The Sociology of Psychologies: What is It and Why Does It Matter?

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Psychological knowledge plays a large role in defining how we think about self, society and social problems. This matters.

There is no sociology of psychologies, in the sense of a distinctive and thematically and conceptually bounded field of enquiry. By the ‘sociology of psychologies,’ I mean an area of research focused on the ways in which popular psychological knowledge takes part in the organization of the social self, modes of everyday experience, emotions, interpersonal relationships, and institutional processes and forms of social organization. The absence of such a field sets sociology apart from other disciplines in the social sciences, notably psychological anthropology (Eller, 2019) and critical psychology (Fox, Prilleltensky, & Austin, 2009).

Why should there be a sociology of psychologies? ‘Empire-building,’ in the form of calls for the establishment of new and urgently important research areas, may be beneficial to one’s career in academia. But would a sociology of psychologies respond to salient changes in contemporary societies? I do believe so. Its task would lie in the analysis and critical interrogation of the psychologization of social life.

By ‘psychologisation,’ I mean that psychological knowledge has gradually become the defining idiom of our times. Throughout the 20th century, psychological knowledge managed to break free from the confines of academic debates and clinical practice, defining, by the early 21st century at the latest, how we think about who we are, how we feel, what our goals in life are, how we form relationships with others, and how society’s institutions operate (Madsen, 2014). Psychology has accomplished this transition from specialist knowledge to cultural idiom in diverse societies around the world, from Argentina (Plotkin, 2003) to the USA (McGee, 2005), Israel (Pagis, Cadge, & Tal, 2018), South Korea (Chekar, 2008), or China (Yang, 2017).

Examples of psychologization abound.

Consider, for example, how responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have been couched in psychological languages, encouraging us to be ‘resilient,’ or to adopt a ‘mindful’ posture vis-à-vis the pandemic’s impact on our everyday lives (1, 2). Or note how self-help books have become a prominent, long-term feature of people’s lives around the world. The following table, adapted from my book Transnational Popular Psychology and the Global Self-Help Industry (Nehring, Alvarado, Hendriks, & Kerrigan, 2016), illustrates this point with sales statistics for self-help books in the mid-2002, in a range of diverse societies around the world:

International sales of self-help books, 2014

CountryCopies soldSales value, local currencySales value, GBP
Australia682,947$ 15,733,358.11£ 8,888,569.700
Brazil2,172,960R$ 47,095,494.09£ 10,758,942.20
India855,026₹ 223,685,543.86£ 2,513,432.0126
China16,209,486¥ 548,363,984.9£ 61,695,731.99
South Africa251,083R 47,362,969.60£ 2,463,620.10
United Kingdom2,628,307£ 24,938,985.89£ 24,938,985.89
USAn/a$ 9,847,784£ 7,393,650.40
Source: Beijing OpenBook (China), personal correspondence; Nielsen BookScan (all other countries), personal correspondence.

Earlier and more recent sales statistics compiled by the publishing market research firm Nielsen BookScan support the conclusion that the large-scale sales of self-help books are a long-term, rather than a passing, feature of contemporary social life (Nehring & Kerrigan, 2019). And for a final example of the salience of psychologization, note how conversations about societal crises in Western societies since the financial crash of 2008 have coincided closely with public conversations about ‘mental health crises,’ in society at large and in specific institutions, such as higher education (Nehring & Frawley, 2020; Walby, 2015).

Psychological knowledge therefore plays a large role in defining how we think about self, society and social problems. This matters. Psychology, in its popular forms, has long been criticized as a handmaiden of neoliberal individualization and societal atomization (Rimke, 2000). At the same time, recent research, reaching beyond critiques of neoliberalism, has pointed to new forms of socialization and collective political engagement that may result from popular therapeutic discourses and practices (Salmenniemi, 2019).

