Book Review: The Psychologization of Society by Ole Jacob Madsen

Review by Steven Stanley

Ole Jacob Madsen is a professor at the Department of Psychology, University of Oslo. His previous books include The Therapeutic Turn (2014), Optimizing the Self (2015) and The Psychologization of Society: On the Unfolding of the Therapeutic in Norway (2018) (all at Routledge). 

“To be a human being today is first and foremost to be a psychological being”

(Madsen, 2018, p. 16)

Since their historical emergence in Europe in the late 19th century, unprecedented growth especially in North America throughout the 20th century, and increasingly global spread towards the end of that century and into the early 21st century, psychology as a scientific discipline, and psychotherapy as a field of professional practice, have been extensively charted by what is now a vibrant multi-disciplinary network of scholars comprising historians, sociologists and cultural critics, along with psychologists and psychotherapists – who themselves have long been in the business of writing commentaries and histories of their own disciplines, theoretical schools and scientific and therapeutic practices. Scholars have repeatedly shown for over 50 years how the ‘psy’ sciences and professions have rarely emerged in isolation as scientific disciplines or psychotherapeutic schools, but rather have instead arisen as potential ‘solutions’ to – or at least in interdependence with – the diagnoses of complex social, cultural, economic, and political problems. The growing trend particularly in the post-World War Two period of the mass dispersal of psychological knowledge and practices beyond the laboratory and the clinic, through a panopoly of professional, applied, and practical therapeutics, and popular self-help interventions, such that people seem to increasingly come to understand themselves and their lives in psychological terms – a trend given by some commentators the perhaps unfortunate nomenclature of ‘psychologisation’ – has been taken as a topic of intensive scholarly interest.

‘Therapeutic Cultures’ is the name of the Routledge series of which this book is the first contribution, where primarily a number of sociologists interrogate ‘the therapeutic’ in its diverse manifestations, across various sites, and analyse its multiple consequences. There is a particular interest in charting the emergence and spread of  therapeutics beyond the Anglo-American world in what is becoming an increasingly transnational terrain. As one of a small number of influential Nordic and Scandinavian critical psychologists – who tend to think about ‘psy’ like sociologists and cultural theorists do, but with more of an ‘insider’ knowledge – including Steiner Kvale, Svend Brinkmann and Jan De Vos, Ole Jacob Madsen is ideally placed to diagnose and evaluate the current place of ‘psy’ in Norway. Madsen is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo, Norway who has published two previous books – The Therapeutic Turn: How Psychology Altered Western Culture (2014) and Optimizing the Self: Social Representations of Self-Help (2015). Forthcoming books in the series include Therapeutic Worlds: Popular Psychology and the Sociocultural Organisation of Intimate Life (Nehring & Kerrigan, 2019) and Assembling Therapeutics: Cultures, Politics and Materiality (edited by Salmenniemi et al., 2019).

The Psychologization of Society works as a fine introduction to the field and is suitable for advanced undergraduate students in the history of psychology, cultural sociology, and religious studies. This is a short book which provides a succinct summary of the key concepts used in literature on therapeutic cultures (especially in the Introduction), particularly scholarship emerging after Philip Rieff’s classic The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (1966) – one of the first contributions to a genre later named as providing a ‘canonical critique’ of therapeutic culture by Aubry and Travis (Rethinking Therapeutic Culture, 2015), whose introduction to their own edited collection similarly works as an effective introduction and overview of the field as a whole. Madsen offers a more sympathetic and nuanced account of the canonical critics than Aubry and Travis and also updates the reader on work following in the wake of well-known sociological and cultural studies of psychological and therapeutic cultures, such as Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism (1979), Nikolas Rose’s work on the ‘governmentality’ of the psychological complex (The Psychological Complex, 1985; Governing the Soul, 1990; Inventing Our Selves, 1998), and Eva Illouz’s more recent cultural sociology in Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions and the Culture of Self-Help (2008). Madsen argues Anglo-American scholarship on the therapeutic rarely advances “the international debate about psychology’s role in society” thereby justifying his study of Norwegian popular culture which shows how rather than the therapeutic ethos being a “monotheistic ontology of late modernity” (p. 16), the globalised therapeutic culture ‘blends’ with regional (national) norms and values rather than ‘triumphing’ in any singular or straightforward sense (on this theme, see also the related books Transnational Popular Psychology and the Global Self-Help Industry: The Politics of Contemporary Social Change, Nehring et al., 2016 and Internationalizing the History of Psychology, Brock, 2009). The original contribution of this book is to illustrate how sectors of Norwegian society – media, law, religion, self-help – have become infused with a psychological and therapeutic outlook. This is evident, for example, in the ‘therapeutic motifs’ used within Norwegian women’s magazines (Chapter 2), how discourses of vulnerability have been used to legitimate abortion law (Chapter 3), and how psychiatric assessments were employed in the 2011 trial of right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik (Chapter 3).

