The Development of Social Psychology

Fay Berger Karpf
Training School for Jewish Social Work


The development of social psychology.—Social Psychology has come forward during the last few years as a subject of recognized academic and scientific importance. This is particularly evident in this country. The recent development of social psychology has, however, left social-psychological theory in a rather disorganized state. As we know it today, social psychology is a complex product with a bipolar basis in the study of social life and individual behavior. Because of the background of individualistic thought upon which it began to take form, social psychology got its first impulse from the side of the study of social life. This direction of social-psychological development is represented by folk psychology and modern sociology, especially psychological sociology. The development of social psychology from the side of the study of individual behavior has come into view more recently. It is represented by the rise into prominence of modern instinct psychology on the one hand, and by the development of "interaction" social psychology in this country on the other. On the basis of these and related more recently defined standpoints, social psychology has so far been carrying on broad generalization and constructive criticism rather than specific and detailed investigation. It is, however, necessarily beginning to enter upon this more careful development of its theory at the present time.

The last few years have brought social psychology forward as a subject of recognized academic and scientific importance. The advance which social psychology has recently made in this respect is particularly notable in this country. It was only with the appearance of the two systematic treatises by Ross and McDougall, in 1908, that social psychology began to attract any considerable attention here. In 1904 Professor Ellwood expressed gratification that social psychology was recognized at all in the program of the International Congress of Arts and Science to the extent of having been given place in one of the section meetings on sociology.[1] And even as late as 1916 Dewey was sounding a plea on "The Need for Social Psychology" before the psychologists of the country.[2] Today, however, social psychology is established as a recognized field of endeavor alongside of general psychology on the one hand and

( 72) general sociology on the other; it has a secure place in college and university curricula; a rapidly expanding specialized literature to which both psychology and sociology are contributing; and a growing popularity which fairly threatens its scientific balance at this time when it is just beginning to enter upon a career of more careful scientific development.

But this recent development of social psychology, as may well be expected, has left social-psychological theory in a rather chaotic state. There has as yet been very little co-ordination in the field, and most writers have presented their particular conception or theory more or less in isolation from the rest of the developing field. As a result we are confronted at the present time with a somewhat confusing array of distinct and even conflicting standpoints and positions. The mere mention of such terms as folk psychology, crowd psychology, instinct psychology, suggestion, imitation, collective representations, conditioned reflex, habit, attitude, interest, desire, gestalt, is enough to recall this condition of affairs to anyone who has even a moderate acquaintance with the field. An examination of the current conceptions of the scope, outlook, purpose, methods, and relations of social psychology would similarly reveal the situation.

A recent work on psychology came out under the suggestive title of Psychologies of 1925. Were a similar work to be prepared for the field of social psychology, it would almost be necessary to give place to as many types as there are writers in the field. In short, there are at the present time a considerable number of social psychologies, but as yet very little established or generally accepted social psychology.

That is why it is difficult at the present time to make a brief survey of the development of social psychology adequately representative of the whole field. Social psychology is still largely a matter of distinct "schools" and "standpoints," and even of disconnected individual contributions to social psychological theory. To follow out the connections of these various individual developments would take us over a large part of modern psychological and psychosocial thought. For modern social psychology has been intimately a part, not only of the progress of modern thought in the

( 73) fields of psychology and sociology, but also in such related fields as cultural anthropology, psychopathology, general evolutionary thought, etc. All that can be attempted here, therefore, is the enumeration of certain basic currents of modern social-psychological development, and the relation, in a very general way, of the field of social-psychological theory as it has thus been constituted, to the pressing problems of verification and synthesis which confront it today.

It may be said that the first systematic attempt to build up a "'social" psychology, in contradistinction to the individualistic general psychology which had held more or less undisputed ground during the early nineteenth century, was made by the folk-psychologists. From the founding of the Zeitung für Völkerpsychologie and Spraachwissenschaft in 1860 by Lazarus and Steinthal to Wundt, it was the aim of the folk-psychologists to develop a "social" psychology alongside of, and supplementary to, the current general psychology.

The conception of social psychology which the folk-psychologists sought to work out resulted chiefly, it is true, in culture history rather than in social psychology as we know it today. Folk psychology has accordingly become more closely identified with anthropology than with social psychology as specialized fields of investigation. Furthermore, during the early period when we are most concerned with folk psychology as a direct factor in the modern social-psychological movement, it was dominated by the presuppositions of Hegelian philosophy and the individualistic conceptions of introspective psychology, to an extent which has kept it apart from the main current of modern social psychological development in France, England, and in this country. Nevertheless, folk psychology has had some important results for modern social psychology as a whole. In the first place, folk psychology brought conspicuous support to the growing dissatisfaction with the traditional purely individualistic psychology and to the resulting interest in the study of human phenomena from more adequate social standpoints. Then, folk psychology was on fundamental social-psychological ground in its attempt to relate the objective elements of culture with the mental development of the individual. In addi-

( 74) -tion, folk psychology was not only a factor in the modern social-psychological movement, because, like cultural anthropology and sociology generally, it was helping to bring the social aspect of psychosocial life more clearly into view, but also because its analysis had a distinct psychosocial, rather than a merely psychological, reference. It thus sought to concern itself with the cultural significance of such collective mental phenomena as it designated by the terms "folk," "people," "group mind," "social consciousness," "collective will," etc., phenomena which have ever since occupied psychosocial thought, and the subsequent investigation of which must be looked upon as a leading factor in the differentiation of modern social psychology. In all these ways, then, folk psychology introduced a challenging social and collectivistic emphasis into its work, which must thereby be recognized as one of the sources of modern social-psychological agitation and development.

The social-psychological aspects of folk psychology were supplemented by the early sociological students of social organization, especially in Germany and Austria. The term "social psychology" was first widely used by the latter group of students. It was Schäffle, specifically, who first gave wide currency to this term in his Bau and Leben des sozialen Körpers (1875-78), where he used it co-ordinately with the terms "social morphology" and "social physiology" in connection with his analogical treatment of society.

The standpoint of early sociology was definitely "objective" in the special sociological sense, rather than psychological. Its analysis of society, essentially in objective institutional and group terms, corresponded in general, in so far as social psychology is concerned, to the analysis of the individual mind by introspective psychology. Both are logically more or less distinct from social psychology, which came into being primarily as an attempt to bridge these two fields of investigation and which is characteristically psychosocial in its procedure therefore. Because of the background of individualistic thought upon which social psychology began to take form, the analysis of the objective social environment was, however, historically a necessary step in the development of social psychology. The connection between sociology and social psychology has therefore been very close from the beginning; and German sociology in

( 75) particular, with its insistance on the "group" approach and its emphasis upon the reality of the "social," must thereby be noted as an important factor in bringing the need of a social psychology into recognition. Of greater consequence in this respect than Schäffle's analogical "social psychology" are the less imposing but more substantial contributions to the group analysis of psychosocial life which have been made by Ratzenhofer, Gumplowicz, and, more especially for the purposes of this review, by Simmel.

Much more important, however, for the direct advance of social psychology was the development of modern psychological sociology in France and in this country. To the psychosocial theories of Tarde, Durkheim, LeBon and Lévy-Bruhl must be attributed much of the forceful impulse of the modern social psychological movement, both as regards social-psychological criticism of individualistic psychological theory as well as regards its more constructive attempts to build up a more adequate orientation of psychosocial interpretation.

Certainly the widespread interest and discussion which these theories stimulated could hardly have been called forth by the less spectacular development of social-psychological thought elsewhere. And in order to force a hearing during the early period of its development, social psychology needed just such spectacular support. There is no question here of the validity of the special theories in terms of which these writers sought to present such basic psychosocial phenomena as custom, convention, control, constraint, etc. The consideration of importance here as regards the development

of social psychology is that their treatment of these phenomena brought the rôle of psychosocial interaction so forcefully into evidence that their influence expressed itself in a wave of heightened social-psychological interest, which leads directly into the modern period of more systematic concern with social psychology. Nowhere, moreover, has the influence of these writers been more fruitful for the advance of social-psychological thought than in this country. Social psychology as it is represented here by such works as Ross's Social Psychology and his Social Control, by Sumner's Folkways, to some extent by Baldwin's Social and Ethical Interpretations, and, even though less directly, by Ellwood's Intro-

(75) -duction to Social Psychology, which came considerably later, is largely a development of the direction of psychosocial analysis which they so prominently brought into view. And these works are in turn intimately a part of the other type of social psychology which has become so popular in this country since the appearance of Cooley's Human Nature and the Social Order (1902), and which it is necessary to bring into relation with the general trend of social-psychological development to be described below.

So far, social psychology was receiving a one-sided development from the side of the study of social life. Social psychology was practically a synonym for psychological sociology. From this one-sided development social psychology was recalled by the rise into prominence of instinct psychology on the one hand and by the development of the genetic study of personal growth on the other. In the first connection, besides the basic work of Darwin, Spencer, and Bagehot, the more specific social-psychological formulations of McDougall, Shand, Trotter, and Wallas stand out; in the second connection, it is necessary to mention, besides James's suggestive treatment of the "social self," especially the work of Baldwin, Cooley, Dewey, Mead, and Thomas, to say nothing of the growing number of their notable more recent followers in this country.

The central impulse for the development of instinct psychology in its modern form came from early English evolutionary thought with its biological emphasis and its phylogenetic outlook, in the light of which the study of the hereditary bases of behavior loomed as the problem of central importance in the investigation of human conduct, while the latter trend of thought has developed almost entirely in this country. It has resulted in the formulation of a point of view with which we are most familiar here, and which might by contrast be termed "interaction" psychology, or rather "interaction" social psychology, since it ought to be made evident that this point of view is distinctively and emphatically social in its emphasis.

Instinct psychology, it is today generally recognized even by its severest recent critics, was a most important development from the standpoint of the advance of social-psychological thought. For it was not only in itself a distinct social-psychological advance on the older purely intellectualistic type of psychology, at least by possi-

( 77) -ble implication, but the new outlook which it introduced into psychology provided the essential mechanism even for the more characteristic social-psychological interpretations of human behavior which have recently come into conflict with it. As instinct psychology has been developed by its recognized exponents, however, it has given expression to the social-psychological motive which it clearly embodies, more through the recognition of the basic rôle which social life plays in racial evolution than in personal development. Its interpretation of the latter has definitely relegated the social factor to a place of secondary importance as compared with the biological factor. In fact, in this connection it has practically replaced the old type of intellectualistic individualism with a new type of biological individualism, which it has been the more difficult to undermine because it has seemed to be so firmly grounded in the most prestigeful current of thought in modern scientific history. The implications for a broader social interpretation of personal development and social conduct, which the trend of thought upon which instinct psychology rests clearly incorporated, have been brought out, not by instinct psychology itself, but by that variant of the instinct point of view in social psychology which has been termed interaction social psychology here.

Interaction social psychology may be said to be a synthesis of the currents of thought represented by instinct psychology and psychological sociology. It began to take form in an atmosphere of protest against biological determinism and laissez faire doctrine in human affairs. It has incorporated instead as practical social motives, an intense interest in education and in the scientific control of human conduct. It took its departure from the orthodox position of the instinct theory of human conduct in the first place through a broader social interpretation of the evolutionary process as it bears on human development; but gradually it has been building up its standpoint through the direct functional analysis of the processes and mechanisms of personal growth and social action.

While seeking to give due place to the factor of original nature by recognizing that social environment acts through native equipment, this theory of human conduct has aimed not to overlook the equally important fact that before biological heredity becomes concretely expressive on the level of social conduct, it incorporates

( 78) social heredity as a basic component factor. Concrete conduct, it has maintained, is thus basically a complex phenomenon combining both biological and social components. It is basically both original and acquired, both individual and social, both a matter of biological heredity and social environment. Without necessarily bringing up the question as to which of these factors is the more important in human life, it has insisted that the instinct theory of human conduct does not leave room for this basic rôle of the social factor, and that instinct, as it is commonly understood, is therefore an inapt tool of analysis in social psychology. Accordingly, it has suggested alternative tools of analysis which have a more distinct social reference: habit, attitude, wish, desire, etc.

Since interaction social psychology has recently come into sharply defined conflict with instinct psychology, and controversy in the field of social psychology, especially in this country, has in the last few years centered about this conflict, it may be worth while to pause here long enough to indicate the point of departure between them more clearly. In so far as social psychology is concerned with the analysis of personal behavior, it is centrally concerned, as McDougall more than anyone else has helped to establish, with the problem of the basic springs to human action. In answer to the question, "What is their essential nature?" instinct psychology has replied that they are innate, i.e., basically a matter of biological heredity and only secondarily a matter of social heredity. As against this view, interaction social psychology has held that they are basically a matter of social as well as biological heredity; that they are social "in the germ," so to speak, in consequence of the fact that they are socially defined, conditioned, and directed, and by virtue of the very process of social give-and-take in which they function and come to concrete expression. In the terms suggested by Professor Faris, they are social products, not biological data.[3] Or, as Cooley has stated the matter, human impulses are not first biological and then social; they are "socio-biologic" from the first.[4]

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This is not a matter of mere difference of emphasis. On the contrary, we are dealing here with a fundamentally different conception of human nature which is of the most far-reaching social-psychological importance, both theoretically and in its bearing on the practical problems of social control. This has nowhere been brought out more forcefully than in the recent social-psychological writings of Dewey. I accordingly quote a short passage from him:

The ultimate refuge of the standpatter in every field, education, religion, politics, industrial and domestic life, has been the notion of an alleged fixed structure of mind. As long as mind is conceived as an antecedent and ready-made thing, institutions and customs may be regarded as its offspring. By its own nature the ready-made mind works to produce them as they have existed and now exist. There is no use in kicking against necessity. The most powerful apologetics for any arrangement or institution is the conception that it is an inevitable result of fixed conditions of human nature. Consequently, in . one disguise or another, directly or by extreme and elaborate indirection, we find the assumed constitution of an antecedently given mind appealed to in justification of the established order as to the family, the school, the government, industry, commerce, and every other institution. Our increased knowledge of the past of man, has, indeed, given this complacent assumption a certain shock; but it has not as yet seriously modified it. Evolution in the sense of a progressive unfolding of original potencies latent in a ready-made mind has been used to reconcile the conception of mind as an original datum with the historic facts of social change which can no longer be ignored. The effect on the effort at deliberate social control and construction remain the same. All man could do was to wait and watch the panorama of a ready-formed mind unroll. . . .

The new point of view treats social facts as the material of an experimental science, where the problem is that of modifying belief and desire—that is to say, mind—by enacting specific changes in the social environment. Until this experimental attitude is established, the historical method, in spite of all the proof of past change which it adduces, will remain in effect a bulwark of conservatism. For, I repeat, it reduces the rôle of mind to that of beholding and recording the operations of man after they have happened. The historic method may give emotional inspiration or consolation in arousing the belief that a lot more changes are still to happen, but it does not show man how his mind is to take part in giving these changes one direction rather than another.[5]

What is necessary for the advance of this type of social psychology are detailed studies of the organization of specific types of reaction patterns in specific types of social situations. This is,

( 80) of course, not peculiarly true of interaction social psychology, but it is peculiarly evident in its case. For, refusing to accept the current instinct basis of procedure, it is left practically only with a point of view, which has so far been used, except in a very few instances, the most notable of which is the monographic study of the Polish Peasant by Thomas and Znaniecki, as a basis for valuable constructive criticism and broad interpretation, rather than as a basis for the concrete investigation upon which its development beyond its present point must obviously depend. In this, as noted, interaction social psychology has however not been alone, for social psychology as a whole has so far concerned itself more with criticism and broad generalization, than with specific investigation, and for the most part necessarily.

These have been the leading currents of social-psychological development until the present. Recently the conditioned-reflex concept has been systematically applied in the field of social-psychological interpretation, and it is beginning to define a new departure in social psychology. In addition, attempts are being made to carry over into social psychology some of the characteristic notions and conceptions which have been worked out in the fields of psychoanalysis and cultural anthropology. Moreover, with the definite extension of psychological interest to social psychology during the last few years there has been unprecedented activity in working out the applications of general psychological theory to the field of social-psychological problems. These are all notable steps in the recent development of social psychology, but it seems necessary to repeat here what has already been said previously, namely, that what social psychology needs most at the present time is the advance of concrete and detailed investigation within its own field of operations. If social psychology is to take its place among the sciences it must begin to shift emphasis from interpretation to investigation; it must begin to view its task in terms of the development of its own factual foundations; it must begin to establish itself as an inductive procedure.

Brief and fragmentary as this survey has necessarily been, it cannot be concluded without some slight further reference to these important considerations. It is of interest to quote here in this

( 81) connection the short paragraph on social psychology which the Encyclopedia Britannica has inserted into its new Thirteenth Edition. It reads as follows:

Social psychology, largely under the influence of the writings of McDougall, and also affected to a considerable extent by modern psychopathology, has been very much to the fore. Lately attempts have been made in various directions to bring social psychology more immediately into touch with ethnology, history, and economics, and so to check its hitherto marked tendency to wide and rash generalization (New Vols., III, 256).

Not many social psychologists in this country will agree with this descriptive statement as a whole, but certainly few will take objection to the estimate of the task that is before social psychology at the present time, which it incorporates.

The broad generalization in which social psychology has engaged until now has had its place in the development of social psychology. It has tentatively mapped out the field of social psychological operations; it has crystallized points of view, defined problems, indicated issues, formulated preliminary hypotheses, theories, and principles; and developed a considerable body of literature, almost all of it of unknown scientific validity, it is true, but yet invaluable as a means of orientation and as a basis on which to proceed. Above all, it has dispossessed us of many disqualifying conceptions, and it has gradually built up a genuine appreciation of the social-psychological approach.

It has, however, precipitated a state of controversy in the field at the present time, from which there is no escape except through the slow processes of factual verification. Social psychology is inevitably, therefore, on the eve of a new era of research and investigation, of more careful procedure, and of gradual inductive reconstruction. In the factual investigation of concrete problems disagreements are resolved, co-ordinations are arrived at, syntheses are securely built up. Only in this way can social psychology begin to resolve the confusion and disagreement with which it is at present faced. And only in this way can it gradually begin to map out the secure ground from which it can proceed to the more orderly cumulative development which is the goal of every well-established science.


  1. Proceedings, International Congress of Arts and Science, V, 859.
  2. Psychological Review, XXIV (1917), 266-76.
  3. "'Are instincts Data or Hypotheses?" American Journal of Sociology, September, 1921.
  4. Human Nature and the Social Order (1922 ed.), Introduction.
  5. Psychological Review, XXIV (1917), 273-74.

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