The Present Status of Social Psychology

Floyd Henry Allport
School of Citizenship and Public Affairs
Syracuse University

IN VIEW of the difficulty of defining the science of general psychology, it would seem rash to attempt the definition of the newer and less clearly delimited branch known as "social psychology". Just as modern psychologists, through the behavior movement, combine strictly psychological data with physiological, in like manner social psychologists seem at present to straddle the line between psychology and the social sciences, having an especially firm foothold in sociology and ethnology. There is thus room for the play of "vested scientific interests" in exploiting this new field; and misunderstandings may arise among sincere students approaching the subject from the background of their special disciplines.[1] The disunity is increased by the fact that psychology and sociology do not belong by common consent even to the same "family" of sciences; the former being considered a "natural" science, and the latter, through a distinction vital to some writers, designated as a "social" science. This difference leads to basic disagreements as to the nature or the elements or units of social psychology, the methods of measurement, the principles of explanation, and the laws eventually derived.

We do not imply that such disagreement is undesirable. On the contrary, it is highly stimulating. Neither is it wise to attempt a meticulous definition of any science, except for purposes of cooperation and division of labor among different investigators. In such definitions, moreover, it is the inclusive, rather than the logical and narrow aspect, which should be stressed. In the writing of textbooks and treatises, however, most writers (including the present: one) are inclined to start from a rather rigid definition of their own, and to exclude differing viewpoints which for the moment might be confusing to the student. Hence the need arises for in occasional bird's-eye view from which we may try to see the advances made along different lines of attack and bring them into some intelligible relationship. A brief outline of the current movements to which the name "social psychology" might be given

(373) will be here attempted. We shall not present any formal definition of the science from these standpoints, but merely characterize the type of approach.

1. The "Social Forces" School. The first approach, though mainly of historic interest, is still followed by certain sociologists. This is the view that all social phenomena can be regarded as manifestations of some homogeneous force or forces. The imitation theory, developed principally by Tarde [2] and Ross, [3] is an illustration which is too well known to require discussion. A number of writers have taken certain alleged "instincts" as forces universally operative in society; for example, fear, hate, gregariousness, suggestibility, and parental love. We are not here referring to the instinct school of social psychologists who trace the basis of social facts in the specific instinctive behavior of individuals. We mean rattler those sociologists who abstract the categories of instinct from specific individuals and consider them upon the generalized plane of a "social force".

2. Social Mind Theories. Exponents of a second viewpoint maintain that mental phenomena must be studied in their social context or organization. The facts of social life cannot be sufficiently formulated by reference to separate individuals, but require the hypothesis of some hind of superindividual, psycho-logical structure. Certain theories of nationality belong to this type. The range of these theories in respect to the nature of the social mind which they postulate is great, extending from organismic and "cell-consciousness" theories, such as those of Spencer[4] and Espinas [5] respectively, through neurological and pathological analogies, illustrated by the writings of Munsterberg [6] and Rivers, [7] to the "mental structure" theories of the group mind, represented by McDougall.[8] The postulated collective mind also differs widely in scale of worth according to different writers. LeBon's [9] view is that of a "mob mind", of a low order, unorganized, and made up of impulses and emotions. McDougall's notion, at the other extreme, is that of the superior mental organization resulting from the relationships within stabilized groups such as nations. Some writers belonging to this group deny the existence of an actual

(374) overindividual mind separate from the minds of the individuals; but they maintain that the larger view of mental organization is necessary in order to understand the social occurrences which we can observe only as the behavior of individuals. The minds of individuals are to be understood only as exhibiting in some degree the mind of the group.

