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date: 13 August 2020

Psychology and Oppression

Summary and Keywords

Psychology has always been a discipline immersed in the social and political currents of the day. At the level of psychological theory—whether one considers early pioneers such as Freud, Skinner, and Rogers, or, more recently, Seligman and the neuroscientific turn—its affinity with dominant socio-political concerns is easily demonstrated. Far from such individuals being calculating ideologues, however, they were interpellated—inevitably—by a field of power in which their personal and working lives were already embedded. On the other hand, it is equally true that Psychology’s phenomenal growth in the 20th century was built—most deliberately—on the alliances it formed with powerful bureaucratic elites. The discipline’s proximity to power, that is, meant not only that it could be co-opted ideologically but also that it would collude with oppressive regimes to enhance its own prestige. Project CAMELOT is one example where psychologists were willing to cooperate with the U.S. military in the service of a foreign policy that terrorized Latin America. The discipline also thrived under the Nazis with psychologists heavily involved in meeting the operational requirements of the Wehrmacht. Afrikaner psychologists in South Africa formed a close association with the apartheid state in both ideological and practical terms. More recently, the involvement of the American Psychological Association in a torture scandal has drawn attention once again to the discipline’s potential for collusion with institutional powers. In historiographic terms, some will take issue with the delivery of moral judgments when documenting the history of Psychology. However, the writing of history does not preclude such judgments, especially at a time when the exercise of power permeates disciplinary, institutional, and social life.

Keywords: APA torture scandal, collusion in psychology, co-option in psychology, critical history, history and moral judgment, Project CAMELOT, psychology and Nazism, psychology and oppression, South African psychology


A science without memory is at the mercy of the forces of the day.

— Franz Samelson

In Constructing the Subject, Kurt Danziger (1990) describes how disciplines are forged. They do not impose themselves, ready-made, on the intellectual landscape—they develop incrementally, first, by producing knowledge in forms both reputable and recognizable to established knowledge-makers, and second, by establishing alliances with social elites. In the formative years of the modern discipline now called Psychology,1 psychologists had to “accommodate themselves to the specific opportunities offered by a particular historical context” (Danziger, 1990, p. 102). This connection to power runs like a golden thread through the history of the discipline, articulating itself over the decades via relations of co-option2 and collusion3 in various contexts of oppression.4

The relationship of Psychology to the practice of war perhaps illustrates this point best. For almost its entire history, the discipline has developed against a backdrop of international conflict. In his book, Putting Psychology in Its Place, Graham Richards (2010) clarifies the special kinship between Psychology and the exercise of war. Despite their general assessment of war in pathological terms, most psychologists have supported the mobilization efforts of their respective nations. The two world wars in particular were crucial for the initial consolidation of the discipline and its eventual expansion into the public domain. The administration of intelligence tests in the U.S. Army, the psychological treatment of “shell-shock” in the United Kingdom, the study of “combat fatigue,” officer selection and training, psychological warfare, research on propaganda, studies in leadership and group dynamics, the management of military equipment production, research on the human-machine interface—in short, the various military projects to which psychologists acquitted themselves during the two world wars—would not only prove decisive for the professionalization of Psychology in the United States and other parts of the world but would also come to define some of the basic topics (e.g., personality, perception) and subfields (e.g., developmental psychology, industrial psychology, clinical psychology) of the discipline. Quantitative methods such as attitude scaling, factor analysis, and personality measurement were refined in the cauldron of war. Even the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders evolved out of a 1943 U.S. Army manual known as Medical 203, issued via the Office of the Surgeon General. From a theoretical standpoint, the conduct of war satisfies the two criteria for discipline formation: first, it permits the forging of links with “hard” sciences in a context of generous scientific funding, and second, it affords the discipline the opportunity to demonstrate its social utility. With the U.S. military currently the largest employer of psychologists in the world, war has emerged as the most significant contextual factor in the development of the discipline.

