social psychology

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social psychology

[′sō·shəl sī′käl·ə·jē]
The study of the manner in which the attitudes, personality, and motivations of the individual influence, and are influenced by, the structure, dynamics, and behavior of the social group with which the individual interacts.

social psychology

a sub-field of both PSYCHOLOGY and sociology, which, according to ALLPORT, is concerned with the ways in which an individual's ‘thought, feeling, and behaviour’ are affected by the existence of others, e.g. by social interactions, by groups, relationships, etc. The focus on the individual within mainstream social psychology has been challenged especially by CRITICAL SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY. Social psychology involves a variety of approaches, partly reflecting its multidisciplinary location. A further complication is that much work within sociology that might be labelled 'social psychology’ (e.g. SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM) is not always labelled as such; rather it is often referred to as ‘microsociology’. One of the first writers to use the term social psychology was W. McDougall who published Introduction to Social Psychology in 1908. Since the 1920s, social psychology has developed into a more ‘fully fledged’ field of study, also possessing wide-ranging applications, especially in the areas of education, social policy, work and mental health.

Despite its broad spectrum of approaches, social psychology can be seen as having a central interest in bridging between individual and social theories of human behaviour. Following Armistead (1974), two main traditions can be identified:

  1. psychological social psychology characterized by its connections with general psychology, including an emphasis on experimentation; and
  2. sociological social psychology influenced by the work of symbolic interactionists, laying stress on the social processes involved in the development of SELF-identity and on the role of LANGUAGE, and employing qualitative research methods, such as PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION.

An indication of the kinds of topics included as part of the subject matter of social psychology can be had by noting the main topics covered in Roger Brown's popular text Social Psychology (1965): SOCIALIZATION, including the acquisition of language; ROLES and STEREOTYPES; ACHIEVEMENT MOTIVATION; the AUTHORITARIAN PERSONALITY; ATTITUDES and attitude change; GROUP DYNAMICS; COLLECTIVE BEHAVIOUR. Remarkably the list of topics has changed relatively little since. Some commentators (e.g. Murphy, John and Brown, 1984), have suggested that social psychology faced a ‘crisis’in the late 1960s and 70s, centred on the question of whether or not it should be a 'socially relevant’ subject aimed at solving social problems. Influenced by the wider sociopolitical climate of the 1960s and 70s, radical social psychologists have argued for the necessity of uniting the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ within the sub-field (again see CRITICAL SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY). Writers such as Baker-Miller (1976) have also challenged what they see as the ‘gender-blind’ nature of much mainstream social psychology. However there continue to be many who argue that social psychology should have as its main aim the development of theory and knowledge about the individual in society. See also MORENO, SCALING, CONFORMITY, COGNITIVE DISSONANCE, PREJUDICE.

Social Psychology


the scientific discipline that studies psychological traits of social groups and the regularities of human behavior as determined by people’s membership in these groups.

For a long time, the issues raised by social psychology were studied within the context of various philosophical doctrines. The sources of many contemporary sociopsychological problems may be traced back to concepts developed by Plato and Aristotle. Elements of social psychology were formed within the framework of specific scientific disciplines, mainly psychology and sociology, but also anthropology, ethnography, criminology, and linguistics. The first attempts to establish independent sociopsychological concepts were made in the late 19th century. During this period, the German philosophers M. Lazarus, H. Steinthal, and W. Wundt developed the concept of ethnic psychology, the lawyer S. Sighele and the French sociologist G. Le Bon the concept of crowd behavior, and the American psychologist W. MacDougall the theory of the instincts of social behavior. Social psychology is considered to have come into existence in 1908 with the simultaneous publication of works by MacDougall and the American sociologist E. Ross; these works included the term “social psychology” in their titles.

Non-Marxist social psychology was further developed by 20th-century American social psychology, which was given a new social mandate after World War I to develop methods for controlling sociopsychological phenomena in industry, the army, and the mass media. A program was established for structuring social psychology as an experimental scientific discipline (F. Allport, USA; W. Moede, Germany), which found its greatest practical applications in the USA.

