James Poskett: Stories of psychology

Who are the big names in the history of child psychology? Anna Freud? Melanie Klein? John Bowlby? Certainly. But, according to Professor Sally Shuttleworth, in order to locate the origins of child psychology, we have to look to nineteenth-century literature, to authors such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens.

This is just one of the historical titbits to come out of the recent Stories of Psychology conference, ran by the British Psychological Society at the Wellcome Trust. In her paper, entitled Studying the Child in the Nineteenth Century, Shuttleworth argued that the emerging genre of the nineteenth-century novel was the first to take the psychological world of the child seriously. Whilst previous works may have dealt with comings of age, novels such as Dickens’s Dombey and Son began to investigate the psychological world of the child in its own right, particularly within the context of education. (In the novel, Dombey’s son has difficultly socialising and is sent to a number of medical and educational establishments in order to rectify this shortcoming.)

Shuttleworth believes that such literary explorations were picked up by the psychologists and educationalists of the time, citing as evidence the way in which psychological theories were put to use in debates over compulsory education.

In keeping with the spirit of the medical humanities, the conference also highlighted the mutual and contributory role shared by history and psychology. In fact, one speaker, Professor Michael Billig, cited his former tutor Henri Tajfel in demanding that history has as much to offer psychology as experiment. Chief amongst his claims was that the results of the famous Milgram experiment (in which individuals acted inhumanely simply because they were instructed to do so) were already obvious from the history of atrocities committed during the Second World War.

To this mutual end, the conference was scheduled to coincide with the transfer of the British Psychological Society archives to the Wellcome Trust Library. So, rather than simply being seen as an historical resource, the conference urged scholars to see the archive as contributing to both contemporary psychology and the historicization of the discipline: indeed, the two aims need not be thought of as distinct.