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Biography and its Place in the History of Psychology and Psychiatry symposium
Friday 10th June 2011, UCL’s Centre for the History of Medicine
one-day symposium aimed to open up discussion about all aspects of the place of
Biography in the History of Psychology and Psychiatry. The main themes of the day
included questions such as:
Do biographical studies occupy a special or privileged position within the historiography of these human sciences?
What is biography? What kinds of questions can biographies hope to answer? And where should biographers not venture?
How historically have Psychologists and Psychiatrists themselves used individual patient ‘biographies’ to construct and legitimise their theories?
Can biography, as an immensely popular format, offer a vehicle for introducing more complex historical analysis to the general public?
The following academic papers were presented:
Professor Daniel Todes (John Hopkins University)
‘Ivan Pavlov: "Objective" science as autobiography’
Mr James Good (Durham University)
‘The Singular Case of William Stephenson: An Exploration of the Significance of Autobiographical Material for Scientific Biographies’
Ms Sarah Chaney (UCL)
‘"The single swallow does not make a summer": Motive power and the individual patient in late nineteenth-century asylum case histories’
Asylum case histories have often been dismissed by historians of psychiatry, through broader historical concerns over the place of biography in history as well as the dominance of sociological approaches in the field. Nonetheless, such case records were prominent in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century psychiatry. Well-known alienist, George Henry Savage, reflected on the use of case histories in 1913, suggesting that: “The single swallow does not make a summer, but it may warn us of its coming; so the single case may direct our studies, but should not form at once the basis for a theory.”
Alienists like Savage emphasised the importance of combining statistical study with close attention to individual cases, as part of a wider interest in exploring environmental and metaphysical approaches to mind and brain. This paper reflects on the search for the “motive power”, which Savage saw as central to asylum psychiatry, in his published and unpublished case notes. I will argue that asylum psychiatry and psychological approaches to mind were not in such mutual opposition as has previously been supposed. Moreover, the idea that “motive power” was something shared by sane and insane alike also serves to highlight the fluid nature of definitions of madness, which might often be re-negotiated within the context of the individual asylum case.
Ms Corina Dobos (UCL)
‘Criminals' stories. Use of biographical data in juvenile delinquency research at the Institute of Experimental and Applied Psychology, Cluj University, Romania, 1920-1940.’
Dr Mathew Thomson (Warwick University)
‘Narrating the Life of David Eder, Britain's First Psychoanalyst: Reflections on the Biographical in the History of Psy’
Dr Peter Hegarty, (University of Surrey)
‘From ideal husbands to inadequate wives: Gerrymandering marital happiness with the man who made IQ’
This talk examines implicit biographical norms for making much, or making little, of similarities and parallels between human scientists’ accounts of others’ lives and the particulars of those scientists’ own lives. As there are no logical rules by which such inferences should or should not be drawn, both human scientists and their biographers are inevitably engaged in ‘ontological gerrymandering’ by subjecting some matters to close scrutiny while taking others for granted. In this paper I continue an earlier argument that such ontological gerrymandering has had a heteronormative character in the history of psychology.
I examine a case of a heterosexual scientist writing about a form of relationship often defended as uniquely suited to heterosexual people; marriage. Psychologist Lewis Terman’s survey Psychological Factors in Marital Happiness (1938) has received little sustained critical attention. Here, I show how Terman gerrymandered husbands and wives accounts of themselves, each other, and their joint sexual practices . Terman’s book revised earlier prescriptions placed on husbands to educate their wives to enjoy marital sex, and explained women’s experience of marital sex without orgasm as a result of those women’s faulty constitutions. Terman’s biographers have both avoided and suggested relationships between this schema and Terman’s own marriage, which was decidedly unhappy during the years that this project was conducted. Far from having no history, heterosexuality is quite particular not only in being normative, but also in being a form of sociality that is both an expression of intimacy and of group-based dominance.
Dr Roderick Buchanan (University of Melbourne)
‘Confessions of an Accidental Biographer: Approaching Hans Eysenck’
In doing a biography of Hans Eysenck, I had to deal with the considerable baggage biography had accumulated in various circles. I had some initial misgivings, having been trained in Science and Technology Studies (STS) in the 1980s, when the individual perspective was seen as tainted by Whiggish clichés and anachronistic historiography. Nevertheless, the biographical genre has been rehabilitated in the history of science of late, palpably reconciled with context-driven history. Biography became a way of exploring the cultural identity of the scientist’s role, a way of connecting the individual to a social and institutional level of analysis. In contrast, the genre is still rather suspect in the history of medicine, where Great Doctor narratives have been rather forcefully shown the door. But I’ve yet to discern either suppression or rehabilitation in the history of psychology, perhaps because the biographical approach has yet to undergo sustained questioning.
It was never my intention to write a heavy-handed theoretical primer. I was keener to simply demonstrate the possibilities the genre had to offer. First and foremost, I wanted to write good context-driven history. I wanted to give as complete an account of my subject’s professional life and times as practically possible whilst filling in some of the gaps in the annals of British psychology as a public science. But more than this, I wanted to dissect the controversies my protagonist habitually stuck his nose in, to explore how alliances and oppositions formed, how the evidence was argued, and how various truths were seen to win out. Overlaid with this were concessions to conventional biography, to the narrative arc of a life and career.
Nevertheless, any prospective biographer tends to inherit a personal back story about their subject, a varied and uncategorizable set of riddles and half-questions that proffer leads and narrative possibilities that don’t seem entirely reducible to the kind of sociological questions that drive contextual history. But they underscore why a biographical approach can be far more engaging than institutionally-situated narratives. While I couldn’t avoid dealing with a number of inherited biographical questions surrounding Eysenck, it was clear from the beginning that some sort of intimate portrait was out of the question. By focusing instead on Eysenck’s enacted scientific identity I was able to tease out a predictable pattern of intervention and disputation. Such an approach took as its primary object the doing of science. Rather than attempting to divine psychobiographic clues to the inner man, questions of motivation were framed in terms of visible engagement – the particular ways of seeing, doing and speaking as a scientist that carry particular epistemic virtues and vices. I was able to integrate the personal back story, the riddles and half-questions seamlessly with historical context because such an approach made them part of that historical context. Playing with Fire was, above all, an attempt to rise about the disciplinary factionalism that blighted Eysenck’s career. It was exactly these ambiguities of reputation and effect that were my explanatory focus.
The event culminated in a panel-led Q&A session about the publishing and public engagement issues surrounding biographical approaches to the History of Science and Medicine. The panel comprised:
Mark Pollard (Pickering and Chatto)
Ruth Ireland (Palgrave Macmillan)
Professor Martin Goodman (Director of the Philip Larkin Centre for Creative Writing, University of Hull)
The panel session covered topics such as:
What does it take to write a trade biography which will reach a popular readership?
What are publishers looking for in biographical proposals?
What can you do, as an author, to increase the likelihood of your book proposal being taken up by a publisher?
Why is difficult to find a publisher for inter-disciplinary works?
A transcript of this session can be found here: Transcript of Publishing and Public Engagement Panel