Role of Context in Shaping Psychology’s Views

Modern views in clinical psychology have been formed, altered, and revised for centuries. Apart from the original research and compelling theories, a major impact on the emerging field was made by a number of circumstances, which formed a setting for new discoveries. In particular, intellectual, social, and political contexts have shaped the paradigm of the emerging field in unique and varying ways. This paper will provide a brief overview of the role of the aforementioned factors in the current understanding of human nature, health, illness, and change.

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Intellectual Context

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the major intellectual context set in the field of clinical psychology referred to the interpretation of human behavior in terms of structure or function. The link between the structuralist and the environmental distinctions of psychology is crucial for understanding the significance of the intellectual context. Structuralism and functionalism studied the structure and purpose of consciousness and the mind, which can be considered the intellectual context. On the contrary, the hereditary-environmental fields were considered responsible for the traits and emotions individuals had.

As explained by Benjamin (2009), both structuralists and behaviorists argued to explain the origin of human and motivations of one’s actions from an opposing perspective. A major debate also arose between scientists who believed in the prevalent role of genetics and those who favored the environmental approach more. Theories concerning hereditary patterns and evolution still remain topical, having a critical effect on the current psychological views.

Human Nature

First, it is worthy to investigate the distinctions between an ongoing psychological debate: nature vs nurture. In this paper, the intellectual context is presented by the evolutionary theory introduced by Darwin. From Darwin’s perspective (1877), the origin of human nature is strictly biological. Hereditary patterns of species, accompanied by automatic responding and controlled gene activation, support the theory of genetic predisposition in human personality (Darwin, 1877). Darwin’s work affected early psychological researchers significantly, as it became the foundation for various social and ethical concepts and systems because the evolution affects not only human bodies, but also the brain, individuals’ behaviors, and the psychological mechanisms that guide them.

Early psychological researchers, including Galton, started to analyze the links between the psychological adaptations individuals may show unconsciously to survive in their surroundings. As further supported by Galton (1865), multiple studies prove the relationship between individual’s acquired skills and talents of the parents. Subsequently, a child inherits not only specific aptitudes but also unique qualities of character that resemble other family members. The aforementioned belief was challenged by Spenser who suggested that individuals do not depend solely on their genetic make-up but also on the environment (Danziger, 1997).

Essentially, the human nature is a mixture of inherited factors and environmental influences. Only provided the person lives in total isolation, one’s personality may remain intact and develop according to the predisposed parental pattern.

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Health and Illness

Before the twentieth century, the majority of practitioners believed that psychology differentiated from philosophy and was not the natural science. According to Evans (2000), in the nineteenth century, major focus was put on scientific instruments and experimental laboratory studies as a premise for understanding the relationship between health and illness. As briefly mentioned by Leahey (2013), the earlier doctrine of positivism interpreted the concept of health mostly from the perspective of physical wellness. In relationship to health, illness was explained as a disequilibrium, a state where a patient showed visible and easily observable symptoms of disease (Leahey, 2013). Such interpretations of health and illness created restrictions for the cure of patients, limiting healthcare professionals solely to biomedical methods of treatment.


With regard to the intellectual context, multiple theories concerning change existed. Change was studied in such areas of psychology as personality, human development, and behavior. According to Mahoney (1989), religious behaviorists tended to change their beliefs more frequently than atheistic scientists, suggesting that change can be catalyzed by human faith. Skinner’s outlook on human behavior and personality was slightly different.

As summarized by Rutherford (2003), in his theory of consumerism, the psychologist insisted that individual’s patterns of behavior are vastly influenced by a variety of choice and public opinions. It means that people acts may rely on their environment significantly. Earlier studies by Shields (1975) took an alternative approach, focusing on the role of the differences between responses to behavioral changes among people of different sexes. For instance, the author reported that women and men had different biological foundations of temperament affecting their reactions to outer stimuli. Generally speaking, the behavioral changes mentioned above were analyzed through a prism of biological, social, and spiritual dimensions.

Social Context

Human Nature

The intellectual context, including Darwin’s works, is closely connected to the social aspect of the emerging views. In his work, Berscheid (2003) acknowledged Lewin as a father of social psychology for his theory of the nature of human personality and conflict. As suggested by Lewin, a person’s behavior is a product of the individual decisions and environmental influences. A social context for the psychological research also differed from the intellectual.

