Sociological Social Psychology Research Paper

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Social psychology is concerned with the interplay of society and individual. In this specification, ‘society’ is a gloss for all relatively stable social relationships and patterns of social interaction, and the close examination of microsociological processes is included in social psychology. The major contributors to this enterprise are psychologists and sociologists.



1. The Two Social Psychologies

In practice, there are two social psychologies. Psychological social psychology assumes that ‘in the beginning there is the individual’ and focuses on individuals’ social cognitions. Sociological social psychology assumes that ‘in the beginning there is society’; its distinguishing charge is to locate interactional processes in their social structural context. This difference leads to differences in problems studied, conceptualizations of problems, and research findings. Marcus and Zajonc (1985) observe that cognitive social psychology starts and ends with persons’ cognitions; sociologists note that unless the rootedness of cognitions in social structure is recognized, more causal power than warranted is accorded cognitions. Cognitive social psychologists recognize that cognitions reflect experience, but experience does not enter theoretical formulations or research designs; for sociologists how experience is organized is central to both theory and research. The former developed largely through experimental research; the latter—more eclectic in methods and exhibiting greater willingness now than earlier to use experimental methods—has preferred studying social behavior in situ using observational procedures or survey and questionnaire methods locating persons in social milieus. The two social psychologies share topical interests: e.g., attitudes, self, and identity. They also differ in topics, as a glance at textbooks for each will evidence.

2. Focusing On Sociological Social Psychology (SSP)

The concern here is with social psychological work reflecting sociological interests and contributing to sociology as an intellectual enterprise. This does not imply that psychological social psychology is ‘wrong’ or irrelevant to SSP; sociologists can learn much from their psychological counterparts. Yet, SSP has its relatively distinct approaches, interests, and objectives.

Sociologists have offered versions of social psychology as alternatives to a sociology built on social structural concepts; Herbert Blumer’s (1969) advocacy of symbolic interactionism is an important example. Today, sociological social psychologists typically understand their work as a specialization within sociology, focusing on persons as social beings and their interaction that contributes to sociological analyses in general; this view is adopted here. Most sociologists doing social psychology share a set of core ideas, largely taken for granted. They also significantly differ in approaches taken. The variations are attended to first.

3. Variations In Perspectives Within SSP

Three perspectives are considered—interactionist, group processes, and social structure–personality— encompassing most SSP; discussion of each is selective. These perspectives are not as independent as separate treatment suggests. Interactionists incorporate fundamentals of the social structure–personality frame by recognizing structural constraints on personal development and interaction. The social structure– personality formula recognizes the mediating role of interaction processes and microstructures. And group processes work builds upon the social definitional emphases of the interactional frame and the macrostructural contexts of small group structures and processes. Nevertheless, the classificatory scheme allows the recognition of significant variation in perspectives within SSP.

3.1 The Interactionist Perspective

Interactionism developed under the early influence of the Scottish moral philosophers, George Herbert Mead, Charles Horton Cooley, W. I. Thomas. More recent influences include Blumer, Everett Hughes, Erving Goffman, Anselm Strauss, and Ralph Turner. Basic principles are ideas drawing on Mead. Subjectively held meanings are central to explaining or understanding social behavior. Meanings are products of persons’ communication as they seek solutions to collective problems, and humans’ capacity for symbolization. Of particular importance are meanings attached to self, others with whom persons interact, and situations of interaction; these guide interaction, and are altered in interaction. Implied is that who persons interact with under what circumstances is critical to the development of, and changes in, meanings and thus to interaction processes.

The centrality of meanings underwrites a basic methodological principle of interactionism: actors’ definitions must be taken into account in examining their behavior. For many, this principle leads to viewing everyday life as the preferred arena of research; use of observational methods, ethnography, case histories, or intensive interviewing as preferred means of gathering data; and qualitative methods as preferred analysis procedures. Other interactionists, accepting the methodological principle involved, find these preferences unnecessarily limiting in their implied rejection of quantitative analyses of large-scale data sets for research stemming from interactionist premises.

Given these ideas, it is unsurprising that many interactionists attend to self, its dimensions or components, variability or stability, content under varying structural conditions, authenticity, efficacy, self-change, the social construction and interactional consequences of affect, the interactional sources and social behavioral resultants of self-esteem, interactional and symbolic processes in defense of self, the relation of self to physical and mental health, labeling, stigmatization, deviance, and a host of other topics. A related focus is on socialization, for the shaping of self is key to entrance into roles, normal and deviant. Attention is paid to socialization processes within institutional settings—family, school, work, etc., as well as settings that are not fully institutionalized, like child and adolescent play, informal friendship of young and old, or developing social movements, and noninstitutional settings like homelessness.

