Historical Overview of the 1920’s

Why is the history of the 1920’s significant to the psychology seen in the 1920’s?

The history of a respective time period helps to shape the intellectual climate of that period. Particular events during a period in history shape the way people think about things, and what people are thinking about. This clearly impacts the theories that emerge during certain times in history, as well as the general public’s attitudes toward certain theories. “The second source of individual change comes about through people’s responses to historical events and processes— sometimes called period effects. When the entire society gets caught up in and is affected by a set of historical events, such as a war, an economic depression, or a social movement, the widespread changes that occur are called period effects” (Francis, 2002).


Examples of this phenomenon:

Think about the enlightenment, the age of scientific revolution and discovery. During this period, there was a huge shift towards science. Why? What was a factor that made this happen? If you think about the renaissance, there was an increased interest in mathematics, and thus is art. Painters wished to capture reality and created mathematically and realistic paintings. This whole idea of “realism” is part of what fueled the Enlightenment that would follow the Renaissance. Thus, the historical era of the time (renaissance) influenced the way people thought. It’s perfectly natural, then, that psychology (and particular psychological theories) are also influenced by historical events.

Germany in the 1920’s (Freud’s motherland)

  • Communists invade Germany, leading to strikes and riots
  • Rising Unemployment
  • Munich was put under siege by the communists
  • Establishment and fall of the Weimar Republic (governmental upheaval)
  • Poor economy

America in the 1920’s

The early 20th century marked the time of social reform. Psychiatrists were working to reestablish medical credentials, and the national committee for mental hygiene (NMCH) was established. This new mental hygiene movement focused on the psychopathic hospital, child psychology, and outpatient clinics, and was thus a large improvement and movement in the field of psychology. In 1910, there was a doubling of institutionalized patients in the state of New York Alone. Mental illness was growing in America. The Great Depression had an effect on the institutions for the mentally ill. The conditions of the facility deteriorated as a result of the financial hardships of the time; many of the Asylums were overcrowded, and older individuals were specifically impacted.

World War I just ended (1918), leaving many military personnel psychologically impacted. Psychologists begin to examine the impact of social dimensions on the mentally ill. In the few short years to follow, Americans would undergo a great deal of social conflict: strikes, bombings by anarchists, the passage of prohibition, Palmer Raids, and the red scare.

The threat of communists corrupting the nation led to the raids committed against radicals and leftists. Resident aliens were more at risk than citizens, and the country itself was thus in a state of turmoil and residential segregation. This growing racial and ethnic conflict gave rise to restricted immigration and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Anxiety concerning free speech proliferated during this time. Individuals were given jail sentences for stating anything that sounded remotely anti-American or in any way indicating an admiration for anything communist related. The time indicated how quickly legal rights can surrender to public fear and hysteria.

Immigrants were flooding into the States in the mid 1920’s, and thus mainstream culture grew to be more diverse.  The USA grew in technology and wealth. Radio’s, telephones, and movies served to link people and ideology across the county. The media served as a giant proponent in public opinion and overall mass culture.

Flapper Fashion: Doing the Charleston

The notion of the ideal American family evolved from a more Victorian notion to a more “companionate family” in which spouses were viewed more as friends and lovers. The Victorian woman was under the man, and typically stayed at the home to attend to family chores. She was not granted suffrage or the right to own property, and her sexuality was repressed. With the advent of the early 20th century, women began to work outside of the home and celebrated new freedoms. The old hierarchical view of the family was gone, and women were not quite as repressed. The inter-mingling of different racial cultures gave rise to a new music; jazz. Women would flaunt their sexual freedom by dancing in nightclubs as flappers. This new wild, exciting, and sexual music spoke to the evolving and vibrant social reform of the 1920’s. Finally, religion was being questioned as new scientific theories emerged. As a result, religious tensions pursued.

Possible impact of history (German and American) on Freud’s theories

Let’s consider a few examples. Communism was a major problem in both Germany and the USA. Both countries were against the communists. Speaking about communism, or indicating in any way that one was affiliated with communism could easily get someone killed. As a result, many people during the 1920’s were living in a state of heightened paranoia and fear. Many people were scared of slipping up and saying something that might get them into trouble, or killed.

Now, let’s consider Freud’s theories about defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are, according to Freud, actions our minds take to help us cope with traumatic events . It is possible that the environment of mass paranoia could have contributed to Freud’s discovery of the defense mechanisms, in that Freud observed the panic and fear people underwent and noticed how they were able to suppress these obvious feelings and carry on about a normal life. Repression, in fact, is one of the main theories we will center on in this website.

Repression isn’t the only theory of Freud that could have been impacted by the intense social climate of the 20’s, however. If we look specifically at America in the 20’s, we see more provocative dress in females, more alcohol, jazz, etc. Freud developed theories about sex. Almost everything can be related back to the psychosexual stages, and repressed sexual urges. It is possible that this new “sexual” climate influenced how Freud thought about the human psyche.

How does history relate to fear?

This is simple, and does not require much explanation. To explain, I will use a simple example. The red scare. People were afraid of immigrants, because they thought they might be communists. Thus, people in the 1920’s were afraid of people who looked foreign. So, we see how a fear of foreigners during the 1920’s links back to what was going on historically for the time period. Institutions were overcrowded in America in the 1920’s, so people were afraid of becoming mentally ill.


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