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Anti-Psychiatry and the History of Psychiatry (Mathew Thomson)


This seminar introduces students to the historiography of psychiatry. It does so via examination of the impact of ‘anti-psychiatry’. Although there is a historiography of psychiatry before the explosion of the anti-psychiatry movement in the 1960s and 1970s, sometimes involving psychiatrists as historians, there is a case for arguing that anti-psychiatry has transformed the way that the history of psychiatry has come to be conceived and written. Indeed, anti-psychiatry has arguably been more important for the history of psychiatry than for psychiatry itself. However, with the passing of time, the anti-psychiatric movement is itself becoming a subject for historical examination, and this has put the meaning and nature of its ‘anti’-psychiatric credentials under scrutiny. Perhaps more importantly, as historians shift their focus from the story of nineteenth-century to twentieth-century psychiatry, and as anti-psychiatry becomes part of this history, there is a case for arguing that they need to distance themselves from its grip and recognise the limitations of working under its influence. The seminar invites critical reflection on these issues and on the challenges in writing the history of psychiatry in the twenty-first century.

Seminar Questions

How should we understand the relationship between anti-psychiatry and psychiatry?
How has anti-psychiatry influenced the way that history of psychiatry has been written?
What other factors in your view have shaped the history of psychiatry?
Does the history of psychiatry now need to free itself from anti-psychiatry, or has it already done so in part?

Introductory Reading

Volker Hess and Benoit Majerus, ‘Writing the History of Psychiatry in the 20th Century’, History of Psychiatry, 22 (2011), 139-45: this is an introduction to a special issue of the journal exploring the challenge and limited progress to date in narrating the history of psychiatry in the 20th century. e-journal
Colin Jones, ‘Raising the Anti: Jan Foudraine, Ronald Laing and Anti-Psychiatry’, in Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra and Roy Porter (eds), Cultures of Psychiatry and Mental Health Care in Post-war Britain and the Netherlands (1998). scanned article
Roy Porter, ‘The History of Psychiatry in Britain’, History of Psychiatry, 2 (1991), 271-9.e-journal
Andrew Scull, ‘Psychiatry and its Historians’, History of Psychiatry, 2 (1991), 239-50. e-journal

Suggested essay question

‘Understanding anti-psychiatry is fundamental to understanding the history of psychiatry'. Discuss.

Further Reading

Nick Crossley, Contesting Psychiatry: Social Movements in Mental Health (2006): a pioneering sociological account of anti-psychiatry and its relation to social movements in Britain.

Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra and Roy Porter (eds.), Cultures of Psychiatry and Mental Health Care in Post-war Britain and the Netherlands (1998): useful for the history of anti-psychiatry.

Mark Micale and Roy Porter (eds), Discovering the History of Psychiatry (1994): useful introduction to historiography, and a final section focusing on anti-psychiatry.

Andrew Scull, The insanity of place/the place of insanity: Essays on the History of Psychiatry (2006). e-book

Peter Sedgwick, Psycho Politics: Laing, Foucault, Goffman, Szasz, and the Future of Mass Psychiatry (1982).

Edward Shorter, A History of Psychiatry: From the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac (1997): perhaps the most obvious attempt to date to offer a narrative for the history of psychiatry that extends across the 20th century. Not without its problems perhaps? e-book

Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization: A Cultural Hisotry of Insanity (2015): again continues the story of the history of psychiatry through the 20th century in the final three chapters.