- 1 Introduction
- 1.1 What is social psychology?
- 1.2 Unpacking this description of social psychology
- 1.3 Revised definition of social psychology
Social psychology is a relatively new discipline in the study of psychology. Its goal is to understand humans in their social context. Described as being interdisciplinary, social psychology sits on a continuum between psychology (individual) and sociology (group). Accordingly, social psychology explores a number of relationships: person-to-person, group to person, person to group, and group to group (James Neill, Lecture 1). It is apparent that this field of psychology is indeed broad and in some areas controversial.
The following, adapted from Allport (1935,1985), provides a useful description of social psychology as:
- “..the scientific study of how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others”
Links to further reading:
A scientific study
One of the many controversies in social psychology is the over-reliance on experimental methods. Another is the dearth of qualitative research methods (see Lecture 1). Our textbook only refers to the use of experimental and non-experimental research methods in social psychology, and their discussion of non-experimental research is limited to using correlation. As in most other psychology texts and courses, no mention is made of qualitative methods and how these may further inform or contribute to our understanding of human beings, particularly as social and cultural beings.
Baumeister and Bushman (2008) also provide a cursory explanation of ‘reliance on student samples’ and ‘cultural relativity’ in social psychology research (p.23). I think these issues are important, as they reflect the Western domination of theory and research that is often just accepted or ignored in psychology. More on this later as it is the subject of my essay.
Thoughts, feelings & behaviours
Social psychology seeks to understand the effect of other people on these human attributes. The textbook conveniently refers to people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours as the ABC Triad (p.8):
- Affect (feelings or emotions): Feelings about the self, others or issues e.g. self-esteem, prejudice & attitudes
- Behaviours: What people do e.g. joining groups, helping or hurting others, liking or loving others.
- Cognitions (thoughts): What people think about themselves, others and the social world e.g self-concept, stereotypes, ‘groupthink’.
The actual, imagined, or implied presence of others
I like this phrase. It could describe any social context and it seems to capture all possible forms of social influence on a person. Most saliently, it tells us that others do not have to be present to influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Examples of the imagined or implied presence of others include: watching TV, following a moral code, ruminating about a social encounter or even writing an e-portfolio!
It will be interesting to see how these components of social psychology are addressed in the text (and other readings), lectures, tutorials, and discussions over the semester.
The textbook moves away from the nature/nurture debate, commonly found in undergraduate psychology texts, to focus on the influences of culture and nature on social psychology.
Nature is defined in the textbook as: “ the physical world around us, including its laws and processes” (p.32). Based on the text’s evolutionary approach, the underlying premise is that nature (through processes of evolution, natural selection, reproduction and ultimately survival) has endowed human beings with a sophisticated brain that enabled us to develop and to engage in culture. Embedded in this, is the notion that humans possess a psyche – a construct beyond the mind that embodies human psychological processes - developed through the interaction of nature and culture (Lecture 2). Thus, culture (and I assume our sophisticated brain/psyche) can be used to distinguish humans from other animals.
Comparing the characteristics of the social and the cultural animal (pp.39-40) emphasises that animals are social but not necessarily cultural, and culture is uniquely human (Lecture 2). These characteristics are summarised in the following table (Adapted from the textbook and lecture notes):
Table 1: Characteristics of Social & Cultural Animals
|Social Animals||Cultural Animals|
Seek connections with others
Work, live, play together
Learn from one another
Resolve conflict with agression
Evolved psyche to develop & engage in culture
Language ( > communication)
*share & store information
*develop logic, reasoning, inference
*deliberate learning & teaching
Division of labour (cultural job specialisation)
Multiple ways to resolve conflict
So, what is culture? Defining culture seems to depend on the context or one’s worldview. In the context of social psychology (and the textbook p.36) culture:
- Is an information-based system (storehouse of knowledge, information and cultural practice)
- Is a shared understanding (knowing or believing?) and praxis (ways of doing?)
- Allows groups of people to live together in an organised fashion (It also very distinctly sets groups of people apart)
- Allows people to satisfy their biological and perhaps other needs (But does this always hold true?)
I find the concept of culture particularly interesting, and most relevant to social psychology. As suggested before, I think cultural influence is often overlooked in psychology - maybe I'm wrong. Nevertheless, I hope to learn a lot more about culture through this subject.
Also see Further Reading
Social psychology explores human (individual and group) attitudes, behaviours and cognitions within a social context (actual, implied or imagined), which is determined by the influences of nature and culture.