In Ruling Minds: Psychology in the British Empire (Harvard University Press, 2016), Erik Linstrum examines how the field of psychology was employed in the...

In Ruling Minds: Psychology in the British Empire (Harvard University Press, 2016), Erik Linstrum examines how the field of psychology was employed in the service of empire.

Linstrum explores the careers of scientists sent to the South Pacific, India, and Africa to verify and define characteristics of white racial superiority. Far from confirming the inferiority of the colonized, psychologists exposed flaws in Britain’s civilizing mission, often doubting or subverting its underlying assumptions. Linstrum exposes a fundamental tension between the authoritarian goals of state and the role of science, showing how expert knowledge could be adapted as a tool of colonization just as it could be undermined by scientific discovery.

Despite its critics, Linstrum shows how psychology mobilized to take part in Britain’s counter-insurgency campaigns in Kenya and Malaya. Colonial administrators borrowed tools from psychology to conduct interrogations and suppress dissent. The colonial state attempted to cast doubt on the psychological maturity of the colonized, articulating Third World nationalism itself as a kind of pathology. Britain’s representatives aimed to actively reshape thoughts and feelings in their quest to win “hearts and minds.”

Linstrum’s book challenges rigid definitions of scientists in the service of empire, complicating earlier narratives which portrayed psychologists as powerful supporters of colonial discourse. Psychology’s intended role was to aid the technocratic administration of a waning empire. While attempting to make the colonized knowable and predictable, British psychologists unintentionally exposed the dysfunctions inherent in European society, challenging the notion of an irrational, inferior “other.”

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