Psychohistory is the study of the psychological motivations of historical events. It attempts to combine the insights of psychoanalysis with the research methodology of the social sciences to understand the emotional origin of the social and political behavior of groups and nations, past and present. Its subject matter is childhood and the family, and psychological studies of anthropology and ethnology.
Psychohistory derives many of its concepts from areas that are perceived to be ignored by conventional historians and anthropologists as shaping factors of human history, in particular, the effects of parenting practice and child abuse. According to conventional historians "the science of culture is independent of the laws of biology and psychology". and "[t]he determining cause of a social fact should be sought among social facts preceding and not among the states of individual consciousness".
Psychohistorians, on the other hand, suggest that social behavior such as crime and war may be a self-destructive re-enactment of earlier abuse and neglect; that unconscious flashbacks to early fears and destructive parenting could dominate individual and social behavior.
Psychohistory relies heavily on historical biography. Notable examples of psychobiographies are those of Lewis Namier, who wrote about the British House of Commons, and Fawn Brodie, who wrote about Thomas Jefferson.
Science fiction author and scientist/science writer Isaac Asimov popularized the term in his famous Foundation series of novels, though in his works the term psychohistory is used fictionally for a mathematical discipline that can be used to predict the general course of future history.
There are three inter-related areas of psychohistorical study.
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Sigmund Freud's well known work, Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), included an analysis of history based on his theory of psychoanalysis. Yet, Freud's text is in no way a psycho-historical work since the focus of the study is to examine and explain the level of individual psyche which may arise from the influence of the structures of civilization. It is in fact the opposite of psycho-history in that it claims that the unconscious and the individual psyche are both structural effects of different social forces, i.e., civilization.
Another member of the Frankfurt school, Theodor Adorno, published The Authoritarian Personality, in 1950, which was an influential sociological book which could be taken as something of a proto-psychohistorical book.
Its first academic use appeared in Erik Erikson's book Young Man Luther (1958), where the author called for a discipline of "psycho-history" to examine the impact of human character on history.
Lloyd deMause developed a formal psychohistorical approach from 1974 onwards, and continues to be an influential theorist in this field.
Psychohistorians have argued that psychohistory is a separate field of scholarly inquiry with its own particular methods, objectives and theories, which set it apart from conventional historical analysis and anthropology. Some historians, social scientists and anthropologists have, however, argued that their disciplines already describe psychological motivation and that psychohistory is not, therefore, a separate subject. Others regard it as an undisciplined field of study, due to its emphasis given to speculation on the psychological motivations of people in history. Doubt has also been cast on the viability of the application of post-mortem psychoanalysis by Freud's followers.
Psychohistorians maintain that the difference is one of emphasis and that, in conventional study, narrative and description are central, while psychological motivation is hardly touched on. Psychohistorians accuse most anthropologists and ethnologists of being apologists for incest, infanticide, cannibalism and child sacrifice. They maintain that what constitutes child abuse is a matter of objective fact, and that some of the practices which mainstream anthropologists apologize for (e.g., sacrificial rituals) may result in psychosis, dissociation and magical thinking: particularly for the surviving children who had a brother or sister who was sacrificed by their parents.
Psychohistorians have written much about changes in the human psyche through history; changes that they believe were produced by parents, and especially the mothers' increasing capacity to empathize with their children. Due to these changes in the course of history, different psychoclasses (or psychogenic modes) emerged. A psychoclass is a type of mentality that results from, and is associated with, a particular childrearing style, and in its turn influences the method of childrearing of the next generations. According to psychohistory theory, regardless of the changes in the environment, it is only when changes in childhood occur and new psychoclasses evolve that societies begin to progress.
|Mode||Childrearing characteristics||Historical manifestations|
|Infanticidal||Early infanticidal childrearing:
Ritual sacrifice. High infanticide rates, incest, body mutilation, child rape and tortures.
|Child sacrifice and infanticide among tribal societies, Mesoamerica and the Incas; in Assyrian and Canaanite religions. Phoenicians, Carthaginians and other early states also sacrificed infants to their gods.
On the other hand, the relatively more enlightened Greeks and Romans exposed some of their babies ("late" infanticidal childrearing).
|Late infanticidal childrearing:
While the young child is not overly rejected by the mother, many newborn babies, especially girls, are exposed to death.
|Abandoning||Early Christians considered a child as having a soul at birth, although possessed by evil tendencies. Routine infanticide was replaced by joining in the group fantasy of the sacrifice of Christ, who was sent by his father to be killed for the sins of others. Routine pederasty of boys continued in monasteries and elsewhere, and the rape of girls was commonplace.||Infanticide replaced by abandonment. Those children who survived the experience did not internalize a completely murderous superego. Longer swaddling, fosterage, outside wetnursing, oblation of children to monasteries and nunneries, and apprenticeship.|
|Ambivalent||The 12th century saw the first child instruction manuals and rudimentary child protection laws, although most mothers still emotionally rejected their children. Children were often treated as erotic objects by adults.||The later Middle Ages ended abandonment of children to monasteries. early beating, shorter swaddling, mourning for deceased children, a precursor to empathy.|
|Intrusive||During the 16th century, particularly in England, parents shifted from trying to stop children's growth to trying to control them and make them obedient. Parents were prepared to give them attention as long as they controlled their minds, their insides, their anger and the lives they led.||The intrusive parent began to unswaddle the infant. Early toilet training, repression of child's sexuality. Hell threats turned into the Puritan child so familiar from early modern childrearing literature. On the other hand, the end of swaddling and wet-nursing made possible the explosive modern takeoff in scientific advance.|
|Socializing||Beginning in the 18th century, mothers began to actually enjoy child care, and fathers began to participate in younger children's development. The aim remained instilling parental goals rather than encouraging individuation. Manipulation and spanking were used to make children obedient. Hellfire and the harsher physical disciplinary actions using objects to beat the child disappeared. The Socializing Mode remains the most popular model of parenting in North America and Western Europe to the present day.||Use of guilt, "mental discipline", humiliation, time-out, rise of compulsory schooling, delegation of parental unconscious wishes. As parental injections continued to diminish, the rearing of the child became less a process of conquering its will than of training it. The socializing psychoclass built the modern world.|
|Helping||Beginning in the mid-20th century, some parents adopted the role of helping children reach their own goals in life, rather than "socialize" them into fulfilling parental wishes. Less manipulation, more unconditional love. Children raised in this way are far more empathic towards others in society than earlier generations.||Children's rights movement, natural childbirth, the abandonment of circumcision, attachment parenting, Taking Children Seriously, unconditional parenting, Parent Effectiveness Training, deschooling and free schooling.|
Psychohistorians maintain that the five modes of abusive childrearing (excluding the "helping mode") are related to psychiatric disorders from psychoses to neuroses.
