«How are we to conceptualize relationships between psychology and history? Psychobiography and psychohistory have occupied my attention for many ...»
From the Study of Lives and
Psychohistory to Historicizing Psychology:
A Conceptual Journey
WILLIAM MCKINLEY RUNYAN
How are we to conceptualize relationships between psychology and history?
Psychobiography and psychohistory have occupied my attention for many years,
with books on Life Histories and Psychobiography (1982) and Psychology and
Historical Interpretation (1988a). However, these interests in psychobiography and psychohistory were preceded by an interest in the study of individual life histories, and later evolved into interests in the history of psychology and in psychology as an historical science. These latter interests transform my conception of what science is, of what scientific psychology is, and how it is related to historical inquiry.
I argue that the “two disciplines of scientific psychology,” experimental and correlational psychology, need to be complemented by a third discipline of historical-interpretive psychology. With the rise of “cognitive neuroscience,” the fate of human science traditions such as psychoanalysis and the study of lives need to be rethought. “Historical science,” as developed by Stephen Jay Gould (1986) in relation to evolutionary biology and historical geology, is a valuable recent resource for bringing the methods and accomplishments of the human science traditions into clearer focus.
This essay is, undeniably, an idiosyncratic, historically contingent, and personal look at relationships between psychology and history. It may, however, not be that different from the idiosyncratic intellectual and personal journeys pursued by others, perhaps including yourself, gentle reader. Out of such diverse and partial perspectives, we attempt to communicate with each other, and to move toward at least an incrementally more adequate understanding of the issues.
120 A Conceptual Journey Life Histories: Can They Be Studied Scientifically?
At an opening overnight retreat in September 1969, faculty and students in a newly begun program at Harvard in “Clinical Psychology and Public Practice” were going around in a circle reporting on their interests and plans for the future.
The program was conceived in the late 1960s, outlined in a planning document in 1967 by Robert W. White, the original director of Harvard’s Clinical Psychology program begun in 1946 and ending in 1967. The idea of “public practice” was intended to contrast with “private practice.” What might clinical psychology be able to contribute to social issues such as those raised by civil rights, by the war on poverty, and by the women’s movement? Could wider social problems be addressed through school systems, mass media, or social-institutional change, and not only through the treatment of individuals in long-term psychotherapy?
Seniorfaculty like John M. Shlien, David C. McClelland, Robert Freed Bales, Chester Pierce, Richard M. Jones, and others could report on careers of research, practice, and scholarship as well as current plans. For the racially and ethnically diverse class of 11 men and women entering the graduate program, we had to rely more heavily on hopes, plans, and dreams for the future. My plan was to explore the possibilities for the systematic or scientific study of life histories.
What were the possibilities of scientifically studying the course of lives? This question seemed both of personal interest and relevant to evaluating the effects of social intervention programs.
In graduate school, two of those most supportive of my interests in the study of lives, Henry A. Murray and Robert W. White, were retired. As I came to see it over the years, they had somewhat different interests in the study of lives. For Murray, the study of lives overlapped with a romantic project of including the deepest human experiences within psychology, of Jung, Melville, himself, and others. For Robert White, who was powerfully influenced by working within Murray’s tradition, yet had different priorities, the study of lives overlapped more with the study of normal growth and development (1952, 1972), with the uses of lives in teaching abnormal psychology (1948), and with life history interviewing as a way of relating personally with students and others. From their different stances, I greatly appreciated their support of and criticism of my early work in this area.
By the summer of 1970, I had completed a paper on “A Science of Lives,” which I sent to Murray, White, and several others. Murray responded positively to the glimmers of promise in this document, when there was probably much more that could have been criticized. I found that his encouragement, vitality, and enthusiasm inspired me in some way almost every time we met, from that first meeting in 1970 to a final visit in December 1987, about 6 months before his death at age 95. Compared with other psychologists, Murray seemed more
WILLIAM MCKINLEY RUNYAN 121alive, to have greater depth and humane learning, greater awareness of inner experience, greater wit and expressiveness, and greater sensitivities to the nuances of social interaction (Runyan, 1994). He could also be self-centered, jealous, and harshly critical of himself and others. He seemed to me a person of unusual stature, who gave me a sense of what it might have been like to know Freud or Jung, not as influential as they in his publications, but as charismatic and eyeopening in personal interaction as anyone I had met.
Robert White was supportive in different ways: thoughtful, reserved, even patrician, yet responsible and helpful, taking time late in his life to write appreciative comments for my books in 1982 and 1988. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to talk more with White at the end of his life, and to rethink his relations with Henry Murray and the personal meanings that the study of lives had for him, helped by Jim Anderson’s biographical interviews (2000). A sabbatical and leave in 1999–2001 provided the opportunity to talk with White a number of times, even to stand in for him to receive and convey to him several awards, including the Henry Murray Award from APA, before he died in February 2001 at 96.
In graduate school, I was also seriously concerned with methodological and philosophical issues in the study of lives, in relation to debates in the philosophy of science (Hempel, Nagel, Popper, Kuhn, and others), and in the philosophy of history (Dray, M. White, Danto, Berlin, and others). William H. Dray visited Harvard in the summer of 1973 and taught an excellent course in the philosophy of history (Dray, 1964), which seemed to have substantial implications for the study of lives, so I drew on that literature in my dissertation (1975) and in Life Histories and Psychobiography (1982).
When I began graduate school, I was unaware of the extent and nature of the opposition to the study of individual lives. In graduate school from 1969–1975, I got more of a feel for it. My interests in conceptual and methodological issues in the study of individual lives were not warmly received by some of the faculty.
