American Social Psychology — 1951

Fay B. Karpf


During the more than four decades since the publication of the first volumes on social psychology by Ross and McDougall social psychology has become a popular and highly diversified subject. The two-sided approach represented by these two early volumes continues, with more recent contributions from the fields of psychiatry and anthropology. The resulting complexity of subject matter contributes to difficulties and precipitates special problems of integration and unification, reflected in current views of motivation, the recent “culture and personality" movement, and the developing interdisciplinary approach to social-psychological problems.

The recent death of the famous author of the first work [1] published under the title Social Psychology in this country, and, in fact, anywhere, would seem to be the proper occasion to take stock of American social psychology. For this event effectively dramatizes the facts both that social psychology, even viewed as a specialized discipline, is a very young field and that it has a history of a generation and more, which is all too often disregarded by recent newcomers to the field, who not infrequently proceed as if they are marking out and laying claim to altogether newly discovered territory.

During the more than four decades since the publication of Ross's Social Psychology (1908), social psychology has become a very popular field: courses and texts are added seemingly without end; psychology and sociology both lay claim to the subject as their own; volumes and articles appear almost daily on the social psychology of all sorts of topics; impressive social-psychological studies are subsidized and reported with increasing frequency; and, in general, the subject appears to have established itself as a specialty among the psychological and social sciences, both academically and more widely in relation to modern science.[2]

And yet the field remains in a disturbing state of confusion which is not entirely a part of its comparative youth and recent development but is to a considerable extent determined by the similar condition of the closely related psychological and social sciences. The following are some of the more important considerations in explanation.


It is, of course, generally known that almost simultaneously with the appearance of Ross's Social Psychology [3] there also appeared McDougall's Introduction to Social Psychology. This two-sided approach to the subject matter of social psychology from the standpoints of sociology and psychology has set a pattern which has persisted to the present, especially since, under the influence of the biological orientation in individual psychology and, indeed, in American psychological and social science generally at the time, there was a tendency to disregard McDougall's view that his volume was merely an introduction to the subject matter of social psychology proper, which he later presented in his Group Mind (1920). It is in conformity with this traditional two-

( 188) sided approach, therefore, that social-psychological texts continue to be prepared from the psychological and sociological standpoints in essential isolation from each other; the subject, as a recent survey has disclosed,[4] is taught in departments of sociology and psychology in almost equal proportion; the orientation and content material continue to be slanted toward either psychology or sociology, as the case may be (so that, as has been noted,[5] the subject is presented as social psychology in the one instance and as social psychology in the other); interreferencing between the two approaches is scarce and grudging; terminologies are correspondingly distinct and confusing; and, altogether, the subject presents marked symptoms of a divided personality -so much so that publishers claim that duplicate volumes appearing under psychological and sociological publications scarcely compete with each other.

Recognition of this unhealthy state of affairs has lately prompted collaborative attempts at integration and a marked trend toward the interdisciplinary presentation of the subject matter of social psychology, a movement which has been especially highlighted by a recent publication entitled Social Psychology at the Crossroads.[6] But the fruitfulness of these developments still remains to be demonstrated, and, meanwhile, the situation is a matter of urgent concern to many, under the stress of modern conditions and the resulting pressure for practical contributions from the sciences of human behavior and social life.


In considerable part, present-day confusion and division in the field stem from the void left by the discrediting of instinct psychology in this country during the twenties, especially as represented by McDougall's Introduction to Social Psychology. For, despite all that may be said in criticism of McDougall's instinct doctrine, it was a decidedly unifying influence which held the field practically unchallenged, in so far as the supposed "dynamic" foundation of human behavior was concerned, for almost two decades. The concentration of comment and later controversy about this doctrine points to its exceptionally important role at the time.

Consideration of this central subject will, therefore, illustrate concretely the situation in general, as regards some of the problem areas which define current differences of emphasis and orientation in the field.

