Yankee Micro Social Psychology Part I

Individualism and its Social Shadows


Developing a Marxist social psychology is a very important aspect of explaining what is going on within the individual in relation to society as well as what is going on in small group interactions between themselves. What we find when we examine social psychology in Yankeedom is what you might suspect, and that is social contract theory. Here the individual is understood prior to and the center of attention. The group is secondary and derivative and attached to the individual as something voluntary and accidental. This is opposed to a Marxian understanding of society as necessary, involuntary and causal. My two articles follow the work of John Greenwood and other social reference theorists and their attempt to expose the individualist nature of Yankee social psychology. While social reference theory is not Marxist it is deeply social in the way that is similar to the work of George Herbert Mead and well worth studying.

This article emerged from my lecture notes for a course I taught in social psychology. I felt that students needed to know the history of the field and since there were no books that covered the full two hundred years, I thought I’d write my own. For the early history I used Gustav Jahoda’s book A History of Social Psychology. For the early social psychologists I referenced Jaan Valsiner and Rene Van der Veer’s work The Social Mind. For the rise of individualism in social psychology, I used Robert Farr’s The Roots of Modern Social Psychology. The social reference orientation of John D. Greenwood is the heart of both Part I and Part II. His books are The Disappearance of the Social In American Social Psychology and Realism, Identity and Emotion. I’ve relied on two wonderful books by Ivana Markova to represent the dialogical self in Part II. They are Paradigms Thought and Language and Human Awareness.

My article is divided into two parts. In part I describe how the early social psychologists were very social in their study of the social-individual relationship. People like Wundt, Royce, James, Baldwin, Cooley, Thomas and Mead, as different as they were, all agreed that the individual was constitutionally social. Then beginning with behaviorists, Floyd Allport, Herbert Blumer and symbolic interactionists and the rise of experimental groups, social-individual dynamic was recalibrated in individualist ways. In part II I describe the return of the social to-social psychology with the work of the theory of reference groups. At the hands of John Greenwood, using experimental groups composed of strangers is criticized as a way of understanding  social groups. At the same time Greenwood’s reference group orientation criticizes two left wing social psychology theories, the dialogical psychology of Ivana Markova social constructionism of Kenneth J. Gergen.

Sociogenetic thought in the United States: late 19th to early 20th century

What is the folk psychology of Wilhelm Wundt?

German psychology was the opposite of British empiricism, atomism that later characterized individualist social psychology in Yankeedom. Instead, for reducing the individual to the lowest elements – pain-pleasure, associations – the Germans started from the complex and refused to reduce it to the simple.

How much can you tell about the psychology of the individual by the things they make – pictures, writing, books read as well as the material they leave behind? We might say quite a bit. But what about the psychology of what a culture leaves behind in the way of tools, language, art, mythology? Are these the products of a collective mind? Why should this collective mind not have the same reality as the individual one? Folk psychologists thought it should. Volker psychology was devoted to the study of the mental products of social communities. These principles were first articulated by Herder and Vico and then carried on by Lazarus in 1851 and then by Wilhelm Wundt.

Wundt wanted to study the developmental history of the collective human soul in the mental products it left behind. To do this he studied tribal and ancient societies from around the world. Wundt filled ten volumes of folk psychology between 1900 – 1920. He thought the comparative-historical methods of folk psychology are at least as objective and scientific as the methods of experimental psychology. Why is this? Introspection was rejected because it will not tell us about the historical dimension of the individual which folk psychology addresses. Furthermore, introspection captures fleeting assessments which do not even cover the ontogenesis of the individual, let alone the historical dimension.

 Yankee pragmaticism

Valsiner tells us that major social changes were afoot at the end of the 19th century, including:

  • Industrialization – Late 19th and early 20th century social science was obsessed with the problem of alienation. It’s unifying theme was the destructive result of industrialization which was eliminating the traditional small town and destroying the community based on personal ties.
  • Increase in urbanization (NYC grew twelve-fold during the 1890s).
  • Increases in immigrant populations.
  • Efforts toward racial and moral purification.
  • Evangelicalism, including campaigns for social hygiene against venereal diseases.
  • Progressive political era filled with “muckraking” which lasted until 1916.

Out of this malestream of changes it became difficult to contemplate the search for truth as independent of human wants and needs. To the extent that the American people could tolerate philosophy at all, this philosophy would need to be down-to-earth and practical, based on what could people do. The truth of philosophy should be measured against its consequences.

The authentic test for truth is if it works in action. This need was a match made in heaven for philosophers like John Dewey and William James. James characterized the universe as like a joint stock company and our action in the market is a real factor in the course of events.  As we shall see shortly, the advent of pragmatism led to the diminishing of an emphasis on dialectical synthesis that Royce and Baldwin had been developing out of the Hegelian tradition.

In spite of the climate of social Darwinism in the 2nd half of the 19th century, social theorist Trotter’s Instincts of the Herd in Peace and in War, Graham Wallas in The Great Society, Our Social Heritage and in both Hobhouse’s Mind in Evolution and Development and Purpose maintained that evolved human intelligence enables humans to surmount the limitations of their biological heritage. What united these first great micro-social psychologists was the search to understand by what process social life was internalized by individuals.

Josiah Royce and James Mark Baldwin

For philosopher Josiah Royce the internalization of society into subjective life allows the person to construct subjectivity (what the individual wants) in terms of a contrast with his dialectical opposite (what he thinks others expect of him) The development of the self takes place through constructive imitation that builds ever more complex oppositions on the basis of new social experiences. Internalization is the process by which social experiences become functional in the self-system.

For James Mark Baldwin, a person’s actual self makes constant effort set against the constant resistance in the actual world. Complex imitation involves increasing experimentation with different aspects of a situation and going beyond it. Play, art and fiction are examples where the situation is used as a scaffold to make new things.

Baldwin argued there are 3 stages of child social perception:

  • Projective – is conscious of others but not herself—people are objects.
  • Subjective – also conscious of himself – people are special objects, active but arbitrary.
  • Ejective – conscious of others as similar to herself, they are social fellows.

Baldwin was very ambitious and also attempted to harness individual development to social evolution. He suggested that whole societies could be at a certain stage of cognitive development. The stages were:

  • Prelogical (diffused) – primitive societies
  • Logical (differentiated, hierarchical) integration – differentiation oppositions
  • Hyper-logical – dialectical synthesis – affective generalization – modern societies

Baldwin ran into trouble with cultural relativists because this characterization of people in primitive societies made them less developed mentally. However, he laid the foundation for the study of child development undertaken later by Piaget and Vygotsky.

Cooley and Thomas

Cooley was a master of what has been called “sympathetic introspection”. He provided narrative accounts of “stories” individuals told themselves as they were participating in their social worlds. Cooley was the first to distinguish “primary” face-to-face” groups such as play groups of children from families and neighborhoods and socialization forces which the individual identifies as “we”. A person puts himself into intimate contact with various sorts of persons and allows them to be aware in himself of a life similar to their own. Larger, anonymous groups to which there is little affinity might be called a “they” or an “it” group.

These socialization groups help to build what Cooley called a “looking glass self” which he divided into three parts:

  • How we imagine we appear to other people
  • How we imagine they are reacting to us
  • The accompanying emotional reaction – pride or dismay

While Cooley and Baldwin distinguished primary from secondary groups in general, they failed to give explicit categorization to other social groups such as aggregates, reference groups or collectivities.

Lastly, sociologist William Thomas pointed out that objective social truths do not guarantee in the slightest that people will follow them. He famously said if human beings define situations as real, they are real in their consequences regardless of whether they are objectively true or not.  A good example of this is racism. If physical anthropologists could control our vocabulary, they would abolish the word “race”. Why? Because scientifically it has no meaning. Because of the intense mating between races over the last thousands of years – much of it forced – whatever significant genetic differences between races which might have existed no longer exist. Yet this does not stop people from deciding not to marry someone because they want to maintain their “racial purity”. As long as people believe in this and act accordingly, the more racism becomes a social fact, regardless of whether or not there is a genetic basis for it.

