The Relations of Sociology and Social Psychology

Charles A. Ellwood
University of Missouri


THE effort of the social sciences, no less than of other sciences, is to understand the mechanism or technique of the phenomena with which they deal, which is, in their case, the processes of the social life. They endeavor, like all science, to explain phenomena by describing fully all conditions essential to their occurrence. In this broad sense there is no difference in the spirit and method of the so-called natural sciences and of the social sciences. The social sciences are as much true sciences as the physical sciences ; but on account of the complexity of the phenomena with which they deal they have more difficulty than have the physical sciences in becoming bodies of accurate, tested knowledge, such as every science aspires to be.

The physical sciences have become bodies of accurate, tested knowledge largely through the method of experimentation, which is the method of observing phenomena under such controlled conditions that they can usually be accurately compared and measured. While this method is not absolutely closed to the social sciences, it seems to have such limited possibilities in the fields of social phenomena that the scientific student of social life is forced to depend largely upon other methods, such as the observation, comparison, and correlation of social phenomena. Measurement is, however, not essential to science, and it is a mistake to think of science as merely or chiefly "a quantitative statement of objective facts". The most important statements of modern science, for example, those connected with the theory of evolution, are not quantitative statements, but statements of developmental relations; and to limit science to quantitative formulations is unwarranted by either the history or the nature of science. Quantitative measurement's are desirable in every science for the sake of exact ness; but the social sciences for a long time will probably have to content themselves with the critical analysis, comparison and

(4) correlation of social phenomena. While they may not become exact quantitative statements, the social sciences may become bodies of critically established, and therefore, of trustworthy knowledge. In the broad field of the social sciences sociology is usually recognized as the most general of the sciences of social phenomena. Starting with a common sense view of the world, sociology and the other social sciences seek to show how certain conditions or forces make that part of our experience which we call "social" what it is from moment to moment. They aim to make human society and its changes intelligible.


Living in groups is not peculiar to man, but characterizes many plants and animals as well. Nor is living in groups in itself "social life". A clump of grasses, a forest of trees, a colony of bacteria, or a group of protozoa may show interdependence in the life activities of their separate units; but we do not usually call such groups "societies", because so far as we know, no conscious relations of "comradeship" are involved in such forms of collective life. The relations between their units seem to be purely physical or physiological. Such groups, it is true, show the first mark of social life in that they share a common life; but since they are lacking in conscious relations they cannot be regarded as having social life.

As soon as mentality appears in the world of animal life another sort of interdependence is possible. This new interdependence takes the form of mental interaction, or, as we might more accurately say, of mental interstimulation and response. In other words, more or less conscious relations arise among the members of animal groups, and the group activities begin to be carried on by means of more or less conscious interactions or mutual adjustments between the members of such a group. In this case, the association of the members of a group is guided and controlled by conscious or mental processes, giving rise to what we may call, properly speaking, collective or group behavior.

When we analyze this "collective behavior" we find that it is made up of various forms of interstimulation and response, which range all the way from the level of almost -unconscious instinctive reactions, controlled wholly by heredity, to the level of rational adjustments, controlled (in human beings) by the highest conscious intelligence. Now this collective behavior which is intermediated and controlled by more or less conscious processes is

( 5) also known as "social behavior". We might call "social behavior", therefore, that which results from the more or less conscious adjustments of individuals to one another; and "social life" the life which results from the mental interstimulation and response of the members of a group. In the lower forms of animal life it begins with very simple forms of mental interstimulation and response, such as imitation and sympathy, but in man it rises to the level of intelligent communication. It is the communication between individuals which especially makes possible the organized and definite forms of collective behavior which we see in human groups. In human groups this intercommunication is the chief form of mental interstimulation and response.

We are now prepared to see that the two marks of "social life" are (1) co÷peration, in the sense of the carrying on of certain common activities by a group, and (2) mental interaction, in the sense of conscious interstimulation and response. The latter, however, is only the means or method of carrying on common or group activities. Social life is evidently that form of collective life which is carried on by mental interaction, that is to say, on a psychic plane. This is because a social group IS made up of relatively independent individuals, and hence their only possible means of reciprocal adjustment is through more or less conscious interstimulation and response. It follows, therefore, that the psychology of "social life" cannot be in terms of "subjective" mental processes within the individual, but must be in terms of the whole process of interstimulation and response between individuals. The psychology of collective human behavior must accordingly form a very considerable part of sociology, which treats of social phenomena in general; for only in this way can we secure scientific analysis of the method by which the common life or activities of human groups is carried on.