Yet Psychology has established its usefulness not only in military settings but in institutional life in general. Its various “technologies of human subjectivity” (Rose, 1990) have made it an effective managerial tool for bureaucratic elites in health, education, and industry. In the modern world, scarcely a child attains adulthood without having been subjected to a battery of assessments—for purposes of intelligence, personality, aptitude, and/or other forms of testing. The now widespread practice of cataloguing and measuring human capabilities owes much to social contingencies unleashed by the Industrial Revolution—specifically, the influx of large numbers of unrelated people into cramped cities and the associated concerns around social management (Jansz, 2004). These problems were tailor-made for the ministrations of Psychology, which, with its characteristic focus on individualizing technologies, proved wildly successful in the identification and rehabilitation of deviant individuals. In a relatively short period of time, the discipline would come to be viewed as indispensable for the efficient organization of an emergent—and now ubiquitous—institutional order.

By objectifying human abilities and capacities, psychological testing claimed to have succeeded in distinguishing normality from abnormality, rationalizing the assignation of individuals to suitable positions in institutional life. Moreover, the discipline’s spirit of scientific disinterestedness—along with a formidable record of social intervention—confirmed the intellectual, professional, and moral status of practitioners and prepared the way for the psychologization of public life itself. But Psychology’s implicit endorsement of normativity also triggers a host of insecurities and anxieties too—around self-esteem, intelligence, maturity, adaptability, mental health, and so on—facilitating a subjectifying process through which affected individuals begin to regulate their own general conduct and emotional lives.

The decisive role of institutions—or, in Rose’s (1988) terminology, “human sorting houses” (p. 189)—in the rise of modern Psychology generates concern about its political leanings and the nature of its proximity to power. For critical historians especially, the question of how to interpret the moral valence of the discipline’s origins is not easily resolved. For example, one can consider Psychology’s relationship with institutions in purely psychological terms, that is, as evidence of individual psychologists’ remarkable entrepreneurial spirits. Alternatively, the relationship can be viewed as the necessary outcome of various social imperatives of fin de siècle Europe and North America, such as “security for wealth and property; continuity, efficiency, and profitability of production; public tranquillity, moral virtue, and personal responsibility” (Rose, 1988, p. 183). One can even diagnose—as many have—an agenda of social control. Lamenting the deterioration of American politics in the 1990s, the Jungian analyst James Hillman and his colleague Michael Ventura complained of

a decline in political sense. No sensitivity to the real issues. … Why? Because the sensitive, intelligent people are in therapy! They’ve been in therapy in the United States for thirty, forty years, and during that time there’s been a tremendous political decline in this country.

(Hillman & Ventura, 1992, p. 5)

In critical psychology circles, it is argued not without justification that ours is a discipline with a gaze so encompassing that ordinary citizens—once interpellated by its discursive machinations—are transformed into psychological citizens and, concomitantly, the “instruments of their own subjugation” (Marx, 1854).

Whatever one’s preferred reading of Psychology’s kinship with power, the risk of “presentism” in the ordinary sense is obvious: the basic error of loading the dice in historical investigations, of “finding” answers one wants to find (Brock, 2017). To be sure, postmodern historians regard presentism in historical research as unavoidable since history is—in their view—nothing but “the history of historians’ minds” (Jenkins, 2003b, p. 57). Yet radical social constructionists insist also that the act of writing history is an exercise suffused with power and that it should not be neglected because of the lack of an epistemological high ground.5 Leaving the past to its own devices only allows alternative—but equally ideological—readings to prevail instead (Long, 2016a).

Accordingly, the discussion that follows delineates the historical relationship between Psychology and the workings of power. Admittedly, it is a discussion of limited scope in view of the discipline’s contiguity to power; such is the degree of proximity that, historically speaking, institutional power was practically constitutive of the discipline. A selection of episodes in the history of Psychology is examined, therefore, that illuminates the co-opted and collusive ends that disciplinary theories and practices have served in the past. These examples do not signify yet another attempt at putting the discipline on trial: they are presented, rather, as an exercise in reflection as per Samelson’s (1974) comment on the danger of scientific amnesia. Moreover, their implicit ethico-moral readings cannot be regarded as anything but provisional in recognition of the fact that the past does not speak for itself—it must be “argued for, questioned, defended, decided” (Edwards, Ashmore, & Potter, 1995, pp. 35–36).

