Some Observations on the Status of Social Psychology[1]

E. B. Reuter


Some system of social psychology is stated or implied in most writing of social import or reference. Often no problem of personality is recognized, but in much of the scholarly work it is seen as the central problem. However, owing to the relatively recent isolation of social psychology as a field of research, there is some confusion and conflict in the scholarly conceptions and points of view. The present interest is in the effort to understand the person. One group of students approaches the problems from an essentially neurological point of view and set of assumptions. The other group conceives social nature to he developed through interaction from an active but relatively amorphous and plastic original nature. The basic differences between the two groups of students seem to be inherent and irreconcilable, but the fundamental character of the disagreement is not always recognized.


The study of personality and social behavior lies, I assume, at or very near the center of sociological interest. In some form a more or less coherent body of social-psychological theory or doctrine appears, specifically or by implication, fractionally or in extenso, in most of the texts and scholarly general publications in the field. But the interest is not limited to the professional sociologists. In several other areas of scholarly endeavor—notably certain branches of psychology—theories of personal organization and social behavior have been industriously and systematically elaborated. Other scholarly disciplines present or utilize a body of social-psychological doc-

( 294) -trine of imported or indigenous origin. At another level, in the general folk literature—fiction, religious exposition, accounts of religious experiences, editorial commentaries, autobiographical catharsis, and other popular types of verbal expression—there is implied or expounded some system, commonsense or sophisticated, of social psychology. In the writings of social workers, teachers, psychiatrists, and other professional and vocational practitioners there is much interest manifested in human nature, in the development of personality, and in the determination of social behavior.

In certain large bodies of writing, the nature of the person is the point of departure. Because of indoctrination, personal acquaintance and observation, or introspective discovery the assumption runs that personality is a given and known fact. Human nature and personality are tools for analysis and explanation; no problem of individual social organization is involved or recognized. From the security of this position, based upon personal knowledge and inner experience, it seems to be a relatively simple and wholly satisfying procedure deductively to reconstruct, elaborate, and explain overt behavior and social and cultural phenomena. From this standpoint, the varieties of personality and the individual differences in human nature present no problems; on the contrary, they provide additional simple and convenient means for understanding character differences and explaining nonconformist behavior.

At a somewhat different level of reflection, the human personality is a phenomenon to be understood rather than something immediately known; it does not appear as a datum to be used in explanation, but as a problem for study, as a conceptual item to be investigated, analyzed, and understood. The numerous contrasts and likenesses from group to group in manner of life, in range of interests, in mental content and modes of thought, in temperament, character, and social behavior arouse curiosity and lead to inquiry concerning the causal sequences. The change, like the continuity, in human beliefs and moral practices, in institutions and ideologies, in objectives and methods, in values and attitudes, in ideals and behavior, as manifested in the temporal order, attracts attention and leads to reflection and speculation, and to attempts so to order the phenomena that they become comprehensible. Within the single cul-

( 295) -ture group and at a given time the divergencies in personality, character, temperament, and interest are quite obvious, and variations in sentiment, attitude, belief, opinion, and personal difference have been made the objects of much investigation and discussion and of some scholarly research. But, aside from the numerous variations in personality and social behavior, whether they be judged important and interesting in their own right or treated as trivial, curious, and spectacular vagaries, there are questions of a somewhat fundamental nature—questions in regard to the body of phenomena itself, in regard to the nature of the reality and the factors in its determination and control.


The various questions centering about the determination of social behavior and the development of human nature and personality have come to be more or less segregated in the category "social psychology." This chapter in general sociology is very recent in origin, somewhat miscellaneous in content, and still quite fluid in nature. Around the beginning of the century, when the phrase was first used, its chief reference was to discussions of the "group mind" and to the interest manifested in the somewhat spectacular forms of behavior that the group-mind doctrine was used to explain. But, aside from the content, the phrase had a good sound. Psychology was then in good repute; sociology, on the other hand, had little scientific standing. In consequence, certain individuals sought the prestige and status that was not to be found under the sociological banner by establishing a tenuous verbal affiliation with the more reputable discipline. Other individuals, who desired to discuss sociological questions but did not choose to be classed as sociologists, resolved the dilemma by being "social psychologists." Still other persons, who were interested in the group of problems having to do with the development of the person, came to be classed as social psychologists to indicate their somewhat specialized sociological interest.

