To understand the contribution of social psychology and what is distinct about it, we need to know its historical origins. The formation of pre-conditions of social psychology is as a whole the same as the development of any other scientific discipline. The socio-psychological ideas originally took shape within the realm of philosophy and then gradually branched off from the system of psychological knowledge. First, we will briefly discuss social thought before the advent of social science and then discuss the second stage of the development of social psychology which is deemed to be “more productive.

1.      Social Thought Before the Advent of Social Science

Two earlier forms of social thought over the centuries are Platonic and Aristotelian.

Platonic thought emphasized the primacy of the state over the individual who had to be educated to become truly social.

Aristotelian thought states that human beings are social by nature and nature can be trusted to enable individuals to live together and to enter personal relationships from which families, tribes and ultimately the state will naturally develop.

In modern times these two traditions of social thought have been known as socio socio-centered approach and the individual-centered approach. Socio socio-centered approach emphasizes the determining function of social structures (systems, institutions, and groups) for individual experience and behavior. According to the individual-centered approach, social systems are said to be explicable in terms of individual processes and functions. For Hegel (1970-1831), the German philosopher, the state is not only the ultimate form of society but the incarnation of the objective social mind in which individual minds are active participants. The notion of Group Mind derived from Hegel’s supra-individual nature.

Social psychology from its beginning has been defined as the scientific study of the individual in the social context. Individualism has been an inherent property of the discipline. The individualistic doctrine says that all the explanations of individual social phenomena are to be rejected unless they are expressed in terms of the individual. Individualism in psychology has been characterized and criticized for the self-centered denial of the other. Individualism has appeared in two forms in sociological thought:

Hedonism: People act in order to secure and maintain pleasure and to avoid and reduce pain.

Utilitarianism: The doctrine that advocates the pursuit of the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

For most modern theories of conditioning and motivation, the underlying ideas of individual satisfaction (reinforcement, reward, reduction of stress, dissonance, uncertainty) are variations of the pleasure or utility principle. Utility and satisfaction are important constructs involved in many social psychological theories.

From Machiavelli (1513) and Thomas Hobbes (1651), the concept of power and its role in social relationships returned to social psychology. The concept of social power (social influence) found its proper frame of reference in the field theory and social exchange theory. In Lewinian field theory ‘power’ became the term for the potential to influence others while control and influence refer to the power of action. Research areas where power has been studied are aggression, conformity to group pressure and obedience to authority, and power in language.

Modern social psychology was also influenced by the developments in the nineteenth century in two major areas: sociology and the theory of evolution. We will discuss these influences later under the titles: social psychology and other disciplines and the influence of evolutionary theory will be discussed in current trends in social psychology.

2.      The Second Stage of Development: Social Psychology Emerges as a Discipline

In the process of branching off from psychology as a separate discipline, three moments are important to be outlined (Galina Andreyeva 1990):

  • The requirement concerning the solution of socio-psychological problems which arose in various related sciences.
  • The processes involved in the separation of socio-psychological problems within the two parent disciplines: psychology and sociology.
  • Finally, the description of the first forms of independent socio-psychological knowledge.

In the mid 19th century, the first forms of socio-psychological theories appeared, three were most important in terms of their influence: people’s psychology, mass psychology, and the theory of instincts of social behavior. These theories developed in the background of philosophical and descriptive tradition; hence their nature was speculative and abstract.

3.      People’s Psychology

People’s psychology developed as one of the first forms of socio-psychological theory in Germany in the mid 19th century. The most outstanding creators of people’s psychology were Moritz Lazarus (1824-1903) and Heymann Steinthal (18231893). In 1859 the journal People’s Psychology and Linguistics was founded in which the article by Lazarus and Steinthal entitled “Introductory Thoughts on People’s Psychology” was printed. The article expressed the idea that the main force of history is the people, or the ‘spirit of the whole’, which can be seen in art, religion, language, myths, customs etc. The individual consciousness is only its product, a link in a certain mental connection. The task of social psychology was to perceive the psychological essence of the spirit of the people and discover the laws that guide the spiritual activity of the people.

The views of Wilhem Wundt (1832-1920) furthered the development of People’s psychology. Wundt (1900) proposed that psychology consists of two parts: physiological psychology and people’s psychology (Völkerpsychologie: German word for people’s psychology). Physiological psychology, in his view, was an experimental discipline, but experimentation is not useful for the study of higher mental processes: thinking and language. For areas like language, myths, customs, and art people’s psychology need to adopt other methods.

