Through the looking-glass: PsycINFO as an historical archive of trends in psychology

Burman, J. T. 5-Feb-2018 In : History of Psychology.

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  • Through the looking-glass PsycINFO as an Historical Archive of Trends

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Those interested in tracking trends in the history of psychology cannot simply trust the numbers produced by inputting terms into search engines like PsycINFO and then constraining by date. This essay is therefore a critical engagement with that long-standing interest in order to show what it is possible to do, over what period, and why. It concludes that certain projects simply cannot be undertaken without further investment by the APA. This is because forgotten changes in the assumptions informing the database make its index terms untrustworthy for use in trend-tracking before 1967. But they can indeed be used, with care, to track more recent trends. The result is then a distant reading of Psychology, with Digital History presented as enabling a kind of Science Studies that psychologists will find appealing. The present-state of the discipline can thus be sketched in outline as "the contemporary scientific study of rats, drug therapy, and major depression" (as well as of brains, mice, and myriad other topics). To extend the investigation back further in time, however, the 1967 boundary is also investigated. The author then delves more deeply into the pre-history of the database's creation, and shows in a précis of a further project that the origins of PsycINFO can be traced to interests related to American national security during the Cold War. Briefly put: PsycINFO cannot be treated as a simple bibliographic description of the discipline. It is embedded in its history, and reflects it.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHistory of Psychology
Early online date5-Feb-2018
StateE-pub ahead of print - 5-Feb-2018


  • Historical trend analysis, PsycINFO, controlled vocabulary, digital historiography, Cold War social science
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