Borderline Trends in Social Psychology

Ellsworth Faris
University of Chicago



In the period under review the whole history of social psychology is comprised, though the concept is older and the need for a social psychology goes back further yet. Psychologists and sociologists have from the first contributed and published in this field, and marginal influences have played upon it from all the social sciences. There was first a strong trend toward individual problems and the nature of personality, though lately the interest in collective activity has been growing. The search for elements has gone on throughout the period and gave rise to the instinct controversy, the debate about reflexes and wishes, and is still an unsettled issue though steadily approaching a state of agreement. The influences marginal to social psychology include ethnology, abnormal psychology, particularly psychoanalysis, behaviorism and philosophy. Social Psychology is still imperfectly organized, its concepts are still in confusion, and its methods unsatisfactory. But the intense interest in the subject, the number and enthusiasm of the workers, and the importance of the issues give assurance of a more perfect day.

Social psychology has mainly borderline trends because social psychology is itself a borderline area. Like a good doughnut there is more in the circumference than in the center. Indeed, it is doubtful whether there would ever have been any social psychology at all or any courses in this field or any researches in this area had there not existed a borderline field in which traditional psychology was not interested and yet which was believed to contain resources which sociologists needed in their work. Not that experimental psychology is or was barren or unfruitful. An admirable technique was developed, rigorously scientific in method, unequivocally mathematical in procedure, but concerned with problems that were increasingly small in extent and more and more remote from the needs and interests of those who were forced to consider the motives of men, and to whom the adjustments and the harmonious development of human life seemed all-important.

One can only explain the rise of psychoanalysis on similar grounds. Since traditional psychology did not have either interests or methods that were available to the study of personality disturbance the physicians who were treating hysteria and kindred disorders developed a system which broke completely with the physiological psychology of the day. Just as Christian Science rose and

( 37) still thrives on the mistakes of medical science, so psychoanalysis found its opportunity in the confessed incompetence in respect of problems for which there was no place in the program of the psychologists of twenty-five years ago.

And in the same way, the sociologist, in seeking a foundation in theory for the study of the family, crime, delinquency, suicide, public opinion, and related problems began his work not in rebellion or in impatience but from necessity. But it was a borderline field from the beginning. The sociologist in building his structure needed certain basic foundations, and just as a manufacturer who cannot get his order filled sets to work to make his accessories in his own factory, so the social psychologist arose to try to meet a need which might conceivably have been supplied by existing disciplines.

Social psychology was a borderline concept even before this when in Germany the formulation of a German folk soul led to the earlier efforts to state the psychic trends underlying the origin and development of art, morals, religion, and the political forms of European society. We in America know this best from the work of Wundt whose folk psychology is the effort to fill the gap left by the obsolescence of the philosophy of history. But of all the borderline influences, this one is, at the present time, least influential.

Another European conception deserves a prominent place in the briefest sort of historic report. It rose in the reactionary period in France when opposition to democracy, never lacking under any organization of the state, developed a pseudo-scientific rationalization. It is from this humble if not ignoble ancestry that our collective psychology has largely been derived, with its mob psychology, its study of crowds and related phenomena. Here, too, is a borderline and the work of the past generation has not been unsuccessful in clarifying the problems and in formulating generalizations.

In France and in England social psychology was at first considered as collective psychology, a study of the mental planes and currents, in the language of our Professor Ross whose vigorous and lively metaphors have delighted our students for twenty years and more. So conceived, social psychology is still investigated and cultivated, but the present trend is to make that chapter of the statement an outgrowth and corollary of the earlier work which sets forth

( 38) the psychology of the individual person considered as the resultant of social forces. Social psychology is individual psychology if the individual be conceived as the center of multipersonal influences.

As an attempt to understand how the immature member of a society becomes a developed person with his own individuality and his own character the social psychology of the past twenty-five years have remained on the borderline, an interstitial area, marching with sociology, with psychology, learning from psychiatry, and importing heavily from the output of ethnology. Perhaps a more accurate figure would be this: each of these needed or seemed to need a social psychology and each of them proceeded to make his own though, fortunately, they did have diplomatic relations and ideas and even methods flowed freely across the frontiers.

It may have been inevitable that the investigation of personality which we call social psychology should start with a disastrous inheritance from the earlier individualism. At any rate history must record that it was so. Perhaps it was the analogy of chemistry with its marvelous success in discovering the ineradicable elements of matter that had most to do with leading us into the long and fruitless effort to find the irreducible elements of personality. At first these were thought to be ideas, and at the very first these seemed to be innate ideas, latent and concealed, but, under the developing influence of contacts, ready to develop into the accepted axioms of mathematics and the precious articles of the theological creeds. These went the way of all flesh but only when succeeded by another list, contributed by the tiger and the ape, those most recently acknowledged kindred of the children of Adam. But only for about thirty years did the instinct doctrine remain unchallenged, and just as it had become universally accepted, the inadequacy of its formulation began to dawn upon many and the last ten years has changed the whole conception of the stability of the inherited motor habits and the value of attempting to form a list of them.

