Feedback please: Soviet Psychology

My first degree was in Psychology. More importantly, it was in an unusually interdisciplinary department of a university that still had some traces left of a politically radical past, in the late 90s. As a result, one of the component courses was “Soviet Psychology” which introduced us to some key concepts in psychology that were either unique to the Soviet literature or had been developed much earlier there than on our side of the Iron Curtain. Some of the positive examples are:

  • Learning as a culturally mediated process
  • Child development as a process of learning to build more sophisticated relationships with a larger number of people
  • Framing simple tools like a mathematician’s pad of paper as an extension of the mind
  • A sophisticated critique of the artificiality of lab psychology experiments

Much of that seems pointlessly obvious now, but not all of it was yet in ~1998 and we looked at evidence that Soviet writers came up with these ideas decades before they were taken seriously anywhere in the West. We also looked at negative examples which clearly illustrated theory leading conclusions or promising lines of research being blocked because they might not fit official dogma.

Most interesting of all, we spent some time discussing why there would have been this divergence between the science of the same subject matter developing in different ideological climates.  Obviously part of the answer was simply that limited communication across the Iron Curtain forked the literature, but it was also clearly not arbitrary which ideas advanced further on which side, so this was our introduction to:

  • Explicit attempts to create an ideological science (the only factor that seems to have been exclusively Soviet)
  • Explicit censorship, defunding or worse of ideologically challenging research programmes (not only in the USSR – see also McCarthyism)
  • Implicit censorship by chilling effects, whereby scientists seem to prefigure a “dangerous” idea but conspicuously fail to explore it any further
  • Subtler government guidance of subject matter by funding some types of research but not others
  • The cultural milieu making people more likely to interpret data one way or another
  • The media (academic and lay press) selectively amplifying those findings that fit the zeitgeist

It was a very powerful counter to the idealistic notion of science as a “value-free” enterprise which simply gets at Objective Truths.

Lately I’ve found myself coming back to this subject matter often. It’s come up in a few different conversations, and I’ve been trying to find a good overview of the subject, which I’ve not yet encountered. There are academic books looking in some detail at specific subfields (developmental psychology seems to be the best explored), there are good broad critiques of the “value-free science” mirage, and I just found an interesting history of Soviet Psychology from a specifically ideological point of view, but I’m looking for something else. I want to be able to point people to a case study that contrasts the Soviet and Western treatments of 2 or 3 topics through the 20th Century, covering the restrictions and missed opportunities on both sides, as a cautionary tale about the inevitable intrusion of values into science. I want something that’s readable in one sitting by people not steeped in the canons of either psychology or Marxism, with the sort of extensive references that would be useful to people who are.

If no such thing exists, I want to write it. But turning things I learned as an undergrad 15 years ago into a really useful guide today will entail a lot of work. I won’t be able to do a worthwhile job of this without digging up and reading a lot of primary sources that I only vaguely remember. If it’s either been done already or is interesting to fewer people than I think, it’s not worth the time. So I have three questions for anyone who’s stayed with me this far:

  1. Does such a guide already exist? If it does, please send me a link and save me a lot of work!
  2. If it doesn’t and I were to write it, would you be interested enough to read it?
  3. If this is a subject you have deep knowledge of, can you help me? Anything from sending me a reading list to coauthoring the piece would be very welcome.

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