George Herbert Mead

Darwinian beginnings

Though Mead was a social psychologist, he started with Darwin. He was a comparative psychologist in his whole approach to social psychology. This approach can be seen in his reference to the behavior of snakes, insects, birds, cats, dogs, horses, cows and the higher primates. Mead asked how is it that an immaterial mind can arise from a material world? Furthermore, by what process can immaterial thoughts result in material actions?  Mead saw Darwin’s theory of evolution as a new beginning, an alternative to both mechanistic explanations of the physical sciences and the teleological explanations of idealists and spiritualists.

Mead drew from Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals as well as on Wundt’s work to develop importance of gestures in socialization. In the winter semester of 1888-1889 Mead enrolled in Wundt’s classes in Leipzig, Germany. Later, in his own work, Mead showed gestures were systems of social relationships, not isolated expressions. He  was very interested in the relationship between the hand and the development of the central nervous system.

Social origin of mind

Mead was critical of Wundt for presupposing mind in his physiological psychology. Mind, the basis of Wundt’s experimental science can only be the mind of an individual. Mead thought the mind was social in its origins. Mead shows how mind emerges naturally from the conversation of gestures that occurs at the lowest level in the evolutionary scale. When a person speaks, she speaks to herself as well as to others. Mead agrees that it is possible to have society without minds, for example in insect social organization, but not mind without a society.

Furthermore, Mead showed how the self does not evolve out of itself in isolation but is a product of social interaction. This actual social interaction is then internalized into the form of roles. While studying at Harvard Mead was more influenced by Royce than William James. Cooley introduced Mead to the writings of Adam Smith, (Theory of Moral Sentiments) who is the source of Mead’s idea about assuming the role of the other. According to Smith in everyday market transitions buyers and sellers assume each other roles by imaging what they might say. In assuming the role of the other with regard to ourselves, we become an object to ourselves. Our awareness of others is a necessary prerequisite to our awareness of self (Markova, Human Awareness). Mead showed how an actress, in the course of interacting might incorporate the perspective of the other in her own perspective and become an object to herself, become self-conscious rather than merely conscious.

Mead was trying to create a theory of meaning which is midway between introspectionists on the one hand and behaviorists on the other. Meaning should be more action-oriented than the  introspectionists’ views of Wundt, but more mentalistic than the behaviorists.  He drew from Wilhelm Dilthey in arguing that meaning is not derived from the individual but within existing systems of relationships.

Types of play, generalized other, biographical selves and I-me dialogues.

Environments can change in uncontrollable ways such as an earthquake, but the organism involves itself in a social process that follows such sudden changes and reconstructs new adaptive environments.  It is in this process that social institutions emerge. Other selves stand upon different bases from that of physical objects. Physical objects are merely objects of perception, while the other selves are perceiving subjects as well as perceived objects. Mead agreed with Cooley about the importance of play groups. In fact it was in play groups that children were first socialized through both let’s pretend play and what Mead called the game. Both these forms of play taught children to develop role-making (pretend play) and role-taking (designed play). The socialization of the individual included cultivating an objective self – what Mead called “the generalized other” – and a subjective self – which he called the biographical self.

These two identities became internalized by the middle of childhood through dialogue  with each other. Most situations require the individual to balance out the needs of the subjective side: “what do I want in the situation” and from the objective side “what do others expect of me”. Mead labeled the side that weighs what others expect him to do, the “me” side and the part that defends their immediate self-interest is the “I” part. The internal conversation Mead called “I-me” dialogues.

 Beyond Descartes Dualism

Markova points out that the histories of Western philosophy are often accounts of the epistemological conflict between rationalism and empiricism and we are asked to choose between them. Such histories obscure the fact that these rival philosophies are both mutually exclusive opposites within a larger system of Descartes. Thanks to Descartes we have the following dualisms:

Cartesian dualisms

Mind Category of comparison Body
Knower Epistemology Known
Isolated individual Inner-outer world Outer world
Self Social relationships Others
Rationalism Epistemological system Empiricism

Theories of social


Chomsky Study of language theorists Watson, Skinner
Syntactic Structure Books about language Verbal Behavior


As a philosopher, Mead sought to overcome Cartesian dualism in all its forms.

