The Present Status of Social Psychology in America

Kenneth Smoke
Mary Baldwin College

From time to time it is well that we pause in our study of specific problems and attempt to achieve a synoptic view of things psychological. When American social psychology is approached in this way one discovers that it at present possesses a number of outstanding characteristics, perhaps the most noticeable of which is the wide range of phenomena that are considered as falling within its scope. Thus, for example, the Journal of Social Psychology during 1934 published articles with such diverse titles as these:

A Quantitative Comparison of the Nationality Preferences of Two Groups,

Examinations in Familiar and Unfamiliar Surroundings,

Voluntary Simulation of Allergic Sneezing,

The Instability of Post-War Marriages,

An Analysis of the Perception of Intelligence in the Face,

Denunciation and Religious Certainty,

A Psychoneurotic Inventory of Penitentiary Inmates,

Suggestibility in Chimpanzee,

Ghosts of the Sophisticated.

Again, books bearing the title 'Social Psychology' which have been published in America during approximately the last decade contain chapters with such diverse captions as these:

Psychology of Progress (14),

Occupational Groups (3),

Anticipatory Habit Systems (19),

Pathological Forms of Consciousness (2),

The Mechanism of Institutional Development (10),

The Advance to the Higher Plane of Social Conduct (13),

The Physiological Basis of Human Behavior (1),

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Patriotism, Nationalism, and Internationalism (6),

Religious Organization (5).

Surely there is here an unusually broad field of endeavor.

Another outstanding characteristic of social psychology in America is the differences existing among various writers concerning the nature of social-psychological problems.[1] Table I gives the approximate percentage of material which various authors devote to representative topics listed in the subject indices of a number of recent books on social psychology.[2] Although these data are not, and by the nature of the case cannot be, absolutely precise, it is evident (I) that writers on social psychology differ enormously in their judgment as to the relative importance of various problems, and (2) that the problems considered as social-psychological by some writers are as different from those so considered by other writers as the problems of one science (such as physics) differ from those of another science (such as chemistry). Of course it is not to be expected that all of the workers in a field of science will agree as to the relative importance of each problem in that field. Neither is it likely that all writers in a given science will discuss exactly the same problems, and perhaps it is not desirable that they should. That the differences should be so great as those indicated in Table I is, however, clear evidence that `social psychology,' like a political catchword, is all things to all men. The social psychologies written by such outstanding men as Bogardus (3), Allport (I), McDougall (13), Young (19), Kantor (20), and Dunlap (5) are so unlike one another that it would be entirely possible for a reader to understand any one of these

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volumes quite thoroughly and yet be painfully ignorant of much (or even of almost all) of the content of the others.

Perhaps the basic explanation of the foregoing characteristics is to be found in the existence of great differences of opinion as to the subject matter and the methodology of scientific social psychology, differences so great and so

( 540) systematic as to indicate that we are here dealing with what are often known as `schools of thought.' Although there is no exact counterpart in social psychology for such works in general psychology as `Psychologies of 1925' (15), `Psychologies of 1930' (16), and `Seven Psychologies' (9), the existence of social-psychological `schools' is indicated by the following list of `outstanding conceptions of social psychology' as discussed by Kantor (10, Chapter II) :

Social psychology as the study of mob or crowd phenomena,

Social behavior as responses to persons,

Social psychology as the study of behavior in groups,

Social psychology as the study of socialization,

Social psychology as the study of mental origins and psychic causes,

Social psychology as the study of ethnic phenomena,

Social psychology as the study of collectivistic mentality,

Social psychology as the study of social forces,

Social psychology as the physiology of complex behavior.

Under the impact of other `schools' each `school' has been forced to modify its tenets, and its younger adherents, with the passage of time (and of Ph.D. examinations), have usually tended toward a,somewhat more eclectic point of view. The influence of the schools' is still apparent, how-ever, and social psychology without `schools' is as yet a dream rather than a reality.[3]

Another outstanding characteristic of contemporary American social psychology is a distinct tendency toward research on specific, clearly-defined problems which can be investigated by objective methods. As Karpf (11, 428) well says, "We are inevitably on the eve of a period of specialized research and investigation; of the rule of fact, proof, and careful scientific procedure; and of the patient and painstaking cooperation of many in the task of the gradual inductive reconstruction of the field of social-psychological theory."

( 541) With the exception of the volume by Murphy and Murphy (17) and perhaps one or two others, the books now available in the field lag far behind the periodical literature. So far as the writer understands the situation, this is more true of social psychology than of any other field of human knowledge. If history tells us anything, however, it is that a tendency toward the type of research indicated is at once enduring and hopeful.

