I decided to make a list of the books I’ve recently read, browsed, or added to my reading list. This turned out to be a thought-provoking process. Although this may sound naïve, when I first imagined this blog, I didn’t anticipate that psychology would be such a major category in my bibliography. My main interest, after all, was the social and cultural history of the self. But of course the self is a subject of considerable interest to academic psychologists these days. The ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis — have been incredibly influential in how we think of ourselves. That’s something I’m now beginning to appreciate more fully.
Anthropology, sociology and history – disciplines that consider a variety of cultures, social conventions, and historical times – make a valuable contribution to understanding the self (along with the many other valuable contributions they make, of course). They force us to acknowledge that what is true for one specific culture, society, or historical time is not universally true.
Because psychology considers itself a science, with theories based on empirically validated findings, it lacks the benefit of the self-reflective qualities intrinsic to humanist disciplines. This leaves psychology open to criticism.
For example, there’s the charge that psychology has been guilty of assuming that what it observes in Western (North American and European) cultures must be true for other cultures, as well as for our ancestors. In an excellent article on this point, The Weirdest People in the World (PDF), the authors point out that those who live in Western societies not only differ psychologically from people in the rest of the world. WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) people are in fact quite exceptional compared to other cultures and to their ancestors. Americans, in particular, are so unusual that they stand out as “outliers among outliers.” (See also on this: Ethan Watters, We Aren’t the World.) Read more
I have been preoccupied with my Chinese horoscope for over a decade. One of its revelations touched on something I instinctively felt was true, but to this day I continue to resist believing it. Why is that?
The story starts with my sense of being a little different, odd, abnormal (I so dislike that last word). I assume many people feel this way, but since it’s not the first thing they’ll tell you about themselves, we’re left to wonder just how relatively peculiar we are. In my case – as I wrote earlier – it was undoubtedly this feeling that attracted me to the idea that I have a choice about how I see myself. Society may label me odd, but if I see society’s values as temporary and highly contingent, then the problem is society’s, not mine.
But am I really free to choose? I was born and raised in a modern, Western, rational, scientific culture. My ability to think about rationality and the autonomous individual is embedded in the very language I use to think. So ingrained, for example, is my desire to appear rational that, before talking about my Chinese horoscope, I feel a need to defend, justify, or otherwise absolve myself from appearing otherwise. Read more