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Ruling Minds

Ruling Minds

Psychology in the British Empire

Erik Linstrum

ISBN 9780674088665

Publication date: 01/04/2016

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At its zenith in the early twentieth century, the British Empire ruled nearly one-quarter of the world’s inhabitants. As they worked to exercise power in diverse and distant cultures, British authorities relied to a surprising degree on the science of mind. Ruling Minds explores how psychology opened up new possibilities for governing the empire. From the mental testing of workers and soldiers to the use of psychoanalysis in development plans and counterinsurgency strategy, psychology provided tools for measuring and managing the minds of imperial subjects. But it also led to unintended consequences.

Following researchers, missionaries, and officials to the far corners of the globe, Erik Linstrum examines how they used intelligence tests, laboratory studies, and even dream analysis to chart abilities and emotions. Psychology seemed to offer portable and standardized forms of knowledge that could be applied to people everywhere. Yet it also unsettled basic assumptions of imperial rule. Some experiments undercut the racial hierarchies that propped up British dominance. Others failed to realize the orderly transformation of colonized societies that experts promised and officials hoped for. Challenging our assumptions about scientific knowledge and empire, Linstrum shows that psychology did more to expose the limits of imperial authority than to strengthen it.


  • Challenging one-dimensional accounts that stress the unapologetic complicity of psychologists in the project of empire, he excels in unpicking the complexity and contradictions that bedeviled the encounter between science and colonial rule…Linstrum’s deeply researched volume also contains a warning as pertinent now as it was in the age of pith helmets—that whatever the intentions of the researcher, and however much they qualify their conclusions, officials are often willing to co-opt knowledge to their own ends.

    —Duncan Bell, Times Literary Supplement


  • 2017, Winner of the George Louis Beer Prize


  • Erik Linstrum is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

Book Details

  • 320 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press