From what has been said we may define society as any group of individuals who carry on common activities or a common life by means of mental interstimulation and response. Conscious relations there may be without social life, but there is no social life without conscious relations or mental interaction. It is, therefore, the psychic element which constitutes the "social", or to put it in other words, it is intermental life in a group of individuals which makes possible "social life". It would be a mistake, however, to think that the whole of the social life is to be found in its psychic or mental elements ; on the contrary, the interdependence which we find in a social group is an interde-

( 6) -pendence of the whole life process. It, includes objective physical activities as well as the psychic processes which guide and control these activities. While there is no excuse for the one-sided conclusion that intermental life is the whole of social life, or that psychology of collective behavior is the whole of sociology, yet we must recognize that intermental stimulation and response is what makes possible social life. It is its method-its essential and constitutive element.

The external mark of the "social" is the interdependence in activity or behavior of a group of relatively independent individuals. But some degree of reciprocal consciousness on the part of the individuals of a group is the only possible method of establishing and maintaining co÷rdinated activities. The most ordinary observation establishes the fact that the members of such a group are stimulated by the presence of other individuals of the group. Some consciousness of other individuals, in other words, is necessary to make any social adjustment. Indeed, we cannot think of society in any intelligible sense in which we use the term without reference to conscious elements. When we study all the elements which go to make up human social life, moreover, we find them to be either conscious processes or closely associated with conscious processes. Any situation in the social life of humanity will be found upon scientific analysis to consist of conscious activities, mental attitudes, feelings, beliefs, interests, desires, values, and standards on the part of individuals. Nor is there any social situation left when these psychic elements are entirely taken away. Usages, customs, traditions, institutions, even civilization itself, all alike resolve themselves into elements which are essentially psychic. We cannot, indeed, think of human institutions or of human history as existing apart from conscious agents. The social is evidently a special development of the mental or psychic. It is mental interdependence, the contact and overlapping of our inner selves, which makes the "social". All this merely emphasizes again the point that it is the psychic element which constitutes the social and that the criterion of the social is mental interdependence. Consequently a psychological explanation is necessary to understand social processes or group behavior.


Social life begins with animal association. Many animals besides man, as we have already said, live in groups and adjust themselves to one another through some sort of consciousness of

( 7) the presence of other individuals in their groups. Even instinctive activities frequently require some degree of reciprocal consciousness on the part of individuals for their functioning. Thus collective behavior, or social life, begins far down in the reaches of animal life. The life of the social insects, such as the ants and the bees, sufficiently illustrates this phase of social life. But not -until social life, or collective behavior, depends upon acquired uniformities of action, rather than upon inborn or hereditary uniformities of instinct, is there opportunity for the domination of such behavior by conscious processes.

Even before the human stage is reached we find uniformities ,of action apparently brought about in social groups of animals by such psychic processes as suggestion, imitation, and sympathy. Animal groups, however, are undoubtedly dominated by the hereditary or instinctive element. Human society, on the other hand, is characterized from its earliest beginnings by acquired uniformities due to habit. A habit which is acquired by one individual of the group may be communicated to other members of the group and thus become the common property of all. Mental interstimulation and response, especially in the form of intercommunication, thus assumes a new importance. Hence a new type of social life is possible-one built upon the basis of acquired habit; and the acquirements of one individual may become acquirements of all through mental interstimulation and response. Accordingly, the web of Intercommunication necessary for the transmission of habit takes the place in human groups of instinct in bringing about relative uniformity of action on the part of all members of the group. This explains why the social life of man shows many complex phases of behavior not shown by animal groups, such as industry, art, government, education, science, morality, and religion. All of these, which taken collectively form what the anthropologist and the sociologist terms "culture" (which is the scientific term for civilization in the broadest sense), rest upon acquired habit and go back to man's superior means of social communication through articulate speech, as well as to his superior power of adaptation through abstract thought.

