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Pluto Press
Revolution in Psychology: Alienation to Emancipation

Revolution in Psychology: Alienation to Emancipation

by Ian Parker
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745325354
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 06/27/2007
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Ian Parker is Professor of Psychology in the Discourse Unit at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he is managing editor of Annual Review of Critical Psychology. He is a member of Psychology Politics Resistance, which is now part of the Asylum collective. He has produced seventeen books, including The Crisis in Modern Social Psychology, and How to End It (1989), Qualitative Psychology: Introducing Radical Research (2005) and Slavoj Zizek: A Critical Introduction (Pluto Press, 2004).

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What Is Psychology? Meet the Family

There is no one definition of what our human psychology is or how it should be understood, and the discipline of psychology is just as difficult to define. Psychology comprises many incompatible theories and research traditions, some counter-intuitive and some commonsensical, mostly useless and sometimes dangerous. This chapter shows how psychology as a separate discipline came into existence at a specific point in history in a certain part of the world. We will see how the psychologists defined themselves against other approaches to understanding and treating individuals, and how they carved out a particular role for their discipline based on a mistaken view of what people are and what they can be.

Psychologists do not agree with each other about what psychology really is

Sometimes psychology textbooks seem very certain as to what psychology should be about, but this is precisely because there is such sharp disagreement among psychologists. The disagreements are often smoothed over so that a particular position can be argued for all the more forcefully. Because they do not even agree on what the most important disputes are, most introductions to psychology cover this over by pretending to weigh up and judge different vantage points. This feeds the illusion that it all fits together somehow.

Some psychologists argue that the discipline should be 'concerned primarily with establishing cause and effect relationships', or that it should be seen as 'a branch of biological science which studies the phenomenon of conscious life and behaviour'. Others, strict behaviourists, focus on learning at the expense of any attempt to look inside the head, while rival approaches build models of cognitive mechanisms to explain how we remember and why we forget. Each view of what psychological science should be like is partial, but you should not believe any psychologist who claims they can tell you with confidence what they all agree on.

Different areas of study in psychology are competing, not complementary

One way of holding together the ragbag of different models of psychology in the same discipline has been to divide it into separate areas of study, but this only serves to highlight the disagreements between psychologists still further. The different kinds of psychologists do not usually think of their particular domain of work as putting new pieces of knowledge into a bigger picture. Instead, the pictures of the human being that emerge from the different areas of psychology overlap, and their proponents aim to blot out the explanations given by other psychologists.

Cognitive psychologists – who specialise in mental processing of information and memory recall – try to explain why people engage in 'social behaviour', for example, but they reduce the interaction between people to cogs and glitches inside individual heads. Meanwhile social psychologists – who are supposed to account for patterns of behaviour in collections of people – aim to show the reasons for differences in 'individual development', but the only social factors they really take seriously are small-scale ones that can be manipulated and measured. Developmental psychologists – focusing on when and how an infant learns to think like an adult – aim to show how cognition and social action are linked together, and hope to pull the rug from beneath their colleagues so that research on children is given priority. And so it goes, with every bid to be open and inclusive concealing an agenda to define what psychology really is. This is rocky terrain for those who are already inside psychology, and it is bewildering for those coming in on the disputes from the outside with no map to guide them. But how did we get into this mess in the first place?

There Are Certain Interlinked Conditions for 'Psychology' to Become Possible

We should not take for granted the existence of psychology as a separate domain of research. Instead, we will learn far more about the discipline if we examine the historical conditions for this particular way of understanding people to have appeared in the world. There were rich traditions of thought about thought in different cultures before the term 'psychology' was introduced into the English language by the poet Coleridge in the early nineteenth century and then exported into other languages. Psychologists often like to trace back their own history to the ancient Greeks, but this is a little bit of story-telling that serves to make their work seem wiser and older than it actually is.

The quite recent birth of psychology was toward the end of the nineteenth century, and some spectacular changes were occurring in European society that made the study of individual 'psychology' possible, and necessary. Changes in property relations, the family and the state called upon the services of a new discipline that would study and maintain social order at the level of the individual. It was so successful that many people now take for granted that this discipline is the one that unlocks the secrets of the self. We need to look closely at how these elusive secrets came to be seen in there.

