practices against the backdrop of his training as a Western psychiatrist, colonial ideology in the Netherlands Indies, and the reception of his research by other colonial scientists with a wide range of attitudes about “the native mind.”

Summer 2019 Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

The summer 2019 issue of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences is now online. Full details follow below.

“The professionalization of psychologists as court personnel: Consequences of the first institutional commitment law for the “feebleminded”,” by Ingrid G. Farreras. Abstract:

The first law providing for the permanent, involuntary institutionalization of “feeble?minded” individuals was passed in Illinois in 1915. This bill represented the first eugenic commitment law in the United States. Focusing on the consequences of this 1915 commitment law within the context of intelligence testing, eugenics, and the progressive movement, this paper will argue that the then newly devised Binet–Simon intelligence test facilitated the definition and classification of feeble?mindedness that validated feeble?mindedness theory, enabled the state to legitimize the eugenic diagnosis and institutionalization of feeble?minded individuals, and especially empowered psychologists to carve out a niche for themselves in the courtroom as “experts” when testifying as to the feeble?mindedness of individuals.

“1784: The Marquis de Puységur and the psychological turn in the west,” by Adam Crabtree. Abstract:

In 1970 Henri Ellenberger called attention to the previously unrecognized importance of Franz Anton Mesmer’s “animal magnetism” in the rise of psychodynamic psychology in the West. This article takes the next step of tracing the course of events that led to Puységur’s discovery of magnetic somnambulism and describing the tumultuous social and political climate into which it was introduced in 1784. Beginning from the secret and private publication of his first Mémoires, only a few copies of which remain today, the original core of his discovery is identified and the subsequent development of its implications are examined. Puysègur was initiated into his investigations by Mesmer’s system of physical healing, which bears some resemblance to the traditional healing approaches of the East. But Puységur took Mesmer’s ideas in an unexpected direction. In doing so, he accomplished a turn toward the psychological that remains one of the distinguishing features of Western culture.

“Psychology’s own mindfulness: Ellen Langer and the social politics of scientific interest in “active noticing”,” by Shayna Fox Lee. Abstract:

Ellen Langer’s mindfulness construct is presented as “indigenous” to disciplinary psychology. Langer’s early work laid the foundations for the research program she would come to call the psychology of possibility. Studying inattentive behavior (mindlessness) and intentionally reflective cognition (mindfulness) placed her work directly in line with the theoretical priorities of the 1970s and influenced the direction of research in several subdisciplines related to social cognition. Positioning Langer’s work at an intersection crossed by various discourse communities in psychology explains much of its influence within the discipline. However, its relevance is additionally related to a broader field of research and application also employing the terminology of mindfulness. While superficially synonymous, the majority of mindfulness research is distinguished from Langer’s due to differences in origination, definition, and goals. Comparative assessments are used as a lens through which to interrogate the social politics of mindfulness theories’ burgeoning success over the past half century.

“Documenting the multisensory and ephemeral: Navajo Chantway singers and the troubles of a “science” of ceremonialism,” by Adam Fulton Johnson. Abstract:

Even as American ethnology in the late?nineteenth century continued to accumulate data about indigenous groups for comparative study, the surgeon?turned?ethnographer Washington Matthews found standardized documentary methods constricting, unable to reflect the complexity of a community’s spiritual practices. Through studies of Navajo Indians in the 1880s and 90s, Matthews experimented with documentation techniques to capture the multisensorial and ephemeral elements of Navajo healing ceremonialism, such as the design of sandpaintings that were later destroyed as the rites concluded. Investigating his ethnographic strategies and his relationships with Navajo knowledge stewards, this article charts Matthews’ emerging conviction in social immersion and bonding with indigenous informants, tenets that predated the rise of cultural relativism in anthropology. The article argues that his experience among and tutelage from Navajo medicine “singers” reshaped Matthews’ documentary practices to emphasize the irreducibility of cultural facets to tabular columns, raising doubts about then?dominant theories of social evolution.

Reasonable men: Sexual harassment and norms of conduct in social psychology

Yours truly has a new piece (with Peter Hegarty) out in Feminism & Psychology on the history of sexual harassment in psychology. I hope you read it. It was an interesting journey to get it out into the world. (You can read more about that here.) Details below.

Update: The piece is now free to access via the publisher for 6 weeks.

Reasonable men: Sexual harassment and norms of conduct in social psychology,” by Jacy L. Young and Peter Hegarty. Abstract:

Sexual harassment has received unprecedented attention in recent years. Within academia, it has a particularly reflexive relationship with the human sciences in which sexual harassment can be both an object of research and a problematic behavior amongst those engaged in that research. This paper offers a partial history in which these two are brought together as a common object of social psychology’s culture of sexual harassment. Here we follow Haraway in using culture to capture the sense-making that psychologists do through and to the side of their formal knowledge production practices. Our history is multi-sited and draws together (1) the use of sexual harassment as an experimental technique, (2) feminist activism and research which made sexual harassment an object of knowledge in social psychology, and (3) oral history accounts of sexual harassment amongst social psychologists. By reading these contexts against each other, we provide a thick description of how sexual harassment initiates women and men into cultures of control in experimental social psychology and highlight the ethical-epistemological dilemma inherent in disciplinary practices.