Concerning Some Faulty Conceptions of Social Psychology

Jacob Robert Kantor

THE rise of social psychology was inevitable. When we consult the history of scientific psychology we discover that because its facts were early thrown into a physiological mold the rise of social psychology was easily predictable. Is it not manifest that when we put the facts of human psychology into physiological terms we must inevitably leave out of the psychological domain most of the important kinds of human activities? Thus, in order to be able to handle the higher mental processes, Wundt, for example, very early found it necessary to supplement physiological or experimental psychology with a social psychology. [1]

And yet the history of psychology records no assiduous pursuit of the problems of social psychology. [2] Nor has there been any great progress made in the appreciation of the facts which we may readily agree belong to this domain of inquiry. This situation is not without its surprising features. For is it not likely that most of our actions are social in character? Consequently, the sorts of persons we are, and the kinds of beliefs, ideas, and habits we have, are to be discovered by the techniques and investigations of social psychology.

When we question why social psychology has not been more zealously cultivated, we find no small number of answers. Possibly one of the most cogent is, as we have already suggested, the original physiological character of psychology. The physiological attitude

( 422) must perforce lead to the view that the facts of social psychology are facts of group minds and not individual ones. The result is, then, that, on the one hand, it is assumed that the ethnologist takes care of the human facts which are not individual in character, and on the other, that the study of social facts can not be so very worth while inasmuch as the results to be obtained are not so definite and so rigidly determined as those derived from the study of sensations.

What is the result of such a situation for those of us who to-day consider the facts of social psychology of capital importance? It is this, that, although the study of social psychology is pursued with apparently great alacrity, and while much interest is manifested in social psychological problems, no general agreement appears to exist concerning the nature and development of social psychology and its facts.

Most instructive is it briefly to survey what actually are some of the conceptions concerning social psychology. Upon doing so, we find that each of the truths which are fundamental in social psychology has led to a false formulation. Prominent among these fundamental truths are the facts that social psychology deals with persons and that it is somehow implicated with a group.


(1) In denying the claim that social psychology deals with activities of groups, whether ethnological or some other sort (mob, academy, etc.), we need only point out the impossibility of considering group action in any sense as psychological data. What is a group ? If we think of it merely as the acts of a set of particular individuals, then, however different in detail, we have in principle nothing different to deal with than we have in individual or general psychology. Does any unique quality attach to the fact that more than one person is acting at the same time? Whatever differences we find can only be ascribed to differences in setting (in the case of mob action the other individuals and the general situations are peculiar settings for any particular person), and differences in stimuli. So far as the actions of individuals are

(423) concerned they are responses to stimuli in all cases and as specific reactions differ no more when in group settings than in others. [4]

Now unless we do think of a group as a series of specific individuals, then the behavior thought of may be considered as historical, legal, or political, but never psychological. For the data of psychology can be nothing but the responses of individuals. As a matter of historical interest we may describe the activities of America or the Americans during the Great War, but this can never be considered as psychological action except in a metaphorical sense. Similarly, we might speak of the illegal behavior of an army or the political behavior of a party as well as the moral conduct of the Irish or other people, but no one can be misled into injecting any kind of psychological process into such situations unless they be considered as mystical forces.

There is, then, no such thing as the psychology of a group. From a psychological standpoint the use of such an expression always conceals some illegitimate assumption. Much of the difficulty, no doubt, may be traced to the word " behavior," but we must remember that behavior is not always a psychological term. And so when we speak of the behavior of a group, such behavior is in no sense psychological. Let it not be thought that we are denying that one can speak of the actions of the Americans as a group. Such statements may be perfectly correct if we are referring, for instance, to statistical data such as the expenditure by Americans of so much money per annum for tobacco, navy, etc.

That group behavior is not psychological appears also from the fact that we are really speaking of some sort of entity, legal, political, historical, etc. In this entity may be included physical things, and their operation, as when we declare how much gold we (American group) produced last year. Besides, we may be speaking of the action of some institution, legal, for example, as when we say the English hanged a woman recently. Again, when we speak of the behavior of a group we frequently mean to refer to a status or a relation. Such situations are illustrated by the statement that the Turks have defied or are at war with the British.