Private property entailed the idea that mental processes are 'owned'by each individual

The growth of capitalism in Europe entailed a fundamental change in the way that each person would understand their place in the world. The owners of the new industries had to accumulate sufficient capital to build factories and employ workers, and their competition with each other in the marketplace encouraged them to understand their own activity as being powered by self-enclosed unique creative abilities. This is not at all to say that there was no conception of personal creativity before this point in history, but now, at the very moment when the individual was glorified, it was assumed that it could only flourish inside the new cage of the 'self'. People were, at each moment of their activity, separated and set against their competitors and they became all the more convinced that their plans for growth were their own private property.

Workers, meanwhile, had to compete against each other to sell their labour power in order to make money for themselves and their families to survive. Labour and creativity became something that they came to experience as something possessed by them, until it was sold to someone else. Even if the life of the worker was judged as less than that of the employer, something significant changed that called upon new explanations of individual differences and how they might have developed. The old Christian image of the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate – one that seemed to account for why people's fates were so different – continued to function in a new society that was also intensely hierarchical. But now there was a search for something in human nature that would explain why people struggled against each other and why some people would not accept their lowly place in the order of things. When people could acquire more and more, and buy the labour of others in the process, the stage was set for a form of 'possessive individualism' that posed a puzzle for the new generation of gentleman scientists and university scholars.

The nuclear family required intense dependence, and anxiety about separation

Women were very present in the workforce in early capitalism, but they were still responsible for life at home and for the care of children. There is a complicated process at play here through which the life of the child was transformed as it was prepared for the world of work and through which the women became more confined to the increasingly separate sphere of the nuclear family. In addition, as social commentators looked back on life before capitalism in the early years of industrialisation, and as they wrote histories of conditions in the factories later on, there was another turn in the fate of women and how their lives should be understood.

These new social conditions transformed one kind of patriarchal system into another, carrying the traces of that old system to the present so that the burdens placed on women became all the more complex. The change in relations of production, with large privately owned enterprises replacing locally organised work on the land, separates work as time in the factory from the home; and it separated work from leisure, giving rise to the newly distinct realm of childhood, the cradle of what later came to be 'developmental' psychology.

Compared with the competition and exploitation of industrial capitalism, the family became the 'heart of a heartless world'; this phrase, which was coined by Karl Marx to describe how religion offered some space of comfort in a society built on ruthless exploitation, also highlights how escape into the bosom of the family home was a mixed blessing. From the factory furnaces into the frying pans of sizzling resentment at home, the place of the family and its internal shape served all the more to separate the world of women from the world of men. It also made all those who grew up in families more dependent on this little world, and fearful about what lay outside. The dialectical relation between family life and work life is one that has from the beginning entranced psychologists who study first the one side of the relation and then the other, giving advice to those on either side, but not realising that psychology came onto the scene to make the impossible choices for each individual caught in their vice-like grip just a bit more bearable.

The nation state became a key player in discipline and identity, at work and at home

While each individual worker was set against the others to find employment and each nuclear family was becoming a separate place to raise children, competition was becoming more intense between different enterprises and between different parts of Europe. The logic of competition in this burgeoning capitalism, however, was something that increasingly called upon the state to protect and support it. One paradox of 'free enterprise' is that while individual capitalists often complain about state interference in their economic affairs, they need the state to maintain law and order.

Each particular capitalist nation state must have an apparatus charged with guaranteeing the property of its inhabitants and each nation state is then caught up in competition against outsiders. The military was often already in the vanguard of the push to develop health care for its own personnel and for prostitutes who serviced the troops, and the discussions over discipline in the army balanced against therapeutic support for those suffering mentally increased in intensity.

The integrity of the state was faced with threats from outside – from those who resisted occupation or those who defied the companies searching for profits overseas – and concern then grew over the task of dealing with enemies from within. Suspicion of outsiders now mutated into new more virulent forms of racism, and it was only a matter of time before psychological explanations of essential differences between peoples was stirred in. The question could not be settled by simply declaring that non-European races were less than human; instead, more sophisticated racist descriptions of the characteristics of different segregated 'communities' were mobilised to explain why the foreigners were liable to be disloyal to their host country. Immigrant workers who are productive and well behaved will be tolerated, but only insofar as they can be assimilated to a workforce that identifies with its own employers in a common struggle against those of other nations.

