Summary of Part I
In Part I of my article, I described how initially the field of social psychology had deep roots in the socio-cultural traditions of Wundt, Royce, Baldwin, Cooley, Thomas and Mead. But by the beginning of World War I a shift towards individualism can be seen in the work first of the behaviorist Watson, and most powerfully in the work of Floyd Allport, Herbert Blumer and symbolic interactionists. When it came to understanding group life these social atomists only tolerated three kinds of groups:
- Fleeting face-to-face groups (interactional groups)
- Groups that were in laboratory situations (interactional groups)
- Derived groups which were mass aggregates based on polling
Missing were reference groups. To keep all of this straight, please see the table below. In Part II of my article, I present the reference group theory’s criticisms of two more sociological social psychologists – the dialogical psychology of Ivana Markova and the social construction theory of Kenneth Gergen.
Types of Social Groups
|Large mass aggregates
|Small face-to face organic groups
|Who is it directed to?
|In everyday life to particular individuals
No contact with others in the poll
|Roles enacted independently of particular personalities
|Sexual advances, some acts of aggression or circumventing another person who is blocking a doorway
|Men, women, blacks, senior citizens, deaf, unemployed, homeless
|Married persons, occupational work groups
A local Baptist Church, a Hells Angels club
|Provision of resources
|No practical resources for the formation and maintenance of identity
|At its best, state provides practical resources for the formation and maintenance of identity
|No practical resources for the formation and maintenance of identity
|Duration of group
|No institutional structure
Created and dissolved in the social situation
|Categories of groups remain members are born and die
|Maintain institutional structure as members come and go
|Does not track purpose and development over time
One cannot make a lasting developmental projects with fleeting social
interactions with strangers
|Does not track purpose and development over time
One cannot make a lasting developmental project out of being unemployed or retired or some other demographic membership
|Can create a purpose and direction in life through Rites of passage, of status elevation or reversal
Routes are available for management of reputation and self-worth
|Degree of depth in social identity
Gaining temporary attention
|Oppression in these groups can keep a developmental identity from getting off the ground or it could be a stimulus to improve standing in terms of race or gender.
|More threats to social identity:
An academic who publishes a disastrous book; a warrior who runs away; a mother who beats her children
|Populations whose members merely share a common property
|Populations whose members merely share a common property
Public opinion polls
|Members are bound by local subcultures who have a history together of necessary, ongoing and deepening interactions
|Fleeting Encounters in everyday life
|Longstanding engagements with commitments, agreements and conventions
War Research in World War II and Migration of European Social Psychologists
Just as in World War I, World War II catalyzed applied social psychology. They studied attitudes, troop morale and adjustments to combat conditions. Kurt Lewin developed a program to persuade housewives to change their food habits to promote the sale of U.S. savings bonds. Social psychologists were also involved in the study of psychological warfare. Bruno Bettelheim studied the effect of concentration camps on prisoners of war and The Tavistock in Institute in England studied the dynamics of small groups.
Thanks to the barbarity of Hitler, there was a migration of academic refugees from Western Europe including Kohler, Lazerfeld, Lewin, Asch and Leon Festinger. France and Germany lost many psychologists to the war. The result is that after the war Yankee social psychology became the center around which social psychological research was funded for decades. There was considerable funding in Yankeedom for research in small group dynamics by the Office of Naval Research. The behavior of Europeans during World War II became the focus of Hannah Arendt’s study on Eichmann on the trial in Jerusalem. In the 1950s, Asch probed the question of why people conformed. In the 1960s Stanley Milgram set up experiments as to the conditions under which people obey.
Solomon Asch and Reference Groups
The most articulate theoretical descriptions of social dimensions of cognition were offered by Solomon Asch in his text Social Psychology. According to John Greenwood, Asch understood attitudes as being constitutionally social. They arise from mutual dependence on reference groups. For example, the racial antagonism of southerners towards Blacks is not just directed at blacks. These attitudes also function as a cementing tie to their families, neighborhoods, race, jobs, their religion and political party loyalties. For Asch there is no such thing as attitudes taken separately. Asch denies that attitudes can be equated with what people have in common as Allport claimed.
In the original Asch experiment, conformity of individuals was not in response to interpersonal pressure from strangers nor were the indiviuals randomly selected. The extent to which people conform is connected to whether or not they know each other and have a history together. Interestingly, for members of individualist cultures, the difference between strangers and organic groups is not a great as between collectivists in-group and out-group. This results in different cross-cultural outcomes to conformity. The Japanese are more likely to conform if they are in the presence of other Japanese than Americans will in the presence of other Americans. However, the Japanese will be less conforming than Americans in the presence of strangers.
Cold War Impact on Social Psychology
According to Valsiner, the social sciences in Yankeedom throughout the 20th century have been inseparably connected with war preparation, the waging of war as well as trying to overcome the experience of war. After World War II, the US captured control over social science institutions by its power to give grants and publishing rights. This was inseparable from the crusade against communism.
Social psychology in this century has never been free of the distorting effects of wars, both hot and cold. On the whole, Greenwood writes:
the approach was ahistorical, acultural and decontextualized. (211) Socially engaged attitudes were held to represent the psychology of psychopathology of other-directed people or “groupthink“ or nesting grounds for prejudice. (217)
In terms of research, the emphasis was on studying very small chunks of social life that could be quantitatively measured. In addition, research continued to imagine itself to be atheoretical as in the social learning theory of Bandura. In the study of a group’s conformity and or a group’s susceptibility to persuasion, aggregates were used rather than reference groups. For example:
Lewin inspired his colleagues and students to artfully reproduce theoretical variables abstracted from the dynamics of real-life social processes in artfully managed and controlled experiments. The members of his groups were strangers. (205)
In the 60s
“Bystander effect”, discovered by Latané and Darley, of strangers’ response to cries of help were interpersonal, not social. Neither the victims or the helpers were presumed to be members of distinctive social groups. The explanations offered were diffused responsibility and failure to represent the situation as an emergency. (210)
In terms of the population chosen, there was an increasing use of college students – aggregates – as opposed to ongoing reference groups.
Lastly, social psychology from the 50s forward has continued to be driven by individualism. When individualism becomes an ideology raised against collectivism as the counter-ideology, it becomes a form of political propaganda which distorts the development of social psychology. Students such as Aronson and Zimbardo continued the individualist tradition. Even in Europe, Tajfel’s theory of social identity has its roots in Festinger’s theory of social comparison. Tajfel’s theory is an individualization of the social. It proposed a cognitive theory of prejudice as opposed to Sherif’s field studies based on reference groups.
Reference groups in the 60s
Social representation works of the 60’s and 70’s were Secord, Backman and Slavitt’s book, Understanding Social Life as well as the work of Ralph Turner. Newcome and Turner’s Social Psychology: the Study of Human Interaction was a continuation of groups as reference groups. Michael Billig’s rhetorical approach to groups has done much to restore the cultural and temporal dimensions of social phenomenon. Moscovici chose Durkheim as an appropriate ancestor for his theory of representations and would be classified as sociological.
Revolt Against Individualism
Mead’s contention for the social nature of the mind returned in the 1970s along with the influence of European social psychology with its emphasis and the language, interpersonal dialogue and internalization of group process. Concepts such as intersubjectivity, interactional synchrony and empathy replaced Allport’s individuals who had hard boundaries around them. Dialogical theorists insisted that we have to start with the interpersonal relationships or the dyad in order to come to understand the mind of the individual. In her book Paradigms, Thought and Language Ivana Markova argues that most of Western psychology is riddled with dualisms that are the product of Descartes. These include mind-body; mind-emotions; thought-behavior; self and other and rationalism-empiricism. In order to break away from these dualisms, we must renounce Descartes and embrace Hegel.
Hegel was the first thinker to break with the dualism theory of minds and bodies of the Cartesian paradigm. For Markova, the mutual relationship between consciousness and its world evolves from abstract to concrete, from less discriminating to more discriminating structures. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind— is the story of a social psychology of the cognizing mind’s development. They are arguments about the social rather than the individualistic nature of the mind and about the social nature of the acquisition of knowledge. Hegel wants to demonstrate the fundamental misconceptions of the traditional epistemology as well as its contradictory nature.
