Irina Sirotkina and Roger Smith

Psychological society and social change in Russia

Psychology in Russia: State of the Art. Scientific Yearbook. Ed. by Yu.P. Zinchenko & V.F. Petrenko. Moscow: Lomonosov Moscow State University; Russian Psychological Society, 2010. Pp. 626-645
“Psychological society” is a term found in a number of analyses of what is characteristically modern, or perhaps postmodern, in the contemporary world. It is assumed that it is a feature of “western” ways of life, and this assumption immediately poses the question, how widely to employ it as a term of analysis. To what extent do, or will, countries which are not “western,” not least the Russian Federation, follow the “western” pattern of social change and thus, too, develop a psychological society, albeit their own version of it?

We should remember that the term “psychological society,” like other terms of social analysis such as “modernity,” “postmodernity,” “democracy,” and “globalization,” signals a contribution to debate about the course cultural, social, economic, and political life is taking rather than denoting one discrete, concrete process. It is not the point to impose precise definitions. We shall use the term to raise questions about the place psychology has as a field, an almost unimaginably diverse field, of thought, research, social institutions, and practical interventions in the world around us. These questions are extremely relevant in Russia, though psychologists and social scientists, as well as less formal observers of the changing Russian scene, have so far given them little attention. Our intention is to provide a handy guide to the notion of psychological society, while keeping our wish to know more about what is going on in Russia constantly in view. (The current paper is a completely rewritten and much enlarged version of a conference discussion paper, published as Sirotkina and Smith, 2006.) The aim is not conceptual or analytic originality but the application of a discursive tool. It is a tool that, we think, Russian psychologists themselves, as well as social scientists, might find useful when they reflect on the changes to which they, whether self-consciously or not, contribute. Moreover, we presume, Russia, whatever its particular characteristics and circumstances, is not a unique case; elements of our analysis may apply to other countries.

The coming into being of a psychological society has a double character. Its most tangible manifestation is the sheer rise in numbers of those calling themselves psychologists and having psychology as an occupation, that is, earning a living from doing something called psychology. As everyone is well aware, substantial numbers of psychologists have been active in countless ways in western countries – in medicine, the military, factories, business corporations, education, and so – especially since the 1940s. The numbers of people involved are large; for example, in the 1980s there were over 100,000 members of the American Psychological Association – the numbers have risen since, and there were about 20,000 registered psychologists in the Netherlands (the country which then probably had the highest density of psychologists per head of population in the world) (Gilgen and Gilgen, 1987). There were nothing like this number of psychologists in the Soviet Union; but yet there were notable numbers both academic (in teaching universities and in the research institutes of the Academy of Sciences) and in applied areas like sport and space research. Then, since the end of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, there has been a conspicuous increase in psychology’s visibility in the public arena. We are here self-conscious about the absence of numbers in describing the contemporary Russian situation. But providing reliable numbers is a complex matter, for two simple reasons: there is no central organization which might assemble a record, and, more deeply, measurement depends on deciding who is or is not a psychologist, and about that there is no agreement. The Russian Psychological Society accepts those who “work as psychologists” on the basis of two recommendations of its members (Ustav Obscherossiiskoi obschestvennoi organizatsii “Rossiiskoe Psikhologicheskoe Obschestvo”). Thus, according to some sources, by the new millenium in the Russian Federation, there were 64,000 in education (each school, at least in theory, has a position of psychologist), and there were about 700 centers of medical, social, and psychological help. (Nefedova, Pakhomov, and Rozin, 2001; quoted in Yurevich & Ushakov, 2007). It might well be that both the amount of academic research in psychology and a public interest in the field have expanded very rapidly. Empirical fieldwork would be needed to assess this. What we can now put forward within the limited confines of this paper is an analysis of a conceptual tool which, we think, should have a key place in such work.

The increase in the numbers of psychologists and amount of psychological activity is one side of the story. At the same time, it also is a feature of psychological society that people, people in all walks of life, become psychological subjects. The point is not the self-evident one that when there are lots of psychologists, lots of people become their clients, though they do. (The self-promoting character of psychotherapeutic research in the Russian context is discussed in Sosland, 1999.) The point is that there is what we call a psychological society when people come to take for granted that their identity, mode of life, social relations, relationship with life and death, character and behavior, and pleasures and pains are bound up with their psychological nature. In psychological society, “the self,” understood as an individual psychological subjectivity, as the locus of agency. Psychological society contrasts with other kinds of society – such as religious or communist ones – in which identity and purpose do not primarily depend on what we understand as the psychological dimension. In a psychological society, people, of course including psychologists themselves, acquire a psychological subjectivity, a way of representing themselves to themselves and to others, as psychological subjects. There is therefore a sense in which, in psychological society, each person becomes her or his own psychologist – and hence the difficulty of counting “psychologists.”

This double character of psychological society – the growth to a significant size of the numbers of psychologists and psychological activity, and the rise to dominance of representations of the human world in terms of psychological “selves” – has deep philosophical roots. This is visible even in the semantics of the word “psychology”: the word denotes a branch of knowledge and, at the same time, it denotes states which individual people have and which is the subject matter of that branch of knowledge. (This led the English psychologist and historian of psychology, Graham Richards, to refer to the former, the disciplinary field, as Psychology, big P, and the latter, psychological states, as psychology, little p [Richards, 2002, pp. 6-10].) That one word can have this double meaning reflects the existential condition in which the human being is both the subject and the object of knowledge in the human sciences, the knower and the known, that which reflects and that which is reflected on in conscious life.

