If political psychology becomes epidemiology (2020)

by Federico Soldani – 20th Sept 2020


In ‘Political Psychology‘, one of the leading professional journals in the field of political psychology, two American academics have proposed in the past decade to “broaden” (sic) the sector. From the historical background of the discipline, that is social psychology, to that of neuroscience and psychiatry (but even of endocrinology and genetics), adding that the main methodology to be used for the expansion of political psychology to the medical-scientific ‘neuro’ and ‘psycho’ spheres should become that of epidemiology.

A few words about these disciplines. Political psychology applies the knowledge acquired through psychology research to the understanding of political phenomena, so it can be said that it psychologizes research in political science.

On the contrary, when we talk about bio-politics (M. Foucault) or psycho-politics (a term of uncommon use and uncertain definition, which we will try to deal with later given its problematic nature) we tend to make a operation in a certain sense opposite, that is, the measures and practices that refer to the physical and / or mental health of the population are politicized.

In the first case, that of political psychology, the psychological point of view is used to study political phenomena, especially in terms of study and research.

In the second case, that of biopolitics, the political view is used to study phenomena relating to measures and practices for the physical and / or mental health of the population.

Epidemiology, on the other hand, is the study of the distribution of health and disease states in the population with the aim of measuring them (vulgarly “counting”), studying their causes at the population level (a different operation, as surprising as it may seem, from the study of causes at the level of individuals), and to study interventions on these possible causes to modify the distributions studied.

The father of epidemiology is considered John Snow, who studying a map of London noted how the cases of cholera were concentrated around a water pump in the Soho district, after removing the handle to which the cases were contained.

To the two American scholars who propose to extend the methods of epidemiology to political psychology and to the tendency which they represent, by some named neuro-politics, Swedish scholars have responded highlighting how there is a risk leading to a “pathologization of politics. “, which transforms political problems into biological deviations (archived version of the article here).

In his book Psycho-Politics between the World Wars. Psychiatry and Society in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (Palgrave, 2020), Freis states:

“The psychiatric attempts to diagnose and treat society can shed light on the political history of the inter-war period […]

While affirming their non-political stance, the members of these professions [psychiatry, ed.] did not relinquish their say about how society should be organized and administered.

On the contrary, a non-partisan and objective scientific and technological rationality was presented as a viable alternative to the alleged myopia, emotionality and self-interestedness of party politics. […] the years between the world wars became the heyday of utopian ideas of “social engineering” and saw the rise and fall of “technocracy” – the term itself introduced in 1919 – as a movement.

to the conviction that society had to be remodeled and its problems solved rationally, objectively and with technoscientific means, experts from different disciplines behind an idea of anti-political politics. As an influential “underlying ideology,” technocratic ideas can cross the boundaries between established political fields and even beyond the boundaries of a traditional definition of politics.

When it came to “non-political politics”, medicine did not stand apart. Throughout the nineteenth century, physicians had forcibly distanced themselves from the political sphere and insisted on the non-partisanship and autonomy of their discipline. Towards the end of the century, the emphatic rejection and denigration of anything political increasingly accompanied calls for an appropriation of political responsibility by medical experts.

As historian Tobias Weidner has shown, these two strands of medical discourse about politics were two sides of the same coin, as the medical repudiation of politics became the lynchpin of an anti-political agenda that rejected traditional party politics in favour of scientocratic ideas. “

As the great doctor Rudolf Virchow used to say “politics is medicine on a large scale”.


Added 15th Jan 2022 for the English translation of the original 20th Sept 2020 article on PsyPolitics.

One year after the article in PsyPolitics, an opinion article was published by the epidemiologist Jay S. Kaufman – a professor of epidemiology at McGill University and recently the president of the Society for Epidemiological Research (SER) – in the New York Times, September 2021. The Nyt article in turn cites an article in the ‘Global Health Journal’ from the Institute of Psychology of Regensburg in Germany (2021) from which Kaufman draws the quote according to which “politics is medicine on a large scale”.

Kaufman wrote: "Dr. Virchow's investigation helped turn him into a political revolutionary. “Medicine is social science and politics nothing but medicine on a grand scale,” he wrote.  For epidemiologists studying the coronavirus today, that scale is still gauged by the mundane act of counting."

The article concluded: "The real problem is simply that sick societies have sick institutions. ... just eight days after his investigation in Upper Silesia, Dr. Virchow went to the barricades in Berlin to fight for the revolution."

Link to the Nyt Sept 2021 article:

Kaufman, J.S. (2021). Opinion | Science Alone Can’t Heal a Sick Society. The New York Times. [online] 10 Sep. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/10/opinion/covid-science-trust-us.html


[In the photo at the top, an old English water pump in Warwick Lane, Worthing, West Sussex. Photo by the author, 28th Aug 2020.]

Cite this article as: Federico Soldani, "If political psychology becomes epidemiology (2020)," in PsyPolitics, January 15, 2022, https://psypolitics.org/2022/01/15/if-political-psychology-becomes-epidemiology-2020/.

Last Updated on January 16, 2022 by Federico Soldani

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