The Foundations of Social Science

Chapter 24: The Methods of Social Psychology

James M. Williams


SOCIAL psychology, like other sciences, originated in attention to unusual phenomena. Crowds, criminals, and the like first attracted the attention of the social psychologist. The human mind is so constituted as to be instinctively interested in novel stimuli. Among primitive peoples, such stimuli were " probable sources of danger, and the creature that failed to attend to them would soon have ceased to exist."[1] This interest in novel stimuli predominates in the beginning of scientific work, and scientists in the various fields have only gradually developed " the most striking traits of modern scientific method " which include " an appreciation of the overwhelming significance of the small, the common, and the obscure." [2] In its development social psychology has passed from interest in the striking phenomena of crowds, and from superficial delineations of social processes [3] to the analysis of the processes of typical social groups, [4] and of the motives of behaviour.[5]

Because our method is inductive, it is unnecessary to undertake an analysis of the conflicting theories of social mind. The differences are largely due to imperfect analysis,[6] and we shall do well to make our study primarily analytical with no preconceived theory of social mind.[7] If it is objected that our analysis has primary reference to individual behaviour, the reply is that, whenever men set out to describe the social mind, individual behaviour, with a consciousness on the part of the individuals of their like beliefs and attitudes,

( 442) and of a common purpose, with little or no consideration of its rationality,[8] is evidently the subject matter of the description. Take, for instance, Mr. Hughes' description of the mind of the re-united Republican party: " This representative gathering . . . means the strength of reunion. It means that the party of Lincoln is restored, alert, effective. It means the unity of a common perception of paramount national needs. . . . We know that we are in a critical period, perhaps more critical than any period since the Civil War. We need a dominant sense of national unity; the exercise of our best constructive powers; the vigour and resourcefulness of a quickened America. We desire that the Republican party as a great liberal party shall be the agency of national achievement, the organ of effective expression of dominant Americanism. What do I mean by that? I mean America conscious of power, awake to obligation, erect in self-respect, prepared for every emergency . . . safeguarding both individual opportunity and the public interest, maintaining a well-ordered constitutional system adapted to local self-government without the sacrifice of essential national authority, appreciating the necessity of stability, expert knowledge and thorough organization as the indispensable conditions of security and progress; a country loved by its citizens with a patriotic fervour permitting no division in their allegiance and no rivals in their affection — I mean America first and America efficient."[9] " Dominant Americanism " means, then, dominant individuals, " conscious of power, awake to obligation, erect in self-respect, prepared for every emergency," acting together under a common purpose, united by the attitudes that characterize the party in question, and with the patriotic sense of power which comes from a sense of member-ship in a great party of a great nation.

The social mind evidently has no existence outside of individual minds. But it exercises a dominant influence over individual minds.[10] Rarely does the individual exist who has such a persistently critical attitude as to be beyond the influence of the prevailing ideas and attitudes. The influence of these, though untrue, is as absolute as if they were true. So much has this been so in the past that, as Professor Dunning has said, in the interpretation of history " We must recognize and frankly admit that whatever a given age

( 443) or people believes to be true is true for that age and that people."[11] Only the exceptional man takes the trouble to look into the truth of the beliefs of his time and his criticisms generally have little influence on contemporaries. People act on the prevailing beliefs with even more assurance than the scientist on rational conviction.

The individual attributes beliefs to his family or nation, which, though they exist only in his mind, influence him as if they had an objective existence. In just the same way he attributes capacities to his own personality which have no existence but which influence him as if they were real. " The self of which we are proud is as much a mental construction as is the nation, yet most of our endeavors are devoted to furthering this notion of ourselves, to increasing reputation for wealth, for charity, for accomplishment in some line. When some slight is cast on a capability which we believe that we have, but really do not have, we are as much disturbed emotionally as if we were robbed of a real possession. . . . In many respects, the nation is as real as the self. Both are in large measure ideal constructions."[12] The social psychologist assumes, therefore, that processes of group consciousness constitute a distinct field for investigation. But he does not begin with a theory of social mind. His method is inductive, and this requires actual contact with the members of social groups.

