The Independence of Social Psychology

Wilson D. Wallis
University of Minnesota

MUCH of the controversy regarding the field of social psychology still hovers about the reality of group and group mind as opposed to an assumed more fundamental reality, the individual, who composes group and group mind. Is group ever anything more than the sum of the individuals composing it, is group mind more than a figure of speech, does it have an independence comparable with that of individual mind? Are explanations of group behavior to be found in the group, or only by studying the individuals o: which the group is composed? In this paper we shall maintain the thesis that the group is a reality over and above the individuals who compose it; that there is a social dimension to mind; that individual psychology is not a guide to the behavior of the group. Our justification for these conclusions will be our ability to predict social phenomena by a study of social phenomena, and the corresponding inability to predict them by a study of individual psychology. Where phenomena can be dealt with as relatively self-sufficient, it is proper to attribute realty to them.


The reality of the group as an entity becomes apparent as soon as we treat it as such. Only when so treated can its reality be discovered. The American nation can be grasped and treated as an entity in the world of nations, a world in which each nation is an entity of similar order.

A group is an entity when it shows persistence of qualities and when the parts of which it is composed are mutually interdependent. In such a case it functions as a unity, and so is a reality.
These are, in general character, though not in details of quality, the traits which enable us to recognize an aggregate as also an individual. If we started with a microscopic view of a human being, seeing only cells and cell aggregates, it would be exceedingly difficult to discover ';he interrelations of this huge community of cells and envisage all of -them in a functioning entity. Imagine the difficulty which a microscopically-eyed microbe would have in

( 148) exploring the human organism and attempting to discover a unity in his huge universe. His description of the huge macrocosm as a functioning unity with a realty as great as that of the individual cells encountered by the microbe during his long excursion would be an act of faith and of higher synthesis surpassing the astronomer's conception of a solar system. We solve the problem by refusing to recognize it; that is, we start with unity in the human individual. So far as cells are concerned, we are synthesists when we speak of a human being as an individual; yet we treat this synthesis as though it were a refined analysis, the discovery of the smallest human reality. The reason why the concept of a human individual is so easy is that we start with it, not acknowledging the synthesis.

In the realm of individual psychology we do the same thing. We talk of Woodrow Wilson as though we were referring to an individual. Psychologically as well as morphologically Woodrow Wilson is not an individual but a billion individuals changing every moment from birth to death. By a mere word we disregard the shifting panorama and speak of this phantasmagoria as though the multitude were a simple reality discoverable by mere reference to person and place. As a matter of fact it is only by an astoundingly bold synthesis that we can secure individuality out of the billion different persons connoted by the reference "Woodrow Wilson'' We secure it by simply taking it for granted; which is easy, and justifiable.

I do not object to this procedure, but merely point out that it is a procedure, and that the procedure itself usually escapes our knowledge just because it is an overly familiar procedure. Far from objecting to it, I would be ready to admit that a solar system is as match a reality as is a grain of sand, and that it is as true to say that a solar system gives us grains of sand as to say that grains of sand give us a solar system. In other words, the things discovered by analysis possess no higher reality than those discovered by synthesis. Analysis and synthesis are merely different methods of approaching the study of things, for becoming acquainted with the nature of the world in which we live, or which lives in us.

Yet here, I suspect, is the rock on which the social psychologists and the individual psychologists split. Those who find that individual psychology is the only psychology, unwittingly are paying homage to the superior reality of (assumed) analysis, a. superiority which the social psychologists do not admit. The latter

( 149) would not admit that cells possess a higher order of reality than does a living organism composed of these selfsame cells. The existence and the reality of the cells, it might be argued, depend as much upon the existence and the reality of the organism, as the organism depends i non the cells.


There is, then, a social dimension comparable with individual dimension. As you can read continuity and interdependence into individual psychology, so you can read it into the psychology, that is, into the behavior, of a unified group. In a Dakota tribe, for example, there' is continuity between past and present and an interdependence between parts of the group. The action of the war party cannot :?e understood apart from the traditions of the tribe, is incomprehensible apart from the opinions entertained by contemporaries. Change in any portion of group life is apt to affect all other portions; no group activity is carried on independently of other group activities. In a word, group activity can be understood only by studying group activity, for we are dealing here with a self-sufficient social reality.


The scientific basis for social psychology lies in the fact that by means of it one can predict the action of the group or of individuals in it in so far as they pact as members of the group. If I am acquainted with the concepts current in the tribe, I can predict what a Dakota Indian will do when face to face with a will-o'-the-wisp, with an enemy, with a buffalo, with a spider. We may safely defy any individual psychologist who does not take account of the social atmosphere to make that prediction. He can treat the Indian as an individual only after he has allowed for the presence of tine 'social environment. Only then can he tell what the Indian will do.

If the political observer can give me a surer prediction of the attitude Lloyd George will take toward unemployment or toward cancellation of war debts than the psychologist can do, then the political observer has hold of some kind of reality which, in so far, is superior to the reality which the individual psychologist has; and I will follow him who most often leads to the goal.

No study of the mechanism or of the psychology of speech will explain why one man talks English and another Chinese; why one

( 150) attaches to his words a different order of meanings than that of the other. One must know history and the history of the respective languages to discover that. So far as history enables me to predict what I will find in a given time and place it is a science and it is useful. Moreover, in so far as it does this, it has hold of a reality which I prefer, for that purpose, to any reality which the physiologist or psychologist possesses.


Individual psychology, then, cannot give us group behavior, anymore than a study of cells can explain the difference in behavior of two individuals, A and B. The behavior of A and B can be understood only when we transcend the component cells, for an acquaintance with the cells of the respective individuals does not enable us to anticipate the behavior of the individuals under given circumstances. Even if it did so, the synthetic individual would still have reality if by studying his behavior as an individual we could predict his behavior as an individual. The fact is that the student of group activities can disregard individuals, can predict behavior of the group and of members of the group without acquaintance with the respective individuals. In a word, we need to know only their social attributes, their place in the group, and we then can disregard their individual attributes, as truly as the individual psychologist can disregard the respective lengths of Woodrow Wilson's toe nails when he signed the Versailles treaty. Here, in group life, the social attributes override the individual attributes. After a certain kind of dream the Dakota Indian will perform a Sun Dance in true tribal style, though the details of performance may be individually determined. Given the circumstance of place and person and you can predict that the man of our culture will wear a white collar. You do not have to wait until you investigate his tastes in the matter of collars or of colors.

Where individual differences, and time and place, are relatively unimportant in the behavior of an individual, that is, where you can predict action of a member of a group without taking any of these three factors into account, there we have the operation of a reality which transcends individual psychology. This is the field of social psychology. In that world the individual as an individual is relatively unimportant, for it is not his individual attributes which determine his behavior, but rather the attributes of the group.


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