Co-option in Psychological Theory

The question of “relevance”—or the degree of fit—between Psychology and broader society has been identified as something of a motif in Psychological communities around the world (Long, 2016a). For example, the social unrest of the 1960s galvanized concerns about the real-world relevance of academic knowledge in general and psychological knowledge in particular. In American Psychology, at a time when George Miller (1969) was stressing the importance of “giving psychology away,” an artifact crisis (Orne, 1962; Rosenthal, 1966) and concerns about the “frivolity” of experimental social psychology (Ring, 1967) threatened to consign the discipline to the margins of real-world importance. In Europe, similar concerns about the relevance of psychological knowledge were doing the rounds: social psychologists struggled to explain social phenomena at a level beyond the individual, which resulted in the provocative claim that there was nothing “social” about social psychology (Moscovici, 1972). Across the Third World, nation-building imperatives led psychologists to denounce the “immorality of irrelevance” (Baumrin, 1970, quoted in Sinha, 1973, p. 5), and they opted, instead, for problem-oriented research that would address “pressing demands connected with national development” (Sinha, 1975, p. 10).

As for academic life in the 21st century, a similar concern for relevance reveals itself as well. Widening race, class, and gender disparities have contributed to the rise of social justice movements that have impacted the academic ethos of left-leaning universities around the world. With regard to Psychology, the (sometimes explicit) requirement in many of these institutions is that the discipline produces knowledge reflecting the lived experiences of the people living in these (typically divided) societies. Of course, for historians of Psychology this is not a timeless phenomenon, that is, this insistence on the social utility of knowledge. Indeed, the present is at least as strange as the past: in the early years of the discipline, the notion of socially useful knowledge was abhorrent to many. As described by Ellen Herman (1995) in her book, The Romance of American Psychology, Edwin Boring was appalled at the presumptuousness of socially oriented psychologists: his horror at the rise of these “sociotropes” assumed such proportions that it motivated him (allegedly) to write his magisterial A History of Experimental Psychology in an attempt to curtail what he viewed as the pernicious influence of applied psychology (O’Donnell, 1979).

Unquestionably, Psychology has changed a great deal since the appearance of Boring’s classic text. The emergence in the late 20th century of what Michael Billig (1996) has called the “entrepreneurial professor” against a landscape of rampant capitalism has made the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake seem like an anachronism. Talk of “social engagement” has become a commodified cornerstone of academic life—despite the fact that no one knows who or what is supposed to constitute the “social.” The belief in a public good that is central to discussions of relevance in our discipline is, in the words of Jane Mansbridge (1998), “unendingly contestable, dangerous in the extreme, inevitably manipulated by elites” (p. 3). The insistence on developing a relevant Psychology, therefore, invites the question, “Relevant for whom?”—which raises the problem of co-option, or the assimilation of the discipline by powerful interest groups.

Consider the status of general psychological theory. Beyond the established heartlands of the discipline, one will almost certainly encounter the disheartening refrain that psychology textbooks are useless outside North America and northwestern Europe. The primary objection is that “psychology’s mainstream operates with a mechanistic, and hence an atomistic and reductionistic, model of human mental life” (Teo, 2009, p. 39, original emphases), resulting in the disastrous estrangement of the individual from society. In parts of the world that are grappling with social problems—such as the Global South—Psychology can be (and has been) dismissed as, at best, an irrelevant and, at worst, a status quo pursuit (Prilleltensky, 1989).

Nonetheless, one needs to be circumspect when evaluating the politics of mainstream psychological theories. It would be premature to conclude that some of the discipline’s most influential theorists—for example, Sigmund Freud, Burrhus Skinner, and Carl Rogers—consented to being co-opted for the purpose of social control. In the case of Freud, generations of commentators have portrayed him as an essentially conservative thinker—conservative in the sense that the reification of the unconscious served the ideological function of depoliticizing human subjectivity by privileging considerations of the intrapsychic world over those of social context (Prilleltensky, 1993). With Skinner, the accusation of conservatism is similarly widespread on the grounds that he defined as “good” the kind of behavior that “makes a group function more effectively” (Skinner, 1978, p. 93, quoted in Prilleltensky, 1993, p. 73). It is often concluded, therefore, that Skinner understood the efficient reproduction of the status quo—and not its transformation—as determining the ethical value of a given course of action. And as for Rogers, some commentators interpreted the goal of self-actualization—despite its valorization of human freedom—as having inoculated people against the constraints of social reality (Prilleltensky, 1993).