One disposed to be hypercritical could easily find in con-temporary American social psychology a target for many a shaft. Thus, it might be truthfully asserted that it is largely an amorphous mass; that in so far as it is able to formulate any generalizations, they are to be regarded as hypotheses rather than as laws; that the worker in this field, unlike the physical scientist, is never quite sure whether he is studying stones or stars; that there is no more place for `schools' in social psychology than in astronomy; that there is much metaphysical speculation in this field which is not ordinarily recognized as such; that social-psychological writings are often vague and wordy, and tell us more about the writer than about the subject under consideration; that social psychology needs a Newton to bring about its reorganization and reorientation, revealing relationships to which we are as yet quite blind and giving it a sense of direction; etc. The fact remains, however, that although social psychology may not be entirely clear as to where it is going, it is on its way and this is not so hopeless a situation as may appear to be the case at first sight. Moreover, if one hopes to view this matter in perspective, one must reckon with both the youthfulness of the field and the amazing complexity of its subject matter (howsoever one conceives of it). One human being in comparative isolation is of course vastly more complex than any conceivable combination of chemical `elements,' but when another human being appears on the scene the psychological problems in the situation immediately become very much greater both in number and in complexity. Indeed, a second individual more than doubles the problems, for in psychology one plus one does not equal two. There is therefore every reason to believe that the weaknesses of social

( 542) psychology are far from fatal—they may even prove to be its strength.

Signs of wide-spread interest in social psychology are not wanting. The Year Book of the American Psychological Association for 1935 lists 113 members as teachers of social psychology and 189 members as researchers in this field. And, what is perhaps more important, the periodical literature of social psychology during the last few years has possessed a vigor and freshness that is most encouraging.

Social psychology in America is at present chiefly characterized by (1) the range of phenomena that are considered as falling within its scope, (z) the variety of opinion concerning the nature of its problems that results from the existence of a number of fundamental points of view, and (3) a tendency toward research on specific, clearly-defined problems which can be investigated by objective methods. The changes which this field is undergoing are probably transitional, not transitory, and they are such as to make possible a reasonable belief in unusual, and perhaps startling, developments in the future. The significance of social psychology for both the present and the future is to be found in the fact that we are beginning to realize that it is not man, but our knowledge of man in relation to man, that is `the measure of all things.'


I. ALLPORT, F. H., Social psychology, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1924. Pp. xiv + 453.

2 BERNARD, L. L., An introduction to social psychology, New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1926. Pp. X + 652.

3. BOGARDUS, E. S., Fundamentals of social psychology, and edition, New York: The Century Co., 1931. Pp. xii + 444.

4. BROWN, L. G., Social psychology, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1934.Pp. xiii + 651.

5. DUNLAP, K., Social psychology, Baltimore: The Williams and Wilkins Co., 1927. Pp. 261.

6  EWER, B. C., Social psychology, New York: The Macmillan Co., 1929. Pp. ix + 436.

7 FOLSOM, J. K., Social psychology, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1931. Pp. xviii + 70I.

8 GAULT, R. H., Social psychology, New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1923. Pp. X + 336.


9. HEIDBREDER, E., Seven psychologies, New York: The Century Co., 1933. Pp. viii + 450.

10. KANTOR, J. R., An outline of social psychology, Chicago: Follett Publishing Co., 1929. Pp. xiv + 420.

11. KARPF, F. B., American social psychology, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1932. Pp. xvii + 461.

12. KRUEGER, E. T. AND RECKLESS, W. C., Social psychology, New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1934. Pp. Vii + 578.

13. MCDOUGALL, W., An introduction to social psychology, revised edition, Boston: John W. Luce and Co., 1926. Pp. viii + 513.

14. MUKERJEE, R. AHD SEN-GUPTA, N. N., Introduction to social psychology, NewYork: D. C. Heath and Co., 1928. Pp. xv + 304.

15. MURCHISON, C. (ed.), Psychologies of 1925, Worcester: Clark University Press, 1926. Pp. xiii + 412.

16. MURCHISON, C. (ed.), Psychologies of 1930, Worcester: Clark University Press, 1930. Pp. xix + 497.

17. MURPHY, G. AND MURPHY, L. B., Experimental social psychology, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1931. Pp. 709.

18. MYERSON, A., Social psychology, New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1934. Pp. xv + 640.

19. YOUNG, K., Social psychology, New York: F. S. Crofts and Co., 1931. Pp. xvii + 68o + xxi.

[MS. received March 12, 1935]


  1. This characteristic is not unrelated to the one previously mentioned. However, whereas we were there concerned with showing something of the range and variety of the problems of social psychology taken by and large, we are here interested in showing something of the range and variety of points of view with reference to the social-psychological character of a number of representative problems taken separately.
  2. Table I can of course be criticised in various ways. Thus, for example, it is true that the selection of topics is arbitrary and that differences in terminology from writer to writer influence the results to some extent. It is also true, however, that these differences in terminology are themselves symptoms of the confusion of tongues that is characteristic of the field as a whole.
  3. In general, social psychologists may be said to take a sociological point of view (in which case the emphasis is likely to be on the group) or a psychological point of view (in which case the emphasis is likely to be on the individual). Such distinctions as these, however, are too vague to be really helpful.

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