Psychohistory [sahy-koh-his-tuh-ree] is the study of the psychological motivations of historical events. It attempts to combine the insights of psychotherapy with the research methodology of the social sciences to understand the emotional origin of the social and political behavior of groups and nations, past and present. Its subject matter is childhood and the family (especially child abuse), and psychological studies of anthropology and ethnology.

Psychohistory derives many of its concepts from areas that are perceived to be ignored by conventional historians as shaping factors of human history, in particular, the effects of childbirth, parenting practice, and child abuse. The historical impact of incest, infanticide and child sacrifice are considered. Psychohistory holds that human societies can change between infanticidal and non-infanticidal practices and has coined the term ‘early infanticidal childrearing’ to describe abuse and neglect observed by many anthropologists.

American political scientist Lloyd deMause, the pioneer of psychohistory, has described a system of psychogenic modes (Infantcidal, Ambandoning, Ambivalent, Intrusive, Socializaing, and Helping) which describe the range of styles of parenting he has observed historically and across cultures. Many anthropologists concur that ‘the science of culture is independent of the laws of biology and psychology.’ And Émile Durkheim, whose contributions were instrumental in the formation of sociology and anthropology, laid down the principle: ‘The determining cause of a social fact should be sought among social facts preceding and not among the states of individual consciousness.’ Psychohistorians, on the other hand, suggest that social behavior such as crime and war may be a self-destructive re-enactment of earlier abuse and neglect; that unconscious flashbacks to early fears and destructive parenting could dominate individual and social behavior.

Psychohistory relies heavily on historical biography. Notable examples of psychobiographies are those of Lewis Namier, who wrote about the British House of Commons, and Fawn Brodie, who wrote about Thomas Jefferson. Science fiction author Isaac Asimov popularized the term in his famous ‘Foundation’ series of novels, though in his works the term is used fictionally for a mathematical discipline that can be used to predict the general course of future flow.

Sigmund Freud’s well known work, ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’ (1929), included an analysis of history based on his theory of psychoanalysis. Yet, Freud’s text is in no way a psycho-historical work since the focus of the study is to examine and explain the level of individual psyche which may arise from the influence of the structures of civilization. It is in fact the opposite of psycho-history in that it claims that the unconscious and the individual psyche are both structural effects of different social forces, i.e., civilization. Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich combined his psychoanalytic and political theories in his book ‘The Mass Psychology of Fascism’ in 1933. Psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm wrote about the psychological motivation behind political ideology, starting with ‘The Fear of Freedom’ in 1941. Another member of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school, German sociologist Theodor Adorno, published The ‘Authoritarian Personality,’ in 1950, which was an influential sociological book which could be taken as something of a proto-psychohistorical book.

Its first academic use appeared in psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s book ‘Young Man Luther’ (1958), where the author called for a discipline of ‘psycho-history’ to examine the impact of human character on history. Lloyd deMause developed a formal psychohistorical approach from 1974 onwards, and continues to be an influential theorist in this field. DeMause and others have argued that psychohistory is a separate field of scholarly inquiry with its own particular methods, objectives and theories, which set it apart from conventional historical analysis and anthropology. Some historians, social scientists and anthropologists have, however, argued that their disciplines already describe psychological motivation and that Psychohistory is not, therefore, a separate subject. Others have dismissed deMause’s theories and motives arguing that the emphasis given by Psychohistory to speculation on the psychological motivations of people in history make it an undisciplined field of study. Doubt has also been cast on the viability of the application of post-mortem psychoanalysis by Freud’s followers.

Psychohistorians maintain that the difference is one of emphasis and that, in conventional study, narrative and description are central, while psychological motivation is hardly touched on. For deMause, child abuse takes center stage. Psychohistorians accuse most anthropologists and ethnologists of being apologists for incest, infanticide, cannibalism, and child sacrifice. They maintain that what constitutes child abuse is a matter of objective fact, and that some of the practices which mainstream anthropologists apologize for (e.g., sacrificial rituals) may result in psychosis, dissociation, and magical thinking: particularly for the surviving children who had a sacrificed brother or sister by their parents. In a 1994 interview with deMause in ‘The New Yorker,’ the interviewer wrote: ‘To buy into psychohistory, you have to subscribe to some fairly woolly assumptions […], for instance, that a nations’s child-rearing techniques affect its foreign policy.’ Psychohistorians also believe that cultural relativism is contrary to the letter and spirit of human rights.

Psychohistorians have written much about changes in the human psyche through history; changes that they believe were produced by parents, and especially the mothers’ increasing capacity to empathize with their children. Key to deMause’s thought is the concept of psychoclass (or psychogenic mode), which emerges out of a particular style of childrearing, and child abuse, at a particular period in a society’s development. The conflict of new and old psychoclasses is also highlighted in psychohistorians’ thought. This is reflected, for instance, in the clash between Blue State and Red State voters in the contemporary United States. Another key psychohistorical concept is that of group fantasy, which deMause regards as a mediating force between a psychoclass’s collective childhood experiences (and the psychic conflicts emerging therefrom), and the psychoclass’s behavior in politics, religion and other aspects of social life.