3. The Social Laws Approach. Without accepting the reality of a collective mind, in any sense, it is still possible to study social phenomena from the standpoint of purely social structures and changes. Although the group is not endowed with a mind, it is nevertheless real. This is the viewpoint which is perhaps most characteristic of sociologists. Examples of writers of this class are Ellwood [10] and B. Warren Brown. [11] Their contribution has been the elaboration of descriptive laws of the dynamics of society. We may mention Brown's [11] "laws of social groups", such for example as those dealing with the relation between the structure, homogeneity, and "dynamic' of groups. Similar instances are Znaniecki's [12] laws of "stabilization", "mobilization", "Inhibition", and the like, through which the movement or stabilizing of society are described as following inevitably certain psychological conditions, such is shifts of values in relation to the existing order. The individual and social aspects, however, are not clearly separated in Znaniecki's formulations. Kroeber's [13] theory of the super-organic as the field for social psychology is based upon the possibility of discovering laws lying wholly upon the social plane.

4. The Cultural Approach (Social Products and Social Structures). Impetus has recently been given to social science by the work of the cultural anthropologists. Here, again, the point of view is abstract; that is, culture products are considered not so much in relation to human behavior as themselves constituting the field of psychological and social investigation. Existing culture is also described as exerting a causal effect upon thought and action of individuals. This view is similar to the "social laws approach” except that instead of the group itself there is substituted the product of group activity, or culture. Ogburn [14] has shown that culture may be regarded as a detached phenomenon, progressing by laws of its own (laws, to be sure, of a descriptive

(375) rather than an explanatory type), and interacting in significant ways with human nature. Judd [15] describes the basic elements of our culture pattern, such as the number system, language, time measurement, and measures of precision, under the title of “institutions". His recent work expresses the need of studying these basic patterns as a necessary supplement to laboratory psychology ; for without them the traditional individual psychology is quite inadequate for an understanding of modern man. Among a number of writers in the same vein, we may mention Bentley [16] who calls attention to the "precipitates of organization' (including both material and non-material aspects of culture) as a separate category of reality for scientific study.

5. Innate Individual Causation (the Individual as the Cause of Society). This group of scholars approaches the problem from the standpoint of the native endowment of human individuals. Leaving the sociological and anthropological viewpoints, we here descend to the strictly psychological, and even biological, level. One here ignores the part played by the accumulation of culture just as one ignores the "laws" of the sociologist. In human instincts and emotions untouched by society are to be found the sources of all social organization and change. As is well known, the outstanding exponent of this approach is McDougall. [17] He has had numerous followers among the social scientists, for example, Tead,[18] Veblen,[19] Groves,[20] and Eldridge,[21] as well as certain sociologists who have since changed their views. This approach is at the pole opposite from the cultural and the social laws' points of view.

6. Socialization Theories (Society as the Cause of the Individual). With the sixth group of theories we reverse the view just preceding and return to the fold of the anthropologist and sociologist. By carrying the cultural approach to its logical conclusion, we come to the view that the individual is not so much the cause as the effect of the social order in which he lives. Champions of this thesis have made sharp attacks upon the instinct theory. They have maintained that native reactions are almost never to be seen in the adult individual, his conduct being determined by the

(376) social objects, stimulations from social behavior, and the traditions of the culture in which he lives. Bernard [22] has made a comprehensive attack upon the instinct theory, while Dewey [23] has stressed the role of social factors in the formation of habit systems in individuals. Such interpretations closely ally their exponents with the behavior psychologists; for the influence of traditions and the culture pattern upon the individual can be conceived only through the process of education (that is, habit formation in the younger generations). Although the importance of the societal pattern is definitely established by showing how, completely it absorbs, metaphorically the life of the individual, yet from the standpoint of complete explanation this view must fall back upon the psychology of individual learning. Other exponents of the socialization theory are Baldwin,[24] Mead,[25] and Cooley.[26] An extremist in cultural causation is Wilson D. Wallis.[27] Both he and Kantor [28] would insist that physiological processes fail to explain the acquisition of culture. The cause of an individual's acquiring a language lies, for example, not so much in his neuromuscular speech mechanism as in the particular pattern of sounds comprising the language. Otherwise how can we account for the fact that one person acquires English, and another Hebrew, or Chinese?

