Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

History of applied psychology (1900-1960)

Prof. em. Dr. David Bloor


My current project (which is still in its very preliminary stages) concerns the history of applied psychology in the period c. 1900 to c.1960, that is, in the period spanning the two world wars. My aim will be to carry out a comparative study involving certain important aspects of this discipline as they expressed themselves in Britain, Germany and the United States. My concern will be with the impact of war and military problems on the work of applied psychologists in these three national settings.

The initial focus of the research will be on the work done in the Department of Experimental Psychology and the Applied Psychology Unit in the University of Cambridge whose members worked closely during this time with the British armed forces, particularly the air force. I want to study the effect of this military involvement on the important and innovative work they produced, e.g. on fatigue, vigilance, high-level skill, target-tracking, motor control, ergonomics, cybernetics and information processing. In order to draw any plausible inferences about influence and causation it will be necessary to place the study in a comparative framework. This is why I want to compare my Cambridge psychologists with their fellow professionals in Germany and the United States to see how they responded to comparable war-time demands.

Two of the main actors in the British side of the story were Sir Frederic Bartlett, FRS (1886-1969), the first professor of experimental psychology at Cambridge, and Kenneth Craik (1914-1945) a brilliant young researcher who was trained in psychology at Edinburgh and in the late 1930s went to Cambridge to do research under Bartlett. The onset of the Second World War drew them both into urgent military work though Bartlett’s connection with the military goes back to the First World War and the inter-war years. Bartlett’s involvement is evident, for example, in the classic study of memory processes and cognition that he published in 1932 under the title Remembering. A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology.

It has long been a source of puzzlement and regret amongst certain historians of psychology that in the late 30s Bartlett appeared to shift his interests from social psychology to the apparently narrower study of motor skills. I suspect that this sense of a break in his work may be misplaced and that the continuities will be more evident if Bartlett’s long-standing military concerns are properly understood.

I have already become aware of one interesting problem in developing a comparative analysis. One of the themes of the Cambridge war-time work might be called the study of the ‘man-machine interface’ e.g. extracting and responding to information presented on indicators and dials in an aircraft cockpit. Comparable work was done in America but so far I have failed to find corresponding research conducted in Germany. This lack of visibility is strange because work along these lines was pioneered in Germany during WWI in connection with driving and flying skills. It was pursued under the name ‘psychotechnics’. It is well known to historians of German psychology that there was a shift in emphasis from ‘psychotechnics’ to ‘characterology’ in the late 1930’s but the disappearance of this kind of work is still a mystery to me. Surely its practical significance would ensure that someone was carrying out such studies. If not psychologists, then who? Engineers? Any help on this front would be much appreciated.

On a more general level I suspect that my research may help to cast the so-called ‘cognitive revolution’ in psychology in a new light. It seems to be widely taken for granted that this grew out of work by American mathematicians, computer scientists and psychologists and came to fruition in the early 1960s. I think that this is a one-sided account and that much of the important groundwork was done in Cambridge, England, in the 1940s.

The concern here is not that of mere priority. Rather, the aim is to produce a fuller description, and a more sensitive analysis, of the different understandings of cognition that are possible and that were present in ‘the cognitive revolution.’ These differences have now been obscured with the passage of time and the overwhelming influence of American psychologists. For example, one theme running through the Cambridge work was that of the ‘hierarchical’ arrangements of the mind or brain. The word ‘hierarchy’, of course, featured prominently in some of the computer-influenced models of the brain and the organisation of action developed by American cognitive psychologists in the 1960s, but an important question remains. Did the word signify the same thing in the two bodies of work? The Cambridge psychologist Donald Broadbent (1926-1993) has argued that it did not. If he is right then it is important to retrieve these national and stylistic differences in meaning, concept application and theory construction. An awareness of such differences is central to the comparative character of the proposed research and their explanation must be central to the kind of analysis that I want to produce.

The methodological approach that will inform my research is that of the ‘strong program in the sociology of scientific knowledge’. This program has been articulated both empirically and theoretically in a number of books and papers by the present author and his Edinburgh colleagues. (See for example Scientific Knowledge. A Sociological Analysis, the 1996 book cited above.) Having just completed a detailed historical and sociological analysis of a highly mathematical area of technology – the forthcoming Enigma of the Aerofoil is based on study which has taken me some six or seven years to complete –I look forward to a change of topic. In turning to the discipline of experimental psychology I shall be studying the history and sociology of a field in which I was myself trained.