A definition is no proof.
--William Pinkney, American diplomat (1764-1822)

Unlike the physical sciences, where over time there has been declining numbers of competing paradigms, in the social sciences it seems that their numbers have historically increased. As of yet, we have no Newton having yet been hit on the noggin by some proverbial apple and seeing some unifying principle.

Underlying the spectrum of theories of the human condition are basic differences in assumptions toward the extent to which human action is the product of free will or determinism, nurture or nature. To what extent are are social fates preprogrammed by our genetic makeup, the society into which we are enculturated, the social positions of our parents, the ways in which we were socialized, or by that slice of social history happening to correspond with our biographies? To what extent can human behavior be ultimately explained in terms of biology and biological impulses? predispositions of our personality types? the social roles within which we interact with others?

And what would a "perfect" social theory even look like? Among other things, it would predict exactly who would do what as well as when and where. To even have such a theory in the social sciences would imply the non-existence of free will, the ability of individuals to determine their own fates. The fact that social theories, when contrasted with the theories of astronomy and chemistry, have such limited predictiveness can be taken as a sign of hope, that humans have some free will and are not pre-programmed by their genes or enculturations. But this is not to imply that there is no predictiveness. Like meteorology's probabilities of rain (e.g., a 30% chance of rain means three out of ten areas will experience precipitation), the intent here is to make predictions for a particular type or group of individuals. For instance, our theory may predict that of those 18 to 29 years of age with less than 4 years of college experience, highly religious Catholics are twice as likely as weakly religious Protestants to oppose abortion.

Click here to see Kenneth Gergen's "Social Psychology as Social Construction: The Emerging Vision.

The Halcyon Cosmopolitan Entertainment--with links to such theorists as Chomsky, Illich, Lasch, Marcuse, and Merton

Christopher D. Green's "Classics in the History of Psychology"


CENTRAL METAPHOR machine Pavlov's dogs, consumer reasoning (exchange) gestalt, computer, individual as information processor cryptography (encoding and decoding theater
ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT HUMAN NATURE Initially asocial infant learns to control its impulses & perhaps becomes altruistic, loving adult People can be molded into almost any behavior pattern through reinforcements. Human nature is active and purposive, seeking goals and self-improvement. People act in response to the inferred meanings of others' acts People act in response to the expectations for the roles they occupy.
HISTORICAL V. CONTEMPORARY CAUSES OF BEHAVIOR Emphasis on historical but recognizes the contemporary Contemporary, although concerned with behavioral antecedents Contemporary, emphasis on attention, perception and judgment Both with emphasis on the meaning underlying observed behavior Contemporary, "You are the role you now hold"
INTERNAL V. SITUATIONAL CAUSES OF BEHAVIOR Emphasis on the internal, types of people do distinctive types of things Largely situational (emphasis on reward structure) but recognizes that internal factors may determine what is rewarding Both internal and situational factors recognized Both internal and situational factors recognized Emphasis on roles and situational influences; internal factors ignored
CENTRAL PERSONAL NEED ADDRESSED power, belonging, esteem, transcendence safety, esteem order, meaningfulness, control meaningfulness, esteem order, belonging, esteem
HOW SOCIAL CONTROL WORKS workings of superego: guilt and repression positive, zero or negative reinforcements; operant and classical conditioning moral reasoning (Piaget, Kohlberg) seeing self as others view it: generalized others, reference groups people act in response to the role expectations held by self and other
UNITS OF ANALYSES Personality traits and general characteristics Specific response patterns and habits--each treated as unit Orders inferred--the whole is greater than sum of parts the social act (both overt and covert) Definitions and responses to various situations
TYPICAL METHODS EMPLOYED Rorschach, free associations, dream analysis Classical experiments looking at frequencies of distinctive behavior Experiments involving processes of decision-making and thought control Semantic differentials Direct and participant observation, 20-Statement test ("I am ...")
RELATED THEORIES Theories of Freud, Erikson, Fromm, and Jung Exchange Gestalt, phenomenology, field, attribution Labeling, Sapir-Whorf Dramaturgical, interaction ritual chains
ILLUSTRATIONS OF INQUIRIES Authoritarian personalities, psychobiographies, scapegoating Token economies; aversion therapy; classical and operant conditioning Cognitive dissonance, halo effect, self-efficacy, schematas and perceptual norms Self-fulfilling prophecies, Pygmalion effect Role conflict and strain, age and gender stratification of roles
CHANGE ACROSS THE LIFE COURSE change is universal: age-intrinsic, qualitative and discontinuous, with developmental endpoints change is linear, quantitative & age extrinsic, linear accumulation of skills, no developmental endpoints stages of logical (and moral) reasoning learning to take perspective of increasingly generalized others: preparatory, play, and game stages one moves through series of age-graded roles

Adapted from Lawrence Wrightsman and Kay Deaux. 1981. Social Psychology in the 80s. Monterey, CA:Brooks/Cole, p.28.


How do we even view this abstraction called "society", let alone the ways that it shapes our identities, cognitions and behaviors? All knowledge is perspectival and hence is metaphoric. The abstractions we take will order our experiences, which is why so much attention is given in introductory textbooks to the various theories of the discipline. Metaphorically, society can be likened to the Great Barrier Reef, wherein individuals find their niches and continue to contribute to the residues left by previous generations. Others have viewed it to be some supra-level organism of which we are all but red blood cells, with all parts (like the organs) integrated and interdependent in their functioning. From this perspective, societies' evolution is like that of animals, with increasing complexity over time. And society, like each creature, goes through a distinctive life-cycle of change and old age, when its responses toward novel situations slow as bureaucracies proliferate and expand, clogging the flow of vital energy just as atherosclerosis clogs the blood vessels impeding the flow of blood.

Social structure involves the enduring patterns of behavior and networks of relationships, such as dyads, organizations, and family systems. But there is debate in the social sciences as to the origins of these patterns, how these supraindividual dynamics arise out of the myriad of interactions between individuals. For instance, does form follow function or does function follow form? Exchange theorists, such as Richard Emerson, view structure as a dependent variable, emerging through the exchange relationships of individuals which give rise to coalitions and networks of associations (as well as conflicts and competitions).

Others view structure as an independent variable, as the source of changes in the types of relationships and need systems. Rational organizations, for example, are intentionally designed structures to efficiently achieve goals of the group, wherein individuals are but functional parts of a larger machine, with well-defined tasks that they perform in exchange for wages.


Social Psychology Network (Wesleyan U)
Social_Psychology.Net (U of Southern Indiana)
Douglas Degelman's AmoebaWeb's Psychology on the Web: Social Psychology
SocioSite's listings of Networks, Groups and Social Interaction resources
Current Research in Social Psychology: An Electronic Journal (U of Iowa)
Allyn and Bacon's Sociology:Social Psychology Links
Courses Related to Social Psychology

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