04 June 2012

"Constructing the Self": Notes to Kurt Danziger's Classic Book

Kurt Danziger's Constructing the Self Subject* is a terrific discussion of discipline formation as it pertains to psychology in the nineteenth and twentieth century. As I was reading it, I took fairly extensive notes from the work. These may well interest regular readers. Where appropriate, I provide a bit of context. My comments below are in bold italics.

Danziger’s introduction begins with a question: what is scientific psychology?

“The way in which we organize a field will determine the way we organize its history. If we see the field of psychology as essentially an aggregate of individual contributors, we are likely to treat the history of the subject in terms of a succession of prominent figures. If psychology is its theories or its findings, then its history will become a history of psychological theories or psychological findings. Our organization of the history of the field will also serve as a subtle justification of the way we have characterized the field in the present.” (p. 1)

So what has been missing and how to circumvent this problem?

“What is missing is the recognition of the socially constructed nature of psychological knowledge. The received view is based on a model of science that is reminiscent of the tale of Sleeping Beauty: The objects with which psychological science deals are all present in nature fully formed, and all that the prince-investigator has to do is to find them and awaken them with the magic kiss of his research. But in truth scientific psychology does not deal in natural objects. It deals in test scores, rating scales, response distributions, serial lists, and innumerable other items that the investigator does not just find but constructs with great care. Whatever guesses are made about the natural world are totally constrained by this world of artifacts. The same holds true for the immediate human sources of the psychologist’s information. The psychologist’s interaction with such sources takes place within a well-regulated social role system, and such roles as that of experimental subject or of client in therapy are the direct result of the psychologist’s intervention.” (p. 2)

More provocatively – and still true:- 

“In talking about a field like scientific psychology we are talking about a domain of constructions. The sentences in its textbooks, the tables and figures in its research reports, the patterned activity in its laboratories, these are first of all products of human construction, whatever else they may be as well. Although this seems quite obvious, certain implications are usually evaded. If the world of scientific psychology is a constructed world, then the key to understanding its historical development would seem to lie in those constructive activities that produced it. But this insight has not guided many historical studies.” (p. 2)

The problem is that few historians or psychologists – and we might extend this observation to the history of science and medicine wholly – is that:-

“The fundamental issue is not whether the lone investigator can verify his hypotheses in the privacy of his laboratory but whether he can establish his contribution as part of the canon of scientific knowledge in his field. In other words, the issue is one of consensus, and consensus is not entirely a matter of logic. It involves prior agreements about what is to count as admissible evidence and shared commitments to certain goals. It involves vested interests and unexamined biases.” (p. 3)

Danziger proposes thus to approach psychology from a point of view of its practices and methods, which invite discussion of the social dimensions of scientific research. He notes importantly that:

“…if we refuse to perform this rationalist reduction [the idea of heroic workers discovering truth], we will find that in the history of psychological research practice the most significant changes were changes in the ends rather than improvements in the means.” (p. 5) I should add that I consider this claim to accord with the Forman thesis about means/ends thinking. 

Psychology, moreover, deals with humans. And although it aspires to the rationality of the natural sciences, its object is simply too subjective.

“Investigative practice therefore constitutes an area of considerable anxiety within the discipline of psychology. Concern with questions of methodological orthodoxy often takes the place of concern about theoretical orthodoxy when research or the results are discussed and evaluated. These preoccupations with the purity of method frequently deteriorate to a kind of method fetishism or “methodolatry”. From this  point of view there may be something distinctly subversive about the suggestion that the sphere of methodology is not a realm of pure reason but area of human social activity governed by mundane circumstances like any other social activity.” (p. 5)

Required of the historian, in consequence, is consideration of the experimental situation, the research community, and the professional environment in which both are situated. A good historians might even consider the wider social/cultural and economic environment. But Danziger has opted to restrict himself to the former only. He has also opted to take the “research report” as a proxy of the experimental situation. He claims of the experimental situation:-

“Whatever else it may be, the psychological experiment or test is therefore a social situation and as such it must share the characteristics that are found in all social situations. [Because it involves human subjects usually]. (p. 8)”

Few people actually perceive or care about these social situations. In psychology especially:-

“…there is a pervasive tendency to relegate the social aspects of psychological experimentation to the status of “artifacts,” or, in other words, disturbances of the process of research that do not belong to its essential nature. Thus the rational abstraction of a purely logical, asocial, and ahistorical research process remains inviolate and apparently beyond the reach of experimental correction.” (p. 8)

Such a problem derives from the grand pretense of psychology:-

“…namely, the pretense that psychological experiments are not in principle different from experiments in natural science.” (p. 8)

But this perspective, according to Danziger, is naïve and historical in character:-

“Psychological experiments are therefore different in principle from experiments in physics because the experimenter and the human data source must necessarily be engaged in a social relationship.” (p. 9)

And thus:-

“Like all social institutions, the psychological experiment not only has a certain social structure that can be analyzed but a history that can be traced. Ultimately, this institution is part of the history of those societies that produced it and can be expected to bear the marks of its origins.” (p. 10)

Danziger’s clever solution is to treat the existence of standards in psychology as problematic and thus to trace their historical origin and development.

“It is also well known that subsequent to the founding of experimental psychology there was a major controversy about the standards of what was to constitute scientific psychological knowledge. This controversy is usually represented as one between introspectionists and behaviorists, though, as we will see later, the story is more complex than that. What is worthy of note, however, is that an arch introspectionist like E. B. Titchener always justified his investigative practice in the name of science and denigrate the practice of his opponents as being not about science but technology.” (p. 11)

One most treat such claims historically – there is nothing self evidently correct about Titchener’s claim:-

“What is certainly relevant in this context are the reasons for existing commitments to certain ideals of scientific practice and the reasons for changes in these commitments. These reasons are to be found in the common historical situation faced by members of a particular scientific community. Such communities never exist in a social vacuum, of course, but find themselves under the necessity of adopting positions in relation to other groups of investigators, to those who control the material resources for research, and to the general lay public. There may be other groups of investigators who are particularly well established and influential and who serve as models of successful practice. Those who ultimately control social resources must be persuaded to divert some of them to particular groups of investigators rather than to other purposes. At all times a newly emerging discipline scientific psychology had to be careful to distinguish its cognitive product from the everyday knowledge of lay publics and from the rival claims of other disciplines. The requirements of potential consumers of a discipline’s cognitive projects will also pull their weight. All these and other similar factors help to shape the kinds of knowledge goals that prevail in a given field at a given time and therefore determine the dominant patterns of investigative practice.” (p. 12)

The place where all of this is made clearest is in the research reports of the field.

