A.E. Manning, the Bodgies and Abnormal Psychology

Image: nzhistory.net.nz

In the late 1950s, a problem was gripping the youth of New Zealand. Like Australia, Britain and the US, youth seemed to be out of control. The symptoms were sex (‘immoral behavior’), alcohol, tobacco. the causes were less clear but all the more worrying: did this represent a fundamental breakdown in the moral foundations of society? Had the youth lost something that could not be regained in the consumer-driven post-war world? A generation of parents had born the world on their shoulders in the Second World War. Now their children, shorn of responsibility, seemed to be drifting into a bored haze of immorality and anomie.

Historians tend to look back on this controversy, which happened in various forms throughout the ‘western’ world (even the bits in the South Pacific) as one of many periodic ‘moral panics’.  Every few decades concerned adults and politicians tend to decry the morals of the young. Harold Hill’s ‘Trouble’ in River City (in the 1950s musical ‘The Music Man’) was a parody of precisely this phenomenon. Moral panics tend to start with broadening perception that a certain group poses a threat to the stability of society, which then explodes into hostility and intense concern about the group in question. The population demands that the government do something about it, or themselves take aggressive action to solve the perceived problem. However, they also tend to fade quickly. Moral panic burns bright but short.

In the moral panic over youth morality in the 1950s, various government and media reports in New Zealand worried about the sexual behavior in particular of young people. Rumors of debaucheries near Wellington and wariness about the sinister new ‘milk bars’ with all the opportunities for illicit youth sociability that these establishments promised, fuelled the moral panic. At the same time, one Auckland-based psychologist, A.E. Manning, decided to apply his own ‘scientific’ methods to get to the heart of the matter.

In order to discover the origins of this problem, Manning naturally turned to empirical data. He conducted interviews with a set of young men and women who had been classified by Australian and New Zealand authorities as juvenile delinquents, asking them about their families, their motivations, their plans for the future, and of course also testing their IQ. His descriptions of these interviews were deliberately evocative: he described his rapport with each of them, and gave detailed narratives of their lives and behavior in the interview room. He gave each a fake name, then wrote intimate details about their lives.

These case studies are great, as are the illustrations that accompany Manning’s account. ‘Eddie’, an Australian youth, ‘bore out the assertion that, on the average, highly intelligent people are better looking than the dull’. Son of Italian migrants, Eddie was intelligent and charismatic, but had turned to violence because of racial abuse at school – he was caned for getting into a fight with someone who called him a ‘Dago’. As a footnote, Manning noted that while Eddie had moved to the US to study Fine Arts, ‘it is doubtful whether even the fringe of his disturbance is cleared.’  The half-Maori New Zealand woman, ‘Fay’ was portrayed as being plagued by racism – everywhere she went people (including her white father) treated her on the basis of her appearance. Plagued by racialized dreams in which she was light-skinned but faced ‘horrid characters [who] were dark, she fell in with a fast crowd who, she claimed ‘were the first completely natural people she had ever met’.

Readers can read example after example just like these ones in Manning’s 1958 book. The mixture of attempted empathy and direct condescension is strange but fascinating. The first time I came across the book I was engrossed for hours in these seemingly unnaturally personal accounts of these young people’s lives (I was, myself, in my early twenties, just a bit older than most of the subjects). Manning placed a great deal of importance on factors like IQ, alcohol consumption and tobacco use, but he also was sensitive (and gave greater weight) to broader social factors, around education and parental upbringing in particular.

Manning’s conclusion, too, was based on a social rather than a personal reading of his ‘data’.  Why were New Zealand, Australia and, by implication, other developed countries having problems with juvenile delinquency in the 1950s? Because their society failed them. A.E. Manning was holding up the perceived social problems of the 1950s and telling the very people who complained about them that they were at fault. Parents – and society, through racism and a lack of understanding of the psychology of youths – were responsible for the very problems they decried. Juvenile delinquency was the symptom, not the cure.

In hindsight, Manning’s tone and approach seem patronizing, especially as he describes his subjects with a mixture of condescension and friendliness. Furthermore, the idea that this represented a truly new social problem is questionable. Earlier, similar moral panics showed that, although there is something about 1950s consumer society that was new and historically different to what had come before. But he was an unusual figure in this era of moral panics. The sting in the book – his condemnation of a generation of parents – makes this classic of New Zealand social science all the more interesting, and saves Manning from completely falling into all the most negative stereotypes of modern social scientists (and psychologists in particular). The humanistic elements, rather than the social scientific, have aged the best.

Source: A.E. Manning, The Bodgie: A Study in Abnormal Psychology (Wellington: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1958)

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