The instinct controversy has been our most interesting little internecine strife within the period under review, which, indeed, is the whole short life of social psychology as a definite field. There was a small list of gilt-edged instincts with an unquestioned reputation for

( 39) solvency and for a time it seemed that their prestige was unshakable. Some of the young men began to utter heretical words but it was not till Professor Bernard entered the market that disaster overtook the issue. There is a rumor that he gathered them through a number of graduate student brokers but at any rate when he unloaded 5,684 separate instincts upon a nervous market, the slump began in earnest and present quotations make one think of German marks. Those who still retain them use them as token money for they have lost their intrinsic value.

Nor was the earlier effort to accomplish the same result by surcharge or overprinting any more successful. To call them something else and have them perform the same function was a natural recourse in a field where disputes about words are endemic and science is so largely the opinions of professors. But to say that warfare is due to the instinct of pugnacity differs in no essential way from assigning it to the prepotent reflex of struggling. Not the connotation of a term was at stake but the denotation of a fact. There are some troubles that do not yield to etymology. Sleeping sickness is as serious as encephalitis lethargica. Epsom salts has the same effect as sulphate of magnesia. The real question was not the name of the inherited behavior but the question of its existence.

Equally short-lived and equally unsuccessful were the suggestions which substituted wishes or desires in a definite list. The discussion has not reached an end and there is no warrant for asserting unanimity but the trend seems clearly in the direction of complete emancipation from the necessity of discovering or even the possibility of admitting any essential and definite elementary constituents in the developing individual. And this would have consequences of importance for sociology, social psychology, and for practice. For it would place the social group in a new perspective and enable us to find in the mores and institutions of a time and area those elements which were formerly asserted to exist in the psychophysical organism.

This trend is not only in accord with, but is in no small degree, the result of the fact that social psychology is also marginal to ethnology, from which field have come conceptions that have been in-

( 40) valuable clarifying influences. For the ethnologist in this period has come to regard culture as a datum and has, if I interpret him aright, written his declaration of independence from any a priori individualistic psychology. Like little dog Dingo, he had to. For there was no way of accounting for the strikingly different cultures save by some impossibly absurd hypothesis of a differential instinctive equipment of different tribes which, indeed, McDougall in a moment of consistency was moved to do. But as this would destroy the unity of the human race it did not commend itself to the students of preliterate culture.

If institutions create the instincts, and not vice versa, whence the institutions? And ethnology is at present answering it in a. phrase suggested by that of the biologists after Pasteur: Omnis cultura ex cultura. And if this phrase be understood and its meaning and implications fully grasped the result is not only a new Magna Carta for social psychology but a newer and more intimate dependence at the same time on sociology. For we are at home in studying groups, the folk and the mores are household words with us, and it is not difficult to assimilate to our language the notion that culture precedes and produces the individual. Aristotle again says to us: The whole comes before the parts.

Social psychology as the science of personality has another marginal connection—that with child study. And in the nursery schools and institutes that have been set up at Iowa City, at Minneapolis, at Detroit, New Haven, and elsewhere there has come not only a new impulse and a set of conceptions but the promise of a new method comparable to the influence of animal psychology in its earlier effects. For the study of nursery-school children especially in groups can be and is increasingly becoming more objective, with engaging possibilities. It is inevitable that the study of such children shall be made with a constant emphasis on the group in which the child moves and the interaction of the members.

As to psychiatry, there is scarcely any distinction in the methods and point of view of some of the investigators in this field and those who class themselves as social psychologists. The differentiation is, of course, in the pathological conditions which the psychiatrist, of

(41) necessity, makes central in his work. Yet even this is less true than formerly owing to the increasing treatment of near-normals in clinics. Alfred Adler, after a lecture on individual psychology once remarked to this writer that his own interest was obviously in social psychology. The indebtedness of social psychology to psychiatry is evidenced by the fact that many of the concepts which we use have been frankly and openly borrowed from our colleagues in that field.

I might mention, finally, the recent contribution in method which may be said to come from the almost obsolete field of psychophysics. Thurstone, taking the familiar notion of least perceptual differences, has stimulated much interest by producing measuring scales of attitudes by means of an elaborate and careful graduation of statements which, when arranged in a series, give an indication of the attitudes of the members of a group on any given subject.

If this list were to be made inclusive it would be necessary to speak at some length of economics and to mention work on economic motives and on labor attitudes and similar studies which have appeared in a satisfying quantity and make the relation of marginality quite clear.

Nor may we fail to mention political science where studies of public opinion, the interest in leadership, and the necessity of accounting for the peculiar idiosyncrasies of prominent men from mayors to presidents and kings have led to studies which impinge very definitely on this field and indicate the value and necessity of extensive and hearty co-operation.

There is, indeed, no department of social science from history and human geography to education and religion that cannot draw inspiration and assistance from social psychology and in return make a valued contribution of fact and method and fruitful theory.

He who has personality for his central interest will not lack for stimulating academic and other scientific contacts. So numerous are the contacts that there is required much circumspection for the accurate delimitation of the field. Concentration on an unappropriated problem is not as easy as it was. Whether a special field of social psychology will be increasingly independent or whether the workers outside will become so fruitful that sociologist, economist,

(42) political scientist, and psychiatrist among others will be doing all the work is a question on which it would be unwise to make a dogmatic pronouncement. Since most of these problems are marginal, it is not unthinkable that the various frontiers will be gradually annexed. Should that day come the social psychologist would be a victim of technological unemployment. But should it so happen it will not be soon. Such a day is surely remote. And meanwhile, we cultivate our garden.


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2