Awareness of this double character of any discipline which has “the human” as its subject prompts, in turn, a very large claim: knowledge of what it is to be human changes what it is to be human. Indeed, this claim is at the heart of an argument that what distinguishes the human sciences (including psychology) from the natural sciences is that human subjects recreate themselves, by knowing themselves, and physical objects do not. For example, the Russian cultural critic Mikhail Epstein wrote: “The cultural sciences may be distinguished from the natural sciences in that the former play a key role in constituting their subject matter” (1995, p. 287). There is a literature about this argument, linked to the topic of “reflexivity” (Smith, 2007). Psychotherapy provides an elementary and uncontroversial illustration of the reflexive character of knowledge in the human sciences: the whole point of therapy is to give a client understanding, new knowledge, in order to help the client, at least to a degree, to be different. “As the knowledge that we may have of our own mental powers is reflexive knowledge, the object of knowledge and the knowing subject change and extend their range together” (Hampshire, 1960, p. 255). Taking an even wider view, reflexive knowledge could be said to be the founding principle of “the Enlightenment project” to make rational knowledge of being human the foundation of a better world. Certainly, the hopes invested in this project supported the large expansion of the psychological and social sciences in the twentieth century. The “enlightened” view that these sciences are needed for the better ordering of human affairs is precisely dependent on the reflexive character of knowledge. We can say that, from the beginning, psychology and the social sciences have been “applied” fields; we cannot know ourselves independently of that knowledge affecting how we live. If people understand thinking, acting, and hoping as psychological, as opposed to, say, religious or political acts, this will change social realities.

A psychological society, then, is a society in which the circle tying together the representation of human nature in psychological terms and the formation of human beings as psychological subjects becomes a major feature of social structure. Since such a society came into being in the twentieth century in many western countries, it is natural to ask the question whether at least elements of such a society are now coming into existence in Russia (and other countries). We will venture some responses to this question in this paper. The further question, whether this change, if it is indeed occurring, is for the better or for the worse, is a matter for ethical and political judgment. We think that matters are so complex that no black and white judgments meet the case.

It is very important, following also from the double character of psychology, that in psychological society there are “popular” forms of psychology as well as “scientific” forms. (We use the conventional language in drawing this distinction, and we will not continue to put the terms scare quotes, though the terms are themselves of great sociological interest.) If framing knowledge in psychological terms and being a person with a psychology go hand in hand, and if there is a sense in which each person is her or his own psychologist, then, naturally, there will be literature on psychology for general, public audiences, the audiences of ordinary people, as well as a literature for those who, in a specialist or narrowly scientific sense, call themselves psychologists. And, indeed, it is well known that in the twentieth century the genre of publication, and similar activities called popular psychology flourished, and this shows every sign of continuing in the present. This literature and activity, in particular, encompasses “self-help” and “therapy.” In Russia, since 1991, the genre, largely new, has expanded very rapidly, and its contemporary prominence is visible in any bookshop. Moreover, the growth of popular psychology is not just as a literary genre but evident in the media generally. Psychologically-oriented discussion is now a pre-eminent feature of Russian TV (which is entirely state controlled), in chat-shows, interviews, and soap opera alike.

It is this popular dimension of psychological society which makes any attempt to measure the numbers of psychologists or amount of psychological activity so problematic. If everybody is in some sense a psychologist … However, in western countries, and most especially in the United States, there is a long history of legislating and policing a social border between those who, by virtue of a training and hence a supposed expertise, can legitimately claim to be psychologists, in the sense of practising and earning money from a psychological occupation, and those who cannot. This institutionalization of a psychological profession is yet another feature of psychological society, and it is one to which a number of historians interested in the professions have contributed. Constructing a border and thus creating a well-defined psychology profession has proved a very difficult and complex matter indeed, especially in the area of psychotherapy – as the experience of France dramatically illustrates (Ohayon, 1999). Common English usage, it is true, distinguishes scientific from popular psychology, with the implication that the former is “real” psychology, that is, founded on knowledge, in a way that the latter is not. Psychologists who work in the academic setting have a particular interest in maintaining this distinction and policing the boundary. All the same, there are many problems in upholding the border, and these are very apparent in Russia. In Russia, we find little or no history of policing a border around psychology, for example by legislating to delimit occupational categories in the manner of western countries. In the Soviet Union, the borders were simply given by virtue of training; there was no popular psychology for the scientific psychologists to be in competition with. Expertise was, in general, a socially unquestioned fact of a rigid social system. Now, however, the situation has dramatically changed. A large number of people, some of whom make themselves very visible on TV and in the newspapers, claim to be psychologists, a claim which offends and troubles academic, scientific psychologists. An unknown number of self-styled psychotherapists advertise for clients. Thus, there is now in Russia some discussion about shaping and disciplining a legally recognized profession, yet another sign that there is a tendency towards the form of a psychological society.

We can envisage sociological, perhaps ethnographic, empirical research to confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis that Russia is acquiring the attributes of a psychological society. Standard qualitative methods, such as the questionnaire, participant observation and discourse analysis, ought to be adaptable to finding out whether people perceive themselves as adopting psychological approaches to everyday human problems and to the representation of their self-identity. But such work has not been done. Not the least of its problems would be the extraordinary width and flexibility of what counts as psychological. For example, Russian television is packed with stories about family life, conflict between parents, violence against children, emotional shock, heavy drinking – stories which the perpetrators and the victims commonly enough tell in psychological terms. What impact does this have?

We are arguing that it may be constructive to shape questions and research on the changes taking place in Russia around the characterization of psychological society. These questions are most obviously about the growth and spread of psychology as an occupation; but they are more fundamentally about the growth and spread of psychology as a way of being in the world, a form of life, and of people’s understanding of their own nature and identity. What are the implications in Russia, and of course elsewhere, of people coming to believe that who they are, how they act, and what they may hope for are psychological questions?

We therefore now discuss some literature relevant to our theme and use this literature to provide a historical context for thinking further about the contemporary changes. For our purposes, we can group this literature under four headings (though, clearly, the four classes overlap and are not independent of each other):

1. Descriptions of the development of the different occupations of psychology, in different countries, in the twentieth century.
2. Studies of the social, historical character (or, more controversially, the social construction) of the subject matter of psychology.
3. Sociological accounts, linking the past and the present, which explore relations between individualism, modernity, and psychology. This literature includes work that takes the form of critique, the exposure to analysis of what are held to be problems and limitations of psychological society.
4. The literature on the influential thesis that psychological society is the characteristic form of liberal democracies, that is, of societies in which government has become distinctively a matter of self-government, self-government for which psychology provides the discursive expression and practical discipline.