“By the time that experimental psychology emerged, the conventions governing scientific research publications had developed to the point where they prescribed that in principle enough information about procedures had to be supplied to enable other investigators to replicated the published study.” (p. 14)

Danziger claims furthermore:

“An appropriate analysis of research articles can therefore provide us with some insight into the two levels of social construction that have gone into its production: first the social structuring of the research situation in such a way as to yield a certain type of information, and second, the restructuring of this information to make it fit a certain prescribed model of what scientific knowledge in the field should look like.” (p. 15)
And so the argument of his book begins, but with certain other limitations, including the earlier years of the field (and not the later ones of the mid-20th century), and also with an eye towards research communities rather than individuals. (p. 16)

Much of what follows requires Danziger to engage in an extensive discussion of Wilhelm Wundt.

“The birth date of modern psychology is usually placed towards the end of 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt designated some space at the University of Leipzig to be used for the conduct of psychological experiments. Of course, the date is arbitrary, as are all such birth dates for disciplines. This arbitrariness arises less from the rival claims of other locations or individuals than from the obvious fact that the birth of a discipline is not a singular event but a complex process extending over a considerable period of time. In the case of psychology, the relevant period extends both before and  after the magic date.” (p. 17)

What was different about Wundt from his teachers?

“Explicitly, he based himself first on the specific form of experimental practice that had recently grown up in physiology. This provided him with certain material techniques and a certain way of asking research questions. Second he proposed to apply these procedures to a different object of investigation than the objects addressed by physiological experimentation. The object he proposed was the private individual consciousness.” (17-18)

Why did this matter? Danziger mentions three reasons: experimentation,  a mode of introspection, and a social system.

“Historically the notion that this could be a special object of investigation was closely linked with the investigative practice of introspection. Wundt rejected introspection in its traditional form, but he did accept its object…. Although it received far less discursive attention than introspection or experiment, a third element in Wundt’s investigative practice was absolute crucial to the whole enterprise – the social organization of the psychological experimentation.” (18)

In a significant sense Wundt invented the psychological laboratory.

“Wundt established the first community of experimental psychologists simply by adopted the prevailing German university link between teaching and research in the form of an institute where students could pursue their research. “ (18)

What tendencies in the prevailing system of introspection was Wundt reacting against?

“…Continental criticisms of the traditional philosophy of mind, which went back to John Locke’s distinction between two sources of knowledge – sensation and reflection. The former gave use knowledge of the external world, whereas the latter gave us knowledge of the operation of our minds. Thus, to the philosophy of nature, based on the evidence of our senses, there corresponded a philosophy of nature, based on the evidence of reflection.” (19)

This was Immanuel Kant’s important distinction. Kant:-

“…accepted from Lockean empiricism the notion of a world of private experience, which becomes manifest to its possessor through the medium of an “inner sense,” analogous to the outer senses that give us experience of the external world. But then he raised a question Locke had not raised: Can the experiences conveyed by the inner senses form the basis of physical science? The answer was a decided no, because science, unlike everyday experience, involves a systematic ordering of sensory information in terms of a synthesis expressed in mathematical terms. The material provided by the inner sense was, however, resistant to mathematization, and so there could not be a science of mental life, or psychology. (19)

The above is I think one of the finer explanations of these differences I have seen in print. And, there is more to come:-

“Kant, however, made a sharp distinction between mental life as it is present to subjective self-awareness and the general principles in terms of which that life is organized. The former is part of the empirical world, just like our perceptions of external reality, but the latter points beyond such an empirical world to a “transcendental ego” that is the source of the fundamental categories that characterize human experience in general. To use a somewhat simplified illustration, there is a huge difference between examining the factors involved in particular spatial perceptions and examining the implications of the fact that our perceptions are characterized by spatiality. With this distinction Kant clearly separated the domains of philosophy and psychology and thereby raised the question of psychology as a nonphilosophical empirical discipline.”

Kant did not think that an empirical basis was enough to make a science. 

“Kant had reason to believe that the date of the “internal senses” would always resist mathematization, and so it followed that psychology would never been a true science.” (20)

So how was psychology thus made into a discipline?

“It is sometimes said that modern psychology owes its origin to the post-Renaissance dichotomy, which is also the point of departure for the Lockean philosophy, certainly created a potential object of specialized investigation, the inner world of the isolated individual mind. But in the philosophy of Descartes and Locke it remained a potential object of technical scrutiny. What these philosophies did was propose a certain way of talking about human experience, a system of terms implying certain distinctions and divisions in our experience of life. This was an indispensable first step in the construction of a new field of study.” (21)

And so it was that psychology became a methodological problem, and especially claims made from introspection, which was philosophically and scientifically limited.  Hegel and Kant didn’t think much of the value of inner experience.

“The true basis of our mental life, however, the subject of apperception, cannot be examined by relying on “inner experience.” (22)

The wider context cannot be ignored in this discussion:-

“As the order of the world always included the social order as an important, and often as the all-important, component, conceptions of the role of introspection were not unconnected with considerations of political philosophy. During most of the nineteenth century a positive attitude to introspection tended to go with a philosophy of individual liberalism, while negative attitudes were more likely to found among those who stressed the priority of collective interests or institutional requirements.” (23)

Thus even as the idea of individualism became ever more popular, the method that made psychology a discipline – introspection – promoted its independence.  And differences of opinion were:-

“So there could be differences of opinion, not only about whether introspection was valuable but about what one was actually doing when engaging in the practice. Thus, introspection could take on different meanings, depending on how its object was seen as fitting into the scheme of things. But this in turn depended on general or specific social interests.”

