Some Methodological Problems of Social Psychology and Social Psychiatry[1]

Ernst T. Krueger
Vanderbilt University

AT THE outset of a discussion of this sort we are confronted with the complication of point of view. Presumably social psychology, as developed in the last decade, has gained some considerable consistency of viewpoint, in the stress it now places upon social interaction, or symbolic communication, in the explanation of human behavior. Psychiatry, on the other hand, has far less consistency in this respect. It is broken into schools and highly individualized approaches, ranging from an almost purely biological to a social interactional approach. It is for this reason that the title to this paper proposes the limitation, social psychiatry, as a means of obviating the difficulty of reconciling points of view into at least some narrow range. We are finding, now, an increasing number of psychiatrists who lean heavily upon a social explanation of personality, and it is the work of such which we wish to discuss in conjunction with that of the social psychologists.[2]

It is, of course, apparent that point of view differentiates scientific disciplines with respect to a given problem and determines the explanations offered. Therein lies the significance and value of the various sciences. Method, often confused with point of view, has on the other hand no partisan allegiance. It belongs to the philosophy of the sciences and is the same for all of the sciences. Presumably, hence, there is no method peculiar to psychology, sociology, biology, social psychology or psychiatry, though each may stress the use of one method as over against another. What is important is the explanatory approach which each science brings to bear when, by the application of method, findings are brought to light; for

( 42) these findings would be fairly sterile were it not for the interpretation which point of view places upon them.

A further complication arises in the fact that psychiatry is primarily concerned with treatment rather than study, whereas social psychology practices no therapeutic art. Nevertheless, psychiatry has been in a position to verify the conclusions of science, insofar as treatment stands as a substitute for experimentation. Perhaps because of the immaturity of the psychic sciences, or because of the inconsistencies and limitations of these sciences, psychiatry has sought to evolve its own science of behavior. What may finally result from this endeavor is hard to say. There have been refreshing evidences that the psychiatrists have begun in recent years to pay more attention to social psychology and to take into account the conclusions of the various social sciences.[3]

Indeed, psychiatry stands in the exceedingly favorable position of being able to synthesize and check many of the conclusions of social psychology, psychology, sociology, biology, and psychoanalysis with respect to individual human behavior. In all of these disciplines the growing recognition of the importance of social relations, personal and cultural, creates a focus of attention around which everything we know about the individual, both physical and psychic behavior, can be organized into a fuller understanding of what we call personality. In the fact that human weal or woe inheres finally in the emotional satisfactions of persons and that these satisfactions and dissatisfactions are significantly dependent upon the inter-relations of persons, common ground is provided for a united attack upon the distortions, inadequacies, and disorders of the mental and emotional life of individuals. Harry Stack Sullivan, to whom, it seems, we owe the fetching phrase, "interpersonal relations," has this to say on the point.

If it were not for the parataxic concomitance of unresolved interpersonal situations of the chronological past that survive in and complicate temporally present interpersonal situations, the study of human relations would be much less recondite than it is. In the presence of this ubiquitous factor, however, the elucidation of the fundamental characteristics of interpersonal relations ("personality processes”) in the form of scientific laws requires the extended collaboration of investigators along many approaches.[4]

Perhaps the social psychologists will not be eager to concede so central a position to the psychiatrists, since they conceive their special science to occupy just this position, but there can be no doubt that the clinical rôle of the psychiatrist has an advantage over the academic rôle of the social psychologist in the close study and observation of individuals whose personality creates problems for themselves and for others. Some solace may be gained from the fact that in so far as the social psychiatrist evolves a science of personality he is a social psychologist.

Both social psychology and psychiatry are interested in the individual as a personality. To be sure there are almost as many definitions of personality as there are writers, but the fact does not seriously interfere with research.[5] Both stress the

( 43) importance of infancy and early childhood in the formation of behavior tendencies and emotional disposition. Moreover, both, from an etiological standpoint, emphasize the family as the social matrix of personality, recognizing, too, that the family as a social group is related to larger orders of social organization and subject to pressures from without. Both stress the dynamic character of this family social matrix, composed as it is of interacting personalities, each affected by time and circumstance, each a part of the whole, the infant as significantly as the parent being a participating member, being modified by the family situation and modifying it as well. It is as a participant in this dynamic social matrix that the infant becomes human and acquires a personality and a self. It is here that emotional life becomes organized into what we call attitudes, a term used to indicate those subjective tendencies to behavior which determine how persons will respond to objects and situations.

