what happened to freud in sociology?


In the 1950s, the American intellectual world was awash in Freudianism and sociology was no exception. Parsons, and many others, bought a lot of Freud and there was a rather healthy industry of psychoanalysis that yielded entire schools of thought. Nowadays, it’s hard to find hardcore Freudians in sociology. As a foundation for sociological thinking on the self and social structure, Freud seems absent. There a number of signs: he doesn’t seem to be taught often in graduate theory courses; except for Chodorow at Berkeley (now retired), it’s hard finding faculty at leading programs who work in a Freudian vein; I haven’t seen a Freudian grad student in years; and Freud’s citations seem limited to sex researchers and “theory” journals where erudition in social thinkers is highly regarded. It’s hard finding a Freudian article in Social Pyschology Quarterly, or in the leading general journals, though he does appear in citations.

Why no Freud? Some hypotheses:

  • No real reason, psychoanalysis was just a fad. They come and go. Professors just tired of it and they moved on to other fads.
  • There’s something that makes Freudianism hard to do as empirical research with an emphasis on hypotheses and mechanisms.
  • Freud became embarrassing after the scandals relating to issues like repressed memory.
  • People were persuaded by guys like Fred Crews who claimed that Freudianism was simply a bunch of unscientific hooey.
  • People were persuaded by empirical experiments that cast doubt on core Freudian concepts.
  • Psychoanalysis was outcompeted by rivals forms of social pyschology with academic sociology such as … ?
  • All of the above.

I’d be especially interested in what the social psych crowd has to say.


Written by fabiorojas

February 27, 2008 at 1:08 am

18 Responses

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  1. Fabio,

    Can you please direct me to some articles regarding the non-american style of research? Let’s say European style? I am not really too turned on by the types of papers turned out by some political scientists and I would like some fresh ideas.

    R. Pointer
    rwpointer >at<



    February 27, 2008 at 2:11 am

  2. Well, try reading any issue of Theory, Culture and Society. It’s very, well, European.



    February 27, 2008 at 2:16 am

  3. Well, what happened to Freud everywhere, really. I remember liking this book.



    February 27, 2008 at 3:05 am

  4. But if you look at anthropology (and here boundaries with sociology are fuzzy), there is a number of contemporary, widely taught authors such as Maurice Godelier that draw from psychoanalytical concepts.



    February 27, 2008 at 10:41 am

  5. By the way, another (political, and probably more European) hypothesis that could be added to your list would be the impact of the Lacanian drift and the subsequent wars between the various psychoanalytical societies.

    And possibly also the institutional attack (devastating, to some extent) from the cyborg approaches.



    February 27, 2008 at 10:48 am

  6. That’s without counting the psychoanalytic Marxism of the Frankfurt school (in particular Marcuse in Eros and Civilization), and Erich Fromm before him, and the grip that psychoanalysis had on an entire generation of American intellectuals such as the recently departed Phillip Rieff. And the fact that type can only come up with Maurice Godelier tells you how much Freud has been evacuated from anthropology. At one point–1930s, 1940s–psychological anthropology was the center of the entire field and the luminaries of the discipline (Mead, Malinowski) built entire theoretical edifices on explicit psychoanalytic mechanisms.

    I think that the question: what happened to Freud? cannot be meaningfully answered unless you are clear what you mean by “Freud.” I think that given the hypotheses above, what is meant by “Freud” in this context is psychoanalysis as a source of theoretical processes and mechanisms. That is, psychoanalysis as theory of how the mind works that may inform social theory.

    Was psychoanalysis a “fad”? I don’t think so, unless you count movements of equal intellectual scope and influence (Darwinism, Marxism, Christianity?) and endurance also as having a fad-like quality.

    Was psychoanalysis deflated because of Fred Crews, repressed memory scandals and psychological experiments? Clearly we don’t subscribe to that naive Popperian falsificationism around here. We’ve read Lakatos. Scandals were there for Freud since day one: cocaine, Wilhelm Fleiss, Dora, etc. so a few other ones were not going to hurt.