7. The Behavior Approach (the Broader View of Individual Causation). Swinging back, finally, to the more strictly psychological approach, we may describe briefly the movement which represents a systematic development of the behavioristic point of view in the social field. This viewpoint, like that of "innate individual causation", regards the study of the individual as the data proper to social psychology. The survey of factors in individual behavior is, however, distinctly broader than the field of native human tendencies. Probably most behaviorists accept the modern criticism of instincts and subscribe, with the cultural sociologists and anthropologists, to the large importance of the social environ-

(377) -ment. Instead, however, of attributing causation to the social environment by itself, they work out the details of socialization or aculturation in terms of the universal acquisition of habits, that is, the habits common to the entire race or group. Since all habit formation rests in part upon the original instinctive and emotional responses of human beings (though such responses are far simpler than the instinct theorists maintain), the behavioristic approach may be said to include the viewpoint of individual causation referred to above as number 5. This school, therefore, makes possible a coordination of the two preceding viewpoints, sacrificing, of course, the extreme aspects of each.

Two main subdivisions of the broader behavioristic approach may be recognized, which represent supplementary fields of data rather than diverging standpoints. The first is perhaps best illustrated by Giddings" [29] theory of "pluralistic behavior" (that, is, the similarities of behavior among individuals in social aggregates). One may include here either or both the two following types of similarities: (1) the original likenesses, due for example, to being members of the same species or to common selective action of physical environment upon resident and immigrant population, traits which might be assumed universally to exist in the given region before social contacts of any kind have produced effects upon the individuals; or (2) derived similarities, perhaps based upon those just mentioned, but developed mainly through the responses of the individuals to one another.[30]

While in either case it is simply the fact of uniformity of response in a given area which interests us, if we consider the origin of the latter type of similarity, we are led directly to the second subdivision of the behavior approach. This subdivision deals with the stimulation of one individual by another and the response of the individual to such stimulation. . It has to do also, not with uniformities, but with differences, and especially-with those differences of behavior which may be said to he complementary in a given social situation. An example of complementary behavior would be the response of a child to a command of a parent, or the response of a parent to the request of a child.

Though not. so clearly separable in practice as in theory, these two subdivisions of the behavior approach include between them

(378) a possible orientation of the entire field of social science. The first classification includes some writers who are in strong sympathy with the cultural viewpoint, since cultures may be psychologically defined as patterns of like behavior. The group in question are interested, however, in the pattern as behavior rather than as abstract culture. After Giddings, perhaps the clearest of theories belonging to this school are the universal "institutionalized reactions" of Kantor,[31] and the "coentropes" of Smith and Guthrie.[32] Attempts at classification and measurement of like behavior in actual aggregates have been made by Rice,[33] Willey,[34] Allport and Hartman.[35] The second interest of the behavioristic group, namely, that of social stimulation and the response of one individual to another, is illustrated by Allport's [36] definition of "social behavior". It comprises the study not only of behavior in face-to-face relationships, e.g., the family and other "primary" groups, but also the response to contributory stimulation received by the individual in the crowd or co-working group. Some other writers who have formulated the problems of social psychology in this way are Hunter, [37] Gault,[38] Smith and Guthrie,[32] Williams [39] (bordering somewhat upon the group approach) and to some extent Bogardus,[40] and Dunlap.[41] Miss Follett's [42] contributions also arise from the observed effects of inter-individual behavior, though her approach is more telic than analytic, and her results are cast in a somewhat philosophical mode. From one standpoint Bernard's [43] new work may be classified with this group since he is mainly interested in the formation of the individual's personality through "social pressures or stimulus patterns". His treatment, in certain respects, however, allies him with the socialization

(379) school (number 6 above) rather than with the behavior psychologists. This qualification refers especially to his tendency to emphasize the social pattern of the stimulus as a cause rather that the actual behavior process of stimulation and response between specific individuals.

This outline of seven major viewpoints in social psychology is not comprehensive. It will serve merely to indicate the diversity of viewpoints from which the phenomena may be conceived. In the face of such diversity, one should not attempt a formulation of social psychology with any claim to universal acceptance. 'Flip writer believes, however, that futile controversies may lie avoided by recognizing that, after all, these various approaches really deal with the same natural phenomena. Whether we call such phenomena group relationships, cultures, or pluralistic; and interacting behavior, we are really talking about the same thing as well from different points of view. While working in one of the separate fields each investigator has his own terminology for real facts which another student would also see but would interpret differently. The mutual recognition of such a common denominator may help to avoid misunderstanding. It will also render the exponents of the several approaches more conscious of the limitations of their respective methods, thereby paving the way for cooperative investigation.