Responding to the insight that socialization is a lifelong process, attention is accorded life-course related socialization processes. Interaction itself, of both intimates and nonintimates, is the focus of other interactionists, whose studies examine (among other topics) teasing among adolescents, language use both as and in action and interaction; variations in the implicit rules governing interaction and interaction strategies in various settings (Erving Goffman has been especially influential here and with reference to the preceding topic); role relationships within both formal and informal settings, and the impact of status and power inequalities on interaction.

Such long-standing interests of interactionists continue. A comparatively recent turn is an emphasis on emotions. Present in varying degrees in earlier interactionist social psychology, the expanded interest emphasizes emotion as basic to all interaction, expressed for example in David Heise’s affect control theory; the role of affect in self-processes; the social construction and interactional consequences of emotion in general and particular emotions.

Other recent developments can only be mentioned. Contemporary sociological interest in culture is seen in work on the generation of culture through interaction. A ‘new look’ in social movement research makes framing processes and collective identity formation of particular consequence and has reinvigorated interactionist interests in that topic. A vision of self as comprised of multiple group or network based identities has opened up work on the consequences of consonant or conflicting identities that carries theory and analyses beyond traditional role-conflict studies.

3.2 The Group Processes Perspective

Group processes work reflects diverse substantive interests with a common focus on interaction in social groups or social networks. The interaction processes attended to include: cooperation; competition; conflict; conflict resolution; social exchange; inequality; bargaining; power, status, and influence processes; procedural and distributive justice and injustice; the resolution of social dilemmas; the emergence of social structures from interaction; and the reproduction of interaction processes by social structures deriving from them. According to Karen Cook, a social interdependence theme integrates these, as do ideas about how group processes work relate to the general sociological enterprise: group and network interaction processes provide the foundations of macrosociological theory; theories developed on interacting individuals apply to corporate or collective actors; group and network-based interaction mediates the relation of individual to society. Also, group process students have a common lineage and hold similar beliefs about how to do research and build theory.

That lineage includes Georg Simmel on implications of social forms for interaction; George Homans’ exchange theory built upon principles of economics and operant conditioning psychology; Robert F. Bale’s research on groups resolving tasks; ‘small groups’ research; theoretical as well as experimental economics work on bargaining and reward allocation; and game-theoretic inspired research in political science and psychology. Richard Emerson is especially important to this lineage, developing a social exchange theory escaping the limitations of Homans’ strict behaviorism and extending exchange theory to deal with exchange networks.

This lineage led to experimentation and mathematical modeling of interaction processes. The focus on experimentation enabled programmatic research, an ideal carried out more in practice by group process researchers than by other SSP researchers. Group process researchers have provided models of such research, building small theories to explain given facts, testing the theories experimentally, discovering flaws in the fit of theory, revising theory to accommodate new data, in an ongoing process of theory building and theory testing.

Further attention is limited to two topics, social exchange and status structures, epitomizing theoretical themes of the group processes perspective and its programmatic research emphasis. Contemporary social exchange theory starts with actors’ interdependency: people need others for, and provide others with, things they value and so engage in social exchange. Exchange occurs in situations of mutual dependence; persons act to increase positively valued outcomes and decrease negatively valued outcomes, exchange relations with specific others are repeated, and satiation and marginal utility apply to valued outcomes. Exchange networks—chains of exchange relations—are basic to sociological exchange theory and SSP because they bridge to larger social structures. From here, network theory and research proliferate, extending to corporate actors, the role of power in facilitating or impeding exchanges across networks, the impact on exchanges of negative (competitive) or positive (noncompetitive) network connections, the emergence of norms in exchange networks, etc.

Current work on status structures builds on expectation states theory, developed by Joseph Berger and colleagues. This theory argues that power and prestige orderings in groups arise from members’ expected contributions to problem solutions. These expectations shape group interaction confirming the expectations and stabilizing the orderings. The theory further argues that in the absence of information directly linking members’ abilities to tasks at hand, group members draw inferences about those abilities from the stratification system of the larger social context, thus reproducing that system. On this foundation, work on expectation states theory has expanded, systematically refining and extending the theory and examining its implications. Of particular interest under contemporary circumstances is work showing that new information about group members’ task relevant abilities can negate the effects on group interaction of stereotypes drawn from the existing stratification order, potentially changing the stratification order of the larger social context. Also of interest is the way ideas underlying this theory parallel ideas fundamental to the interactionist perspective in SSP.