Who was Wundt and how does his biography fit into this story? He was trained in a world that was beginning to value experimental physiology. 

“The older generation of physiologists represented by Johannes Müller did no regard physiology as an essentially experimental science, although they might perform experiments from time to time. It was Müller’s ablest students and their generation who changed that. But these men – Du Bois-Reymond, Ludwig, Helmholtz – were only about fifteen years older than Wundt himself, though by 1860 it was clear that their work was transforming the discipline of physiology. What the young Wundt obviously hoped was that this recent rather impressive success might serve as a model for the transformation of another field, namely psychology.” (25)

At the time, anatomy was the goal and physiology was seen as anatomy’s aide-de-camp.

 “…a certain conception of the subject matter of physiology [became commonplace].Function was considered to be subordinate to structure; one started with the anatomical organ and looked for its specific characteristic function. The body was a static hierarchy of organs, each with its characteristic function. Thus, questions of physiological function could only arise after the structure to which the functions belonged had been established anatomically. The unit of investigation was the visible anatomical element, and the preferred method was that of dissection.” (25)

But physiology was changing too, and those changes likely inspired Wundt.

“Not only did the transformation of physiology extend forward beyond the first generation of systematic experimentalists; its roots can also be traced backward to an earlier generation. This becomes particularly clear in those aspects of physiological thought that impinge most closely on psychology. After the middle of the eighteenth century one can detect a reaction against an earlier tradition that had made an absolute separation between mental and physical causes and effects, between voluntary (mentally caused) and involuntary (physically caused) action. Fundamental issues had been decided on the basis of whether one was thought to be dealing with a metaphysical mind substance or a metaphysical body substance. But in the second half of the eighteenth century a number of medical investigators – notably Whytt, Unzer, Prochaska, and, to some extent, Haller – began to move away from this preoccupation and to formulate questions of animal motion in purely functionally terms.“(26)

And so it was that sensory physiology – in particular- began to inspire psychology.

“When Wundt published the first textbook of the new experimental psychology, a good two-thirds of it consisted of an account of the physiology of the nervous system and of research in sensory physiology.”

Danziger suggests provocatively:-

“If the tradition of mental philosophy, with its notion of introspection as a method, bequeathed to the new psychology the concept of an inner mental world as a potential object of study, the model of physiological experimentation left the new discipline no choice but to pursue this study in a functional framework.” (27)
But these conditions were not enough for psychology alone; needed also was a research community:
“Wundt was fortunate in finding himself in the right place at the right time. The University of Leipzig was second only to Berlin in size and endowment at a time when the whole German university system was expanding rapidly, and the prestige of German science and of the experimental method were at their height. He quickly gathered in his laboratory a respectable number of students, many of whom proceeded to produce doctoral dissertations based on their experimental work.” (28-29)

In addition, a peculiar division of labor sprang-up between the students in the lab, who alternated between the role of experimenter and subject:-

“This was an extremely important development with the most profound implications for the nature of psychological research. The division of labor that spontaneously adopted in Wundt’s laboratory was none other than the well-known division between the roles of “experimenter” and “subject” in psychological experiments…. But this change of the interpretive framework within which individual observations were placed entailed certain changes in the way in which individual investigators interacted with the apparatus and with other investigators who might be assisting with the experiment. The individual consciousness, being the object of investigation, had to be shielded from the variable internal and external influences of unknown effect, which might distort the particular response that was of interest.” (30)

But the division of labor had a further influence:-

“This meant that whenever this division of labor was adopted the outcome of the investigation was the product of a social interaction within a role system whose structure was intimately connected with the way in which the object of investigation had been defined. In the natural sciences any division of labor in the experimental situation could continue more or less on an ad hoc basis but in psychological experimentation the division of labor between experimenters and experimental subjects rather quickly developed into a university accepted structural feature….” (31)

If Wundt was the veritable father of psychology he was nevertheless constantly repudiated by psychologists.

“…as Wundt saw it, the problem for a scientific psychology of the mind was the creation of conditions under which internal perception could be transformed into something like scientific observation. It was not enough to turn one’s gaze inward in an attempt to give a systematic account of one’s experience, for then one would not actually be observing on-going events but more likely reflecting on what one thought one’s experience had been.” (35)

Wundt always in consequence limited his work to simple stimuli and also restricted judgments of the experimenters. He was, in other words, not inclined much towards introspection as a method and in fact saw it as illegitimate knowledge. He was not sure that psychology had a method.

“What he always accepts, as an inescapable corollary of his fundamental principles of methodology, is the notion that the area of psychology cannot be coextensive with the area of experimental psychology.” (36)

Indeed Wundt privileged sensation and perception studies against other areas of psychology such as  emotional experience, thought, and social problems. He was, however, aware of his limits:

“Wundt recognized the need for another, nonexperimental type of psychology. This was Volkerpsychologie, an untranslatable term referring to a kind of social psychology based on the historical, ethnographic, and comparative analysis of human cultural products, especially language, myth, and custom.” (37)

Wundt  was also convinced that there was psychic causality involved in the reality of experience and that it was the job of psychologists to ascertain the nature of these qualitative determinants. 

 “This profound duality in Wundt’s investigative practice was undoubtedly a reflection of his failure to cut himself off from his divergent physiological and philosophical roots.” (38)

Wundt did not care about practical applications for psychology. He also could not imagine psychology without philosophy:-

“Wundt belonged to a generation of German academics for whom the refusal of practical social involvement outside the university was effectively a condition of academic freedom. At the same time he was quite content with the existing division of academic labor that allocated psychology to philosophy, a subject to which he had made his own direct contributions. He saw his work in psychology as essentially another contribution to philosophy….” (39)

Perhaps it was for these reasons that German psychology found itself increasingly rejected abroad, most especially by the Americans who came to his laboratory but saw these views as too metaphysical. 

