Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Modern Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self, developed from a doctoral dissertation by Jessica Grogan, is an academic history of Abraham Maslow, and of the development in psychology he pioneered, known as humanistic psychology. Many people are aware of Maslow through the popularization of his “hierarchy of needs,” which describes human needs as a progression: once physical needs are met and no longer represent a challenge to the individual, then emotional and social, and eventually artistic and spiritual needs can be addressed. Maslow was concerned to move the study of psychology past a preoccupation with the lower levels, which he saw as contributing to an overemphasis on social integration and conformity, and toward a study of how to bring out the absolute best in people. But in addition to Maslow, other fairly famous figures, including Carl Rogers and Rollo May, were integral to the movement and helped to shape it.
The book begins with a one-chapter history of American psychology in the middle of the twentieth century. This draws on longer works but offers an interesting interpretation—tied to the limitations of both neo-Freudianism and what she describes as a scientistic over-emphasis on quantification, with the emphasis of both on the pathological individual psychology; and on the limitations of 1950s ideology with its emphasis on conformity. Abraham Maslow wanted to introduce ideas about personal liberation into that mix.
After the history of psychology overview, the book settles into narrative mode. As a narrative, it’s not much fun to read; it’s an academic history, and really very dry. The history begins with Maslow’s differences from the psychological establishment in the 1950s, the initial development of his ideas, his initial attempts to find a balance between theorizing and empirical research, and the first of his colleagues to sign on to his ideas. As interest in humanistic psychology grows, a professional society, the association for Humanistic Psychology is founded, and builds an academic movement. Various figures are attracted to the movement, with differing approaches, and the founders themselves change their minds at times. Eventually, humanistic psychology finds acolytes in pragmatic developments like the encounter group movement, of which Esalen is a representative, and in business psychology; and at the same time Abraham Maslow and some of his colleagues become frustrated with the limits of the ivory tower and attempt to move out into “the real world.” But encounter groups and Esalen are troubled by issues of race and gender, and by the intrusion of the excesses of the 1960s and their apparent affinity for humanistic ideals. Eventually the AHP becomes divided over a conflict between practitioners, who want to talk about feelings and engage in experiential forms of therapy, and academics who resist the movement’s growing anti-intellectualism. By the 1970s, humanistic psychology’s explicit academic presence has disappeared.
The most interesting parts of the book are the chapters on Esalen and California encounter groups, on attempts to use encounter group methods to achieve inter-racial harmony, and on feminism. Much of the middle part of the book, unfortunately from a casual reader’s perspective, is a slog through five-page biographies of an enormous panoply of figures. A chapter on an important early conference held by the AHP might consist almost entirely of such mini-biographies, with comments on disagreements between two or three of the important figures. The book serves as a useful handbook of participants in the movement and the range of ideas it encompassed. But there’s little about the ideas themselves, with a few exceptions (like Maslow’s intense interest in the highly productive and emotionally sound individuals he calls “self-actualizers”: people like Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt), or about the intellectual development of the psychologists the book describes. An account of Maslow’s work with Esalen becomes overwhelmed by a narrative about Esalen itself, to the point where details about what Maslow did with them, or thought about them, almost disappear. But the reflections on 1960s society that come out in the chapter on encounter groups, and the reflections on encounter groups that come out in the chapter on race, are very insightful.
Also very interesting is the concluding chapter, in which Grogan describes the continuing influence of humanistic psychology on present-day practice. Although the subject has disappeared from academic course lists, its ideas continue to suffuse not only business psychology, but therapeutic practice among both psychologists and social workers, and social work more generally. Moreover, its influence on the currently popular movement of positive psychology, represented most famously by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and Martin Seligman, is clear.
Interestingly, however, the positive psychologists have decisively repudiated their humanistic predecessors. In many ways, this isn’t surprising, given humanistic psychology’s association with the notorious excesses of encounter groups and other movements of the 1970s. Moreover, as Seligman points out, humanistic psychology emphasizes individual fulfillment over social integration: this wasn’t Maslow’s intention, but he seems to have found it impossible to overcome the tendency of his thought in that direction. Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” does give a prominent place to social and emotional connection, and he tried to incorporate a sense of limits into his theory. But, in practice, he seems to have been more interested in “self-actualizers” who frequently achieve “peak experiences,” and in “theory Z people” who transcend the peak experience to achieve a spiritual understanding of reality. (Encountering America mentions “hierarchy of needs” four times, as compared to dozens of mentions for variants of “self-actualize.”) And although Csikszentmihalyi has, in fact, recognized the similarity of his concept of “flow” to Maslow’s “peak experience,” Csikszentmihalyi’s focus has been on the possibility of losing oneself in (good) work, not in achieving a high level of performance for its own sake.
Encountering America is an important book on a topic that’s only beginning to be studied. At times, I wished Jessica Grogan had explored the historical and cultural context a little more, or offered a little more explication of the theories themselves and their development, which most readers won’t be able to grasp without further reading. It’s not a book that can be easily read straight through, but for those with an interest in the history of psychology or the meeting places between academic psychology and modern culture, much of it will be rewarding.