Organized Session

The Science of Violence in 20th-Century North America: Experts and Their Public

Organizer

Stephanie Pache

Université du Québec à Montréal

Chair

Elizabeth Lunbeck

Harvard University

Metadata

Session Abstract

This panel addresses the use of psychological expertise in 20th-century debates on violence. Violent behavior was repeatedly and from different perspectives examined by human sciences. Psychiatrists and psychologists in particular have attempted to understand and conceptualize violence, to distinguish and classify different kinds of violence, but also to offer a causal explanation. Their expertise contributed to frame public debates on violence in contemporary America and beyond. A historical approach to the scientific study of violence during the 20th century helps to contextualize this research and to comprehend it in its relation to specific political issues.
The papers presented will explore scientific debates on violence, such as war violence, the "killer instinct" in an evolutionary perspective, and the history of gender violence and its effects in psychology. They will discuss the role of human sciences in the definition of violence, the causality of violence, and the social and political treatment of violence in 20th-century North American history. This discussion will emphasize the interactions between human and social sciences as fields of research and expertise, and public and political debates. This focus on the dynamic of these relationships between research and politics outlines the interactive dimensions of this process. In opposition to the translational model of knowledge application to concrete issues, the panel offers examples of more complex situations, where social issues ground the research and legitimize it, by supporting its relevance as much as its epistemology. This external validation can therefore sometimes play a role in internal debates in a field of research. Similarly, the papers support the need to understand the scientific expertise used in public discussions not only in the context of these discussions, but also in the general context of its scientific production, i.e. the field and its conflicts, dissidences, and margins.

Presenter 1

The Killer Instinct: An Idea and Its Reception in 1960s America

Nadine Weidman

Harvard University

Abstract

In the mid 1960s a series of popular science books brought a startling new claim to the attention of the American reading public: man possessed an instinct for aggression that had to be acknowledged and controlled or disaster would result. Drawing on evidence from ethology, paleoanthropology, and psychology, Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, Anthony Storr, and Desmond Morris asserted that humans were animals at heart and that their evolutionary ancestry, as hunters and killers, shaped their present-day behavior. This paper argues that the popularity of these books and the persistence of their message must be understood in the context of their reception. The American popular press appropriated and advanced the agenda of the books in two ways. First, readers (from policymakers and scientists to journalists and laypeople) presented pop ethology and associated sciences of human nature as the solution to the problems of violence besetting American society. Assassinations, race riots, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War were viewed through an ethological lens, as variations on the basic theme of aggression, and thus as subject to expert treatment. Second, when criticism erupted around the books' claims, readers helped to dismantle the opposition by framing the debate in terms of nature versus nurture, casting the critics of instinct as misguided biology-denying proponents of the blank slate. The 1960s pop ethology phenomenon-including both the books themselves and their reception-outlasted the decade that spawned it: in subsequent decades, the pattern of discourse first established by pop ethology reappeared when sociobiology and evolutionary psychology laid claim to the notion that human violence is best understood in scientific, specifically biological, terms.

Metadata

Presenter 2

Wars Begin in the Minds of Men: UNESCO and the Scientific Study of Violence, War, and Peace

Deborah Weinstein

Brown University

Abstract

Founded in the wake of World War II, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) made the promotion of international peace one of its central priorities. Emblematic of this priority as well as a particular postwar vision of its conditions, the preamble to UNESCO's constitution declared, "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed." The statement became an organization motto and was carved in ten languages onto a stone wall on the grounds of
This paper examines the changing meanings and limits of the claim that wars begin in the minds of men by comparing two UNESCO-sponsored projects on violence and war. The first was a social scientific project from the late 1940s and early 1950s to study "Tensions Affecting International Understanding" (known as the Tensions Project). The second was a declaration on violence from the mid-1980s (the Seville Statement on Violence) by an international, interdisciplinary group of biological and social scientists who modeled their statement on UNESCO's earlier statements on race and who declared there was no scientific basis for claims that war and violence were impossible to end because they were part of human nature. Drawing on archival sources about both the Tensions project and the Seville Statement, the paper examines shifts from the postwar moment to the end of the Cold War in intellectual and cultural views of human nature, war, peace, and international governance.

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Presenter 3

Politics of Sexual Violence: The Psychology of Consent in Contemporary North America

Stéphanie Pache

Université du Québec à Montréal

Abstract

As a main interpretative force of our behaviors in modern Western culture, psychology acquired a powerful status. Psychological expertise plays in particular an important role in public policies. As many scholars illustrated, including the influential Michel Foucault, the attempt to objectively categorize behaviors can be seen as a mean to "discipline" citizens through social norms as much as legal regulations. In the case of violence, these two last types of constraint are historically linked. Psychiatry and criminology have a common history, and psychopathological concepts informed many legal reforms, including the 1930s "psychopathy laws", which resulted from a moral panic related to a series of sex crimes in the country. What continuities and discontinuities can we draw from this psychiatrization of sexual offenses and their criminalization to current psychological scholarship on sexual violence and consent?
In the context of the feminist movement, the conceptualization of violence against women as rooted in power relations of sex has resulted in the idea of a continuum of violence displayed in a variety of behavioral manifestations including verbal, psychological, economic, sexual, and physical violence. This perspective left its mark on psychology when in the 1970s and 1980s, feminist psychologists started to study the prevalence of these manifestations in women's lives and to document what would be called an "epidemic", especially in the case of sexual violence. This paper will address how the feminist view on violence has been translated into psychological research and prevention programs against sexual violence. In particular, it will examine how the notion of consent, which is now found in all discussions of sexual violence, was examined by psychologists, and how it contributes to the contemporary definition of sexual violence.

Metadata

Commentator

Jill Morawski

Wesleyan University