“Contrary to Wundt’s conception, the new psychology did not prosper through the links with philosophy, linguistics, history, and anthropology that he had tried to forge. Instead, it shifted its weight to its other foot, as it were, and based its claims for recognition entirely on its affiliation with the natural sciences.

Increasingly the debate was between practicalists for psychology and laboratory experimentalists. Consider, for example, America:-

“There were the practicalists, like G. Stanley Hall, who were often far from meticulous in gathering observations and not going beyond them, and there were the experimentalists, like Titchener, who were sticklers for laboratory finesse, but who cared little for any practical applications of psychological knowledge.” (42)

Of the two, Titchener appears the more conflicted:

“In practice the language of scientific description turned out to be language of sensationism. By reducing lived experiences to reports on specific sensational components, systematic introspection could imitate the path taken by the observational reports of natural science. This policy was essentially the one advocated by Titchener and put into practice at his Cornell laboratory. But Titchener was only able to argue in this way because he had reified the terms of his sensationist language and persuaded himself that the basis of conscious experience really was nothing more than an assembly of sensations. He now faced a war on two fronts, which could only end in total defeat. His fellow introspectionists refused to sacrifice their phenomenal objects at the altar of sensationist reductionism, and his more practically minded colleagues refused to be interested in a constructed object of investigation that had no relevance to everyday life.” (46)

Importantly, the decline of Wundt’s psychology signaled another important transformation:-

“These developments entailed a shift in the structure of the psychological experiment as social situation. In the Wundtian experiment, the experimental subject was the scientific observer, and the experimenter was really a kind of experimental assistant. Only the person reacting to presentations of the stimulus material could observe the phenomena of interest and report on them. But if we start treating the experimental subject’s report as Kundgabe, as an expression of rather than a descriptive report about his experience, then he is no longer in the role of a scientific observer. That role has now passes to the experimenter who records and then reports on what the subject said.” (48)

There was no reason that this transformation had to remain, but it did. And the reasons are worth noting:-

“But just as the practice of introspection had helped to construct the object it was meant to investigate, so the new practice of psychological experimentation constructed its own object. Experimental subjects were not studied as individual persons but as examples that displayed certain common human characteristics.” (52)

What is fascinating also is that there were already competing models of experimentation than that pioneered in Leipzig:

“The clinical experiment had emerged in a medical context. Those who functioned as subject in these experiments were identified by labels such as “hysterics” or “somnambulists.” Where normal or “healthy” subjects were used, it was for purposes of comparison with diagnosed clinical cases who were the essential target of the research. The experimenters were individuals with a medical background. Before experimental sessions began, the experimenter and the subject were already linked in a physician-patient relationship, and the essential features of this relationship were defined in medical terms. A crucial feature of this definition was the understanding that the psychological states and phenomena under study were something that the subject or patient underwent or suffered.” (53)

There was another model too in the work of Francis Galton.  Galton had setup his laboratory in 1884 in London. 

“Galton charged every person who availed himself of the services of his laboratory the sum of threepence in return for which that individual received a card containing the results of the measurements that had been made on him or her. The relationship operated on a “fee for service” principle, but the service was clearly not thought of as being medical in character. Galton referred to the individuals who presented themselves for testing not as subjects but as “applicants.” (55)

Galton was in some sense far more differentiated from the Leipzig model than might be appreciated:

“The utilitarian and contractual elements of Galton’s practice are particularly striking. Galton was offering to provide a service against payment, a service that was apparently considered of possible value of his subjects. (55)

It was a curious model:

“At least the performances were defined as individual, and the fact that they were the product of a collaboration between the anthropometrist and his subjects was not allowed to enter into the definition. The performances therefore defined characteristics of independent, socially isolated individuals and these characteristics were designated as “abilities”. An ability was what a person could do on his own, and the object of interest was either the individual defined as an assembly of such abilities or the distribution of performance abilities in a population. The latter was Galton’s primary object of interest, the former that of his subjects.” (56)

Galton’s trick was to claim that individual performance was an expression of innate biology:-

“The potential practical appeal of Galton’s antropmetric method was based on three features. First was the radical individualism, which we have just noted meant that it claimed to be dealing with stable and unalterable individual characteristics that owed nothing to social conditions. This provided the necessary ground for supposing that the performance of individuals in the test situation could be used as a guide to their performance in natural situations outside the laboratory. (57)

But it was clever because it relied upon statistics, too:-

“This was closely connected to a third feature of its practical appeal, namely, the statistical nature of the information it yielded. To be of practical value, the comparison of individual performances had to be unambiguous, so that rational individual or social policy decisions could be based on it. The way to achieve this was by assigning quantitative values to performances….” (57)

The point is:

“Modern psychology began with several different models of what a psychological investigation might look like, and the differences among these models went rather deep. Psychological investigation only existed in a number of different historical incarnations. Although in certain locations a particular model of investigation might achieve an overwhelming predominance for a considerable period, this should not mislead us into equating a particular form of experimentation with experimentation as such.” (59)

The Wundtian’ model – although it had its proponents (Titchner claimed it as the only way to do psychology) – began to fall apart.

“The model of investigative practice that provide least viable in the twentieth century was the Leipzig model. Because this model has a specific feature, which is always unambiguously reported in published research reports, it is possible to follow its decline rather accurately by means of a content analysis of psychological journals. The feature in question involves the exchange of experimenter and subject roles among at least some of the participants in the same experiment. Highly characteristic of the Leipzig model, the feature is clearly absent in clinical experimentation and in the type of investigation pioneered by Galton.” (64)

Psychology thus inextricably shifted towards an applied model:-

“Applied psychology had committed itself to knowledge goals that were unlikely to be advanced by the kind of investigative practice associated with Wundt’s laboratory. What it was after was knowledge that could be utilized by agencies of social control so as to make their work more efficient and more rationally defensible. Knowledge that led to behavioral prediction suited this purpose, but knowledge obtained in situations where the participants collaboratively explored the structure of their experience did not.” (66)

In a moment of lucidity that deserves additional comment, Danziger finished with:

“What was desired was knowledge of individuals as the objects of intervention rather than as the subjects of experience. Experimental situations in which there was an exchange of roles between experimenters and subjects might well have seemed irrelevant to this type of knowledge goal.” (67)

(CHRONOLOGY WORTHY OF NOTE: Subjects of Experience; Objects of Intervention; Should we note? Biologically determined objects for manipulation followed afterwards.)   In any case, it was the Galtonian model that became dominant. 

