Past and Present Trends in the Methods and Subject Matter of Social Psychology

The George Washington University

IT SEEMS to me that social psychologists have spent a disproportionate amount of time discussing exact definitions and points of view, whereas the important thing is to go ahead and make empirical investigations. I realize, of course, that a satisfactory definition is desirable; but to engage in any lengthy discussion of exact words or phrases will take time from our main business, namely, the subject matter and methods of social psychology. Fay B. Karpf has written an excellent historical critique of social psychology, which presents the European background and then the development of

( 463) social-psychological thought in the United States.[1] I have been appalled at the lack of either experimental or of observational material in this development of social psychology; instead the major emphasis has been on differences in points of view of various thinkers, e.g., Ward, Baldwin, Cooley, Ross, Mead, Dewey, Faris, and others. And this is what has characterized social psychology of the past: quarrels as to definitions and points of view—words, words, words!

I do not decry the importance of sound historical orientation, and a comparison of points of view; but I say that so much time has been spent in arguments between various "schools" of thought that entirely too little time has been devoted to systematic experimentation and observation. We may get so lost in "battles of words" that investigators in other fields may justly accuse us of sterility, or, worse still, of describing the obvious. The Murphys have rendered a genuine service in compiling between two covers the significant work in experimental social psychology[2] ; yet the researches reported in their very excellent book have been criticized by some as lacking in real significance.[3]


The introductory textbooks in general psychology have now become sufficiently systematized that certain topics are treated in all books, for example, individual differences, intelligence, personality, learning, motivation, emotions, perception. In social psychology textbooks, however, there is no such concurrence of topics; a comparison of the current textbooks shows almost no agreement as to what representative topics should be treated. "The social psychologies written by such outstanding men as Bogardus, Allport, McDougall, Young, Kantor, and Dunlap are so unlike one another that it would be entirely possible for a reader to understand any one of these volumes quite thoroughly and yet be painfully ignorant of much (or even of almost all) of the content of the others.” [4]

An examination of textbooks in social psychology also reveals that many are still concerned with fostering a particular point of view-the individual behavior approach, the social interaction approach, or the cultural approach-on the unsuspecting student. I find that students (even the good ones) are pretty much bored by a discussion of the differences in viewpoint between two college professors, (say) Dunlap and (say) McDougall. On the other hand, they are very much concerned with whether or not problems of personality, of propaganda, and of the family will be discussed. Students simply do not get excited over the history of social psychology, over a discussion of the "group mind," over the principles of hedonism. They do get very much interested and even excited over the very real problems which they themselves are facing: the detection of propaganda so as to cope with it; the matter of sex adjustment and marriage; the prevention of juvenile delinquency; the place of the church and religion in our society; the problems of "race" differences

( 464) and race prejudice; the very urgent questions of pacifism and war. They want answers to such questions as: "To what extent do newspapers print 'true' news?" "What are the underlying myths and legends that cause friction between Gentile and Jew?" "How much was our entrance into the World War due to propaganda?" "Is the family necessary to the continuity of a nation?" 'How may early family influences be overcome?'Students are demanding a course in social psychology that is very much alive. For us to spend very much time as teachers arguing the psychological (individual) versus the sociological (group) position definitely detracts from our subject. The various "schools" of social psychology have been discussed and re-discussed. It is high time that we devoted more attention to the present-day empirical methods of experiment, of observation, and of statistics. Our real task is not to draw artificial lines around our field, but rather to make thorough, objective analyses of important problems.

Galileo did not stop to consider whether his experiments would fall into some artificial category of knowledge (today called "physics") before he rolled the balls down the inclined plane. Karl Lashley did not refuse to extirpate the brains of rats because he might be accused of conducting neurological, and not psychological, experiments. McGeoch has assiduously investigated the problems of retroactive inhibition, with no concern as to whether or not his work might be considered in the field of education rather than psychology. Carmichael has not hesitated to work with tadpoles, cats, and fetal guinea pigs for fear that he would become a biologist as a result. These men and other scientists have seen problems which needed to be solved, and they have gone straight ahead toward solutions.


Fortunately during the last decade an empirical attack has also been made on many problems by social scientists. Social psychology of today is a far cry from that of the past, and the contrast is worth our attention. Social psychology of the "past" was tainted by too much "armchair" philosophizing-it was typified by wordy arguments and discussions of points of view. Social psychology of the "present" can be typified in one word: empirical.6 The empirical method may be characterized by three important techniques: the , experimental method; the use of first-hand observation; and the employment of statistics.7 Probably the most important development of the empirical movement has been the emphasis on an experiential approach to social-psychological problems, and the concomitant "dropping out" of the tendency to rely on the personal

( 465) opinion of oneself or others.[8] Although social psychology has not succeeded in developing any exact social principles,[9] it is rapidly "coming of age."

