A Review of Current Social Psychology

Gardner Murphy

THE Editor has asked me to attempt a description of "what social psychology ought to be in the light of what it is."[1]

No one who is watching the progress of experimental psychology can fail to notice the extraordinary increase in the number of experimental researches upon social behavior. Part of this is the natural growth of that experimental social psychology which began with German and American educators early in the present century and has received able and enthusiastic support from such men as

( 436) F. H. Allport, H. T. Moore, and G. B. Watson; a month-by-month perusal of the Psychological Abstracts shows that the titles listed under "Social Functions of the Individual" include more and more experimental studies. However, more than half of the experimental social psychology of today is investigation into the social behavior of children-investigation which for the most part has little by way of "experimental psychology" as forerunner, but derives mainly from the recent rapid development of systematic child psychology in response to a burning social and educational need.

The quantity of research which may fairly be called experimental social psychology is roughly indicated by the fact that the writer finds about twenty such titles appearing each month; and is bewildered by the mass of unpublished studies (for the most part studies now in progress) of which lie hears through various channels. One may say that very roughly 60 per cent. of this work is American, 25 per cent. German and Austrian, and about 10 per cent. Russian; one of the spectacular events in contemporary psychology is the rapid increase in both quantity and quality of Russian research in both social and educational psychology. (British and Italian psychologists are on the whole uninterested, while French and Swiss work is chiefly limited to the linguistic field.) In short, experimental method has made amazing advances in social psychology, especially in America, though if one judged "social psychology" by its text-books one would scarcely suspect the fact.

The number of pieces of experimental work now available (for the most part in the periodical literature) is somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000. The figure to be chosen depends first on the precise definition of the term "experimental"; it depends secondly on what quality the work must achieve in order to merit inclusion. But taking the lower limit as around 1,000, and noting that this material ranges all the way from the experimental study of the "despotism" of a 15-months-old child over one three months his junior to the experimental comparison of "group thinking" and "individual thinking," and all the way from the measurement of the influence of competition upon the behavior of schoolboys to the quantitative analysis of special appeals in a political campaign, one is a bit puzzled at the Table of Contents of most of the books labelled Social Psychology which continue to pour forth from the press. Not only experimental work, but also careful "observational" studies are usually neglected. Good old friends like "Mobs" and "Crowds" still stare forth at us; in fact they receive elaborate explanation (as far as the writer knows, only one careful observational study of a mob or crowd has ever been made, and it is rarely quoted). Headings on "Propaganda" and "Public Opinion" are prominent (a very few careful studies exist here, but they could

( 437) be adequately dealt with in five pages). The dear old "instincts" and "Reflexes" never fail of their space (though one could safely wager a fortune that the author knows and cares little about the intricate biological data on these points ; the approach will be a "critical" and "sound" exposition of the problem, without embarrassment from complicated experimental evidence). Very simply, then, the periodical literature is full of a new kind of social psychology, while the books on social psychology (several each year) go on telling the old tale.

The development of experimental social psychology has come so fast that there is no place for it in Departments of Psychology as at present organized, while at the same time enlightened students are wearied with an arm-chair social psychology which they have intelligence enough to recognize as a very primitive and amateurish social philosophy. Of course, all the social sciences are undergoing more or less upheaval as a result of the great emphasis upon inductive method, and the consequent disruption of "systems" which are rendered either obsolete or at least uninteresting. The development in sociology is so rapid that it is hard to tell whether a "Department of Sociology" in a great university can simultaneously serve the two functions of doing exact social research and integrating the social sciences after the manner of social philosophy. Now social psychology is in a similar dilemma. Can it play the game of exact research and at the same time serve as an integrating or interpreting discipline within the cultural sciences? I suspect not. The business of organizing and interpreting the complex phenomena of the cultural sciences is scarcely the domain of the psychologist. It is a business which very much needs to be done, but it needs to be done not by proponents of a special viewpoint—economists, human geographers, or psychologists—but by men thoroughly at home in several social sciences, e.g., anthropology, economics, ethics, and who have in addition historical perspective and philosophical acumen.

Yet, though few individuals are qualified to do this sort of synthetic work, there is nevertheless a pressing need for interpretative books in social psychology, and when their authors have taken the trouble to acquaint themselves with contemporary research, they are of immense value. But these interpretative books do not, as a rule, bear the title Social Psychology. In fact, they bear titles which most readers would never associate with social psychology at all. One of the chief purposes of this article is to call attention to them and their significance for the social psychologist. A book, for example, like Thomas and Thomas' The Child in America appears, in the light of all this, to be a great deal more than its title will suggest to most philosophical readers. It combines, with extraordinary facility, copious references to the best recent research on the social

( 438) behavior of children with a critical and frequently profound appreciation of the rôle which child psychology is playing in the reconstruction of the social sciences. One of the authors has long been known as a sociologist; the other turned from sociological statistics to the task of refining the methods of what she prefers to call "experimental sociology." The book shows, to be sure, a little dogmatism and over-simplification here and there. The fact remains that the authors have written both a competent and a fascinating book. But more than that, they are pointing the way towards a social psychology which will found itself upon genuinely scientific research, and at the same time so ally itself to the other social sciences that it will be of some real use to the social philosopher. The fulfilment of either of these tasks alone would make the book well worth reading. A book like this evidently means far more to the development of a scientific social psychology than most of the books which the reader will find listed in the catalogue of any great library under the "social psychology" heading. The same is true of Charlotte Bühler's remarkable Soziologische and Psychologische Studien über das erste Lebensjahr, Rice's brilliant application of statistical methods to political psychology in his Quantitative Methods in Politics, and Lorimer's scholarly and profound survey of modern research on the acquisition of language as a means to systematic study of the rôle of speech in thought and in social behavior (The Growth of Reason).

Books like these show that the collecting of facts need not be tedious in social psychology any more than in astronomy, and suggest perhaps that systematic theories as to human nature may profit as much from a sound factual foundation as do theories as to spiral nebula. Reworking the old concepts till they are worse than threadbare is, of course, an easier procedure, and it is quite useless to hope that the inductive trend in social psychology will show itself in the text-books until the weary student, discovering what lie is missing, formulates his demand.

It will probably be several years before the authors of text-books fully awaken to the uneasiness which students, as a matter of fact, are already betraying; and they may be able for a while longer to resist the trend towards a social psychology based upon the available research findings. But the forces which are already at work in the re-making of the science will go out into the highways and byways and compel them to come in.



  1. This he thought might be done in the form of a review of a certain recent text-book in social psychology. As soon as I explained where this would lead, we both thought it fairer that I should attempt a direct answer to the Editor's question, without singling out one text-book for what might be considered unnecessarily unfriendly treatment.

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