The 18th European Congress of Psychology convened in Brighton between 3 and 6 July 2023. The overall theme was ‘Uniting communities for a sustainable world’. The British Psychological Society (BPS), through its Challenging Histories Group, hosted a symposium exploring the legacies of eugenics in psychology, past and present.
Symposium at the European Congress of Psychology
The symposium included a talk from Professor Marius Turda, Oxford Brookes University, on the relationship between eugenics, psychology, and dehumanisation. This was followed by two other papers, one by Nazlin Bhimani (UCL Institute of Education) who focused on the legacy of eugenic in British education, and the other, by Lisa Edwards, whose family had lived experience of institutions of mental care in Britain such as the Rainhill Asylum.
“This is first time that a symposium on eugenics took place at an international congress of psychology and the BPS Challenging Histories Group has been instrumental in making it happen,” Prof Marius Turda told The European Times.
Exhibition on the Legacies of Eugenics
The symposium drew its inspiration from an exhibition “We Are Not Alone” Legacies of Eugenics. The exhibition had been curated by Prof Marius Turda.
The exhibition laid out that “eugenics aims to ‘improve’ the genetic ‘quality’ of the human population through the control of reproduction and, at its extremes, through the elimination of those considered by eugenicists to be ‘inferior’.”
Eugenics developed initially in Britain and the United States in the nineteenth century, but it became a globally influential movement by the 1920s. Eugenicists targeted people belonging to religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities, and those living with disabilities, leading to their institutional confinement and sterilization. In Nazi Germany, eugenic ideas of race improvement contributed directly to mass murder and the Holocaust.
Prof Marius Turda explained that “Victorian polymath, Francis Galton, was the first person to promote eugenics concepts within psychology as well as being a major figure in the development of the field as a scientific discipline. His influence on American and British psychologists such as James McKeen Cattell, Lewis Terman, Granville Stanley Hall, William McDougall, Charles Spearman and Cyril Burt was significant.”
“My aim was to put Galton’s legacy into its historical context, and to offer a discussion of how psychology and psychologists contributed to the eugenic dehumanisation of individuals with mental disabilities. My strategy was to encourage psychologists to come to terms with the discrimination and abuse promoted by eugenics, not least because the memories of this abuse are very much alive today,” Prof Marius Turda told The European Times.
Eugenics and Psychology
The focus on the legacies of eugenics at the European Congress of Psychology was timely and welcomed. It’s important not the least considering that scientific disciplines such as psychology had been an important ground on which such arguments circulated and received acceptance. Yet, for years this had not been confronted or even perceived. The problematic history of eugenics as well as its still lingering existence in present time language and in some cases, practices are seen in arguments about heredity, social selection, and intelligence.
The scientific expertise provided by psychologists was used to stigmatise, marginalise and ultimately dehumanise those whose lives they controlled and supervised. These individuals who were seen as representing a different, and less- able, humanity was to be institutionalised in ‘special schools’ and ‘colonies’ and subjected to specific educational programmes.
Ideally now we should build a platform for sustained institutional reflection and seeded discussion amongst psychologists, with far reaching implications for the discipline itself, professor Marius Turda indicated.
As the scientific community witnessed the resurgence of essentializing eugenic rhetoric in 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and then with the onset of Covid-19 pandemic, it is clear that we must develop new ways of thinking and practicing psychology, if we are to meet the shared challenges we face, individually and collectively as well as nationally and globally.
Archives Manager of the British Psychological Society (BPS), Sophie O’Reilly told “We’re very excited to present this symposium at the European Congress of Psychology on a topic which still has wide ranging repercussions today. As well as giving a historical account of the relationship between psychology and eugenics, the story of a family’s lived experience of over a century of institutionalisation and stigmatisation will be vital to highlighting these repercussions.”
“Psychology has some dark histories, ones that may not have been challenged before,” Dr Roz Collings, Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Ethics Committee remarked.
Dr Roz Collings pointed out that, “This thought provoking and inspiring symposium allowed individuals their eyes and begin questioning. The symposium was well attended with healthy discussions and questions highlighting the inquisitive and curious mind of psychologists from around the world.”
She further added that “It is important to reflect, rather than forget, and to continue moving forwards in psychology to challenge any difficult futures that may lie ahead. This symposium allowed the space for many to do just that.”
Another attendee, professor John Oates, Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Media Ethics Advisory Group, and member of the BPS Ethics Committee, explained: ‘As part of our work in investigating troubling features of the work of past psychologists, the British Psychological Society Challenging Histories Group was pleased to have been able to work closely with Prof Turda to organise this symposium.”
Professor John Oates added, “It was gratifying not only to have a good-sized audience, but also to have an audience that engaged with our presentations and our calls to action. Our hope is that we have started a ripple of conversation that will spread and help to counter the enduring legacy of eugenic ideology which still infects public and private discourses.”
Defend human rights
Tony Wainwright, a clinical psychologist and a member of the BPS Climate Environment Action Coordinating Group, reflected in this way: “It was both a great pleasure and at the same time shocking to participate in the symposium on ‘The Legacy of Eugenics Past and Present’.”
“The shock was from being reminded of psychology’s past involvement in the formation of pernicious ideologies underlying racism and discrimination. Our language retains echoes of mental classifications – now used as insults – “moron”, “idiot”,” Tony Wainwright clarified.
He added, “The lived experience of her family that one of the speakers, Lisa Edwards, brought to the session showed how this was not an academic matter but had tragic consequences.”
Tony Wainwright finally noted, “The pleasure came from hoping that remembering our past will engage people in contemporary action as this legacy lives on. We are in a time when human rights are under threat in many parts of the world, and hopefully, symposia like this will reinforce our efforts to defend human rights wherever we can.”
On the occasion of the congress the BPS also featured parts of the exhibition ‘We are not Alone: Legacies of Eugenics’, curated by Professor Marius Turda. Panels of the exhibition can be viewed here:
The full exhibition can be viewed here:
Importantly, the exhibition was also featured in the summer issue of The Psychologist, which was prepared for the congress.