How Do You Define Psychohistory?
Paul H. Elovitz, Ramapo College

 

In Psychohistory: Theory and Practice (1999), Jacques Szaluta defines psychohistory as “the application of psychology, in its broadest sense, or psychoanalysis in a specific sense, to the study of the past.” (p. 1) Henry Lawton in The Psychohistorian’s Handbook (1988) describes it as “the interdisciplinary study of why man has acted as he has in history, prominently utilizing psychoanalytic principles.” (p.5) He adds that psychohistory “is essentially interpretive” rather than narrative.

I define psychohistory as an amalgam of psychology, history, and related social sciences. It examines the “why” of history, especially the difference between stated intention and actual behavior. Psychobiography, childhood, group dynamics, mechanisms of psychic defense, dreams, and creativity are primary areas of research.

How do you define psychohistory? What is your theoretical framework for psychohistory? How do you relate psychohistory to history and other disciplines? Send in your definitions and we may print them. What psychohistorical methods of inquiry do you use? Let me give my answer to several of these questions.

I consider myself to be a historian and a psychohistorian. Psychohistory enables me to probe more deeply into the past by providing psychological insights and tools that were not originally available to me as a historian. But in most research I try to avoid the use of theory until the later stages of research so as to be as open-minded as possible in examining the evidence. In writing, wherever possible I let the materials speak for themselves by quoting them directly.

I find that other disciplines are increasingly open to the same concerns as psychohistorians. For example, the Western Civilization textbook I used in my first full-time teaching position at Temple University ignored or barely mentioned childhood, family life, women, emotions, personality, and sexuality. The books that my colleagues and I now use for the same course at Ramapo College covers all of these areas. The pioneering research of psychohistorians as well as women’s and social historians has much to do with this change.

To me, methods of inquiry are like lenses in a telescope that eable me to see more clearly. Thus, to the lenses of economics, sociology, anthropology, intellectual history, and geopolitics that I was taught in college, I have added the special insights of psychology. I find it to be the most powerful lens of all. Socrates’ dictum that one should first “know thyself” is a central method of inquiry. For example, in the Psychohistory Forum’s war research group I start by examining my own feelings towards war and encourage all involved to do the same. [See profile of the author on page 35. Reprinted from June 1994. Updated 1999]