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International Psychohistorical Association


If you have ever read a history book, wondered why this or that event occurred as it did and felt frustrated because the writer either did not address this question or seemed unconvincing, then psychohistory might be for you. Traditional modes of historical explanation tend to emphasize political, social, economic, cultural, or intellectual motivations for events & actions. These are fine as far as they go, but how well do they really explain why humans behave in a given way in a given event? In psychohistory we are always mindful that history is made by men & women evolving from the past into the present on their way to the future. Psychohistorians ask why men/women behave as they do in history, thus we are always drawn back to the role of individual/shared emotion & fantasy as a major explanatory factor in history, just as it is in our present lives. The more traditional fields tend to ignore or downplay this aspect of human history. We have been accused of being reductionistic by some, this is not true; rather we believe and know that we are paying attention to the real basics. Of necessity, ours is an interdisciplinary field. It would be a mistake to assume that we seek to replace or usurp the insights of more traditional disciplines. Quite the contrary, we use the insights of many fields to build from, we could not exist without what has gone before.

We may define psychohistory as the interdisciplinary study of why man has acted the way he has in history, prominently utilizing psychoanalytic principles.

As of yet there are no formal training programs for psychohistorians, courses are taught here and there by such scholars as Peter Loewenberg, David Beisel, Rudolph Binion, Paul Elovitz, Jerrold Atlas, Charles Strozier, and a few others. Thus, psychohistorians are essentially self-taught, which is one reason why a group such as IPA can be important for the growth of the field. IPA has taken over the On-Line Training Course that had existed and is in the process of redesigning it to hopefully make it more relevant for the needs of interested scholars. Further information will be posted on our Web Site, as it becomes available. Ideally, the psychohistorian should be trained in both history and psychoanalysis. Most of us are usually trained in one or the other & many have no formal training in either area. Thus, psychohistorical scholarship is somewhat variable in quality and quite eclectic in character. But our work is seldom dull and often provocative.

Not everyone can or should aspire to be a psychohistorian. You should feel comfortable going beyond disciplinary boundaries. You need a certain amount of extra imagination to ferret out the unusual source or find information in unexpected places. You should not be afraid of new ideas, nor should you be afraid to use your feelings in the service of understanding. You need to have a well developed sense of curiosity. Psychohistorians are not special people, we are fallible just like anyone else, but we do share an abiding desire to want to know why, always why....

There are three inter-related areas of psychohistorical study.

  1. History of Childhood:
    Here we look at such questions as how have children been raised throughout history, how has the family been constituted, how & why has it changed over time, the place & value of children in society over time, how & why our views of child abuse and neglect have changed, why there is still such denial about the reality of child abuse, etc. We pay such attention to childhood because it is there that much of the groundwork for our future emotional development is created. Thus, if we are to understand our emotional development, how & why it has changed over time, we need to better comprehend the history childhood.
  2. Psychobiography:
    Here we seek to understand individual historical people and their motivations in history. This is not as simple as it may sound. Psychobiography involves understanding a person's emotional growth, their personal, family, and societal relations, the time in which the person lives, and how all of these interact to allow the person to have an effect on history. Generally, this sort of scholarship cannot be done without very detailed personal data; hence it is more likely that the best subject is a recent historical figure. Psychobiography is perhaps the most visible form of psychohistorical scholarship. It can be especially open to misuse because scholars may find themselves unduly tempted to brand their subject as more evil or pathological than they might have actually been. A good example of this sort of problem is Richard Nixon.
  3. Group Psychohistory:
    This is perhaps the most radical & anxiety provoking form of psychohistorical scholarship. Here we study and seek to understand the motivations of large groups in history. Like individuals, groups are also driven by emotions and fantasies. There is no group mind, separate from the individual members, rather groups are motivated by members all having feelings and fantasies that are broadly the same, in other words shared. It is a common truism that we will do things in groups that we would never dream of doing as individuals, this is one thing that can make the effort to understand group's underlying emotion and fantasy so scary. But this work is also on the forefront of psychohistorical scholarship. Thus it can be very exciting.

If all this appeals to you, you might want to join us. We hope that you will view the rest of our site and welcome your involvement and support. There is a great deal left to do.