What, then, provides the tenacious viability to the conception of group psychology? Is it not the fact that whenever human beings are concerned the behavior can be reduced to the behavior of some unit member of the group ? For example, we can reduce the behavior of an army to the specific (millions) reactions of particular persons to specific stimuli. But this fact provides small comfort

( 424) for those who hold the conception of group psychology and offers no criterion to distinguish between individual and social conduct. (2) A conception which ostensibly implies a correction of the difficulties we have pointed out in the previous formulation, is that the subject-matter of social psychology is a group mind. The actual origin of this conception was in the attempt to provide a psychological foundation for ethnological data. The group mind was presumed to be the source of the artistic, industrial, religious, and other institutional products found among different ethnological groups. This view really amounts only to an effort to provide an explanation, in the form of a superindividual mind, for ethnological facts. Such a view is, of course, an outgrowth of the general psychological tradition that psychology deals with mentalistic, that is to say, intangible, causative materials.

Since this view has been so frequently and so severely criticized, we need not make any further comment upon it, beyond characterizing it as an impossibility. It not only does not provide us with information concerning the data of social psychology, but it is not concerned with facts at all. How such a doctrine came into being is, however, easily comprehended. If psychology deals with a mind of some sort, and we have objects (language, laws) which appear to antedate and to be independent of individual minds, then some superpersonal mind is assumed or created.

(3) Closely connected with the general viewpoint of social psychology just reviewed is the idea that some psychological data consist of psychic forces. This view has its roots more in sociological than in psychological thought. With such a theory it is , hoped to achieve a basic interpretation or explanatory scheme to account for historical, economic, political, and social conditions and situations, etc. No basis, of course, for this theory of social psychology is at hand. It has its origin, no doubt, in the observation that persons sometimes are able, or appear to be able, to control human conditions. But here there are no cosmic functions performed. In each case the activities are specific doings in restricted situations (a congressman getting a bill through), and moreover, are for the most part subject to cultural psychological situations (the informational status of those affected by the legislation) as well as by other sorts of human conditions.

(4) The sociologist stands responsible also for another objectionable view which, in a sense, is a modification of the one just discussed. This view is that the forces operating to condition group facts are actual psychological processes of individuals. For example, there are mentioned such processes as imitation, convention, suggestion, conflict, fear, interstimulation, etc. Two objections may

( 425) be mentioned. First, it is improbable that anything in the way of complicated social conduct is due to such elementary processes as imitation and suggestion, etc. A serious error of simplification is being performed here; namely, the upholders of this view take what are genuine psychological processes and plan to make them serve to account for very much more complicated facts, and, moreover, facts which may not be due to psychological processes at all. Thus, a scientifically valid process, though an entirely irrelevant one, is made to do duty in a situation in which it does not belong. No doubt at all exists that there are a great many other kinds of conditions and situations operating to condition the kind of group phenomena that we find in sociological or historical processes, besides psychological ones. In the second place, in so far as imitation, suggestion, conflict, and similar processes go, they are, when they represent actual responses to stimuli, that is to say psychological facts, individual reactions and are not necessarily material for social psychology at all.

(5) Still another widespread misconception is one that implies that social psychology is concerned exclusively with reactions of persons to other persons as stimuli. Here again we note the influence of sociological thinking, which consists essentially of dividing off social psychology from general psychology by making the former consist of reactions to persons and the latter reactions to impersonal or nonpersonal stimuli. While this conception is not nearly as objectionable as some of the others we have mentioned, since a great many social psychology phenomena do in fact consist of reactions to persons, still this view on the whole is not very helpful in the understanding of social psychology. In the words of Professor Mead " we might just as well have a psychology of mountain tribes because they are subject to high altitudes and rugged landscapes." [5]

Again we repeat that, while this conception has no inherent psychological defect, it is generally invalid from the standpoint of scientific methodology. Does not such a view overlook completely the fact that fully as many of our social reactions are responses to objects and events as they are responses to persons? No doubt this view that persons constitute the stimuli for social reactions is based upon the fact that social reactions must be activities of a distinctly human sort, that is, must take place in a general human situation. But to make this general and obvious fact function to determine the nature of the phenomena dealt with by social psychology is to invite the impossibility of differentiating between different types of psychological behavior.


