Thursday, January 1, 2009

SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY on Psychology Journal

The social sciences are dedicated to understanding the human condition, ideally to the extent that the singular and collective behaviors of human beings can be understood and even predicted. Though their goals are identical in the abstract, these "sciences" differ in terms of their way of looking at things, the questions they ask, the methods they use in addressing these questions, and what they do with this information once they obtain it.

Amid this multitude of social science disciplines is social psychology which, as can be inferred from its label, involves the ways in which both social and mental processes determine action. What, precisely, this means research-wise, however, remains a matter of historic debate both between and within the disciplines of psychology and sociology. What weight is to be given to the social, the psychological, and the interaction between the two? What does the interaction between psychological and sociological processes even mean?

In approaching the problem of why some people do certain things, psychologists (see Wesleyan's Social Psychology Network) are inclined to give greater attention to the bearing of thought processes, personality characteristics, and their changes across the life-cycle. The closed, stereotypic thinking of authoritarians, for instance, make them more likely to be prejudiced and to join extreme right-wing political groups.

Sociologists, on the other hand, being more interested in understanding the relationships between group structures and processes (typologizing groups much like psychologists classify selves as the first step toward predicting their activities), are inclined to give greater attention to the social settings and individuals' roles therewithin. As opposed to psychology's atomization of the human condition, focusing on the self and its inner workings, sociologists' attention is directed toward human connections. Connectedness with others is an overarching personal drive, and the bonds produced comprise the social fabric of interrelationships. The strength of this social fabric is determined by the multiplicity and quality of connections individuals and groups (both large and small) have with each other. Further, from this sociological perspective of the human condition, these groups have dynamics of their own (often distinct from members' intentions and desires) that cannot be reduced down to the psychology of individuals. Like differing board games, these social orders have their own rules, roles, styles of play, traditions, cultures, and rates of change over time. Change the "game" and you change the style of thinking, the language, motivations, activities, alliances, and identities of the players.

It is for these reasons that sociologically-inclined social psychologists are more likely to examine how individuals' perceptions, belief systems, moralities, identities, and behaviors are determined by their positions in social space:

* the culture of their primary socializations;
* the slice of social history intersecting their biographies, such as coming of age during a time of depression or war;
* their locations within the stratification orders of gender, age, race, and social class;
* their roles within the institutional orders of religion, work, community, and family;
* the geographic context of their childhoods, such as region of the country or the size of cities wherein they lived;
* and their memberships in and relative identifications with various social groups.
* For other illustrations, check out Alan Reifman's SPIDER (Social Psychology of Information Diffusion -Educational Resources), Psych-Net UK, Jeremy Dean's Psyblog, Jon Mueller's Resources for the Teaching of Social Psychology, and the online resources from the Social Science Information Gateway. The American Psychology Association's Monitor on Psychology and the Social Psychology section of the American Sociological Association are also worth occasional visits.

Not surprisingly, evolving in this hybrid discipline is a perspective that more explicitly focuses on the interactions between the sociological and the psychological, producing new connections and new questions. Change the social connections and you change the essence of the self and its cognitive, emotive, and bonding capacities. Change the way social reality is psychologically parsed and processed and you ultimately change the nature and course of group dynamics. For instance, what kind of personality type might come to predominate in a capitalistic, secular, gerontophobic, death-denying, sex- obsessed culture where the young are socialized in single-parent families, with sports stars as role models, and whose lessons of adult life primarily come from commercially-based electronic messages? This emergent perspective integrates developments in such related social sciences as anthropology, linguistics, economics, political science, religion, history, communication studies, and sociobiology. These interactions are the subject of a text that I co-authored with Chad Gordon, Social Psychology: Shaping Identity, Thought, and Conduct (Allyn and Bacon, 1993). Though this page was created as a companion piece for this work, its links should complement most social psychology courses.

Social Psychology on Psychology Journal

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