The views proposed by Wundt were criticized by Vygotsky. People’s psychology considered language, myths, customs, art, and religion as objectives of study. Vygotsky called these clots of ideology or crystals. The task of psychology he proposed was not to study these crystals but the solution itself. He opposed the thought that social psychology should study the mentality of collective personality. The personality of the individual, he said, is also social and is therefore an object of study in social psychology. Social psychology focuses on the mentality of the separate individual and collective psychology – on personal psychology under collective manifestation (e.g., army and church). Social psychology is the study of cultural and historical determinati0on of mentality. Lev Vygotsky dealt with two questions directly related to the development of social psychology. The higher mental functions (arbitrary memory, active attention, abstract thinking, and volitional act) could not be considered immediate functions of the brain, roots of these functions lie in social conditions. He expounded upon the idea of cultural historical determination of all mental processes.

4.      Mass Psychology

This theory emerged in France in the latter half of the 19th century. The creators of mass psychology Italian Lawyer Scipio Sighele (1868-1913) and French sociologist Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) began with Gabrial Trade’s (18431904) basic ideas on the role of irrational movements in social behavior and the role of imitation. According to Le Bon, any accumulation of people represented the idea of the mass with depersonalization and predominance of emotions over intellect, the general loss of intellect, and the loss of the sense of personal responsibility. Events like mass movements in the late 19th and early 20th century, and rapid social and economic changes due to industrialization and urbanization were conducive to mass psychology but like people’s psychology, it did not develop within the context of academic psychology. It did not have any significant consequences as regards the future of social psychology.

5.      The First Textbooks of Social Psychology

The year 1908 is considered the year of the final emergence of social psychology as an independent scientific discipline. This year two books appeared with the title Social Psychology: An Introduction to Social Psychology by William McDougall and the other Social Psychology by sociologist Edward A. Ross. Before these two works in 1897, James Mark Baldwin’s work, Social and Ethical Interpretation in Mental Development was published in New York and can be considered as one of the first systematic manuals in social psychology.

According to E. A. Ross social psychology deals with uniformities in feeling, belief, volition, and action. Uniformities were to be explained by the capacities for imitation and suggestion operating among individuals collectively. McDougall’s theory proposed that inborn instincts are the cause of social behavior. In his views, tendencies of imitation and suggestion are rooted in their biological nature. Imitation supposedly grew out of a non-specific innate tendency, whereas suggestion was seen as stemming from an instinct to submit to a prestigious person or symbol.

In spite of the great popularity of McDougall’s ideas, they played a negative role in the history of science. Recognition of instincts as the motive force behind social behavior gave importance to irrational and unconscious motives.  Human understanding and thought processes were not given much attention. The overcoming of the theory of instincts is deemed to be an important milestone in the formation of scientific social psychology.

6.      The Beginning of Experimental Research

The early 20th century especially the period after the First World War, is considered the beginning of the metamorphosis of social psychology into an experimental science. But the best known of the early laboratory study was Norman Triplett’s 1897 experiment on “the dynamogenic effects of pace making”. It was the first study of how an individual’s performance is affected by the presence of others.

The experimental investigations by Walter Moede in Europe and Floyd Allport in the US served as a milestone in this process. Allport compared the performance of individuals working alone with that of the persons working either before an audience or in the presence of others engaged in the same activity. He found that the latter condition often improved performance. The phenomenon is known as the social facilitation effect. In 1924 Allport published the first social psychology textbook making extensive use of experimental research. This work encouraged the growth of experimentally oriented social psychology.

The next two decades (after Allport’s publication) were marked by systemic investigations in the field in areas such as the development of attitude measures, social norms, aggression, leadership, and social influence (conformity). Theodore Newcomb (late 1930s) assessed the social and political attitudes held by college students and demonstrated how their attitudes were modified by the views prevailing at the college (Peer influence). Muzafer Sherif (1935) studied the nature and impact of social norms- rules indicating how individuals ought to behave. In 1939, Dollard, Doob, and Miller demonstrated the relationship between frustration and aggression. They concluded that frustration produces instigation to aggression. Kurt Lewin, Lipitt, and White (1939) carried out revealing research on the nature of leadership and related group processes. The main attention began to be focused on the small groups which facilitated the experimental method.