(6) As another type of misconception of social psychology we will mention the theory that there is a branch or departmental discipline of psychology which investigates the psychology of particular groups. That is to say, owing to the fact that the early students of social psychology were influenced by the ethnological workers, it is still assumed that social psychology is interested in the investigation of the differences between 'the social action or civilization products of particular ethnological units. Thus social psychology is considered to deal with the rise and development of language, myth, and custom in some particular group. This view is closely related to that described in (2), inasmuch as it sometimes implies the assumption that different groups have particular different minds; so that some are capable of, developing a high or another particular kind of civilization, while other groups are not.' In so far as this view is like that of (2) it is subject to the same criticism. It is no more satisfactory, however, when it is free from the taint of a group mind or soul. For in the latter case it is still implicated with the idea that there are inherent differences in groups of people.

Another criticism of this conception is that it tends to obliterate the fact that by a group we do not or can not mean exclusively an ethnological or national unit, but rather that any series of individuals who have developed common reactions to specific kinds of  stimuli actually constitute a group. [6] For example, the individuals who speak a dialect within a larger linguistic group constitute a group no less than the members of the large linguistic unit. Similarly, the individuals who have a specific kind of religious or other sort of activity within a larger group constitute a group unit no less than the members of the more inclusive group.

(7) Finally we come to the conception that social psychology is the study of the socializing process. This theory implies that social psychology is concerned with a process of development of the human mind. The latter is assumed to consist of ideas, beliefs, etc., which are the products, either of the direct activities of the group upon the individual, or the activities of some individuals representative of the group, upon another individual in the group. This interaction of individuals with each other is supposed to result finally in the attainment by both of the mentality of the group of which both are members. This is one form of the socializing conception. Briefly, it has to do with the development of the individual mind.

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Another form is of larger and more inclusive range and attempts to account for the human mind at large, or at least of the human mind in its ethnographic proportions. The more inclusive form is designed to account for the development by the human mind or by groups, of religion, language, mythology, etc. Although in this conception we find a great many psychological truths expressed or hinted at, it does not on the whole provide us with the essential characteristics of social psychology.

(a) In the first place, this socializing conception may be easily interpreted as dealing with mentality instead of with actual behavior processes of individuals. This may be inferred from the fact that great stress is laid upon opinions and beliefs and that the more overt actions are neglected. Historically, the socializing conception, in one of its forms at least, was developed as an attempt to account for mental conditions of an elaborate sort, such as language, mythology, etc., which were presumed to be contrasted with the reflex, sensations, and other simple actions of individuals studied by the methods of physiological psychology.

(b) In detail, this mentalizing theory implies the existence of a group soul or a social consciousness which becomes specialized or focalized in the socializing of an individual. This socializing process is spoken of as the development of an individual consciousness, mind, or self, although there is usually implied that there is a fundamental unity between the social consciousness and the individual mind. It is this implied unity which is the source of the potencies in the socializing process.

Since we have so frequently indicated that social psychology has developed as a parallel to physiological psychology we might well expect that the socialization view is given a naturalistic (evolutionary) and even a behavioristic setting, but this naturalistic veneer can not save the socializing conception from the charge that it is not a definite scientific theory. To be a scientific theory, the fact, if there is any which is symbolized by the social mind, would have to be interpreted as a set of institutions, whereas the individual consciousness would have to be considered as a person with a particular set of behavior or reaction equipments. When the socializing view is interpreted as dealing with mentalities and mentality conditions it, of course, must fall completely out of the range of scientific psychology.

(c) In the second place, this socializing psychology, when it does actually deal with reactions instead of mentality, courts the charge that it overemphasizes the development of traits of a fixed human, racial, or national type, and as a consequence gets away from the

( 628) concrete behavior of persons. This result is especially significant,, since it involves us in such a confusion of facts that we get dangerously near losing our contact with them. Among these conditions we enumerate the following.