The real incompatibility  is not between rationalism and empiricism, but between the paradigms of Descartes and Hegel. Mead, Wundt and Vygotsky were part of a tradition that goes back to Herder, Humboldt and Hegel. For them humanity was constitutionally social with social life being responsible for creating language, the mind and the self. In referring to the history of modern psychology, Markova says that between 1912 and 1920 psychology books  were written as if behaviorism had laid to rest the ghost of Descartes with behaviorism’s own anti-cognitive stance. But psychologists did nothing of the kind. For Watson, how the mind interacts with the body is to be found now in the larynx rather than in the pineal gland of Descartes. But this was not a full-blown revolution. Behaviorism just switched from the rationalist, mind side of Descartes to the empiricist action side of dualities. They really just switched to the opposite pole within the same tradition. When psychology became a “science of behavior” it did not progress beyond Cartesian dualism.


The same is true for language. The social nature of language is undermined whether one accepts the rationalism of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structure or the empiricism of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. What both have in common is a physiological search for the mind. The psycholinguistic traditions in the study of language and thought derive from Descartes rather than from Hegel. Speech for Mead is social not physiological.  Mead suggests the origin of mind is not in the brain but is in language. It is the person’s inner speech that creates the autonomy of the self. This is in contrast to Watson who treats thinking as sub-vocal speech. It’s potentially detectable as minute innervations in the larynx.

Mead is rightly grouped with pragmatists such as James, Dewey and Peirce but there are important differences between them. Peirce and Mead are more social in their theory of truth. As Lewis and Smith point out in American Sociology and Pragmatism:

The lines of influence run from Peirce; Royce to Mead. Epistemological, Dewey and James were nominalists; Pierce and Mead were realists. The social psychology of Mead is closer to the pragmatics of Peirce than it is to either the pragmatism of James or the instrumentalism of Dewey. Mead socialized Dewey’s philosophy in his book Philosophy of the act. (66-68)

Please see my article Collectivist, individualist and Communist Selves Part I for more detail about this section and Mead.

 Invasion of individualist social psychology

Wundt’s Folk Psychology is rejected in the US

Between 1865 and 1914 something like 10,000 Americans studied in Germany. However, the rise of pragmatism in philosophy and behaviorism in psychology both emphasized the individual and laboratoryexperiments to the neglect of a comparative historical and cross-cultural psychology. With behaviorism, the model for studying human behavior was natural science, not social science. The split between the two approaches was amplified by World War I where the United States and Germany fought on different sides. Wundt’s increasingly vociferous support for German nationalism cut him off from his many former students in the US. After World WWI, the central relevance of Germany as the source of knowledge was in steep decline.

As we saw earlier Wundt had his hands in both experimental psychology and folk psychology. But his students in the US, along the historians of psychology ignored Wundt’s Folk Psychology. According to Lewis and Smith:

Most of Wundt’s American students almost completely ignored folk psychology which were grounded in alien philosophical tradition of Leibniz and Kant, not Locke, Hume, Mill or Berkeley. It is not widely known that Wundt also wrote ten volumes of Volk psychology between 1900 and 1920. The fact that historians of psychology have overlooked the folk psychology of Wundt even though he developed it earlier than his experimental work is a good example of American psychology’s efforts to deny its humanistic, historical roots in favor of the ideals of the physical sciences (45)

The reduction of Wundt to a laboratory psychologist was deepened by a student of Wundt, Titchener. Titchener gave an empirical , associationist twist to Wundt’s philosophy of mind.

Wundt’s Legacy

Both social constructionists (more on them later) and social atomists (Allport and other behaviorists) want to claim Wundt as their own. But contrary to the experimentalists’ claims, Wundt did not come to folk psychology in his old age (implying that only an enfeebled old man could be interested in such things). His interest in folk psychology existed throughout his life. Even schools of later periods (cognitive psychology in the 1950s) and cross-cultural psychology in the 1990s distanced themselves from Wundt’s folk psychology.