David McClelland wrote me a letter on May 25, 1971, the end of my second year of graduate school, saying that these philosophical interests were not suited to the program. “So, I would urge you strongly to leave Harvard before you waste more time here, your time and our time.” I declined the offer. I tried to understand what there was about my approach that so disturbed him, and went to talk with him about it, but he refused. Years later, in a chapter on “Personal Sources of My Intellectual Interests,” McClelland (1984) said he used to have philosophical debates with his father, a Methodist minister and college president, which would start out objectively, but “often became very heated.” McClelland wrote that he “came to hate these family arguments” and sought to put as much distance as possible between himself and his family. These debates had “profound effects” as his father could take either side of an issue, and “never once admitted that he was wrong, no matter how powerful my arguments were.... I feel certain 122 A Conceptual Journey that my interest in empirical science came in part from my desire to find incontrovertible facts that could not be disputed” (p. 3). I wondered if these earlier experiences with philosophy were related to our interactions.
Fortunately, it was possible to assemble a dissertation committee that was vastly more sympathetic to conceptual and methodological issues in the study of lives. The committee included Edwin N. Barker (chair), Lawrence Kohlberg, Alexander Leighton, David F. Ricks, and Zick Rubin. J. Milton Yinger (1965) had also been an important earlier influence at Oberlin College.
My dissertation on “Life Histories: A Field of Inquiry and a Framework for Intervention” (1975) was a personal response to questions emerging in college and graduate school: What to study? How to live? And, How to help other people?
As a post-doc at UC Berkeley, I had a chance to learn more about personality psychology, then struggling with Walter Mischel’s Personality and Assessment (1968), which had critiqued trait and psychodynamic psychology in favor of experimental social learning theory. This led to a growing consensus on the value of person-situation interactionism, a concept I used in an early article on “The Life Course as a Theoretical Orientation: Sequences of Person-Situation Interaction” (1978). As a visiting lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, I had many enjoyable discussions with Elliot Aronson, although disagreeing about the place of experimental methods in psychology.
Experimental social psychologists had a way of looking at the world in which there were a hierarchy of methods, starting with case studies to generate hypotheses, then correlational studies and, finally, controlled experimental studies to test general causal relations. This seemed true, but only part of the story.
In perhaps the most influential study in the history of experimental social psychology, Milgram (1974) did research on factors that affected “obedience to authority,” which is often discussed in relation to the case of Adolf Eichmann.
As head of the Jewish department in the Reich’s Main Security Office, Eichmann was involved in managing transportation to the extermination camps. At his trial for war crimes in 1961, Eichmann argued that he had never wished to harm a single Jew, but felt impelled to obey the orders of his superiors. “I was in the iron grip of orders,” he argued, and personally, he considered “the whole solution by violence to be a dreadful thing” (Hausner, 1966, p. 366). Before being executed by hanging, Eichmann’s last words were “I had to obey the rules of war and my flag” (p. 446).
In his research on obedience to authority, Milgram (1974) found that more than 60 percent of normal subjects could be induced to administer what they believed to be extremely painful or even life-threatening shocks to innocent subjects in a learning experiment. What relationships, if any, do these experiments have to our understanding of Eichmann? Is it fair to suggest that he was not a bad man, but that like the subjects in the experiments, he was forced to perform destructive actions against his inner objections?
WILLIAM MCKINLEY RUNYAN 123As for the view that he was just following orders, which forced him to violate his conscience, Eichmann said in 1957 in a tape-recorded talk with a Dutch Nazi journalist, “I could make it easy for myself. I could claim it was an order I had to carry out because of my oath of allegiance. But that would be just a cheap excuse, which I am not prepared to give” (Hausner, 1966, p. 11). “I was not just a recipient of orders. Had I been that, I would have been an imbecile. I was an idealist” (p. 11). When ordered to be lenient, Eichmann sometimes protested. In 1944, Hitler authorized that 8700 Jewish families and 1000 children be allowed to emigrate from Hungary so that the Hungarian government would accede to the deportation and execution of the 300,000 Jews remaining in Budapest. Eichmann was outraged at this leniency, appealed to Himmler, and got the order reversed.
The general point is that interpretation can draw on general theories, but must also draw on extensive idiographic research about the person in question.
Academic psychology had developed in such a way that quantitative and experimental methods were prized, but case studies were often devalued or marginalized. In the heyday of experimentation, in one of the most widely used methodology texts, Campbell and Stanley (1966) stated that “one-shot” case studies “have such a total absence of control as to be of almost no scientific value. It seems well-nigh unethical at the present time to allow, as a thesis or dissertation in education, case studies of this nature (i.e., involving a single group observed at one time only)” (pp. 6–7). In such a context, what is one interested in the study of individual lives to do?
In Life Histories and Psychobiography: Explorations in Theory and Method (1982), I attempted to review and respond to major criticisms of the study of individual lives, and to suggest appropriate criteria and methods for evaluating and improving in-depth studies of individual lives.
The four objectives of the book were:
(1) to provide a rationale for the study of individual life histories within psychology and the social sciences (2) to examine methodological problems that arise in describing and interpreting the course of events in individual lives (3) to suggest ways of conceptualizing the causal and probabilistic structure of the life course, and (4) to critically examine those methods used in the in-depth study of individual life histories, namely, the case study, idiographic and psychobiographical methods.
I have written extensively about methodological debates in psychobiography (Runyan 1981, 1982, 1983, 1988a, b, 1997), and won’t try to summarize all that here, except to recommend the 1982 and 1997 publications to those interested in methodological issues. Related issues have also been investigated in the 124 A Conceptual Journey philosophy of history, in methodology of the human sciences, and in narrative studies (as in the series edited by Josselson, Lieblich, and McAdams, 2003).