In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton

By Elisabeth Griffith | Go to book overview

METHODOLOGICAL NOTE
Stanton in Psychological Perspective

As the repetition of phrases like "role model" and "behavior" may have signaled, this biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton is based on a psychological theory. To explain and illuminate Stanton's motivation and behavior, I have employed social learning theory, a tool I found well suited to biography. In terms of social learning theory, Stanton defined and developed a model of independent behavior, and then achieved it. Her sense of self-sovereignty provided her with an ideal role on which to pattern her life.

In the same way that historians attempt to explain events, biographers try to elucidate motivation. In the past this has been done by a straightforward statement of the facts of a life, as the biographer had determined them. Readers were left to draw their own conclusions. Yet biographers from Plutarch to Parson Weems have relied at least implicitly on some assumptions about personality and behavior to account for the actions of their subjects. They drew from their own experience or "common sense" or from the prevailing explanatory modes of their times—mythological, religious, economic, whatever. Such early approaches lacked the discipline of a sustained framework.

Although the craft of biography became more sophisticated at the turn of the century, under the pen of Lytton Strachey, and the available tools improved, most biographies remain assertive and impressionistic. The principal personality theory used in biography in the twentieth century, when any theory is employed, is psychoanalytic, based on the theories of Sigmund Freud. 1 Rapid advances in knowledge about human behavior have created competition among theories and confusion among amateurs. Concepts that were startling sixty years ago have become widely accepted as "common sense" interpretations today and incorporated into child-raising practices, educational theory, management systems, art history, and politics. Terms like "identity crisis," "Oedipal complex," and "egocentric" have become part of our everyday vocabulary. Nonetheless many biographers are hesitant to use them.

There are valid reasons for reservations about psychological methodology. First, few biographers hold dual degrees in history and psychology, and fewer are medical doctors with a specialty in psychiatry. Biographers lack the training and experience to deal with psychological models. Second, social scientists often present their arguments and evidence in an unfamiliar format or unfathomable jargon. Further, historians are skeptical about the nature and validity of the evidence on which some theories of personality are based. For example, Freudian theory regards early childhood experiences as formative, if not determinative. But for many biographers data from this period are inaccessible or inadmissible as evidence.

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