In some ways, all psychology is social psychology because all psychological areas of study exist within a social context. However, there is a distinct field of social psychology that exists alongside other approaches, such as developmental or cognitive psychology.
Gordon Allport (1968) perhaps puts it best when he describes social psychology as the study of ‘how thoughts, feelings, and behaviour of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others’.
Social psychologists are interested in studying social behaviours and attitudes, as well as interpersonal relationships and group identities. A huge surge in high profile social psychology research in the 1960s and 1970s (such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s Study of Obedience) resulted insignificantly more attention for the approach.
Origins of Social Psychology
The empirical study of social behaviour developed in Germany towards the latter half of the 19th century. The group called themselves students of volkerpsychologie (folk psychology) and focused on the concept of the collective mind.
This collective mind was conceptualised as a societal way of thinking, situated within the individual, as well as a super-mentality that could envelop a whole group of people. In a way it was conceptualised as a shared Dropbox folder, which is controlled by an unseen super-being.
Early developments in social psychology coincided with developments in sociology, as with G.H. Mead’s work on symbolic interactionism, but by the 1920s social psychology was very much a part of psychology, rather than sociology.
Social psychology increasingly came to study the individual. This eventuality is summed up quite nicely in Gerard Duveen’s (1997) observation that, ‘the individual is often, necessarily, an empirical focus … [even when studying] a social process’.
The Growth of Social Psychology
In the 20th century, America took the helm as social psychological capital of the world, receiving many top German social psychologists fleeing Nazism. The atrocities of the Second World War also gave rise to urgent applied social psychological questions, resulting in a boom in research.
Following World War Two, social psychology research considered matters of small group processes, attitudes and attitude change, and prejudice. This research led onto a body of very famous (and ethically dubious) research on influence, authority and leadership.
The mid-1960s and early 1970s saw a rise in attribution theories, which considered how people – each his or her own intuitive scientist – develop causal explanations of their social world as a basis for behaviour.
Crisis in Social Psychology
The 1970s were a rocky patch for social psychologists. The general thinking at the time, even within the social psychology community, was that the approach was theoretically immature, methodologically simplistic, overly focused on the individual, and inappropriately dependant on scientific method.
Out of social psychology’s ‘winter of discontent’ came two general approaches to social psychological research, which still stand strong to this day:
Overlapping with cognitive psychology, social cognition employs scientific methods to consider cognitive phenomena in a social setting.
Social cognition research is respected for its use of sophisticated methodologies and watertight theories.
Cultural Social Psychology
This is an overarching term to describe the more ‘social’ side of social psychology. Researchers in this camp aren’t seeking to create models (as with social cognition, and the physical sciences). Instead, social social psychologists are developing theories of how societies work beyond the individual.
Moscovici’s (1976) Theory of Social Representations is an example of this type of approach. Tajfel’s (1984) work on Social Identity is also situated on this end of the spectrum.
Social Psychology Today
Today, social cognition and cultural approach continue to lead the way in the field. More recently they have been joined by two major areas of academic interest:
Evolutionary Social Psychology
Researchers focus on the evolutionary explanations for social behaviours and social-cognitive processes.
Research in this specialism maps social behaviours and social-cognitive processes onto functions, structures and processes within the brain.