It follows, then, that in seeking an explanation of children's behavior problems, the family becomes of extraordinary importance. It is significant that Healy and Bronner, in their latest book, New Light on Delinquency and Its Treatment, state that their study "reflects the growing emphasis, largely taken over from psychiatry, which all workers in the social sciences have found themselves forced to place upon human relationships and upon the emotional issues involved therein," and that they regard the family rather than the delinquent child as the unit to be studied and dealt with.[6] These authors find that the specific reactions of the individual "are primarily due to influences arising from formative experiences in early family life; only secondarily are the specific reactions to be thought of as caused by extra-familial social pressures."[7]

The research problems of social psychology and social psychiatry are many. All ages come under their scientific purview, and all personality conditions, whether normal or abnormal. These two disciplines do not agree on terminology, or concepts. Many of the so-called mechanisms of personality used by psychiatry, and more especially, those taken over from psychoanalysis, fall on strange ears, not to speak of deaf ears, among the social psychologists.[8] While these concepts are related more to point of view than to methodology, they do indicate the diverse character of the problems studied and the theories evolved in research.

For the purposes of this paper the relation of the family to child personality problems is selected for discussion. What we want to know is, what family situations result in what forms of child responses, and from the standpoint of method, how to find this out and what the difficulties are, trying to find out.

At the moment we have as yet no thoroughgoing classification of family situations which create child behavior problems. Gleaned from various sources, and mostly from sociological literature, the following list may be given by way of illustration:

1. Emotional instability of parents

2. Incompatibility of parents

3. Over-restraint of child

4. Under-restraint of child

5. Lack of intimacy and affection toward child

6. Parental disparagement of child

( 44)

7. Projection of parental ambition upon child

8. Pampering of child

9. Keeping the child infantile

10. Conflict of authority

11. Favoritism as between children

12. Family disgraces

This classification may be made longer or shorter, as may any classification. Moreover, the situations do not affect all children adversely and may have varying effects when they do affect children adversely. The test of affectivity lies in how the child responds, the meaning which a situation has for him. This means that children in the same family may in fact not actually have the same situation, or it may mean that individual differences in response are significantly present.

If we approach the problem from the standpoint of the child's emotional responses in family situations, the variety of classifications possible may be very great, since our language is replete with innumerable synonyms expressing attitude and emotionality. We may use by way of illustration, the following list of behavior difficulties from one of the Judge Baker Foundation studies, representing a study of 55 cases.

1. Stubborn, unmanageable, or very disobedient

2. Excessive interest in sex

3. Over emotional; emotional upsets

4. Over excitable, over active, high-strung

5. Irresponsible behavior

6. Quarrelsomeness

7. Moody spells

8. Socially inept (awkward with others, disliked)

9. Excessive temper

10. Egocentric and defiant

11. Childish and suggestible

12. Lazy, mischievous, non-conforming

Subsidiary difficulties in these same cases are described as "wilfulness, great show of independence, over sensitiveness, changeableness, sauciness, exhibitionism, showing off in general, mischievousness, jealousy, destructiveness, excessive day dreaming, lying and fabricating, feelings of inferiority, lack of inhibitions."[9]

Now, what strikes one immediately in reading case materials is that we have no standard classification of emotional responses. Each investigator seemingly resorts to the use of any appropriate artistic words in the English language expressive of behavior in the given case. The result is a certain chaos of terms, all of which are vivid and capable of giving nuances of meaning, but with no certainty of comparability.

Thus far we have merely a list of family situations which have been found to be productive of child personality problems and a list of child responses which presumably have some relationship or source in family situations. What we need, of course, is to link situation with response. Mary B. Sayles speaks of the situation, "too concentrated attention" of parents, as expressed in "over-enjoyment and overpraise," and, more rarely, in "over-stressing of the desire for perfection, and severity." This situation seems to have three possible out-comes: (a) occasionally a repressed, serious, well-behaved child; (b) but more likely an active, demanding, destructive child; or (c) a passive, helpless, wheedling child.[10] We may use this illustration to show what is meant by linking situation to response, although in doing so we must recognize, as does Mary Sayles, that other factors than the family situation enter into the problem of outcome.

