Excerpt from "Six Decades of Social Psychology"

Gordon W. Allport

Let me approach the second decade somewhat autobiographically, for this is where I came in. My story here concerns chiefly social psychology at Harvard. I justify my parochialism by the conviction that for all its oddities Harvard does reflect the Zeit, the Geist, and the Schicksal of American social psychology during the past fifty years.

The first course at Harvard titled "Social Psychology" was offered in the spring of 1917 by Edwin Bissell Holt. About twenty students enrolled. Upon the outbreak of the war in April most of us took a hasty final examination and departed for basic military training. Yet for the space of two months we were exposed to what is surely the queerest hodgepodge of all the hodgepodges ever offered under the rubric of social psychology. Our assigned reading consisted of Tarde's book on Imitation and Schopenhauer's essay on the Primacy of the Will in Self-consciousness. The texts by McDougall and Ross were ignored. McDougall's purposivism irritated Holt's behavioristic soul; and since Ross was Tarde at second hand why not read the original?

In class Holt discussed only his own current interests. The Dutch physiologist Bok excited him with his concept of the circular reflex.

(11) Added to Pavlov this concept gave Holt his "echo principle," which he felt to be the keystone of all psychology, although I personally could never see that it explained anything save the first stages of the child's learning of the language along with pat-a-cake and bye-bye.

His other enthusiasm was for the new book by Félix Le Dantec, L'Egoisme. He would translate pages in class and smack his lips over the iconoclastic treatment of social institutions. All of them, including the Ten Commandments, were reduced to arrant hypocrisies invented to insure the survival of the individual in a society of wolves. I still think that no author—be it Hobbes, Stirner, Freud, or Bertrand Russell—has ever given so devastating a commentary on the self-seeking aspects of human nature. And since there is plenty of self-seeking around even in the modern welfare state, Le Dantec's book remains a classic, unknown to most modern social psychologists.

Holt's course was erratic but it started me on my way. For me it held a two-pronged goad. One was the impetus that comes from studying the efforts of good minds in the past to solve the puzzles of man's social nature. The other prong was on-the-spot inquiry. In those days we did not have laboratory or field projects, but Holt's wrestling with the construction of an original theory (the echo principle) served the same purpose. For balance in social psychology the sagacity of the past and the forward thrust of the frontier—both forces—are needed. The first without the second is regressive; the second without the first is illiterate.

Instruction in social psychology at Chicago no doubt antedated instruction at Harvard. Under Cooley, Mead, Park, Burgess, Faris, and others the emphasis at Chicago was clearly sociological, whereas at Harvard for at least three decades social psychology was tied to the general academic tradition of individual psychology. Such, I am told, is my own continuing bias. Indeed I am variously accused of being anti-cultural, anti-institutional, and anti-social. My sins in these respects, I feel, are exaggerated.

During the early 1920's I was exposed to two remaining influences in social psychology at Harvard. One was the incubation of my brother's text Social Psychology [1] —a combination of behavioristic and Freudian thought. The other was McDougall's seminar in social psychology, from which I gained some historical insights and an exposure to purposivism. I mention these cross-currents for they help explain my leaning toward eclecticism, a leaning accentuated by a period of study of the structural, Gestalt, and personalistic trends in Germany, and of cultural factors with Bartlett in England. All these contrary forces made me long for an appropriate eclecticism in psychological theory.[2]


  1. F.H. Allport. Social Psychology. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1924.
  2. C.f. G.W. Allport, The fruits of eclecticism: bitter or sweet? Acta Psychologia, 1964, 23, 26-44.

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