The method of social psychology begins, therefore, with the study of human behaviour as observed in field-work and in documentary sources that have employed the methods of careful field-work. These include the work of those ethnologists who emphasize the necessity of intimate personal contact with the peoples they study, and who insist that the investigator must know the language of the group instead of learning through an interpreter, must live in the group as one of its members, and take part in its daily life and conversation.[13] Boas writes : " Unfortunately the descriptions of the state of mind of primitive people, such as are given by most travellers, are too superficial to be used for psychological investigation. Very few travellers understand the language of the people they visit; and how is it possible to judge a tribe solely by the

( 444) descriptions of interpreters or by observations of disconnected actions the incentive of which remains unknown?"[14] Furthermore, even when the language of a group is known, the relation of outsider often prevents the student from having that intimacy of communication and enjoying that perfect confidence of the group members that is necessary in order to understand their motives. " We must remember also that language is not a perfect medium of expression, that misunderstandings constantly arise among friends in common intercourse on this account, and through failure to ex-press the idea in its context, and that this becomes a very grave source of error in our judgment of races whose mental background is totally different from our own and whose language we know at best imperfectly. Moreover the mental reservations of all groups and races are very serious. It may be a life policy to deceive the intruder."[15]

Students of the groups of civilized society similarly emphasize careful induction. Thomas and Znaniecki's great monograph, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, proves that an intimate knowledge of the attitudes, customs, institutions and problems of a group is possible with a painstaking use of the inductive method. Social workers are directed in making a careful analysis of the motives of the people among whom they work,[16] — of the relations of the members of the families to one another,[17] their relations to relatives,[18] to public school teachers,[19] to employers[20] and to neighbours.[21] The care with which these directions are worked out shows the importance attached to the analysis of motives. Students of the motives of criminals live in the environments in which the delinquent children, from whom criminals develop, grow up, and cultivate friendly relations with these children and their families.[22] Those who deal understandingly with delinquents must " develop friendly co-operation with the offender and his relatives," which requires recognition of privileged communication on the part of

( 445) the courts.[23] Students of the labour problem are obliged to go behind the documentary sources and consult members of employers' associations and trade unions.[24] Students of the activity of stock and produce exchanges study the behaviour of speculators in action.[25] Students of particular industries find that the essential problems of the industry are less problems of raw material than of " the wants and habits of the buying public,"[26] or of the effect of the management of the industry on the condition and attitude of the workers; and they find it necessary to do field work.[27] Students of scientific management must observe the industrial relations in the shops.[28] Students of any phase of industrial relations must come into intimate contact with the people in those relations.[29] The relative intelligence and the specific abilities of workmen can be ascertained by laboratory tests, but not their moral qualities which can be ascertained only after a prolonged acquaintance, and then only by the trained psychologist.[30] The motives of the unusual men engaged in industry cannot be ascertained by tests or from their testimony,[31] but only on intimate acquaintance with them. The motives of business men can be understood by this intimate contact with typical business men. The same methods must be used in a study of the behaviour of professional groups. The social psychologist must know typical men and women — manual workmen, business men, professional men, typical men and women of all kinds. He must understand not only their ideas but the more fundamental facts,— their dispositions and attitudes,—and must discriminate occupational from personal attitudes. Further-more, he must learn from other men what they have learned of human nature. It is a matter of regret that the valuable knowledge of human nature which business and professional men acquire in the course of a long experience dies with them, except as it is passed

( 446) down as oral tradition. For instance, think what a lawyer learns of human nature in the course of his adjustment of disputes or in such business as helping people make their wills. The whole range of human motives is run through on such occasions, and the situation does not permit of successful deception as to motives. Business and professional men value their knowledge of human nature as one of their chief assets. But it is vague, unanalysed, ineffective, and of little value to rising generations.

