In Memoriam as in Life: Gender and Psychology in the Obituaries of Eminent Psychologists

By Radtke, H Lorraine; Hunter, Madelene et al. | Canadian Psychology, November 2000 | Go to article overview

In Memoriam as in Life: Gender and Psychology in the Obituaries of Eminent Psychologists


Radtke, H Lorraine, Hunter, Madelene, Stam, Henderikus J, Canadian Psychology


Abstract

The obituaries of eminent psychologists represent a reflexive moment in which psychologists writing about other psychologists construct their oft-times beloved colleagues, mentors, and friends as gendered persons who have made important contributions to the discipline. They are therefore a useful site to study the normative prescriptions of gender and psychology. We conducted a discourse analysis of 82 obituaries of women and men that appeared in the American Psychologist between January 1979 and July 1997. We conclude that the predominant image of the successful psychologist remains the "male scientist" and the dominant image of psychology as a discipline remains the neo-positivist version of science. As a consequence, women's contributions to the discipline are marginalized relative to those of men, and epistemological and theoretical controversies that might well lead to significant changes in disciplinary practices are "smoothed" over and ignored.

Although the object of psychology is people, a rarely explored topic is the applicability of psychological knowledge to psychologists themselves. Instead, the reflexive nature of the scientific enterprise within psychology is relegated to the status of a problem to be managed, requiring elaborate methodological safeguards to ensure that the psychologists' self-understandings do not intrude into psychological research or practice (Morawski, 1994). Nevertheless, psychologists, including the most ardent objectivists (Coan, 1979), have frequently had an interest in the personal dimensions of their own and each other's lives and research. For example, Jill Morawski (1992) has argued that both in public documents and private correspondence, psychologists during the age of theories (1890-1940) engaged in various self-reflexive writings which were closed to them in their formal theorizing. Because they kept these selfreflexive texts outside most of their public pronouncements, such texts were never examined in relation to their theoretical work. Yet, as Morawski (1992) pointed out, they had a lasting impact on their understanding of their subject matter and their laboratory practices. This paper will present one such occasion for self-reflexive practice, the writing of an obituary about one's eminent colleagues.

Psychologists rarely present their private selves to the public. Occasionally, someone whose career has had a major impact on the discipline writes an autobiography (e.g., Skinner, 1984). In other cases, a psychologist may write an autobiography to make public the relationship' between their life and the kind of psychology they practiced or wished to see (e.g., Brandt, 1982; Sarason, 1988). More commonly, biographies are written after the deaths of psychologists considered by their colleagues to have had an impact on the discipline (e.g., James, Watson, Skinner, and so on). Biographers, of course, make use of a variety of sources that are not public, for example, letters, unpublished papers, reminiscences from friends and family members - sources that form a framework within which to contextualize the individual's contributions.

A more limited form of contextualization occurs within obituaries published for the deceased psychologist's professional colleagues. Stylized and limited in extent, such obituaries are not critical reviews but instead serve to mourn the passing of a colleague who may have been a mentor or close friend of the obituary writer, and to remind the readers of someone whose contributions to psychology may have ceased years before their death. As respectful and relatively noncritical summaries of the deceased's work, they necessarily do not offer the lengthy evaluation of the person and their work expected in a biography. Nevertheless, such obituaries make a broad professional contribution to the discipline. As "celebratory" histories (Danziger, 1994), they remind the reader of what has been accomplished within psychology. …

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