One can conceivably make similar arguments about more recent developments in the discipline. Positive psychology—with its emphasis on optimism as the route to individual achievement and happiness (Seligman, 2003)—has been critiqued for advancing a neoliberal agenda that emphasizes personal responsibility at the expense of social justice (McDonald & O’Callaghan, 2008; Miller, 2008). A virtually identical line of argument is being leveled against the growing neuroscientific orthodoxy within the discipline: it is being suggested that the now hegemonic concept of the “plastic” human brain affirms a paradigm that “firmly situates the subject in a normative, neoliberal ethic of personal self-care and responsibility linked to modifying the body” (Pitts-Taylor, 2010, p. 639). Further examples can be made, but the general principle should suffice: critics believe that psychological conceptions of the human condition tend to endorse the dominant ideologies of the day—irrespective of their origins in psychoanalysis, humanistic psychology, or neuroscience. Moreover, the inherent political underpinnings of psychological theories facilitate social reproductive processes, which explains why—according to Hillman and Ventura’s (1992) blunt formulation—“we’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse.”

Yet there is something excessive about the wholesale dismissal of these touchstones in psychological theory. After all, it is difficult to characterize the work of someone like Freud as intrinsically conservative when one considers the theoretical contributions of the Freudian Left (Danto, 2005; Jacoby, 1986). It is true that the libertarianism of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse ended up privileging drive theory to the point of canonizing individual desire at the expense of the social world (Frosh, 1999). It is equally the case that Erich Fromm and the cultural school portrayed society as external to the individual and ignored the mutualism of the two domains. But one cannot deny that these attempts at straddling the individual-social divide were radical for their time: that they failed ultimately has less to do with conservative politics than with the grandness of the challenge, namely, an individual-social split that remains arguably the most intractable of problems in all of theoretical psychology.

It is not the case that psychological theories are neutral to begin with and acquire ethical valence only in the minds of psychologists: theories, theory-building, and psychologists are embedded in the politics of the day—there is nothing inherently objectionable about that state of affairs. Nuanced histories of the discipline reveal how theoreticians have taken up a range of political positions that is reflected in the endless contestation of psychological ideas (Harris, 2009). Returning, then, to the personages of Freud, Skinner, Rogers, Seligman, and countless unmentioned others: to the extent that their theories legitimated dominant social configurations, they can be said to have been co-opted by powerful social interests—but not in any conscious, deliberate sense. At risk of replacing “the subjects of history … with rituals of power” (Wetherell & Potter, 1992, p. 86), it seems more appropriate to regard such figures in a Foucaultian sense, that is, as the instruments—rather than the wielders—of a diffusely distributed power.

Collusion in Psychological Practices

The history of Psychology is littered with cases of questionable institutional alliances. If one regards epistemological insecurity as a causal factor, the discipline’s seeming willingness to conduct business with all-comers smacks of desperation—and there is an undeniable logic to this argument. Psychology has no definable subject matter: it has never settled on its fundamental questions, and it houses correspondingly a somewhat miscellaneous collection of investigative methods. Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) assessment of the discipline as “pre-paradigmatic” at best is as true in the early 21st century as it was more than half a century ago. Consequently, Psychology’s forging of relationships with powerful institutions can be viewed as a viable strategy for salvaging its scientific credentials.

On the other hand, it is just as convincing to argue that institutions have partnered happily with the discipline. Psychology’s phenomenal achievements in the first half of the 20th century—particularly in relation to mobilization efforts and scientific management (Taylorism)—encouraged institutions to pursue relationships with practitioners who could assist with the resolution of specific administrative problems. The discipline could hardly rebuff these opportunities that would enhance its social standing. It was not Psychology’s failures, therefore, but its successes that kept institutional elites interested: if anything, the problem of collusion involved a lack of discernment rather than acts of desperation.