3.3 The Social Structure–Personality Perspective

Described by Melvin Kohn, a major proponent, as the quintessentially sociological approach to social psychology, the social structure–personality perspective examines the reciprocal impact of macrosociological structure and person. It traces to the classical sociological work of Emile Durkheim and others, tying features of persons to types of societies. More proximately, it emerges from cultural anthropological work seeking to understand basic personality structures of society’s members through analyses of culture. Influenced by psychoanalysis, this work invoked family and kinship structures as vehicles sustaining and transmitting culture, evidencing the relevance of social structure to persons produced. Social structure replaces culture in a social structure–personality perspective, bringing to the fore the economy, stratification, and work institutions as basic to personality. An important part of social structure–personality work has been comparative, with nation as context, examining the hypothesis that similar work structures have similar psychological effects. Inkeles and Smith (1974), in a six-nation study, proposed that an attitudinal-behavioral syndrome, ‘individual modernity,’ resulted from working in organizations produced by industrialization. This work was criticized on ideological and methodological grounds, and its failure to specify the empirical linkage of structure and person and how mechanisms accounting for that linkage affected subsequent work. The evolving research program initiated by Kohn provides evidence that complex jobs allowing self-direction link societal-level class and stratification structures to intellectual flexibility and self-directedness. Longitudinal analyses suggest the linkages are reciprocal. These propositions hold in comparative contexts, and under conditions of radical social change, arguing for generality of structural effects independent of cultural variation. The operative psychological mechanism underlying these relationships is taken to be learning generalization.

The social structure–personality perspective exists in work on many topics filling the structural ‘space’ between nation and person, for example, status attainment and mobility processes, gender, work, the life course, and both physical and mental health. Further comment, necessarily brief, on two of these topics provides both insight into the utility of SSP for sociology and why SSP is not in itself an alternative sociology.

Painted large, life course research focuses on the interaction of biography and historical social structures over time in order to understand adult developmental processes. While the complexity of this enterprise defies easy description or summary, it involves a vision of persons living their lives in the context of a continuously changing society, experiencing important historical events at varying ages and points in their lives, and undergoing (or not undergoing) a series of important age-related transitions involving status and role changes; of people’s existence within multiple institutional contexts and multiple networks of social relationships, some of which are operative over lengthy portions of their lives; of the life course as implicating multiple developmental trajectories necessitating coordination. A consequence of the contextual complexity and multistrandedness of life is what Elder and O’Rand (1995) term a loose coupling between social transitions and age-gradings. Loose coupling opens up room for choices reflecting meanings and interpretations (including reinterpretations) of events and of prior experience. Persons are selected by societal allocation processes for entry into social positions and roles but also select themselves: they choose to marry, have children, take or leave jobs, divorce, etc., and these choices are consequential. In short, persons are active agents importantly constructing their own lives.

Research from a social structure–personality perspective on status attainment processes also provides a contrary moral. That research indicates that structures of relationships and interaction built on differences in socioeconomic status, race, and gender impact people’s skills, motivations, and aspirations for success in schools and work. It also shows that skills, motivations, and aspirations relate to educational and occupational success, i.e., to individual mobility. At the same time, research shows that the structure of schools, jobs, and labor markets can severely restrict the impact of personal characteristics on social mobility and that even voluminous individual mobility need not alter the overall character of a societal-level stratification system. In short, there are limits on the impact of agency on social structures.

4. Commonalities

Underlying most work in SSP are ideas reflecting the assumption that ‘in the beginning there is society’:

(a) Human experience is socially organized. Societies are not invariably coherent; they are, rather, typically complex and shifting mosaics of frequently conflicting (but sometimes not) role relationships, social networks, groups, organizations, institutions, communities, and strata, sometimes related but sometimes isolated from one another. What people experience is importantly a function of just what relationships, networks, groups, communities, and strata they enter, remain in, and leave, how they enter these social structures, and how these social structures relate to one another.

(b) The forms and content of social life are social constructions, the product of the collective activities of persons as they join one another in the course of developing solutions to problems in their daily lives. To make this claim, it is neither necessary nor in accord with accumulated evidence of SSP and sociology itself to argue that processes of social construction are ephemeral or infinitely mutable, or that they occur without constraints imposed by the natural world or prior constructions.

(c) Human beings are active agents who respond selectively to social and nonsocial environments impinging on them, who initiate transactions with, and sometimes alter, those environments. Implied by the idea of social construction, action produced at the initiative of an actor presupposes the symbolic and reflexive capacities of humans, in short, presupposes a ‘self,’ but does not deny the power of conditioning or of normative demands. In general, all social behavior is some blend of action and reaction.

(d ) The world on which humans act and to which they react is a symbolized world specified by meanings attached to the objects comprising it.

(e) There is both constraint and choice in personal and social life. Whether one, the other, or both are operative depends on particulars of the patterns of people’s relationships to others in social groups and networks, and on the patterned relationships of those groups and networks to one another.

( f ) A final idea within SSP can serve as a summary of the previous five and an appropriate concluding statement: the basic responsibility of SSP is to deal with ways in which social structures impinge on people’s social behavior and the reciprocal impact of that behavior on social structures. While each of the three perspectives within SSP reviewed tends to emphasize different levels of structure—the interactionist perspective stresses proximate structures closest to interacting persons (e.g., families, friendship networks); the implicit structural contexts of interaction for the small group perspective are middle-level structures (e.g., work organizations); and the social structure–personality perspective focuses on large-scale structures (e.g., the nation, stratification systems)—an encouraging development is the increasingly common recognition that structures on all levels are important to the social behaviors studied from each perspective.


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