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Social psychology is an approach to understanding human social relations that focuses on individuals and how their interactions impact social organizations and social institutions. Social psychological scholarship includes a wide range of theoretical perspectives, methodological tools, and substantive applications originating from diverse intellectual schools such as sociology, psychology, economics, education, and business. Contemporary social psychology is best understood by examining its range of theoretical perspectives, methodological tools, and substantive foci.
Theoretical Perspectives and Theoretical Ideas in Social Psychology
In 1980 Sheldon Stryker articulated three faces” of social psychology: psychological social psychology, sociological social psychology, and symbolic interactionism. All three perspectives share a focus on the individual and individual interactions as the explanatory factor for all aspects of social life, such as the creation of stable group structures and the formation of successful social movements. The three theoretical perspectives in social psychology are known more generally as cognitive and intra-personal, symbolic interactionist, and structural.
Cognitive and intrapersonal social psychology focuses on understanding how internal processes affect an individual’s ability to interact with others. The internal processes most studied in this perspective are cognitive and physiological. The cognitive approach examines how brain activity specifically associated with memory, perception, and decision-making processes affects an individual’s ability to understand the information necessary for engaging in successful interactions. Additionally, this approach also explores how variations in cognitive processes lead to differences in individuals’ ability to interact. The physiological approach explores the ways that specific biological and chemical processes affect individuals’ ability to create adequate and useful schemas, use their memory, perceive things accurately, and then make relevant decisions.
Symbolic interactionism originated from the work of George Herbert Mead and his students at the University of Chicago as well as the work of pragmatic philosophers. One of the sociology students, Herbert Blumer, coined the term symbolic interactionism and other sociology students were instrumental in publishing Mead’s ideas, after his death, concerning the individual. These ideas center on his discussions of the mind (what makes humans uniquely social creatures), self (how we become uniquely social creatures), and society (how our interactions are affected by social institutions). Generally, the symbolic interactionist perspective in social psychology focuses on studying the meanings that underlie social interactions in terms of how they are created, how they are maintained, and how we learn to understand such meanings. Additionally, theorists writing within this perspective argue that individual interactions lead to the creation of formal social organizations and social institutions. Therefore, to understand society, it is necessary to understand the interactions that shape it and maintain it. There are three main theoretical approaches in the symbolic interaction-ist perspective, symbolic interactionism, phenomenological, and life course.
- The symbolic interactionism approach is most closely related to Mead’s original ideas concerning social psychology and focuses on exploring how meanings are created and maintained within social interactions with the self as the basis for such interactions. The underlying theme of this approach is that individuals create and manage meanings through the roles and identities they hold. It is important to note that each individual holds any number of roles and identities, depending on the people with whom they interact as well as the environment in which they find themselves.
- The phenomenological approach originated from European sociology and philosophy, emphasizing the meanings themselves and how such meanings reflect unstated normative expectations for interactions. The underlying theme of this approach is that language, verbal and non-verbal, represents the informal and formal rules and norms that guide social interactions and structure society.
- The life course approach in symbolic interaction-ism focuses on how humans learn the meanings associated with interactions throughout their lifetime and the stages that reflect such learning processes. The underlying theme of this approach is that the norms, rules, and values that guide interactions and shape society change throughout individuals’ lives, especially as they move into different social positions and environments.
Structural social psychology originated with the work of economists, psychologists, and sociologists interested in explaining social interactions more formally and mathematically with the goal of creating testable hypotheses. Structural social psychology assumes that social actors are driven by rational concerns centered on maximizing rewards and minimizing punishments. Another related assumption is that interactions based on rational calculations result in formally structured individual, group, and institutional interactions. There are three main theoretical programs that represent this approach: power, exchange, and bargaining studies; social influence and authority studies; and status characteristics, expectation states theory, and social network studies.
- Power, exchange, and bargaining studies explore how social interactions can be described as exchanges between social actors with the assumption that individuals rationally calculate the costs and benefits associated with any particular interaction.
- Social influence and authority studies share an underlying theme that there are several factors that encourage people to be influenced by others, including the status or position others hold in comparison to themselves and group encouragement of conformity.
- Status characteristics, expectation states, and social network studies examine how social interactions are based on socially and culturally derived expectations for behavior that people have of one another. These socially and culturally derived expectations are associated with assumed predictions concerning how successfully any individual will contribute to an exchange, or interaction, process.
Methodological Tools in Social Psychology
Social psychologists use a variety of research methods with which to explore and explain specific aspects of social interactions as well as test specific hypotheses concerning these social interactions.
- Interpretive methods, also known as “qualitative methods,” are used to gain an in-depth understanding of social psychological phenomena, ranging from individuals to their interactions to the groups and environments in which such interactions occur. The type of interpretive research methods used by social psychologists include participant observation, unobtrusive research utilizing archival documents as representation of individuals and their interactions, and more extensive field research similar to ethnographic research commonly used by anthropologists.
- Experimental methods in social psychology serve as a way to test specific theoretical hypotheses as well as to explore particular aspects of interactions. There are a range of experimental methods, from the quasi-experimental study which has fewer strict controls to the fully experimental study with formal control and experimental groups, as well as full control of all variables associated with the study.
- Survey and interview methods used by social psychologists serve to test specific hypotheses as well as explore specific aspects of interactions, groups, and social institutions. Similarly to other areas in sociology, social psychologists use a range of survey tools and interview techniques including self-completing surveys, those conducted by the researcher, and in-depth interviews. It is worth noting that social psychologists often use surveys and interviews as the second approach as a way of engaging in methodological triangulation. For example, pre- and post-study surveys are used in experimental studies where the participant will either complete the survey without the researcher present or be asked a series of questions by the researcher.
Substantive Focus in Social Psychology
Beginning students in social psychology are often surprised to learn the degree to which understanding the individual and her or his interactions allows them to also explain group dynamics, behavior in social organizations, whether a social movement will be successful, and the seeming durability of social institutions. Similar to the discussion of the methodological tools used by social psychologists, it is simplistic to describe the field as focused only on the individual. The substantive focus of social psychological theory and research ranges from individuals and their interactions to the groups in which they engage to the social organizations and social institutions that shape these interactions.
- The study of individuals and their interactions seeks to explore, understand, and explain different aspects of the unique social quality of people. The range of topics includes understanding why prejudice and discrimination exist, the best way to persuade and influence people, and those topics typically found in social psychology texts – interpersonal attraction, helping and altruism, and aggression.
- The study of groups highlights that the group environment affects individuals and their interactions. The range of topics for studying groups includes group conformity, group performance, and intergroup relations.
- In understanding individuals and their interactions, as well as how group membership affects those interactions, social psychologists are able to discuss and study social organizations and institutions. Some of the topics examined include social movements and whether they are successful as well as the idea of deviance as a social institution.
- Blau, P. (1964) Exchange and Power in Social Life. Wiley, New York.
- Blumer, H. (1969) Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
- Cook, K. (ed.) (1987) Social Exchange Theory. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
- Stryker, S. (1980) Symbolic Interactionism: A Social Structural Version. Benjamin Cummings, Menlo Park, CA.