In intensive studies of social groups, mechanical tests are impossible, and direct questions are fruitless unless put with tact and with an understanding of psychology.[32] People have little clear understanding of their motives, and often conceal what they do understand. One learns the motives of people by knowing them when " off their guard," in the casual relations of daily work and recreation. Furthermore, human nature is so complex that no one motive can be understood without knowing its relations. And this understanding cannot be reached through questionnaires. One must live in the group, experience the life of the members, and analyse this experience with the aid of a thorough psychological equipment.[33] Merely recording observations does not get an investigator very far in scientific work. In their efforts to get away from personal bias, social workers have sometimes made the mistake of entering " upon case records nothing but the facts,' . . . in the attempt to eliminate all prejudice, they eliminated the judgment and discernment which would have given to the whole investigation unity and significance."[34] A social-psychological training is essential for the exercise of such discernment.

The documentary sources of social psychology can be ascertained from the lists of books, documents and articles which are appended to this and the five succeeding volumes, though these are only partial lists of the works cited in the texts and, therefore, do not purport to be a complete bibliography. Because we have not had a distinct science of social psychology, monographs and treatises on the other, social sciences contain more or less social psychology;

(447) this is especially true of the newer works written since the development of the social-psychological point of view. For this reason, as well as because of the intimate relation of the other social sciences to social psychology, a knowledge of the other social sciences is necessary for the social psychologist. Furthermore, assumptions and concepts of the social sciences which are not psychological are suggestive, in that they imply general tendencies of behaviour which invite psychological analysis. For the same reason, studies in the development of language and in literary and other art criticism are suggestive.

In addition to the books, documents, and articles cited, there is an extensive field of documentary sources which the author has not exploited and which offer opportunities for monographic studies. For instance, the third volume of the social psychology which deals with the conflict of instinctive interests in social relations breaks ground in a vast and largely untilled field, which invites investigation into these conflicts. Much of this investigation must be made on the inside; and ought to be undertaken by several men collaborating in each field. A teacher of social psychology should keep in close touch with promising students who have gone into industry and business, into politics, teaching, the ministry and the professions, and should endeavour to enlist students in those different fields in an analysis of relations therein. We no longer have to go to the Malay Archipelago or into the Arctic regions to satisfy a scientific interest; we have only to open our eyes and look into the social relations of which we are a part.

Among the documentary sources for this study of economic, political, professional, educational and cultural relations are files of trade union journals and minutes of trade union meetings; files of industrial journals and magazines; state and congressional investigations of the activity of employers' associations and labour organizations; judicial decisions; congressional and state legislative records, and other publications of state and federal departments; reports of college presidents and other documents of academic institutions which throw light on academic relations; files of ecclesiastical journals and church records; files of journals of the national associations of the different professions, and the constitutions and by-laws and codes of ethics of those associations. These documentary

( 448) sources for the conflict of interests cannot be correctly interpreted by an outsider. It is necessary to read between the lines, which can be done only out of an experience on the inside.

These sources of information are to be used from the point of view of the particular problem under investigation. For instance, suppose we are working on the problem of sovereignty and want to ascertain the political attitudes of a religious sect. We find that magazines of ecclesiastical organizations are coming more and more to print articles on economic and political topics, indicative of political attitudes. In the study of papers from the point of view of the problem of sovereignty, a whole article or editorial may be just one fact concerning a political attitude. It is then necessary 'to work out a methodology through which to determine (I) what facts and what degree of frequency of facts is necessary to indicate a certain attitude; (2) what facts are indicative of attitudes of readers and what facts of attitudes of the interests behind the magazine which are trying to influence the readers.

In addition to publications that represent the attitudes of particular groups and classes, there are the critical periodicals, like The Nation, The New Republic, The Searchlight, and The Survey, which represent no group or class but aim to enlighten and guide the reader in an analysis of current events and problems. These are in-valuable both for the information they give from week to week and for the changes in social attitudes that are to be inferred from their editorials and articles, which reflect, fairly accurately, different phases of the more thoughtful public opinion.