I shall present some typical samples of social psychology of the "past," and then some examples of present-day work, in order to contrast the former "arm-chair" systems with our present-day empirical approach. In doing this I do not imply that the writings of the past were not important. In fact, they were of great significance, because of their stimulating influence on the thinking of other investigators of both the past and present, and because of their emphasis on the fact that there were problems of society which needed to be investigated. It would seem, however, that many of the early writers had some particular concept-often a "catch-phrase"-around which an entire system of social psychology was built. The concepts were presented almost as magic keys which would unlock the solutions to all social problems. Elaborate classifications were often devised, beautiful in phraseology but devoid of scientific merit. For example, Wundt built his entire social psychology around his already adopted views of individual psychology, and then went ahead with a classification of the "ages" of man: the age of "primitive man"; the totemic age; the age of heroes and gods; the era of humanity, which is "coming to be."[10] Walter Bagehot had this same predilection for neat categories, but a different classification of "ages": the preliminary age, with imitation and the "cake of custom" of primary importance; the nation-making age, with struggle and war, and conflict between "cakes of custom"; and, finally, the age of discussion, with government by discussion, and the development of tolerance.[11]

Durkheim, in France, built a system around one central concept; he wrote of représentations collectives, and emphasized the importance of the group factor to the extent of practically ignoring the actions of the individual.[12] Tardé took the opposite stand, and put his emphasis on the individual factor in social causation; he wrote of the importance of invention by the individual, and then the spreading of inventions by imitation in the group.[13] Lévy-Bruhl had his own pet scheme, too, and developed Durkheim's représentations collectives in his explanation of How Natives Think.[14] Lévy-Bruhl did not make field studies of "Natives," but instead wrote within the academic "tribe" of the Sorbonne; he devised a supposed law of "contradiction" for civilized man and a supposed law of "participation" for primitive man, maintaining from the confines of his library that civilized man and primitive man are separated by a considerable gulf.[15]


Graham Wallas was another who wrote of problems of society without conducting experiments or making first-hand observations.[16] Like Trotter and Hobhouse, a great deal of his attention was devoted to an "arm-chair" discussion of instincts.[17] In the United States, Cooley wrote three important works on the social order without embodying any great amount of empirical material.[18]

These details have been given simply to illustrate the fact that past writers have been content to discuss problems of social psychology with no empiristic slant other than an attempt at "fact-mindedness."[19] Beautiful hypotheses have been expounded, detailed classifications built up, and new terms added to our vocabulary. All these things have been stimulating and helpful, but have not compared in significance with the empirical attitude so typical of the last decade-the experimental, observational, and statistical approaches.


As contrasted with Wundt's philosophizing and Lévy-Bruhl's study while he lived in Paris of primitives who lived in the jungle, we have had a number of important empirical investigations within the past few years. The experimental, observational, and statistical methods have all been employed, in ways that were not dreamed of by our predecessors. Social psychology is no longer content merely to devise classifications and to invent new terms, but demands empirical verification of hypotheses. I will illustrate this by mentioning some of the important fields of study, and by giving an intensive sampling in each field of some of the major contributions. I wish to emphasize that the investigations which I mention are classified separately only in order to illustrate the principal techniques being employed today. The classification and arrangement is not a rigid one; the types of studies mentioned in any one paragraph below are not mutually exclusive of the types of studies discussed in other paragraphs.

1. Tests. The development of intelligence tests and aptitude tests into serviceable tools for education and industry may be cited as examples. The name Edward L. Thorndike is a synonym for progress in this work.

