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How A Small Kansas Town Changed Environmental Psychology

Wikimedia Commons

Right after the University of Kansas hired Roger Barker as the chair of the psychology department in 1947, he picked up his family and moved to Oskaloosa, Kansas. In this small town about 30 minutes north of Lawrence, he created a living laboratory and changed the way scientists study environmental psychology and human behavior.

Ariel Sabar is the author of the biography “The Outsider: The life and Times of Roger Barker.” And as he describes on KCUR’s Central Standard, Barker wanted to revolutionize psychology.

“Up until the 1940s, the primary way in which psychologists went about trying to understand how humans behaved was to basically set them down in a lab and give them intelligence tests,” Sabar said. “There were sort of rigged up experiments that didn’t really tell you a whole lot about how humans behaved in the real world which is where most of us live. Most of us don’t live in a laboratory.”

Barker sought to change the traditional laboratory stetting by observing human behavior in natural environments. So instead of bringing the subjects to the laboratory, he brought the laboratory to the subjects.

Credit University of Kansas
Roger Barker was major figure in the development of environmental psychology.

He set up the Midwest Psychological Field Station in an old bank building on the town square where he gathered and filed hundreds of thousands of data about the residents’ lives.

“Roger Barker, this outsider professor from the University of Kansas coming to a small town where everybody knows everybody else. He's going to have to explain what he's doing there and why he's interested in watching everything they do- including watching everything their children are doing,” Sabar said.

Barker’s granular observations made his research pioneering. A popular study is an intimate, minute-by-minute detailed description of a 7-year-old boy’s day on which Barker and his graduate students wrote a nearly 400-page book about the observations.

“[Barker wanted] to understand what it is about small towns that cultivate a certain kind of character and behavior in children that turn them into the kind of civic-minded adults that are the bedrock of American character and our democracy,” Sabar said. “The idea is that in small towns, there are tons of jobs and roles that people can play, but not a whole lot of people. And so what small towns do is they ask more of their citizens.”

Barker won awards and grant money for his theories that explored the positive relationship between a small town environment and human behavior, but Sabar said his research has been largely forgotten.

“He becomes, in a way, I think sadly and tragically, captive of his own nostalgia for small towns and captive of Oskaloosa itself,” Sabar said. “There's something wonderful about embedding yourself in a town for 25 years. But the consequences, I think, is that you can kind of lose sight of the way in which your research connects to larger things that might be of interest to researchers beyond the small group of graduate students you have.”

Danielle Hogerty is an intern for KCUR’s Central Standard.

Danielle is a Kansas City native studying Convergence Journalism at the University of Missouri. She hopes to produce for an NPR station after graduation in May 2017.
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