American social psychology has developed within the frame-work of the experimental tradition and has been oriented toward the solution of applied problems. It has made considerable achievements in the study of many specific phenomena, including the structure and dynamics of small groups, interpersonal relationships, and the means and mechanisms of communication. The methods used in studying these phenomena have been effective, resulting in the accumulation of reliable primary data. However, American social psychology abandoned the European tradition of analyzing the psychology of large groups (nations, masses), gave absolute preponderance to laboratory experiments, and placed too much emphasis on small groups. As a result, research in American social psychology was modeled after individual psychology, whose principles and methods were automatically applied to social psychology. American psychology has now come under increasing criticism in the West from many European authors, including S. Moscovici and H. Tajfel, as well as by some American authors, for underestimating theoretical, including sociophilosophical, issues and disregarding present-day social problems.

The principal initial premises of Marxist social psychology were expressed in the classics of Marxism-Leninism. They include a materialist understanding of history and the relationship between individual and social consciousness and a view of personality as an aggregate of social relationships. In the 1920’s the materialist restructuring of social psychology was keenly debated in the USSR within the framework of general discussions on the future of the psychological sciences. The practical development of sociopsychological research based on Marxist methodology was initiated in the late 1950’s. Soviet social psychology is based both on the principles of Marxist sociology and materialist psychology (the principle of the unity of consciousness and action). The Marxist tradition in social psychology is also being developed in other socialist countries. Of great importance are the controversies over such trends as neobehaviorism, psychoanalysis, cognitivism, and interactionism.

Contemporary social psychology mainly deals with general issues in the theory, methodology, and history of social psychology, the laws governing social interactions (in particular, the connection between social relations and interpersonal relations), and the characteristics of large social groups (nations, classes). Studies are also made of small groups, including their structure, conditions of their formation, and their influence on personality, leadership, and group decisions. Personality studies include studies of socialization and attitudes. The field of applied studies is presently concerned with the sociopsychological problems of management, the mass media, and antisocial behavior. Sociopsychological issues arise in the development of many contiguous scientific disciplines, including linguistics, criminology, demography, and ethnography.

From a Marxist perspective, the main goal of social psychology is not the elaboration of methods for manipulating personality, as is the case, for example, with the “behavioral technology” of B. F. Skinner (USA). The main goal is the improvement of the system of managing social processes. From this point of view it is important to define the degree to which social psychology may contribute to the solution of specific problems facing society, to develop adequate methods and techniques and cease viewing laboratory experiments as the only adequate method of research, and to apply methods permitting the analysis of the laws of human behavior in real social groups and under the real conditions of human activity. In addition to experiments, social psychology employs sociologic methods, including surveys, observations, and tests.


Problemy obshchestvennoipsikhologii. Moscow, 1965.
Kuz’min, E. S. Osnovy sotsial’noi psikhologii. [Leningrad] 1967.
Shibutani, T. Sotsial’naia psikhologiia. Moscow, 1969. (Translated from English.)
Parygin, B. D. Osnovy sotsial’no-psikhologicheskoi teorii. Moscow, 1971.
Petrovskii, A. V. “Na putiakh razvitiia sotsial’noi psikhologii v SSSR.” Voprosy psikhologii, 1971, no. 6.
Hiebsch, H. and M. Vorwerg. Vvedenie v marksistskuiu sotsial’nuiu psikhologiiu. Moscow, 1972. (Translated from German.)
Andreeva, G. M. “Metodologicheskie problemy sovremennogo razvitiia amerikanskoi sotsial’noi psikhologii.” Voprosy psikhologii, 1974, no. 2.
Sotsial’naia psikhologiia. Moscow, 1975.
The Handbook of Social Psychology, 2nd ed., vols. 1-2, 4-5. Reading, Mass., 1968.
McDavid, J., and H. Harari. Social Psychology: Individuals, Groups, Societies. New York, 1968.
Sherif, M., and C. Sherif. Social Psychology. New York, 1969.
The Context of Social Psychology: A Critical Assessment. Edited by J. Israel and H. Tajfel. London-New York, 1972.


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