With the discrediting of McDougall's system of instinct psychology the field was left wide open for various substitute formulations, so that a veritable flood of new formulations began to appear to complicate and also to confuse the situation. Among these, the most notable from the standpoint of the immediate advance of American social psychology was the theory of attitudes and values formulated by Thomas and Znaniecki in their important five-volume work The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-20). The ground for this impressive work had been building up in significant fashion for some time through a series of especially noteworthy publications and developments, including, on the sociological side, the important early works of Cooley, Ross, and Sumner, in addition to Thomas' own earlier work, and, on the psychological side, functional psychology in the form developed by Dewey and Mead, the beginnings of behaviorism, and the gradual popularization of psychoanalysis in this country.

The approach formulated by Thomas and Znaniecki defined the sociological and social-psychological viewpoints and largely held the ground, in so far as sociological thought and research were concerned, for almost another two decades, which, however, overlapped the period dominated by

( 189) McDougall's work and, in fact, was one of the strongholds of criticism of the latter.[7] But this formulation, influential as it was, did not unify the field as had McDougall's, since other substitute formulations, especially on the psychological side Floyd Allport's formulation of behavioristic reflex theory (Social Psychology, 1924), likewise had their strong followings. There were, in addition, prominent theories in terms of desires, habits, interests, wants, needs, drives, and others. This flood of rival systems of formulation encouraged an uncritical eclecticism which added still further to the confusion. And yet so accustomed had we become to thinking in terns of innate and basic "springs to action," a view powerfully supported at the time by the developing popularity of Freudian psychology, that, in the absence of a generally acceptable and scientifically valid formulation, every prominent writer in the field of social psychology for a time felt impelled to formulate his own restatement of the controversial material. Even Thomas and Znaniecki supplemented their attitude-value orientation with their well-known statement of the four wishes, which were associated through incidental but nevertheless definite references with instinct doctrine.


It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the whole subject of motivation in social psychology has remained in a state of flux. Three alternative solutions have been in evidence. It is in the first place possible to bypass the whole disturbing subject of motivation and to direct one's attention to the study of concrete behavior in specific situations. This solution has had a wide appeal among researchers concerned with the investigation of circumscribed problems. It is also possible to adopt one of the more congenial established formulations for a specific purpose without involvement in the more controversial general problem. A third increasingly popular solution is to attempt a more inclusive eclectic formulation, usually presented in terms of some sort of "integration." None of these solutions has been completely satisfactory, but no completely satisfactory solution is possible in the present circumstances.

Thought about motivation has become too complex and critical for a single definitive formulation to capture the field again without a great deal of further verifying re-' search. However, in the light of the framework of recent criticism and the accumulation of evidence from various fields, one all-important guiding principle has been widely accepted, namely, that the study of motives, in the words of a current volume on social psychology, "apart from social settings is fruitless if not actually misleading."[8] Or, as otherwise stated in another very recent volume: The approach to social psychology "simply by extrapolating the picture formed of individuals" is today recognized as having "led us up blind alleys."[9] This in itself is an outstandingly important social-psychological step ahead and is evidence of the developing lines of convergence which the interdisciplinary approach is introducing. And in connection with this guiding principle some further consideration of the third solution noted above seems necessary, since it is around this alternative solution that controversy in this area continues active in the field.

The bipolar attitude-value approach, formulated in such impressive fashion by Thomas and Znaniecki and later restated by

( 190) Thomas in terms of the "situational" approach and by others variously in terms of the "interaction," "field," and "configuration" approaches, as well as more recently in still other terms, has been immensely productive from the standpoint of investigational procedure and, in fact, has initiated a most fruitful period of empirical research.[10] But it has been less successfully maintained in systematic theory and in the increasingly important applied areas of counseling, therapy, education, and social work, areas in which, in accordance with developing interests, social psychology has increasingly sought to make its distinctive contribution. These, however, are the very areas in which Freudian theory has long been predominant, and, consequently, most recent eclectic formulations have sought, in one way or another, to incorporate various aspects of Freudian psychology within some framework of general theory more congenial to the established social-psychological standpoint. In this way instinct psychology, reinterpreted in Freudian terms, has achieved a more recent period of influence in the field of social psychology, despite the fact that Freudian instinct doctrine is, in some respects, even less acceptable from a genuine social-psychological standpoint than was McDougall's.