We might illustrate this common basis by reference to some actual social phenomenon, for example, a war. It is probable drat the exponents of all views above described will agree as to what a war is; the differences will lie in interpretation of the origin, causes, and significance of the phenomenon. In such interpretation each of the approaches gives, by itself, a coherent and largely tenable formulation of the facts. Each also presents certain unique truths differing, of course, in practical applicability, but all contributing to our understanding of the total, situation. let us review briefly some of the possibilities of each view.

(1) The older social forces idea, while it does not carry us into details of causation, is useful for an initial, rough formulation of the problem. It calls attention to the figurative sweep of warlike impulses through the nation, a phenomenon to be studied more closely through the other approaches.

(2) The group mind conception has a similar value. It does not present a final analysis, but serves as a method for calling attention to a vital phase of war as a social situation. It is important to note that there exists, at least in the individual's con-

(380) -sciousness, the experienced reality o f the nation. Professor Pillsbury ascribes to the nation reality of a contingent and mental sort; that is the nation is real in the sense that an ideal in the mind of an individual is real. And this very ideal of the nation is, in terms of the individual's experience, a reality to be upheld and defended by force of arms and to the point of extreme self-sacrifice. One must understand the notion held by the German people of their state and their national kultur, or one will miss an important part of the picture. Nationalism and public opinion cannot be discussed without reference at least to the pluralistic hypothesis of the social mind.

(3) The third viewpoint, comprising the social laws and group structures of the sociologists, is also a consistent and (especially if combined with the behavioristic approach) illuminating contribution. The problem o[ war may be profitably investigated as a matter of increase or shifting of population, economic competition between groups, resistance of groups to subordination, or struggles for group sovereignty. Such formulations do not tell the whole story, but they outline a field of mass data without which the exponent of individual behavior would be at a complete loss in localizing or weighing the relative value of his various explanatory hypotheses.

(4) The fourth, or cultural, approach, is equally significant. The hearing of scientific inventions upon the development of efficiency in warfare is universally acknowledged. The existence of a large armament and military establishment is said to be in itself one of the formidable causes of war. The rapid development of the destructive material culture of warfare is one of the most imperative of reasons for attempts to abolish war as a method of settling conflicts. Not only the objective phases of the culture (armaments), but also the popular acceptance of war as a hind of institution, the use of military organization, tactics, strategy, and international rules,-these are all important aspects of the causation of war. Disarmament conferences attack the material aspects of the problem; while international treaties, courts of international arbitration, the World Court idea, and the League of Nations seek to establish new forms of culture relevant to behavior upon group-wide provocations for hostility.

(5) Viewing the problem from the standpoint of innate individual causation, war may be treated as dependent upon crude innate responses, such as (a) the struggle reaction (so-called "instinct of pugnacity") evoked by thwarting of food-getting or sex

(381) activity, (b) the innate tendency to seek physical protection in danger, and (e) the violent reinforcing emotions which are a part of these innate responses. Such reactions may be aroused directly by acts of invasion, pillage, piracy, and the like, by members of a neighboring nation; or they may be aroused indirectly, or in advance, by the words of propagandists as conditioning stimuli. But in either case it may truly be said that without such fundamental activities in human individuals war would not exist. Stated in other words, the abolition of mass situations which would serve either as original or conditioning stimuli for these innate responses, were such a thing possible, would mean the elimination of war.

(6) Those who attach greatest weight to the social environment would, in turn, assert that wars are precipitated in accordance with custom and tradition., and the ethics of groups reflected in international mores. Military operations are not parts of instinctive behavior, but are socially established ways of carrying on conflicts. Within the national area social influences have so far modified original human nature that physical combat ("instinct of pugnacity") is the rare exception rather than the rule. Laws and customs have been substituted for innate responses. Accordingly, it is the absence of such mores of peaceful and ;judicial settlement between nations that keeps the conduct of international disputes upon the instinctive and emotional plane. The solution of the problem lies in the substitution of socialized habits for innate responses.