We will illustrate this literature and ask about the ways it might be related to the Russian setting.
Psychology as an occupation
There is a large and growing literature on the history of psychology as a defined profession or more generally as an occupation. This is most obvious for the United States where the sheer size of what goes on under the heading of psychology creates resources and interest for research on this state of affairs. The scale of psychological activity enables the history psychology to exist as an occupation in its own right. Authors like John C. Burnham (1988), James Capshew (1999), Ellen Herman (1995), and Donald S. Napoli (1981), and a substantial number of contributors to two U.S. journals, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences (f. 1965) and especially History of Psychology (a journal of the American Psychological Association, f. 1998), discuss the organization of U.S. psychology in the twentieth century. There are also significant studies of other countries, such as those on France and the Netherlands (Carroy, Ohayon, and Plas, 2006; Dehue, 1995). A number of pointers to the causes of the expansion of psychological society emerge. These include war (the mobilization of millions of soldiers, for example, created a huge resource for psychological testing and psychological therapy), or the threat of war, the creation of modern management and marketing organizations, and investment in child welfare and education as security for the future.

The literature centered on the profession or occupation of psychology merges with an older and more extensive genre, the history of psychological knowledge, theories and experiment, a literature which, by and large, has taken it for granted that the history of psychology is the history of scientific psychology (the long list starts with Boring, 1950). It might be said, if a little provocatively, that if this genre of history writing, by accumulating national and local studies, has demonstrated one thing, it is to show that there has been no psychology (in the singular) but a cluster of psychologies (in the plural). If we add in what has been written on the history of psychology as an occupation, and even more the history of popular psychology (see especially Thomson, 2006), we are even more struck by the utterly diverse nature of the field.

We prefer to refer to psychological occupations rather than to the psychological profession, for two reasons. First, the latter phrase gives a much too concrete idea that there is, and has been, a single profession, a single body of experts who, by virtue of training and knowledge, can be relied on to serve at one and the same time the purposes of science, specific clients, and the public good, and who, naturally, will expect to be rewarded with money and status for their contributions. The problem is that there has never been a settled agreement about who can be relied on, and for what purposes, in the psychological field, though it is true that the American Psychological Association, by taking an inclusive view, has achieved a united organizational structure. Many scientific psychologists, however, regard psychoanalysis and much of psychotherapy as irrelevant at best, and pernicious at worst, to their science. Second, the sheer diversity of psychology suggests the usefulness of referring to everything from modeling vision on computers to playing music to autistic children as psychological occupations. As our interest is psychological society, the whole range of occupations must be accorded its due.

We are discussing the twentieth century. In doing so, we imply that psychology, in all its forms, is indeed a feature of modernity. (Why and in what sense this might be thought to be true we return to later.) Thus we leave aside a large literature about “the origin” of psychology, or, as we think should be said, “the origins” of that multiplicity of activities called psychology. Any attempt to understand the historically “deep” sources of psychological society would have to go into this. While me may note that the large-scale expansion of the psychological occupations did indeed occur only in the twentieth century, and to a considerable extent only in the second half of the century, there are earlier precedents for some aspects of psychological society. For example, physiognomy and phrenology were interests long ago (the former from ancient times, the latter from the first decade of the nineteenth century) linking expert and popular psychological representations of individual nature and identity. (For our attempt to write this larger history, see Sirotkina, 2006; Smith, 1997, 2008.)

It is of course methodologically much more difficult to write the history of, let alone provide quantitative data for, the expression of ways of life in psychological terms than for the growth of the psychological occupations. Some of the literature referred to, particularly for the United States, does attempt to do this. This, however, is not the case with the Russian-language literature on the history of psychology in Russia and the Soviet Union. While there are secondary sources for the history of Russian psychology in the twentieth century, it overwhelmingly focuses on theory and the content of knowledge. (We attempt to summarize this in Sirotkina and Smith, forthcoming.) Moreover, the political history of the country (which itself has been a changing entity), which explicitly brought the political process to bear on the content as well as the activity of science, has naturally caused the historiography to concentrate on establishing what the history of scientific psychology has actually been rather than on seemingly secondary questions about psychology as an occupation or psychology as a popular form of understanding. All the same, it is beginning to be clear that the history of scientific psychology cannot be divorced from the history of the organization of psychology as a set of occupations. Notably, developments in science clearly turned around struggles for access to restricted and centrally controlled resources, resources for which the controlling power, the Central Committee of the Communist Party, had its own agenda.

There is no literature on the history of psychology in Russia since the changes of 1989-91. We and other observers take for granted, though on the basis of impressionistic evidence, like the range of books in bookshops, that there has been a remarkably rapid public turn to psychological forms of understanding. It is also the case that psychologists have found new possibilities for employment as private counselors, in business, in advising politicians, in education, in the health sector, and so on. By contrast, following the freezing of state salaries to scientists (like other professions) in the late 1980s, followed by the political decision very substantially to cut funding to science in the early Yeltsin years, academic or scientific psychology was seriously cut back. In psychology, as in other scientific occupations, there was a large-scale “brain-drain,” the economic emigration of trained scientific workers, or the emigration of workers seeking the professional development of their careers in the western manner. There is therefore a large question mark about exactly how much “cutting-edge” scientific psychological research of any kind continued in Russia, just at the same time as popular psychology burgeoned.

Two further developments somewhat mitigate this stark contrast between the state of scientific and of popular psychology. A large number of trained psychologists, that is people with at least a first degree in psychology, looked for and created openings in which they could earn a living and at the same time represent themselves as in a psychological occupation. There was, for example, a new interest in family therapy, in political psychology, and in organizational psychology. Secondly, interestingly, students flocked to psychology courses, creating new teaching possibilities, guaranteeing at least some income to established academic psychologists, and turning the teaching of low-level psychology into a major occupation. To our knowledge, there are several dozens institutions offering an equivalent of an MA in psychology in Moscow alone. The psychological research institutes of the Academy of Sciences and of the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, for example, began to teach for income. Their students, in turn, began to go on to open new occupational opportunities. This process would seem to be very significant part of what we perceive as the elements of a transition to a psychological society in Russia. Quite how many psychology students there are and what they in fact go on to do, nobody knows.
The social character (or construction) of psychological knowledge
Psychological selves – individuals who understand their identity in psychological terms – as well as psychologists and psychological knowledge take a leading place in the structure of psychological society. The relevant literature therefore includes studies of the history and philosophy of the coming into existence of psychological selves and of the states or processes (memory, the unconscious, emotion, or whatever) that people in psychological society think of as “the nature” of the psychological realm. Here there is a major area of philosophical disagreement, which we must briefly note.