Health and Illness

Lewin’s work can also be used to analyze the role of social context, such as the person’s environment and the people that surround them, on health and illness. This context influenced Lewin’s theory, as he based his research on social change and strived to identify the links between individuals’ behaviors and the presence or absence of various social factors. As written by Sternberg (2003), Lewin’s theory of changes describes behavior as a balance of opposing forces. Taken into consideration this idea, it can be interpreted that a person is mentally healthy when in harmony with one’s distinctive thoughts and motivations. Similarly, Watson (1931) views human health and illness as two forces working together to stabilize the person’s life.

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In the social context, change accompanies a theory of human understanding in a number of dimensions. According to Leary (1992), James proposed change in the interpretation of psychological science, equalizing scientific knowledge to an analogy. In this case, a process of searching for evidence shifted to an analysis of human sensibility and experience via a doctrine, called philosophical pragmatism (Leary, 1992). It is evident that the perspective of change was one of the core ones in the development of psychology as a field. For instance, according to Watson (1913), it is impossible to predict and analyze a scope of human behavior without understanding of the effects of individuals’ continuous interaction with the environment. Instead of analyzing and interpreting patterns as Lewin did, Watson put an emphasis on observation and recording of stimuli.

Political Context

Human Nature

Developed after the World War I, Gestalt theory was vastly influenced by the political context of the time. At that period, millions of individuals died as a result of the industrial war, which did not result in a safer environment even when the WWI was ended.

According to Wertheimer (1924), psychologists believing in Gestalt theory hold a positive view of human nature, proposing that raising awareness about one’s feelings and thoughts in the moment can help to resolve deep personal issues. Living several decades earlier, James (1890) suggested a different theory of human behavior, focusing on the implications of individual’s consciousness. His famous term “stream of consciousness” explains people’s unique thinking process, underlying one’s eternal potential for cognitive abilities (James, 1890). These two examples demonstrate how as little as a 30-year time period can change the focus of psychologists’ research.

Health and Illness

Political context has an influential effect on the interpretation of health and illnesses. Such factors as peace, war, election, failure of the parliament, economic recession, and others, are correlated with changes in the psychological views. For instance, Danziger (2003), a representative of modern clinical practice, perceives illness as a subjective concept which cannot be determined solely through the examination of damaged tissues or system’s dysfunction. Living in a peaceful, developed country, the researcher acknowledges that there is more to illness than observable physical symptoms (Danziger, 2003). To understand the difference between health and disease, the practitioner should also evaluate one’s personal experience.


A critical shift in the understanding of human behavior is connected to the publication of Watson’s Manifesto (Watson, 1913). As described by Samelson (1981), change in the emerging psychological views at the beginning of the twentieth century was catalyzed by Watson’s extensive research on radical behaviorism, which, in its turn, was affected by the factors described above. The changes in the society, such as the ones associated with the WWI, resulted in eugenics movement, which masqueraded and diminished scientific authority. In response to the emerged political predicament, Watson suggested that human’s behavior can be limited by social responsibility more than by individual political and moral values (Samelson, 1981). Though complementary to the Skinner’s theory on behaviorism, Watson’s model of social control provides a novel insight, introducing a change in former perception of human patterns of behavior.


Ultimately, the intellectual, social, and political contexts have affected the current theories and research of many psychologists, including Danzinger, Watson, James, Lewin, and Sternberg. It is important to note that emerging beliefs in the field underwent rapid changes, with new groundbreaking theories introduced approximately every ten to twenty years. Concepts of human nature, illness, and change were examined through a prism of biological, evolutionary, social, political, and spiritual attitudes. The study showed that different psychologists viewed these concepts from similar but not identical perspectives.

For instance, Lewin used social context to analyze the aspects of individuals’ behaviors and their well-being; James was focused on people’s cognitive abilities and consciousness from the perspectives of human nature. At the same time, the political context affected the development of Wertheimer’s Gestalt theory and James’ stream of consciousness. It is possible to conclude that, although affected by the same social, intellectual, and political contexts, modern researchers tend to take into account various, sometimes opposing, perspectives.


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Berscheid, E. (2003). Lessons in “greatness” from Kurt Lewin’s life and works. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), The anatomy of impact: What makes the great works of psychology great (pp. 109-123). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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Samelson, (1981). Struggle for scientific authority: The reception of Watson’s Behaviorism, 1913-1920. In A history of psychology: Original sources and contemporary research (pp. 407-424). New York, NY: Mcgraw-Hill Book Company.

Shields, S. (1975). Functionalism, Darwinism, and the psychology of women: A study in social myth. American Psychologist, 30(7), 739-754. Web.

Sternberg, R. (Ed.) (2003). The anatomy of impact: What makes the great works of psychology great. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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Wertheimer, M. (1924). Gestalt theory. In W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A source book of Gestalt psychology (pp. 1-11). London, England: Kegan, Trench, Trubner.

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