The files of newspapers are valuable documentary sources if rightly used. The files of the daily and weekly newspapers of the small cities and villages used in connection with field-work in those localities yield a more or less detailed knowledge of the social-psychological processes of their respective constituencies.[35] The value of newspapers, as sources of information, is impaired by lack of scrupulous accuracy, and by the class, sectarian and partisan bias which determines the selection and the editing of news. Monographic studies of the files of newspapers could, by the use of the comparative method, work out the class and other bias of different papers and show how this determines the selection and editing of the news. These social-psychological studies of particular newspapers

( 449) would show the extent to which newspapers vary from the standards of accuracy and candour required of trustworthy sources of information. The newspapers could then be used more intelligently as sources for social-psychological investigations.

Social psychology may eventually become quantitative. Statistical exactness is the scientific ideal. But problems of behaviour in which conscious states are determining motives possibly never can be subjected to statistical treatment, because such states " are not a direct mathematical function of any objective quantities. We cannot evade this difficulty completely by dealing with a hypothetical average man. . . . It may well prove that some measurements of satisfaction are perhaps in this category."[36] For instance, statistics of consumption have to do with the goods consumed, not with the impulses satisfied by such consumption. Take, for instance, statistics of money spent for food. The satisfaction derived from such expenditures depends on the various impulses satisfied. The intelligent house-wife satisfies her intellectual impulses in the buying and preparation of food, while the rivalrous house-wife will follow the fashion in buying and preparing. The result is a great difference in satisfaction both in preparation and consumption of the same value of food. " It is more difficult to deal with clothes even than food, and of course out of the question to measure amusements." [37] Clothes satisfy a variety of motives according to the dispositions of people. " If budgets were complete we could find the customary expenditure, and distinguish the important and frequently recurrent item, boots, from the rest. But, since people in buying dress pay attention perhaps as much to appearance as to durability (when we include both sexes), it is evidently impossible to measure the intrinsic value of clothes; . . ."[38] People in certain occupations must be well dressed but also prefer to be.[39] Often the same good satisfies one impulse in one individual and another in another. A man who would find an auto of use in his business may get along without it until his wife wants it-for recreation and display. It is impossible, therefore, to analyse and measure the particular satisfactions derived from this or that good.

The statistician, when, mathematically stating the standard of

( 450) living of a class, does not, therefore, have reference to the impulses satisfied by that standard; nor when comparing the standards of two classes, does he measure the satisfaction derived by one class as compared with that of another. The social psychologist is constantly impressed with the impossibility of measuring satisfaction statistically. For instance, a Negro remarked, " The colored people may not be as well off as the white people but they enjoy them-selves." To compare the satisfaction of that coloured family with that of an adjacent white family on a money income basis would be the veriest folly. Studies of comparative satisfaction require field-work. Satisfaction is always relative. The man with abundant means of satisfaction finds life unbearable if suddenly reduced to the living conditions of the poor man. But the poor man is not necessarily more unhappy than the wealthy man. Members of a class differ in capacity for happiness, though their standards of living may be approximately the same. " While it is natural, when . . . making measurements which describe the standard for a class, to emphasize the similarity of the members and the homogeneity of the class, it is necessary, after numerical description is given to remember that there is in reality infinite variety and that the resemblances are rather superficial. One family will live in comfort and decency on a sum which leaves another family underfed and badly clothed, even though the money is allotted in much the same way. This kind of variation is outside the sphere of statistical measurement. . . . None the less non-measurable mental habits are of the first importance to the social reformer."[40]

While social psychology cannot approach the quantitative accuracy which has been achieved in the natural sciences, still it is possible to employ statistical methods in social-psychological investigations, and doubtless these methods will be further developed. For instance, we can state statistically the relative importance. of different types of impulsive behaviour of a population and compare this with a similar statistical statement of the behaviour of another population, or compare the behaviour of the same population in successive periods of its history.[41] It is particularly important for the social scientist to aim at the highest attainable accuracy, because his subject matter is of a kind that tends to stir affective judgments

( 451) — a tendency which can be overcome only by the most severely scientific methods possible. The natural scientist may be a man of social prejudices, and yet his prejudices may not interfere with his judgments about matter. But the data of the social scientist include those very attitudes and beliefs in connection with which men have the strongest prejudices. He cannot have any prejudice, political, industrial, class, religious, without it weakening him as a social scientist. Furthermore, all personal impulses other than the intellectual must be brought to heel, because, otherwise, his impulses are so readily stirred by his data as to make trustworthy analysis impossible. Hence the need of an ideal in social science of increasing exactness in method.