The occupation of the new field by the migration of men from other areas of intellectual interest—men tempered in the doctrinal waters of their intellectual homelands and disciplined by the ritual of the orthodox in research and recitation—brought into social

( 296) psychology a variety of contradictory theories and principles, divergent ideas as to the basic object matter and problems, conflicting methods and points of view, and irreconcilable conceptions of research procedure. In the beginning and in some cases the books on social psychology had little in common other than their titles. The migration continued, and, intellectually, the social-psychology population became increasingly polyglot. Certain Freudian and other psychoanalytic conceptions and terms came in to supplement or supplant "group mind," "crowd spirit," "folk soul,"and other philosophical and folk-psychology conceptions. Directly or indirectly biology contributed a philosophy of instincts, certain genetic conceptions, and a little later the endocrinological theories of personality. John Locke's concept of the conditioned response came in by way of Pavlov's physiological laboratory; the doctrine of physical types also came from physiology. The Gestalt psychology and the nave behaviorism of Watson came from, or by way of, psychology. Other theories, methods, and points of view were borrowed from psychiatry, cultural anthropology, mathematics, and other disciplines. The various concepts and points of view did not always keep their virgin purity in the new habitat: there was a good deal of illicit trafficking among the strange welter of words and ideas, some miscegenation of intellectual species to the production of infertile offspring; the mating, mismating, and cohabitation of irreconcilables in the books and other publications assumed the dimensions of a scandal.

But social psychology has continued to grow and to flourish. The college courses have increased in number, and they have become increasingly popular. Publication has increased. Specialized aspects of the discipline—public opinion, political psychology, propaganda, and other specialties have come into being, and the general discipline, or some of its dependent offshoots, has been made the basis for public-opinion polls and similar undertakings.


The present status of the discipline seems to be set out rather neatly in the textbooks. The publications used as a basis for undergraduate class instruction seem to provide a valid index of academic

( 297) practice. These books are commonly prepared by men of some standing in the field or by men who hope by the publication to acquire standing or raise their status in the field. It is here assumed that the books reflect with some fidelity the mental organization of their authors. Since they are fed to students by the authors and other teachers of the subject it is assumed they represent reasonably well the content of the subject at the college level.

In general, the authors show a catholic generosity toward the various theories, doctrines, problems, and methods currently set out in the journal and treatise literature. They give a warm welcome to a great variety of verbal refugees, accepting them without prejudice or discrimination. I recall one recent volume in the general field which devotes an opening chapter to quotations culled by the author from the various formal definitions of the subject. He closed the chapter by stating that the lack of agreement among the definitions made it clear that there was some difference of opinion as to the subject matter of the discipline and that he would not add to the existing confusion by giving any definition of his own. He was thus free in the subsequent chapters to use any conception and point of view that appealed to him at the moment.

It is, perhaps, too much to expect that the writers should be familiar with the whole range of the literature; the writing is quite extensive and teachers arc busy men. One scholar, for example, published a long and learned encyclopedia article on social psychology without reference to the work of George Mead. It is not surprising that when a busy man has collected enough to fill a volume he should cease his endeavors—after all, he could not use any more; a man cannot include everything—all that he can do is to present what he knows or what he has room for. But it is truly amazing how many diverse things some authors do succeed in including.

There are, of course, some exceptions to this encyclopedic type of procedure. Certain writers have undertaken to present a coherent system of thought, to maintain a single point of view, to keep to a single system of harmonious concepts, to observe consistently one order of explanation. But such books commonly have few readers and little use.

The more usual procedure in preparing these treatises seems to be

( 298) to determine what topics are most often included in courses on social psychology and allow the current usage to determine the content of the volume. Some authors proceed in a very orderly manner: they circularize the possible users of a book with queries concerning the topics they treat, in regard to the amount of attention given to each topic, in regard to the concepts used, and in regard to other matters of similar import. Other authors follow a different method: they use the books already in print on the subject, and from a composite summary of tables of contents find the topics commonly treated and the space allotted to each. In this way they get at the lowest common denominator of the object matter. But either method, or a combination of the two, gives something that is definite and tangible. The procedures are empirical; the data are assembled objectively; the data can be manipulated statistically and can be evaluated quantitatively. The procedures are quite completely in the current scientific mode.

These methods sometimes produce unfortunate results—as when they lead the unsuspecting author into giving opposing presentations of the same phenomenon because it is elaborated in different terminology in different books. But, even so, the outcome of this type of scientific procedure, on the whole, is probably superior to what the author could hope to achieve unaided, and it saves the author much time and mental effort. These volumes give a sampling if not a complete cross-section of current social psychology. They are somewhat unsatisfactory if one wants a coherent body of thought. On the other hand, they make it possible for the authors to use various principles of explanation and to include subject matter that would otherwise have to be excluded. If these volumes are pieced together with a modicum of skill, only the more mentally alert students will find them unsatisfying.