“But if we are to achieve any insight into fundamental changes in the investigative practices of the discipline, we need to reverse this perspective and to recognize the problematic status of the research subjects themselves. For when the nature of the subjects changes, the nature of their attributes changes too. For instance, a subject who is defined as an individual consciousness has a different set of attributes from a subject who is defined as a biological population. If we want to understand the most general historical changes in research practice, we need to deconstruct the research subjects that an army of investigators have constructed in obedience to various conventions about the proper objects of psychological knowledge.” (69)

Cleverly, the idea of the aggregate that was entailed in Galton’s thinking spread towards a theory of error that effectively ignored difference:

“The calculus of error was applied to a population of observations from a single subject, not to a population of subjects. Any increase in the number of experimental subjects above one constituted a replication of the experiment. If the interindividual variability was large, this was considered prima facie evidence that the attempted isolation of critical determining factors had failed and that uncontrolled disturbing processes had supervened.” (73)

The tools for aggregations, were:-

“The general popularity of descriptive statistical inquiry in the third quarter of the nineteenth century had made the questionnaire method seem like an appropriate tool for investigating questions of an undoubtedly psychological character. Charles Darwin used it in his study of emotional expression, and his cousin, Francis Galton, used it in his study of heredity and mental imagery. Such usage helped to strengthen the legitimacy of statistical data compiled on the basis of questionnaires as a source of scientific knowledge. This was particularly true of those, like G. Stanley Hall in America, who saw psychology in quasi-Darwinian terms.” (75)

Social statistics applicability to wider society are easily manifest:

“Social statistics united the interests of science and administration in a mutually convenient bond, a union that…was to be perpetuated in the psychological statistics of the early twentieth century.” (76)

Galton clearly grasped the implications of his work:

“His technical contributions and those of his devoted follower, Karl Pearson, finally made possible a psychology that could plausibly claim to be scientific while not being experimental. A new method for justifying psychological knowledge had become feasible. TO make interesting and useful statements about individuals it was not necessary to subject them to intensive experimental or clinical exploration. It was only necessary to compare their performance with that of others, to assign them a place in some aggregate of individual performances. Individuals were now characterized not by anything actually observed to be going on in their minds or organisms but by their deviation from the statistical norm established for the population with which they had been aggregated.” (77)

There was thus a possibility for deriving values for normally appearing groups or for defining groups.

“Implicitly, the relationship between the individual and the aggregate was still mediated by a type concept, which usually appears in the guise of some supposedly natural, often quasi-biological, category. In this form the statistical approach could hardly compete with the scientific credentials of traditional experimental psychology.” (78)

Was statistical knowledge superficial? Certainly some worried, but many were happy to examine population psychology.

“On the ideological level the ground had been prepared by the increasing tendency to conceptualize social problems in terms of populations of individuals. By the closing years of the nineteenth century it was common, especially in the United States, to formulated the human problems of urbanization, industrial concentration, and immigration in terms of the problems of individuals conceived as members of statistical aggregates.’ (80)

The transition to aggregates occurred more or less in the interwar period. Journals from 1914-1936, including those devoted to experimental research, showed the trends.

“Two patterns stand out clearly. The first is a very consistent tendency for group data to appear relatively more frequently in the journals of “applied” research; the second is an overall trend for the use of group data to increase and that of individual data to decrease over the period under review.” (81)

But a strange observations comes out of these details – one noteworthy for its implications for Forman’s arguments.

“In general terms it is certainly true that the “applied” literature anticipates developments in the basic research literature as far as this aspect of investigative practices is concerned. IN this respect the terms “applied” and “basic” are particularly misleading if they are taken to imply some historical priority of “basic” research whose results are subsequently applied in the field. The truth is that psychological research intended for direct practical application developed its own investigative style, which was very different from what had been the traditional style of basic laboratory research.” (83)

A few other noteworthy features of the aggregate are worthy of consideration:

“However, it must be emphasized at once that the “natural” groups of psychological research, in the period being examined here, were not usually natural in quite the same sense as the objects of nonhuman field sciences. The “natural” groups of psychological research generally represented social categories that were of great importance in everyday life.” (84)

And a second:

“The earliest example of this [ when psychologists constructed collective subjects] occur when the experimental responses of a number of subjects are averaged to yield a group mean. Innocent though such a procedure seems at first sight, it implies a fundamental conceptual change. Such a group mean is obviously not the attribute of any of the actual persons who contributed to its constitute but the attribute of a collectivity. But what kind of collectivity is this? It is the group of individuals who happened to participate as sources of data in a particular psychological investigation. Their common activity in the experimental situations defines them as a group. There never was such a group before the investigation took place. They do not represent any preexisting social category. If this group represents anything at all, other itself, it is a hypothetical population of individuals who could all be subjected to the same investigative procedures. (85)

Psychologists, in other words, could create a variety of artificial groups. They could treat a group and average the results. They could divide a group and submit them to different treatments. Or they could create them psychometrically.