We must remember that intellect itself is impulsive so far as the exercise of thought and its instinctive end is concerned.[42] The intellectual courage with which thinkers strike into new fields is impulsive and the desire for clearness is impulsive. Men seek clearness because clearness is satisfying to the intellectual impulses and they may sacrifice comprehensive analysis to clearness. The truths of exact science, because of their clearness, convince not only scientists but other thinking people; for lack of equal clearness the work of the social scientist is often condemned as not having the exactness of natural science. There are scientists who aim to give the prestige of precision and statistical accuracy to conceptions which, in the nature of the case, are incapable of such proof. Again, note the scrupulous attention in monographs on problems of industrial relations to statistical data, and the equally scrupulous avoidance of problems of motives, which, when they cannot be ignored, are dismissed with the conventional phraseology. That is, many scientists think and act primarily for the satisfaction of the intellectual impulse for clearness and avoid problems that involve annoyance of the intellectual impulse for clearness — where, on account of the vagueness of the data satisfying clearness is difficult or impossible. Or they simplify the problem by assumptions that make contradictory facts merely exceptions to a general rule, and reason deductively from the rule.[43] A method which makes

( 452) possible a logically clear solution gives a writer prestige as a man of intellectual achievement, and so satisfies his rivalrous disposition. Writers of this disposition are apt to avoid problems where, as in problems of motives, the possibility of exact treatment and conspicuous scientific achievement is doubtful. The intellectual adventurer in the new field of motives must, therefore, for the present deny himself the satisfaction of the intellectual impulse for clearness, as well as the satisfaction of the rivalrous disposition.

Social psychology will not only reveal the motives of prevailing social behaviour but also disclose variations from the prevailing behaviour. These variations characterize men of unusual, or of unusually strong, impulses, and men of imagination. Social psychology, if it is scientific, will detect, analyse and evaluate all motives, not merely the prevailing but also the variant motives. In the study of variations the aim is to detect the rise of what are to be new tendencies of social behaviour and to predict their effect on social organization in the hope that the predictions may make it possible to anticipate and facilitate inevitable changes. Social psychology should in this way further institutional progress in industry, politics, the professions, education and religion. It awaits the rise of variations in personality and public opinion, but suffers no variation to remain unappreciated and uninterpreted, once it has arisen. It should, therefore, be of special interest to the idealistic leader; and training in social psychology should give poise to the idealist. In the logic of events, the sphere of influence of the idealist lies in the future rather than in the present. The mistake he makes is in seeking, in the present, a sphere of influence comparable with his extraordinary capacity. Social psychology should train men and women to look to the future, rather than to the present, for the realization of their hopes. It will not make all men idealists, but it will confirm the trend in this direction of the elect; and, when it

(453) has been taught for years in schools and colleges, the conformity of the masses will become less unthinking and deadening; the idealist himself will become less hesitant, more quick to discover similar growing tendencies in his fellows, more clear throughout the whole course of his intellectual vision, more ready to express the whole truth, and more detached from personal desires incompatible with intellectual integrity and independence.