Culture or civilization is, then, not inborn; but acquired by every individual in human groups ; but this culture of the group dominates the behavior of the individual and so the behavior of the whole group. Human social life is thus dominated by "culture", and culture is a matter of habits acquired by interaction with other members of one's group. This interaction is, how-

( 8) ever, almost wholly on the psychic plane, and is mediated by suggestion, imitation, and the more definite forms of communication, such as language. Human sociology becomes very distinct, therefore, from the psychology of the collective behavior of animal groups. It is culture and habit, not instinct, which must be the main concern of the sociologist, or of anyone who offers a psychological interpretation of collective human behavior; for it is the development of culture which distinguishes the social life of man from the social life of the brutes.

Thus approaching social life from the standpoint of evolution we discover again that it is essentially psychic in its nature and methods; indeed, increasingly so as we ascend in the scale of social development. A purely objective sociology, that is, a sociology wholly in terms of physical processes, if it were possible, would be meaningless to us. Any scientific description of human social life accordingly must be in terms of conscious processes if it is to be intelligible to us. The psychological part of sociology, therefore, becomes its main part. It is not only the larger part but it is the more fruitful part, if our aim in studying social life is to learn how to control it; for it is conscious processes which are especially subject to control. This is not saying, however, that there is not a physical and mechanical element in human society, as well as a psychic element. Sociology is, then, a broader subject than the psychology of human society, even though the latter may be the most immediately practicable part of sociology.


Both sociology and social psychology [2] are concerned with the study of social groups, especially human groups, their organization, development, and behavior. What is the relation between these two studies, if both aim to make the collective life of man, and its changes, intelligible?

In the broad sense sociology may be defined as the study of human relations, or of the interactions of individuals and of groups. But inasmuch as these relations are the outcome of group life, we may accept as a working definition for sociology that it is the science of the origin, development, structure, and functioning of social groups. Its point of view, its interest, is always in the group, or in collective behavior. On the other hand, the point of view, the interest, of psychology as ordinarily understood is in

(9) the individual and his behavior. The problem of psychology is to explain the experience and the behavior of the individual,. while the problem of sociology is to explain the nature and the behavior of the group. As soon as interest shifts front the individual to the group, it shifts from the purely psychological to the sociological.

But what shall we call the consideration of the psychical aspects of social groups and of social life generally? This has, usually been called "social psychology", but it is evidently a part of sociology if the distinction between psychology and sociology, which has just been pointed out, is a valid one. If, of course, it is an error to explain society in psychological terms at all, as some social thinkers have contended, then there can remain only a physics or a biology of society, and the attempt at a psychological interpretation of group life is a mistake, due probably to a false metaphysics, and not within the limits of science. Such a view, however, is absurd, both from the standpoint of science and of common sense. The main development, both of scientific sociology and of scientific psychology, has held to the view that a psychological interpretation of social life is a part, and a very necessary and important part, of any general science of society, or of sociology. Social psychology, in the sense of the psychology of group behavior, is accordingly a part of sociology.[3[ It is the study of the psychic factors involved in the origin, development, structure, and functioning of social groups.

It must be admitted, however, that if the study of collective behavior is superficial and unorganized it may fall short of sociological science. After all, sociology, like all other sciences, is defined by its problems, and if a psychological study of group, behavior is not made with reference to the explanation of the objective or external forms and changes of social life, it can hardly be said to be truly sociological; for the aim of the sociologist, as we pointed out, is to reach a general and consistent theory of the objective social life. It must also be admitted that social psychology as a study may cover the social motives and social behavior of the individual. In this case, its center of interest is the individual and his behavior, and such social psychology remains purely psychological .[4] It will be of value to the,

( 10) sociologist because it will aid him in understanding the forms and the changes of group life, but it is not sociology. Apparently, then, "social psychology", as commonly used, is a vague term which covers parts both of the psychology of the individual .and of sociology. To social psychology in the sense of the study of socially conditioned individual behavior (and there is little in the behavior of the adult individual that is not socially conditioned) there can be, of course, no objection, provided it does not seek to take the place of the study of group behavior.