“A third kind of artificial groups produced by psychological investigation is the psychometric group. In this case the defining characteristic of group membership is based on performance on some psychological measuring or assessment instrument. In the historical period examined here this is usually a psychological test, most often an intelligence test, but it could equally well be an attitude scale or personality questionnaire. Groups defined by certain levels of performance on such instruments are obviously the product of the psychologist’s intervention and are not “natural” groups based on some preexisting social classification. Psychometric groups differ from other artificial collectivities we have discussed in the different interpretation that is given to the psychologist’s intervention. In the case of general and experimental and treatment groups, the intervention that defined the group was thought of as a modifying intervention, but in the case of psychometric groups the defining intervention was supposed to be one that elicited a stable characteristic of group members.” (86)

There was a contradiction at the heart of all three groups:

“This distinction was important for the kinds of knowledge claims that psychologists were interested in making. In order to make universalistic knowledge claims psychologists took to presenting their data as the attributes of collective rather than individual subjects. Very frequently, these collectivities were constructed by psychologists for this specific purpose, and in constructing them they postulated the existence of a collective organism that already exhibited the assumed general characteristics on which their knowledge claims depended. Thus, to demonstrate the effects of supposed stable characteristics, they constructed experimental groups defined by such assumed characteristics, and to demonstrate the modifying effects of experimental intervention they constructed groups entirely defined by exposure to such intervention.” (87)

What then can we take away from this discussion of the aggregate? 

"In other words, psychological research on populations had a tendency to replace the social categories that defined populations in real with populations defined in terms of nonsocial categories." (88)

But a problem remained:-

"Each empirical investigation was a historically unique event, involving the interaction of particular participants at a certain place and time, yet some products of this interaction had to be presented as valid independently of these special historical conditions." (89)

What then could be scientific about psychological research?

"It seems that in the early days of experimental psychology claims to scientificity rested very largely on the factor of stimulus control. This could lead to somewhat ludicrous situations, because the reliance on this factor was easily transferred to the (brass) instruments that were the means used to actualize it. Thus we find that early attempts by American experimentalists to enter the field of clinical research were bedeviled by their misplaced attachment to their hardware." (89)

As the identity of the research subject changed, the nature of the psychological report changed as well. 

"When experimental psychologists ceased to take the subject role themselves they turned to animals, to children, or to undergraduates as the three alternatives. Among these, undergraduates were clearly the favorites. They had always been a major source of data in American psychological research, and in the period after World War I they reach a position of predominance which they have never lost."  (94)

But in some sense these data sources made all the clearer the problem of universalizing psychological data.

"Experimental psychologists were concerned to establish a kind of knowledge about human beings that would be ahistorical and universal. Yet to obtain this knowledge they had to work with specific, historically defined human data sources, and they had to extract their data from these sources in investigative situations that were also historically specific. To cope with this paradox, psychologists commonly employed certain rhetorical devices when reporting their data. It became customary to emphasize the experimental identity of human data sources at the expense of their ordinary personal and social identity. Thus, their actions, as reflected in "experimental results," were not attributed to them as historical individuals but to them as incumbents of a special experimental role. Where experimental results are presented as activity attributed to persons who have no identity apart from their identity as experimental subjects is that no other identity is relevant in the experimental context. The experiment and its results stand apart from the sociohistorical context in which the rest of human life is embedded. It appears to lead straight to human universals, not infrequently identified with biological universals." (99-100)

And so the fundamental irony, is that:

"For a discipline that took "scientific" to imply reference to some universal truth beyond individuality, history, and local meanings, the establishment of claims to being scientific frequently depended on appropriate manipulation of the identity of the sources to which the data were attributed. With few exceptions, claims to universality were not grounded empirically but were established by fiat. The role of the experimental report was, among other things, to create the illusion of empiricism. By the way the experimental results were presented, the illusion was created that they were not really the product of a social interaction among certain human personalities in historical times, but that they were the manifestation of abstract transpersonal and transhistorical processes." (100)

In some sense, psychology as a discipline, should not have been able to survive these tensions and certainly not to have been able to claim scientificity for itself. But:-

"The fact is that almost from the beginning of the twentieth century psychology ceased to be a purely academic discipline and began to market its products in the outside world. That meant that the requirements of its potential market were able to influence the direction in which psychology's investigative practices were likely to develop. Practices that were useful in the construction of specific marketable products were likely to receive a boost, whereas practices that lacked this capacity were henceforth placed under a handicap." (101) 

The Practical turn was felt most strongly in the world of education psychology. The broad vision of James, Dewey and Hall etc was replaced with a narrower vision:-

"The institutional constraints that the new educational psychologists took for granted required them to emphasize the passivity of the child and to restrict themselves to measured processes that had no obvious utility in terms of the goal of choosing the conditions that were most efficient in producing predetermined results." (105)

One way this was realized was in the world of mental testing.

"What the development  of mental testing did was to redefine the problem of individual differences in terms of a comparison of performances. The quality of a performance could no longer be used for describing individuality or for analyzing topological patterns. Instead, a measure of individual performance was to be used for specifying the individual's position with respect to an aggregate of individuals." (108)

The self-evident result of this could only be moral claims used for administrative rationales:-

"In the latter part of the century the academic examination was further modified to make it suitable for the mass selection and grading of ever larger sections of the population, while the distinction between intellectual and moral worth was becoming blurred. The advent of mental tests represented a continuation and culmination of this development. Finally, the notion of a unitary, biologically fixed "intelligence" provided a license for grading the entire population as thought they were members of one school class." (109)

It was here then that the profound shift from subject to aggregate happened for psychology.

"Within psychology the growing popularity of research based on one of other form of mental testing accounted for a considerable part of the expanded use of "collective subjects," which we noted in chapter 5. This involved the large-scale appearance of both "natural" and psychometrically defined groups in psychological research reports. No longer did psychological research mean the experimental exploration of individual minds. The individual was of interest only in terms of his or her standing in an aggregate. Research objectives largely shifted to the comparison of such aggregates and the statistical relationships between them." (110)

Here Danziger allows himself to editorialize a little:-

"Something that looked like a science could apparently be created by statistical rather than experimental means." (111)

And the fields of biometrics as pioneered by Galton eventuated a shift from psychology to eugenic thinking:-

"The link to hereditary dogma was  quite direct, and many of the major proponents of the Galtonian style of research in psychology were also keen eugenicists. The statistical patterns they constructed were interpreted in terms of hereditary individual traits. For example, a normal distribution would be sought after because of a prior belief that this was the characteristic distribution of fixed biological traits. Psychological knowledge claims in the Galtonian mold generally derived their significance from their reference to inherent properties that were built into each individual, although they could only be assessed by assuming them to be of essentially the same nature in individuals." (112)