From the earlier thoughts of group mind and depersonalization, social psychological theories at this period emphasized the overriding importance of the individual’s thoughts and understanding.  In 1948, a revolution got underway in social psychology. The precursor to this change was the establishment of the Research Centre for Group Dynamics at MIT by eminent theorist Kurt Lewin. Kurt Lewin is often referred to as the father of applied social psychology.  Experimental works due to the efforts of Kurt Lewin put social psychology as a science in a more advantageous position. He believed that significant social problems could be investigated in the laboratory with experimentation. He favored the analyses based on an individual’s understanding of the situation surrounding him or her.

All the enthusiasm for experimental orientation stemmed from the need to provide authentic knowledge about the real problems of society. However, it was begun to be realized that skillfully conducted laboratory research created a distance between social reality and the topics under investigation. The social content from these researches was taken away in favor of experimentation. In the mid-20th century, social psychology faced the problem of analysis of the enormous experimental research by theoretical knowledge. The need for the proportional development of two spheres of scientific knowledge – the theoretical and the experimental was felt. In the 1950s and later, many psychologists contributed significantly by theoretical explanations in areas such as conformity (Soloman Asch 1956, 1958), cognitive dissonance (Leon Festinger 1950, 1954, 1957), and attribution theory (Fritz Heider, Herold Kelly, and E. E. Jones). In this decade, social psychology was brought closer to cognitive psychology dealing with thought, judgment, and decision-making.

7.      Middle Range Theories

The need for a theoretical explanation for the experimentations in the social psychological areas gave birth to the theories specifically designed to be applied in the areas of social psychological research. The idea of creating “middle range theory” was first developed by Robert Merton. Middle-range theories are the theories that account for a specific aspect of social behavior and do not try to encompass all of social life. Social psychological theories tend to be specific and focused, rather than global and general. The field theory of Kurt Lewin is often considered a model of middle-range theory. The greater part of social psychological theories existing today (theories of frustration, aggression, changes of attitudes, cognitive dissonance, cooperation, and competition, etc.) belong to the bracket of middle-range theories. At present, the theories of the middle range are mostly concentrated around four trends: behaviorism, psychoanalysis, cognitivism, and interactionism. The theories from the vantage point of behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and cognitivism are the socio-psychological variants of mainstream psychological thought; and interactionism represents theories mainly contributed by sociological perspective.

Clark Leonard Hull (introduced the concept of intervening variables). laboration of the theory of frustration-aggression of Norman Miller and John Dollard is the major contribution of behaviorism to social psychology. Neo-behaviorism seeks to create a standard of scientific research in social psychology, involving thoroughly developed laboratory experiments and Theodore W. Adorno’s The Authoritative Personality (1959) is a good example of psychoanalytic contribution to social psychology. Authoritarian personality describes a cluster of traits that predispose individuals towards acceptance of extreme political ideologies such as Nazism.

Cognitivism in social psychology began with Gestalt psychology and the field theory of Kurt Lewin. The examination of social behavior from the point of view of the cognitive processes of the individual is its basic principle. The theory of cognitive balance states that the main motivating factor of individual behavior is the demand for the establishment of a balance of cognitive structure.

The theory of balanced structures by Fritz Heider, the theory of communicative acts by Theodore Newcomb, the theory of cognitive dissonance by Leon Festinger, and the theory of congruence by C. E. Osgood and Tannenbaum all relate to the theory of cognitive balance. Cognitivism emphasizes the role of humanization in social psychology, underlining the role and significance of mental formations in explaining the social behavior of the individual. Interactionism includes George Herbert Mead’s work on the theory of symbolic interactionism.

However, in contemporary social psychology, interactionism includes not only the development of Mead’s ideas but also a group of different theories combined under one name, namely role theory and reference group theory. In all theories, an attempt is made to establish the social determinants of human behavior, by introducing a key concept of interactionism within which the personality is shaped. However, the analysis of social determinants of behavior is reduced to the statement of interaction. Therefore, the logical nature of the interactionist orientation proves to be, to a significant degree external. The fundamental methodological problems of socio-psychological knowledge remain unresolved.


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