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Relationship Versus Authority: Psychiatric Social Work, Therapeutic Communities, and the Subjectivity of the Child, c1930 - c1970

Dr Jonathan Toms

This study researches theories and practices developed at therapeutic communities and in psychiatric social work. Both of these areas of psychiatric activity emerged between the wars around the 1930s. Therapeutic communities began as experiments in using the physical and relational environment as a means to reform ‘socially maladjusted’ young people. Psychiatric social work developed as a practice mainly in mental hospitals and child guidance clinics. It quickly emerged as a profession that linked emotional problems with ‘social maladjustment’.

The terminology of ‘maladjustment’ was closely associated with a psychological and psychiatric strategy that also became established between the wars in England. This was known as the movement for mental hygiene. Using unexploited archives, the study traces the development of theories and practices associated with psychiatric social work, and emergent therapeutic community style experiments, through their relation to this broader movement for mental hygiene. Part of the aim of the study is to use the research to interrogate theories subjectivity. Theories of subjectivity developed around the strategies discussed above will be interrogated alongside those associated with current historiography.



  • So What?: A Response to Roger Cooter’s, After Death/After-“Life”: The Social History of Medicine in Post-Postmodernity.’ Social History of Medicine. 22 3 (2009) 609-615.
  • ‘Mind the Gap: MIND, the Mental Hygiene Movement and the Trap-door in Measurements of Intellect’, Journal of Intellectual Disabilities Research. (Accepted for Publication 12.11.09)

Conferences / Seminar Papers

  • 21st November 2009 - (Workshop:The Therapeutic Community, the Archive and Historical Research)
  • Moral Therapy?: History and Therapeutic Communities’, presented at, ‘The Therapeutic Community, the Archive and History’, a one-day workshop held at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, 21.11.09.
  • ‘Democracy and Mental Health: An analysis of an interwar experiment and some reflections on its relevance to the history of psychiatry’, presented at the at the Medical History Seminar, University of Warwick, Centre for the History of Medicine, 6.10.09.

Pysch Wellcome

The Institute for the History and Work of Therapeutic Environments

Child Care History Network

The Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre