Psychology as Public Culture
The career of clinical experts was animated by the wartime normalization of psychotherapy, the evolution of mental health into a national public policy priority, and the migration of the therapeutic sensibility into the political culture of the 1960s. Far more than their policy-oriented colleagues, clinicians were concerned about individual human beings, practices like psychotherapy, and concepts like normality and mental health. But psychological experts of all types shared basic assumptions that placed them on similar historical trajectories. The belief that psychology might systematically expose universal laws of human behavior and motivation won the loyalty and captured the imaginations of psychotherapists and behavioral scientists alike.
World War II was as momentous for clinicians as it was for social and behavioral scientists. Because exposure to military conflict, especially combat, was stressful to the point of precipitating mass breakdown in otherwise normal men, clinicians accorded new prominence to social context in their estimations of what caused (and what might alleviate) symptoms of mental trouble. The job definition of clinical experts subsequently shifted from identifying individuals predisposed to emotional disturbance to treating masses of men made neurotic by war and regulating the military environment so as to prevent the same thing from happening to others. War bound professional helpers to normal human fears and anxieties, completely reversing the old association between clinical expertise and madness.
Convinced by war that their insights and practices could and should be brought to bear on a wide range of social problems in the name of mental health, clinicians pursued an ambitious strategy that fundamentally transformed the nature of their authority. Clinical practices and theories, previously considered methods of treating and understanding gross mental abnormalities and deviations from the average, gradually earned a reputation as best suited to comprehending mild forms of psychological maladjustment as well as entirely normal psychological experiences. In the case of psychiatry, a change in geographic location corresponded to this radical shift in emphasis. On the assumption that severe mental illness could be prevented, the majority of the profession moved aggressively away from isolated asylums and into the heart of U.S. communities.
As a result, psychological help was defined so broadly that everyone needed it. Because mental health became a prerequisite to social welfare and economic prosperity, and not merely a state of individual well-being, virtually no aspect of U.S. life, private or public, remained out of clinicians' reach. Neurotic emotional disturbance was gradually accepted as a fact and product of modem existence rather than as the shameful secret it had been just a few decades earlier. Clinicians, the madness specialists of an earlier era, evolved into empathetic guides whose job it was to assist their fellow humans in navigating the emotional quicksand of modem life. When mental health was accepted as a relative and unstable social resource, rather than as a property permanently belonging to (or absent in) given individuals, psychotherapeutic encounters were enshrined as precious experiences and clinical assistance and social activism became difficult to tell apart. To seek self-understanding and help became an emblem of emotional courage, a means to growth and happiness, and a step toward responsible, self-controlled citizenship. Therapeutic need began to lose its stigmatizing sting.
Mental health itself became an important concern among policy-makers after 1945, a direct result of the exposure of millions of American men—soldiers and veterans—to programs of clinical testing and treatment. Historic legislation like the National Mental Health Act of 1946 and the Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963 reflected vigorous demand for postwar services emanating from veterans, their families, and, of course, clinical professionals themselves. Community psychology and psychiatry, the most innovative trends in the postwar clinical fields, displayed the tenacity of wartime lessons about the importance of managing emotional disturbance with methods geared to preventing it in the first place. By definition, community-sensitive methods embodied the idea that psychological fitness was inseparable from public policy devised and implemented by wise and compassionate social engineers.
In spite of the concerns they shared with social and behavioral scientists, most clinicians remained obligated to helping individuals or small groups like families, and they held fast to a correspondingly personal vision of mental health during this period. Yet the popularization of clinical work had major public consequences during the 1960s. During that decade, a diversity of political movements added to conventional political agendas demands for a drastically changed type of political participation and subjectivity. To civil rights guarantees for members of
racial minority groups and an end to military involvement in Southeast Asia were added calls for participatory democracy, a feeling of "somebodiness," and a personally meaningful civic life.
These developments illustrated how politically enriching and liberating psychological perspectives could be and were. By the 1960s, psychological experts had expanded both the subjects of official government action and extended citizens' expectations of their public lives. If alienation and frustration nourished such developments, they also produced new and dynamic levels of citizen engagement, expressing desires that political responsibility, social welfare, and public activity be rejuvenated and made worthwhile for masses of disenfranchised people.
Psychology's public face did not always appear so benevolent. Clinical expertise itself became the subject of political protest during the 1960s, as if to underscore that its pernicious potential was at least as obvious as its more salutary consequences. Antipsychiatry was inspired by the critical writings of such thinkers as Thomas Szasz and R. D. Laing, and grassroots groups like the Mental Patients Liberation Front built alliances between ex-patients and leftist clinicians. Together, they elaborated a radical critique of clinical work. Even within antipsychiatry, however, which assumed that the psychological worldview was little more than a cover for the mystification and rationalization of political oppression and hierarchy, there existed liberating possibilities for the practice of "radical therapy."
The case of feminism is illustrative because it recapitulates the divergent possibilities demonstrated throughout this book: psychology could be both politically liberating and oppressive. To the extent that feminists protested the sexism of experts but utilized psychological ideas and practices for distinctly feminist purposes, the women's movement offers a fascinating window into that aspect of psychology's political history. It reveals some of the connections between mainstream social science, radical activism, and intellectual dissent.
The popularization and redefinition of clinical experience after 1945 was a significant, positive factor in the women's movement's emergence, mobilization, structure, demands, style, and theoretical literature. So too though was the critique mounted by antipsychiatry. Feminist activists did not merely imitate psychotherapy or reproduce humanistic theories wholesale. Neither did they echo the most simplistic antipsychiatric accusations that clinical practices were mere smoke-screens for political repression. From the practice of consciousness raising to theoretical questions about the origin of male supremacy,
feminists—at all points on the movement's political spectrum—vigorously debated the place of psychology in women's oppression and liberation. Was it part of the problem or part of the solution? The lack of consensus exposed the fundamental political legacy of postwar psychological expertise: it was neither and it was both. Feminism's dual identity as a public campaign for formal equality and a cultural revolution in the subjective experience of gender demonstrates very clearly how much the direction of postwar political activism depended upon the hallmarks of psychological expertise during this period: the merging of public and private, the political and the psychological. Psychology may have constructed the female, but it also helped to construct the feminist.