After Brexit: Locating the future leaders of psychology in Europe

This past October, the editor of the British Psychological Society’s magazine, The Psychologist, asked a group of authors to answer an important question: “How can UK and ‘European Psychology’ thrive beyond Brexit?” The section that was supposed to result never made it to press. Still, the question itself seems worth discussing. It also provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our department’s position and possible future role in European psychology after Brexit.

Let’s start with the harsh reality: psychology isn’t going to stop being dominated by the English language. This is due primarily to the dominance of American Psychology post-WWII (see e.g., Pickren, 2007; van Strien, 1997). But it’s also because the discipline’s second language today is no longer German or French, as it once was, but Statistics (e.g., Gigerenzer et al., 1989; Hacking, 1975, 1990; Porter, 1986). So questions like the BPS editor’s—regarding the future of British Psychology, and also of British Psychologists—can be simplified: psychology itself won’t change very much as a discipline.

Psychology will remain English, in Europe, even without the British.

It’s quite possible that Brexit’s impact won’t be immediately detectable in quantitative examinations of research output (discussed generally by Burman, in press). Grant money will flow to different institutions, however, and so will top students: Oxford, Cambridge, and University College London will no longer be eligible for EU support. Large multi-institution partnerships will accommodate the political change too. So if we are to predict how these changes will unfold, and prepare ourselves for what’s coming, we need data that can serve as a proxy for these important phenomena that are harder to track.

To my knowledge, no data have yet been collected to directly answer the BPS editor’s question regarding the future of European psychology after Brexit. We must therefore rephrase it so that the extant data can be made relevant. I see two obvious ways to do this; two sub-questions that could stand-in for the original.

First: where are the best non-native English-speakers to be found in Europe? This reflects the practical language constraint. And, second: where are the top European Psychology programs? Thus: my path to “how” is via “where.”

To answer my first sub-question, we can refer to the recent report by Education First: the seventh edition of their English Proficiency Index. In Europe, six countries were ranked “very high” according to their criteria: Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Luxemburg. (An easy and promising start.)

To answer my second sub-question, we can leverage the existing quantitative assessments of quality. This then means referring to institutional rankings. While doing so is controversial, it’s at least data-driven.

The new Times Higher Education rankings for psychology were published just before the BPS editor’s original call went out. Examining the global top 50 suggests the following national centres, presented in order of appearance: Netherlands (Amsterdam, Groningen, Radboud), Sweden (Karolinska), Germany (Free University of Berlin, LMU Munich, Humboldt, Heidelberg), and Belgium (KU Leuven & Ghent).

The Clarivate Analytics data reported by US News and World Report offer a similar set of results in response to a Psychiatry/Psychology subject search: Sweden (Karolinska), Netherlands (Amsterdam, VU Amsterdam, Groningen, Utrecht, Maastricht, Radboud), Belgium (Catholic University Leuven & Ghent), Germany (Munich), and Denmark (Aarhus).

And the QS World University Rankings for Psychology provide still another dataset. Their list is less nationally diverse: in Europe, only the Netherlands (Amsterdam, Groningen) and Belgium (KU Leuven, Ghent) have departments that rank in the global top 50. But we do indeed find the other expected names in the alphabetical listings that follow: Aarhus, Freie Universitaet Berlin, and so on.

Focusing solely on my second sub-question, and comparing the datasets, it’s clear that several of the same institutions appear on all three lists. Sometimes they are referred-to by different terms (e.g., “KU Leuven” vs. “Catholic University Leuven” or “LMU Munich” vs “Munich” or “Free University of Berlin” vs “Freie Universitaet Berlin”). However, my purpose was not to celebrate particular institutions. Rather, my intent was to use these data to provide a sense of where the leading centres of post-Brexit English-language European Psychology will be found: the countries in which partnership efforts ought to be focused, as British scholars scramble to secure their futures.