Many scientists, like ordinary people, are more or less realists in their theory of knowledge. (We generalize, and of course this and other generalizations need to be qualified.) Thus psychologists (though not all) take it for granted that the processes they study, like perception, memory, intelligence, and cognition, are “real” processes. Using philosophers’ terms, psychologists assume that their subject matters are “natural kinds.” Most (though not all) scientific psychologists and, we presume, all popular psychologists do not question the epistemological status of the subject matter of the psychological field, however diverse it is in practice; they consider it as basically “given” by nature and having an objective existence independently of local, historical, and social circumstances. It is because of this that it appears natural to write the history of psychology as the progress of the science towards objective knowledge. It is also because of this that it appears natural to believe that all human cultures have a psychology (if only a kind of proto-psychology or a “folk” psychology), a way of thinking about psychological things. And it is because of this that it appears natural to think of psychological society, to the extent that it exists, as the social consequence of the achievement of objective knowledge and expertise concerning the “real” psychological dimension of human existence.

These last “natural” conclusions are, however, vulnerable to criticism on two accounts. First, they assume that knowledge precedes practice and social change, that the causal arrow is from ideas to action, whereas there are good reasons for rejecting this conventional distinction between ideas and practice. Psychological society is “psychological” precisely because the practice of selves acting as psychological subjects, and likewise being acted on, goes hand in hand with the creation of knowledge claims about psychological nature. Moreover, in empirical terms, if we look for the roots of modern psychology, the evidence is that they lie at least as much in practical activities, like assessing character or bringing up children, as in theory. It is not possible to maintain a fundamental distinction between scientific and applied psychology. Of course, there are different occupations: modeling the transfer of information from the retina to the cortex, in research designed to confirm or refute an empirical claim, is very different from working with the speech of a child, in a practice designed to enable a child to attend an ordinary school. But in psychological society, the latter kind of practice is as much a source of theory as theory is a source of practice. Psychological knowledge is not something first attained and then applied; the knowledge itself emerges in the course of action. (We will make more of this in the following sections.) Moreover, if knowledge of people, reflexively, changes the nature of people, just as the way people live influences the form of knowledge they have about themselves, there can be no separation of “pure” and “applied” knowledge (though the terms may retain local, descriptive use).

Second, there is no agreement about the coherence and authority of the naive theory of realism on which the conclusions depend. The relevant literature in the theory of knowledge is huge and sophisticated, and it is very difficult, apparently even for specialists, to know how to add something new, and we do not pretend to do so (Tauber, 1997). But we can and do note that, over the last fifty years, a substantial part of this literature, stemming both from the analytic philosophy of the English-speaking world and the more systematic “theory” of the continental European tradition, holds naive realism to be untenable. The key point is the following: it is not possible to state the meaning of empirical statements independently of prior theoretical assumptions, and hence any statement about what is “real” always incorporates some kind of presumption which cannot be derived from the body of knowledge of what is judged “real.” Building in part on this argument, there is some literature that questions the whole basis on which psychologists assume that they study “natural kinds” (Kusch, 1999). In addition, some historical researchers suggest that the categories in terms of which psychologists study the world, and even the category “psychology” itself, along with the subject matter now placed in these categories, have a history – that is, there is evidence that the subject matter of psychology has a history (Danziger, 1990, 1997; Smith, 2005). These arguments are very far-reaching. They suggest that the subject matter of psychology has a historically specific nature: neither scientific nor popular psychologists have the cognitive authority to extrapolate and make claims about human nature “as such.” And they support this paper’s argument for the necessity of seeking historical and sociological knowledge of psychological society – in its double character, both the activity of doing psychology and having psychological states.

From the point of view of a theory of knowledge arguing for the historical origin of the subject matter of what are now basic psychological categories, psychological society clearly has the status of a historically constructed way of life. It does not have unique status as the society which has come closest to objective knowledge of what it is to be human. Rather than making such grandiose claims, we might turn our attention to the historical processes in which particular bodies of knowledge acquired the authority to pronounce themselves “objective,” “scientific,” and achieving understanding of “nature.” The criticism of realist epistemology opens up the possibility of knowledge of the formation of psychological society and of psychological states or processes as two dimensions of a single historical development. By this route, the study of psychological society becomes part of the discipline of social psychology itself, part of the knowledge we need in order to understand the social nature of psychological life. The interest is in how psychological processes have come to have the nature they do have, and in the West that nature exists as part of psychological society.

There is a complex twentieth-century intellectual background for this kind of work. One would have to make reference, at least, to the German-language cultural sociology suggested by Georg Simmel and Max Weber, to the Durkheimian school developing the study of social representations and mentalité, and to the U.S. research on “culture and personality” (a phrase spread by Gordon Allport). In different ways, this work promoted studies of the changing nature of human consciousness, for example consciousness of time or of “the religious,” in research directions that quite a number of psychologists have been willing to accept. (For an introductory survey of relevant sources, see Valsiner and van der Veer, 2000.) Indeed, around 1960, there began to be an accepted branch of the psychological field called “historical psychology.” But, as we have already indicated, there have been and still are very different views about how far to take a commitment to the historical construction of “the psychological.” To recognize that conscious experience may have changed is one thing; to recognize that the very nature of experience, and hence psychology’s subject matter, is historically constructed is quite another. We suggest that the analysis of psychological society adds weight to the latter point of view.