Markova takes Hegel’s five stages in the development of consciousness in the Phenomenology of Mind:
- sense data
- reason – recognition
and creates a loose connection between these stages and the development of awareness in ontogenetic development. Secondly, in her book Human Awareness, she thickens Mead’s understanding of the development of the self by adding the emotional development of empathy. She uses the work of Selman to develop a five-phase theory of perspective taken from birth to the teenage years. She fleshes out the dialectic between Mead’s I-Me dialogues by providing specific strategies that the I and the Me use.
Criticisms of Dialogical Psychology
There is the lack of connection between dialogical self-research and mainstream psychology. In part this is because in the notion of dialogue has been largely neglected in psychology and other social sciences. Another disadvantage of the theory is that it lacks a research procedure that is sufficiently common to allow for the exchange of research data among investigators. Although different research tools have been developed by dialogical psychologists, none of them are used by a majority of researchers in the field. This creates stumbling blocks for comparing research data. In addition, other researchers find the scientific work done thus far too heavily weighted on language and verbal exchange. While the theory explicitly acknowledges the importance of pre-linguistic gestures and other non-linguistic forms of dialogue, the actual research is typically taking place on the verbal level. Some researchers would like to see more emphasis on the bodily aspects of dialogue.
Social constructionists challenged Yankee individualism of Allport
In the last two decades of the 20th century in psychology, controversies in social psychology have arisen between left wing “social constructionists” and most traditional social psychologists whom social constructionists have labeled empiricists”. These mainstream social psychologists use interpersonal or derived groups. Kenneth Gergen challenged social psychology in at least five areas:
- Empiricist social psychology lacks a sense of historicity.
Social psychology subjects such as socialization, the self, and persuasion techniques are presented in a universal manner as if these processes have not changed over the course of history. Gergen begins by suggesting that the major topics social psychology studies either change over the course of history or perish for lack of interest. So for example, let’s take Goffman’s topic of behavior in public. Historically people behave differently in public depending on how the streets are constructed (if there are streets!); what transportation is available and whether the social class composition is rigid or fluid. Social realists or social reference group theory agrees with this.
- Empiricists picture the social-individual relationship in a mechanical way.
Social existence is understood as a secondary, instrumental interaction, or social life is seen a simple aggregate of individual wills. These social atomists reduce the group to a fleeting, ephemeral aggregate which evaporates when individuals decide to dissolve their social contract. Gergen suggests that the relationship between the social and individual is co-creative and already always the case. Social reference groups theory agrees with socially constructionists on this.
- Empiricists ignore the political power dynamics that go on between stratified groups—class, race and gender—in everyday life.
For example, in social psychology textbooks, intergroup relationships are treated at the end of the textbook. This implies that there are no race or class relationships in the topics of the earlier chapters such as socialization, emotions or the construction of the self.
- Empiricists treat language in a descriptive way and fail to consider the manipulative nature of language.
Allport and other individualist social psychologists treat language as a simple exchange of information between equals. This ignores that people coerce, use force and mass persuasion techniques to get their way. Besides description, there are other functions of language or micro-manipulation techniques (Cialdini, Influence) that Austin points out such as commands, questions, promises, requests and expressives that go unaddressed by empiricists.
- Empiricists fail to consider that social life cannot be captured in laboratories.
Lab experiments are contrived and don’t test complex social processes. According to social constructionists, social psychology does not lend itself to experimentation because of the difficulty in reproducing the meaning of everyday situations in social psychology experiments. Because social studies are more of an in-vivo construction, it cannot be objectively recorded. In order to capture it in a lab the process it is slowed down and simplified. When people know they are in a contrived situation, they do not react the same way they might in a natural setting. Yet if you try to do experiments in natural settings, it is more difficult to control for all the variables which might affect the outcome.
Social Reference Criticisms of Social Constructivism
According to Greenwood, up to a point social constructionism is a justifiable reaction to the individualism and social reductionism of Allport. However:
- Social constructionists overstate the subjective agency of individuals and understate the importance of group loyalties that constrain individuals — family, religion, occupational roles and club memberships.