For, quite apart from the controversial character of both instinct doctrines, McDougall never maintained, as did Freud, that the study of man in his group life "can be nothing other than applied psychology,"[11] a standpoint which does not allow for social psychology in any significant sense at all and which clearly affects the psychoanalytic conception of human behavior and personality development as well as its view of group life. On the contrary, McDougall stated in his Group Mind that he was there dealing with a new order of mental phenomena beyond "the mere sum of individual units" and hence not governed by "the laws of individual life,"12 a view which was later essentially disregarded by most of McDougall's followers. Psychoanalytic sociology and social psychology, on the other hand, in the spirit of the Freudian conception, really remain applied individual psychology or, rather, psychoanalysis. This is of some significance in respect to motivation doctrine and is well illustrated in the recent discussions of "culture and personality," which we shall accordingly consider briefly in this connection.


The amazing popularity of recent attempts to combine the study of culture and personality indicates the widely felt need for an integrated approach to the more complex problems of personality, conduct, and social life, so that the pictures presented by the various sciences dealing with these areas of investigation can be more harmoniously related.

Recent culture and personality materials are of varying importance and validity, but for the most part they have one characteristic in common, in so far as their social-psychological significance is concerned, which links them directly with the foregoing consideration of the controversial nature of recent motivation theory in social psychology.

The recent popular interest in and dis-

( 191) -cussion of culture and personality were initiated two decades ago by certain analytically inclined anthropologists and certain psychiatrists of the psychoanalytic school who had become concerned about some of the challenging anti attention-getting findings of modern cultural anthropology. This collaborative team has continued to dominate consideration of the subject even though, more recently, there has been a tendency to expand participation and to include some representatives from related fields. However, the movement has taken shape and for the most part continues its course in essential isolation from the fields of sociology and social psychology, despite the fact that these fields, above all others, have for over half a century been concerned with the subject of culture in relation to personality and with the more general problem of individual-group relations, of which the subject of culture and personality is a part.[14] This isolationism is a challenging commentary on the movement and helps to explain the character of some of the products which have so far resulted from it.

As is so frequently the case in the psychological and social sciences, both sides of the original collaborative team came to the problem of culture and personality de novo and as if it had never been considered before. In consequence, they have repeated some of the mistakes previously made, especially the uncritical attempt to apply a questionable personality dynamics to the interpretation of cultural products and processes. The psychoanalytic conception of personality dynamics is today highly controversial, even on the level of individual behavior,[15] and certainly is suspect on the level of sociocultural interpretation. While a fresh start on the fundamental problem of the relation of culture and personality might have been productive of new insight and grasp of essentials, in this particular situation, therefore, the obstacles to such significant development have so far not been overcome.

From the social-psychological standpoint, accordingly, the most characteristic of these culture and personality materials seek to integrate basically inconsistent elements, so that they inevitably result in a conglomeration of controversial evidence, findings, and conclusions. They essentially incorporate the Freudian view, as noted above, that the interpretation of culture is a field of psychoanalytic application, a position, as already suggested, which practically negates the distinctiveness of cultural anthropology as well as of sociology and social psychology. It is on this account that some of the culture and personality materials have been characterized as the products of an "illicit union" by some sharp critics, and it has been maintained by them that what is new in the movement is unsound and what is sound is not new [16]

On the other hand, these materials deal with a highly important problem, and they have succeeded in popularizing and dramatizing the concept of "culture and personality" to such an extent as to secure its acceptance in many areas where it was previously disregarded. It has thus revealed common interdisciplinary ground and prepared the way for a more thoroughgoing integration as the situation develops and new insight into the relational processes involved emerges. Already, popularization of the culture-personality concept has brought about

( 192) a general recognition of the interrelations of culture and personality, especially of the cultural determinants of personality. On the theoretical side, the realization has gradually followed that generalizations about personality are culture-limited and that this limitation must somehow play its proper role in personality theory-certainly a necessary corrective in view of traditionally entrenched individualistic doctrine.