Combining the two sub-questions then provides an answer to the BPS editor’s question: the greatest potential for growth for post-Brexit English psychology is most likely to be in the top-rated psychological and English-speaking countries (esp. Netherlands at Amsterdam and Groningen, but also Sweden at Karolinska and Denmark at Aarhus). This north-westerly trend makes sense, too, since near-neighbours should be friendlier than more-distant rivals. But it’s also perhaps less obvious than trying to focus on the present administrative centres of Europe: psychology’s future will follow its own path, and those who seek to thrive ought to follow it too.

Do you have thoughts about the future of psychology in Europe after Brexit? Comment below, or get in touch with the editors and pitch your own essay. We are always looking for interesting new perspectives and constructive thoughts.

Image credit: Banksy 2017, via Duncan Hull

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman on Twitter

Dr Burman joined the tenure-track at the University of Groningen in 2016, after working for two years at the Archives Jean Piaget in the University of Geneva, Switzerland. He received his doctorate in Psychology from the History and Theory Graduate Programme at York University in Canada. In addition, he has a separate terminal MA in Interdisciplinary Studies (also from YorkU), and an Honours BSc in Psychology from the University of Toronto. Prior to his turn to academia, he worked in broadcasting and—before that—even made a go of it as an entrepreneur during the dot-com bubble. You can find him most easily on Twitter: @BurmanPhD

Select recent publications

Burman, J. T. (2022). Meaning-change through the mistaken mirror: On the indeterminacy of “Wundt” and “Piaget” in translation. Review of General Psychology, 26(1), 22-48. doi:10.1177/10892680211017521

Burman, J. T. (2021). The genetic epistemology of Jean Piaget. In W. Pickren (Ed.), The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of the History of Psychology. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.013.521

Ratcliff, M. J., Tau, R., & Burman, J. T. (2020). Overcoming mind-brain dualism. Constructivism, interdisciplinarity, and psychophysiological parallelism in Piaget’s cognitive evolutionary synthesis. Mefisto: Journal of Medicine, Philosophy, and History, 4(2), 39-60.

Burman, J. T. (2020). On Kuhn’s case, and Piaget’s: A critical two-sited hauntology (or, on impact without reference). [In C. Millard & F. Callard, eds. of special issue dedicated to the memory of John Forrester.] History of the Human Sciences, 33(3-4). doi:10.1177/0952695120911576

Burman, J. T., & Collins, B. M. (2020). Commentary: Why study the History of Neuroscience? Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 14, 1-2. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2020.00127

Burman, J. T. (2020). On the implications of object permanence: Microhistorical insights from Piaget’s new theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 21-22. doi:10.1017/S0140525X19002954

Burman, J. T. (2019). Development. In R. J. Sternberg & W. Pickren (Eds.), Handbook of the Intellectual History of Psychology (pp. 287-317). Cambridge University Press.

Burman, J. T. (2018). Digital methods can help you… If you’re careful, critical, and not historiographically naïve. [Introduction to special issue on digital history of psychology.] History of Psychology, 21(4), 297-301. doi:10.1037/hop0000112

Burman, J. T. (2018). Through the looking-glass: PsycINFO as an historical archive of trends in psychology. History of Psychology, 21(4), 302-333. doi:10.1037/hop0000082

Burman, J. T. (2018). What is History of Psychology? Network analysis of Journal Citation Reports, 2009-2015. Sage Open. doi:10.1177/2158244018763005

Ratcliff, M. J., & Burman, J. T. (2017). The mobile frontiers of Piaget’s psychology: From academic tourism to interdisciplinary collaboration / Las fronteras móviles de la psicología de Piaget. Del turismo académico a la colaboración interdisciplinaria. [English original published alongside a Spanish translation by Julia Fernández Treviño.]. Estudios de Psicología: Studies in Psychology, 38(1), 1-33. doi:10.1080/02109395.2016.1268393

Burman, J. T. (2017). Philosophical histories can be contextual without being sociological: Comment on Araujo’s historiography. Theory & Psychology, 27(1), 117-125. doi:10.1177/0959354316682862

Burman, J. T. (2016). Piaget’s neo-Gödelian turn: Between biology and logic, origins of the New Theory. Theory & Psychology, 26(6), 751-772. doi:10.1177/0959354316672595

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