Making Democratic People: Psychology, Politics, and Private Life after 1945

Speakers: Teri Chettiar, Rhodri Hayward, Michal Shapira

Chair: Mathew Thomson

During the decades immediately following the Second World War, Britain emerged as a post-imperial, post-industrial, democratic society; during that same period, a new generation of psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers successfully made the case that emotional health was forged in the monogamous nuclear family, and was the basis for social mobility, self-governance, and responsible citizenship.  This panel brings together historians of Modern British political culture, gender, and psychology to explore the role of “psy” experts and expert-driven health and social service initiatives in forging transformative new links between state politics and citizens’ private sexual and emotional lives in Britain between the end of WWII and the retrenchment of the welfare state under the Thatcher government.  The three papers address the multiple ways in which citizens’ emotional health and wellbeing became a central political concern in Britain after 1945, forcing revisions in the meaning of democracy, introducing new expectations of psychological freedom, and providing the basis for cultivating new liberal political subjectivities.  The panel interrogates the post-war recasting of relationships between public and private, science and everyday life, and the distribution of responsibility between families and the welfare state in the provision of social protection.  It asks what role psychological knowledge and practices played in making citizens’ private lives not only widely intelligible, but also capable of being acted upon.  Moreover, it considers what new strategies for governance (including self-governance) the post-war popularization of “psy” knowledge made possible.

The panel will also attend to the unintended consequences of the introduction of a wide range of psychological and psychiatric services in post-WWII Britain, including the creation of new scientific frameworks for making demands for social and sexual reform in the 1960s and 70s.  Activists championing a range of causes–including the liberalization of the divorce law, the decriminalization of private homosexual acts, and the abolition of the age of consent–were deeply concerned with securing emotional fulfilment as a crucial prerequisite for health and wellbeing in the decades after the war.  Together, the three papers are broadly concerned with examining how the widespread valuation of citizens’ mental and emotional lives gave rise to a range of new readings and expectations of democratic culture between 1945 and 1979, the era of Britain’s “classic” welfare state.

Paper 1 Abstract: Teri Chettiar, Postdoctoral Fellow, Humboldt University

“More than a Contract: The Emergence of a State-Supported Marriage Welfare Service and the Politics of Intimacy in Post-1945 Britain”

This paper examines the political implications and impact of the development of state-supported marriage counseling and therapy services in Britain in the decades following the Second World War.  It explores how citizens’ emotions emerged as a central object of political concern in Britain after 1945, and how intimate emotional relationships, in turn, became the subject of intense legal reform and new public expectations in the decades that followed.  To this end, it presents two argumentative threads.  First, it argues that British state support for a nationwide network of marriage welfare services was integral to the wider welfare-state project of eliminating class divisions by appealing to British citizens as individuals fundamentally defined through their emotions.  Britain’s new postwar marriage welfare service affirmed the importance of emotional factors in making citizens’ lives complete at a moment when the government claimed to have solved the acute interwar problem of socio-economic inequality.  Second, this paper argues that the psychological reading of marriage that was expounded by marriage therapists underwrote an epochal shift in popular attitudes toward marriage.  The second half focuses on the widespread appropriation of psychological language and concepts in the movement to liberalize the divorce law in the 1960s.  The psychological “discovery” of the wide-ranging importance of emotional relationships for healthy human development provided the basis for a new emotionally oriented egalitarian political landscape.  In tracking the development of Britain’s marriage welfare service, this paper is concerned with how monogamous heterosexuality became inextricably connected to the broader goals of psychological maturity and responsible citizenship.  While only a few hundred thousand men and women ever came into direct contact with marriage therapists and counselors in the decades following the war, their work was nonetheless profoundly important in providing a compelling language and set of concepts that elevated the stable marriage to a position of social and emotional cure-all in the public imagination.

Paper 2 Abstract: Rhodri Hayward, Senior Lecturer in the History of Medicine, Queen Mary University of London

“‘Living and Partly Living’: Psychological Cripples and Social Planning in Post-war Britain”

Over recent years a number of historians, including James Vernon and Michael Saler, have claimed that twentieth-century Britain underwent a process of re-enchantment.  Reversing the familiar Weberian formulation with its insistence that modern cultures of speed necessarily erode shared values and institutions, these authors maintain that modernity imbues the world with new values, unleashes alternative temporalities and creates new spaces for the imagination.  This paper extends their claim but argues for a more prosaic basis for this process.  It shows how the combination of new physiological theories, such as the stress concept, with new systems of welfare administration after the Second World War disrupted conventional ideas of temporality while at the same time creating and sustaining a new set of social values in postwar Britain.

This paper examines the work of a number of prominent post war politicians, psychiatrists and industrialists – including Lord Taylor of Harlow, Sir Geoffrey Vickers and the Reith Lecturer, G. M. Carstairs – who looked to psychiatry to provide a new basis for state planning and social values.  These commentators firmly believed that post-war Britons were equipped with a growing sense of psychological and emotional sophistication that far outstripped the sensibilities of earlier generations.  The rapid personal evolution of the new Elizabethans destabilised conventional morality and complicated potential programmes of political intervention.  Focussing on experiments in town planning and industrial organisation this talk will consider how psychiatric planners turned to new models of temporality in order to balance the twin goals of social stability and personal growth.

Paper 3 Abstract: Michal Shapira, Senior Lecturer of History and Gender Studies, Tel Aviv University

“Responsible Citizenship, Emotional Health and Crime in Postwar Britain”

Recovering the work of forgotten psychoanalysts, this paper locates forensic psychoanalysis within the context of wide debates about the meaning of democracy and the ability to tame individual and collective violence after 1945. Via psychoanalytic logic and terminology, mental predicaments were taken as serious threats to the political stability of democracy and responsible citizenship was seen as dependent on emotional health. From the 1930s to the 1960s British psychoanalysts were setting the tone in discussions of juvenile delinquency and the rise in crime (thought to be caused by the upheaval of war). Psychoanalytic accounts of criminality and the work of the Institute for the Scientific Treatment of Delinquency (ISTD) became vital to much of the public and official thinking on the subject. In the postwar era, the ISTD was also frequently called upon by state committees to provide expert testimony on topics ranging from corporal punishment to homosexuality and prostitution. The Institute was willing to develop Sigmund Freud’s original view of crime in inventive and far-reaching ways that had effects on the lives of different law-breakers, the legal and probation systems, the police, and governmental offices. This paper will follow the work of the institution in the mid-decades of the twentieth century and will explore its ideas about childhood, violence, aggression, and cooperation in a democratic context in the age of mass violence.



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