"Is there such a thing as a New York psychologist?" Fordham University professor Robert Rieber asked. "New York pizza is different. If there are different kinds of pizza, why not psychologists?"
At the annual meeting last week of Cheiron, the society for the history of the behavioral and social sciences, one audience member suggested the analogy of bagels instead of pizza. Mr. Rieber was introducing a lively afternoon session called "New York Stories: The Power of Place in Shaping Science and Practice," which was held on the campus of Sarah Lawrence College.
"We need a taxonomy of what constitutes a New York psychologist," Mr. Rieber continued. Perhaps a perfect "10" would be a native New Yorker, who attended City College and practices in New York? Mr. Rieber, who is editor of the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, might not qualify, having been born in Philadelphia. But he has been in New York since 1958.
"There is something about New York that is distinctive in shaping its people," American Psychological Association archivist Wade Pickren said. Place has a way of giving a sense of location to an idea, he said, pointing out the work of an Indiana University sociology professor, Thomas Gieryn, who has researched the significance of place for human behavior and social change.
While there was no consensus about whether there was a unique brand of psychology of New York, the participants agreed that Gotham has played a crucial role in the history of psychology and there are special characteristics of psychology in New York.
New York has a critical mass, University of Guelph professor Ian Lubek said. It has multiple centers of social consciousness, as well as a publishing infrastructure that introduces new ideas. While there are clusters of likeminded scholars who work together in various universities, in New York psychologists are part of the cultural milieu, he said. "New York has always been a hotbed of social activism, social movements, and politics. Psychologists became part of that and sometimes even leaders of those movements to improve people's lives, because that's what psychologists do."
Indiana University at South Bend professor Elizabeth Scarborough said the National Council for Women Psychologists formed in New York as the clouds of World War II loomed. It was the first time that women psychologists came together as a group.
York University professor Christopher Green said there has been research and reference under such national rubrics as "British Psychology" before. But discussions of cities are more rare, although there is reference to the Chicago School of sociological thought, whose notable practitioners included Robert Park and Ernest Burgess. Harvard University professor Anne Harrington said there was the Paris School of Medicine in the late 19th Century, which emphasized the importance of laboratory methods. About the topic of a New York psychology, she said it brings to mind the question, "What are the interesting units of analysis? There are great scientists, laboratories, departments, and institutions." In examining a city, one would look at how the various components there have interacted, she said, "And ask ‘Do they have a sense of common purpose?'"
New York has made formidable contributions to experimental psychology, Freudian psychoanalysis and its offshoots (no other American city has a "Psychoanalytic Row" of offices), Gestalt psychology (nurtured at the New School by refugee scholars), and comparative psychology (studied at the American Museum of Natural History). "No town or city in the country is so cosmopolitan or international," said Mr. Rieber. That quality has infiltrated into the psychological community, helping to make it unique. Mr. Rieber emphasized that this was not to be chauvinistic: He was not saying that psychology in New York was better.
He and his colleagues hope that each New York psychology department and local association will write a history of its institution. They have met at various regional conferences to explore a documentary research project on this topic. In the meantime, the group still needs a name. Mr. Rieber favors "Council on New York Psychology," while St. John's University professor John Hogan prefers "Psychology Historians of New York," which forms the provocative acronym "P.H.O.N.Y."