The Canadian social psychologist Kurt Danziger has provided a highly specific, historically detailed, analysis of the social construction of key twentieth-century psychological categories, like intelligence and personality. His book, Constructing the Subject (1990), demonstrated, with a precision previously lacking in such studies, how the search for an objective experimental science of psychology in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries achieved a discourse about the “natural” status of the subject matter which its own innovative practices brought into existence. The category of intelligence, in particular, has attracted the interest of a large number of historians of psychology, besides Danziger, for the obvious reason that it has been, and continues to be, so central to the politics of educational policy. A considerable body of historical and sociological evidence supports the view that intelligence is indeed a social construct, a function of testing procedures, procedures which are part of the practical means by which governments administer the population in a time of state-legislated universal education (e.g., Carson, 2007; Richards, 1997; Zenderland, 1998). Extensive testing for human capacities (not just for intelligence) is, we note, one of the hallmarks of psychological society.

A realist epistemology, and hence opposition to the kind of view we are arguing for, has had an important place in Russian culture. In the Soviet Union, a form of philosophical realism, for which the authority was Lenin, was officially de rigueur. Perhaps more importantly, and more subtly at least in the later years of the regime, scientists, including psychologists, clove to scientific realism as an ethical as well as epistemological stance, a stance from which they could oppose the objective, truth content of science to the party-political content of state-imposed culture that was increasingly in disrepute. Thus in neither communist nor dissident Russia was there an intellectual environment supportive of historical, social constructionists arguments about psychological categories. Nonetheless, owing to the work of Lev S. Vygotksy and of those associated with him, work that began to have a pronounced influence from about 1960 (though Vygotsky died in 1934), it was possible for Russian psychologists to believe that, in their own Russian contributions, they had the solution to the old debate about what nature and culture contribute to the subject matter of the field of psychology (van der Veer and Valsiner, 1991). Vygotksy, it was maintained, had laid the basis for a “historico-cultural theory” in psychology, for realist knowledge of how “the nature” of a child develops and achieves expression in the context of human history. In the light of “historico-cultural theory”, it might perhaps be thought that the literature we have been discussing on the social construction of psychological categories and on the formation of psychological society is of limited value and interest. But, we would say, this judgment fails to come to terms with what writers like Danziger have actually been arguing. There is no reason to think the categories and subject matter of Vygotksy’s science, however stimulating its effect has been for research on the biological and cultural development of the child, are any less subject to the social constructionist argument than any others. Vygotsky had a theory of the social development of the child, not a theory of the emergence of psychological society, and what we have been saying about the latter is not altered by whatever conclusions appear correct in the former. Since the political changes, however, it would appear that Russian scientists, including psychologists (in contrast to scholars in the humanities), have not lowered their suspicion of any theory of knowledge which, as they see it, opens opportunities for social or political intervention in the pursuit of science. In fact, however, political intervention has come since the changes in the simple form of removal of funding, producing all the shifts in the employment and activity of psychologists that we are noting.
Psychology, individualism, modernity
The conception of psychological society is an offshoot, or refinement, of earlier sociological theories with a wider frame of reference, theories about the nature of modernity. Under the heading of “modernity” social scientists attempt to describe and explain what has made western society, beginning especially in the seventeenth century, distinctive. This is not the place to examine these extremely complex theories, and we only point to the concordance between psychological ways of thought and of being human and characteristics, individualism and instrumental rationality, that are thought of as central to modernity. Modern psychology overwhelmingly frames or conceptualizes its subject matter as states or processes of individuals. Even much social psychology, though especially its North-American experimental varieties, has done this. The psychological occupations have expanded and received political support because psychologists claimed, and a sufficient weight of opinion believed them, that psychological knowledge and expertise has instrumental value, that is, is necessary for the well-being of the individuals who are taken to be the core agents and entities of modern society. Psychological society is the form taken by a society adapted to the assumption that the individual is logically, ethically, and existentially prior to the social. In modern society, knowledge and expertise about individual psychological states and processes is fundamental to “the good life.”

The literature on psychological society, connecting such society to the conditions of modernity, is therefore essential for psychologists’ knowledge, their perspective, on their own position in society. The capacity of a social group, such as professional, scientific psychologists, to reflect on its own social position, is also called “reflexivity” (a second meaning of the term). The notion of psychological society is part of the reflexivity necessary if the psychological field is to have a critical dimension.

Sociological theories of modernity were never neutral, purely descriptive, since they conveyed, implicitly or explicitly, evaluations about what is gained and lost in the process of modernization. The early, classic studies by writers like Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, and Herbert Spencer – not coincidentally also known as founders of sociology – identified a rising individualism as an ambiguous event, considered from the point of view of the ethical ideals which animated their social philosophies. (In modernity, something is always rising, such as the bourgeoisie, and something is always being lost, such like Weber’s “enchantment of the world” or community!) This awareness of the moral ambiguity of individualism has continued to be a feature of sociological analysis through the work of Ferdinand Tönnies, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and others of their generation down to the present. It is therefore not surprising that in the literature on psychological society there is an element of critique, a critical response to the way in which excessive, even exclusive, attention to individual, psychological states and processes reveals political limitations to modernity, limitations most visible, critics avert, in the culture and politics of the United States.

In briefest outline, we might state the thesis linking psychological society to modernity in the following way. In pre-modern societies, place in a community determines a person’s identity; and, indeed, this raises the historical question about when and in what sense the notion and reality of “self” came into existence. (Seigel, 2005) Then, it is argued, in modernity contractual relationships replace communities, and individuals, legally constituted and emancipated from socially fixed identities, acquiring “personal” psychological characteristics and a new subjectivity, become the basic units of social life. The material, economic dimensions of this process shape the modern market, wealth as a measure of human well-being, and consumption as the expressive form of existence. Psychology develops in this context as the science of the understanding and management of the individual and of her or his capacity to take part in the complex relationships on which everything depends. Psychology acquires the special role of providing management where individuals fail to do so, for whatever reason (from grief, to hyper-activity, to being born different). Simultaneously, reflexively, modern people develop a self-understanding in psychological terms and exhibit the psychological states which this self-understanding posits.

