What we’re reading now: Ruling Minds: Psychology in the British Empire by Erik Linstrum

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Erik Linstrum discusses his research on the complex role played by psychologists in the British Empire.

How did the science of subjectivity which emerged in the twentieth century — the apparatus of mental tests, talking cures, and other techniques for measuring, exploring, and managing minds — matter to imperial rule?  Thanks to the work of Megan Vaughan, Richard Keller, Rebecca Lemov, and others, we know that twentieth-century empires drew on various kinds of expertise to map the stuff of inner life: dreams and desires, abilities and aptitudes, perceptions and imaginations.  Yet the juxtaposition of seemingly old-fashioned, verandah-bound, pith-helmeted imperial authority with the quintessentially modern tools of the laboratory and the analytic couch still seems surprising.  Did these methods — often seen as subtle and insidious mechanisms of control in Western societies — really advance imperial power on the remote frontiers of Africa, Asia, and elsewhere?


Ruling Minds cover


As I argue in my book, Ruling Minds: Psychology in the British Empire, techniques for managing minds did indeed go global — but the results they yielded fell far short of British imperialists’ most ambitious blueprints. It is important to ask why a field of expertise that gave rise to critical and subversive questions about empire nonetheless continually inspired so much enthusiasm from imperial rulers. Drawing on archives in five continents, I trace how ideas about the mind operated in contexts far removed from the laboratories and consulting rooms where they originated.  Like other technologies which appeared to move seamlessly across borders, the tools of psychology made the imperial ambition of global governance seem possible, promising to generate useful knowledge about workers, students, soldiers, rebels, and other colonized groups.  But the same techniques also challenged the hierarchies underlying British rule and revealed the frailty of British blueprints for social change overseas. Tracing the history of exchanges between intellectuals and officials makes clear that the combination of science and empire — what Edward Said termed a “logical alliance” — was a tenuous collaboration marked by mistrust and misunderstanding instead.


If the human sciences always worked by dividing colonized populations “into manageable parts,” as Said once observed, psychology accomplished this in a very different way than the familiar classifications of race, caste, and tribe. The science of mind unsettled the “categorical knowledge” of difference that always played a central role in British rule, whether by revealing variation within groups through mental testing or universal forces of desire and conflict through psychoanalysis.  In some cases, psychology produced new classifications that cut across established boundaries; in other cases, the knowledge it generated could not easily be contained within classificatory schemes of any kind.  Close, sometimes intimate, encounters between researcher and subject made generalizations about colonized populations even more difficult to sustain.  One of the ironies of the Cambridge University expedition to the Torres Strait islands between Australia and New Guinea in 1898-99 — an event often seen as the foundational event of both psychology and anthropology in Britain — was that the combination of experimental data and personal experiences in the field convinced researchers to abandon many of the evolutionary assumptions that had brought them to the Pacific in the first place.  One member of that expedition, W.H.R. Rivers, even ran for Parliament on an anti-colonial platform in 1922, making a provocatively relativistic case in his campaign speeches that Britain’s vaunted civilization was far less rational, just, and praiseworthy than it might seem.  Imperial psychology, it turned out, could lead to unexpected and unintended consequences.


Of course, imperial researchers could not help identifying at some level with the power that guaranteed an umbrella of security and easy access to cooperative human subjects as well as information, hospitality, and funding.  Even as some thinkers embraced the oppositional possibilities of psychological research, others always found ways to reconcile their findings with racial hierarchies and imperial rule.  The officials who ruled the empire, meanwhile, turned the methods and theories of psychology to their own purposes: making factories and armies run more smoothly; recruiting the most talented subjects for government jobs and scarce school places; combating anti-colonial rebellions; and remolding families, economies, and societies.  Theories of the unconscious mind — long seen as exotic, useless, or both by most imperial officials — exerted a surprising degree of influence after the Second World War.  Administrators trained in the methods of Kurt Lewin’s “group dynamics” tried to deflect discontent away from authority figures like themselves as they led community-building initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa.  Military interrogators in the Malayan Emergency probed for details about the emotional life of captured insurgents to pinpoint the causes of rebellion.  Development planners from South Asia to East Africa to the West Indies identified child-rearing practices as a critical variable in attitudes toward change and thus the capacity for economic modernization.



These imperialist incursions into psychoanalysis did not advance very far before critics pointed out an embarrassing reality: the violence and deprivation of empire may have inflicted the most grievous psychic wounds of all. This insight — famously articulated by Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, and Octave Mannoni in the French postwar context — was pursued at the same time by a generation of British researchers, now little known, including Gustav Jahoda in West Africa and Madeline Kerr in Jamaica.  What these anti-colonial psychologists lacked in theoretical panache, they made up for with an exacting empiricism which took the form of questionnaires, projective tests, and home observations.  All of these metrics, in their view, produced clear evidence that pervasive poverty and racial discrimination warped unconscious minds under British rule.


Ultimately, the strange career of mind science in the British imperial world does not add up to the portrait of an all-powerful “tool of empire.”  Rather, this history reminds us that expert knowledge could disrupt imperial power as well as strengthen it.  Psychology did not solve the problems of governing different populations so much as it dramatized them.  Reconciling the “traditional” with the “modern,” the communal with the individual, the need for coercion with the ideal of autonomy, and above all, the uniqueness of cultures with the universality of human nature: these imperatives confronted researchers and rulers alike.


Dr. Erik Linstrum is assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Virginia. His current research focuses on knowledge of violence in the postwar British Empire: how professional communities in the imperial world, lawyers, doctors, and journalists, made sense of torture and other brutal acts in the context of counterinsurgency.