And beyond concerns about therapeutic politics, questions about psychological, psychotherapeutic, and neuroscientific knowledge as the fulcrum of contemporary personhood rightly remain salient across the social sciences (Rose, 1998, 2019).

Finally, out of self-interest, sociologists would do well to consider the success of academic and clinical psychology across a wide range of non-specialist institutional domains, in widely heterogeneous societies. Just over 60 years ago, C. Wright Mills (1959, p. 14) argued that the sociological imagination was becoming “the major common denominator of our cultural life and its signal feature.” Today, the sociological imagination arguably has been eclipsed by what might been termed the psychological imagination. Psychologists have achieved the success of the psychological imagination by, notably, inserting themselves into public life as ‘therapeutic entrepreneurs’, mixing academic authority and credentials with business acumen (Nehring & Frawley, 2020). In doing so, they have given their ideas a currency which public sociology has recently seemed unable to achieve, a few exceptions to the rule notwithstanding (Hochschild, 2018). It would seem worthwhile to ask why this is so.

Sociologists have engaged with all these questions in recent years, and some have achieved notable acclaim for their work (Cabanas & Illouz, 2019; Illouz, 2008; Rose, 2019). Yet a sociology of psychologies has not taken shape, and the outlined concerns remain somewhat marginal to the discipline, the prominent publications I have just cited notwithstanding. Why is this so? I am not quite certain. Perhaps the fact that ‘popular psychology’ and ‘self-help’ are viewed by many as less than serious genres of popular culture taints research on these genres by extension. In any case, if there has ever been a time in which a sociology of psychologies would make a difference, it is now.


References

Cabanas, E., & Illouz, E. (2019). Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the Science and Industry of Happiness Control our Lives. Cambridge: Polity.

Chekar, C. K. (2008). Gendering Discourses of Time in South Korean Self-help Books: The normalisation of a masculine long hours work culture. (Doctor of Philosophy PhD thesis). Cardiff University, Cardiff.

Eller, J. D. (2019). Psychological Anthropology for the 21st Century. Abingdon: Routledge.

Fox, D., Prilleltensky, I., & Austin, S. (Eds.). (2009). Critical Psychology: An Introduction. London: SAGE.

Hochschild, A. R. (2018). Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press.

Illouz, E. (2008). Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Madsen, O. J. (2014). The Therapeutic Turn: How psychology altered Western culture. Hove: Routledge.

McGee, M. (2005). Self-Help. Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nehring, D., Alvarado, E., Hendriks, E. C., & Kerrigan, D. (2016). Transnational Popular Psychology and the Global Self-Help Industry: The Politics of Contemporary Social Change. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nehring, D., & Frawley, A. (2020). Mindfulness and the ‘psychological imagination’. Sociology of Health & Illness, 42(5), 1184-1201. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.13093

Nehring, D., & Kerrigan, D. (2019). Therapeutic Worlds: Popular Psychology and the Sociocultural Organisation of Intimate Life. Abingdon: Routledge.

Pagis, M., Cadge, W., & Tal, O. (2018). Translating Spirituality: Universalism and Particularism in the Diffusion of Spiritual Care from the United States to Israel. Sociological Forum, 33(3), 596-618. doi:10.1111/socf.12434

Plotkin, M. (Ed.) (2003). Argentina on the Couch: Psychiatry, State, and Society, 1880 to the Present. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Rimke, H. M. (2000). Governing Citizens through Self-Help Literature. Cultural Studies, 14(1), 61-78. doi:10.1080/095023800334986

Rose, N. (1998). Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rose, N. (2019). Our Psychiatric Future. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Salmenniemi, S. (2019). Therapeutic politics: critique and contestation in the post-political conjuncture. Social Movement Studies, 1-17. doi:10.1080/14742837.2019.1590692

Walby, S. (2015). Crisis. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Yang, J. (2017). Virtuous power: Ethics, Confucianism, and Psychological self-help in China. Critique of Anthropology, 37(2), 179-200. doi:10.1177/0308275×17694943

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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