Greenwood criticizes social constructionists such as Graumann, Danziger and Farr because they lose the concreteness of group loyalties of reference groups by dissolving social life into language and cognition. As we saw earlier, social life is much more specific and tangible than the ethereal linguistic of social relations generally presented by social-constructionists.
- Social constructionists overemphasize the importance of language
What is the relationship between language, society and the individual? Because language is a necessary condition for sociality in humans, social constructionists jump to the conclusion that it is language that creates social structures. Normally we think of our language as a description of the world and a map for getting around in it. Social constructionists understand language exchange not as a collaborative effort to understand the world but an artifact through which we decide what counts as an object. An extreme version of constructionism argues that language is not about the world but a living record of the power struggles between derived social groups—class, race and gender struggles. Social identity is inseparable from the social processes of language to negotiate and manipulate, using rhetoric or propaganda. For Gergen, social dimensions of phenomena such as political stratification and economic exchange are not intrinsic properties and real in themselves independent of language, but functions of our linguistic or cognitive constructs of them.
- Social Constructionists fail to understand the power of intrinsic groups to stabilize social identity
For social constructionists social identities are constructed out of socially negotiated forms of discourse. There is nothing more to identity than social discourse. They deny the intrinsically social nature of identity or that social emotions form out of loyalty to socially intrinsic groups. As most feminists recognize, changes in vocabulary, by itself, will not ensure the creation of alternative occupations, membership in clubs or higher status positions in religious groups. Greenwood points out that the Hungarian language is entirely non-sexist. One can only refer to a third party by their non-gender. Despite this, Hungary is not known for the having a large number of women in the paid work-force. The social identity of a scientist doesn’t come into being and pass away depending on how people talk to him and how he talks to them in the course of a single day. The social identity of a scientist involves actions such as publication in internationally refereed journals, by peer replication of significant results and the attainment of prestigious positions.
- Social constructionists fail to understand the power of intrinsic groups (reference group) to understand the social nature of emotions
Constructionists say theoretical discourse “about” emotions does not describe independent psychological states but is rather employed to serve social performing functions such as warning, excusing or endorsing. For example, claiming to be depressed is employed to excuse one’s behavior or elicit sympathy rather than to describe one’s psychological state. Talk about mental talk is largely performative. Language does not map an independent reality. Social constructions argue that emotions come from the labeling process involved in language use.
Social constructionists assume nothing more than that reified social labels exist which are socially constructed. This ignores the fact that emotions are socially constituted for purposes of connected to the conventions of long-standing social groups. For example, for a man to be able to admit they are hurt or sad rather than angry in an Anger Management class may be transformative for the man as an individual in opening up a greater range of emotions. The same is true of women who can learn to say they are angry instead of being “upset”. However, both men and women have to face their reference groups who may not like men who express hurt or humiliation or women who express anger. Those reference group loyalties and expectations are not going to dissolve just because these individual men and women have gone to therapy.
The social constitution of emotions from reference groups
Beneath the froth: unconscious grounding of socially constituted emotions
The socially constituted nature of emotions does not include all emotions. Emotions such as physiological pain or sensations like itching or hunger are not discussed. The non-social emotions are also excluded like rage or fear that we share with non-social, non-linguistic animals.
Socially constituted emotions are grounded by three deeper levels. First, different cultures take pride in different things such as home-building, virginity, academic achievements or birds they have bred. Second are the social conventions and agreements about how to behave in these settings. What is expected and how to play one’s role in a reference group within a culture. Thirdly, within this reference group we are motivated to be included, hold prestige, be honored and respected, have a good reputation, achieve power or have responsibilities. These commitments have been identified in all ages and cultures. On the other hand, we would prefer not to be excluded, degraded, nor appear offensive to others. To summarize, social emotions are grounded in what an entire culture finds a worthy activity; the commitments in our reference group shares within the culture and the social motivations that follow from them. None of this necessarily involves social labeling of emotions that social constructions make so much of.
Long standing human emotions like shame, remorse, pride, envy, jealously, anger, guilt and disappointment are socially constituted. Shame does not occur in us spontaneously and independently of imagined evaluation by our reference groups. Shame has to be taught. Parents would wait a lifetime for purely spontaneous expressions of shame in their children. We have to learn to represent and come to treat certain classes of actions or failure to act as degrading and humiliating and reflecting negatively on our identity. Initially epileptic seizures are reacted to by the epileptic with distress and fear. Only later is the epileptic taught to label their arousal as shame, pride or disappointment.
