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Annals of Science
ISSN: 0003-3790 (Print) 1464-505X (Online) Journal homepage:
Ruling Minds: Psychology in the British Empire
Rhodri Hayward
To cite this article: Rhodri Hayward (2017): Ruling Minds: Psychology in the British Empire,
Annals of Science, DOI: 10.1080/00033790.2017.1390160
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Published online: 20 Oct 2017.
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Ruling Minds: Psychology in the British Empire, by Erik Linstrum, Cambridge, MA and
London, Harvard University Press, 2016. viii + 309 pp., $41.00, £32.95, €37.00, ISBN 978-0674-08866-5
In April 2003, members of the UK 15 Psychological Operations Group entered the Iraqi city of
Basra. A territorial unit made up of part-time disc jockeys, market researchers and advertisers,
the group was tasked with launching a ‘soft war’: encouraging the defection of Iraqi troops and
ensuring the cooperation of the civilian population. This soft war, born ostensibly from a concern
to avoid physical casualties, was conducted through the old media techniques of pamphleteering
and radio broadcasting. It was a campaign pursued through emotional appeals and grounded in
psychological expertise: as such it would appear to be a paradigmatic illustration of the idea that
the psychological sciences serve as the basis for a subtle and effective form of political domination.
This idea of psychology’s political potency has become a commonplace in modern literature.
Studies of the Second World War have shown how a faith in the transformative power of psychology
underwrote a range of wartime activities — from officer recruitment procedures and domestic
schemes to maintain civilian morale during air raids through to the planning of post-war occupation
policies. After 1945, psychological expertise played a central part in British counter-insurgency strategy during the Malayan Emergency and captured the imagination of popular audiences through the
fantastic descriptions of brainwashing and mind control that emerged during the Korean War:
descriptions that were taken up in the 1950s and 1960s by directors and bestselling novelists such
as John Frankenheimer and Len Deighton respectively. Today it persists in the numerous academic
commentaries on the work of Michel Foucault and his ideas around discipline and governmentality
as well as the growing number of critiques of contemporary therapy culture and its tangled relationship to neo-liberalism. Yet despite the breadth of this unlikely consensus, it is unclear how politically
effective psychological knowledge actually is. Indeed, the unhappy history of the Iraq occupation
would suggest that the central claims of psychological warfare have been overstated. Instead, as
Erik Linstrum demonstrates in this rich and compelling survey of the relationship between psychological knowledge and British colonialism, the story is more complex. For Linstrum, psychological
knowledge did not serve so much to reinforce the project of empire as to complicate it. He describes
Ruling Minds as a study of ‘the gap that opened up between far reaching aspirations and disillusioned realities’ in the history of colonial psychology, but it soon becomes clear that this is more
than just a story of scientific and imperial hubris (p. 2). The gap between aspiration and reality
reveals something much more complex. As Linstrum demonstrates, it creates a space in which
new forms of political action are opened up and which exposes how both the objects of government
— and the governors themselves — are less stable than had previously been imagined.
Instability is central to Linstrums’s case. Across six deeply researched chapters he shows how
uncertainty over the status of subjects and objects of psychology was compounded in the colonial
encounter. Indeed, he argues that the instability of psychology’s analytic categories was recognized
from the very beginning of the discipline. Opening with a study of the now famous Cambridge University expedition to the Torres Straits in 1898, he shows how the group’s experimental agenda was
shaped by questions around the stability of race as a classificatory category. It was not clear if different ethnic groups shared a common psychological nature or if they could be distinguished according
to some kind of evolutionary hierarchy. These questions were compounded by uncertainties over the
boundaries between biology and culture: uncertainties that had been raised in classical scholarship in
William Gladstone’s claims that the ability to distinguish colours, and the colour blue in particular,
did not exist in ancient Greece. As Linstrum shows, the ramshackle encounter between this group of
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early psychologists, anthropologists and physicians and the Torres Straits Islanders was transformative insofar as it led to a newfound sense of psychological unity between investigators and subjects,
while at the same time making the colonial scientists more aware of primitive characteristics and
desires that persisted in the modern English people. W. H. R. Rivers, who would later achieve
fame for his work on shellshock, drew upon his expedition experience when campaigning as candidate for Parliament in 1922, arguing that social progress could only be won through the defeat of
competitive individualism and commercial emotionalism. It was a projected utopia that harked
back to the psychological harmony of Melanesian society.
