After a first degree in psychology, Barry trained and worked as a clinical psychologist in the UK National Health Service before becoming a lecturer and taking a PhD in sociology.
At the University of East London he led the development of psychosocial studies as an interdisciplinary teaching programme and research field, while researching and writing in a number of areas including popular culture, advertising, consumer behaviour, political leadership, and the rise of 'therapeutic' culture. He also published on the history of psychology. After moving to Bournemouth University in 2001 he concentrated on the psychosocial study of politics, developing a psychoanalytical approach to understanding political communication and public feeling, violent extremism, and social cohesion. The focus of this approach is on the emotional dimensions of political processes, particularly on the dynamics of the 'emotional public sphere'.
Since leaving employment at Bournemouth in 2020, Barry has been pursuing a number of writing projects on a range of topics, including the influence on today's culture and politics of the societal changes of the 1960s.