A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cheiron 2012 - Post Conference Report

Cheiron: The International Society for the History of Behavioral & Social Sciences is a great group of people who have been meeting since 1968. There is a lot of overlap with the American Psychological Association's Division 24, but there is a more international and a more interdisciplinary emphasis. To whit, this year's meeting in Montreal, was co-hosted by the European Society for the History of the Social Sciences. There are three reasons that Cheiron has become one of my annual go-to conferences: 1) There is an amazing mix of people interested in history for the sake of history, for the sake of the field, and for the sake of our discipline's future. 2) There is a tremendous breadth of interest, making it one of the few decent conferences with representation across the entire discipline of psychology. 3) The people are amazingly supportive. For most of the time Cheiron has two simultaneous sessions, and occasionally one gets waylaid in great conversation. Of the sessions I attended, and the conversations I had, the highlights included:

The York University crowd (from the History and Theory of Psychology PhD program) have a lot of exciting projects exploring "digital history" (a term inspired by the "digital humanities" movement). The highlight was Chris Green, et al.'s talk using new visualization software. They used tag clouds, arranged in a timeline, to show changes in mental health terms used across decades. Even more fun, they used network analysis software to visualize the results of the Rockefeller Foundation's efforts to fund sex research (almost 2000 studies, conducted between 1922 and 1952). The webs of researchers, institutions, animal species used, and publication venues were pretty awesome. I can imagine this research eventually changing the way funding agencies do business (similar to the effect sabermetrics had on baseball).

Tom MCarthy, from the U.S. Naval Academy, gave a fascinating talk about the history of college counseling centers. Until the end of WWII, there were virtually no such centers: the University of Minnesota had a center that innovated the use of testing to help students with vocational placement; Carl Rogers started a center at the University of Chicago to push his personal agenda of proving non-directive therapy. That was it. Then suddenly, there was a lot: Almost all colleges created counseling centers as part of the GI Bill's mandate that colleges provide educational guidance for funded veterans. This guidance was soon extended to non-veterans, and the centers soon started offering other types of help. Rather than looking at the history in terms of warring paradigms, the talk offered a fascinating glimpse at the institutional processes that resulted in the modern system. Though the talk did not make it up to present day, it still helped me, personally, to understand the very weird role of campus counseling centers and career centers on modern campuses.

Teri Chettiar, from Northwestern University, gave a cool talk about changing attitudes about marriage in Britain post WWII. Before the war, there was a heavy emphasis on the 'social good' of marriage, and divorce was almost unheard of (755 in all of 1910). The 'social good' mystique broke down for many reasons, including the advent of birth control. Post war, marriage was seen more as a context for psychological maturation, and divorce was seen as a symptom of post-war psychiatric disorder. Thus, as the rate of divorces started spiking post war, the government rolled out marital therapy services, which in turn accelerated changing views about what one could (and should) expect out of marriage.

Martin Wieser, from the University of Vienna, presented evidence of Freud's research background in physiology and neuroanatomy, then connected the methods developed thereby to his later approach to psychoanalysis. There was a convincing connection made between work with microscope and stain and the (metaphysically rich) terminology Freud used to describe his later work.


In terms of personal contacts made....

I had a wonderful time conversing with Kristian Weihs, a York grad students doing exciting work on Charlotte Buhler, and on the Saybrook conference that helped to bring Humanistic Psychology together. Apparently, in addition to her professional acumen, Charlotte was a high-society public intellectual for much of the time between WWI and WWII. Also worth noting, Canada seems like a pretty good place to work for a unionized college.

Jannes Eshuis (Open Universiteit Nederland) gave a talk about the relationship between the work of Freud and Konrad Lorenz, and we chatted a bit afterwards. It would be fascinating to know if Lorenz ever read the Freudian Wish, or if he had contact with Tolman's work through the Vienna Circle. Anyone reading this have connections at the Konrad Lorenz Institute?

The biggest social highlights, however, were finally meeting Joel Michell and Ed Morris.

Joel is at the University of Sydney, and has two professional lives (that I know of): The first advances the work Australia's realist psychologists (see Chapter of 2 of The New Look), while the second critically examines the assumption that psychological phenomenon are quantitative in nature. His talk at Cheiron regarded the latter, adding to the already-devastating published critiques. (This is one of those situations where you might fault someone for beating a dead horse. But you can't criticize them too much, as they seem to be surrounded by schizophrenics, who steadfastly believe that the horse is galloping happily.) It was wonderful to be able to talk with him. A challenging part of that conversation was defending my libertarian political tendencies in light of my behaviorist commitments.

Ed chairs Applied Behavioral Science at the University of Kansas, and is deeply interested in the history and theory of behavior analysis. Ed had an excellent (though critical) review of Harry Heft's book, which we had corresponded about, among other things. It wouldn't take too many people with Ed's openness and insight to really start putting psychology back together.


By the way, I chaired a session of the History of Behaviorism.

David Clark talked about Edward Guthrie and R. S. Peters criticism of Hullian (and Watsonian) behaviorism. Of value, the presentation emphasized that no crucial experiment did (or could have) disproved behaviorism, and so looked for non-empirical critiques. Also, David has sent me looking for a contemporary of Holt's named Singer, who apparently wrote early works regarding the history of behaviorism.

Sam Parkovich (at the tail end of hosting a very well run conference), talked about the behaviorism in George Mead's social psychology. In contrast the the stark behaviorism criticized in David's talk, Mead's rich behaviorism grows out of Dewey's pragmatism. This emphasizes, for me, the need to try to bring these lineages of American philosophy back together.

Finally, Ed Morris, and co-authors, discussed the founding of the field of applied behavior analysis. This was based upon searching for articles (digital history again!) that met the modern criterion for applied behavior analysis, but which were published before the founding of the JABA.


And now, after little sleep and many hours of driving, it is time to prepare for the next conference.

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