Social psychology is the scientific study of how we affect each other by anything from what we say or do, to the simple act of our presence. From this descriptions it is clear how social psychology is often seen to overlap with sociology and indeed explains why many of its roots are there. Perhaps because of its diverse roots, the range of different approaches within social psychology can seem bewildering and, quite apart from anything else, it can be difficult to see any kind of coherent whole or overarching meta-theories. In order to evaluate whether social psychology might benefit from a more integrated approach it is useful to evaluate where that integration is occurring and whether it is producing meaningful knowledge.
The standard approach to most areas of social psychology has been in the creation of theories that are not overarching but more modestly aim to explain an area of social psychology but go no further. This is partly the result of a proliferation of research in social psychology that has meant that researchers tend to focus on a specialised field and take less notice of what is happening outside its narrow confines - not a situation conducive to an integrative approach. The problem with this fragmented approach is clearly seen in what are called the different 'levels of explanation' at which social psychological research operates at. The three levels are intrapersonal, interpersonal, and intergroup and the research has tended to concentrate on one of these levels without integrating them together. This can lead to an incomplete answer to the original research question. Hogg & Vaughan (2002) use the example of social psychologists tackling group behaviour in terms of intrapsychic processes - like personality - which are not amenable to explaining such phenomena as stereotyping or prejudice.
Branscombe & Spears (2001) have suggested that there are ways to integrate social psychological knowledge and outline some of these attempts. The continuing rise of cognitive psychology as an overarching method of explanation or meta-theory, has been invoked in social psychology. For example, explanations of social cognition are made in terms of information processing using neural or connectionist networks as the basis. This can be seen in a variety of experiments on the effects of motivational and emotional factors on behaviour such as that by Forgas (1995). Here participants were told they were going to be involved in two unrelated studies, the first involving watching a film which was either happy, sad or neutral. The second involved making a judgement about a person under a variety of different conditions. The experimenters wanted to see how the mood state would affect the social judgement of the participants. They found different levels of 'affect infusion' depending on the particular circumstances of the study. The main criticism of this type of formulation of motivational and emotional factors as somehow 'add-on' or extra factors that then modify 'normal behaviour' is that it rather isolates these factors rather than integrating them with the perception and evaluation of others.
Evolutionary psychology has also had a great effect on many areas of psychology and lays claim to being another overarching theory - although this is more of a 'top-down' rather than 'bottom-up' theory. Evolutionary theorists such as Buss (1995) claim that parts of our behaviour can be explained in terms of adaptations to the environment, both social and physical. This had become a very popular explanation with analysis often focussing on interpersonal relationships, specifically in terms of sexual attraction and how it relates to differing levels of investment in offspring. Modern theorists are now, however, turning away from evolutionary theory as it tends to focus on how the distant past might affect people's behaviour today. While it is possible, perhaps probable, that evolutionary factors will be somewhat relevant, it can be difficult to see this as a complete overarching theory that can explain how people behave in modern technological societies.
Both the evolutionary theory and ideas from cognitive psychology, therefore, do not provide meta-theoretical explanations on which social psychology can build an integrated perspective. Where then can we turn? Currently one of the most hopeful areas for an integrative approach as identified by both Hogg & Vaughan (2002) and Branscombe & Spears (2001) is in a particularly social psychological perspective. These authors suggest that one of the most successful attempts at integrating analyses from a variety of different levels - intrapersonal, interpersonal and intergroup - is in social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986).
Social identity theory grew out of the minimal group paradigm experiments in which it was found that people would strongly identify with even an extremely arbitrary and loosely formed grouping so as to prefer the in-group members over the out-group members. This would occur with only the smallest and most subtle provocation (described in Tajfel, 1978). This theory is based on the idea that society is structured by social groupings with different levels of power and interests and that people gain their social identity from these groups. Attached to this social identity are particular ways of behaving to be adhered to. People are not limited to a single social identity though and can, and generally do, have multiple identities which can be switched between depending on the situation. To counter the criticisms mentioned earlier about levels of explanation, social identity theory is careful to separate personal identity from social identity as it is precisely the confounding of these two levels that has drawn the censure of critics. Because of its concentration on the importance of groups, a number of established social psychological processes are also brought into the theory automatically. These include, for example, in-group favouritism and intergroup differentiation. Finally, social identity theory assumes that people have a need to gain a positive evaluation of themselves in relation to other people.