    Was psychoanalysis out-competed by other theories of the mind in sociology? Maybe, or maybe not. If you look at contemporary social psychology, it is well, fairly anti-psychological. Most of the theories, symbolic interaction, identity theory, exchange theory, etc., have a pretty “thin” view of the mind, and none requires the postulation of elaborate, unobservable, intrapsychic processes to explain human behavior as did psychoanalysis. Instead of the deep, complex, “Freudian subject” we have the happy go-lucky Median symbol-manipulator. No depth psychology here. So an argument can be made that it has been the rejection of psychology as a whole in modern sociology and not the rejection of psychoanalysis in particular that accounts for the decline of its influence in social-scientific theorizing.

    So an important question to ask is: is the fate of Freud in the social sciences a good indicator of the fate of “Freudianism” and “psychoanalysis” in the culture at large? In a certain sense you can say yes: as Freud has receded from attention in the social sciences, he appears to have become a more muted figure in the culture at large. On the other hand–as Eli Zaretsky (2005) and Eva Illouz (2007)convincingly argue–who isn’t a Freudian of some sort of another now? Who does not use some sort of pop Freudianism to think about their own mind or the minds of others (“don’t repress your feelings”!). In that sense the entire enterprise that Freud invented, therapy, psychology, the highly reflexive view of the self have become so institutionalized that they appear to us to be invisible (taken for granted). In which case success can easily be misread as failure. So a big part of the answer to the question of what happen to Freud? may be: he won. Some version of pop Freudianism is on Oprah everyday.



    February 27, 2008 at 12:38 pm

  7. Was Freud ever central in academic social psych? Even in the 50s, the social psych of univeristy psychology departments was dominated by models of cognitive dissonance, attitude change, and other things that could be studied in experiments. Typically, experimenters asked subjects to solve problems or do other tasks, or they put subjects in unusual situations and observed reactions. The intellectual forebears of this research seemed to be not so much Freud as contemporary TV fare like “Beat the Clock” and “Candid Camera.

    If you wanted to find Freud in psychology departments, you had to go to the clinical programs and courses.

    Still, as Omar says, some Freudian ideas have come to be part of the taken-for-granted, unnoticed framework for discussion and thought — not just on Oprah, but even in academic departments where the Viennese doctor is he who must not be named.


    Jay Livingston

    February 27, 2008 at 2:53 pm

  8. As Jay says, I don’t think Freud was ever central in academic social psych. Of your options, I would say #3, #4, #5, and #6 (cognitive).

    My presumption is that a Freudian graduate student in sociology would have to repress that fact in their job talk if they were anywhere near a research I or II.



    February 27, 2008 at 3:09 pm

  9. On the other hand–as Eli Zaretsky (2005) and Eva Illouz (2007)convincingly argue–who isn’t a Freudian of some sort of another now? Who does not use some sort of pop Freudianism to think about their own mind or the minds of others

    As I remember this was Gellner’s argument, or part of it: at least amongst certain segments of society, the psychoanalytic vocabulary displaced a primarily religious one as the chief means of talking about one’s desires and emotions, but its general validity was essentially the same, i.e., nugatory. A functional replacement rather than a substantive advance.



    February 27, 2008 at 6:08 pm

  10. Waiting to hear what Omar said… But, seriously, beyond the Frankenfurters and a few high-brow east-coasty “public intellectual” hand-wringers – the sort who might have been married, oh, to Susan Sontag – I don’t think Freud had any impact of note on American sociology.