The depth of our social identities – what events trigger in us such as pride, shame or indifference – are connected to the presence of our loyalties to constituted groups and the social virtues we aspire to within them. Cheating on an exam will inspire more disgust in a teacher than would theft upset a cashier at a market. Failure to support a comrade in the military means more to a soldier than to a lawyer who fails to support another lawyer. Such characteristically human emotions and motives do not simply occur in atomistic isolation.
- Social constructivists enmesh the relationship between individualism and empirical research methods
Social constructionists dismiss all experimental methods as inherently individualist. Constructionists and phenomenologists argue that the experimental approach is narrowly restricted because cognitive structures used to develop the research design are already products of society and a specific historical trajectory—individualistic.
Samuelson explains why social psychologists settled on experimental method because of pressure to publish or perish which encouraged swift, piecemeal unread and unreadable publications loaded on method but with little meaning. (227) Actual social groups were gradually replaced by hypothetical groups that had a purely statistical reality. (224)
Greenwood is skeptical that by itself, commitment to more sophisticated statistical techniques was responsible for the abandonment of a more sociological social psychology. The reason was because its neglect is at least as old as the interwar years. It is true that the development of American social psychology was affected by grant funding agencies such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, Sage and the Office of Naval Research. The Ford and Sage foundations were unlikely to fund research that would undermine psychological foundations of autonomy and political liberal individualism. It is also true that social psychologists were steered by these agencies in a direction of small groups rather than large groups and their power dynamics. However, Greenwood says, these factors seem insufficient to explain the specific neglect of the reference group. Social and political factors may explain why American social psychology focused on certain topics at the expense of others (why aggression became a topic) but not at the neglect of the social dimensions of the topics studied. (Why some classes, religions, region of the United States are more aggressive than others).
As Greenwood argues:
the problem was not that experimental method precluded studying the social dimensions of human psychology, but because of the impoverished conception of social groups that came to inform experimental programs of American social psychology. (160)
All experiments of science are not, in their nature, individualist. As mentioned earlier, the experimental methods of social psychologists such as Sherif, Asch and Milgram all captured some very deep truths about our sociality using experimental methods that were far from contrived. Asch traced social group orientation to the role they played by reference groups. Secondly, it is important to understand why there aren’t more studies using reference groups as a base for experiments, not dispensing with experiments per se.
Greenwood insists that the possibility of experimental social psychology should be directed at the exploration of socially engaged psychological states based on reference groups. It is legitimate and achievable. Individuals do not have to be reduced to individual psychological states in order to be analyzed using research methods. One of the virtues of experimental role-playing is its potential ability to reproduce the social demands of everyday life rather than the peculiar demands of ambiguous laboratory experiments employing deception. The social dimensions of human psychology could be studied experimentally as long as the subjects in experimental groups were pre-selected members of reference social groups.
- Social constructionists have misunderstood the place of pragmatism in American social psychology
The original pragmatists Peirce, James, Dewey and Mead were all pro-science and used the experimental method. With the possible exception of William James, all would have criticized Allport and the empiricists as being individualistic (Mead, Dewey) and nominalist (Peirce). Yet none of them would have criticized the very idea of conducting experiments. In social psychology both Sherif and William Thomas were committed pragmatists and Sherif work on intergroup relationship was experimental.
When social constructivists and phenomenologists claim the mantle of pragmaticism as their own, they are taking into the bargain a more idealist version of pragmaticism of Richard Rorty.
- Social Constructionists overly politicize the field of social psychology in order to understand the predominance of individualist social psychology
Lastly, there is no necessary relationship between the socio-political orientation of the scientists and whether or not they are for or against the experimental method. For example, Sherif and Asch were both socialists yet both were committed to the scientific method. The idea of linking science to capitalism and proposing that only liberals portray science in a favorable light as a problem is a product of the New Left in the 60s, the Frankfurt School and the legacy of Western Marxism which had severed its hopes for a place of science in its vision of the future.
