Lawrence Rubin Ph.D, ABPP, LMHC, RPT-S

Popular Culture Meets Psychology

Popular Culture & Psychology...Not Such Strange Bedfellows

Popular Culture and Psychology...Not Such Strange Bedfellows

Posted Jan 07, 2011

For your reading pleasure, I would like to share with you a guest editorial that is published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Popular Culture (2010, vol. 43, issue 6).  It validates my efforts in this blog, and introduces you to my other discipline of interest.  You may also visit the Association for Popular Culture, and if you have a chance to be in San Anotnoio at the end of march, thnk of dropping in on the Annual Conference of the American/Popular Culture Associations.

Psychology and Popular Culture

In academia, Psychology and Popular Culture Studies have grown up strangers on distant sides of the ideological campus. Housed in different disciplines-Social Sciences and the Humanities respectively, they have shared little intellectually, philosophically or creatively; at least as evidenced in the corpus of their published works. While both disciplines are, at their core, dedicated to enlightening and enriching the lived human experience, Psychology has sought legitimacy through objective positivism, whereas Popular Culture Studies has been more subjectively and phenomenologically driven. With its emphasis on a democratic, rather than an elite aesthetic, the study of Popular Culture has been a bottom-up pursuit. In contrast, Psychology, with its historic reliance upon the ‘scientific method' of data gathering and interpretation, has been a top-down, expert-driven mode of inquiry. The study of the stuff of everyday experience that is Popular Culture, has required no direct translation-it is a lingua franca; as opposed to the theory-driven hypotheses of Psychology that have required translation for popular consumption.

In spite of these apparent epistemological differences, the study of both Psychology and Popular Culture share much in common. Both disciplines have experienced hardship along their respective roads to individuation and scholarly, as well as academic acceptance. Just as Psychology, with its origins in philosophy, emerged from the long shadow cast by medical psychiatry; so too, did the study of Popular Culture liberate itself from the so-called ‘old humanities, with their emphases on traditionalism and elitism. Both fields are inherently interdisciplinary, each meaningfully intersecting with sociology, anthropology, philosophy and history. Each has also had to extricate itself from the stigma of being regarded a diminutive form-Psychology as a ‘soft science' and Popular Culture as a pursuit of the base and trivial. While each has addressed the impact of the forces of social, political and gender oppression on the individual, so too have they been subject to those same forces of oppression, and have in turn recognized the formative and informative importance of context and culture on that process of subjugation. Lastly, while their research methodologies may vary, Psychology and Popular Culture are ultimately and genuinely interested in people.

As of this writing, there are some rather exciting efforts at bringing the two fields together-in the classroom, in the literature and at the organizational level. A recent Google search for graduate and undergraduate courses linking Psychology and Popular Culture revealed a surprising number of examples. In the summer of 2009, the Popular Culture Association added a new area to its pantheon, Psychology, Mental Health, Mental Illness and Popular Culture. At the 2010 PCA/ACA Annual conference in St. Louis, panelists from diverse disciplines shared a wealth of ideas from a Maslovian analysis of the Stephenie Meyer's vampires, to an exploration of the ways in which Disney's animated films capitalize upon and exacerbate childhood fears. For every presentation, there were 10 proposals from different corners of the globe on a range of fascinating amalgams of Popular Culture and Psychology, from the ways in which architecture reflects a society's psychopathology to the relation between tribal music and mental illness. In 2006, Ira Saeger of Yeshiva University and Adam Lloyd of the University of Maryland launched the Society for the Study of Psychology and Popular Culture (SSPPC) in hopes of deepening the connection between the two disciplines.

In that same year, a volume entitled Psychotropic Drugs and Popular Culture: Medicine, Mental Health and the Media was honored with the Ray and Pat Browne Award for best anthology, a testament to the perceived utility of collaboration between the disciplines. Within my own parent discipline of Clinical Psychology, the Associations for Play Therapy, Art Therapy and Music Therapy, as well as the Division of Media Psychology of the American Psychological Association together inform psychotherapists and counselors on how to integrate the fruits of popular culture into their clinical work with children, teenagers and adults. Finally, Psychology Today Magazine's recent inclusion of a blog entitled Psychology Meets Popular Culture and JPC's willingness to feature this editorial are testament to a growing confluence of the two disciplines. I am confident that as more such collaborative efforts unfold, the distance across campus dividing the study of Psychology and Popular culture will lessen.