There has been, however, a continuous development, as well as a growth and expansion, in social-psychological study. The changes in interest and in problems, points of view, and methods of research have pretty much transformed the content and character of the

( 299) field. The older philosophical manner of thought has fallen into disuse and the concepts and terminology now rarely appear in the social-psychological writing. They are, of course, still current in popular thought and literary discussion and seem to exercise a considerable if subtle influence in various fields of thought. There was a parallel and largely contemporaneous shift of attention in folk psychology which was largely tied up with the Hegelian metaphysical "group mind" concept. Deprived of this explanatory hypothesis, there was no recognized internal unity in collective phenomena and systematic study declined. Unable to order these phenomena in the conventional modes of procedure, the students of social psychology tended to ignore them or to treat them as matters of such minor importance as to merit only passing notice. In the present, the reorganization of these and related phenomena is taking place in relative independence of the current interests of social psychology.

The psychological doctrine of instincts tended to dominate social-psychological thought for two or three decades around the turn of the century. The sterility of the school that grew up was soon recognized, and its vogue had passed by about 1920. But its influence and mode of thought are not yet wholly gone; in some quarters the terminology persists intact and determines a way of thought; some writers retain the essence of the doctrine but revise the vocabulary —instincts become drives, wishes, prepotent reflexes, and the like. In still other cases one may observe the doctrine functioning as an unrecognized bias toward the "natural"—i.e., biological—as the ultimate basis of social explanation. Among the other cultist procedures interrupting, or advancing, the development of social psychology one may mention the psychoanalytic movement and Watsonian behaviorism.

At present social-psychological interest is restricted to an effort to understand the development of the person. This effort is divided into two distinct and mutually exclusive schools of thought. The one is represented in the main by psychologists and is essentially neurological in method and point of view; the other, represented in the main by sociologists, is essentially sociological analysis.

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In general, the psychological school expounds a modified behavorism based on the idea of "conditioning" of original physical reflexes into social responses and on the development of habit mechanisms. It is the most prosperous system of social psychology at the present time. The system is fundamentally biological in philosophy and statistical in technique. As set out by such leading students as Floyd Allport, Luther Bernard, and Kimball Young, it rests immediately and directly on a special neurological conception; it undertakes to derive social behavior and personality from the reflex responses to external stimulations.

The basic assumption on the side of original nature is that the infant has a rich complement of definite and specific reflex responses. In addition to such familiar reflexes as the eye wink, sneezing, sucking, and crying, and those that control the so-called vegetative processes of the organism, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of others. Each of these is, by definition, a specific and definite response to a clearly defined stimulus. But in infancy they are unorganized; the development of the child into a social person is simply, or in the main, the process of their organization and orientation.

The second major assumption of neurological social psychology is a nominalistic position in regard to society and the group. Without denying all reality to the group, it holds that the group is simply a number of discrete individuals. What is commonly called group behavior is merely that behavior which is common to the associated individuals. The only realities are individuals; the only behavior is individual behavior.

On these basic assumptions the problem is to discover and explain how the original reflexes are transformed into languages, beliefs, moral standards, and other systems of social behavior. Since the whole mechanism involved in behavior consists of a stimulus, a nerve current, and a response, the problem reduces to the study of specific units of behavior. The question is always concerning the response that comes from a given stimulus, or concerning the stimulus that causes a given response. This type of study can be done under controlled conditions, and extensive quasi-laboratory work

( 301) has been carried out. It can also be done by means of tests, questionnaires, and the like where a stimulus is given in the form of a question and a response recorded. A great number of tests has been devised and standardized and used in innumerable studies.

The research procedures in this type of social psychology arc "objective" in character: the whole stimulus-response cycle is observed. Moreover, the stimulus and the response are subject to measurement and exact record, and the results can be handled quantitatively. The various tests and questionnaire procedures give results that can he numerically ranked or rated. The generally empirical, factual, quantitative character of the research is in harmony with the currently favored scientific usage.

The great and long-continued vogue of this type of social psychology has been due in considerable part to its quantitative and statistical aspects. It has flourished in the period of the rise of the statistical techniques and in part as a corollary of that development. Its vogue seems to have persisted somewhat beyond the period that would seem to be justified by the scientific fruitfulness of the point of view and the procedures. But work of this order will doubtless continue; probably it will increase as facility in the manipulation of the simpler statistical techniques becomes more general. A growth of this type is determined by facts quite unrelated to the question whether the procedures are to be classed as science.


The sociological or social-interaction school of social psychology is in some ways somewhat sharply contrasted to the neurological or conditioned-reflex school of research. It dates from the type of study initiated by Charles Horton Cooley and in part from that of J. Mark Baldwin. Thus in point of time it antedates the stimulus-response school, though the two have been largely contemporaneous in development. The interaction point of view was developed by the work of Thomas, Dewey, Mead, Faris, and others in their studies of social behavior and the development of the person.

