Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation, and Subjectivity

By Julian Henriques; Wendy Hollway et al. | Go to book overview
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3

The subject of psychology

Couze Venn

For more than a hundred years now psychology has not ceased to calibrate the human subject. It has given itself the task of plotting the distribution of human characteristics, of charting people's 'abnormalities' and 'pathologies'; it has drawn up taxonomies of behaviour that seek to set the norms of human conduct. Its findings are inscribed in a multitude of practices in institutions of all kinds. But does psychology have the measure of the subject? And what do all these instruments regulate?

Canguilhem (1975), in his brief survey, gestures towards the same kind of interrogation of psychology when he remarks that

behavioural psychology in the 19th and 20th centuries has thought it could achieve its autonomy by cutting itself off from philosophy, that is to say, from the kind of speculation which seeks an idea of the human being by looking beyond the biological and sociological accounts…. Thus, the question 'what is psychology?', to the extent that philosophy is debarred from searching for the answer, becomes 'what do psychologists expect to achieve in doing what they do?' In the name of what have they set themselves up as psychologists?

(Canguilhem, 1975, p. 380)

I start with these questions because they immediately signal the gap which separates those who have come to vest their work as psychologists with the comforting authority of science, and those who want to pose the questions of what it is that psychology constructs, what its functioning in the social is, and in alliance with what practices it commands attention to its findings. On the one side stands the complacent group of those who imagine their task to be the objective, scholarly and neutral search for the psychic machinery of the human being. On the other are clustered those who anxiously wonder whether the cold instruments of their calibrations

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