Obituary: Floyd H. Allport (1890 - 1978)

Daniel Katz

October 15, 1978, was a dark day for psychology, for it marked the passing of one of its Olympian figures, Floyd Henry Allport. Floyd Allport was the father of experimental social psychology. He was the first to apply experimental methods systematically to the study of group process and social relationships. Social psychology is often assigned 1908 as its birth date because that is the year Edward Ross and William McDougall brought out their systematic treatises on social psychology. But it was not until the appearance of Allport's Social Psychology in 1924 that we had a text based heavily on experimental and research studies. This text made the field, which before its appearance had seen few and scattered courses. Moreover, Allport's continuing contributions in the form of theory and research marked the major avenues along which social psychology was to travel in later decades. Allport was both a distinguished theorist and a creative methodologist. His early formulation of a sophisticated behaviorism and his later event-system theory anticipated developments in the field and in some respects are still in advance of them.

Floyd Allport was heavily influenced by his teachers at Harvard, where he did both his undergraduate and graduate work, receiving his doctorate in 1919 and continuing his career there as instructor for three more years. In particular, E. B. Holt and R. B. Perry were significant figures for him. The social behaviorism and epistemological wisdom of Holt affected Floyd throughout his life. McDougall, who came to Harvard in 1920, was a negative-reference-group person for him, in that Allport sought a more environmentalistic interpretation of behavior than the instinct doctrine of that British evolutionist. The rebellion against the popular theories of McDougall did not, however, mean the rejection of all of McDougall's insights.

Floyd Allport was born in Milwaukee on August 22, 1890. His father was a physician and his mother was a school teacher. Floyd was the second of four sons: One became a lawyer, another served in the diplomatic corps, and the youngest became another famous psychologist-Gordon W. Allport. Music was one of Floyd's early interests. He was a good pianist and, as an undergraduate, thought he might major in music. He was especially interested in composition, but as he went on with his studies, anthropology and psychology claimed him. In his autobiography he refers to his "intense, almost burning curiosity about nature" and this played a role in his choice of a career and his life-long devotion to theoretical understanding.

His graduate career at Harvard was interrupted by World War I, during which he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the field artillery. During his first flight in an observation balloon he was shot down over France by German artillery but parachuted to safety. He was awarded the Croix de guerre but with characteristic modesty confessed that he really had a fear of heights and had jumped on the order of his superior officer.

While an instructor at Harvard, Allport was called on to become cooperating editor of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Morton Prince broadened the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 1921 to include social psychology. The first issue of the new expanded journal had as its lead article a paper entitled "Personality Traits: Their Classification and Measurement" by F. H. Allport and G. W. Allport, perhaps the single most influential article in the early development of personality research. Allport served as cooperating editor of the journal until 1925, when he was succeeded by Henry T. Moore (who was succeeded in 1937 by Gordon W. Allport).

After Harvard Allport spent two years as an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina as a colleague of John F. Dashiell. His influence on Dashiell can be seen in the program of experimentation launched by Dashiell on group process and its applications to the jury system, published in 1935 in Murchison's Handbook of Social Psychology. From North Carolina, Allport was called in 1924 to Syracuse University to the newly established Maxwell Graduate School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. This school was one of the first interdisciplinary institutes in the social sciences and prepared the way for what was to become behavioral science. Allport was given the title of professor of social and political psychology, taught the first courses ever offered in political psychology, and headed the first doctoral program in social psychology. Allport held that title at Syracuse until his retirement in 1957.

Allport's experimental work first appeared in 1920 in his dissertation about the effect of the group on the behavior of the individual —experiments that became classics in the field. His work on social facilitation led to a series of studies such as those by

( 352) Dashiell. But the major impact of Allport's work did not come until the appearance of his book Social Psychology in 1924. The book was an excellent integration of the empirical psychological knowledge of the time relevant to social phenomena. It included group experimentation, personality assessment, and related areas in general psychology, child development, and applied psychology. It made no attempt to deal with the sociological theories of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, but it did combine Freudian theory with behaviorism, which was an unusual synthesis at the time. Allport sought an operationalization of Freudian mechanisms in behavioral terms in dealing with problems of conflict and interpersonal relationships. His interpretation of the Oedipal conflict, namely, that the attraction is primarily of the parent to the child of the opposite sex, is currently a debated issue.

Finally, Social Psychology provided a useful set of concepts for research and teaching. Social psychologists now had a language of their own to guide experimentation and stimulate discussion with such notions as social facilitation, social increment and decrement, attitudes of conformity, prepotent reflexes and habits, afferent and efferent conditioning, circular and linear social behavior, coacting and interacting groups, self-expressive attitudes, and the impression of universality. To these were added over time the concepts of pluralistic ignorance, partial inclusion, the J curve of social conformity, and potency of involvement.

Much of the development of the field along behavioral lines was the extension of Allportian conceptualization. Sherif's later work on the development of group norms was a different theoretical approach to social conformity, but the essential experimental paradigm was the same. Asch also pushed further in showing the power of the group over the individual by making the majority unanimous in their influential attempts. The concept of social facilitation, which at first proved highly productive, became dormant only to be revived in recent years by animal experimenters and revitalized by the 1966 theoretical formulation of Robert Zajonc.

