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Sex and gender

One on one... with Lynne Segal

Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies, Birkbeck, University of London. Includes online only questions.

18 January 2009

One person who inspired you
From the beginning, and in very different ways, it has been scholars aware of the rootedness of human consciousness in culture and social relations who have inspired me, as I sought out connections and disjunctures between the differing frameworks of psychology; psychoanalysis; philosophy; feminism (Jerome Bruner, Freud, Foucault, Judith Butler, are simply the most prominent of those who have influenced me). Stephen Frosh has been pretty good at suggesting ways of thinking through and across such conflicting frameworks.

One great thing that psychology has achieved
Shown us, by its own multiple mistakes, the folly of dealing only with individual behaviour which is strictly quantifiable. Eysenck is no longer in fashion, and spent the last 20 years of his life pondering the merits of astrology.

One cultural recommendation
I’ve been enjoying Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of Things.

One challenge you think psychology faces
It would be useful for psychosocial studies (my area of psychology) to incorporate the biological more successfully. This means finding ways to grapple with the infinitely complex, environmentally triggered, aspects of human biology, which inhabits us intertwined within – not in some way additional to – social and cultural impacts. For instance, we age culturally, quite as significantly as we age biologically.

One book psychologists should read
Muriel Dimen’s Sexuality, Intimacy, Power, which offers one feminist’s journey from dualism to multiplicity, questioning and making more complex all the accounts we have of how you grow up to become a sexed person.

One thing you would change about psychology
The latest way in which psychology attempts to fortify its scientific credentials through its fascination with technological proficiency, busily recording neurological firings without any equivalent interest in thinking through the shifting cultural frameworks underpinning what sense we are able to make of biological arousal/ activation, whatever its source.

One proud moment
The founding of our School of Psychosocial Studies in August.

One problem psychology should deal with
Understand the cultural embeddedness of science, enabling it to remain open, sceptical and interested in the range and fluidities of human knowledge.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
There is nothing so weird, perverse and irrational as normal human functioning.

One thing that ‘organised psychology’ could do better
Question all certainties.

One hope for the future
That modesty returns, and grandiosity lowers.

One more question
How can progressive psychologists help disseminate a more compassionate literacy for our times? It would be one that combats the defensive projection of resentment onto the multitude of asylum seekers forced to flee today’s expanding zones of war, one also refusing to overlook the consciousness and struggles of women and men, of all ages, reduced to precarious bondage servicing the new economic order. I’m looking out for those cunning linguists, insightful narrators of human lives, eager to join me – whether from the mainstream or the wilder shores of our discipline.

Online only...
One alternative career path you might have chosen
I did not follow any one career path, being for many years an underground psychologist and an out political and community activist. Perhaps I’ll try to become a better psychologist, while still trying to delve deeper into the alternative haunts of culture.

One moment that changed the course of your career
Also tricky! First up, as an undergraduate, I read the philosophical critiques of experimental psychology appearing in the 1960s, making it clear that human action was intelligible only when placed, usually routinely and unthinkingly, within normative frameworks making it comprehensible: that man kneeling in Church, muttering to himself, is probably religious, not psychotic. Behaviourism – RIP. Secondly, as a young psychology lecturer in the 1970s, I read feminist critiques of the exclusion of much of women’s concerns and outlook from mainstream psychology: individual differences – RIP.

One hero/heroine from psychology past or present
There is only one man who is as loved and hated today quite as fervently as he was a century ago; who has been declared dead a hundred times over, only to come back again, forever mimicking his only theories of perpetual return. Too obvious to name.

One regret
Cognitive psychology, as formulated by Bruner half a century ago, once promised something richer than what it became, even within the interesting new developments of cognitive neuropsychology. He promised more, because he did not want to fence off brain functioning from the linguistic/narrative/cultural frameworks we have for making our observations of it meaningful.


‘In my last book, Making Trouble: Life and Politics, I use my own and others’ reflections on intellectual and political life over the last 40 years to explore the making and breaking of individual identities and collective belongings. I suggest that, critically located within their own temporalities, personal narratives provide crucial resources for keeping cultural memory alive.’