22 OCTOBER 2015

Social Psychology or Social Psychologies

Social Psychology or Social Psychologies

Social psychology has been said to have a short history, but a long past. By this, we mean that it is a relatively young discipline: the phrase ‘social psychology’ first appeared only around 150 years ago. However, its ‘long past’ refers to the fact that the questions which preoccupy us in social psychology are not new. Indeed, as long as people have been writing we find references to questions which still occupy us today in social psychology. These writers are not confined to one discipline (indeed, the notion of this would have been problematic, or even alien, to many of them), but they share a common interest in considerations that centre on the social nature of human beings, our communal actions, understandings and interactions.


One might have thought that 150 years was not long enough for a discipline to develop much diversity, but nothing could be further from the truth. Psychology itself is a divided discipline and what is already effectively a sub-discipline or branch of social psychology is, itself, diverse and divided. 

What joins social psychologists in the definition of their discipline tends to be the components they use to describe their work: these are usually the individual, society and, most importantly, some sort of relationship between them. 

The importance that is given to these different aspects - individual and society - varies greatly, as do the assumptions that are made about which (if either) takes precedence.  Rather like the chicken and the egg, we can find ourselves in endless debates over which came first: does society exist only because of the individuals who create and comprise it, or are individuals the product of the societies in which they grow up, participate and exist? It is possible to find both of these positions argued forcefully on the pages of textbooks and journal articles in social psychology. 

There are other social psychologists who feel that this rather misses the point. For them, to place individual before society risks underplaying the importance of wider societal factors in the development of each person, and the effect of growing up in communities and societies that have ideas, rules, practices, rituals and so on which we must learn and take on board if we are to become functioning human beings. However, it is similarly problematic to assume that the individual has no role in this process: if we over-emphasise the role of society, we risk a determinism which writes out the individual and his or her potential to change and to challenge what is around us. Instead, these social psychologists prefer to see the relationship between individual and society as more mutually co-constructive: they create one another, depend upon one another and can only be considered in interaction.

Many of these differences often go unacknowledged and unconsidered in writing on social psychology, but taking some time to consider how the individual, society and the relationship between the two are being presented by any social psychologist can be a constructive exercise.


Dr Juliet Foster is a social psychologist, University Lecturer and Senior Tutor at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge University. Read Juliet's full career talk profile.