The Nature and Scope of Social Psychology

Edward Alsworth Ross
University of Wisconsin

Social psychology, as the writer conceives it, studies the psychic planes and currents that come into existence among men in consequence of their association. It seeks to understand and account for those uniformities in feeling, belief, or volition-and hence in action-which are due to the interaction of human beings, i. e., to social causes. No two persons have just the same endowment. Looking at their heredity we should expect people to be far more dissimilar and individual than we actually find them to be. The aligning power of association triumphs over diversity of temperament and experience. There ought to be as many religious creeds as there are human beings; but we find people ranged under a few great religions. It is the same in respect to dress, diet, pastimes, or moral ideas. The individuality each as received from the hand of nature is largely effaced, and we find people gathered into great planes of uniformity.

In shifting attention from the agreements in which men rest, such as languages, religions, cultures, to the agitations into which they are drawn, it is natural to change the metaphor from plane to current. The spread of the lynching spirit through a crowd in the presence of an atrocious criminal, the contagion f panic in a beaten army, an epidemic of religious emotion, and the

( 578) sympathetic extension of a strike call up the thought of a cur-rent which bears people along for a time and then ceases.

Social psychology differs from sociology proper in that the former considers planes and currents, the latter groups and structures.[2] Their interests bring men into co-operation or conflict. They group themselves for the purpose of co-operating or struggling, and they devise structures as a means of adjusting interests and attaining practical ends. .Social psychology considers them only as coming into planes or currents of uniformity, not as uniting into groups. Since the former determine the latter more than the latter determine the former, social psychology should precede rather than follow sociology proper in the order o f studies.

Social psychology pays no attention to the non-psychic parallelisms among human beings-an epidemic of disease or the prevalence of chills and fever among the early settlers of river-bottom lands-or to the psychic parallelisms that result therefrom —melancholia, or belief in eternal punishment. It neglects the uniformities among people that are produced by the direct action of a common physical environment (superstitiousness of sailors, apprehensiveness of dwellers in earthquake countries, independent spirit of mountaineers, the addiction of Englishmen in the tropics to the cork helmet) ; or by subjection to similar conditions of life (dissipatedness of tramp printers, recklessness of cowboys, preciseness f elderly school teachers, suspiciousness of farmers).

Social psychology ignores uniformities arising directly or indirectly out of race endowment—negro volubility, gipsy nomadism, Malay vindictiveness, Singhalese treachery, Magyar passion for music, Slavic mysticism, Teutonic venturesomeness, American restlessness. How far such common characters are really racial in origin and how far merely social, is a matter yet to be settled. Probably they are much less congenital than we love to imagine. "Race" is the cheap explanation tyros offer for

( 579) any collective trait that they are too stupid or too lazy to trace to its origin in the physical environment, the social environment, or historical conditions.

Social psychology deals only with uniformities due to social causes, i. e., to mental contacts or interactions. In each case we must ask: "Are these human beings aligned by their common instincts and temperament, their common geographical situation, their identical conditions of life, or by their inter-psychology, i. e., the influences they have received from one another or from a common human source?" The fact that a mental agreement extends through society, bringing into a common plane great numbers of men, does not make it social. It is social only in so far as it arises out of the interplay of minds.

Social psychology seeks to enlarge our knowledge of society by explaining how so many planes in feeling, belief, or purpose have established themselves among men and supplied a basis for their groupings, their co-operations, and their conflicts. But for the processes which weave into innumerable men certain ground patterns of ideas, beliefs, and preferences, great societies could not endure. No communities could last save those held together by social pleasure or by the necessity for co-operation. National characteristics would not arise and strife would be the rule out-side of the group of men subject to the same area of characterization.

