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What can Social Psychologists Learn from Architecture? The Asylum as Example


  • Vocabulary is a contentious issue in many areas, and this is especially true of mental illness. Our choice of words can imply a choice of perspectives and epistemologies, and has significant political implications (Foster, 2007). In this paper, I will use a variety of terms that have been used throughout history to refer to what we would now (probably, and not always uncontroversially) call mental health problems, people with mental health problems, and mental health services. I will therefore refer to “madness”, on occasions to “lunatics” or the “mad”, and to asylums. This should not imply that I am using these terms uncritically, nor that I subscribe to their use. Rather this reflects the way in which these experiences, people and places have been described historically. Indeed, there is another interesting paper to be written about the way that changes in vocabulary over time might reflect changes in representation—or otherwise.


In this paper I argue for a stronger consideration of the possible relationship between social psychology and architecture and architectural history. After a brief review of some of the ways in which other social psychologists have sought to develop links between social psychology and history, I consider the utility of architecture in more depth, especially to the social psychologist interested in the development of knowledge and understanding. I argue that, especially when knowledge is institutionalised, the design and use of buildings might have a particular contribution to make to the way we can understand how phenomena have been understood and approached in the past. Although many examples are relevant, I consider the case of the psychiatric hospital (or “asylum”) in more detail.