The case of the ill-fated Project CAMELOT offers a cogent illustration of this latter perspective. As a result of Psychology’s stellar contribution to the mobilization efforts of the Second World War, its prestige grew considerably among policy mandarins. By the early 1960s, it came as no surprise when government officials turned to psychologists in the Cold War struggle against communism. In 1964, the U.S. Defense Department’s (DoD) Special Operations Research Organization—based at the private American University in Washington, DC—launched Project CAMELOT in an attempt to identify, measure, and influence the social-psychological predictors of revolution in the developing world, with a special focus on Latin America. CAMELOT reflected the Kennedy administration’s emphasis on counterinsurgency policy and brought together a team of eminent psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, economists, and other social scientists. But matters went pear-shaped when a Chilean-born anthropology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Hugo Nutini, approached the secretary-general of the University of Chile, Alvaro Bunster, to explore collaborative possibilities. Despite receiving reassurances that CAMELOT was funded by the National Science Foundation and driven by some of the most prestigious universities in the United States, Bunster remained unconvinced. CAMELOT was, after all, a codename, and the American University in D.C. did not have any academic standing worth mentioning. In April 1965, Nutini admitted that CAMELOT was being funded by the U.S. Army; he was banned from returning to Chile and, three months later, the project was shut down by the Secretary of Defense (Lowe, 1966).

What is remarkable about the CAMELOT debacle is that the balance of social scientific opinion did not appear to regard collusion with the U.S. military as a problem. It did not seem to register—or it did not matter—that CAMELOT provided scientific cover for an oppressive foreign policy that had terrorized Latin Americans and would continue doing so for decades to come. While some questioned the ethics of military-funded social science, others believed that a golden opportunity had been wasted by bumbling administrators (Herman, 1995). One political scientist insisted that progressive governance was only possible through the application of social scientific knowledge (de Sola Pool, 1967, cited in Herman, 1995). Sociologist Irving Horowitz (1967) suggested that the termination of CAMELOT was an attack on freedom. And at a congressional hearing on federal support of social science and behavioral research, Arthur Brayfield, the then CEO of the American Psychological Association (APA), testified as follows: “I think the military should be free to use all reasonable, ethical, and competent tools at its command to help carry out its mission, and I would say strongly that the use of behavioral science and behavioral scientists is one of those useful tools” (1967, quoted in Herman, 1995, p. 165). Robert Nisbet (1967) would conclude that “the behavioral sciences emerged from this potentially devastating hearing with their luster untarnished, their prestige, if anything higher” (p. 323, added emphasis).

A second example of collusion becomes apparent upon reading Ulfried Geuter’s (1992) book, The Professionalization of Psychology in Nazi Germany. Until the publication of that work, the prevailing narrative of Psychology under the Third Reich was that the expulsion of Jewish scholars had crippled the development of the discipline. Instead, Geuter demonstrates how the contributions of psychologists to Wehrmacht requirements gave impetus to the professionalization of the discipline. On the other hand, he cautions against blanket condemnation as “[i]t was not true that psychology as a whole prostituted itself, or was called into service by the Nazis” (p. 270). In the final analysis, however, he wonders about the morality of a science and profession that seemed to have no difficulty continuing with business as usual at a time of war and oppression. In order to preserve and expand their own interests, German psychologists failed to reflect on the social catastrophe that was unfolding around them. Immersed in an instrumentalist reading of their professional activities, they ended up colluding with a powerful military-industrial complex and its associated political imperatives.

It is unclear why it took decades to repudiate the belief that German Psychology crumbled under the Third Reich—it may be that historians looked the other way in a simple act of self-preservation. In any event, Geuter’s (1992) book affirms the value of critical histories that utilize primary sources. But another historiographic concern arises: should one denounce those psychologists whose careers thrived under Nazi rule? To ponder a different but analogous hypothetical: can one describe Frantz Fanon’s (1952/2008) writing in Black Skin, White Masks as sexist when second-wave feminism only took off in the decade after the book was published? One is reminded in both instances of the work of Nikolas Rose (1996) who—despite meticulous descriptions of institutional collusion—prefers critical history as “careful analytical judgment” over history-as-critique (p. 106).

One aspect of the problem is that historians are as much historically located as the people about whom they write: in the words of a dissident Afrikaner psychologist, “it is very easy to be liberal-minded when one’s whole milieu is one of liberalism” (Strümpfer, 1993, p. 5). On the other hand—the dangers of presentism notwithstanding—a dogged insistence on the social embeddedness of psychological practices can end up endorsing a (false) moral relativism. After all, the work of historians is imbued with moral inflections: historians make moral judgments whether or not they believe they are doing so. Moreover, not only are historical accounts saturated with values, “there is no inherent opposition between scholarship and commitment” (Danziger, 2010, p. 28). While it may be presentist (in the moral sense) to condemn psychologists who prospered during the Nazi regime, “[t]here is also no need for us to abandon our values. Believing that the transatlantic slave trade or the Nazi gas chambers were an abomination is no barrier to writing good history” (Brock, 2017, p. 209).