On the other hand, social constructionists claim Wundt as their own because it seemed that by advocating for a folk psychology he was renouncing the experimental work he did in the lab. In fact, Wundt was interested in both all throughout his life. Wundt did not suggest that the folk community had a life of its own, a super-mental mind independent of the mental life of individuals. According to Greenwood, Wundt insisted that higher cognitive processes were grounded in neurophysiologic systems of individuals.

Behaviorism denies consciousness as a field of social study

Watson attacked the imprecision in the calibration of the introspectionist research instrument. Watson wanted to rid psychology of consciousness, self and mind. Instead, he wanted to focus on what could be measured precisely. Since at the time measuring behavior made more sense than tracking individuals’ self-reports. His manifesto was comparable to other social purification efforts that were occurring at the time in the United States. Watson’s call for a revolution in psychology was supported by Dewey and James.

The advancement of the behaviorist tradition in America led to the narrowing of the discipline of psychology in the following ways:

  • The issue of the social nature of the mind disappeared from the discourse of American psychologists. Most of the sociogenetic thinking became “exiled” into other areas of social sciences.
  • The study of the higher mental functions was ignored.
  • The cross-cultural differences in psychological states were neglected.
  • The impact of history on psychological processes was ignored.
  • The Darwinian side of psychology was neglected by behaviorists.

Yet behaviorism widened psychology in other ways. For example, the study of the behavior of animal species compared to the functions of human behavior was scandalous to humanists and religious evangelicals but it had the blessing of the pragmatists. The combination of pragmatism and behaviorism constituted an ideological take-over of American psychology.

 Mead’s legacy is misunderstood: Herbert Blumer and the symbolic interactionists

As famous and respected as he is now, Mead had little influence over the historical development of social psychology because he was a Hegelian and social psychology developed within a Cartesian paradigm. Also, Mead followed Peirce instead of the more individualist James and Dewey as did his fellow sociologists at Chicago.

Mead did not win many followers for himself because at a time when social psychologists were demanding more precision Mead referred to society in at least three different ways:

  • as represented social groups
  • as people as co-present in social interaction
  • as society as a whole

When Mead died in 1931 his course on social psychology was taken over by Herbert Blumer and the course changed substantially. The problem today is that many social psychologists present Mead’s work as more or less synonymous with the work of Herbert Blumer. But as we shall see, Blumer, like Thomas and Cooley, was a psychic interactionist with their roots firmly planted in the social contract theory of Rousseau. Blumer was able to see how Mead’s social psychology opposed Watsonian behaviorism, but he failed to appreciate the radical differences between the psychical interactionism of Thomas and Cooley as opposed to the social realism of Mead. He proposed a psychological social psychology which views interpretive interaction as the source of social organization.

Let’s review these differences in detail. According to Greenwood, Blumer moved increasingly away from the organicist, Darwinian model of Mead in favor of a more phenomenological orientation. Reference to interaction between organic and psychical phenomenon have virtually disappeared in Blumer’s work.

One place this can be seen is when we consider the difference between Mead’s “attitude” and Blumer’s “role”. For Mead, an attitude partly refers to a physiological base. Blumer’s role is completely social and has no physiological foundation and is more dramatological as in Goffman.

Thirdly, Blumer’s depiction of the social order was local, situational and voluntaristic. For Blumer, the active part of society appears to be no more than what is negotiated in every situation. For Blumer, a larger social order exists but only as a parameter for voluntaristic action or a power to be avoided. While there is no better “process sociologist than Mead, he did recognize there is a relatively permanent social order which exists independently of local situations. Just like Peirce’s general laws of nature and the objective existence of the scientific community, so society is a whole that, while not independent of all individuals, is more than each taken separately.