That there is group life and behavior as certainly as there is individual life and behavior is attested in our experience by such facts as customs, institutions, group organization, and group changes. To think, however, that these can be understood apart from the behavior and experience of individuals is also absurd. The group and the individual, social life and the individual life, are correlatives, and neither can be understood apart from the other. Hence the need of a study of group life and of collective behavior, as well as of human nature and individual behavior; of the psychology of society as well as a psychology of the individual. Like the individual and the social life, like the individual mind and civilization, so psychology and sociology are inextricably linked and overlap. It is hardly profitable to inquire too narrowly where one leaves off and the other begins; but it is profitable to study both the individual and the collective aspects of life and behavior, both human nature and human society.


The only satisfactory basis for distinguishing the sciences from one another is the distinction between their problems. The ,different sciences merely represent divisions of labor among the workers in the scientific field, and so frequently overlap. There is probably nothing in the social life of man which cannot be explained by principles of physics, chemistry, geography, biology, and psychology. Nevertheless, these antecedent sciences do not explain the social life of man, for the simple reason that that is not their problem.

The distinction between sociology and psychology, as we have seen, is peculiarly difficult to define, if we recognize the validity of the psychological method in sociology, unless we frankly recognize that the distinction between the sciences is one of problems. Psychology, as we have said, studies the individual and his behavior, while sociology studies the group and its behavior. But

( 11) we cannot understand the group apart from the nature of the individuals who compose it. The dependence between sociology ,and psychology is reciprocal. Individual psychology must look to the study of group life for the explanation of much in individual behavior. It depends as much upon the psychology of society as the psychology of society depends upon it.

This fact enables us to see clearly, however, that the social sciences are interested primarily in the problems of collective life ,and not primarily in understanding the nature and behavior of the individual. Nevertheless, the behavior, interaction, and organization of groups, cannot be understood apart from the instincts, habits, feelings, and intelligence of individuals. Consequently, the work of the sociologist consists largely in tracing the working of these various individual psychic factors in the group life. The sociologist is, necessarily, a psychologist if he is an adequate scientific student of group behavior.

However, it is becoming increasingly evident that what has been called the psychological method of studying social problems, namely, by deductions from individual psychology, or original human nature, is inadequate. A too exclusive use of this sort of psychological analysis in the social sciences leads to many serious errors; - for the human mind as we know it, and hence social behavior, are very largely products of historical social conditions. The mind and the conduct of an individual, in other words, is largely a product of the social tradition or culture into which the individual is born. The psychology of social behavior becomes dependent, therefore, upon an understanding of the historical social environment in which the individual lives. To study human institutions exclusively from the standpoint of the mechanism of the individual mind is, accordingly, a grievous blunder. Group behavior is far more a historical and cultural product than a product of original human nature. Much more than deduction from individual psychology is, therefore, involved in the psychology of human society. It would be unreasonable to suppose that so complex phenomena could be understood through the work in psychological and biological laboratories, though this work may be of great value toward such an understanding.

All modern science is essentially inductive in spirit; that is, it proceeds, from facts to theory rather than from theory to facts-from particulars to universals rather than from universals to particulars. This does not preclude all use of deduction from biological and psychological laws and principles in the scientific

(12) study of society; for such laws and principles have been built up from the inductive study of individual facts. But it does indicate that the scientific student of human society must study social facts if he is to proceed according to a sound method. It is little short of scandalous that so many psychologists are writing about social problems without a critical knowledge of human history and human culture. To some extent, psychologists have recognized the value of anthropological material, but they have been very slow to recognize the value of historical and statistical study. Manifestly, however, the development of human culture, and so of social behavior, is an historical process. Social behavior can be understood only through understanding its historical conditions. If the psychologists really wish to aid in the development of the social sciences, they must get out of their laboratories and. study historical records and human communities. Why should they not? Both human history and existing community life are manifestations of the human mind, and in some respects clearer manifestations than any that can be studied in the laboratory. Psychologists can be of immense help to students of human society; but they will have to broaden their methods if they are to render truly scientific aid in the understanding of all the complexities of collective human behavior.


  1. An excerpt from the first chapter of a work on "The Psychology of Human Society" soon to be published by Appleton's for the writer.
  2. As ordinarily understood.
  3. Compare Professor Giddings' statement (Studies in the Theory of Human Society,._ p. 252) : "Pluralistic behavior is the subject-matter of the psychology of society, otherwise called sociology."
  4. Such a social psychology of individual behavior and consciousness is presented,. e.g., in the first fourteen chapters of Professor Allport's recently published book, "Social Psychology."

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