The critical dimension of this thesis lies in the judgment that when people represent and understand themselves and others in psychological terms, they do so at the expense of the ability to represent and understand social and political processes. Discourses about social structures and institutions, the character of political power, and the social underpinnings of judgments about truth, not least, about psychological knowledge itself, have less meaning. The term “psychologization” describes the replacement of a social (or theological or philosophical) understanding by a psychological one. An infamous instance is provided by the Harvard psychologist, Richard J. Herrnstein, who proposed, in 1968 during fierce campus action against the Vietnam war, to understand protest in terms of adolescent rebellion rather than politics. More seriously, sociologists and social critics, such as Richard Sennett, in The Fall of Public Man (1986), and Christopher Lasch, in The Culture of Narcissism (1980), discussed aspects of the collapse of civil society and its replacement by individualized goals and discourses. Lasch referred scornfully to “the me generation,” an age in which people invest in life-style, personal beauty and fitness, and psychotherapy as if such individualized responses could address the collective vicissitudes of modern life. Many observers have noted a trivialization of the political process, most clearly visible in the media attention given to the individualized, psychological dimension of personality.

In the 1980s, this literature on modernity acquired, with claims about the transition to postmodernity, an extra layer of complexity. We do not have to arbitrate the dispute about whether, and if so in what form, there has been a major social and cultural transformation. What we can note is that discussion of postmodernism enriched the analysis of individualism by suggesting that new kinds of self-identity are coming into existence. Some observers argued that in postmodern conditions there is a form of life in which there is no prospect of stable identities and no grounds for hope in a rational political process, as this was understood in the Enlightenment tradition. The Polish-British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, for example, described contemporary western life-style in terms of a chronic instability and fluidity in human relations, conditions in which, as he pictured it, the recreation of individual identity acts as a surrogate for any more permanent features of community. (Bauman, 2001) Within this postmodern world, individualized psychological categories and a psychological language for personal character continue to be taken for granted; the very fluidity of personal identity appears to reinforce the attractiveness of psychological discourse. Yet, at the same time, there is an emphatic shift towards genetic, evolutionary, and neuroscientific forms of explanation in psychology, explanation that stresses the “given” character of psychological identity. There appears to be a substantial contradiction between belief that identity is “given” (e.g., by genes) and that identity is chosen (e.g., by cosmetic surgery). Perhaps such contradictions are exactly what gives reference to postmodernity its meaning.

A central feature of psychological society is the attention accorded to psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, with its modern origins – whatever its ancient precedents – in the three or four decades before World War I, is, whatever one’s judgment about efficacy, a manner of expressing and of responding to human difficulties as the subjective possession of individuals. The staggering number and variety of therapies now on offer, merging into counseling and guidance to life-style, is the most vivid mark of psychological society. Once again, we emphasize that the phenomenon is not just the availability of psychotherapists but the self-presentation of ordinary people as suitable clients for treatment.

The intensity of commitment to certain kinds of psychotherapy, famously linked in the public mind with Freud and his “orthodox” followers, has always made it clear that psychotherapies are not neutral tools but active missions “to better” life. It is a cliché of critical observation to liken them to religions. It is here that we get to what many people would regard as the heart of psychological society: the re-creation of the purposes, ideals, and meaning of existence in terms of norms of psychological health – the assignment of “ultimate” significance to psychological understanding. In the literature examining this major cultural shift, the books by Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1961) and The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1987) are something of a benchmark. Rieff wrote: “Once again history has produced a type specially adapted to endure his own period: the trained egoist, the private man, who turns away from the arenas of public failure to reexamine himself and his own emotions. A new discipline was needed to fit this introversion of interest, and Freudian psychology, with its ingenious interpretations of politics, religion, and culture in terms of the inner life of the individual and his immediate family experiences, exactly filled the bill” (1961, pp. 2-3). Before Rieff, the less subtle and more directly political literature of the so-called “Left Freudians,” such as Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm, had tied together the structure of capitalist society with the structure of the psyche (Robinson, 1969).

The missionary character of psychological therapeutics has not been limited to Freudians or even to psychotherapy. The best-known British psychologist of the post-1945 years, Hans Eysenck, though famous for his scathing views about psychoanalysis, nevertheless shared the enthusiasm for psychological intervention: “Behavioural methods (behavioural therapy, behaviour modification, conditioning treatment) have been shown to be effective, quick and appropriate … we may be able within a measurable time to wipe out disabling fears, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, and many other serious neurotic disorders, possibly by sending around the country mobile treatment trucks fitted out as clinics, and staffed by clinical psychologists” (quoted in Rose, 1999, p. 233).

If we turn to post-1991 Russia, we must pose questions. The Soviet Union, it is clear, was not a psychological society. Traditionally Russians dealt with their personal problems without any professional psychological help, sharing them with friends rather then with psychotherapists. According to the survey quoted by Andrei Yurevich, only 6 per cent of the respondents have ever consulted a psy-specialist, and 44 per cent had no knowledge whatsoever about any psychological services. Yurevich, however, emphasizes that professional psychology legged behind pop-psychology in Russia. The same survey shows that 39 per cent watch TV programs on themes relevant to psychology, and 25 per cent read popular psychological literature. (Yurevich, 2006) Since the changes, the proliferation of different forms of psychotherapy, along with an even larger number of claimants offering psychological advice of one kind or another – as with the TV pundits who, describing themselves as psychologists, advise on bringing up children, sex-change, marriage problems, and so on – would seem to suggest that the country is rapidly, even precipitately, becoming a psychological society.

There is also a state-sponsored tendency to deploy psychologists in crises and conflicts (for instance, to help victims with “post-traumatic stress disorder” from armed conflicts in Chechnia and South Ossetia or after hostage taking). At the time of writing, in the Moscow metro one can hear advertising for a psychological help line, also state supported. All this might be interpreted as an attempt to represent human concern and to solve problems, which are hard to deal with by other means, with the help of psychology. Contemporary Russian politicians also widely employ PR specialists and personal advisers, often trained in psychologyIn addition, there is some interest in creating an “Orthodox” psychology, a psychology of the soul based on the faith and traditions of the Orthodox Church. The Church also started to offer psychological counselling alongside traditional advice from priests (« The Orthodox psychological service on-line » at [] as accessed August 21, 2008; for discussion of Christian psychology see [Bratus’, 1995], and the materials at the site[]).