It seeks to enlarge our knowledge of the individual by ascertaining how much of his mental content and choices is derived from his social surroundings. Each of us loves to think himself unique, self-made, moving in a path all his own. To be sure, he finds his feet in worn paths, but he imagines he follows the path because it is the right one, not because it is trodden. Thus Cooley[3] observes: "The more thoroughly American a man is the less he can perceive Americanism. He will embody it ; all he does, says, or writes, will be full of it, but he can never truly see it, simply because he has no exterior point of view from which to look at it." Now, by demonstrating everywhere in our lives the unsuspected presence of social factors social psychology spurs us to push

( 580) on and build up a genuine individuality, to become a voice and not an echo, a person and not a parrot. The realization of how pitiful is the contribution we have made to what we are, how few of our ideas are our own, how rarely we have thought out a belief for ourselves, how little our feelings arise naturally out of our situation, how poorly our choices express the real cravings of our nature, first mortifies, then arouses us to break out of our prison of custom and conventionality and live an. open-air life close to reality. Only by emancipation from the spell of numbers and age and social eminence and personality can ciphers become integers.

Social psychology falls into two very unequal divisions, viz., social ascendancy and individual ascendancy, the determination of the one by the many and the determination of the many by the one, the molding of the ordinary person by his social environment and the molding of the social environment by the extraordinary person. Thus the knightly ideal, romantic love, the Westminster Confession, and the belief in public education, are at once achievements of superior persons, and elements in the social environments of many ordinary persons.

For example, we may distinguish three principal sources of the feelings on slavery extant in this country in 1860:

1. Observation or experience of slave-holding.— In the South, slavery was profitable and the economic interests of that section became bound up with it. In the North, it was unprofitable and hence men could feel disinterestedly about it.

2. Imbibing from the social environment. — In the South, belief in the rightfulness of slavery became first a creed, and then a tradition under which the young grew up. During the seventy years from 1790 to 1860 there was a marked increase f antipathy to the negro and an extension of the color line. By 1835 pro-slavery sentiment had become so militant that abolitionism was no longer allowed to show itself openly. The generation reared in this close atmosphere could not but be biased. Southern opinion became first homogeneous, then imperious, finally intolerant. Southern feeling about slavery reached the pitch of fanaticism. Even the "poor whites" became pro-slavery. In the

( 581) North anti-slavery sentiment became predominant, but not intolerant, In each section there formed a psychic vortex, more and more powerful, which sucked in the neutral and indifferent and imparted to them its own motion.

3. The initiative of the élite.— In the South, the public men, great planters, and commercial magnates molded sectional opinion in the interest of the slave-holding aristocracy. In the North, poets, divines, orators, philosophers, and statesmen built up the anti-slavery sentiment. Garrison, Phillips, Parker, Love-joy, Stowe, Beecher, Lowell, Thoreau, and Whittier proclaimed the mandates of the voice within the heart.

Of these three factors the first is not social at all, the second exemplifies social ascendancy, and the third, individual ascendancy.

Again, to drive the distinction home, let us consider the factors that determine the boundary line between Catholicism and Protestantism in Europe. There is

4. The affinity between the confessions and the people. —Says Taylor.

The dolichocephalic Teutonic race is Protestant, the brachycephalic Celto-Slavic race is either Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox. In the first, individualism, wilfulness, self-reliance, independence are strongly developed, the second is submissive to authority and conservative in instincts. To the Teutonic races Latin Christianity was never congenial, and they have now converted it into something very different from what it was at first or from what it became in the hands of Latin and Greek doctors. The Teutonic peoples are adverse to sacerdotalism, and have shaken of priestly guidance and developed individualism. Protestantism was a revolt against a religion imposed by the South upon the North, but which had never been congenial to the northern, mind. The German princes, who were of purer Teutonic blood than their subjects, were the leaders of the ecclesiastical revolt. Scandinavia is more purely Teutonic than Germany, and Scandinavia is Protestant to the backbone. The Lowland Scotch, who are more purely Teutonic than the English, have given the freest development to the genius of Protestantism. Those Scotch clans which have clung to the old faith have the smallest admixture of Teutonic blood. Ulster, the most Teutonic province of Ireland, is the most firmly Protestant. The case of the Belgians and the Dutch is very striking. The line of religious division became the line of political separation, and is conterminous with the two racial provinces. The mean cephalic index of the Dutch is 75.3, which is nearly that of the Swedes and

( 582)

the North Germans; the mean index of the Belgians is 79, which is that of the Parisians. The Burgundian cantons of Switzerland, which possess the largest proportion of Teutonic blood, are Protestant, while the brachycephalic cantons in the East and South are the stronghold of Catholicism. South Germany, which is brachycephalic, is Catholic; North Germany, which is dolichocephalic, is Protestant. Hanover, which is Protestant, has a consider-ably lower index than Cologne, which is Catholic. The Thirty Years' War was a war of race as well as of religion, and the peace of Westphalia drew the line of religious demarcation with tolerable precision along the ethnic frontier.

