“Psychology and psychological facts operate in domains that extend far beyond the long revered space of the laboratory” – an interview with Jacy L. Young

We are delighted today to publish a new special issue, ‘Psychology and its Publics,’ edited by Michael Pettit and Jacy L. Young. HHS editor-in-chief, Felicity Callard, spoke to Jacy about the background  to the issue, and how the question of publics, in particular, may push a heterogeneous collection of interdisciplinary voices to the fore within the history of psychology 

Felicity Callard (FC): Jacy, maybe we should start with the genesis of this special issue. Did it start with you explicitly wanting to stage an encounter between research on the history of psychology and research on publics? How has this focus inflected your own research trajectories?

Jacy Young (JY): Both Michael Pettit and I have an abiding interest in the manifold ways in which the human sciences have interacted with the public across history. This special issue emerged in conversations in the wake of my doctoral dissertation, a project that was very much concerned with psychologists’ various engagements with the public, specifically in the context of the history of questionnaire research in American psychology. As we note in our introduction, too often conversations about psychology and the public presume a passive public simply receiving whatever messaging the discipline happens to disseminate. And, the public as an entity is often under-theorized in these discussions. The term is employed but never defined with respect to its parameters and characteristics, its ontology remaining un- or at least under-addressed. The contributions to this special issue speak to these concerns in a variety of ways, expanding the conversation about the public to encompass much more vibrant, active, and multifaceted notions of the public. This is especially so in Kieran O’Doherty’s piece on the construction of deliberative publics. The nature of the public, and the ways in which particular publics are brought into being in interaction with the human sciences continues to be a theme in much of my work, as is the public’s influence on the shape of scientific practice and the kinds of knowledge produced therein. Exploring the nexus of the human sciences and the public implicated in much of this work is a rich and wide-ranging landscape for the historian of the human sciences.

FC: Your special issue dislodges the obdurate assumption that, as you put it, the discipline of psychology took form ‘when a small cluster of philosophers got out of their armchairs, adapted the apparatus of experimental physiology to their needs and secluded themselves in the tightly controlled spaces of the laboratory’. The question remains: why has this vision of psychology’s beginnings had such staying power?

JY: Much of this is a consequence of psychology’s perennial concern with its status as a science. The replication ‘crisis’ that has received so much attention of late is only the most recent evidence of this ongoing fixation with the discipline’s scientific credentials or lack thereof. And this is by no means a new concern. The narrative of psychology as an experimental, laboratory-based science began at the field’s very inception, yet even from these earliest days much of psychology’s work took place outside of laboratory spaces. The laboratory is, and has only ever been, one of many spaces in which the discipline of psychology conducts itself. This is especially so in the United States, the national context of much of my own research. Here psychology was an expansive enterprise from the start, at work in clinics, classrooms, business enterprises, and other decidedly public contexts as it sought to ensure the discipline’s influence within American society. This meant not only a place in the national conversation, but also recognition of its expertise and authority when it came to addressing a host of social concerns. Psychology’s diverse forms of practice and pursuit of disciplinary authority have not left us today, though their exact configurations may have changed. And given psychology’s ever present concerns about its scientific standing the narrative of the field originating in the laboratory – that designate site of scientific undertakings – continues to have traction. This is especially so because the history of psychology has often been written by and for psychologists, just those individuals most concerned with the question of the field’s scientific identity. As a consequence, histories of psychology often speak to psychologists’ concerns and preoccupations, and continue to put forth the narrative of psychology’s history as one rooted in laboratory practice.

That being said, there has been a marked shift in the histories of psychology produced in recent years. Much of the scholarship emerging from younger scholars, in say the last ten to fifteen years, is less concerned with this traditional narrative, often sidestepping it entirely and instead producing more diverse and nuanced accounts of psychology’s history. Where the laboratory story remains, however, is in the history of psychology textbook, which continues to be what most psychologists encounter and take up during their training as the singular narrative of the field’s development.

FC: Your introduction establishes the special issue as a coming together of history of psychology, science and technology studies (including Public Understanding of Science [PUS] and Public Engagement with Science [PES]), and communication studies. I was also struck by how much the articles in the special issue think with, and have things to offer to, feminist, queer and affect studies. Can you say more about what you hope your special issue might do in terms of opening up new disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to the history of psychology?

JY: This coming together is really predicated upon the fact that despite the relevance of Science and Technology Studies (STS) – especially in this instance, the Public Understanding of Science and Public Engagement with Science – and related fields to the history of psychology these areas remain largely separate endeavours. Although there are some scholars in STS who work on the human sciences, often these scholars and their projects exist apart from what is taking place in the history of psychology. Similarly, those in the history of psychology working on projects that interrogate the role of the public, and other considerations that are at the core of STS, often do so without fully or meaningfully engaging with happenings in STS. This disciplinary segregation is unfortunate and one this special issue goes someway to address. As we hope the issue illustrates, there is much that can be gained on both sides when it comes to engaging with the history of psychology in ways that incorporate insights from STS.