Fourth, for Blumer, whether the social order is engaged at the micro or the macro level, social life is external to the individual. For Mead, society at all levels is already always inside of people and it is not anything that could be negotiated. Fifth, for Mead the self consists of a never-ending dialectic between the self as a subject (biographical self) and the self as an object (how I imagine others see me). According to Greenwood, there is no place in Blumer’s theory for Mead’s generalized other or collective conscience. There exist only so many individual consciences co-adapting to each other from autonomous positions. There are only flesh and blood individuals who must calculate one’s actions but not an internalized socialization. It seems that for Blumer all of social life is negotiated by the individual.

Fifth, for Mead, meaning is grounded in significant symbols for society. They are universal and objective. They have an existence which is independent of whether this or that individual negotiates what they mean or how they are interpreted. Symbols are antecedent to their use. They exist before people are born will be there when the person dies. Meaning is based on performance which results from long-standing gestures. These meanings can be unconscious and sometimes physiological. Human beings act towards things on the basis of meanings that things have for them. But for Mead, Peirce, Durkheim and all realists, there is no such thing as meaning for me as there is for Blumer and the symbolic interactionists who followed him. There is only meaning for us.

Blumer undermined Mead’s social theory of meaning by making meanings dependent upon subjective imagination (Cooley) rather than on the objective, communal character of significant symbols. This meant that the meaning of symbols emerged through the gestures and interpretations of individuals as they interact. Meaning is based, not on gestures or performance but through the interpretation of words. Because meanings are negotiated with others there is no room for an unconscious processing of symbols. Everything takes place at a conscious level.

Blumer’s emphasis on interpretation makes it difficult for making social psychology to be a science because:

For Stryker, interpretations are an extremely undesirable terminus for the explanation of human behavior. They are undesirable because there are no laws of interpretation. Without laws we can never say the interpretation a was a necessary or sufficient condition for the appearance of act b. (178)

On the whole, Mead was more expansive than Blumer. His claimed that human beings were a product of two larger forces, evolutionary Darwinism on one hand and the macro-structure of society on the other. While Mead did not discuss larger social institutions very much he still understood them to be present inside individuals. Blumer was more of a micro psychological social psychologist and far more interested in how people make sense of things when they meet face to face. Blumer treated Darwinian and macro-sociological forces as unimportant. Please see my table at the end of this article for a summary.

Floyd Allport’s individualist social psychology

Decline of Darwinism

Continuing Watson’s separation of human beings from Darwin, Allport’s textbook Social Psychology ignored its comparative psychological framework on the social life of insects including wasps, bees, ants and termites. Instead:

  • The laboratory replaced the field as the preferred location of observing the behavior of animals.
  • The number of different species being studied was dramatically reduced to rats and pigeons.

Unlike Allport, social scientists at Chicago University were very much concerned with studying the metropolis. They produced urban studies on crime, juvenile delinquency and mental illness. They studied anomie and egoism in the strictly Durkheimian sense. Yet, though Durkheim’s understanding of society was the opposite of Allport’s behaviorism, what they had in common was a rejection of Darwin.

Social Atomism

Floyd Allport was an unrelenting critic of any social psychological attempt to attribute any agency to social processes beyond the individual. Allport’s methodological individualism made him hypersensitive to personifications, objectifications or reifications of society. He attacked any kind of social group as if it were a group mind of crowd psychologists.

What was social was an abstract concept of what people had in common. This is a Humean description of empirical invariance. This ignores that:

  • People can have common beliefs with others that do not originate in interpersonal relations. For example, they could be rooting for a professional sports team.
  • There are some interpersonal acts that are not common such as acts of rape or aggression.
  • People’s common beliefs can have a developmental history rooted in reference groups like region of the country, occupation or religion.

Allport’s commitment to behaviorism limited him to an empiricist conception of science. His behaviorist perspective played a significant role in his rejection of theories of the social reference groups states because they were often in the physical absence of actual members. His behaviorism precluded treating representative products rather than social stimuli.

Allport perceived any understanding of social life that claims existence beyond the psychology of individuals as a threat to his cherished ideals of moral individualism and  to his  ideals of personal autonomy and responsibility. According to Greenwood, behind this was Allport’s Kantian theory of morality. Morality is unconditionally autonomous and personal. One ought to do one’s duty for its own sake independently of whether any others are represented as having done their duty in similar circumstances.