Just how can such linkage of situation

( 45) and response be determined? It is obvious that it must be imputed, since subjective elements are present both in the situation and in the response. The usual case procedure is to explore the emotional responses of both parent and child through interviewing, seeking descriptions of behavior in concrete situations, and noting the emotional qualities which are expressed, directly or indirectly. A mere statement of attitudes on the part of parent or child is not adequate, but expressed attitudes may be checked by eliciting behavior events in family experience. Similarly, tests of emotional qualities can furnish little more than clues of what to look for.

It is from such case materials that classifications of family situations and resulting child personality traits must be made. The procedure is relatively simply stated in the usual statistical form but the task would not be simple. There are sufficient numbers of cases in the files of child-guidance clinics to undertake the study, but a host of methodological difficulties would arise to plague the researcher. Those difficulties lie chiefly in the subjective nature of the case studies. Let us examine some of these difficulties.

1. The behavior of a child in specific family situations can only rarely be directly observed, since the spontaneous, intimate and private relations of family life undergo modification in the presence of an investigator.

2. Resort to the interview technique raises the problem of validity. Parents are not usually objective in reporting their own behavior and attitudes. They often evade or rationalize, and are seldom fully aware of the nature and quality of their responses to the child. They may, for example, indicate that they scold the child, whip him or reason with him but the case investigator can only broadly assess these responses in terms of intensity, manner, and attitude. The story of the child, likewise, is subject to similar difficulties.

3. The insight, skill, experience, and personality of the investigator are of paramount importance, partly because the intimate subjective life of persons, as we have just indicated, is often difficult to uncover and partly because the investigator may unconsciously become a factor in the character of the verbal material secured from subjects.

4. The point of view of the investigator may, and does, color the analysis he makes, and, it may be, the material he secures. Scientific men are not always exempt from biases in favor of certain generalities of explanation, such as mother and father fixation, the feeling of inferiority, wish frustration, and instinctual urges, with the result that in imputing child behavior to family situation the investigator finds what he is looking for.

5. Terminology to express emotional responses is still largely literary in form, and, hence, subject to wide variation.

This statement of the difficulties of the case method in the study of child problems does not constitute a plea for the substitution of quantitative rating schemes and tests, valuable as these may be. Quite the contrary. If the day ever comes when pencil and paper displace the intimate prowling of the case scientist into the lives of human beings, it will be because we no longer care to know why people behave as they do. What the statement does mean is merely that we are aware of the difficulties and are willing to bring them to light for whatever value they may have in securing better case studies but more particularly to indicate the tentative nature of the results should any-

( 46) one undertake a comparative study of cases to ascertain the relation of family situations to child personality problems.[11]

Nor need we worry about the tentative nature of the results of such an undertaking. Once a classification of family situations and correlated child responses is obtained by the comparative study of cases, social psychology and social psychiatry would be in position to proceed to verification. In the field of delinquency, for example, Healy and Bronner's latest study, to which we alluded in the beginning, has opened the way for a check study to see if similar conclusions emerge. It ought not be difficult to find a sufficient run of child behavior cases in which distressing physical conditions do not play an important part and in which personality responses are not clearly pathological, so that in the elimination of such factors we might more clearly discern the rôle of family life in the emotional responses of children. It will not be enough merely to discover "intense feelings of deprivations, inadequacies, or thwartings as related to ego-impulses or desires for affection" and the symptoms which reveal these feelings in children. We need to know what kinds of parent-child relations develop what symptoms of such feelings in children.

Our problem, let it be said, is not one of ascertaining why children become delinquent. It might equally be important to find out why children in certain family situations fail to become delinquent. Some of these latter children might be fully as significant personality problems as those who take the road to delinquency. Ten of the 75 non-delinquents coming from inimical circumstances, used by Healy and Bronner as controls, showed marked negative qualities, "being especially non-

( 47) aggressive, introverted, shy, retiring, babyish, dependent, lacking in energy.'"[12] Perhaps the complications of analysis will be too great to be certain of conclusions reached, or perhaps to reach any conclusions. It may be that human behavior defies neat laws and correlations, that individual responses to situations may be so multifarious as to make correlation dubious. But if the family is as significant in personality development as we believe it is, the effort here suggested needs to be made.


