The Beginnings of Social Psychology

Ellsworth Faris


Social psychology, the science of human nature in interaction, began as a study of collective behavior but now is impartially interested in groups and their individual members. As late as 1890, psychology was concerned with mental facts treated in absolute isolation. Social psychologists at first were concerned with the attempt, now abandoned, to reduce human nature to some basic principle or to a few irreducible elements, such as imitation, instincts, reflexes wishes. There is a strong tendency at present to take "the act" as the unit of study. Wundt and Durkheim greatly influenced American scholars. Contributors in this field include Sumner, Dewey, Mead, Cooley, Ross, and many others. A highly important advance is the recognition that qualities exist in nature and that human experiences are natural events. American effort is distinguished by the vast amount of empirical research. Though adequate methods do not yet exist, the record of the first fifty years gives promise that social psychology, though still in its beginnings, may some day take its place alongside physics and chemistry.

All the sciences, says Comte, pass through stages—theological, metaphysical, and scientific—and one of the last in line for its metamorphosis is social psychology. For while the problems with which we are concerned have engaged men's minds from time immemorial and the proverbs of preliterates show much keen insight into human nature and while the sacred books and the writings of the ancients can still be read with profit for their observations on life and mind, yet the effort to apply the scientific method to persons in association is an affair of our own day, and men are living who saw its beginning. If only a beginning has been made, it is a promising beginning; and we may derive a measure of satisfaction that the foundations have been laid and much material assembled to build the structure. The record justifies neither boasting nor complacency, but the scholars of 1995 will not be ungrateful for what our half-century has bequeathed to them.

The term "social psychology" was once used in two different senses, on the one hand, to denote the study of groups (collective behavior) and, on the other hand, to mean the science of personality and character considered as the resultant of the interaction of human beings. Today the distinction is largely neglected; for, since all groups are composed of members and all persons belong to groups, it is difficult to study the one without taking account of the other. The psychology of crowds can be set forth only by taking account of the individual changes —emotional, volitional, or whatever—of the units composing it. Hence the modern social psychologist shifts his attention back and forth from person to group and from group to person as the nature of his inquiry demands. Social psychology is the science of human nature in interaction.

Fifty years ago it was not a matter of concern to psychologists to consider social influences. Their aim was a science of mind, treated in absolute separation not only from other minds but also from any physical or physiological accompaniments. All the data were obtained by "introspection," and the psychologist had his material ever at hand in the ideas and thoughts in his own head to which he could refer at will. A sharp distinction was made between matter and mind as radically different "substances" with mutually incompatible attributes. A corresponding dualism of method between psychology, on the one hand, and the physical and biological sciences, on the other, was the result. In the material sciences facts were admitted only when guaranteed by common observation, in contrast to the alleged privacy of introspection. From the success of these methods has come about what has been called the "leftward trend" of the sciences, chemistry being reduced to physics, biology to chemistry, with psychology tend-

( 423) -ing to play the role of "the poor relation of the sciences."

When psychology broke away from scholasticism in the seventeenth century, the central interest was in the problem of how knowledge is obtained, though much effort was spent on the question of whether knowledge was possible. And so "cognition" was the chief concern; "presentations," images, ideas, perceptions, and even "conation" were all subsidiary to the "judgment" and the train of judgments leading to right reasoning. The behavior of man received no treatment. It is of interest to recall that, as late as 1890, William James followed the same order of topics, though they were related to the dawning interest in physiology.

In the meantime physiological psychology had arisen in Germany, and, for a long generation, men toiled in laboratories with cunningly devised apparatus in an effort—and a very successful effort it was—to correlate the mental processes, chiefly the sensations, with two other orders of phenomena —physiological organs and physical events. Wave lengths of light, retinal cones, and the sensation of red were all related to one another and a "color theory" formulated which was a description of the correspondence of all three. The five senses were thus studied, five which were analyzed until there were some forty and then an even larger indefinite number. Two irreducible "elementary" classes resulted—sensations and affective tones (feelings). The analysis was admirable and complete, but to synthesize the elements was difficult and could be accomplished only by assumptions which later followers found unsatisfactory.

Shortly before our fifty-year period begins, William James gave a great impetus to psychology in his treatise wherein the physiological point of view received ample recognition; and, while there was no hint of the social-psychological point of view, there was, at least, an end to the consideration of "mental" facts in isolation. He defined psychology as the description and explanation of consciousness as such. James was "the last of the Mohicans"; for the new movement got under way soon after his great book appeared. By that time his interest had been transferred to philosophy and to the effort, quite unsuccessful, to overcome the misunderstanding of his word "pragmatism." In an indirect fashion James did have a part in the subsequent development, of social psychology through his doctrine of the instincts. Until his time, reason and intelligence were assigned to man and instincts were possessed only by the lower animals. In a brilliant chapter he argued that man had more than any animals, and he listed some thirty-two of them; and for thirty years no one questioned the correctness of this view.

It was the problem of how to deal with the concept of emotion which was chiefly responsible for the instinct doctrine. Formerly emotions were considered as disturbances of calm reason and thus as obstacles to the formation of true judgments. By positing a repertory of instincts, James was able to make a logical place in his scheme for fear, anger, and the rest by appealing to the biological inheritance of irresistible, nonrational movements whose origin was traced back to assumed experiences of our distant ancestors. This brought into the picture the biological problem of the number and character of the nonintelligent activities, with which "conation" could have nothing to do, and at the same time made desirable an investigation into the ethnological data to which appeal was made.

It was William McDougall who, for the first time, discarded the traditional order of treatment and promoted the instincts from the wings of the theater to the main stage. His work had wide influence and was unchallenged for some fifteen years. From the pens of those who had accepted the doctrine and found it wanting when consistently applied, there suddenly appeared, from men widely separated and acting quite independently, a flood of negative criticism, with the result that specific instincts are now referred to with the prefix "so-called." The coup de grâce was delivered by Dewey twenty-three years ago (1922).


The evolutionary point of view had been developing, in the meantime, in genetic psychology, of which G. Stanley Hall was one of the leading advocates. Appealing to ethnology in an uncritical manner and relying on the now discarded concept of recapitulation, it pictured the child as a little savage and the adolescent as a barbarian. To this day the Boy Scout movement forces the little twelve-year-old to blister his hands in making fire by friction because, being a primitive man in disguise, he cannot appropriately use matches.

But the genetic procedure was not limited to child psychology. Books on social origins traced the development of religion, of art, of the family, the state, and the rest from the earliest beginnings. As a chapter in natural history, these subjects will always have an interest; but as attempts to understand the present problems by enumerating the stages, mostly hypothetical, through which they have passed, they are of small use and often misleading. The Germans call it Historismus and now admit its futility.

The movement called "social psychology" in Germany may be traced in its beginnings to the Romantic movement and to the interest which impelled the Grimm brothers to study the lore of the peasants. We may call its culmination the work on folk psychology of Wundt, in which the stages from primitive man to the dawn of the age of humanity are set forth—all too confidently, since the crucial problems are often resolved by an appeal to introspective psychology.

Ethnological material was more fruitfully utilized by Durkheim and his disciples in France. Some of their conclusions they believed applied only to "primitive man" (to use their term), but they were eventually found to be demonstrably true of moderns as well. Some of their concepts have proved to have the highest value. "Représentations collectives," or "group concepts" as we may translate it, give the clue to much that had remained undefined. Even more revealing was the notion, fully defined and amply documented by examples, of the "impermeability to experience" of the individual when confronted by something not in harmony with the collective idea. On such occasions a man believes, in flat contradiction to the evidence of his senses, and this is shown to be a part of the normal behavior of the normal man. Durkheim's account of the "social fact" and his demonstration of its coercive nature made it impossible to ignore longer the influence of the group on the individual member of it and made it easy to see that, for any human being with which we shall ever be concerned, the group is prior to the individual and the customs of the group are of prior importance as over against the individual habits and actions.

Of great and permanent influence was the Folkways of Sumner, who used impartially many thousands of facts both from ethnology and from recorded history. New and valuable additions to the English language were contributed – words like "mores," "folkways," and "ethnocentrism." Although some of his conclusions did not find acceptance, this is of no importance, since he gave the facts on which his conclusions are based and the reader is always free to reinterpret the data. What Sumner demonstrated in a definitive manner was the variety of custom and the almost infinite variability of human nature. This is often called "plasticity" or "malleability." The form of the family is shown to exhaust the permutations possible to two sexes. The facts show that almost everything that we moderns abhor or contemplate with disapproval has been willingly done and uncritically approved. Voluntary celibacy, voluntary self-mutilation, voluntary suicide, are shown to have been widely practiced as approved conduct. Socially approved infanticide, socially sanctioned killing of old parents, and many other similar practices were brought together in support of the thesis that "the mores can make anything right and force disapproval of anything." Since Sumner it has been impossible to deny the priority of the group or the primacy of culture.

Nor did it become necessary to "deny the individual" or to consider the members of a

( 425) society as being "molded" passively by "society." The group is indeed prior, but its new members are not inert or identical. The "primary group" of Cooley is characterized by association and co-operation, but the unity is one of organization and not of identity, And it was Cooley who made it clear that human life may be viewed either collectively, as an orchestra, or separately, as the different musicians. Society and individual are only two ways—two aspects, indeed—of looking at human life. There cannot be an army without the soldier, and the soldier would not be a soldier without the army. It would seem that, in this fashion, an ancient and profitless debate could be finally ended.

The older psychology with its emphasis on introspection and its preoccupation with "consciousness" was, in the meantime, violently attacked by the vigorous and militant group of young men who called themselves, "behaviorists." It was precipitated by a dispute among the introspectionists themselves, who charged each other with being inexpert in the method. The behaviorists proceeded to reject it altogether. But the chief motive appears to have been the effort to make psychology scientific in the sense that facts were to be accepted only upon the consensus of observers, and to do this it was necessary to make it an objective science. The movement ran a vigorous course and was not without its effect on subsequent research; but it became clear that to laud the objective method in the study of animal behavior was only to make a virtue of necessity, and to restrict the study of man to what an observer could photograph was to impose a gratuitous limitation on the worker.

By this time the older scheme of psychology as an account of the process of knowing, with its hierarchy of sensation, image, perception, conception, judgment, and reasoning, was everywhere disregarded and considered hopelessly inadequate and antiquated. Behaviorism emphasized behavior, but men were interested in conduct. However close the kinship of animals and man, the difference is vast; and it is necessary to consider the respects in which man is unlike the animals, as well as the resemblances. Consciousness, by whatever term it may be called, and imagination, however denominated, continued to be emphasized and studied. In a brilliant passage Cooley declared imagination to be the very stuff of social life, insisting that the solid facts were facts of the imagination. My idea of myself is central in importance. A man's conception (image) of himself and his idea (image) of his God will move him to heroism and martyrdom, and no account of his reflexes will reveal that which is first in importance.

The period under consideration was one of great activity, and the literary output very impressive, at least as regards quantity. For a long time there was a persistent effort to reduce the complex manifestations of human life to a few elements, which were then held to enter into combinations after the manner of chemical elements and their compounds. The two classes of elements of the physiological psychologists was such a result. When the dynamic aspect was recognized, we had a long list of proposals: self-preservation or the will to power, imitation, food and sex, the eleven instincts of McDougall, a similar list of reflexes of the behaviorists, the four wishes of Thomas, and many more less widely publicized were in turn proposed, advocated, and abandoned or neglected. These all appear as hasty strivings after simplicity and were arrived at, for the most part, by intuition rather than through research with tested hypotheses.

Dewey's famous article on the reflex-arc concept, in which he showed that the sharp division between the sensory and the motor was untenable, appeared many years ago and was at once a stimulus to further research in the direction of integration and also a prophecy of what was to follow. Much later the Gestalt psychologists showed the untenability of considering sensations as stimuli, since these must always occur in configurations that have relation to the purposes involved in the response and the direction of attention. A number of independent workers made it evident that to study an individual person as isolated is to

( 426) discuss an unprofitable abstraction; and George Mead and others made us realize that that process of self-stimulation and self-response results in the incorporation of the attitudes and roles of the other. Even the most private of the inner musings of the solitary hermit are necessarily social—how else could he think in words?

It is not impossible that the most important of all the many advances in this period is the restoration of man and the mind of man to its rightful place as a part of nature. Modern psychology inherited an insoluble problem from the seventeenth century, when mind and matter were held to be in absolute separation. The natural world was mechanistic, and its events could be reduced to a mathematical formula, while the qualities, such as the color red or the feeling of unpleasantness, were relegated to the mental and the subjective.

It would, perhaps, be an exaggeration to say that the overcoming of this difficulty amounted to the long-awaited Copernican revolution, but its importance is very great. To deny that there are qualities in nature, as Bertrand Russell does to this day, is to be confronted with a metaphysical problem as baffling as it is unreal. To admit man and the capacities of man into the realm of nature is to recognize that qualities are as solid natural facts as sound waves or ether vibrations; for qualities enter into events as significant. Feelings of resentment, anger, and revenge are as important in the sequence leading to a global war as any "material" fact or occurrence that can be cited. What nature has joined together let no psychologist put asunder.

And so we may venture to set down the essentials of the position now accepted by an increasing number of our company, although it would be premature to assume that there is complete consensus. The unit of study is the act. Within the act all the categories of the older psychology can find a place. Attention, perception, imagination, reasoning, and the rest occur, on occasion, when the action takes certain forms or meets certain obstructions. Likewise emotions, the whole gamut of them, can be related to the success, real or imagined, or the failure or frustration of the act or plan or enterprise. Instincts, emotions, imagination, are neither elements, things, nor forces but are modifications of actions and could be more accurately referred to adverbially, did our idiom permit. But the act is not an isolated occurrence, and all action is, in some sense, interaction. Language distinguishes man from other animals, and language is the unwitting product of collective behavior. Further, the group in which the individual person moves is part of a larger whole, whence come the folkways and the mores, likewise the result of the collective experience which produces the mores without intending to do so.

One should not fail to include the influence which the practitioners of depth psychology—Freud, Jung, Adler, Rank, West, and others—have had in the last thirty years. Their presuppositions have often been uncritical and nearer intuition than science, and their conclusions from their data have failed to convince most students of these problems; yet the technique of "free association" appears to be a distinct contribution; and, although social psychologists have not accepted the doctrines with the uncritical hospitality manifested by many social workers, yet few would deny the value of the insight which revealed the importance to personality of crucial events which normal memory cannot recall.

E. A. Ross published in 1908 the first book with the title Social Psychology, but the last thirty years have seen a veritable flood of textbooks and other works with this title and many not so christened. Some of these have been of the highest quality, many could only be called indifferent, while others could better have been left unwritten. But great as has been the activity in the publishing of books, the energy expended on research has been far greater, at least in America. The science of statistics made unprecedented progress during the first World War, and this technique is now considered indispensable in a great variety of

( 427) inquiries. The study of communities and groups of every character has produced some excellent results. Life-histories, questionnaires, interviews, and observation of observable behavior have all been employed with no small results.

Every scientist aspires to introduce measurement into his material where this is possible, and great advances have been made in this endeavor. Mention can be made of the early Binet tests, from which there has developed a highly valuable instrument, increasingly employed in the most divergent fields, from juvenile delinquents to the classification of college students and the discovery of officer material in the Army. A valuable development is the measurement of public opinion, based on the statistical theory of sampling. At the present writing the Army is conducting important research on morale, the results of which will one day be available. A vast organization is engaged in psychological warfare and propaganda, but the nature of this material and its results will probably preclude early accessibility.

If, now, we attempt to distinguish some of the significant general trends of the last fifty years, several important developments can be clearly discerned. Most characteristic of American scholarship is the great outburst of energy resulting in thousands of research projects in an effort to obtain by diligent inquiry and firsthand observation and experience an acquaintance with and a knowledge about the groups and persons accessible to study. The variety of these studies is far too extensive even to classify here, for they include community studies of every sort from the American village to Guatemalan Mayas and Samoan girls. They include studies of such pathological phenomena as suicide, insanity, divorce, delinquency, and crime, as well as personality types from the urban Negro to the "hotel child," studies of "normal" situations like the groupings in a girls' college, and the conditions indicating a successful marriage. To mention these is to omit a much greater number.

Much of the research has been stimulated by grants of funds by the foundations which have made millions of dollars available to scholars who seemed to show promise. The organization of the Social Science Research Council made possible the work of many of the younger workers in this field, as well as contributing to their training and development.

Significant, indeed, has been the interest in research of many departments and agencies of the federal and state governments. The United States Department of Agriculture has done much and will probably do much more. But extensive as the financial aid has been, most of the work has been accomplished by university professors and graduate students, sometimes with a little aid from the institutions but often by unassisted effort.

This large-scale stimulation of research did not, of course, yield uniformly valuable results, which was clearly foreseen. The kingdom of science no more than the Kingdom of Heaven can be taken by violence. There is no meat without bone, says a Bantu proverb, and chaff comes with wheat on every farm. But even if much of the work done is poor and some of the results worthless, yet much first-class achievement has rewarded the donors, valuable experience has been obtained, and mistakes have been recognized and corrected.

A second significant trend is implied in the above recital. It is the change from philosophical speculation and armchair generalization to diligent inquiry and a search after data. Continental scholars sometimes regard this movement as a reproach, but American social psychologists consider it as the most fruitful way to use our energies at the present juncture. Intuitive formulations of the "laws" of our science are not wanting, but they remain in the eddies and backwash of the main stream.

As a corollary of the above, we may record that the particularistic explanations of the past are no longer in favor. The "monistic fallacy," which assigns a single explanatory principle, is no longer in favor except

( 427) with a few voluminous writers who appear, like Paul, to be "born out of due time." Their survival does no harm, and their number will diminish.

Another negative movement may be called a "trend": the loss of interest in the analysis of human nature into elements, already discussed. The diligent work of the physiological psychologists, the speculations of the instinct school, and the similar attempts of the depth psychologists, together with other less plausible formulations have lost their interest.

There are other directions of movement that might well deserve mention, but one must suffice : the progressive application of measurement and quantitative methods to the facts of psychology. Here again there have been offenses against sound method, as when arbitrary values are assigned to arbitrary terms and correlations worked out to the third decimal under the illusion that exactness means accuracy. But the trend is strong and the results notable. No one is competent in this field without some knowledge of statistical methods.

Are there lessons that we can learn from the record of fifty years? We can, it would seem, realize that we have a great and an important task. There is need of honesty and modesty as never before. If social psychology is not a science, it is the beginning of a science, and we have made a good beginning. No longer can the cloistered worker solve our problems by his cleverness, or hope to do so. A great task is before us, and the time should not be so long as that required by the men who gave us physics or chemistry, but it will be long. Our claims should reflect our diffidence, but the importance of a knowledge of human nature and of the mainsprings of human conduct is transcendent. Had we had it, there need not have been this war; when we have obtained it, there need not be another. We must freely confess our ignorance of much that we should like to know, and we must devise ways of finding out.

In the second place, we must develop our own techniques and methods. The road is strewn with wrecks and abandoned material because it was thought that human nature could best be studied by using the procedure of some other science. But the biologist does not use the cyclotron, nor does the astronomer use the technique of staining tissues. It took time for them to perfect their methods; we must take time, and our methods must be our own, suited to our own unique material.

Runyard West has said that at present the most useful service that the social psychologist could render would be to prepare questionnaires for others to fill out. He believes that there is a vast mine of relevant data in the possession of those who have close contact with people: policemen, bartenders, nurses, cab drivers, waitresses. Modern scholastics decry the search for facts, not knowing that only if there is a problem does a scientific fact exist and that only by finding the facts can we solve the problem.

Uncritical writers sometimes decry the advance of physical science, blaming science for war. They even suggest a moratorium or a vacation until men are better understood. Such talk is, of course, idle, but it is not idle to contend that social psychology seeks the answer to the most important questions of the modern world. To work with diligence and devotion toward their solution and to recruit gifted students to carry on the search is to deserve well of this generation and the next.



No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2