Yet these developments may be superficial. It is not at all clear how far the ways of managing human affairs which were current in the Soviet period have in fact changed and become psychological. The first line of response to difficulties remains family and friends; relatively few trained therapists are available – or affordable – to the bulk of the population; where there is a turn to psychology for answers, the turn is often naive and shows little awareness of psychological forms of understanding; and “Orthodox” psychology has yet to show it is more than a restatement of Orthodox belief relatively uninformed by scientific psychology. Moreover, are psychological ways of thought limited to the old capital cities and absent from the regions, not to say the ethnically diverse republics of the Federation?

Discussion of psychological society may thus be a valuable tool for thinking about change in Russia. But the senses in which Russia is and is not acquiring characteristics of such a society remain to be studied empirically and analyzed with theoretical precision. Contemporary Russian circumstances may be conducive for the appearance of psychological society, if psychological society does, in some sense, develop as a replacement for civil society. It is relevant that the emerging Russian middle class is the main market for psychological practices and the main audience for popular psychology, and it would appear that this class tends to be individualist and a-political. The conclusions of the following section, however, will add to the reasons for caution. To anyone who cares about the dignity of the person, the current display of public discussion of people’s subjective worlds in crude psychological terms is pretty unpleasant. But the driving force is profits, audience attraction, and advertising income, rather than a conspiracy by psychologists. We do not know the outcome.

The government of the individual

One version of this thesis linking the psychological and the political, because of its sophisticated articulation and influence, justifies discussion in its own right. It takes further and reformulates the argument that psychological society is an alternative to, or a reshaping of, political life. The thesis, stated shortly, is that modern liberal democracies achieve government – the ordering and control of people in the state – through individuals exercising subjective control over themselves rather than by the state itself exercising force (or threat of force). The psychological attributes that give modern people their identity, their place in the market, and their purpose in life, in liberal democracies also govern them. In other words, the claim is that there are now societies (notably in the English-speaking world and in North-West Europe) in which “policing” is primarily a process which active citizens carry out on themselves. The contrast is with non-modern, non-liberal societies in which government requires the population to be passive, subject to policing by the state. The discourses and practices which foster and achieve this internalized, individualized system of managing social order, so the thesis claims, are the discourses and practices of modern psychology and related individualized systems of welfare.

The theoretical background to this thesis about differences in forms of government is in the work of Michel Foucault, especially his analysis of power in terms of disciplines for the regulation of the individual body (“bio-power”). Foucault maintained that, in the decades around 1800, a shift in discourse and practice established the modern subject matter of the human sciences, the human subject, as well as the disciplines of the human sciences (such as clinical medicine, psychology, linguistics, anthropology, and sociology). This new human subject, first visible in the hospital and lunatic asylum wards, the army, schools, factories, and prisons, was the disciplined person, the person subject to the administrative arrangements of the controlling state mediated through local institutions. The effect of new institutional arrangements, Foucault argued, was, unlike earlier kinds of repression, to create self-disciplining human subjects. Subsequently, the type of self-discipline imposed in such institutions became a model for new forms of individual subjectivity generally, a subjectivity formed and experienced as a self-controlling subjectivity. The originality and interest of this aspect of Foucault’s work lay with the way he understood power, as he understood it not as force exercised by the state over people but in the form of the constitution of particular ways of being people, of being selves. (Foucault, 1988, 1991)

The English sociologist Nikolas Rose, in The Psychological Complex (1985) and Governing the Soul (1999), adapted Foucault’s approach into a historical account of the rise and effects of psychological society in the English-speaking world. Here, and in a number of articles collected in Inventing Our Selves (1996; see also, 1993), he described the creation of a psychological societies in which there is a general expectation that individuals will govern themselves, thus making possible the kind of governmentalité (Foucault’s word) distinctive of liberal democracies. Downplaying the academic setting in the origins of modern psychologies, Rose turned to schools, prisons, clinical and lunatic hospital wards, and other institutions, and later armies and business and administrative organizations, for the sites where modern psychological society originated. The modern management of large numbers of people, the “rationalization” associated with modernity, has created a discourse about individual capacities and the technologies for measuring them, and this discourse has now acquired the appearance of objective truth about what makes people what they are and creates their identity. Bureaucrats had a particular interest in securing authority for decision-making through the objective measurement of the population. (Porter, 1995) Nineteenth and twentieth-century psychology was a two-way process: it constructed individual abilities as an object of control, and these abilities and their statistical study gave the psychological field subject matter, methodology, and expertise. Locating capacities and power in the individual also made possible liberal society: “Thus the formal limitations on the powers of ‘the state’ have entailed, as their corollary, the proliferation of a dispersed array of programs and mechanisms, decoupled from the direct activities of the ‘public’ powers, which nonetheless promise to shape events in the domains of work, the market, and the family to produce such ‘public’ values as wealth, efficiency, health, and well-being” (Rose, 1996, p. 155).

As noted earlier in this paper, most psychologists take it for granted that when they describe psychological capacities and attributes, they describe “natural kinds.” The “pure type” of this way of thinking was Cesare Lombroso’s identification of the criminal man or woman (the prostitute) as a member of a biological class, identifiable by inherited physical signs or symptoms (Becker and Wetzell, 2006). Lombroso’s work was discredited (though genetic theories of divergence from norms of behavior again arouse the enthusiasm of some psychologists), along with related ideas of degeneration. Nonetheless, the general principles that this work exemplified, determining the nature and identity of a person by comparing individual capacities in relation to social norms, remained. In twentieth-century psychological society, a discourse as much prescriptive as descriptive, about intelligence, development, personality, adaptability, and the like, flourished in programs for psychohygiene, family welfare, group dynamics, personnel training, and in many other areas. Furthermore, individual people internalized this discourse, becoming their own psychologists, judging and acting upon their own capacities in prescriptive relationships with social norms. There was a large literature and public exposure of popular psychology to help them, and when they failed or popular psychology was not enough, a growing body of experts, “the helping professions,” was ready to step in.