  1. Read before the third annual meeting of the Southern Sociological Society in Chattanooga, Tennesee, April 2, 1938.
  2. Dr. Franz Alexander of the Institute of Psychoanalysis, Chicago, in discussing this paper, rightly protested the implication that the psychiatrists could be classified as social or otherwise. From his viewpoint, the psychiatrist uses organic explanations when organic problems present themselves and social explanations when social factors are involved in behavior. Ideally, of course, the psychiatrist as a therapeutist would recognize both organic and social factors when present, but, alas, points of view have histories, making even scientific men time-bound creatures. So recent have social explanations of individual behavior come into vogue that roughly we may define scientific workers by the stress they give to the organic or to the social.
  3. The American Journal of Sociology has devoted almost an entire issue (Vol. XLII, No. 6, 1937) to a symposium of papers by psychiatrists and sociologists.
  4. Нarry Stack Sullivan, "A Note on the implications of Psychiatry, the Study of Interpersonal Relations, for Investigations in the Social Sciences," American Journal of Sociology, XVII (2937) p. 860.
  5. See Proceedings, Second Annual Colloquium on Personality Investigation, American Psychiatric Association and the Social Science Research Council, 1930, pp. 146-155, for definitions of personality.
  6. Healy and Bronner, New Light on Delinquency and its Treatment, 1936, pp. 1-2, 4.
  7. Ibid., p. 26.
  8. See Ives Hendricks, Facts and Theories of Psychoanalysis, 1934, for a glossary of terms taken from medical, psychiatric, psychological, and psychoanalytical literature, pp. 283-303.
  9. Healy, Bronner, Baylor and Murphy, Reconstructing Behavior in Youth, 1919, p. 73.
  10. Mary B. Sayles, The Problem Child at Home, 1918, pp. 16-17.
  11. In an illuminating discussion of this paper Katharine Jocher, of the Institute for Research in Social Science, University of North Carolina, brought out the important point that the written case records of the psychiatrist may not lend themselves well to use by the social psychologist, since the purpose for which such records are compiled may produce materials not susceptible of scientific manipulation. I quote from her paper. "It is customary to caution the inexperienced student in the use of data collected by some one else. Although these tests are particularly applicable to statistical information, they might well be carried over, with certain modifications, to the case method. Among other things, we impress upon the student to note especially the source of the information; details as to the method of collecting the data; the accurate definition of all units (up to the present time, a stumbling block in its application to case records); and last, but not least, the purpose for which the material was originally gathered. The purpose for which the material was originally gathered—here is the storm center in the use of social case histories, as, for example, when the material has been gathered and recorded by the social worker or the psychiatrist and is to be utilized by the sociologist or the social psychologist. For his diagnosis, the psychiatrist needs a special kind of record, which raises the question as to whether records collected for the purpose of treatment have scientific value. Here again is the question of point of view. Whether one holds to the affirmative or the negative, 'when the decision is made. ...that diagnostic-treatment records are to provide material for research on questions other than those for which they were originally written, the main implication of that decision must be abided by: the case record plan cannot be drawn up with the purpose of the research student as its primary interest; diagnosis and therapy are its aims; research is secondary.' (Helen L. Witmer, "Increasing the Research Value of Case Records." Sociology and Social Research, IV, 118, November–December, 1930) This does not mean that the social psychiatrist is not interested in research—it means simply that his research interests are not identical with those of the social psychologist. But there is no reason why the two should not be mutually helpful. Although, to the psychiatrists, 'the idiosyncrasies of the case are of greater importance than the uniformities that run through all cases of a given type,' yet 'the advancement of their art must depend to some extent on the discovery of types and uniformities' (Ibid., p. 119) such as the social psychologists are seeking. How, therefore, can the psychiatrist prepare his records so that they will be of value not only to himself, but to the social psychologist as well?"
  12. Healy and Bronner, New Light on Delinquency, 1936, p. 87.

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