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Mentioned: “Digital history of psychology takes flight”

In his comment included in the special issue of History of Psychology that I edited with Ivan Flis and Nadine Weidman, Christopher Green (YorkU Psychology) said this of our efforts:

It was a pleasure to read these two sophisticated efforts to bring digital methods to the history of psychology. In both articles, the authors tackled vast databases that might have overwhelmed more conventional historical methods—nearly 700,000 abstracts in one, and over 2 million index entries in the other—to shed new light on important historical questions….

To my mind, these two articles raise exactly the sorts of questions we should be asking and generate precisely the kinds of debates we should be having if we are going to keep history of psychology (the discipline) a creative and vital force both within history of science and within psychology itself.

(Green, 2018, p. 374)

He then discussed my contribution specifically:

Jeremy Burman’s (2018) article is complex, interwoven—a virtual thicket of findings and ideas pitched at levels ranging from the technically arcane (e.g., how did these particular words come to populate this one disciplinary online search engine?) to the broadly social (e.g., how did the Cold War anxieties of the U.S. government influence the APA’s journal indexing decisions?). The aim of the article rapidly shifts from seeming to be a basic digital history of the origin and development of the now-pervasive PsycINFO database, to being, instead, an “inside baseball” warning to digital historians about blithely taking digital databases to be “neutral” repositories of information, rather than, as they truly are, artifacts formed by the active decisions of human beings at various times in the past. The unwary digital researcher can easily mistake the results of these conscious decisions for “naturally” occurring historical events (e.g., interest in Mental Phenomenon M appears, in the index, to collapse at a certain point in time when, in fact, what happened was that some index administrator decided at that time that M had become too large a category to be useful, and that articles pertaining to M would henceforth be divided among Categories N, O, P, and Q). What is worse, these kinds of decisions may have originally been made for reasons that lie some distance from the interests of the historical researcher and therefore unintentionally interact with those interests in ways that are essentially unpredictable. But then, it turns out that Burman is writing an historical account after all, though a much more historiographically conventional one that it first appeared: citing obscure archival documents such as a long lost internal report of the APA, and private communications between the APA and the National Science Foundation.

(Green, 2018, p. 377)

He continued:

In a way, this is exactly the kind of interaction between the digital and the conventional that I have been plugging since I began my digital research program in history of psychology six or seven years ago. As I have argued elsewhere (Green, 2016), digital history is not just a revival of the Cliometrics of an earlier age….

Digital historians of psychology have, by contrast, set out in a quite different direction: We have not aimed to make historical research look more like quantitative psychological research. Not a z, t, F, or notorious p value in sight! Nor have we, in the main, produced results that require special training to understand (though they may require special training to produce). Rather than focusing on underlying statistical models, our aim has typically been to produce data visualizations that are accessible to any interested and reasonably attentive person. Nor have digital historians of psychology striven to separate themselves from the broader history of psychology. Instead we have aimed to be integrated with conventional histories. Indeed, as noted above, our visualizations often result not in “answers” to historical questions but, rather, in the generation of new questions that, often as not, require additional conventional historical research to answer. Burman’s article is, I think, a powerful example of this interactive aim.

(Green, 2018, pp. 377-378)

In addition to discussing my target article, he also referred to his earlier discussion in the same journal:

Green, C. D. (2016). A digital future for the history of psychology? History of Psychology, 19(3), 209-219.

That was part of an earlier special issue reflecting on the twenty years of scholarship since the publication of Kurt Danziger’s (1994) “the future of the history of psychology,” edited by Adrian C. Brock.

Categories: Digital methods History Mentioned Research

J. T. Burman

JEREMY TREVELYAN BURMAN, PhD, is tenured Senior Assistant Professor (UD1 with indefinite contract) of Theory and History of Psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The primary focus of his research is Jean Piaget, but he is also interested more generally in the formalization and movement of scientific meaning—over time, across disciplines, between languages, and internationally. To pursue these interests, he uses methods borrowed from the history and philosophy of science (esp. archival study) and the digital humanities (esp. network analysis).

Selected recent major works
Burman, J. T. (in press). The genetic epistemology of Jean Piaget. In W. Pickren (Ed.), The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of the History of Psychology. Oxford University Press.

Burman, J. T. (2020). On Kuhn’s case, and Piaget’s: A critical two-sited hauntology (or, on impact without reference). History of the Human Sciences, 33(3-4), 129-159. doi:10.1177/0952695120911576

Burman, J. T. (2019). Development. In R. J. Sternberg & W. Pickren, eds, The Cambridge Handbook of the Intellectual History of Psychology (pp. 287-317). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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