We are confronted, therefore, with a situation in which the importance of a problem, in the light of theoretical as well as pressing practical considerations, has encouraged a type of interpretation which markedly outdistances present-day knowledge. For this very reason the recent culture and personality movement illustrates particularly well the difficulties of interdisciplinary integration at the present time in the complex and diversified area occupied by modern social psychology.[17]


Social psychology, in the nature of its content, has been integrative from the beginning, but today it is also actively interdisciplinary, so that it incorporates, in many areas, a composite of contributions from the fields of sociology and psychology, anthropology and psychiatry. This complexity of material makes for the enrichment of content but, as already noted, it creates special problems of integration and unification.

For the time being, problems of integration are for the most part tentatively solved by means of compilations of material from the contributing fields with a minimum of theoretical interlinking or by means of various types of eclecticism, which but add to the growing complexity of the field and highlight the need for more basic integration. In a field as comparatively recent, active, and complex as modern social psychology it is inevitable that there should be variety in viewpoint, orientation, and procedure. This is not a cause for concern but a sign of healthy and many-sided activity. However, after a period of isolated disciplinary development and intensified emphasis on empirical research at the expense of historical background and theoretical perspective, there is today a balancing and urgent need of organization and unification in the field. This is, of course, one of the prime objectives of the recent interdisciplinary movement, and much hope is today centered in the integrative possibilities of the interdisciplinary approach.

Recent American social psychology, as indicated, is noted for its special emphasis on empirical research and the resulting impressive output of research materials of varied description. This emphasis followed as a reaction against the previous period of analytic theorizing, so frequently based on a background of untested assumptions and questionable observations. But reactions are known to be extreme. Research emphasis has accordingly sometimes been reduced to a preoccupation with research technique and the accumulation of information in themselves and apart from their relation to the field as a whole. The recent renewed interest in theory is evidence of the developing view that the time has now arrived for another corrective revision of focus in the field of social psychology, leading to a more effective interplay of the two lines of development and to a more balanced and representative outlook on the highly important problems which at present confront the field.

It is in this connection that the interdisciplinary approach has much to offer by way of clarification and interchange of viewpoints and findings, a process which has in the past been notably obstructed by a confusion of rival terminologies and consequent lack of a common universe of discourse. Such clarification and interchange are the natural products of the interdisciplinary approach, and this the many concrete projects

( 193) seek to accomplish on different levels and in various forms.[18]

It is questionable whether, in its present stage of development and in view of differences of basic theory, more specific contributions can be expected from the interdisciplinary approach. However, in the light of the broadened perspective thus provided, planned and focused research, whether carried on within the framework of the interdisciplinary approach or in terms of the collaborating individual disciplines, will gradually sift and fuse current differences, in so far as these differences can be fused on the basis of accumulating insight and evidence.

For the rest, differences are a legitimate and necessary part of an actively and freely developing field, and, provided they rest on a solid basis of verifiable fact or interpretation rather than on artificial differences of terminology and are clearly recognized so that they may increasingly lend themselves to the processes of scientific integration, they are essential to continuing advance and progress. Significant research itself requires such differences to focus productive inquiry and to spark fundamental lines of development. Thus the frontiers of modern social psychology, as is the case with scientific disciplines generally, will be gradually and more systematically advanced to permit increasing unification of the field and a more inclusive grasp of the whole content of social-psychological subject matter, theory, and method.



