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Psychohistory is the study of the psychological motivations of historical events. It combines the insights of psychotherapy with the research methodology of the social sciences to understand the emotional origin of the social and political behavior of groups and nations, past and present. Its subject matter is childhood and the family, and psychological anthropology and ethnology.



Psychohistory derives many of its insights from areas that are perceived to be ignored by conventional historians as shaping factors of human history, in particular, the effects of childbirth, parenting practice, and child abuse.

The historical impact of incest, infanticide and child sacrifice are considered. Psychohistory holds that human societies can change between infanticidal and non-infanticidal practices and has coined the term "early infanticidal childrearing" to describe abuse and neglect observed by many anthropologists. Lloyd deMause, the pioneer of psychohistory, has described a system of psychogenic modes (see below) which describe the range of styles of parenting he has observed historically and across cultures. Many anthropologists concur that "the science of culture is independent of the laws of biology and psychology". And Émile Durkheim, whose contributions were instrumental in the formation of sociology and anthropology, laid down the principle: "The determining cause of a social fact should be sought among social facts preceding and not among the states of individual consciousness". Psychohistorians, on the other hand, suggest that social behavior such as crime and war may be a self-destructive re-enactment of earlier abuse and neglect; that unconscious flashbacks to early fears and destructive parenting could dominate individual and social behavior.

Psychohistory is related to historical biography. Notable examples of psychobiographies are those of Lewis Namier, who wrote about the British House of Commons, and Fawn Brodie, who wrote about Thomas Jefferson.

Science fiction author and scientist/science writer Isaac Asimov popularized the term in his famous "Foundation" series of novels, though in his works the term is used fictionally for a mathematical discipline that can be used to predict the general course of future history.

Areas of psychohistorical study

There are three inter-related areas of psychohistorical study.

1.- The History of Childhood - which looks at such questions as:

    • How have children been raised throughout history
    • How has the family been constituted
    • How and why have practices changed over time
    • The changing place and value of children in society over time
    • How and why our views of child abuse and neglect have changed

2.- Psychobiography - which seeks to understand individual historical people and their motivations in history.

3.- Group Psychohistory - which seeks to understand the motivations of large groups, including nations, in history and current affairs. In doing so, psychohistory advances the use of group-fantasy analysis of political speeches, political cartoons and media headlines since the fantasy words therein offer clues to unconscious thinking and behaviors.

Emergence as a discipline

Sigmund Freud's well known work, Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), included an analysis of history based on his theory of psychoanalysis.

Wilhelm Reich combined his psychoanalytic and political theories in his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism in 1933.

The psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm wrote about the psychological motivation behind political ideology, starting with The Fear of Freedom in 1941.

Its first academic use appeared in Erik Erikson's book Young Man Luther (1958), where the author called for a discipline of "psycho-history" to examine the impact of human character on history.

Lloyd deMause developed a formal psychohistorical approach from 1974 onwards, and continues to be an influential theorist in this field.

Independence as a discipline

DeMause and others have argued that psychohistory is a separate field of scholarly inquiry with its own particular methods, objectives and theories, which set it apart from conventional historical analysis and anthropology. Some historians, social scientists and anthropologists have, however, argued that their disciplines already describe psychological motivation and that Psychohistory is not, therefore, a separate subject. Others have dismissed deMause's theories and motives arguing that the emphasis given by Psychohistory to speculation on the psychological motivations of people in history make it an undisciplined field of study. Doubt has also been cast on the viability of the application of post-mortem psychoanalysis by Freud's followers.

Psychohistorians maintain that the difference is one of emphasis and that, in conventional study, narrative and description are central, while psychological motivation is hardly touched on. For deMause, child abuse takes the center stage. Psychohistorians accuse most anthropologists and ethnologists of being apologists for incest, infanticide, cannibalism and child sacrifice. They maintain that what constitutes child abuse is a matter of objective fact, and that some of the practices which mainstream anthropologists apologize for (e.g., sacrificial rituals) may result in psychosis, dissociation and magical thinking: particularly for the surviving children who had a sacrificed brother or sister by their parents. In a 1994 interview with deMause in The New Yorker, the interviewer wrote: "To buy into psychohistory, you have to subscribe to some fairly woolly assumptions [...], for instance, that a nations's child-rearing techniques affect its foreign policy". Psychohistorians also believe that cultural relativism is contrary to the letter and spirit of human rights.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Psychohistory" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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