Subversive Currents and Frustrated Ambitions: Psychology in the British Empire

Friday, January 8, 2016: 10:50 AM
Room 309/310 (Hilton Atlanta)
Erik Linstrum, University of Virginia
The history of psychology in the twentieth-century British Empire is the history of a paradox: how a field of expertise which generated critical and even subversive views of British rule also captured the imaginations of the empire’s rulers.  Laboratory experiments, psychoanalysis, and mental testing furnished methods for governing populations: making factories and armies run more smoothly; recruiting the most talented subjects for government jobs and scarce school places; combating anticolonial rebellions; and remolding families, economies, and societies.  But they also offered ways to challenge racial hierarchies and expose pathologies at the root of the relationship between colonizer and colonized.  Focusing on the uses of intelligence testing between the 1920s and 1940s, this paper argues that innovations in the science of mind exposed deep fault lines within the “imperial ruling class”: between missionaries, officials, and settlers; between development-oriented technocrats and scientific racists; between advocates of social efficiency and champions of social justice.  Although those who wanted to use psychometric data to demonstrate the inferiority of colonized populations did not achieve wide influence in this period, the reformist educators and pragmatic bureaucrats who outmaneuvered them nonetheless failed to realize their own ambitions for diffusing opportunity across racial lines.  In mental testing, as in other areas, psychology ultimately did more to reveal the limits of imperial authority than to strengthen it.