2. Questionnaires. Whereas tests measure ability, questionnaires are designed more for the measurement of conduct or attitude.[20] As examples of determining attitudes toward a particular act, the work of Goodwin Watson as to attitudes toward Orientals is in point,[21] and the work of Bogardus as to "social distance."[22] As examples of measurements of attitudes toward certain concepts, we have the work of Floyd H. Allport and D. A. Hartman on attitudes toward the League of Nations, prohibition, etc.,[23] and that of Stuart A. Rice on Quantitative Methods in Politics.[24]

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3. Psychophysical studies. Thurstone has been the chief advocate of the psychophysical technique for the measurement of attitude and opinion.[25] Instead of writing a philosophical discussion of what people probably believe about prohibition, or about the church, he has used empirical methods to find out what they do believe.[26]

4. Genetic studies (biographies and case histories). Much of psychological interest has been found in biographies of various people from Edgar Allan Poe to Mark Twain.[27] However, a definite empirical approach to a well-defined group of problems is best illustrated by the genetic studies of gifted children, by Professor Terman, Dr. Catharine Cox Miles, and others.[28] The need of social case workers for definite information as to a person's background and personality has resulted in the development of standardized techniques in social case work.[29]

5. Personality studies. Obviously related to the other types of studies mentioned is the field of personality. The Bernreuter Personality Inventory represents an important development in this field.[30] The series of studies by Hartshorne and May are another instance of the fact that social psychologists are no longer willing to wonder what people do in certain situations nor to write generalities about traits of character; instead Hartshorne and May set out to investigate "honesty" and "deceit" by means of experiments, firsthand observations, and statistics.[31]

6. Physiological studies. Although physiological methods have not been widely used in social psychology, they are illustrated by Howells' study of differences between religious radicals and religious conservatives, [32] and by numerous studies of emotion by Carney Landis.[33]

7. Group studies. Workers today actually investigate the true influence of groups on individual behavior. Floyd H. Allport has been a pioneer in this field.[34] Recent studies involving groups are Doob's analysis of progaganda,[35] and Hadley Cantril

( 468) and Gordon W. Allport's investigation of the psychology of radio.[36]

8. Field studies. Theories of what certain people are probably like have given way to studies made in person by scientists who have taken the trouble to go into certain localities and investigate firsthand. This, has been done in foreign cultures, as shown by Malinowski's Crime and Custom in Savage Society,[37] and by Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa[38] ; and it has also been done in our own culture, as demonstrated by Thrasher's The Gang,[39] and by the Lynds' Middletown.[40]

9. Psychoanalytic studies. The psychoanalytic background has been the basis in large measure of such works as Malinowski's Sex and Repression in Savage Society,[41] and of Jerome Frank's Law and the Modern Mind.[42] A psychoanalytic and genetic approach is exemplified in Dollard's recent book.[43]

10. Studies of institutions. The study of any institution---whether the institution is religion, education, politics, law, or whatnot---entails a thoroughly empirical and objective attitude. Professor Robinson's Law and the Lawyers is the outstanding example of this approach.[44] Beaglehole's Property is another instance.[45]

11. Contributions from general psychology. An abundance of data has been gathered as to instincts, the learning process, the development of habits, and the mechanism of conditioning, which has tremendous import not only for social-psychological theories but for the types of research to be conducted.[46]

Once more I should call attention to the fact that the classifications I have given are not neat "pigeon-holes" all to themselves, but that they are interrelated. As to the three classifications which follow, they not only are intimately related to the above studies, but at the same time they typify the empirical method.

12. Experimental studies. Actual experiments in the laboratory may be illustrated by the devising of developmental norms for infants by Gesell and his associates.[47]

13. Observational studies. As an example, children have sometimes not been submitted to artificial conditions in order to study their social behavior, but they have been observed in natural situations, with tabulations kept of their activities as to dominance, submission, and the like.[48]

14. Statistical studies. The application

(469) of statistical techniques has given social psychologists of today tremendous advantages over those of the last century. The majority of the studies mentioned have employed statistics.


This sampling of studies shows that the keynote of present-day social psychology is truly empirical. It also demonstrates that the materials for social-psychological investigation are often gleaned from fields other than "pure" sociology and "pure" psychology: economics, anthropology, history, political science, law, or other "disciplines." This means, then, that the social psychologist of today must have a sound philosophical and historical background. He must have been saturated in the history of thought in order to have the proper perspective as to his own investigations. He must also have more than a passing acquaintance with the other social sciences; in many cases he must master the pertinent materials in some other field before even beginning an investigation. Finally, he must have the ability not only to assimilate but also to integrate pertinent facts and hypotheses from philosophy, history, and other fields with those in sociology and psychology.

With an adequate background in the history of thought and in the other social sciences, the dangers of "raw" empiricism may be avoided. Thus, the use of experimental, of observational, and of statistical methods may result, not in a mass of insignificant and unrelated facts, but in a wealth of practical material, significant for present-day social problems.


  1. Fay Berger Karpf, American Social Psychology s (McGraw-Hill, 1931-)
  2. Gardner Murphy and Lois B. Murphy, Experimental Social Psychology (Harper, 1931).
  3. Their book has even been dubbed "a monumental compilation of trivial and patently insignificant research." [Jerome Michael and Mortimer J. Adler, Crime, Law, and Social Science (Harcourt, Brace, 1933) P. 80, ftn. 22.]
  4. Kenneth L. Smoke, "The Present Status of Social Psychology in America," Psychol. Rev., 1935, 42, 537-543, at 538-539. Smoke's Table, showing "approximate percentage of the material in recent books on social psychology which is devoted to representative topics listed in their subject indices," is well worth study.
  5. This group of questions has been raised by students in my class in Social Psychology this summer. For a large group of such "practical" questions, see Hadley Cantril, "The Social Psychology of Everyday Life," Psychol. Bull., 1934, 37, 297-330.
  6. "empirical = 1. pert. to experience; i. pert. to methods or conclusions based on observation or experiment. [Syn. (z) experiential. Contr. (2) w. deductive and rational, whether as a term of reproach (i.e. lacking necessary theorizing), or as a term of praise (i.e. avoiding rigorously all hypothesis except working hypotheses).]" [Howard C. Warren, (ed.), Dictionary of Psychology (Houghton Mifflin, 1934), p. 92.]
  7. Carmichael has shown that ambiguity has resulted from the use of the phrase "empirical psychology" in at least three major senses: in the historical sense, as experimental, that is, antithetical to rational and inferential; in the epistemological sense, as ontogenetic, that is, antithetical to nativistic; in the Titchenerian sense, as antithetical to hypothetical. (Leonard Carmichael, "What Is Empirical Psychology?," Amer. J. Psychol., 2926, 37, 521-527.) The second and third usages arc not implied here.
  8. I should agree with Dewey, however, who suggests that social psychology is only making a good beginning and stands about where physical science stood three centuries ago. (John Dewey, "The Need for Social Psychology," Psychol. Rev., 1917, 24, 266-277, esp. 275 -77.) Dewey also says that "all psychology is either biological or social psychology. And if it still be true that man is not only an animal but a social animal, the two cannot be severed when we deal with man." (Ibid., p. 2-76.)
  9. This has been shown by Har, who has examined some 136 supposed "'social laws" and shown that they are in the main very general statements. Since our knowledge is so inadequate as to the conditions under which the various social tendencies interact on one another, he suggests that we refer, not to "laws," but to "statements of tendencies." [Kyung Durk Har, Social Laws: A Study of the Validity of Sociological Generalizations (Univ.of North Carolina Press, 1930).
  10. Karpf, op. cit. note i, pp. 51-65, esp. 58-59.
  11. Ibid., pp. 158-164, esp. 159-160.
  12. Ibid., pp. 108-12-2.
  13. Ibid., pp. 93-12-1-
  14. Ibid., pp. 123-134.
  15. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (trans. by Lilian A. Clare), How Natives Think (George Allen & Unwin, 1926), passim.
  16. Graham Wallas, Human Nature in Politics (Houghton Mifflin, î9o9), The Great Society (Macmillan, 1914).
  17. William Trotter, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (T. Fisher Unwin, 1916); Leonard T. Hobhouse, Mind in Evolution (Macmillan, 1901).
  18. Charles H. Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order (Scribner's, 1902.), Social Organization (Scribner's, 1909), Social Process (Scribner's, 1918).
  19. The attempt at "fact-mindedness'' has perhaps been due in part to the influence of Auguste Comte (1790-1857), with his concept of a "social physics." His positivistic slant and his disdain of the introspective methods of his day affect even present-day investigations. (Cf. Karpf, op. cit. note 1, pp. 145.)
  20. Percival M. Symonds, Diagnosing Personality and Conduct (Century, 1931), p. 12.2. ff., 2.15 ff.
  21. Goodwin B. Watson, Orient and Occident: An Opinion Study; see Murphy and Murphy, op. cit. note 2., p. 62.6 ff.
  22. Emory S. Bogardus, Immigration and Race Attitudes (Heath, 192.8); see op. cit. note 2., p. 62-9 ff.