(7) To this the behavior psychologists would readily assent; but they would inquire into the details of the process by which socialized habits are developed, not upon a tabula rasa, but as learned modifications of earlier and simpler forms of innate (reflex) activity. A distinction therefore is not drawn between socialization (society) and individual nature; but attention is called to the concrete interactions of the individuals who constitute society, stimuli and responses through which the members or the younger generations acquire socialized habits.

The social order is not to be regarded as a substitution for original nature, imposed by "society" upon the individual, but as a modification of original nature produced by contacts with certain, other persons and with culture objects in the individual's immediate environment. The behaviorist therefore agrees with the "social-causationists" in saying that the behavior characteristic of mankind in human societies presents a picture far different from innate activities, a picture resembling not primitive instinc-

(382) -tive and emotional response, but the standards and cultural pattern of the social group. lie would perhaps disagree in his insistence upon analyzing this cultural pattern into the behavior of specific individuals, and showing in detail how this change in the picture has been produced by progressive modifications of the instinctive and emotional behavior itself during; the plastic period of the individual's life. He would therefore assign a partial determining value to these innate factors, and recognize the direction and limitations which their operation places upon the process of socialization.

The behavior approach, then, would view the war situation as group-wide responses to a widespread stimulus or combination of stimuli. In such responses innate biological drives, acquired habits, and social attitudes would be intermingled. The problem would center largely in the determination of (1) the character and image of the stimulus situation necessary to evoke war or prevent that is, whether the war was due to thwarting (instinctive struggle), to propaganda as a conditioning stimulus, to patriotic appeals, and the like-and (2) the pluralistic distribution and energy (or intensity) of the response among the individuals of the nation. The part played by crowd excitement, suggestive stimulations, and coercion through alleged "public opinion", would also form a part of the behavioristic investigation of war.

The behavior view would also be closely integrated with two of the other general viewpoints previously discussed. It deals, on the one hand, with the elementary facts of human behavior which explain on a deeper level the operation of social laws, such as population pressure, competition for world markets, and the like. Economic laws may be reduced to the pluralistic aspect of individual behavior. Secondly, the cultural basis of war may in a sense be resolved into the behavior habits of individuals in the use of the "tools" of warfare, the habits of militaristic thinking (implicit behavior), and the habitual attitudes of support toward symbols of "the nation", the "state", and all the "institutions of society" playing a part in martial organization. In this latter field, especially, the psychology of the culture pattern and social institutions, the present writer feels that there is the possibility of a valuable contribution from the student of human behavior.

From the preceding survey the writer believes it fair to say, without intending invidious comparisons, that the broader behavioristic and individual approach to social psychology offers a special advantage in synthesizing valuable contributions from a number of divergent fields.


If, from the foregoing account, we may come to any single conclusion about the field of social psychology, it would seem to he the following: The error which may beset students seeking an orientation in the science would come not from the mere acceptance of any one of the viewpoints described, hut rather from its acceptance to the exclusion of the other approaches, or from the over-emphasis of some one position. While it is acknowledged that individuality of hypothesis is often a part of scientific drive and inspiration, there comes to both student and investigator a time and a need for surveying the field as a whole, recognizing the limitations of one's own approach, and attaining a better synthesis and balance.

