The less known history of ecological psychology: Roger Barker and the Midwest Psychological Field Station
Jytte Bang & Sofie Pedersen
Nov. 5, 2020, 1 p.m. UTC // Nov. 5, 2020, 1 p.m. in UTC
Among the approaches to ecological psychology, the work of Roger Barker and The Midwest Psychological Field Station remains relatively less well known and less studied. This situation is unfortunate given the intense investigations and the conceptual and methodological contributions offered by the research team throughout the extended period of 25 years. Knowing the work of Barker and his research team is a source not only to the history of psychology (which, of course, is an aim in itself) but also to the history of American Midwest life. The field station was established in 1947 and it closed in 1973. During these 25 years, they carried out studies of the people of Oskaloosa (called ‘Midwest’), located around 50 miles west of Kansas City. In the early years, they carried out full-day studies of individual children of Midwest in their natural environments. This empirical work was followed by intentions to create a methodological and conceptual ground for the study of natural behavior of people in general. The most prominent conceptual result of this work is that of ‘behavior setting’.
This work grew out of an awareness of the theoretical challenges which faced ecological psychology at the time. Barker was occupied with the disagreement between Lewin and Brunswik concerning whether ‘lawfulness’ or ‘probabilism’ should be the proper ground for psychology. Being inspired by Lewin, Barker sought his own solutions to this problem. Whereas ‘ecological psychology’ stemming from Lewin was occupied with the subjective life-space, Barker became occupied with what he called the ‘standing patterns of behavior’ and therefore suggested an approach which went beyond Lewin - he called this approach ‘eco-behavioral science’ or even ‘psychology of the absent organism.’ Hence, the researchers at the Midwest Psychological Field Station studied the everyday life of people in the town of Oskaloosa and, at the same time, they created a new approach to psychology. In our view, this work deserves more attention in the history of psychology. In 2016, we (the presenters) spent several weeks studying the archive material from the Midwest study – an archive carefully built up by Barker at the end of his Field Station work as he envisioned the material to have potentials for future researchers. In our presentation, we wish to dive into the work of Barker & Wright, but also discuss its potential for current research in psychology.