What Are the Data and Problems of Social Psychology

Jacob Robert Kantor

IN the effort to show the need for more definite and more satisfactory conceptions concerning the data of social psychology the writer, in a recent paper [1] in this JOURNAL, pointed out what appeared to him to be some faulty theories concerning the subject. In the present paper, accordingly, the attempt is made to define what from a more rigid psychological standpoint appears as a more acceptable statement of the data and some of the problems of social psychology.


At the outset we must insist that social psychology, in common with psychology in general, is concerned with the responses of individuals to stimuli. The significance of the term "social psychology," however, lies in the fact that the reactions studied in this field vary somewhat in their development and operation from the reactions included under the heading of general psychology. In order to characterize properly the data of social psychology we may briefly undertake a comparative description of the different types of psychological reactions, pointing out the differences both on the response and on the stimulus side.

I. Different Types of Responses.—To determine precisely what responses are social or cultural reactions as over against merely individual responses, we might divide human psychological behavior into three distinct types. First, we have individual reactions which may be further divided into (a) universal reactions, (b) idiosyncratic responses, and then another type which we call (c) cultural reactions. All of these represent distinct forms of behavior displaying unique reaction pictures, and resulting in different types of adaptations to very different forms of stimuli objects and conditions.

(a) Universal Reactions. — Typical of this class is the reflex action which depends upon the biological constitution of the or-

(450) -ganism and the physical or natural character of the stimulus. The main point is that the character of the activity depends upon the biological make-up of the individual, for instance, the sensitivity and destructibility of tissues. The stimuli objects and conditions produce their effects upon the individual because of the destructive or advantaging effects. Here it must be noted, then, that the objects or conditions which constitute the stimuli are stimuli because of their natural properties with respect to the character of the organism.

(b) Idiosyncratic Reactions. — The reactions which we call idiosyncratic do not become developed because of the biological makeup of the indivdual. That is to say, the reactions are not simple movements toward or away from objects which result from the character of the cell, tissue, and organ formation of the organism. Nor are the idiosyncratic reactions merely more complex actions derived from such simple biologically-determined action. From the standpoint of the biological constitution of the organism, idiosyncratic reactions may be acquired entirely in disregard of the organic character of the person; so while it is a biological organism which performs the reactions, these reactions may be so unrelated to any normal biological functions of the individual that they may be completely destructive of that organism.

On the stimulus side there is no exact correlation between objects to which adjustment is made, and their stimulational function. In other words, as constrasted with the universal stimulus, in which there is no difference between the natural properties of an object and the way it affects a person, in the case of idiosyncratic stimuli the objects to which the person adjusts himself may produce reactions entirely unrelated to the natural character of those objects. Or we might say, that in idiosyncratic reactions we find individualistic interpretations of the properties of objects. [2] Thus, red or some other particular color may or may not be reacted to as bookbinding material, and especially if combined with leather, silk, or some other material.

(c) Cultural Reactions. — Cultural responses are like idiosyncratic reactions in that they do not depend at all upon the biological make-up of the individual, nor are the stimuli functions the direct results of the natural properties of the stimuli objects. Unlike idiosyncratic reactions, however, the cultural responses are types of actions which are imposed upon the individual because of his presence or connection with other individuals or a group in which this type of reaction is performed.


To take language reactions as an illustration; whatever language we speak we do so because of the fact that when we were learning to make speech reactions the only stimuli we were in contact with were the linguistic institutions of our group or groups, and hence we acquired the response (language) of that group or groups. The main point about these reactions is that they are performed in common with other persons because of one's necessary or accidental presence among the other persons, so that one becomes subject to particular kinds of stimuli. And so the imposition spoken of is an imposition only by virtue of the accidental combination of circumstances. In another sense there is no actual imposition, for the whole group with its unique common behavior may be voluntarily organized.

On the stimulus side, the objects or conditions, whatever they may be, possess a certain particular property which we call an institutional characteristic and which elicits the particular kind of group-conditioned action. That is to say, the object or condition which constitutes the stimulus is institutionalized. For example, a particular object is endowed with the property of inedibility for a certain group and in consequence the response to such a stimulus is a cultural reaction.

Although cultural and idiosyncratic reactions are very different in their operation, yet in principle their similarity is so pronounced with respect to their common differences from the universal reactions, that individual samples of the latter may be derived from what are originally idiosyncratic behavior developments. Similarly, an individual may perform some sort of idiosyncratic reaction which he originally acquired as a cultural response, but which he now performs as an exception in his present group.

II. Characteristics of Cultural Reactions. —Because of the particular nature of cultural responses, they possess many characteristics which are peculiar to them. These characteristics, we must note, do not at the same time differentiate cultural reactions from both universal and idiosyncratic responses. To enumerate these characteristics, however, will serve to give a definite impression of what the cultural responses are like.

(1) To begin with, cultural responses are artificial; they do not conform in any essential way to biological facts, but are purely conventional modes of adaption. (2) Naturally, if such responses are artificial they are accidental or historical processes, historical in the sense that (a) their origins are definitely known to us only in so far as we can trace them back to other similar forms{of response, and (b) that they have no biological or physical con-

(452) -ditions; they are accidental, in the sense that such responses are the result of so many contributions of natural, psychological, biological, geographical, and commercial influences that they have no particular determinative character whatsoever. (3) We also find them to be arbitrary in operation; that is, they function without reference to any fixed standards. Esthetic reactions are not really esthetic; rational actions may not be reasonable, economic reactions not advantageous, hygienic reactions not conducive to health, etc. (4) Howsoever artificial and arbitrary cultural reactions are. the strength with which some of them persist and operate is very characteristic. With great tenacity and persistence are performed such responses as loyalty to certain members of the group, prejudices with respect to certain races, intolerances concerning certain religions, etc. (5) Still other cultural responses may be temporary and dynamic in character; they may never become a permanent form of the person's equipment because of the constantly changing and shifting of the institutions to which the responses are made. Such a durational character well indicates the dynamic features of such reactions, varying as they do from year to year, from generation to generation. (6) Naturally because of the vast range and multiplicity of institutional stimuli, the cultural responses made to them may be widely distributed or very limited with respect to the number of people who perform them. True it is that almost all human beings have art, religious, and language behavior, but, considering the specific activities constituting the cultural behavior, the range of any specific type is limited. Thus, for instance, in spite of the wide distribution of the English language from the standpoint of the actual psychological language adjustments, we find a very limited distribution of specific types of English language responses. (7) Though cultural responses are not preservation actions, they do concern the functioning of the individual in a very fundamental and elementary way, as modes of eating, of sexual activity, methods of breathing, of walking, etc. This point may be otherwise expressed by saying that many of our cultural responses require the functioning of our anatomical equipment and involve exceedingly personal preservative acts. (8) That cultural responses are the most prominent and important ones of the person's behavior equipment is quite apparent in that it is such responses that differentiate individuals and members of well-defined racial or national groups. (9) Though artificial from a natural standpoint, such reactions are enforced and determined from the standpoint of particular groups of persons, and so individuals have imposed upon them the standardized action of the group

(453) among which they live. (10) To be expected is it, then, that such standardized behavior would be formal in character, answering in some cases to minutely prescribed action. How one should eat and dress among other activities may be not only rigidly enforced but controlled to the most specific details. (11) So early in the behavior history of the individual does the culturalizing of his actions begin that for the most part cultural responses are acquired and performed in an unwitting manner, in other words, automatically executed without question on the part of the acting individual. (12) Considering all the reactions of a person, we discover that cultural responses constitute by far the largest quantity. It is not unlikely that perhaps nine-tenths of all of our behavior are these arbitrary and accidental modes of adaptation acquired from other members of our, groups.

III. Distribution of Cultural Responses. — Since the primary fact about cultural responses is their common character, that is to say, since their mark of distinction is that they are performed by persons in common with other individuals, it is obvious that the cultural reactions of an individual will distribute themselves according to the number of persons who perform some particular reaction in common. This distribution will, of course, depend upon the presence and distribution of the institutions or objects serving as cultural stimuli for the reactions in question. 3 Thus if we refer to the fact that particular persons perform a particular kind of behavior as a trait, then we can say that some of these reactions will constitute national traits, some racial traits, others professional traits, and still others, economic, linguistic, religious, etc., throughout the whole range of behavior.

All the individuals performing certain reactions in common, no matter how widely separated in space and time, may be said to belong to the same group. A group, then, from our standpoint is the name for a series of individuals who perform reactions in common, or who possess certain traits in common. Most important L is it, then, to observe that a group from this standpoint is not an entity of any sort nor some kind of absolutistic thing or condition which makes these reactions, brings them into being, or maintains them.

In the study Of cultural phenomena it is frequently convenient to extend the term " group " to geographical localities where certain institutions and their coördinated responses are found.

(454) Thus we may have occasion to speak of a European and Asiatic group because certain traits are intimately related with persons, historical conducts, and physical objects which have their coincident localization at some particular geographical point. Frequently, this coincidence of traits and geographical location may be accounted for by the fact that certain geographical situations offer special inducements for the development of cultural traits.

IV. Different Types of Cultural Stimuli. —A very important point with respect to cultural reactions is that the stimuli, although in each case constituting an institution, may consist of the same sorts of objects, conditions, actions, and persons as in the case of the individual or idiosyncratic reactions. The point here is that the same natural objects or contrived products may be stimuli for idiosyncratic reactions or they may constitute stimuli for cultural responses, though in each case they function differently. We might briefly indicate some of the types of stimuli which constitute functional phases of the cultural reactions.

(1) Things.—Any object whether natural or contrived becomes an institution or cultural stimulus when it takes on the function of arousing common reactions in individuals. Especially important is the emphasis here upon the fact that the function of calling out common reactions is not a derivative from the natural properties of the objects. The stimulating function may be accounted for solely on the basis of the activities of the individual previously acquired in contact with other objects or persons.

The development of institutional or cultural stimuli is exactly like the development of meaning stimuli in general psychology. In the latter case, some object takes on a symbolic function in that it points the way to some reaction which is not the adjustment to some or any of its natural properties. All psychological symbols are objects or things which have functional properties different from their natural qualities.

While the general functioning of meanings in individual psychology is exactly like institutions or cultural stimuli, the specific conditions are very different. For as we have so frequently pointed out, the cultural stimuli always involve common responses. Individual symbolic stimuli do not necessarily involve any but the reactions of a single individual. There is one case, however, in which the two types of situations coincide and that is the situation in which the stimuli are language institutions.

(2) Conditions. — The same thing may be said for natural situations or events of all sorts, such as births, deaths, telluric phenomena, etc.


(3) Persons.—In every human group various individuals take on an institutional character. In fact every individual acquires a series of general institutional characters while others take on more specific institutional functions. Thus, men and women all are institutions in the sense that they must be reacted to in a particular common way.

Depending upon the particular group, a woman is a person of whom one does or does not expect hard work, a person who must be shown certain courtesies, before whom one does not say certain things, etc. Men are reacted to as founders of the home, the mainstay of the social organization, the wise ones of the group, etc. Both men and women are centers of many institutional stimuli for cultural sex reactions, a fact which is excellently illustrated by the primitive exogamous moieties. In every human group various persons, such as priests, political leaders, or judges, take on very marked institutional character.

(4) Actions. — Actions of individuals of every sort constitute functional processes calling out common responses of approval, disapproval, disgust, and acceptability. Here, as in case of objects, the actions may be contrived and deliberately developed in order to serve as institutions, or they may have been only casually developed as cultural stimuli, because they are more constant in their presence and more conducive to the building up on the part of members of any particular group of the reactions suitable to the behavior of the individuals already in the group.

As we have already intimated in an earlier page of this paper, the behavior of various groups or collectivities constitutes fertile sources of cultural stimulation. The individual is constantly in contact with numerous groups and naturally they serve as institutional stimuli for him as well as stimuli for idiosyncratic behavior of all sorts.

Possibly along with the reactions that we have designated " cultural or social responses proper " we may have to include among the data of social psychology the idiosyncratic reactions which have their effect upon the facts and processes of history and civilization. Since a great part of the facts of history and civilization consists of human activities, and since these activities must at some point come down to the reactions of individuals, such reactions must play a part in the ongoing of civilization. Think only of the incidents of war and peace which depend upon the capricious behavior of men and women. Now possibly such behavior, idiosyncratic as much of it is, may also be counted as the data of social psychology. Not, indeed because, as a matter of fact,

( 456) such behavior conditions and controls the conduct of nations, but because, in taking account of it, we put upon the scales the psychological factors that influence national groups along with the nonpsychological factors which counter-balance them.


(1) Very important among the problems of social psychology is the question as to how an individual becomes a member of a particular group. We find that, as a matter of fact, when an individual enters a group as an infant, or as an immigrant from another national or geographical group, this person, being subject, to various contacts with objects, conditions, and actions which have been institutionalized, is stimulated to build up reactions to them which are common to the members of the group in question.

(2) Closely connected with the first problem is another concerning the mutual influences which the individual and the particular group exert upon each other. Now, in this particular connection we find that because the individual belongs to many groups within the new geographical or national group, and moreover, because a group means merely the number of individuals having particular types of traits in common, or the place where these traits are found, there is then a very definite interaction. The group is developing constantly because of the individual's influence on it and the individual is further being constantly changed because the group is changed through the influence of other individuals.

(3) Quite as important a problem is the study of the way all of the traits derived from the great variety of groups to which the individual belongs organize themselves into a more or less harmonious whole and operate to condition the various adaptations of the individual in his surroundings. Such combinations or organizations of traits in their harmony or lack of harmony may indicate the stability of the individual, his degree of intelligence, and his normality of adaptation, besides his narrowness or breadth of social outlook, his religious, economic, social, and intellectual orthodoxy, etc.

(4) No less significant is the problem of the relation between the psychological phases of the development of institutions and groups and other influences which play their part in the development of social behavior. By the latter we mean the social, economic, geographical, political, and military conditions which are contributory factors in the building up of group phenomena, both actions and institutions. Otherwise put, the question may be asked as to what are the relative contributions of psychological responses

( 457) and non-psychological phenomena to the development of the esthetic tastes, religious beliefs, intellectual attitudes, and language forms of particular persons or groups of persons?

(5) As a final illustration of some of the problems of social or cultural psychology, we may refer to the problem of the psychological influences upon historical, anthropological, and sociological facts. Briefly, this problem may be summed up by asking what are the powers of actual psychological processes, that is, actions of persons, upon changes in national and other group phenomena? In other words, what are the psychological contributions to civilization and its development?

Numerous other problems similar to these examples supply the social or cultural psychologists with material for the investigation of the more interesting as well as the more important facts of human psychological behavior. It is to such studies that we must look for answers concerning the intellectual, moral, industrial, and social status and development of persons, individually and collectively. And it is only in such studies and not in the metapsychological or metaphorical discussion of individual and group souls, nor in the exclusive domain of sociology and anthropology, that the information concerning such facts is available.



  1. "Concerning some Faulty Conceptions of Social Psychology," Vol. XX, No. 16.
  2. Not necessarily deliberate interpretations, for they may be based upon accidents of behavior.
  3. Note that the distribution of cultural stimuli also depends upon the performance of their correlated cultural reactions, since, as we have pointed out, cultural reactions are only accidentally related to objects as stimuli because of natural properties of the latter.

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