The history of Psychology in South Africa is a case in point. It is, in part, a story of collusion between a group of psychologists and the apartheid regime that exemplifies the need for moral judgment—not in the spirit of “one who poses as god the avenger” (Butterfield, 1931/1965, p. 2) but as an act of understanding in itself. At the height of apartheid rule, Psychology was a discipline of considerable social and political importance. Psychologists had distinguished themselves through their intervention in the so-called Poor White Problem—a consequence of the South African War (1899–1902) that triggered anxieties about miscegenation and a collapse of the social order—as well as their contribution to the mobilization activities of World War II. By the early 1960s, however, Afrikaner psychologists would form the Whites-only Psychological Institute of the Republic of South Africa (PIRSA), emboldened by their relationship with the “architect of apartheid,” Hendrik Verwoerd (Long, 2014). Throughout that decade, PIRSA presidents lobbied for the establishment of a discipline that would serve the Afrikaner volk (nation) and protect it from the rooi gevaar (red peril) and swart gevaar (black peril). Located at the southernmost tip of Africa—and with communists and African liberation movements closing in—Afrikaner psychologists were exhorted to frame their research activities as an exercise in White, Christian-National trusteeship (Long, 2016a). They duly set about tackling questions they considered of national importance—including religious anomie (symptomatic of a “deranged humankind”), giftedness (an antidote to political rebellion), road safety programs (which had to appeal to national pride), racial difference (as opposed to egalitarianism, which was “the scientific joke of the century”), as well as “the Bantu in his hour of crisis” (Long, 2016a).

The unravelling of the apartheid project in the 1970s marked the end of PIRSA. The Institute would reconcile with the (Anglophone) parent association in 1982, which resulted in the formation of the racially integrated Psychological Association of South Africa (PASA). But critical psychologists were unconvinced (Seedat & MacKenzie, 2008): indeed, the discipline’s response to the horrors of apartheid’s final decade was ambiguous. Progressive and radical psychologists spoke out at a time described as “apartheid’s most brutal period” (Louw, 2004, p. 83), but PASA—the representative body for psychologists in the country—dithered. In the keynote address of the 1986 PASA congress, a venerable figure in the history of South African Psychology questioned the value of socially relevant science, concluding his address with the words of Vannevar Bush:

“Knowledge for the sake of understanding, not merely to prevail, that is the essence of our being … For if we fail to struggle and fail to think beyond our petty lot, we accept a sordid role. The light of our minds tells us that there is more to life than that.” I share these sentiments.

(Biesheuvel, 1987, p. 7)

Critical histories of South African Psychology began to appear in the early 1990s as the winds of political change swept across the nation. Significantly, at its inaugural congress in 1994 the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA) issued a public apology for psychologists’ complicity with the oppressive apartheid state. An upsurge in historical writings would mark the first decade of democracy as the discipline entered a distinctly reflective period (Long, 2016b). The moral commitment in these writings, moreover, was necessary in both a disciplinary and political sense, allowing the discipline to examine its relationship with power and reimagine itself in the context of a democratic South Africa. Yet the interest in (critical) history has waned in recent years with the neoliberal moment constructed in progressively unassailable terms (Painter & van Ommen, 2008). To be sure, commentators still inveigh against the discipline’s apartheid past—but they do so while claiming a relatively enlightened present (Cooper, 2014). Moral judgment is beginning to resemble, that is, the metaphorical flogging of a dead horse while sowing the seeds of Whig history.

Collusion in Contemporary Psychology

The moral judgment of events embedded in history is one thing—exercising judgment in respect of events in the recent past is another matter entirely. The confounding issue is that of time, or how much of it needs to pass before the historian has sufficient distance on the events in question. The torture scandal involving the APA illustrates this problem perfectly. On the one hand are pragmatists who argue that almost anything is permissible when matters of national security are at stake—in this case, the so-called war on terror. But idealists insist that there are ethical constraints on the discipline that are applicable at all times. Hence, when the Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture was published on July 10,2015, it was inevitable that a controversy of international proportions would ensue.