Turning more definitely to the problem of research in social psychology, the preceding discussion seems to carry certain practical implications. We shall state these briefly in conclusion. First, it is necessary in any social phenomenon to study the entire situation. For this end frequent discussions are desirable among investigators dealing with the same specific problem from different standpoints and with the techniques of the different human sciences. Secondly, viewing the problem as a whole, an introductory theoretical analysis is desirable, showing the various types of units which may he isolated or subjected to experimental control. Such an analysis should he carried out, not as an intellectual end in itself, but in order to discover at each step the possibility of developing experimental and observational procedures. Thirdly, the most highly perfected systems of social philosophy have usually been based upon a single type of approach, similar perhaps to those we have described. Social scientists who have developed such systems should be quid: to recognize their limitations; for in the actual data of science only the most elementary systematization is at present possible. No matter how coherent and intellectually satisfying any system of social interpretation may he, it is of value for future discovery only insofar as it stimulates research and directs it into fruitful channels. Fourthly, attention and effort, should be focussed upon the careful isolation of the units projected by theoretical analysis, and upon devising methods for measuring these units under varied determinable or controlled conditions. In so far as concrete discriminations or units and technique of measurement are accomplished, the controversial discrepancies between the various approaches will probably fall away. Having served a purpose in the orientation of research, these varying formulations will no longer stand in the way of acquiring a knowledge of social phenomena sufficiently- exact for purposes of prediction and control.


  1. Cf. Bernard, L. L., Introduction, to Social Psychology, chs. 1, 2, 3; especially pp. 21-22.
  2. Tarde, Laws of Imitation.
  3. Ross, Social Psychology.
  4. Spencer, Principles of Sociology.
  5. Espinas, Les Sociétés animales.
  6. Můnsterberg, Psychology, General and Applied.
  7. Rivers, Psychology and Politics.
  8. McDougall, The Group Mind.
  9. LeBon, The Crowd, a Study of the Popular Mind.
  10. Ellwood, Introduction to Social Psychology. Ellwood, Psychology of Human Society,
  11. Brown, Social Groups.
  12. Znaniecki, The Laws of Social Psychology.
  13. Kroeber, The Possibility of a Social Psychology.
  14. Ogburn, Social Change.
  15. Judd, The Psychology of Social Institutions.
  16. Bentley, M., A Preface to Social Psychology, Psychological Monographs, DIG, XXI, 1-25.
  17. McDougall, Social Psychology.
  18. Tead, Instincts and Industry.
  19. Veblen, Instinct of Workmanship.
  20. Groves, Personality and Social Adjustments.
  21. Eldridge, Political Action.
  22. Bernard, Instinct.
  23. Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct.
  24. Baldwin, Mental Development.
  25. Mead, Social Psychology as Counterpart to Physiological Psychology, Psychological Bulletin, 1909, 6, 401-408; The Psychology of Social Consciousness Implied in Instruction, Science, N.S., 1910, xxxi, 688-93 ; Social Consciousness and the Consciousness of Meaning, Psychological Bulletin, 1910, vii, 397-405; What Social Objects Must Psychology Presuppose?, Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, 1910, vii, 174-80.
  26. Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order.
  27. Wallis, The Independence of Social Psychology, Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology Vol. 20, No. 2, July, 1925.
  28. Kantor, The Problem of Instinct and Its Relation to Social Psychology, Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 1, April-June, 1923.
  29. Giddings, Studies in the Theory of Human Society, The Scientific Study of Society.
  30. In his own use of the term, Professor Giddings seems to imply the first of these classes of similarities rather than the second.
  31. Kantor, The Institutional Foundations of the Scientific Social Psychology, Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology, Vol. 19, No. 1, April-June, 1924; Data, and Problems of Social Psychology, Journal of Philosophy, 1923, Vol. 20, 449ff.
  32. Smith and Guthrie, General Psychology.
  33. Rice, The Behavior of Legislative Groups, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 1, March, 1926.
  34. Willey (in collaboration with S. A. Rice), William Jennings Bryan as a Social Force, Journal of Social Forces.
  35. Allport and Hartman, The Measurement and Motivation of Atypical Opinion in a Certain Group, American Political Science Review, Vol. XIX, No. 4, November, 1925.
  36. Allport, Social Psychology.
  37. Hunter, General Psychology.
  38. Gault, Social Psychology.
  39. Williams, Principles of Social Psychology.
  40. Bogardus, Fundamentals of Social Psychology.
  41. Dunlap, Social Psychology.
  42. Follett, Creative Experience.
  43. Bernard, Introduction to Social Psychology.

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