Allport equated sociality with uniformity (conformity) and uniformity with involuntary behavior. This means that social behavior cannot be diverse or voluntary. Allport was  insensitive to the fact people can conform to something voluntarily and sometime people prefer to do social activities over individual activities and that individual activities can be unpleasant but necessary. A simplified picture of Allport’s thinking about the individual and the social looks something like this:

Individual Social
Voluntary Involuntary
Freedom Uniformity, conforming
Enjoyable Necessary evil
Moral individual: autonomy Collectivist loyalty to fascism or communism
Methodological individualism Personification, objectification, reification
Social is what is abstract and common

Allport had his most powerful influence on social psychology between the wars.

Allport mistakenly identifies with Mead

Even though Mead was critical of Watsonian behaviorism, Allport treats Mead as a fellow behaviorist and fails to understand how profoundly Mead differed from Watson. While Mead was interested in society as a whole and the self, including the mind, Watson was interested in the relationship between a small stimulus and a micro-behavior. He was not interested in the mind or in social relationships.

Individualist Rejection of Reference Groups

Embracing the social as public, facilitation experimental groups

While American social psychologists were individualists, they accepted certain kinds of social groups like interpersonal groups. These occur when strangers interacted in face-to-face encounters in everyday life or when strangers interacted in scientific experiments. The second group is derived social groups – when individuals answered polling questions which were based on their membership as races, genders or ages.

For these social atomists, any description of social forces larger than these interactions was dismissed. For social atomists lurking beyond these atomistic relations were the dark social forces of crowds, movements and what seemed to them human irrationality. To a point this is understandable, given fascism and perceived authoritarian communism which were present in the 1930s. Yet most social psychologists, including Park, accepted uncritically some of the worst, least scientific claims of the crowd psychologists and imagined them as the only way crowds, masses and movements could be understood. See my article on macro social psychology.

Derived social groups as mass aggregates

In reaction to crowd theory, American social psychologists sought to avoid the irrational and antidemocratic tendencies they perceived in crowds by developing Tarde’s distinction between physically proximate crowds and dispersed crowds or publics. American social psychologists maintained that so long as aggregations of individuals are physically dispersed, then they exist as masses. That way the irrationalist influences of physically proximate crowds could be resisted. Allport thought that publics were less of a threat to rationality than crowds. After all, according to Allport, moderate public opinion is what guides politicians. Mass aggregates are groups that are known to each other not through face-to-face encounters, but through statistical gatherings and publishing though polls or individual interviews.

For these reasons, American social psychologists restricted experimental social psychology to publics. Social attitudes were restricted to surveys of dispersed masses of individuals. After all, according to Allport, public opinion is merely the collection of individual opinions. It has no existence except in individual minds. In the field of persuasion studies, Paul Lazarsfeld emigrated from Vienna where he helped to establish The Bureau of Applied Social Research. He became a dominate influence in the methodology of social research.

Many more radical theorists stressed that our sense of identity comes from our social location such as gender, race, age, social class – that is derived aggregate groups.   However, many measures of social psychologists of identity are free of structured invitations to list and rank  self-categorizations. But this is only a partial identity. Whether I am happy or embarrassed to be an Italian-American hardly helps to direct my social identity that I do not make any long-standing commitment to. For example, there is far more loyalty to my Elks club or to a local gang.

Interpersonal groups as facilitation groups and aggregates in scientific experiments

Allport was also involved in experimental facilitation groups. Facilitation studies are made when people are placed in groups with some task to be performed by themselves. The experiments consist of whether and how the variation of size and atmosphere will affect how well the task will be performed. When mass studies of attitudes such as competition and aggression were undertaken, the results were grouped on the common properties of groups such as all males within the state of Oklahoma between the ages of 21 and 25.