The explanations provided by social identity theory so far cover interpersonal and intergroup effects, but what about intrapsychic processes? Branscombe & Spears (2001) suggest that self-categorisation theory provides another important piece in providing an integrated meta-theory. Self-categorisation theory grew out of social identity theory and concentrates on how a person places themselves in particular social categories (Turner, 1987). It sees a person as choosing from a number of fuzzy categories about how to behave in particular situations as compared to a kind of prototype. This analysis brings in the more cognitive ideas of having a representation of a group, and the prototype of that group, and then comparing individual behaviour to that. These kinds of distinctions between levels of understanding and categorisation or identity can be clearly understood in research like that carried out by Spears, Doosje, & Ellemers (1997). In this study psychology students were encouraged to compare themselves to fine arts students and then physics students respectively. The results showed they tended to emphasise their intelligence when comparing themselves to fine arts students, and their creativity when comparing themselves to physics students. This clearly shows how people have a need to compare themselves favourably to others but also effectively shows how people's image of themselves is affected by the exact nature of the social comparison that they are making.
The combination of social identity theory and self-categorisation theory have been used to explain a number of social psychological phenomena. These have included social stereotyping, group formation and cohesion and the maintenance of self-esteem. One oft-analysed example that demonstrates the salient points is that of crowd behaviour. Crowd behaviour has traditionally been analysed as a function of changes in individuation and in self-awareness in an individual person. Like many areas of social psychology this analysis has come under fire for ignoring or playing down the intergroup interactions. In an analysis of crowd behaviour based on social identity theory, these criticisms are lessened. Reicher, Spears & Postmes (1995) posit that crowds come together as members of a specific social group in order to perform a particular act or protest, the result of this is that there is often a high level of the sharing of social identity. But in a crowd situation there are frequently few cues as to how to behave and so people tend to look for those members of the group that they identify with and copy them. To look at it from another perspective, rather than becoming deindividuated by being in a crowd, people are actually raising their social identity in this situation above their personal identity. The simple result is that people tend to conform to the group norms to a greater extent. Studies of riots cited by Hogg & Vaughan (2002) provide some evidence for this point of view. Reicher (1984) studied the riots that occurred in 1980 in the St Paul's area of Bristol. It was found that, for example, people only targeted symbols of the state such as the police and banks, they were certainly not indiscriminate. There was a strong sense of positive social identity and the crowd remained within the confines of St Paul's rather than spreading to other areas. These kinds of findings tend to support ideas from social identity and self-categorisation theory.
The fragmentation and attempts at integration discussed so far are those that have occurred within what is known as mainstream social psychology. However, one of the most important major differences or splits in the practice of social psychology came with the so-called 'crisis in social psychology' in the late 60s and early 70s. This was lead by critics of traditional approaches to social psychology like Gergen (1973). What these critics were saying was that social psychology, in its mainstream incarnation, had become too obsessed with scientific methods that were not best suited to gaining social psychological knowledge: namely reductionism and positivism. The effect of concentrating on reductionism in psychology, it was argued, meant that accounts of social psychological phenomena tended to concentrate on intrapersonal psychology at the expense of understanding the social nature of human relations. Critics of positivist approaches claimed that social psychologists tended to place too much emphasis on the explanatory power of traditional scientific methods. They contended that it was not possible to study a person or group of people in an 'objective' way for the simple reason that effectively people are studying themselves and it is impossible to be objective about yourself - by definition!
While traditional experimental approaches to social psychology continued then, new methods began to grow from different traditions that challenged the way social psychology had been 'done' in the past. Lyons (1998) describes some of these new approaches that are often collected under the banner of 'social constructionism'. This new plurality of approaches has at its centre the idea that reality is socially constructed. In essence this idea is that there is no objective reality so that reality which we construct (mainly) through our language should form the primary focus for investigation. Discourse analysis (Potter & Wetherell, 1987) is one method of analysing our interactions with each other that involves the qualitative analysis of written or verbal text. While these new approaches to social psychology have certainly fed back usefully into the mainstream in terms of the methodologies used, their philosophical bases are fundamentally opposed to the way that mainstream psychology is carried out. Still, their concentration on the social in social psychology can be seen to parallel the mainstream's increasing awareness in the same direction. Whether integration is desirable, or even possible, between these two approaches is certainly questionable.
The main problem for social psychologists is that knowledge naturally becomes highly specialised and eventually ghettoised, so that there is little communication between specialisms and little opportunity for the sharing and integration of knowledge. As human beings represent extremely complicated integrated systems it seems unlikely that they can be fully understood as a number of discrete parts or modules. Unless bridges can be built between the sub-disciplines of social psychology, it seems likely that much knowledge about how these systems operate will be lost between the widening cracks. There is some evidence that some level of integration might be achieved through social identity and self-categorisation theory, although the gap between mainstream social psychology and social constructionist analyses look less likely to be bridged despite the boost to qualitative methodologies in the mainstream.
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