Historians of the human sciences are well-positioned to think with and alongside feminist, queer, and affect studies as these are, topically at least, concerns very much within the purview of the human sciences. In history of psychology scholarship thus far, feminist perspectives have had the most readily apparent influence, but there still remains much that can be done here. Queer studies, in particular, continue to be an under-recognized and under-utilized reference point for the historian of psychology. Certainly psychology has had much to say about sexuality over its history, and its practitioners have lived diverse lives, but thinking about these engagements in terms of the frameworks provided by queer studies is a rarity. And here Katherine Hubbard and Peter Hegarty’s contribution queering the history of psychology in the context of the Rorschach test and the graphic novel Watchmen serves an important function. The articles in this special issue that engage with these lines of thought provide concrete illustrations of just what may result from these unions. But this is by no means the sum total of what these spheres offer the historian of psychology. Hopefully the invaluable provocations of these and other fields mean we can look forward to many more projects along these lines in the future.

FC: There is significant heterogeneity in the disciplinary backgrounds and expertise amongst your contributors. Was this intentional and, if so, how so?

JY: In many respects this heterogeneity is a feature of our own professional lives. In my case, I completed my doctorate in the rare history of psychology program situated within a psychology department. Despite its location within psychology, the program was thoroughly interdisciplinary. This meant many fruitful cross-conversations with STS scholars and others, including those working in the History and Philosophy of Science. The result of this is a broad and various network of colleagues, each working on aspects of the human sciences from different disciplinary perspectives. This kind of exposure to novel approaches to the history of psychology and related disciplines has been incredibly intellectually stimulating. Interdisciplinarity is also now second nature as I navigate a bit of a Venn diagram of colleagues spread across scholarly societies that range from the Forum for History of Human Science (a special interest group of the History of Science Society), Cheiron (the International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences), and the Society for the History of Psychology (Division 26 of the American Psychological Association), among other organizations. Bringing together scholars from diverse fields is both the norm and, to my mind, the ideal. The result is an amalgam of individuals with unique and productive takes on the history of psychology and its relation to the public.

FC: Your introduction makes it very clear why history of psychology needs to take on board the insights of STS and PUS/PES. You might say that STS has, similarly, not always been that attuned to the psy disciplines and the history of psychology. What might your special issue do for STS (and PUS/PES)?

JY: Attending to the history of psychology in the context of STS opens up a number of avenues for scholarship. This is perhaps especially so in the context of PUS/PES. It not only highlights the ways in which the public is an active participant in these conversations but also brings to the fore how the public, especially in the case of psychological knowledge, may be affected in potentially profound ways by such knowledge. Given its subject matter, psychological knowledge carries with it the possibility of altering, and itself being altered by, individuals’ self-understanding, à la Ian Hacking’s notion of looping effects. Thinking about the impact of the knowledge science produces on individuals lives in not only material and practical, but psychological, terms is something that is often only obliquely addressed. This is likewise the case with the role of psychology in helping craft the public and the public sphere that are central to work in PUS/PES. In terms of STS’s theorizing about the public, these psychological dimensions are challenging and productive realms for further work.

FC: You and your contributors challenge the usual temporal and spatial frameworks used to understand psychology’s histories and geographies. Where might this challenge take us in future research on the history of the human sciences?

JY: In the past several years there has been growing interest in tackling the history of recent social sciences (e.g., a recently founded Society for the History of Recent Social Science), a trend that is evident in some of the contributions to the special issue. Taking the history of psychology forward to the events of more recent years can at times be an intimidating and fraught process, especially when dealing with histories that involve living subjects with their own, sometimes very definite, narratives of what transpired. But moving history forward to the recent past is also an exciting endeavour that is opening up new lines of research, including work on evermore timely topics. Alexandra Rutherford’s piece on rape surveys is a prime example of just this kind of work.

Taking a long view of the history of psychology also means not only looking forward to more recent times, but further back in time before that long feted move of psychology into the laboratory. Thus, Edward Jones-Imhotep’s account of the French Revolution’s public psychology, sentimentalism, and its influence on the rationalized process of execution via guillotine. In fact, the laboratory and that era it is most often associated with – the nineteenth century – are themselves largely if not entirely absent from the special issue. This is clear evidence of the many non-laboratory spheres in which psychology operates, many of them not only public but popular, as in Hubbard and Hegarty’s examination of the Watchmen graphic novel and Luke Stark’s work on Albert Ellis’s rational therapy and its embeddedness in popular media forms of the day.

As the contributions to this special issue reinforce, psychology and psychological facts operate in domains that extend far beyond the long revered space of the laboratory. Psychology’s presence in such spaces, and its attendant relation to the public, continues to this day. Consideration of the intertwined histories of psychology and the public has much to tell us about how we understand both ourselves and the public we are positioned within.

Jacy L. Young is a psychologist and historian whose work explores the methods and practices of the human sciences. She recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Surrey.

Felicity Callard is Editor-in-Chief of History of the Human Sciences. From September 2017, she is director of the Institute for Social Research at Birkbeck, University of London.