When the socializing view is designed to be a means of accounting for general " human " phenomena, such as language, myth, custom, law, etc., and is not intended to cover specific psychological development of language adaptation or the origins of specific features of language, myth, or religion, it can not be said to be a genuine scientific inquiry, for we have absolutely no data concerning the origin of the large human reactions such as language, myth, etc. These attempts at making judgments concerning the origin of these large human activities are, of course, always made in terms of extravagant speculations concerning the nature of the human mind. And so inevitably is this socializing view brought back to at least a consideration of religion, language, etc., of special ethnological or national groups, as the data with which it deals.[7]

But even here we find serious objections. With the interpretation that social psychology is dealing with the religious or linguistic action of particular ethnological or national groups there is just as much difficulty. For to consider actions built up under ethnographic or national auspices as the facts of social psychology means that we overlook the number of particular religious, legal, moral, linguistic, and other reactions falling as particular members under the large general class names.[8] An obvious fact it is that dialects are the inevitable developments in every group language. In exactly the same way actual religious, moral, and other group behavior differs very markedly from the actions describable as standard forms of behavior among some specified ethnographic moiety. These linguistic dialect, religious sect, etc., reactions may differ just as much from the standard ethnographic actions as our individual legal, artistic, religious, and other actions differ from the actions or alleged actions of the same name considered as general human behavior or products of a universal human mind. To illustrate, in a military enterprise, the action (record) of a squad, company, or regiment, may be very different from the action or record of a state, nation, or

( 429) alliance as a larger unit, just as any one of the different units groups may differ from any other one. And this difference may be just as great as the differences between the actions of an individual and any one of these larger units, even when we use the same name for the action, bravery, for example. All such ethnographic or other mass behavior, then, appears to be so involved with statistical phenomena that such behavior can not be considered as psychological facts at all, but rather as historical or anthropological materials.[9]

Not " human " action nor ethnographic behavior, then, constitutes the data of social psychology. Must we then conclude that such data are composed of the small group behavior which we might call a dialect group for language, or a sect group for religion? Here, again, we must reject the socializing conception and for two reasons. In the first place, this view seems to be built up on the prejudice that language, myth, religious custom, and similar large group facts constitute the data of social psychology. The basis for the prejudice appears to be that after all social psychology deals with ethnographic behavior units or human groups, whereas individual psychology deals with individuals as human units. Thus is excluded all of the technological, professional, artistic, and other activities which individuals perform as members of collectivities of various sorts not necessarily ethnographic in character.

Secondly, this view overlooks the fact that as a matter of detail, no matter how small we take our unit, or how large a range of activities those unit groups may cover, we may find all the differences in the world between the actual responses to stimuli which persons display as their behavior, and whatever description (average, perhaps) we can give of any group. In fine, we have here, again, the problem as to whether we are concerned with actual psychological facts.

(d) By far the most objectionable feature of this type of social psychology, especially in its inclusive form, is that always it comes dangerously near being a metaphysics. In the first instance, it is a means of accounting for the ultimate character of the general human mind and not a description of the actual behavior of a specific person, or set of persons. Very definite is there in this view a great overemphasis of the group as a source of ideas and beliefs, and accordingly the individual is most rigidly made into an absolute product of the group. Even when there is a discussion of the interaction of individuals with each other, what comes of that discussion is the conclusion that these individuals are really working out the sorts of language meanings and other behavior conditions

( 430) which are inherent qualities of the group. For after all, this view is based upon a very unacceptable assumption, namely, that what we are dealing with in social psychology is always the relationship of an individual and a single group. The group takes on a very definite entitative character. In consequence, the socializing process becomes an absolute one and the group is loaded with potentialities for the development of the minds and actions of its members.[10] Very little room is allowed for the multitudinous accidents which are owing to the fact that the person is a member of many groups.

What we miss especially in the socialization description of human behavior is any allowance for accidental and individual development. In plain words, this view does not allow for the fortuitous development of ideas, meanings, and beliefs which depends upon specific accidental situations in the life time or conditions of the human individual. Totally lacking, also, in the conception is the view that as a matter of fact it is the activities of persons, specific individuals, which constitute the source of the development of meanings, beliefs, and thoughts. Moreover, the socialization conception does not bring out at all that whatever potency for development lies in the individual is contained in his own experiences, in his contacts with an indefinite number of groups, and with an indefinite number of objects and conditions, and not in his meta- ' physical association with, or relationship to, a group.