  1. Despite a previous preliminary attempt at formulation by C. A. Ellwood.
  2. Developments during and since the first World War were instrumental in bringing several of the psychological and social sciences to the fore, including social psychology, in consequence of the widely recognized need for bringing the sciences of human behavior and social life into some sort of effective balance with recent progress in the physical sciences.
  3. Ross had already previously published another important social-psychological volume, his Social Control (New York: Macmillan Co., 1901). This volume and Cooley's Human Nature and the Social Order (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902), in conjunction with the early background works of James, Baldwin, and Dewey, set the stage for the continuing interest in and development of American Social psychology.
  4. W. B. Cameron, P. Lasley, and R. Dewey, "Who Teaches Social Psychology?" American Sociological Review, XV (1950), 553-55.
  5. H. S. Britt, "Social Psychologists or Psychological Sociologists-Which?" Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, XXXII (1937), 314-18.
  6. J. H. Rohrer and M. Sherif, Social Psychology al the Crossroads (New York: Harper & Bros., 1951).
  7. The crest of this wave of criticism of instinct psychology as a basis for social psychology was marked by L. L. Bernard's Instinct--A Study in Social Psychology (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1924). But such widely publicized articles as K. Dunlap's "Are There Any Instincts?" Journal of Abnormal Psychology, XIV (1919), 307-11, and E. Faris' "Are Instincts Data or Hypotheses?" Ann, lean Journal of Sociology, XVII (1921), 184-96, were probably more immediately effective in undermining the instinct position and are still valid from the standpoint of basic social-psychological orientation.
  8. S. S. Sargent, Social Psychology-an Integrative Interpretation (New York: Ronald Press Co., 1950), p. 163.
  9. Rohrer and Sherif, op. cit., pp. 1 and 392.
  10. The importance of The Polish Peasant in this connection, as well as of Thomas' later restatements, has been widely recognized; for example, through two special publications by the Social Science Research Council: H. Blumer, An Appraisal of Thomas and Znaniecki's "The Polish Peasant in Europe and America" (New York: Social Science Research Council Bulletin 44, 1939) and E. H. Volkart (ed.), Social Behavior and Personality: Contributions of W. I. Thomas to Theory and Social Research (New York: Social Science Research Council, 1951).
  11. S. Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1933), p. 245.
  12. W. McDougall, The Group Mind (New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1920), p. 17.
  13. The reference here is to much of the recent literature which attempts to combine anthropology and psychoanalysis, a prominent and widely discussed example of which is A. Kardiner, The Psychological Frontiers of Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1945).
  14. The work of Wundt, Sumner, and Durkheim, to mention only three influential pioneers in this area of investigation---quite apart from the varied work of more recent investigators, some of which has already been noted in other connections---sufficiently documents this observation,
  15. The rapidly developing neo-Freudian movement, in its various forms, is just one of the important present-day manifestations of this fact from within the psychoanalytic movement itself. Especially to be noted is the position which has been elaborated in a series of influential publications by Karen Horney, for example, her New Ways in Psychoanalysis (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1939).
  16. Especially H. W. Dunham's review of A. Kardiner and L. Ovesey, The Mark of Oppression, in American Sociological Review, XVI (1951), 730-32, and A. R. Lindesmith and A. L. Strauss, "A Critique of Culture-Personality Writings," American Sociological Review, XV (1950), 587-600.
  17. Because of the widespread current interest in the interdisciplinary approach, these difficulties tend to be disregarded or minimized, but they in variably manifest themselves, nevertheless, in various disturbing ways in most of the interdisciplinary products. This will be noted again in a later connection.
  18. One important series of interdisciplinary projects was considered in the section on culture and personality materials. Another contrasting development is represented by the impressive report edited by Talcott Parsons and Edward A. Shils entitled Toward a General Theory of Action (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951). The latter is the product of an elaborate interdisciplinary attempt on the part of nine eminent representatives from the fields of psychology, sociology, and anthropology to arrive at agreement with regard to theoretical fundamentals common to these co-operating fields. These two types of projects represent opposite poles of attack on common problems in the current interdisciplinary movement. And, while neither of these attacks has managed to avoid the difficulties which are today inherent in the situation, they illustrate the vitality and many-sidedness of the movement, which is eventually bound to affect favorably the development of all the collaborating fields, especially the integrative efforts of social psychology.

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