Allport also pioneered in methodology in going beyond the laboratory to study social phenomena in their field settings. Though he was the first real social experimentalist, he did not allow himself to become a captive to a single type of technique. He sent his students into the field, into religious and governmental settings, into industry, into the community, and into crowd situations to observe social realities at first hand. A 1932 study by Schanck of discrepant private and public behavior in a small community led to Allport's conceptualization of pluralistic ignorance, namely, a situation where private beliefs summate in one direction and public beliefs on the same issue summate in an opposite direction. Many field studies documented Allport's J curve hypothesis of conforming behavior, in which the institutional norm and the personality norm do not correspond either in mean value or in the nature of the dispersion.

What was to become a central area for investigation of social psychology for decades-attitudes and their determinants-early occupied the attention of Allport and his students. With D. H. Hartman in 1925 he demonstrated the similarity of personality patterns of extremists on the left and on the right and thus anticipated the reaction against Authoritarian Personality by those who argued for the authoritarianism of the left. His impact on methodology of attitude measurement was great in that he saw the inadequacies of his own ingenious a priori scales and turned to L. L. Thurstone for help. The results were the Thurstone scales derived by psychophysical methods.

In the 1920s and into the 1930s, Allport waged a continuing war against group fictions such as the group mind and the institutional fallacy in which group concepts were endowed with personality attributes. He argued clearly and convincingly that the language of data should not be confused with the language of metaphorical concepts. His criterion of explicit denotation was developed as a methodological guide in the study of social phenomena. Social scientists frequently resisted the attack on their favorite theories but in many cases did attempt to operationalize their concepts. The net effect was the growth of empirical behavioral science.

Allport brought together his many analyses of social institutions in his Institutional Behavior (1937) which included 22 essays, seven of which had previously appeared in Harper's magazine. These penetrating accounts of the family, the law, the political order, education, religion, business, child rearing, and sex roles illustrate how much traditional stereotypes had prevented social scientists from a realistic appreciation of critical issues. His essay "Seeing Women as They Are" reads like an article of the 1970s rather than the 1930s. His chapter on "The Life Stream and the Business Funnel" deals with the economic funneling of modern institutions in which life becomes organized around industrial motives, and it does much to refute the notion of Allport as an individually oriented psychologist.

His institutional analysis and his direction of field research led Allport to a reconsideration of his early behaviorism and to a concern with problems of relationships and of social structure. He spent the rest of his life trying to develop a theory of behavior that would take account of the structure of action in an objective and scientific manner. His search for general structural concepts pushed him to a general theory of structure in nature. He studied physics, genetics, and microbiology in his quest for a metatheory and constantly revised his own theorizing to make it more

(353) valid and precise. He held that social structure had no anatomical or physical base but consisted of cycles of events that return upon themselves to complete and maintain the cycle. Significant structures or forms were to be found in cyclical, patterned interpersonal behavior. Group norms do not so much determine the behavior of individuals as they provide a stipulation for patterned activity in which individuals have some degree of involvement. Allport used as one measure of structurance the potency of involvement of individuals in the structure by a negative causation device, namely, how much effort the individual would make to maintain the structure if it were threatened.

The individual can thus be seen as a matrix of involvements in many collective structures with his or her own personality or tangential structure. Instead of accepting the personality theory of prejudice and discrimination, in 1952 Allport and Morse showed that hostility toward minority groups was more complex. Hostile acts were related to involvement in the national structure, and feelings of aversion were related to personality syndromes.

Allport's preoccupation with his theory, most of it unpublished and incomplete, isolated him from his fellow psychologists. In an attempt to reestablish contacts for the introduction of his theory, Allport brought out his Theories of Perception in 1955. This review of theories of perception was widely acclaimed as the most scholarly and incisive account of the perception literature and is still a reference work for courses in the field. Though the book contained the type of thinking involved in Allport's own theory of structure, it failed in its objective of bringing Allportian theory to the psychological world. It was too metatheoretical to have impact on social psychologists. Whether Allport's unpublished writings will ever come into the public arena depends in part on their completeness and on the diligence of his former students.

Allport was widely recognized for his professional and scientific contributions. He served on the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association (1928-1930) and as President of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (1939-1940). He received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association and the Gold Medal Award of the American Psychological Foundation. Syracuse University conferred an honorary doctorate of humane letters on him in 1974.

The creativity of the man, apparent in his theorizing, also found artistic expression. He was an accomplished pianist, an excellent composer, and a first-rate painter. He was president of the Associated Artists of Syracuse.

Floyd Allport was not a platform orator but he was a great teacher. Watching his keen mind in action and observing his profound intelligence at work was a rare privilege his students never forgot. His character was as generous as the sweep of his intellect. His word was stronger than any written contract. His kindness was of that exceptional sort that included empathy for his colleagues. He was a stimulating mind, a piercing wit, and an understanding comrade. In my graduate days he was our idol, and the admiration and affection we had for him swelled with the passing years.

University of Michigan


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