The chart below shows the dates at which these modes are believed to have evolved in the most advanced nations, based on contemporary accounts from historical records. A black-and-white version of the chart appears in Foundations of Psychohistory.
The Y-Axis on the above chart serves as an indicator of the new stage and not a measurement of the stage's size or relation to the x-axis.
The timeline doesn't apply to hunter-gatherer societies. It doesn't apply either to the Greek and Roman world, where there was a wide variation in childrearing practices. It is notable that the arrival of the Ambivalent mode of child-rearing preceded the start of the Renaissance (mid 14th century) by only one or two generations, and the arrival of the Socializing mode coincided with the Age of Enlightenment, which began in the late 18th century.
Earlier forms of childrearing coexist with later modes, even in the most advanced countries. An example of this are reports of selective abortion (and sometimes exposure of baby girls) especially in China, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, New Guinea, and many other developing countries in Asia and North Africa, regions in which millions of women are "missing". The conflict of new and old psychoclasses is also highlighted in psychohistorians' thought. This is reflected in political contrasts - for instance, in the clash between Blue State and Red State voters in the contemporary United States - and in civil wars.
Another key psychohistorical concept is that of group fantasy, which deMause regards as a mediating force between a psychoclass's collective childhood experiences (and the psychic conflicts emerging therefrom), and the psychoclass's behavior in politics, religion and other aspects of social life.
According to the psychogenic theory, since Neanderthal man most tribes and families practiced infanticide, child mutilation, incest and beating of their children throughout prehistory and history. Presently the Western socializing mode of childrearing is considered much less abusive in the field, though this mode is not yet entirely free of abuse. In the opening paragraph of his seminal essay "The Evolution of Childhood" (first article in The History of Childhood), DeMause states:
The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of childcare, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized and sexually abused.
There is notwithstanding an optimistic trait in the field. In a world of "helping mode" parents, deMause believes, violence of any other sort will disappear as well, along with magical thinking, mental disorders, wars and other inhumanities of man against man. Although, the criticism has been made that this itself is a form of magical thinking.
There are no departments dedicated to "psychohistory" in any institution of higher learning, although some history departments have run courses in it. Psychohistory remains a controversial field of study, facing criticism in the academic community, with critics referring to it as a pseudoscience. Psychohistory uses a plurality of methodologies, and it is difficult to determine which is appropriate to use in each circumstance.
DeMause has received criticism on several levels. His formulations have been criticized for being insufficiently supported by credible research. He has also received criticism for being a strong proponent of the "black legend" view of childhood history (i.e. that the history of childhood was above all a history of progress, with children being far more often badly mistreated in the past). Similarly, his work has been called a history of child abuse, not childhood. The grim perspective of childhood history is known from other sources, e.g. Edward Shorter's The Making of the Modern Family and Lawrence Stone's The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. However, deMause received criticism for his repeated, detailed descriptions on childhood atrocities:
The reader is doubtless already familiar with examples of these psychohistorical "abuses." There is a significant difference, however, between the well-meaning and serious, if perhaps simplistic and reductionistic, attempt to understand the psychological in history and the psychohistorical expose that can at times verge on historical pornography. For examples of the more frivolous and distasteful sort of psychohistory, see Journal of Psychohistory. For more serious and scholarly attempts to understand the psychological dimension of the past, see The Psychohistory Review.
Recent psychohistory has also been criticized for being overly-entangled with DeMause, whose theories do not speak for the entire field.
The Institute for Psychohistory was founded by Lloyd deMause. It has 19 branches around the globe and has for over 30 years published the Journal of Psychohistory. Also the International Psychohistorical Association was founded by Lloyd deMause (in 1977) as a professional organization for the field of psychohistory. It publishes Psychohistory News and has a psychohistorical mail order lending library. The association hosts an annual convention.
The Psychohistory Forum, publishes the quarterly journal Clio's Psyche. It was founded in 1983 by historian and psychoanalyst Paul H. Elovitz. This organization of academics, therapists, and laypeople holds regular scholarly meetings in New York City and at international conventions. It also sponsors an online discussion group.
In Germany, scientists taking an interest in psychohistory met annually since 1987. In 1992, the Gesellschaft für Psychohistorie und politische Psychologie e.V ("Society for Psychohistory and Political Psychology") was founded. This society issues the Jahrbuch für Psychohistorische Forschung ("Annual of Psychohistorical Research")