The competition for markets and new sources of cheap labour as industry expanded then took this nationalist element of capitalism to a further more world-shaping point with the emergence of imperialism. The idea that capitalism was the only road to civilised development was interlinked with the exploitation of colonised countries, and these parts of the world were systematically 'underdeveloped', reduced to providing raw materials and labour power.

Those who refused to adapt needed to be observed, treated and brought back into line

Employers do not like to be told to ensure safety at work, to keep within maximum hours of labour in a day or, still less, to agree to minimum levels of pay. However, the welfare of the workforce is also, to an extent, in their interests, and the state started to play an increasingly influential role alongside the family in looking after the health of existing workers and the upbringing of potential employees. Individuals and their families were still expected to do most of the actual day-to-day care work, while the state undertook the regulation of standards for health and, bit by bit, what came to be seen as 'mental' health. The government welfare programmes operating alongside independent charitable bodies did not always intervene directly in the family to tell parents exactly how they should bring up their children. However, the combination of particular laws and moral advice in the 'public' sphere outside the family served to carve out a certain space in which the family was supposed to operate, a certain kind of shape with certain responsibilities for those in the 'private' sphere of the home.

Capitalists who make rash decisions about investment or behave in bizarre ways that endanger a particular enterprise are not really much of an immediate problem for the economy, and even now rich eccentrics can get away with a lot without drawing the attention of the state authorities. The problem that concerns the state is that workers of any kind – those in the factory, the shop or the home – may be unwilling or unable to work; while an individual worker who only refuses to sell his or her labour power may merely starve on their own, such irrational behaviour may infect others, men and women.

The images of disorder that were most disturbing to the authorities during the popular uprising which formed the Paris Commune in 1871 were those that showed the active participation of women; collective activity against capitalism is bad enough, but when that activity breaks down the distinction between work and home things are really serious. The police may be able to deal with deliberate political agitation that threatens production, but for cases of individual irrationality that may spill over into collective discontent a new body of professionals was needed; enter stage right, the psychologists.

Psychology as a Discipline Sought Knowledge, but This Was Tied to Power

The development of capitalism was of new relations of production, new social relations, and the economic transformations in the nineteenth century were intertwined with changes in the family and in the place of women. This new political-economic system required increasingly intense control and segregation of time; of the length of the work day, of leisure and of holidays. The space in which people lived and worked was also organised to ensure that the family was an efficient mechanism for producing and caring for the workforce – architecture reflected and reproduced new spaces of public housing and private space and the connections between them. Capitalism consisted of new relations of power that included exploitation of labour, exploitation of natural resources and exploitation of those colonised by imperialism. Those relations of power sustained a particular kind of search for knowledge and what researchers imagined they might do with knowledge once they found it. The Western Enlightenment tradition that began toward the end of the eighteenth century provided inspiration for a form of knowledge that was intimately bound up with the development of capitalism, necessary to it. The best of that tradition from the early phase of the Enlightenment is still alive in modern science and in the value placed on the pursuit of truth as such; but the worst of it, from the time it started to degrade at the end of the nineteenth century, lingers on in the discipline of psychology as one of its offspring.

Early studies of psychology separated the experimenter from the individual subject

We can see how things started to go wrong from the first days, or at least from what psychologists still like to treat as the first days of their discipline. The founding moment of psychology is often presented as being when Wilhelm Wundt carried out his experimental studies in an attic in Leipzig in 1879, but what is quickly covered over is that Wundt's first experiments involved the experimenter and his 'subject' changing places and investigating each other. This is not to say that just anyone could be a subject in this kind of research; in fact, Wundt's experimenter and subject were both required to be highly trained experts in the practice of observing and reporting their experience. Experimental psychology was right from the very start sealed off from the real world, and was concerned with investigating and describing itself. When the 'subjects' of psychological research came to include the general public, however, things got even worse.


Excerpted from "Revolution in Psychology"
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Copyright © 2007 Ian Parker.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements *Introduction *What is psychology? Meet the family *Psychology as ideology: Individualism explained *Psychology at work: Observation and regulation of alienated activity *Pathologising dissent: Exploitation isolated and ratified *Material interests: The manufacture of distress *Spiritless conditions: Regulating therapeutic alternatives *Professional empowerment: Good citizens *Historical, personal and political: Psychology and revolution *Commonsense: Psychological

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