What is Psychohistory?

Current affairs and the historical record are full of events in which individuals and groups say and do things that seem irrational. Have you ever felt that something is missing from the conventional explanations of such events in terms of political, social, economic, cultural, or intellectual factors? If so, then psychohistory may be for you. Psychohistorians add a neglected but critically important level of explanation—identification of the unconscious motivations of individuals and groups.

We bring psychoanalysis and related knowledge to bear in understanding the role of unconscious motivations in history, the sources of these motivations in the history of childrearing, and the psychological effects of genocides, slavery, wars, and other large scale traumas on individuals and groups. Many of us are professional scholars in a range of disciplines including history, psychology, and the humanities while others are practitioners in applied fields such as psychotherapy and social work. The psychohistory community includes students of all ages and anyone interested in the field and in using its insights to ameliorate human destructiveness.  There are three areas of inter-related psychohistorical research.

1. History of Childhood. This inquiry includes such topics as how children have been raised in different historical periods, how families have been constituted, how and why childrearing arrangements have evolved, changing attitudes towards the mistreatment of children, and why there is still such denial about the reality of child abuse and neglect even today. We pay such attention to childhood because it is the ground in which adult psychology and behavior are rooted.

2. Psychobiography. Here we seek to understand individual historical actors and their motivations. Psychobiography is the oldest and most well established form of psychohistorical scholarship. It involves reconstruction of a person’s emotional development; family and social relationships; decisions and actions; and the interaction of all these factors within the cultural and political context of the person’s time and place. Since it requires detailed biographical information, this form of scholarship is commonly practiced with recent historical figures.

3. Group Psychology. As with individuals, group psychology and behavior are also influenced by emotion, fantasies, and unconscious complexes. While there is no collective mind existing independently of the individuals who make up the group, patterns of shared culture and child-rearing give rise to common attitudes, fantasies, beliefs and values that often play decisive roles in history. Different groups support and oppose wars, revolutions, genocides and other large scale historical projects.

These three  branches of psychohistory overlap.  Political elites both manipulate and are influenced by mass psychology, which connects the psychobiography of leaders with group psychology.  In addition to shared patterns of child rearing, macro-historical traumas such as slavery, wars and genocides shape group identities and the intergenerational transmission of trauma links psychobiography with group psychology.

Whether you are a seasoned scholar or a novice interested in such questions, you are welcome to join the International Psychohistorical Association (click here). We invite you to come with us on an intellectual and emotional adventure that probes the past, engages with the present, and is shaping a more humane and sustainable future.