  1. Titchener, " A Text-Book of Psychology," 271.
  2. Robinson, " The New History," 48.
  3. Dewey, "The Need for Social Psychology," Psy. Rev., XXIV:267
  4. Williams, " An American Town," r906.
  5. Cooley, "Human Nature and the Social Order," 1902; McDougall, "An Introduction to Social Psychology," 1909; Thorndike, "The Original Nature of Man," 1913.
  6. Bristol, " Social Adaptation," Chs. VII, X.
  7. "The fact is that the expression 'social mind,' and the various alternative expressions which are used as equivalents or variants of it, are scarcely fit to print in the context of exact discourse. This does not mean that there are not facts referred to by these expressions, but only that their use is so ill-defined that it is almost impossible to discover just which facts are referred to at any given time." (Perry, "Economic Value and Moral Value," Quart. Jour. Econ., May, 1916, 467468).
  8. Thomas and Znaniecki, "The Polish Peasant in Europe and America," I: 32—33
  9. Hughes 'Speech of Acceptance, Associated Press (R. D. C.), August 1, 1916.
  10. Pillsbury, "The Psychology of Nationality and Internationalism," 219-220.
  11. Dunning, "Truth in History," Amer. Hist. Rev., XIX:227—228.
  12. Pillsbury, op. cit.,. 220—221.
  13. Boas, "Handbook of Indian Languages," Bur. Amer. Ethn., Bulletin 40, Pt. I, 59—61; Fletcher, "The Hako: A Pawnee Ceremony," Bur. Amer. Ethn., XXII: Pt. II, p. 13.
  14. Boas, "The Mind of Primitive Man," 99.
  15. Thomas, " Race Psychology: Standpoint and Questionnaire," Amer. Jour. Sociol., XVII: 731.
  16. Richmond, "Social Diagnosis"; Cabot, "Social Work."
  17. Richmond, " Social Diagnosis," Ch. VII.
  18. Ibid., Ch. IX.
  19. Ibid., Ch. XI. 
  20. Ibid., Ch. XII.
  21. Ibid., Ch. XIV.
  22. True, " The Neglected Girl," 1-3.
  23. Healy, "The Individual Delinquent,"30--31, 34—37.See also Healy, "Mental Conflicts and Misconduct," 4 ff; Healy, "Pathological Lying, Accusation and Swindling"; Healy and Bronner, "Youthful Offenders," Amer. Jour. Sociol., July, 1916, 38—52.
  24. Hoxie, "Trade Unionism in the United States," 383; Wolman, "The Boycott in American Trades Unions," J. H. U. S. H. P. S., Series XXIV, No. I, Preface.
  25. Brace, "The Value of Organized Speculation," 51-53, 64, 350.
  26. Cherington, "The Wool Industry,"Preface, viii—ix.
  27. Cherington, op. cit., Preface, ix; Van Kleeck, "A Seasonal Industry; a Study of the Millinery Trade in New York,"Introduction.
  28. Hoxie, "Scientific Management and Labor," Preface.
  29. "The Pittsburg Survey"; "The Cleveland Survey."
  30. "Link, "Employment Psychology," Ch. XVII.
  31. Ibid., 189—194.
  32. Richmond, " Social Diagnosis," Ch. IV.
  33. As Dewey says, we cannot "adapt the rubrics of introspective psychology to the facts of objective associated life." (Dewey, "The Need for Social Psychology," Psy. Rev., Vol. XXIV, No. 4, July, 1917, 271.
  34. Richmond, op. cit., 94.
  35. Williams, "An American Town," Pt. II.
  36. Bowley, "The Measurement of Social Phenomena," 9-10.
  37. Ibid., 140-141.
  38. Ibid.,161.
  39. Ibid., 102.
  40. Ibid., 163-164.
  41. Williams, " An American Town," Part II.
  42. Hocking, " Human Nature and its Remaking," 61-62.
  43. " Probably the very fact that economics is not an exact science strengthens the disposition to state its conclusions in exact terms. We are constantly told that its conclusions hold good only as approximations. . . . All this is not to be questioned. Nor would I for a moment question either the usefulness or the inevitableness of this mode of procedure. On other occasions, and in connection with the methodology of some typical concrete investigations, I have pointed out the unquestionable necessity which confronts the economist, of relying on deductive reasoning from the hedonistic premise. (In the volume on Some Aspects of the Tariff Question, pp. 155, 512.) But the explanation of such reliance is not solely that the economist must perforce do so. As a rule he also likes to do so. The sort of person who makes a good economist is temperamentally impatient of loose ends and rough edges. He likes results that are clean-cut. He is apt to disregard the admitted qualifying factors, and to treat the qualifications as aberrations from the truth, not modifications of his conclusions. And among the things which he is thus tempted to push aside as aberrations, negligible in the formulation of accurate results, is the influence of sympathy, or altruism, or devotion." (Taussig, " Inventors and Money-Makers," 110-112.)

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2