What is it about?

Working-class delinquent girls who were thought to be in need of long-term 'reeducation' could end up in the Dutch State Reform School for Girls. In the 1930s and 1940s girls were assessed by means of the Rorschach inkblot test after they were admitted. This psychological test, for which they had to tell the institutional psychologist what they saw in ten inkblot cards, served to assess how difficult or easy they would make life for the staff, and functioned to get them to behave well. It did so by creating the idea that the psychologist could look inside the girls, which forced them to look inside and wonder what it was that the psychologist could see.

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Why is it important?

The article meticulously shows how this psychological test governed delinquent girls - namely, by conceptualizing delinquent girls as individuals with an inner realm that the psychologist could reportedly see into. This created a situation that suggested that he psychologist knew something about the delinquent girl that she herself did not; it was the creation of this “secret” - which forced pupils to look inside themselves - that placed the psychologist in a position of power. Using the little studied source of actual test reports, it shows that the Rorschach test brought into being a new conception of the 'delinquent girl'. For the first time, delinquent girls were conceptualized as individuals with a literal inner realm, populated with drives, desires and neuroses, that were said to cause their misbehaviour. For the first time, then, delinquent girls' misbehaviour was said to be caused by something inside them, rather than by external factors. This had radical consequences for the way in which girls were viewed, and treated, in the reform school. Showing this, therefore, illustrates something about the power of assessment techniques in institutions. Finally, this article shows that the test was more versatile than previously thought: that the test was also used in correctional contexts, and what purpose it served there, was previously unknown. In the reform school, the Rorschach test was used to assess delinquent girls' 'reeducability' - yet one more function of the Rorschach test, and one which the test was technically not equipped to do - as well as to govern the girls, not through the information it uncovered about them, but through its practices.

Perspectives

This article adds to the scholarship on the Rorschach test by tracing how this psychological test had the capacity to 'make up people'. Through bringing together Ian Hacking's theory of 'making up people' with an approach inspired by Annemarie Mol's praxiography, and examining the little-studied source of actual test reports, furthermore, I am able to provide a radically new perspective on the function of assessment techniques in correctional institutions. As I show, assessment techniques served to govern the individuals they scrutinized, and did so not through the information they produced, but through their practices. This only becomes visible through studying actual test reports.

Saskia Bultman

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This page is a summary of: Seeing inside the child: The Rorschach inkblot test as assessment technique in a girls’ reform school, 1938–1948., History of Psychology, November 2020, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/hop0000167.
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