A psychogenic mode in Psychohistory is a type of mentality (or psychoclass) that results from, and is associated with, a particular childrearing style. The major psychogenic modes described by deMause are: Infantcidal, Ambandoning, Ambivalent, Intrusive, Socializaing, and Helping.  Infanticidal: Child sacrifice and infanticide among tribal societies, Mesoamerica and the Incas; in Assyrian and Canaanite religions. Phoenicians, Carthaginians and other early states also sacrificed infants to their gods. On the other hand, the relatively more enlightened Greeks and Romans exposed some of their babies (‘late’ infanticidal childrearing). Abandoning: Early Christians considered a child as having a soul at birth, although possessed by evil tendencies. Routine infanticide was replaced by joining in the group fantasy of the sacrifice of Christ, who was sent by his father to be killed for the sins of others. Routine pederasty of boys continued in monasteries and elsewhere, and the rape of girls was commonplace. Those children who survived the experience did not internalize a completely murderous superego. Longer swaddling, fosterage, outside wetnursing, oblation of children to monasteries and nunneries, and apprenticeship.

Ambivalent: The 12th century saw the first child instruction manuals and rudimentary child protection laws, although most mothers still emotionally rejected their children. Children were often treated as erotic objects by adults. The later Middle Ages ended abandonment of children to monasteries. early beating, shorter swaddling, mourning for deceased children, a precursor to empathy. Intrusive: During the 16th century, particularly in England, parents shifted from trying to stop children’s growth to trying to control them and make them obedient. Parents were prepared to give them attention as long as they controlled their minds, their insides, their anger and the lives they led. The intrusive parent began to unswaddle the infant. Early toilet training, repression of child’s sexuality. Hell threats turned into the Puritan child so familiar from early modern childrearing literature. On the other hand, the end of swaddling and wet-nursing made possible the explosive modern takeoff in scientific advance.

Socializing: Beginning in the 18th century, mothers began to actually enjoy child care, and fathers began to participate in younger children’s development. The aim remained instilling parental goals rather than encouraging individuation. Psychological manipulation and spanking were used to make children obedient. Hellfire and the harsher physical disciplinary actions using objects to beat the child disappeared. The Socializing Mode remains the most popular model of parenting in North America and Western Europe to the present day.

Use of guilt, ‘mental discipline,’ humiliation, rise of compulsory schooling, delegation of parental unconscious wishes. As parental injections continued to diminish, the rearing of the child became less a process of conquering its will than of training it. The socializing psychoclass built the modern world. Helping: Beginning in the mid-20th century, some parents adopted the role of helping children reach their own goals in life, rather than ‘socialize’ them into fulfilling parental wishes. Less psychological manipulation, more unconditional love. Children raised in this way are far more empathic towards others in society than earlier generations. Children’s rights movement, deschooling, and free schooling, natural childbirth, Taking Children Seriously, and the abandonment of circumcision.

Psychohistorians maintain that the six modes of abusive childrearing (excluding the ‘helping mode’) are related to psychiatric disorders from psychoses to neuroses. According to psychohistory theory, each of the six psychoclasses co-exists in the modern world today, and, regardless of the changes in the environment, it is only when changes in childhood occur that societies begin to progress. According to the psychogenic theory, since Neanderthal man most tribes and families practiced infanticide, child mutilation, incest and beating of their children throughout prehistory and history. Presently the Western socializing mode of childrearing is considered much less abusive in the field, though this mode is not yet entirely free of abuse.

In the opening paragraph of his seminal essay ‘The Evolution of Childhood,’ DeMause states: ‘The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of childcare, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized and sexually abused.’ There is notwithstanding an optimistic trait in the field. In a world of ‘helping mode’ parents, deMause believes, violence of any other sort will disappear as well, along with magical thinking, mental disorders, wars and other inhumanities of man against man. Although, the criticism has been made that this itself is a form of magical thinking.

There are no departments dedicated to ‘psychohistory’ in any institution of higher learning, though some history departments have run courses in it. Psychohistory remains a controversial field of study, and deMause and other psychohistorians face criticism in the academic community. DeMause’s formulations have been criticized for being insufficiently supported by credible research. Psychohistory uses a plurality of methodologies, and it is difficult to determine which is appropriate to use in each circumstance. The discipline has the advantage of being able to deal with motive in history and is useful in developing narratives, but is forced to psychoanalyze its subjects after the fact, which was not considered when the theory was developed and expanded. Recent psychohistory has also been criticized for being overly-entangled with DeMause, whose theories do not speak for the entire field.

The 1974 book in which deMause included essays of nine professional historians, ‘The History of Childhood,’ offers a survey of the treatment of children through history. Although critics generally spare these nine historians, they see deMause as a strong proponent of the ‘black legend’ view of childhood history (i.e. that the history of childhood was above all a history of progress, with children being far more often badly mistreated in the past). Similarly, his work has been criticized for being a history of child abuse, not childhood. ‘The History of Childhood’ is often linked to historian Edward Shorter’s ‘The Making of the Modern Family’ and Lawrence Stone’s ‘The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800,’ because of the common ground they share in agreeing with a grim perspective of childhood history. But deMause’s work in particular has attracted hostility from historian Hugh Cunningham.

Thomas Kohut went even further: ‘The reader is doubtless already familiar with examples of these psychohistorical ‘abuses.’ There is a significant difference, however, between the well-meaning and serious, if perhaps simplistic and reductionistic, attempt to understand the psychological in history and the psychohistorical expose that can at times verge on historical pornography. For examples of the more frivolous and distasteful sort of psychohistory, see ‘The Journal of Psychohistory.’ For more serious and scholarly attempts to understand the psychological dimension of the past, see ‘The Psychohistory Review.” DeMause and the psychohistorians respond that their detractors are not largely moved by evidence, but rather are unconsciously motivated to attack those who would challenge the idea of ‘good parenting’ even in very primitive tribes or cultures.

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