Psychology and its national styles

An interesting paragraph from a 2005 article on the history of psychological concepts.

It tracks how different styles of psychology emerged in different countries depending on the social and political problems active at the time.

In Britain, there was a noteworthy interest in individual differences, the distribution of these differences in the population and the significance of this data in social, educational and political questions. The result was a psychology intimately bound up with statistics.

In France, a clinical method and an interest in the exceptional, perhaps pathological, individual case (the hysteric, the prodigy of memory, the double personality) was characteristic of early work.

In Germany, the dominant academic interest, supported by an experimental methodology adapted from physiology, was in the conscious content of the rational adult mind. This interest interacted with philosophical questions about the foundations of knowledge.

In the United States, a pragmatic temper and the opportunity to obtain funding for a psychology aimed at the solution of social problems directed psychology towards a science of behaviour, with a methodology appropriate for the study of learning and adaptation.

In Russia, stark opposition between a conservative politics of the soul expressed in Orthodox belief and radical materialism led, in the Soviet period, to support for psychology as a theory of ‘higher nervous activity’, in Pavlov’s phrase, which threatened to make psychology part of physiology.

Such generalisations go only so far, but they do make clear the sheer variety and complexity of psychology just at the time when, as convention holds, the modern discipline emerged.


Link to locked article ‘The history of psychological categories’.

8 thoughts on “Psychology and its national styles”

  1. Apparently along with globalization, American views of psychology and disorders are also now starting to dominate around the world, creating a sort of new global homogenous standard for what’s considered “normal”, regardless of local cultures. And no doubt the pharmaceutical industry is also contributing to this sort of psychological “standardization”.

  2. Psychology is an important and significant discipline that has suffered greatly from being forced into the mould of a science. IMO.

    Psychology must embrace and confront subjectivity, and find out how to work with it. Only then can it assume its rightful position as the most significant discipline known to humankind; the study (and understanding?) of humankind.

    Also IMO. 🙂

    1. Agreed that the best psychologists are more like Artists than Scientists. But good luck with simply “embracing” their subjectivity, which seems to run counter to Science as the new “religion”, as well as the current forces of Neurobiological research and Psychopharmacology. Perhaps what’s really needed is an updated “model” that manages to integrate both the Artist and these new “mechanistic” tools.

  3. @Steve I agree there is probably a lot of interesting depths to be plumbed in exploring subjective experience, but by its nature subjective experience is difficult to examine as a coordinated research field.

    I think psychology hasn’t been forced into the mould of a science, but rather there are aspects of psychology that can be examined by science, and these are being examined to their full extent. I also think there are situations where our experience of what is going on in our minds is misleading, or at least different from what is actually going on. Although that mismatch might be an interesting area of research in itself!

  4. This is another great post communicating the concerns of historians of psychology to a wider audience. The Smith article is a nice overview of recent trends in the historiography of psychology. When discussing these national styles, he is expanding upon Kurt Danziger’s important book Constructing the Subject (1990). I have some reservations about their taxonomy, but the approach has been provocative and useful.

  5. “….and the opportunity to obtain funding” – it would be interesting to track the focus of each place, for example the U.S., to see if changes shifted in concurrence to demand for quick fixes and the opportunity for others to make money.

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