Wherever the Teutonic blood is purest-in North Germany, Sweden, Nor-way, Iceland, Ulster, the Orkneys, the Lothians, Yorkshire, East Anglia-Protestantism found easy entrance, and has retained its hold, often in some exaggerated farm. In Bohemia, France, Belgium, Alsace, it has been trodden out. In Galway and Kerry it has no footing. The Welsh and the Cornish-men, who became Protestants by political accident, have transformed Protestantism into an emotional religion, which has inner affinities with the emotional faith of Ireland and Italy, Even now Protestantism gains no converts in the South of Europe, or Catholicism in the North. Roman Catholicism, or the cognate creed of the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, is dominant in all those lands where the brachycephalic race prevails ; Protestantism is confined to the dolichocephalic Teutonic region.[4]

4. The initiative of religious leaders.—The work of Huss, Luther, Knox, Calvin was, of course, a decisive factor in the formative years of Protestantism. It is less to-day, seeing that the teachings of the earlier leaders have struck root and become a tradition. Nevertheless, even now, the frontier between the confessions is disturbed by the shifting of a Newman from one side to the other.

5. The authority of numbers and tradition.— Only the very independent mind turns Catholic in Scandinavia, where all but one in a thousand are Lutheran ; or Protestant in Portugal, where all but one in ten thousand are Catholic. In religion, moreover, parental upbringing is well-nigh decisive. Save among migrants few converts are made by one side from the other. Every man denies that his faith is inherited, or thrust upon him by circumstances. On the contrary, he imagines that it is a matter of intelligent free choice. But this is an illusion. The recognized ascendency of remote historical factors in determining the relig-

( 583) -ious preferences of peoples emphasizes how non-rational and unfree are the religious adhesions of men. The Irish are devotedly and stubbornly Catholic because their aforetime oppressors were Protestants. Not present causes, but Smithfield, the Armada, Knox, Claverhouse, etc., make England so Protestant, Scotland so Presbyterian. Long-forgotten struggles with non-Christians made Spain so bigoted as she is today, and Russia so Orthodox.

The second and third of these determining factors are social, but not the first. It is evident, then, that the great rival to imitation as the key to social uniformities is affinity. Thus it has been maintained that there is an inner sympathy between agriculture and orthodoxy, between commerce and heresy, between machine industry and skepticism, between art and socialism.

The affinities, or suitabilities, that govern choices present themselves more clearly in races than in peoples, in peoples than in communities, in communities than in individuals, Thus great numbers of individuals are Catholic from some form of imitation, yet the brachycephalic races seem to be Catholic from affinity. Innumerable persons wear tweeds and cheviots on ac-count of fashion, yet the ultimate reason for the vogue of these stuffs is their suitability to certain damp, chill climates. Despite the mob-mind in them, the Crusades display a good deal of rationality. They were expeditions for the conquest of powerful talismans. There is probably an affinity between parliamentary institutions and the English-speaking peoples on their present plane of culture. The frequent ill-working of such institutions in southern Europe and South America suggests that among the Latins they persist by imitation.


  1. Opening chapter of a forthcoming work entitled, Social Psychology: An Outline and Source Book.
  2. As here understood social psychology is, therefore, by no means the same as psychological sociology, for it omits the psychology of groups. The writer doubts whether it is practicable or wise to treat the psychological side of sociology quite apart from the morphological side.
  3. Human Nature and the Social Order, p. 36.
  4. The Origin of the Aryans, pp. 247-249.

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