So to sum up so far: psychology had a couple of different directions it could go:-

"By the 1920s the Wundtian style of experimentation, with its roots deep in the philosophical and scientific traditions of the nineteenth-century German university, seemed to constitutes a deteriorating research program within American psychology. As it was fast losing its appeal for all but a few practitioners, the Galtonian research program, strongly linked to practical rather than academic concerns from the beginning, was moving from strength-to-strength." (118)

The reason why this was happening is fairly obvious:-

"The product that their [psychologists] society valued was professional expertise. However, this was a pretty abstract category, and any specific instance of it still had to be established as being the genuine article and not some sort of counterfeit quackery. In other words, the social acceptance of their expertise required that psychologists legitimate their claims in terms of certain widely accepted criteria, which were based on prevailing conceptions of scientific method. It was not enough that their methods yield results that were useful to socially dominant groups; the methods themselves had to be seen to be rational, which, in that particular historical context, meant that they had to bear the hallmarks of science.

In developing their investigative practices psychologists were not only producing instruments for the solution of technical problems, they were also establishing and improving their own status as professionals and as scientists. In a society that places such high value on the methodology of science, the practice of anything recognized as belonging in that category will reflect positively on the prestige and social status of the practitioner." (119)

Thus psychology found itself divided between two types of research practice:-

"The contribution of investigative practices to the professional project of psychology involved two sets of problems with often diverging implications. On the one hand, there was the need to develop practices whose products would answer to the immediate needs of socially important markets. But on the other hand, there was the need to establish, maintain, and strengthen the claim that what psychologists practice was indeed to be counted as science. These requirements could not always be easily reconciled, and so it was inevitable that there was conflict within the discipline with some of its members  placing relatively more emphasis on one or another of these directions." (120)

In one sense the pattern of aggregate research had been established.

"The pattern for allied-research styles had been essentially established by the end of World War I, and in the ensuing years no fundamental changes occurred. This was basically a Galtonian style of research concentrating on the distribution of psychological characteristics in natural or psychometrically constituted populations. Thus, by this time there were two quite divergent styles of psychological research in existence. One worked with data from individual subjects reacting under laboratory conditions, the other with populations surveyed statistically." (126)

A compromise was therefore possible:-

"In the traditional approach, going back to Wundt and other nineteenth-century pioneers, the objects of psychological experiment were individual psychological systems and the use of more than one subject constituted a replication of the experiment. In the new approach the experiment was conceived from the beginning as having a group of subjects as its object. This entailed a Galtonian conception of "error" as involving the variability of performance between individuals, whereas in the traditional approach error involved the variability of response by an individual psychological system."

And, thus:-

"In the older kind of practice one manipulated experimental conditions in order to test hypotheses about the processes going on in individual psychophysical systems. Now, the direct purpose of experimentation was to make predictions about how certain variations in conditions affected the response of an abstract individual. Because in practice such an individual was statistically and not psychologically real, questions of psychological inference very easily became transformed into questions of statistical inference..." (129)

It is clear that psychology had become enamoured with numbers (chapter 9 is entitled From quantification to methodolatry). But numbers and method could create rather absurd ideas or lead to inevitable disclaimors:

"Thus, when the famous anthropological expedition to the Torres Straits added a new dimension to experimental psychological research by attempting to make psychophysical measurements on the local inhabitants, it was found that the average two point discrimination threshold of the natives was less than half that of Englishman. The probable reason was guessed by a canny experimenter like Titchener: The English subjects were acting on the basis of their understanding of the norm of accuracy and were refusing to call "two" any sensation that did not indubitably involve two separate points with a distance between them. But the South Sea Islanders, wanting to impress the powerful strangers by their ability to detect the presence of two points, would respond with "two" wherever their actual sensations left any room for doubt." (140)

At work was a great construction then:-

"Private experience, with its vast potential for interpretation, set few limits to the social constructions that might be imposed on it. The psychological measurements that were the products of this construction certainly had a reality of their own, but it was not a reality that could be neatly classified in terms of the binary categories of the traditional duality of physical body and private mind." (141)

E. G. Boring worried  (151) that psychologists were beginning to confuse statistical realities with psychological ones, and with good reason for:

"These beliefs were inseparable from the ambitious authority claims of those who represented quantitative science and spoke in its name. These were the experts in social management and control among whom a new breed of psychologist was to occupy a specially important place. Quantitative data by themselves were of course just marks on paper, but they could be transformed into a significant source of social power for those who controlled their production and interpreted their meaning to the non-expert public. Quantitative psychological knowledge was a species of esoteric knowledge that was held to have profound social implications." (147)

One way this showed-up was in the world of "learning" - which by the way is a good example of the "psych-ing of neuroscience and the neuro-ing of psychology":-

"The abstract psychological category of "learning" was intended to lead to the formulation of general laws of adaptive behavior that held for all animal organisms under all natural and artificial conditions. This was the field that, it was hoped, would provide a psychology by now strongly tied to the goal of behavior control, with the fundamental science on which its practical prescriptions would be based." (153)

Ultimately, the question of statistical constructions became absurd; much time and energy were wasted on projects and claims with little value.

"One of the fundamental sociopsychological principles described by Wilhelm Wundt was based on what he called the "heterogony of ends". By this he meant the tendency for human goals to have unintended consequences, which then modify the goals themselves. Such developments he tended to see as progress. The history of the discipline for whose paternity he was often held responsible certainly provided some striking illustrations of this principle. Fortunately for him he was spared the difficult task of reconciling the resulting developments with his rather touching nineteenth century belief in the inevitablity of progress." (155)

Intelligence tests were a case in point - they had been a source of pride for American psychologists and had given them currency and relevance.