    February 27, 2008 at 7:27 pm

  11. Well, as a died-in-the-wool “Freudian”, clinically trained in psychoanalysis and self-identified as a psychoanalytic sociologist (and alerted to this discussion page by a graduate student here at UCLA), I feel compelled to insist that the relevance of Freud to sociology is not quite as dead as imagined here. In fact, as I have recently argued in a Review Essay in the AJS, sociologists whenever they themselves adopt some conception of the self, individual agency , and social action could certainly benefit from considering contemporary psychoanalytic ideas concerning the person. (See my “Beneath the Surface of the Self: Psychoanalysis and the Unseen Known, AJS 112 (July 2006). I remind the group of Neil Smelser’s (former president of the ASA, also clinically trained in psychoanalysis) deep engagement with psychoanalytic ideas, including his Presidential Address on Ambivalence, a discussion strongly rooted in Freudian theory (also, his book The Social Edges of Psychoanalysis (California)). Nancy Chodorow, while retired from Berkeley, continues to publish within psychoanalytic sociology. There are also many psychoanalytically-minded sociologists in the UK and Australia who self-consciously seek to bring together the two fields. The work of Anthony Elliott, a student of Anthony Giddens, most quickly comes to mind. Arlie Hochschild’s work, too, while not explicitly psychoanalytic, is clearly analytically-informed. I would recommend a recent book by Philip Manning, Freud and American Sociology (Polity), and my own book Presenting the Past, Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Misremembering (Harvard), both of which explicitly address the intersection of fields. For classic statements on psychoanalysis and sociology, you might be interested in the two-volume Psychoanaltyic Sociology, co-edited by me and Michael Rustin, published by Edward Elgar. And, finally, striking a different note and the most eminent third generation Critical Theorist writing now, I would recommend the work of Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition, and his most recently published essay on Reification (Oxford), for examples of the theoretical and conceptual gains that derive from engaging psychoanalytic ideas to better understand social phenomena. My compulsion (see: Freud) to respond to the blog has now been gratified. With best wishes, Jeff Prager


    Jeff Prager

    February 27, 2008 at 10:57 pm

  12. Thanks Jeff for filling us in! (I’ll have to take a look at that review essay). As has happened many times since the publication of Studies on Hysteria (1895) the news of the death of Freudianism appear to have been greatly exaggerated. I do remember attending a very lively miniconference in New York last year on Psychoanalysis and Sociology (just before ASA) which featured lots of people doing serious work inspired by psychoanalytic ideas.

    So, it looks like we are ready for a Freudian revival. Where did I put my copy of Sorokin’s Social and Cultural Dynamics?



    February 28, 2008 at 1:42 am

  13. Indeed, Jeff, these are good things to know. I took a course from an analyst once (who taught the nuances of Freud), but in my post-BA life, I haven’t seen a whole lot of Freud. Thanks for chiming in.



    February 28, 2008 at 2:00 am

  14. Slightly off-topic, but it just came back to me like a suddenly unrepressed memory: psychohistory. Whatever became of it?


    Jay Livingston

    February 28, 2008 at 2:49 am

  15. I have to agree with Jeremy except for #5 – although several bits of Freudian theory has been experimentally disaproved and expelled for basic curricula at the psych courses, I remember recent papers in neurology (such as ‘mirror’ functions in the brain) being closely aligned with psychoanalysis (although these theries were perhaps more closely associated with Freuds students than the old man himself).

    Personally I think psychoanalysis still has great opportunities to inform research in areas such as political sociology, social movements theory, and even management-like areas such as leadership. For an interesting example of the sociological approach, see Goodwin’s (1997) study “The Libidinal Constitution of a High-Risk Social Movement: Affectual Ties and Solidarity in the Huk Rebellion, 1946-1954.” in ASR.



    February 28, 2008 at 5:26 am

  16. Less academic in nature, my master’s was in organization development (something I would not repeat), and there was a clear bias among faculty and many students against Freud. Freud was taught (I think I still have my copy of DeBoard’s Psychoanalysis of Organizations somewhere), but then dismissed in favor of Klein and Jung. My feeling about this is that Freud was believed to be incompatible with the values of OD, though I’m not too sure how. Might even have been reputational. All that said, rigor was pretty much out the window once we turned to Jung, and that’s a big reason I wouldn’t repeat the experience.



    February 28, 2008 at 11:37 am

  17. Jay, I remember seeing a lot of psycho-very-recent-history books about George W. Bush and the Iraq war. These books (i.e. Bush on the Couch) are actually best-sellers and have theses (such as Bush waging war in Iraq as a way to solve oedipal conflicts with his daddy) which once again be-speak to the hegemony and appeal of various versions of pop-Freudianism in the culture at large.



    February 28, 2008 at 1:08 pm

  18. A friend of mine who fancies himself a contemporary abstract painter got to talking about this the other day. Its kind of interesting to think about, but its particular reasons/circumstances in the past don’t have the impact on the present people give them credit for. Could just be me, though.


    Thiago DaLuz

    March 22, 2013 at 2:57 pm

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