‘Stories of Psychology’ Symposium report

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Last Tuesday (11th October) the Wellcome Collection Conference Centre was the venue for the symposium ‘Stories of Psychology: Archives, Histories and What They Tell Us‘. The event was held as part of the collaboration between the British Psychological Society (BPS) and the Wellcome Library, which has seen the Society’s extensive psychology archives transferred to the Library (and which we’ve flagged up in previous posts on this Blog).

The afternoon’s proceedings begun with Professor Richard Bentall (University of Liverpool), talking on “How we have changed the way we think about madness”. His lecture offered a broad overview of developments in the field, touching upon such key developments as the classificatory work of Emile Kraepelin, Walter Freeman and psychosurgery and the rise of the treatment of mental illness through psychiatric drugs. Understandably, psychology featured strongly in this narrative, with Bentall discussing the behaviourist influence of B F Skinner, offering a personal recollection of “the token economy” at work in a mental hospital and also an interpretation of the work of Carl Rogers on the value of therapeutic relationships. There were some provocative comparisons to be drawn with other branches of medicine: during the years in which psychology has existed as a discipline, he pointed out, prognosis for diseases such as leukemia has improved beyond all measure in the developed West, whilst the prognosis for psychotic states remains much the same.

For his paper, Dr Peter Hegarty (University of Surrey) re-evaluated the work of sexologist Alfred Kinsey through the prism of Kinsey’s early research on Gall Wasps. Hegarty’s lecture was particularly interesting for how it interrogated the way that notions of the frontier in American society permeated Kinsey’s work, both in how the values of insect society were interpreted, and in his account of the sexual behaviour of American men in rural areas (as a result Hegarty’s audience may never watch be able to watch Pixar’s A Bug’s Life in the same way again).

Prof Michael Billig (Loughborough University) took a more personal approach: his paper, “Archival knowledge versus personal reminiscence: The case of social psychologist Henri Tajfel”, was based around Billig’s personal memories of Tajfel (Billig was one of Tajfel’s research students). It discussed how Tajfel’s work on the social construction of groups was strongly influenced by his experiences in growing up in 1930s Europe, but also spoke of the construction of biography through personal and working papers, and how this differed from an individual’s personal memories of a colleague. Particular pertinent views from the perspective of the Library, as with the transfer of the BPS archive we now hold Tajfel’s papers.

In “Psychological knowledge and the making of the modern state”, Dr Rhodri Hayward (Queen Mary University) questioned the traditional narrative of understandings of psychiatry in the UK in the 20th century, arguing that in the proto-Welfare State of inter-war Britain there was an increased awareness of psychosomatic illness in discussion of states hitherto seen as “malingering”. His wide-ranging talk included analyses of the condition of “Busman’s Stomach” in the 1920s and of how notions of stress and emotion became the basis for industrial negotiation as the century progressed. Pertinent issues, particularly with the importance recent Governments have placed on the “emotional wellbeing” of the British population.

Prof Sally Shuttleworth (University of Oxford) concluded the day with “Studying the child in the nineteenth century”. This paper examined the interplay of literature and research, and how the rich and evocative descriptions of childhood in the literature of the 1840s (e.g. Dombey and Son or Jane Eyre), influenced the growth of child psychiatry in the UK, so much so that by the 1890s, developments in the field were feeding back into literature (e.g. Edmund Gosse’s Father & Son). Her talk also spoke of the important role played by women in the development of child studies in the nineteenth century and the present day difficulty in tracking down many of child development journals produced in the period.

This last point was indicative of a symposium which illustrated the variety of areas and issues which research into the history of psychology can explore. One hopes the papers of the BPS now held in the Wellcome Library will inspire and encourage further exploration.

Image: Henri Tajfel (from European Association for Social Psychology).

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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