Sociological Social Psychology

Sociological Social Psychology Definition

Although most social psychologists are psychologists working in psychology departments, an important minority are sociologists working in sociology departments. The two groups share an interest in many of the same research problems, but their approaches are distinct. Psychological social psychology tend to focus on the single person, on how an individual’s perceptions of a social situation affect how she or he thinks, feels, and behaves in that situation. Sociological social psychology, however, tend to focus on the relationship between the individual and larger social systems (e.g., society). Beyond this general orientation, however, sociological social psychology consists of a diverse set of perspectives and theories. Most often, sociologists distinguish between two major variants of sociological social psychology—symbolic interaction-ism and social structure and personality—though an emerging third variant has come to be called structural social psychology.

Sociological Social Psychology History and Background

Symbolic Interactionism

Sociological Social PsychologySymbolic interactionism is itself a diverse variant of sociological social psychology, the rise of which is connected with the emergence of American sociology in the early part of the 20th century, largely because of George Herbert Mead’s ideas concerning the self-society relationship. At the core of Mead’s theorizing is the idea that society gives rise to the self, the self in turn influences behavior, and behavior acts back to maintain society, though emergent behavioral patterns may also promote societal change.

Toward the mid-20th century, symbolic interactionism split into two different strands, often referred to as the Chicago School and the Iowa School. Although both claimed inspiration from Mead’s ideas on self and society, the two schools make different assumptions about the nature of the individual, the nature of interaction, and the nature of society. Consequently, the two schools offer contrasting views regarding the kinds of empirical and theoretical methods that are appropriate for sociological analysis.

The Chicago School

After Mead’s death in 1931, a version of his work was carried on at the University of Chicago by his student Herbert Blumer, who posthumously published Mead’s lecture notes and is credited with coining the phrase symbolic interactionism. Blumer’s interactionism emphasizes the ever-changing, chameleon-like nature of the self and its tentative role in social interaction (i.e., the self is only one object among many objects that can influence a person’s behavior in a situation). Accordingly, Blumer viewed social interaction as largely unpredictable, and society as carefully balanced, infinitely alterable, and thus full of potential for change. As such, Blumer advocated explorative methodologies and inductive theory-building as a means of achieving an interpretive understanding of social life.

The Iowa School

An alternative view of Mead’s interactionism was developed by Manford Kuhn, who taught at the State University of Iowa from 1946 until his death in 1963. Compared with Blumer, Kuhn saw far more constancy in the self, arguing that people have a core self (i.e., a set of stable meanings toward themselves) arising from the social roles they occupy. According to Kuhn, the core self constrains a person: Each person experiences social reality and chooses behaviors in line with his or her core self across situations. Thus, Kuhn viewed social interaction as highly patterned and predictable, and society as a relatively stable place relating people in role networks. Accordingly, Kuhn argued on behalf of developing deductive theories from which predictions about human behavior could be formed and subsequently tested. Toward this effort, Kuhn developed the now-famous Twenty Statements Test in 1950, which within a few years became a popular research tool used for assessment of the core self. In this test, respondents are asked to provide 20 responses to the statement, “Who am I?”

Recent Advances

Major developments in modern symbolic interactionism represent ongoing efforts to translate Mead’s ground-breaking yet vague ideas about self and society into testable claims. Central to some of these noteworthy efforts is the concept of identity, which refers to the components of the self containing the specific meanings that individuals assign to themselves because of the roles they occupy in society. Modern theories of identity fall under two distinct (though not competing) approaches. The structural approach, represented by the pioneering work of Sheldon Stryker and his colleagues, focuses on how social structures shape identities that, in turn, influence social behavior. Cognitive approaches, represented by Peter Burke’s identity control theory and David Heise’s affect control theory, focus on the psychological mechanisms that affect how individuals express identities in social interaction. One important similarity between Burke’s theory and Heise’s theory is that both offer a “control systems” view of the relationship between identities and behavior. In other words, identity meanings work like a temperature setting in a thermostat. When a room gets too cool, the thermostat tells the furnace to turn on and heat the room to the desired temperature. Similarly, if a person receives feedback from the environment (i.e., from others) that is not consistent with meanings associated with an identity, then the person will change her or his behavior to try to bring feedback into line with the identity.

An important difference between Burke’s identity control theory and Heise’s affect control theory, however, concerns the assumptions each makes about what people strive to control. Burke’s view is more individualistic: People behave in ways that confirm their own self meanings. For example, a person who thinks of herself or himself as a bright student will behave in ways (e.g., working hard, striving to achieve excellent grades, participating frequently) to produce social feedback from others (parents, teachers, classmates) that confirms this self-view. By contrast, Heise argues that people behave in ways to create situations that confirm not only their own self meanings but also the meanings of other objects in the situation, including other people. Thus when a bright student interacts with a hardworking teacher in a classroom, each is motivated to behave toward the other in a manner that creates a socially appropriate situation for these identities in this particular context (i.e., the classroom). In this respect, Heise’s theory is consistent with Blumer’s view that the self is only one object that influences social behavior. Yet Heise’s theorizing, unlike Blumer’s, shows how behavior can nonetheless be predicted amid such incredible social complexity.