In the ideal of the liberal democratic state, it is the individual who is expected to act, to adapt, to manage. Rose’s thesis is that psychology is the science of this management. There will, of course, be debate about the extent to which the ideal has in fact been achieved, since all states continue to exert formidable coercive powers – powers enhanced in the last decade by the perception of groups of people in their midst who have not internalized psychological norms (exemplified by marginal groups of various kinds and, at the extreme, by “terrorists”). But this does not detract from the representation of the modern liberal citizen as an expert in self-management. As such, he or she has the obligation to draw on the necessary psychological knowledge and techniques. The individual in the liberal state is autonomous, but this autonomy carries the obligation to have a psychological identity, and this identity gives the individual an identifiable place in a social order, that is, it renders her or him party to the reigning form of government and administration.

Nobody naively supposes that any country has effected a complete transfer of power from the “external” state to the “internal” constitution of individuals. But there are real differences in forms of government, and the emergence or not of psychological society appears to be a significant factor in describing and explaining this. If we turn to the period of Soviet history, we see striking conformity between the state’s direct, centralized exercise of control over the population and the absence of psychological society. The state, it is true, employed psychologists in, for example, schools, the army, sport, and the space program, but the government, the psychological experts, and the public all understood this as the “top-down” employment of expertise for well-circumscribed, state-determined, practical goals. In the earlier, more utopian years of the 1920s, there were plans to develop psychology and psychiatry as part of a socialized program in mental hygiene, and this program’s proponents, like their western counterparts, certainly envisaged the penetration of psychological expertise into all walks of life as part of modern administration. (Sirotkina, 2002, 2008) The Bolshevik state adopted a national program of psychohygiene in the early 1920s, and a psychological dispensary (originally called a “neuropsychiatric” clinic), still existing today, became its base station. (Sirotkina, 2000) The dispensaries treated out-patients and popularized a healthy way of life. It was to be the job of a special staff of social workers to examine apartment houses and work places and to register people who were supposed to be in danger of developing a nervous condition or of becoming mentally deranged. In theory, this “neuropsychiatric” expertise was to cover the whole country. But the program was never carried through. After “the Great Break” announced in 1929, if not before, the centrally dictated rush to industrialize over-rode all other considerations. Later, the strongly institutionalized custom – the reflex of government and the expectation of the governed – of managing through exerting “external” control persisted. At the time when Foucault was developing his argument about the government of subjectivity, western psychiatrists and the western press were highly critical of the Soviet Union for using psychiatry as an “external” means of political repression against dissidents. There appeared to be a marked contrast between the Soviet state’s use of psychiatry as a direct instrument of control and the liberal manner of governing through each person’s acquired psychological identity. The contrast was obviously not absolute: there were critics who labeled western psychiatry and psychotherapy a system of political repression, and there was much internalized discipline in Soviet people. But there still was a contrast.

The emergence of elements of psychological society, to which we have already pointed, accompanied the post-1991 collapse of collectivist ways of organizing social and economic life and the introduction of entrepreneurial, individualist economic values into the new Russian Federation. The question then is, how much has changed? In addressing this, one must clearly recognize differences between the immediate post-1991 chaos and uncertainty and the post-1998 Putin era of apparent stability and economic growth (in some, if substantial, sectors). The last decade’s apparent stability, however, has seen the restoration of mechanisms for the vertical exercise of state power which, it is tempting to think, have hardly changed from tsarist and Soviet times. In contemporary Russia, there are, therefore, spreading psychological discourses and practices alongside a highly centralized and “top-down” pattern of government. There is no contradiction in this, no more than in liberal democracies where “external” management exists alongside “internal”, psychological self-regulation. In Russia, however, it may be particularly easy for tight state regulation and psychological discourse to exist together, since in Russian society, inherited from Soviet times, there is a marked division, which individuals manage with considerable experience and subtlety, between “private” and “public” spheres. Thus we can hypothesize that elements of psychological society pertain only to what is “private,” leaving the “public” domain to the traditional Russian variety of “external”, vertical authoritarian control.

In consequence, we must conclude that Russia does not have a psychological society in anything like the meaning of the term highlighted in the fourth section of the paper. The features of psychological society which are visible in contemporary Russia are, insofar as the political and economic dimension is concerned, superficial. The distribution of self-regulation as opposed to government-regulation appears strikingly different from that found in liberal democracies – an impressionistic observation which would appear worthy of systematic study. There is also the interesting possibility that, if “the psychological” is achieving considerable influence within the privatesphere, this influence is decoupled from the liberal democracy with which psychological society is associated in the West.
Our comments are broad-brush and raise questions rather than provide empirical answers. The purpose in this brief paper, however, is to suggest uses of the concept of psychological society, and of the literature around it, as an analytic tool for studying psychologies in social context. Other observers of the changes now taking place have not asked in what sense, and to what degree, the Russian Federation is adopting elements of a psychological society, and so it has been left to us to make a start. A discussion along these lines certainly ought to sharpen the questions which Russian academic psychologists ask themselves, troubled as they are by the future of their discipline in conditions of poor funding and of indeterminate boundaries around the science and authority of psychological knowledge and expertise. The discussion is also a step towards raising consciousness that the adoption of psychological ways of framing the nature and questions about human life is no neutral or natural step but the choice of one kind of social existence rather than another.

We might, in conclusion, summarize the paper as an attempt to see in perspective the psychological form of the narratives modern people tell in order to make sense of their lives and obtain some degree of personal and social control. The current emphasis on psychological narratives in not neutral, let alone “the truth,” but one way of living, a way of living with a history which we can trace and understand. We can also compare and contrast national patterns. By introducing the concept of psychological society, we hope to add to the resources for thinking about the roads which contemporary Russians, psychologists of all persuasions among them, are actually taking. We suggest that analysis of a possible shift towards psychological society is a more constructive way forward than ill-thought out laments about the spread of “popular” at the expense of “scientific” psychology. All of the many forms of psychology exist as practices with a social nature. There is need for a common way of understanding this social nature, such as the concept of psychological society provides, rather than leaving unexamined a contrast between “popular’ and “scientific’ manifestations of psychological activity.


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