"During the 1920s it became more and more apparent that the early hopes for the practical efficacy of intelligence tests would not be fulfilled. Within the school system, their major area of application, these tests had proved capable of meeting administrative needs only up to a point. They did show some correlation with academic performance but not impressively so. The prediction of academic performance from intelligence-test results remained highly approximate, and this gave rise to a search for ways of closing the gap between predictive ambitions and the reality. A consensus quickly developed that intelligence was only one of the determinants of real-life performance, and that the other determinants would have to be looked for under the rubric of "character" or "personality". (158)

And intelligence tests were not alone - personality inventories sprang up as well.

"The construction of personality traits as objects of investigation led to the emergence of a brand new area of psychological research. In the American Psychological Association Yearbook for 1918, not a single psychologist listed "personality" as a research interest, but by 1937, 7 percent did so. The earliest attempts to review the new research area already show that it was dominated by the trait concept. It was the investigative practice of trait measurement that was to translate certain culturally embedded concerns into something could sail under the flag of science." (163)

Personality was especially tricky -it joined forces with the mental hygiene movement and became highly influential in the 1920s and 1930s.

"Favored by generous grants from private foundations, the mental hygiene movement was based on the twin beliefs that the causes of social and interpersonal problems were to be located in the maladjustment of individuals and that the origins of such maladjustment lay in the histories of individuals - that is, in childhood. Interpreting social life in terms of metaphors of health and illness, the mental hygiene movement projected hopes of a better future that was to emerge, not through the conflict of collective social interests, but through the "treatment" of individual maladjustment by the appropriate agencies of social control." (164)


"The concept of "personality" played a central role in the ideology of mental hygiene. "Personality" was posited as the object, which was to be the focus of a variety of energetically pursued programs of intervention in the lives of individuals. In practice, these programs were quite diverse but they were thought of as converging on a common object, namely "personality". Psychiatrists, social workers, and educationists occupied the key positions in the mental hygiene movement because of their activist involvement in practical programs, but psychologists found their own niche by functioning as a source of expert knowledge about the common object of these programs. Their claims were based on their supposed ability to marshal the techniques of science in the service of the common goal." (164)

Personality was understood to mean:

"Individuals were to be known only through their standing in a group. The display of numbers was able to pass for science, and the information produced by these means had its practical uses in the context of mass programs of therapeutic intervention. But the kind of knowledge of individuals that was generated in this way always remained a knowledge of strangers. "Personality" as a constructed object of these investigations never had anything in common with traditional concepts of the human person as a social agent." (165)

Americans were fascinated by these strategies:

"America investigators, in their almost exclusive reliance on tests, seemed to have substituted technology for science." (165)

Psychology was a new discipline and its knowledge came into very precise social contexts. It was that context that shows how the formation of the discipline was very much a political process and one that had a huge impact on its investigative practices (182):

"The most important point, however, is that the political forms imposed on the knowledge-generating situations profoundly affect the kind of knowledge that was produced. Whereas in the physical sciences the social arrangements among experimental participants did not in themselves alter the material they investigated, this was hardly the case in psychology. Here, the object of investigation was itself part of the social context of investigation. The persons, whose "responses" formed the basis for the psychological knowledge product, were themselves part of the social context of investigation. This entailed a rather intimate link between knowledge product and investigative situation, a link that could pose a threat to the generalizability of psychological knowledge." (184)

For psychology, this created a further problem:

"There is nothing more inimical to a field's success as a source of valued knowledge than the suspicion that it is able to supply no more than a duplication of what "everyone" knows anyway, or, worse, a reinforcement of popular superstitions." (184)

Danziger recognizes that psychology's perhaps most important myth became a quasi-Robinson Crusoe view of the individual that ignored the settings that produced human behavior. (186) There was still a further problem:

"When one applies intelligence- or aptitude test results to the prediction of future performance in the appropriate settings, academic or otherwise, one is essentially using a simulation technique. The more effectively the investigative context simulates the context of application, the better the prediction will be." (188)

Psychologists were indeed that ambitious, preferring scientific laws of human behavior to the study of individual biography, but:-

"Genuine application of psychological knowledge depends on this, for the bond between knowledge and practices with which it is associated is an intimate one. Abstract knowledge only exists abstractly; its application requires a transfer of corresponding practices. So if the purely ideological application of psychological knowledge in support of particular social policies were ever to be converted into a real application that affect its objects directly, it would require an appropriate reconstruction of society...." (189)

And so to conclude:

"The worldly success of modern psychology was build on a narrow social basis. That entailed a very considerable narrowing of epistemic access to the variety of psychological realities. Critical analysis can give us some insight into the nature of that narrowing. Further insight depends on some knowledge of that which has been excluded - in other words, knowledge that has emerged in different social contexts. The receptivity of the discipline to such knowledge, however, would seem to be tied to changes in its social and cultural commitments." (197)

* I thank my readers for catching this stupid error and apologize for it.


  1. It is great to know these things. I’ve read a lot of hypothesis from different books. When I have free time I do verification and updates about the knowledge that I gained from the past.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I enjoy your blog very much! Your insight is very relatable for the nonprofessional. I've always been interested in psychology, so this post is perfect! psychology.ws

  4. Very helpful!! Thank you very much!

    But isn't the name of the book 'Constructing the subject'? Sorry, just being a psychology student :)

  5. Very helpful!! Thank you very much!

    But isn't the name of the book 'Constructing the subject'? Sorry, just being a psychology student :)

  6. Quite right everybody. Sorry for the confusion. I've acknowledged the mistake in the opening sentence but the kept the title of the essay which seems appropriate given how long ago I published this little essay. I apologize for the error.

  7. What is missing is the recognition of the socially constructed nature of psychological knowledge. The received view is based on a model of science that is reminiscent of the tale of Sleeping Beauty: The objects with which psychological science deals are all present in nature fully formed, and all that the prince-investigator has to do is to find them and awaken them with the magic kiss of his research. But in truth scientific psychology does not deal in natural objects. It deals in test scores, rating scales, response distributions, serial lists, and innumerable other items that the investigator does not just find but constructs with great care.