(e) On the whole, from the standpoint of a completely empirical or scientific psychology we find in the socializing view a very definite insufficiency of emphasis upon stimuli conditions. By stimulating conditions we mean here the actual things and situations with which the person is in direct or indirect contact. Now just here we may challenge the view that our social or cultural conduct is always and inevitably derived from some group source. But such a challenge must imply that there is at least one other source of cultural behavior. In the form of a question we may ask, can cultural conduct be generated from any but a group source? We think the answer is simple. It can. For example, when stimulated by objects or situations the individual does not always perform constant and similar reactions to them as determined by their natural properties, but very frequently the person's responses may be different and novel. Such a condition would result, for example, from reacting to the present object by analogy with other cultural objects. These new types of reactions may, be the germs of whole traditions of

( 431) different institutions and social conducts. Failing to stress the varied stimuli conditions and their potencies in developing conduct, the upholders of the socialization view can not but locate the foundation of cultural conduct in some sort of collectivistic potencies.

Why the sponsors of the socializing conception do not have much, if anything, to do with stimuli situations is clear because they are exclusively interested in the development of the mind and not in concrete modes of individual actions to correlated stimuli. Accordingly, they require only a mechanism with which to develop the mind. Also when this mind is finally developed it is presumed to operate whenever some cue (not stimulus in our sense) is present, and thus stimuli are in both instances quite superfluous. Quite otherwise is the situation for those who believe that social psychology is concerned with reactions which constitute ways of adjusting to specific objects and conditions. For these psychologists not only can behavior not be otherwise acquired than by various interactions of stimuli and responses, but also at any later period the operations of such conduct depends upon the same connections of the person (reactions) with the identical stimuli.

That this difficulty, as serious as it is, must be realized at least by the more recent sponsors of the socializing conception we must believe. For it is hardly possible to escape the observation that, after all, to be cultivating a workable psychology we must be investigating responses to stimuli. And, indeed, we are fairly well convinced that an apparent substitute for stimuli is being offered in some of the social psychological discussions. What is this substitute? The overstressing of persons as factors in the mechanisms which develop the group or human mind is, unwittingly perhaps, but none the less definitely, offered as such a substitute. Needless to say, such a substitution is impossible, for as we have sufficiently indicated there is very little if anything in common between (1) the building up of actions or a mind by the inevitable operation of a group (through persons) upon an individual, and (2) the building up of cultural responses through a more or less fortuitous connection of persons and innumerable objects as possible stimuli. [11]

And so while it is undoubtedly true that persons constitute a large share of our stimuli, and also that they are potent as stimulating occasions, this is no more than an accidental fact from the

( 432) standpoint of. the person's actual psychological development or function. An alternative interpretation is, of course, possible of the fact that the sponsors of the socializing view stress persons in their work. That is to say, instead of substituting for stimuli, they may merely mean to assert that cultural phenomena can only develop among human beings, but this assertion, although based upon fact, offers us an entirely superfluous statement.

The inquiry as to whence comes this emphasis of the group as a social agency (builder of minds) and the consequent stress of persons as factors in cultural development elicits the answer that these conditions are based upon some actual observation which is unfortunately not correctly interpreted. The actual observation is that certain of our actions, which we might call national or race traits, consist of responses which have as their stimuli reactions of persons within a localized group. Thus our language, morals, religions, etc., are acquired by stimulation from persons representing the linguistic or religious group. But let us observe that by far the largest number of actual psychological stimuli functioning to make the individual build up reactions which he has in common with members of his particular groups, are not persons, but physical things, natural objects, buildings, writings, laws, customs, etc. Moreover, the processes which have to do with the building up and the continuation of such social stimuli need not be exclusively psychological in character at all, but may be entirely historical, political, social, etc.