Social Structure and Personality

Social structure and personality shares many of symbolic interactionism’s general ideas and concerns, yet it has traditionally emphasized how societal features influence many different aspects of people’s individual lives. In this perspective, individuals are viewed as occupying different positions in a society. The relationships among the positions characterize the system’s social structure. Social-structural positions place individuals in different social networks (including family, friendship, and coworker networks), involve specific expectations for behavior, and convey different levels of power and prestige. In turn, these features of social-structural positions affect their occupants in numerous ways. Social structure and personality studies have shown how the positions that people occupy in society (e.g., in terms of factors such as their occupational roles, gender, race, and relationship status) determine a variety of outcomes, including physical and mental health, involvement in criminal behavior, personal values, and status attainment. Mark Hayward at the University of Texas Population Center has conducted fascinating research showing that social conditions in childhood (such as socioeconomic status, whether the child grew up with both biological parents or in another type of family structure, whether the child’s mother worked outside the home, etc.) affect age of death in adulthood. In recent years, however, analyses of social structure and personality have begun to place more emphasis on how individuals can influence societal patterns and trends. The actions of members of disadvantaged groups can sometimes lead to societal-level changes in the distribution of power, prestige, and privileges. A classic example is that of Rosa Louise McCauley Parks, an African American woman whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a White passenger in 1955 eventually led to the overturning of racial segregation laws across the United States. Indeed, Congress awarded Parks the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal in 1999, recognizing that she is widely hailed as the first lady of civil rights and the mother of the freedom movement.

Structural Social Psychology

Structural social psychology is an emerging variant of sociological social psychology that is similar to symbolic interactionism and social structure and personality in its recognition that social structures influence social interaction, and that social interaction perpetuates and sometimes leads to changes in social structure. However, the most distinctive and controversial feature of structural social psychology is its minimalist view of individuals. Although, for example, some social structure and personality researchers have called for richer, more detailed descriptions of individuals (incorporating a wide range of personality attributes, personal interests, goals, desires, etc.), structural social psychological theories stress just the opposite: Only those qualities of individual actors thought to be relevant to a specific theoretical question ought to be included. The guiding principle of this approach is what is referred to as scientific parsimony. That is, structural social psychologists aim to develop general theories that explain as much as possible while employing as few concepts and assumptions as possible. In contrast to a “more is better” ambition, structural social psychologists advocate a “less is more” approach. Major theories in this tradition include (but are not limited to) Joseph Berger and colleagues’ expectation states theory, Noah Friedkin’s social influence network theory, Barry Markovsky’s multilevel theory of distributive justice, and Barry Markovsky and colleagues’ network exchange theory.

An especially promising aspect of structural social psychological theorizing is its compatibility with agent-based modeling (ABM), the most recent approach to designing computer simulations of complex phenomena. Using what is called a bottom-up strategy, ABMs illustrate how complex system-level patterns emerge from the coordinated behaviors of actors assumed to follow very simple interaction rules (i.e., minimalist actors). For example, Craig Reynolds from Sony Corporation developed a now-famous ABM called boids that shows how complex and elegant flocking formations exhibited by birds in the real world are produced by computer-simulated birds that follow just three simple collision-avoidance rules. ABMs are now being used to model emergent complex patterns of human social behavior, including crowd behavior, cooperation, learning, and social influence. ABMs and structural social psychology have much to gain from one another. ABMs currently stress how complex social patterns and structures emerge from individual behavior, whereas structural social psychological theories have tended to emphasize (though not by necessity) the opposite (i.e., how social structures influence individual behavior). In the future, the two will realize their full potential by drawing from one another’s strengths.

Sociological Social Psychology Implications

What do we make of the diversity of approaches to social psychology within the field of sociology? On one hand, the diverse character of sociological social psychology (and of sociology more generally) may in part indicate a lack of shared standards for developing and testing theories, which, as Barry Markovsky has argued in various places, lends itself to the creation of nebulous theories that lack true explanatory power. On the opposing hand, one might argue that the wide variety of approaches in sociological social psychology may reflect the diverse and multifaceted nature of the social phenomena under investigation, so theoretical and methodological differences ought to be tolerated, if not appreciated and cultivated. Resolution of this ongoing debate is perhaps one of the most important tasks facing sociology today.


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