Ruud Abma was born on 23 december 1951 in the village of Gorssel (The Netherlands). After graduate school he studied psychology at the University of Nijmegen (now Radboud University), majoring in cultural psychology. In the late seventies he started publishing on the history of psychology, concentrating on the reception in the Dutch Catholic world of modern psychological theories and practices. His 1982 paper on this subject, 'Psychology between science and society', was published in the Proceedings of the First European Meeting of Cheiron. He elaborated the theme of psychology and Catholicism in a book called ‘Methodisch zonder confessie’ (1983), a title that refers to attempts of (catholic) psychologists to take a methodologically neutral stance.
As a cultural psychologist he also was involved in the study of cultural change. The student movement of the 1970s made him aware of the role of adolescents and young adults in cultural change. From the early 1980s on he started writing about various aspects of the youth counterculture in western countries. A position at Utrecht University allowed him to make a review of Dutch youth research, and to write a Ph.D. thesis on the topic of ‘Youth and counter culture’ (Jeugd en tegencultuur, 1990), a theoretical study in which sociological, anthropological and psychological theories were combined in an interdisciplinary framework. A critical review of the work on youth cultures of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was published in Meeus et al. (1993).
In the late 1980s Abma started teaching in the new interdisciplinary curriculum of the Faculty of Social Sciences in Utrecht. This inspired him to make a new start in the history of psychology, especially psychology as a factor in social and cultural change. The historiography of psychology was blooming in the Netherlands, and scholars from various universities joined forces in writing A Social History of Psychology (2004), in which Abma wrote a chapter on 'Madness and Mental health'. With Ido Weijers he published a book (in 2005) on the history of the psychiatric profession in the Netherlands.
From 2000 onwards, Abma developed two lines of investigation, both related to the issue of interdisciplinarity in the human sciences. The first concerns the relation between work and health, more specifically the changes in (policy towards) sick leave and incapacity for work (see Curing the Dutch disease? The Disability Insurance Act and the Psychologization Process in the Netherlands, 2007). Secondly, Abma is publishing on the position of the social sciences within the scientific domain as a whole, sharing their subject matter with the humanities and methodologically tending towards the natural sciences (Over de grenzen van disciplines, 2011). This latter tendency is also reflected in the dominant publication culture in the human sciences, on which Abma wrote the book De publicatiefabriek (The publication factory, 2013).
On the history of the human sciences Abma also wrote Meer dan de som der delen. Negentig jaar psychologie in Nijmegen (met Herman Kolk), Maak buigzaam wat verstard is. Buytendijk en de Katholieke Centrale Vereniging voor Geestelijke Volksgezondheid (2015), and Het verdrongen curriculum. Over onderwijs in de sociale wetenschappen (2017).
Other recent book publications are Een zaak van lange adem. Hoe een Nijmeegs boekenimperium de studentenbeweging overleefde (2019), Denken als ambacht. Wat universiteiten kunnen bijdragen (2020) en Nijmegen Historische grond. Hoe eens stad gevormd werd (2021).