The U.S. DoD is, after all, the largest employer of psychologists in the world. What soon became known as “the Hoffman report” concluded that APA officials colluded with their DoD counterparts by issuing “loose, high-level ethical guidelines” (Hoffman et al., 2015, p. 9) that did not restrict existing DoD interrogation practices. According to the investigating team, the primary motive of these officials was to continue the APA’s lucrative association with the DoD and, secondarily, to manage public relations and enhance the growth of the profession. Despite strong evidence of the occurrence of abusive interrogations, the APA refrained from making further investigations “thus effectively hiding its head in the sand” (Hoffman et al., 2015, p. 11). Key APA officials went as far as meeting in secret with DoD officials in order to thwart attempts by the APA Council of Representatives to pass resolutions “that would have definitively prohibited psychologists from participating in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. detention centers abroad” (Hoffman et al., 2015, p. 9). Apparently more interested in positioning the APA favorably within what was perceived to be a hostile media environment, APA officials seemed relatively unconcerned with the actual development of policy guidelines that would articulate best ethical practice.

In response to these explosive revelations, expressions of horror erupted across the world. The British Psychological Society (2015) declared that

We condemn and repudiate such practices and repeat our longstanding and principled stance that there is an overriding ethical responsibility on all psychologists and other healthcare professionals to protect and defend fundamental human rights, and we acknowledge the extensive psychological research that concludes that torture and coercive interrogation is ineffective.

The PsySSA (2015) noted that “[d]espite the continued attempts to diminish the gravity of psychologists’ involvement in torture, all of us should state boldly: ‘Never again, not in the name of Psychology!’” while the European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations (2015) stated that it “[was] deeply shocked by … Mr Hoffman’s findings and strongly condemn[ed] the involvement of psychologists in torture or other degrading or inhuman treatment.” Even the APA Independent Review’s Special Committee expressed remorse, remarking that

[t]he Hoffman report clearly writes a difficult chapter in our organization’s history. We sincerely apologize for the actions, policies and lack of independence from governmental influence detailed in the report. Our members, our organization, our profession, and the public expected and deserved better.

(Kaslow & McDaniel, 2015)

But not everyone accepted the findings of the Hoffman report. The APA’s Division 19—the Society for Military Psychology—responded by setting up a Task Force (TF19) of its own. TF19 alleged not only that the report’s conclusions reflected a poor understanding of military interrogations, a misapprehension of military culture, and a deep-seated prejudice against military psychology, but it also rejected the report’s main finding of collusion between the APA and the DoD (APA Division 19 Presidential Task Force, 2015). Military psychologists who were named in the Hoffman report shot back with a statement of their own—now known as the Banks Commentary—claiming that “the involvement of psychologists prevented the use of abusive techniques, helped ensure humane conditions of confinement in many instances, and sped up the codification of prohibitions against abusive techniques” (Banks, Dunivin, James, & Newman, 2015, p. 2, added emphasis).

Although many psychologists regard the torture scandal as a manifest instance of collusion, there is no privileged way of adjudicating its moral significance. As a colleague remarked in the immediate aftermath of the torture debacle: it will make for an interesting study in the sociology of science once the dust has settled. The implications of this position—that historians of Psychology should only comment on the controversies of the past—require some consideration. For one, if historians are to affirm “the moral basis of historiography” (Danziger, 2010, p. 26) only in respect of questions that have faded from public significance, then they never have to risk anything. Released from the responsibility of setting moral agendas in the present, they end up restricting themselves to the dissection of ethico-moral dilemmas that no longer matter. At a time when questions about the residues of historical oppressions abound—the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and racism are obvious examples—this is ivory tower indulgence taken to the extreme.

But there is also an implication pertaining to historical accuracy. It is widely believed that historians cannot assess events of the past objectively unless those events belong definitively to the past—in other words, that the pressures of the day preclude unprejudiced scholarship. A prime example is the psychological profiling of Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg trials (Joyce, 2009). Following extensive personality testing, psychologist Gustave Gilbert reported the presence of schizoid, narcissistic, and paranoid personality types that, considered together, indicated psychopathic functioning. Douglas Kelley—a psychiatrist—also found evidence of personality disturbance, and both he and Gilbert concluded that the Nazi leaders were legally sane. Thirty years later, however, 10 Rorschach experts analyzed the same (Nazi) protocols in a double-blind study. There were no signs of mental disturbance, suggesting that people like Hermann Goering, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Rudolf Hess, and Albert Speer were no different from ordinary Americans.

It is easy to conclude on the basis of this and other examples that the passage of time is necessary for the emergence of truth. The aesthetics of historical writing, however, demands the operation of both representational and imaginative processes. Strictly speaking, the historical text consists of statements rather than facts because the latter always requires interpretation—hence the regularity with which a single set of archival materials produces contradictory historical accounts (Jenkins, 2003a). History, therefore, is always provisional: to regard it as truth “is already to figure that which has merely occurred before now into a shape, a form, a unity and, quite often, a content, a direction and a significance” (Jenkins, 2003a, p. 35). As Foucault (1980) has argued, “truth isn’t outside power … [it] is a thing of this world … to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements” (pp. 131–133).

Nonetheless, history is still worth claiming despite its epistemological infirmities. This is especially the case with a history of co-option and collusion—that is, a history of the oppressed—without which a “mystifying amnesia” invariably takes hold (Gandhi, 1998, p. 4). The purpose of writing about Psychology and oppression, therefore, is partly about the historical record—however tenuous one’s truth claims may be—but it is also about nurturing a space for contestation. Only then is reflective engagement possible with a discipline that has a history of forging ethically compromised institutional alliances.


The historical case studies discussed in this article—Project CAMELOT, Psychology under the Nazis, and Psychology during the apartheid years—substantiate the relationship that has existed between our discipline and oppressive state formations around the world. It is not by accident that these examples—not to mention the torture scandal—involve the specter of state-sponsored violence. It is hard to deny that our discipline has blossomed “within the bloodiest century on record—a location which must in turn have reflexively affected the character of Psychology itself. And … it is hard to believe that without Psychology the bloodshed could have been significantly worse” (Richards, 2010, p. 373).

The foregoing history of collusion is based on examples that rank among the most appalling in the discipline, notwithstanding Steven Pinker’s (2011) view that the exercise of violence is on the decline. But one should not overlook the banalities of disciplinary life—nourished by the ideology of no ideology—those taken-for-granted theories of the human condition that have dominated academic and professional life. While one can hardly indict theorists for being agents of social control, it is still necessary to reflect critically on the social and political resonances of certain forms of theory. The new history of Psychology cautions—with good reason—against approaching the history of the discipline in morally dichotomous terms (Harris, 2009). Critical historians, however, cannot refuse to judge any more than they can refuse to be in the world.

Additionally, critical historians should not be content with focusing exclusively on the past: a history of Psychology that has nothing to say about the present becomes a project for the status quo. Without a history of the present, one cannot interrogate “hegemonic understandings of the relationship between past and present” (Long, 2016b, p. 226), and one cannot begin to imagine the world “in ways other than what it is” (p. 266). The present commodification of (psychological) knowledge, the present crisis around replicability, the present neoliberal inclinations of the neurosciences—each of these problems requires some deliberation on the pitfalls of co-option and collusion. Indeed, critical historians are ideally positioned to analyze these issues within the appropriate historical milieu. As for histories of co-option and collusion lapsing into conspiratorial, Manichean readings of past and present, the solution is nothing exemplary: as with all knowledge products, such histories must be adjudicated by the appropriate community of scholars. Good historical scholarship does not prohibit the formulation of moral judgments: in an age of drones, realty bubbles, and climate change—a world of faceless executioners and nameless victims where power is everywhere—now is not a time for deferral.


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(1) This article follows Graham Richards’ convention of capitalizing the “p” in Psychology when referring to the discipline (as opposed to its subject matter).

(2) The term “co-option” is used to signify the affinity of psychological theories to political ideologies.

(3) An instance of “collusion” is described as the complementary relationship between psychological practices and political institutions. Co-option and collusion are distinguished in order to emphasize the agency of individuals and institutions, especially in the case of collusion.

(4) “Oppression” is defined as an exercise of (state) power that attempts to subjugate a group of people.

(5) A feature of the postmodern condition is its relentless interrogation of truth claims on the grounds that knowledge production processes are socially mediated (i.e., socially constructed). For radical social constructionists, however, this realization must not give way to epistemological and moral nihilism because “regimes of truth” are invariably suffused with power.