  23. Floyd H. Allport and D. A. Hartman, "The Measurement and Motivation of Atypical Opinion in a Certain Group," Amer. Pol. Sci. Rev., 1925, 19, 735-760.
  24. Stuart A. Rice, Quantitative Methods in Politics (Knopf, 192.8).
  25. Thurstone uses the concept attitude "to denote the sum total of a man's inclinations and feelings, prejudice or bias, preconceived notions, ideas, fears, threats, and convictions about any specified topic," and the concept opinion to "mean a verbal expression of attitude." (L. L. Thurstone, "Attitudes Can Be Measured," Amer. J. Sociol., 192-8, 33, 51-9-554, at 531.)
  26. L. L. Thurstone, "Attitudes Can Be Measured,'' ibid.; "The Measurement of Opinion," J. Abn. & Soc. Psychol., 192.8, 22, 415-430; "Theory of Attitude Measurement,'' Psychol. Rev., 1929, 36, 2-2-2--2-41L. L. Thurstone and E. J. Chave, The Measurement of Attitude: A Psychophysical Method and Some Experiments with a Scale for Measuring Attitude Toward the Church (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1929).
  27. For example: John W. Robertson, Edgar A. Poe: A Psychopathic Study (Putnam's, 1923). Stephen Lcacock, Mark Twain (Peter Davies, 1931); cf. Robert S. Woodworth, Psychology (Henry Holt, 3rd ed. rev., 1934), pp. 131-133
  28. Lewis M. Terman, (ed.), Genetic Studies of Genius (Stanford Univ. Press): Vol. I, Lewis M. Terman, Mental and Physical Traits of a Thousand Gifted Children (192.5); Vol. II, Catharine Morris Cox, The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses (1926); Vol. III, Barbara Stoddard Burks, Dortha Williams Jensen and Lewis M. Terman, The Promise of Youth: Follow-Up Studies of a Thousand Gifted Children (1930)
  29. The importance of case studies has been emphasized by Mary E. Richmond in her Social Diagnosis (Russell Sage Foundation, 1917), and What Is Social Case Work? (Russell Sage Foundation, 192-2.).
  30. Robert G. Bernreuter (Stanford University Press, 1931).
  31. Hugh Hartshorne and Mark A. May, Studies in the Nature of Character, Vol. I, Studies in Deceit (Macmillan, 1918).
  32. Thomas H. Howells, "A Comparative Study of Those Who Accept as Against Those Who Reject Religious Authority," Univ. of Iowa Stud.: Stud. Char., 192.8, z, No. 2., pp. 80.
  33. See Carney Landis, "The Expressions of Emotions,'' Ch. 7, pp. 311--351, A Handbook of General Experimental Psychology (Clark Univ. Press, 1934).
  34. Floyd H. Allport, "The Influence of the Group Upon Association and Thought," J. Exper. Psychol., 1920, 3, 159-182.; also his Social Psychology (Houghton Mifflin, 192-4), pp. 160–191.
  35. Leonard W. Doob, Propaganda, Its Psychology and Technique (Henry Holt, 1935).
  36. Hadley Cantril and Gordon W. Allport, The Psychology of Radio (Harper, 1935).
  37. Bronislaw Malinowski, Crime and Custom in Savage Society (Harcourt, Brace, 1926).
  38. Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa (William Morrow, 1928); also her Growing Up in New Guinea (William Morrow, 1930). Also, cf. Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (Houghton Mifflin, 1934)
  39. Frederic M. Thrasher, The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago (Univ. of Chicago Press, 192-7)
  40. Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture (Harcourt, Brace, 1929).
  41. Bronislaw Malinowski, Sex and Repression in Savage Society (Harcourt, Brace, 1927)
  42. Jerome Frank, Law and the Modern Mind (Brentano's, 1930)
  43. John Dollard, Criteria for the Life History-With Analyses of Six Notable Documents (Yale Univ. Press, 1935).
  44. Edward Stevens Robinson, Law and the Lawyers (Macmillan, 1935).
  45. Ernest Beaglehole, Property; A Study in Social Psychology (George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1931).
  46. For instance, Bartlett has shown the significance of "remembering" as a study in social psychology. [F. C. Bartlett, Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (Cambridge, Univ. Press, 1932).]
  47. Arnold Gesell, The Mental Growth of the PreSchool Child (Macmillan, 1925). Infancy and Human Growth (Macmillan, 1928); Arnold Gesell and Helen Thompson, Infant Behavior: Its Genesis and Growth (McGraw-Hill, 1934).
  48. See Charlotte Bühler, The Social Behavior of Children, Ch. 9, PP- 374-416, A Handbook of Child Psychology (Clark Univ. Press, 2nd ed. rev.. 1933).

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