Overview of the History of Yankee Social Psychology
Starting with continental Europe in the middle of the 19th century, social psychology was concerned with how society was imported into the mind of the individual to create an internalized social life. These were the concerns of Adam Smith and David Hume. In Germany Herder (with language) and Herbert (with Folk psychology) continued the emphasis in cross-cultural comparisons of social life. Espinas and Darwin drew references between humans and other animals. Darwin compared the gestures and emotional life of humans and chimps. Espinas compared the social life of humans to the social life of insects. What is provocative is that for the first 60 years of psychology (1850-1900) social psychology was comparative psychology (with other animals), cultural and dominated by Europe. There was no individualism in social psychology nor was it prevalent in the United States.
A transition figure beginning in the 1880s was Wilhelm Wundt who wanted to study the psychology of individuals in laboratories while at the same time developing his own version of cross-cultural psychology. Individualism came out in its brashest form in the social Darwinism of Spencer in England and Sumner in the United States. The avalanche towards individualist social psychology began the pragmatist work of William James and erupted into full scale ideologies in the form of Watson’s behaviorism. Two different forms of individualist psychology began to develop on separate sides of the Atlantic just before the outbreak of war:
- Behaviorism in the US (perspective of the observer)
- Gestalt perception theory in Germany (perspective of the actor)
Both forms of psychology agreed that the starting point of social psychology ought to be within the individual. The differences were that behaviorism examined conduct and gestalt probed human perception. Between the wars Floyd Alport’s behaviorism insisted that there was nothing in social life that could not be explained by individual psychology. This included public opinion and rumors.
It is tempting imagine that this individualist version of social psychology went unopposed in this time period, but that is not the case. Alongside the behaviorism and social atomism of Floyd Allport and the individualist symbolic interaction of Blumer, there was a tendency toward a continuation of a sociological social psychology which inherited and developed the ideas of Adam Smith and David Hume. The work of Baldwin, Cooley, Thomas and Mead kept the sociological social psychology alive in the United States. At the same time, in Russia the work of Vygotsky built upon and expanded the work of Mead. Vygotsky and his comrades Luria and Leontiev developed the first explicitly socialist psychology which included a continuation of comparative psychology, added a historical dimension to social psychology, explained the social origin of higher mental functions and developed a cooperative theory of learning (through the zone of proximal development).
During the 1920s and 1930s individualist social psychology continued in the field of mass behavior in the form of Walter Lippman’s pessimistic book, Public Opinion. Sociological social psychology responded with Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism, and Bettelheim’s writings on the psychology of concentration camp victims. Undeterred by the horrors of war in Europe, behaviorist social psychology continued blithely along churning out public opinion polls, including attitudes about everything but power politics and political economy.
During World War II many European social psychologists fled Europe and contributed some of the best research on group dynamics. This included Asch’s experiment on conformity, and Sherif’s experiments on intergroup conflict. This was followed in the 60s by Moscovici’s study on the power of minorities to influence majorities and Milgram’s great experiment on obedience.
By the 1960s radical behaviorism went into decline. Goffman’s work on stigma, life in mental institutions, focused groups and behavior in public added a Durkheimian slant to a wide variety of social life. Up until the 1960s the field of crowd psychology was dominated by the legacy of the right wing ideas of Le Bon and called by later theorists “mass hysteria theory”. New crowd theorists developed two more moderate competing theories – “emergent norm theory” and “structural functionalist theory”. By the early 1970s more radical left-wing theories of crowds developed largely from the experience of crowds during the social movement of the 60s. My discussion of crowd psychology can be found in my article Crowds, Masses and Movements: Right-Wing and Left-Wing Macro Social Psychology.
In the 80s and 90s behaviorist individualist empiricism was attacked in its description of how people were socialized by two new forms. One that emerged out of Europe was the dialogical self of Hermans and Markova. The second one from the US is in Kenneth Gergen’s social constructionism. Meanwhile in the late 1990s John Greenwood sought to revive the reference group theory of Asch and Sherif. From this position he criticized both dialogical psychology and social constructionism. Lastly, individualist social psychology has become more cognitive rather than behavioral. The work of Festinger on cognitive dissonance theory was carried on by Aronson and Zimbardo.