Perhaps the most interesting chapter for an interdisciplinary audience is ‘Religion’ (Chapter 4). Madsen argues, and illustrates, why scholars of religion should engage with the rise of therapeutics, and conversely why religion should still matter to scholars of the therapeutic. Madsen shows how contemporary clergy reformed the Sunday high mass of the Church of Norway to emphasise individual autonomy, personal meaning and a “turn-around from a theology of salvation to a gospel of self-realization in accordance with the therapeutic ethos” (p. 69). Similarly to clinicians who emphasise patient autonomy in medical consultations, Protestant Christian clergy place choice and responsibility for seeking divinity in the hands of their parishioners. Therapeutic and Christian cultures merge, rather than the former straightforwardly triumphing over the latter, as Rieff suggested.

The main methodological strength of the book is also its central weakness. Madsen perceptively employs critical textual analysis to highlight the various, subtle, and sometimes contradictory applications of therapeutic ideals and their multiple political and ideological contexts and manifestations. As a critical psychologist, Madsen is adept at mobilising a philosophical and discursive style of analysis of multiple therapeutic modalities – such as his analysis of six genres of self-help, including a fascinating discussion of the contribution of cognitive science and cybernetics to therapeutics (Chapter 5) – and thereby transcends the stories told by historians about the rise and fall (or continued influence) of psychoanalysis in North America, or those told by psychologists about the progressive development of their science. ‘The’ therapeutic is shown to be multiple, dispersed, and contradictory, dependent upon its modalities and assumptions about the person and society, rather than interpreted as a singular totality in both its manifestations and effects. Madsen is also especially well-placed to advise psychologists, in an interesting move, to beware the ethical implications of ‘giving psychology away’ in order to make a psychological society, as strongly advocated by the President of the American Psychological Society George Miller in his 1969 address (a message also endorsed by other subsequent Presidents of both the APA and British Psychological Society since). The ethical implications of making society psychological, in which we each become our own psychologist or therapist, are even more complex too, given that critiques of the therapeutic ethos are themselves often informed by psychoanalytic theory (such as Lasch’s diagnosis of ‘narcissistic’ 1970s American culture).

Despite its clear strengths, by the end of the book – and as a direct result of Madsen’s methodological approach – I am still left somewhat in the dark about how Norwegian people variously live – take up, resist, ignore – therapeutic and psychological injunctions (deriving from popular or professional contexts) and apply forms of therapeutic practice (or not) in their own lives. Without broader empirical investigations beyond cultural and textual analysis, ‘the therapeutic’ will perhaps still remain a somewhat amorphous and abstract ‘ethos’, ‘age’, or ‘zeitgeist’ rather than a lived and lively set of institutions, ideals, and practices which are put to work in often hybrid ways, across multiple locations, and with various – both hoped for and feared – outcomes.

Steven Stanley is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University. Steven is a critical psychologist with research interests in the history, philosophy and sociology of therapeutic cultures, psychology and Buddhism. He is currently leading the Mapping Mindfulness project, a landmark social study of the UK mindfulness movement, funded by The Leverhulme Trust. Steven is a member of the Popular Psychology, Self-Help Culture and the Happiness Industry Multidisciplinary Academic Network. Twitter: @Dr_SteveStanley

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