The idea of ‘reverse colonialism’, in which imperial encounters generate a troubling sense of
uncertainty, has become a standard trope in literary studies. The stories of Rudyard Kipling,
Rider Haggard and Bram Stoker are taken as demonstrations of how the experience of empire introduced an awareness of the fragility of English identity and Western rationality. In this sense, imperial
encounters carried a similar implication to the emergent sciences of psychoanalysis and the new psychology which, from the beginning of the twentieth century, sought to uncover the irrational motivations that underlay our everyday actions. Linstrum deftly illustrates their mutual implication,
describing how in the early 1930s, Rivers’s Torres Strait companion, the physician-anthropologist
C. G. Seligman, organized a national dream survey through the BBC in order to discover whether
the British and colonial populations shared a common store of unconscious symbols and condensed
meanings. But even this attempt to demonstrate the common currency of irrationalism was undermined by the instability of the psychological object. Sceptical anthropological colleagues, such as
Bronisław Malinowski, insisted that the relative sexual licence of many ‘primitive’ societies revealed
that the unconscious described by Freud was simply an artefact of the peculiar and repressive moral
codes of the European bourgeoisie.
The portrait of colonial psychology that emerges in Linstrum’s account shares with recent work
(by Mathew Thomson and others) a sense of the discipline’s eclecticism and its sympathetic connections with liberal and radical causes.1 As Linstrum notes in his conclusion to his discussion of
Charles Seligman’s dream survey, the fantasies contributed by BBC listeners revealed the persistence
of beliefs in telepathy and prophecy. There was no civilised unconscious (as Malinowski had
suggested); instead ‘these respondents were describing yet another empire of dreams: not a laboratory of the collective unconscious, not a chronicle of trauma in the colonised mind but an almost
mystical network of kinship that allowed emotional bonds to triumph over distance’ (p. 61). Psychology here served less as a tool for technocratic exploitation than as a means for reimagining one’s
affective relationship with empire.
The way that Linstrum navigates the different agendas and understandings that people brought to
early psychology is impressive. He shows how the growth of intelligence and personality testing provided the basis for a meritocratic reformation of colonial administration, while at the same time providing the bases for a critique of local institutions such as caste in India. Yet the careful attempts to
calibrate these instruments for local groups would later provide the materials for the development of
new techniques in psychological warfare, as army propagandists sought to tailor medium and message to the needs and mores of different insurgent populations. At the same time, he shows how the
post-war turn to Bowlbyism in Britain, and the mental hygienist faith that family stability provided
the bedrock for a democratic society, would be co-opted by psychiatrists (and J. C. Carrothers most
famously) during the anti-colonial struggles in Africa to suggest that local violence and resistance
could be attributed to ‘arrested development’ brought on by the collective experience of traumatic
weaning. From this perspective, the struggle for post-imperial self-determination bears a striking
correspondence to the concomitant struggles of the new generation of teenagers that appeared in
post-war Britain. The problems raised by both groups could be dealt with through childhood
Mathew Thomson, Psychological Subjects: Identity, Culture and Health in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
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interventions and it would have been useful to have had the more detailed information on the traffic
between these ideas.
It is, I think, one of the great achievements of Linstrum’s book that he draws our attention to the
way that legacy of empire shapes the understanding and practice of psychology. Despite the conceptual sophistication that they bring to the subjects, historians of the human sciences have been slow to
acknowledge the formative contribution of imperialism and indeed in this regard we lag far behind
the work being done in more mainstream social and cultural history. Thus, although there might be
aspects of Linstrum’s book that one might want to criticize (such as the way that he never really gets
to grips with the ways that new media and material culture made psychological imperialism possible), these would be carping remarks given the sheer breath of his achievement and the urgency
of the task that he sets before us.
This work was supported by the Wellcome Trust [Grant No. 108727/Z/15/Z].
Rhodri Hayward
School of History, Queen Mary University of London, London, E1 4NS, UK
© 2017 Rhodri Hayward
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