Psychology and the American Concept of Person

In some ways, Psychology is "Made in America"

Posted May 04, 2010

In recent decades, Psychology has made great strides in enhancing its credentials as a science. More rigorous study designs and the growing integration of Psychology with evolutionary thought and neuroscientific findings are just a few of the developments that have brought about this progress. However, it is also true that Psychology will always be a social science with characteristics that distinguish it from the natural or physical sciences. The fact that the subject matter of Psychology is human mental functioning means that the discipline must address topics-such as, for example, the creation of art-that do not arise in those sciences that do not study human beings.

For this reason, psychologists will often find it useful to integrate into their reasoning understandings from other disciplines that study human beings, such as sociology, history, even literature. A recent book that should be of considerable interest to psychologists is Claude Fischer's Made in America, a social history that reveals a great deal about the life of ordinary Americans over the last three centuries or so.

One reason the book is so useful is that Fischer has spent many years immersed in the historical literature checking out some of our most common assumptions about how American life (and Americans) have changed over the years, and he has discovered that a lot of these assumptions are just plain wrong. For example, Fischer shows that the widespread claim that Americans have recently abandoned the thrifty ways of earlier generations and piled up a mountain of consumer debt just isn't supported by the evidence. In fact, Americans in the early 21st century carry less debt on average than Americans did a century ago. Another example: One often reads that in recent decades there has been an epidemic of depression. Looking at a number of different sources of evidence (suicide and substance abuse rates, surveys, diaires, etc.) Fischer argues convincingly that for the population as a whole depression rates have probably been more or less stable over the last century.

Throughout the book, Fischer presents evidence to show that-in spite of the fact that there have been some important changes in our social life-there are nevertheless remarkable continuities in American ideas and behavior stretching back to colonial times. One of these continuities that is relevant to Psychology has to do with what I wrote about in my last post, the concept of person.

Americans have believed, pretty much since the time that European immigrants started arriving, that it is possible and indeed desirable to work to perfect themselves, that with perseverance one can be whoever one wants to be. Fashions in self-help books change, but the basic idea of self-help has always been central to our culture. And that suggests that Psychology's focus on techniques for seeking happiness and managing one's emotions is as much an expression of American culture as it is an inherent part of the science of human mentality.

To learn more, please visit Peter G. Stromberg's website.