The sociological view conceives of personality and social nature as realities developed through the interaction of original nature and the group patterns.

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On the side of original nature, it is assumed that the child at birth is amorphous and unformed, plastic and unorganized. It is active in response to organic needs and external stimulations but the behavior is random and undirected. There are few if any reflexes or other bits of original organic equipment that biologically determine the immediate behavior or the subsequent development.

On the side of the social order, the interactionists take a realistic position in regard to the group and the products of social life. The group is real; it is more than an aggregation of discrete individuals, it is in reality not the individuals but the interaction among the individuals; in every aspect of human life, behavior is in terms of a common body of expectations and understandings. The essential reality is not the grossly observable behavior forms but the body of meanings shared by the participating individuals.

The problem of personality and social behavior is to understand how the unchannelized and random activity of the infant comes to be replaced by organized activity controlled by wishes and images and directed toward the achievement of specific objectives. The current explanation runs, on the one hand, in terms of the ways in which the child's needs are satisfied and his distress associated with an image of its relief and his behavior oriented toward definite ends, and, on the other hand, in terms of external controls by means of which the child achieves and comes to participate in the going definitions, thereby controlling his behavior in accord with the group standards because he shares the standards.

The research procedures of the sociological-social psychologists, at least since the definitive work of George Mead, have been controlled by the concept of "the act." It is recognized that the stimulus-response investigations of the psychological students segregate and give attention to a single aspect or item of behavior; that is, to those aspects that are overt, external, and unequivocally observable. The act, in the view of the sociological-social psychologists, has along history before it reaches, if it ever does, an overt expression. The man who kills his wife may have contemplated the line of behavior for months or years before the overt behavior. Any real understanding requires knowledge in regard to the complete act; its inner growth and evolution must be known as fully as its external

( 303) aspects. In consequence, research tends to take the form of autobiographical analysis, the study of life-history documents, and work on related types of material the examination of which enables the student to penetrate to and understand the act in its entirety.

The differences here pointed out, and others not mentioned, between the two present-day schools of social psychology are fundamental and apparently irreconcilable. But as pointed out in an earlier part of the paper, they are not generally recognized to be in fundamental disagreement. In consequence, a good many writers combine elements of each into some sort of composite presentation by selecting items and topics that are interesting and providing the explanations that are immediately plausible without much regard for the fundamental conflict.

One may summarize the development of social psychology without undue distortion by reducing it to three stages: childhood, adolescence, and maturity. The childhood stage was the period of fairies and witches, the period when men were concerned to explain behavior phenomena in terms of "group minds," "instincts," and similar metaphysical entities and mystical concepts. The adolescent stage is the period of youthful activity, the period when men are busy with sports and tests, games and correlations, and with gadgets, questionnaires, measurements, and other forms of extroverted activity that enable them to avoid direct contact with essential reality. The stage of maturity is reached when men put away the make-believe of childhood and the romantic games and gadgets of restless youth, free themselves from seductive methods of manipulating irrelevant data, and turn to the statement and analysis of fundamental problems.

A systematic social psychology at the present time would be very incomplete since there are many gaps in our body of knowledge, but the basic outlines are reasonably clear. If it proceeded with due regard for realities and relevant problems it would lie, I assume, wholly within the framework of social interaction or, more specifically, within the system of human relations. It would concern itself with the patterning of acts which are determined by relationships, with the development of personalities in response to expectations and demands, with the formation and change of attitudes through

( 304) participation in the culture, with the definition of types as systems of roles, and with other matters related to the person and to social behavior.

A treatment that thus restricted itself to the relevant and pertinent material would of necessity exclude a very large part of the material now included in the conventional texts and treatises. For example, the whole mass of material commonly subsumed under the term "trait psychology" would have no place in the system. One raises no question concerning the value or competence of such work; one simply asserts that, to employ the verbose tautology of the legal profession, such material is irrelevant, immaterial, impertinent, and it operates to confuse the study and hopelessly to befuddle the untrained and the uninitiated. It deals with the "individual," and there is no individual in social psychology—or, for that matter, in any other phase of genuine sociology. The individual is a biological concept, and the traits of the biological organism lie outside the sociological orbit of interest. The body of discussion of original nature that often bulks large in the social-psychology books is in the nature of extraneous material. All that social psychology has to say about original nature, all the interest that social psychology has in original nature, may be stated in the single brief sentence: "The human infant is an active and plastic organism." Again, the body of material denoted by the term "collective behavior" lies outside the orbit of social psychology. Here we have to do in the main with the origin of behavior patterns and their evolution into culture forms and institutional structures. This is not social psychology unless you desire to use that term to include all of sociology.



  1. Paper read before Mid-West Sociological Society, Des Moines, Iowa, April, 1940.

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