(f) Most of the criticisms mentioned apply with special force to the more inclusive types of socializing conceptions. The more exclusive conception only escapes some of our objections, however, and this is because it is concerned mainly with the process of how a particular kind or series of actions is developed and not so much with the kind of actions involved. But on the other hand, this type of socializing view merits censure which is more particularly applicable to it. For in the first place, this version of the socializing conception, no less than the inclusive one, makes the data of all psychology consist of group facts, whereas it should allow for individual as well as group reactions; that is to say, it should allow for actions peculiar to private individuals as well as for reactions peculiar to individuals as members of groups. This unfortunate result is reached because, while the exclusive view starts out with a group as a developmental agent for the development of certain reactions, it ends up by making the developed products of the group type, either ethnographic or cultural, the sole data of all psychology. As a consequence, therefore, the exclusive version also makes the

( 433) concrete facts of behavior disappear, especially since it overstresses the dependence of the mind or the person's behavior equipment upon a group. This view, then, comes close to denying the occurrence of reasoning and other types of psychological behavior which operate as unique adaptions to stimuli.

And in the second place, very little room, if any, is allowed in the socializing type of cultural psychology for the actual facts of cultural responses, that is, for the actual operation of responses or actual adaptations to stimuli, since all of such facts are dissipated in the theories of the development of the person's mind.

The conclusion at which we arrive, therefore, after studying the various conceptions of social psychology is that, as a matter of fact, social psychology can only deal with specific psychological phenomena, actual responses of specific individuals to specific stimuli situations. In principle, these activities or responses are in both development and operation exactly like those of general psychology. What then constitutes the difference between a social and an individual psychological fact? Precisely this, that the data of social psychology constitute cultural reactions, that is to say, reactions which are built up by a conformity process, a process, namely, by which we become adapted to institutions or cultural stimuli which consist of things or actions found in the group or groups in which we live. In this sense social psychology is always a genetic study. The primary emphasis is upon the genetic development of an individual. But this culturalization process is not any sort of metaphysical process, nor is it an inevitable modification of an individual by a group, but a very definite interchange of influences of particular individuals upon other particular individuals.

In a succeeding paper we shall attempt a more exact determination of the character of cultural reactions.



  1. As a matter of cultural history social psychology has another source of origin in the fact that the period, which we may determine upon as the chronological origin of social psychology (early and middle 19th century), may be considered pregnant with interest in human phenomena. For psychology is only one of the many interests in man and his conditions and arises out of the same matrix from which is derived our interests in biological, organico-chemical, philological, mythological and other studies.
  2. This statement is true only for the psychologists. Philosophers have very persistently pursued certain problems as social psychology, for example, the origin and development of the self. In fact, most of the ideas concerning social psychology which we have today are strongly reminiscent of Hegelian characteristics. This fact is evident from a study of the work of Wundt, Royce, and others attached to this tradition.
  3. The writer wishes to avoid the notion that these are held by different psychologists. Furthermore, he is not interested in criticizing these various conceptions as the actual views of writers on social psychology. His aim rather is the more constructive one of pointing out what errors are to be avoided in psychological investigation, whether anyone has actually committed such errors or not. As a record of fact, however, all of these conceptions ass prominently represented in the literature of social psychology.
  4. Especially when we consider the diverse complex reactions of a person to various other persons.
  5. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. VI, 1909, pp. 401-408.
  6. When we take such a group as the basis of our study we may have a psychology of a group, but here we are studying the reactions acquired by several or many persons through actual contact with similar or identical stimuli, and not kinds or degrees of development of particular "given" types of minds.
  7. At this point the socializing view becomes closely related to the view discussed under (6). Now, while the latter view refers to a psychological ethnology (the study of the mental causes and conditions of a group) and the present view (at least partially) to an ethnologized psychology (the group's potency in making minds), there must be much overlapping between them. As we shall see later, the socializing view has much in common with some of the other conceptions also.
  8. This situation parallels in the realm of behavior a difficulty which we have already observed (6) in the case of groups.
  9. Such mass action may get into the field of psychology by becoming the stimuli for actions of persons.
  10. In support of this view various well-sounding metaphors are employed, to wit, the assertion that the individual and the group are different aspects of the same thing, etc. From a psychological standpoint an individual has, of course, no such social aspect.
  11. Fortuitous, that is, so far as any particular type of behavior acquisition is concerned. There is no chance involved in the matter of whether reactions will be acquired when the appropriate and unobstructed stimuli are present.

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