Interpersonal groups are not limited to experimental facilitation groups. The interpersonal groups are interactions between particular individuals in face-to-face encounters within everyday life. For example, a women resisting sexual advances is not in any particular role. She has to deal with the physical characteristics of this particular man. She cannot give a stereotypic response. If a person is blocking a door-way an individual has to adapt and change courses. Since blocking doorways is not part of a socially scripted situation the individual must make adjustments, not in any particular role to role, but as individual to individual. Social atomists think that being social begins with a face-to-face encounter. A social identity is built up from a series of fleeting, and changing social encounters. Anglo-American theorists of social cognition such as Fisk and Taylor think social cognition grows out of interpersonal situations rather than being there at the beginning. Greenwood concludes:

Anglo-American “social” psychology has never really been a social psychology. Unlike European studies of social representation (Farr and Moscovici) where attention is focused on the social dimension of cognition, Anglo-American studies of social cognition like Fiske and Taylor, focus on other persons in situations. There is no consideration of the possibility that cognition itself has social dimensions (95)

A rejection of intrinsic groups (reference groups) as subjects for experiment

The problem with the way American social psychologists have understood groups is that they ignore using an individual’s membership in intrinsic groups in their experiments. They ignore that:

  • Individuals have an ongoing social relationship with groups whom they get to know.
  • These groups provide support for individual development in the form of rituals.
  • They constrain the individual with norms and expectations.
  • They invite the individual to take a role.
  • Intrinsic groups themselves have a history.
  • A person is becoming social all the way from birth and once that infrastructure is in place they continue to be social even when they are alone.

Over time an individual develops loyalties to family of origin, religious communities or neighborhood associations and work groups. They also join clubs and over time roles are played with others interdependently through mutual role enactment. In socially intrinsic groups individuals make a commitment to abide by certain standards and agreement which both constrain the individuals while allowing for a new kind of individual development. In intrinsic social groups, society is outside and inside the individual. All human cognition is social cognition because being social is a condition for being human.

Greenwood argues that being married is not only socially significant but also enables a person to fix and develop their identity by reference to the predictable hopes and structure the institution of marriage provides. With marriage comes a predictable set of expectations about what constitutes a good reputation, along with dignity, honor and respect.  All  emotions which follow are inseparable from:

  1. their social identity as a member of a reference group;
  2. their social motivational virtues.

Every intrinsic groups provides this, not just marriages.

On the downside, most threats to identity will be connected to reference groups and their social expectations. Greenwood gives the example of a writer who publishes a disastrous book, a warrior who runs away from a battle or a mother who is caught beating her children. The problem is that with rare exceptions, American social psychologists do not conduct experiments with people with their membership of intrinsic groups (reference groups) as the focus of attention.

Mead vs Symbolic Interactionism


Category of Comparison



Organicism interaction between organic and physical

Place of Darwinian evolutionary theory

Not important Phenomenological

No references to biological evolution


Has a physiological referent

Social identity


Dramaturgical meaning


Permanent social order which exists independently of local situations

How thin or thick is the social order?


Temporary social order negotiated in each situation

Outside and inside

The part that is inside of people and cannot be instrumentally manipulated

Is the social order inside or outside the individual


Social organization sets conditions for individual action

Social structure merely a tool to be used or an obstacle to be avoided


Active dialectic

Self is a subject and self is an object. Me, generalized other, collective conscience

How is the self conceived?

Self as a subject but not self as an object—no “me” or generalized other or collective conscience

Social negotiations are only with flesh and blood individuals, no internalization

Organic interdependency How to understand the relationship between society and the individual Social contract of voluntarily participating individuals

(Charles Sanders Peirce)



(William James)


Social theory of meaning

Depends on objective communal character of significant symbols

What does meaning depend on?

Depends on the subjective imagination
Universal and objective

Meaning for us

Meaning of symbols

Individual and subjective

Meaning for me

Antecedent to their use



Timing of meaning



Emerges with the interaction between people as they deal with local situations.
Unconscious and physiological

Is meaning conscious or unconscious

Gestures, performance What is meaning based on? After the gesture through individual interpretationof words



Field of social psychology




About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

View all posts by Bruce Lerro →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *