American Dispositions: Boredom, Rationality, and Aggression in Historical Perspective

AHA Session 98
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Clinton Suite (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Debbie Weinstein, Brown University
Rebecca Jo Plant, University of California, San Diego

Session Abstract

The overall aim of this panel is to contribute to both the history of the psychological sciences and the history of emotions, especially their intersection and co-production in the twentieth-century United States. The conversation section of the December 2012 of The American Historical Review suggests the emotions have become an important topic for historical research. The history of the human sciences offers an enticing entry into the history of the emotions. As the sciences of human subjectivity the records left by these endeavors create a rich archive of dispositions and expression alongside their analysis. One of the aims of this symposium is to reflect on how historians can use evidence generated by the human sciences to explore the history of the emotions. With the prevalence of psychotherapy and popular psychology in mass media, the late twentieth-century United States was in many ways a “psychological society” where individuality got expressed through the idiom of science. Building on the conference theme of “History and Other Disciplines,” each of the contributions examines a different discipline that has claimed to capture human nature and behavior: evolutionary biology, psychiatry, and psychology. Similarly, each undertakes a genealogy of distinct psychological dispositions that regulate attitudes and behaviors: boredom, rationality, and aggression. Moving beyond a narrowly defined history of scientific ideas, these papers examine the relationship among scientific practices, emotional expression, and political change. They connect historical experience of these dispositions to political transformations (e.g. decolonization), social movements (e.g. anti-psychiatry) and cultural change (e.g. the sexual revolution). Heather Murray explores a dramatic shift in how psychiatrists evaluated patient passivity at mid-century. Michael Pettit examines the tensions as patients and a broader public responded to psychologist’s inculcate rational attitudes towards sexuality. Erika Milam examines how the geopolitics of decolonization shaped the theory and practice of the science of aggression. Taken together, they suggest important historical changes in terms of the intensification of affective dispositions and emotional expression in the 1960s and 1970s.

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