Constructing the Subject - On Psychology and Psychotherapy

Psy-Complex in Question: Critical Review In Psychology, Psychoanalysis And Social Theory - Ian Parker 2018

Constructing the Subject
On Psychology and Psychotherapy

Danziger, K. (1990) Constructing the Subject: Historical Origins of Psychological Research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kurt Danziger’s book, which we can take to be about how to read the history of psychology, also necessarily raises issues as to how we should read the critical history he presents. The final chapter, ’The social construction of psychological knowledge’, foregrounds a number of theoretical positions that the reader could mobilise to make sense of the material in the preceding ten chapters. The tensions between these theoretical positions are the source of both the weaknesses and the strengths in the book overall.

It is fitting to start this review with the author’s glance back over his text, a text which is now intractably there as the condition for what can be said next; for the conceptual apparatus of psychology is a text of this type, and we can only glance back as subjects and objects of its gaze, positioned by the discourses of the discipline. Danziger argues that ’we have been examining the dependence of the knowledge product on the conditions of its production, and this has necessarily entailed a deconstruction of the generally false claims to universality that were commonly made on behalf of psychological knowledge’ (p. 191). Accounts of the production of knowledge, the deconstruction of that knowledge, and a position of truth from which we could evaluate it are assumed here and back in the rest of the text.

Danziger presents, in chapter six, ’Identifying the subject in psychological research’, a history of the constitution of the object of psychology (that object which experimenters, in a typically bizarre elision of human and machine, call the ’subject’), a history which is open to a Foucauldian recasting later on in the book but which mercifully does not, in the actual account, incant the terms ’observation’, ’surveillance’, ’calibration’ and ’regulation’ in every paragraph. It would perhaps have been appropriate, however, to extend the theoretical gloss on the history to show how the relationship between researcher and researched (and subject and object) became part of the conditions of possibility for the emergence of the ’psy-complex’. The ’psy-complex’ is the set of institutions, practices and popular representations of psychology within which each member of the population is understood (and within which they understand themselves). The Foucauldian complement of Danziger’s book here would be Rose’s (1985) The Psychological Complex.

The meticulous tracing of the relationship between the theoretical architecture of our academic research sector of the psy-complex and the economic practices of professional investigation in chapters five, ’The triumph of the aggregate’, and seven, ’Marketable methods’, is an effective destruction of the truth claims of psychology, but whether this is a deconstruction is another matter. The use of the term ’deconstruction’ has come to mean many things, and it is used often now as a synonym for ’critique’. But Danziger’s use of the term a page after a fairly lucid account of Foucault’s (1977) work raises the question of how we should undermine the privilege accorded to psychological expertise, and use, as leverage against that expertise, other subjugated forms of knowledge. When Danziger argues that psychology makes ’generally false claims’ to universality, he quickly (too quickly, perhaps) turns to address critics of his position who might read this as an abandonment of any true knowledge and reassures them that interdisciplinary work should be able to sift through the history of psychology and rescue findings that could be treated as true. There is a brief appeal in earlier pages to Roy Bhaskar’s (1989) realism, but the style of argument here is closer to the programme of German ’Critical Psychology’ around Klaus Holzkamp (1992) (though shorn of Marxism).

Through most of the book the adjudication as to how material from psychology’s past should be treated as true or false would seem to be for Danziger, in some form, a scientific question. Chapter three, ’Divergence of investigative practice: The repudiation of Wundt’, for example, retells in detail the story of the ways in which Wundt, as a kind of sorcerer’s apprentice, constructed a variety of laboratory experimentation by means of which he did not intend to investigate all mental processes, and which carefully demarcated forms of introspection not amenable to psychological investigation. Laboratory experimentation then became the fetish of followers (such as Titchener) whose work then distorted and consumed Wundt’s own: ’Virtually everything that happened in modern psychology was a repudiation of Wundt, explicitly or implicitly’ (p. 34). Elsewhere, however, the (explicitly ’false’) positivism of most psychology is counterposed to (implicitly ’true’) ’common sense’. The question which must be asked whenever the category of ’common sense’ is appealed to, or counterposed to scientific knowledge, is ’whose common sense?’ (For many white male middle-class psychologists, the discipline of psychology is their common sense.) Some varieties of common sense enjoy power over others, and a critical history of psychology needs to connect with those who suffer this power and the complex that buttresses it.

At the very end of the book, Danziger takes up the political nature of his history, and (quite rightly) explores the alliances that psychologists could make with those outside the discipline. This is a fraught question at present for social constructionist psychology, particularly in the United States, for it now seems clear that the success or failure of a critique of psychology rests not so much either on the internal coherence of the argument or on the probity of ’our’ scientific community, as on the links between researchers ’inside’ the discipline and those ’outside’. Danziger carefully describes in chapter two, ’Historical roots of the psychological laboratory’, the split between subject and object in scientific procedures which constituted Wundtian modern psychology, and he deals well in chapter eight, ’Investigative practice as professional product’, with the construction of a community which takes certain procedures and ’facts’ as given, and other ways of seeing as outside the domain of proper science. The question is, then, an ’alliance’ with whom?

An instructive case in point here concerns the quite different reception of two different critical psychology texts in the public realm, and the reasons why there were those different receptions. Compare Carol Gilligan (1982) counterposing the (stereotypically masculine) ’objectivity’ of positivist psychology to a feminist understanding of women’s ’common’ sense (the ’different voice’) with Ken Gergen (1991) who counterposes the truth claims of modern ’sciences’ such as psychology (which think they are arriving at the truth) to postmodern and fragmented forms of narrative (in which no social construction is ’true’). Gilligan gained the respect and support of many women inside and outside psychology, while Gergen has recently attracted some (very) negative public attention (e.g. New York Times Book Review, 23 June 1991). The issue is not so much that Gilligan replaced psychological truth with feminine truth and that Gergen will replace psychological truth with nothing, as an issue to do with the nature of the alliances that each account permits. Gilligan succeeded in producing an account which resonated with the experiences of women oppressed by the institutions of the psy-complex and made an effective alliance with them, while Gergen has succeeded in ruling out an appeal to the experience of any oppressed group ’outside’ the discipline, and has thereby necessarily failed to make an alliance with anyone. Like most other histories of psychology, Danziger’s is, by default, male (etc.), but he does pose the question as to who we write our histories for.

Constructing the Subject is a thorough account of the production of the science of mental life, a science which has succeeded in simultaneously sapping and feeding the forms of individuality that people in the dominant culture of the West experience themselves as possessing. At many points, through the rhetorical devices of cautious style, the use of figures and tables and standard photographs from the history of psychology, the text could be read as a standard history. At other points, when the connections with theoretical and historical perspectives are identified (albeit buried in the footnotes), the account touches a deconstructive dynamic and a radical social constructionism which really could, as Danziger hopes, reach out ’to groups of people who are more interested in psychological knowledge as a possible factor in their own emancipation than as a factor in their management and control of others’ (p. 197).