Tag Archives: Michael Pettit

“The Great Cat Mutilation: Sex, Social Movements and the Utilitarian Calculus in 1970s New York City”

Department of Animal Behavior -American Museum of Natural History, ca 1987: Gary Greenberg, Kathy Hood, Leo Vroman, Jay Rosenblatt, Tineke Vroman, Peter Gold, John Gianutsos, EthelTobach, with Lester Aronson at his desk.

Forthcoming in BJHS Themes, the new offshoot publication of the British Journal of the History of Science, is an article by Michael Pettit in which he describes the animal liberation movement’s focus on psychologist Lester Aronson’s experiments with cats at the American Museum of Natural History in the 1970s:

“The great cat mutilation: sex, social movements and the utilitarian calculus in 1970s New York City,” by Michael Pettit. The abstract reads,

In 1976, the animal liberation movement made experiments conducted on cats at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) one of its earliest successful targets. Although the scientific consensus was that Aronson was not particularly cruel or abusive, the AMNH was selected due to the visibility of the institution, the pet-like status of the animals, and the seeming perversity of studying non-human sexuality. I contextualize the controversy in terms of the changing meaning of utilitarian ethics in justifying animal experimentation. The redefinition of ‘surgeries’ as ‘mutilations’ reflected an encounter between the behavioural sciences and social movements. One of the aims of the late 1960s civil rights movements was to heighten Americans’ sensitivity to differing experiences of suffering. The AMNH protesters drew inspiration from a revived utilitarian ethics of universal organismic pain across the lines of species. This episode was also emblematic of the emergence of an anti-statist, neo-liberal ethos in science. Invoking the rhetoric of the 1970s tax revolt, animal liberationists attacked Aronson’s ability to conduct basic research with no immediate biomedical application. Without denying the violence involved, an exclusive focus on reading the experiments through the lens of utilitarianism obscures what ethics animated Aronson’s research.

Michael Pettit on “Deflating Cold War Rationality”

In a recently published essay review in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A Michael Pettit (above) explores some of the recent work on Cold War rationality. The essay centres on a review of the volume How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality – written collaboratively by Paul Erickson, Judy L. Klein, Lorraine Daston, Rebecca Lemov, Thomas Sturm, and Michael D. Gordin – in order to explore the broader recent historiography of Cold War social science. Pettit’s argues “that by focusing rather narrowing on intellectuals in their immediate in- stitutions the recent historiography, including the book under consideration, is inadequate for accomplishing its aim of properly situating the Cold War social sciences.” The full essay review can be found(behind a paywall) here.

Interactive Timeline: “Replication in Psychology: A History Perspective”

Those who’ve been following the most recent controversy over the replicability of psychological findings (see here, here, here, here, and here for a primer), may be interested in the latest output from the PsyBorgs Digital History of Psychology Laboratory. Michael Pettit (left) has created an interactive timeline of replication controversies over psychology’s history:

This interactive timeline offers the reader a brief guide to this longer history. I define replication fairly broadly, but attempt to not simply offer a history of psychology in its entirety. Instead, I have focused on famous replication controversies from the past alongside the development of psychology’s favored research methods.

I am personally quite agnostic as to the value of the current interest in direct replication. My worry is that it distracts (as is often the case in psychology) from questions of external validity. My goal is to provide a richer context for contemporary controversies animating psychology.

I welcome corrections, updates, and suggestions of relevant topics. Please contact me at mpettit at yorku.ca

The timeline can be explored in full here.

Special Issue: “Feminism and/in/as Psychology: The Public Sciences of Sex and Gender”

Feminists form Division 35 of the American Psychological Association in 1973, now the Society for the Psychology of Women.

The August issue of History of Psychology is now online. Guest edited by Alexandra Rutherford and Michael Pettit, this special issue explores “Feminism and/in/as psychology: The public sciences of sex and gender.” As Rutherford and Pettit write in their abstract,

In our introduction to this special issue on the histories of feminism, gender, sexuality, and the psy-disciplines, we propose the tripartite framework of “feminism and/in/as psychology” to conceptualize the dynamics of their conjoined trajectories and relationship to gender and sexuality from the late 19th through the late 20th centuries. “Feminism and psychology” highlights the tensions between a political movement and a scientific discipline and the efforts of participants in each to problematize the other. “Feminism in psychology” refers to those historical moments when self-identified feminists intervened in psychology to alter its content, methodologies, and populations. We propose, as have others, that these interventions predate the 1970s, the period most commonly associated with the “founding” of feminist psychology. Finally, “feminism as psychology/psychology as feminism” explores the shared ground between psychology and feminism—the conceptual, methodological, and (more rarely) epistemological moments when psychology and feminism made common cause. We suggest that the traffic between feminism and psychology has been persistent, continuous, and productive, despite taking different historically and geographically contingent forms.

Full titles, authors, and abstracts for articles in this special issue follow below.

“The personal is scientific: Women, gender, and the production of sexological knowledge in Germany and Austria, 1900–1931,” Kirsten Leng. The abstract reads, Continue reading Special Issue: “Feminism and/in/as Psychology: The Public Sciences of Sex and Gender”

Review Essay: “Subject matter: Human behavior, psychological expertise, and therapeutic lives”

The February 2015 issue of Social Studies of Science includes a Review Essay of a number of recent works in the history of the human sciences. In this essay Michael Pettit (left) surveys recent monographs by Peter Hegarty (Gentlemen’s Disagreement: Alfred Kinsey, Lewis Terman, and the Sexual Politics of Smart Men), Helen E. Longino (Studying Human Behavior: How Scientists Investigate Aggression and Sexuality), Chloe Silverman (Understanding Autism: Parents, Doctors, and the History of a Disorder), Mathew Thomson (Lost Freedom: The Landscape of the Child and the British Post-War Settlement), and Marga Vicedo (The Nature and Nurture of Love: From Imprinting to Attachment in Cold War America), commenting on the current state and future possibilities of work in the field. Title, author, and an excerpt from the essay (in lieu of an abstract) follow below.

“Subject matter: Human behavior, psychological expertise, and therapeutic lives,” by Michael Pettit. Excerpt:

Few have greater confidence in psychology’s ability to mold subjectivity than its critics. However, there is a tension in much of the historical and sociological literature on psychology and the psychological society between a commitment to a microphysics of power (Foucault, 1977) and the kinds of sources and voices that get included in such analyses. ‘Subjectification’ (Rose, 1996) is all too often taken for granted, rather than made into a matter of inquiry involving contestation, multiplicity, and rejection. Relationships between scientists and publics are largely understood in terms of a hypodermic needle model of communication (Gitlin, 1978). On this basis, critical psychologist-historians select their favored disorder or construct, offer a largely intellectual history of it, and then assert that everyday experience has been psychologized. Such an approach speaks more to scientists’ visions and pretensions than to the social life of psychological facts (O’Connor and Joffe, 2013). Moreover, this approach bolsters and inflates, rather than critically scrutinizes, the scientist’s authority. We need greater specificity about psychology’s impact, better evidence of the circuits between expert description and self-understanding, and appreciation of the complicated lives of scientific methods and theories.
The books under review explore entanglements of psychology, sex, childhood, and development, and in so doing offer rich resources for rethinking much of the received wisdom about the public understanding of psychology, the authority of its experts, and the process of subjectification. The sex/gender distinction has long been recognized as a crucial site of traffic between nature and culture, one weighty with politics and consequences. These dynamics are amplified around children and development, where behavioral sciences and social policy meet, and each tries to anticipate and realize a better future (Adams et al., 2009). As the books here illustrate, psychology does not seek simply to craft accurate depictions of human behavior, but rather …