Social Psychology Theories

The breadth and range of contemporary social psychology theories reflects the diverse intellectual origins of the various perspectives and approaches. Early discussions of social psychology focused on these distinctive intellectual origins by highlighting the differences between psychological and sociological social psychology. This representation of the field has been critiqued for its perpetuation of artificial boundaries that overlook significant connections between the shared subject matter of sociology and psychology. In 1980 Sheldon Stry ker articulated three ‘‘faces’’ of social psychology: psychological social psychology, sociological social psychology, and symbolic interactionism.

While each perspective represents unique theoretical ideas, they also inform one another and serve to create a comprehensive understanding of individual interactions and how they impact on the groups to which we belong as well as the environments in which group interactions occur. All three perspectives share a focus on the individual and individual interactions as the explanatory factor for all aspects of social life, such as the creation of stable group structures and the formation of successful social movements. The three theoretical perspectives in social psychology, known more generally as cognitive and intrapersonal, symbolic interactionist, and structural, each represent different origins and intellectual affiliations and maintain a focus on different aspects of the individual and society.

Social Psychology Theories

Cognitive and Intrapersonal Social Psychology

Social Psychology TheoriesCognitive and intrapersonal social psychology originated with the work of experimental psychologists in Germany such as Wilhelm Wundt in the mid nineteenth century and focuses on understanding how internal processes affect an individual’s ability to interact with others. The internal processes most studied in this perspective are cognitive (memory, perception, and decision making) and physiological (chemical and neural activity). Each approach examines a different aspect of how interactions are affected by these internal processes. The underlying basis of the cognitive and intrapersonal approach centers on how individuals store information in the brain in the form of schemas. Schemas represent the way in which people identify objects in their environment by labeling them, which then allows the objects to be categorized. The use of schemas allows individuals to process billions of bits of information from the environment, which then enables them to easily engage in interactions. The more accurate individuals’ understanding of any given social situation, as determined by how well they label and categorize it based on information from the environment, the more successful and easy will be the interaction. The cognitive and physiological approaches in this perspective explore different aspects of the impact of schemas on interactions.

The cognitive approach examines how brain activity specifically associated with memory, perception, and decision making processes affects an individual’s ability to understand the information necessary for engaging in successful interactions. Additionally, this approach also explores how variations in cognitive processes lead to differences in individuals’ ability to interact. The study of memory examines how people categorize events, situations, and others they have encountered previously, helping researchers understand the type of schema constructed and used in particular groups, cultures, and settings. Studying memory allows researchers to directly explore the connection between interactions and how they are labeled. Take as an example a person entering a room and observing two people interacting with each other. If she labels and categorizes the interaction as a romantic interlude between lovers, she is less likely to interrupt than if the interaction is labeled and categorized as a conversation between co workers. Further, if the person entering the room identifies and labels one of the actors as a close friend, her interactions with the two people will be different than if they were simply co workers. Theoretical ideas associated with understanding schemas and memory include stereotypes (the actual categories used in labeling people and situations) and self fulfilling prophecy (where we act in such a manner as to confirm our initial impressions of people). In studying perception, researchers are interested in exploring how people’s interpretation of information from the environment affects their interactions with others. The study of perception examines the meanings individuals associate with the categories in which events, situations, and people are placed. Key theoretical ideas associated with this approach to studying interactions from a cognitive social psychological perspective include the attributions people make when judging others’ actions and the outcomes of those actions, and the errors in the attributions people make. Finally, decision making research explores how schemas, memories, and perceptions contribute to the ways in which people make decisions ranging from what to wear in the morning to the level of risk they are willing to take in any situation. The decisions made directly impact whether or not an individual is willing to interact with one person as opposed to another, as well as the quality of the interactions that do occur.

While the cognitive approach examines those internal processes that impact on whether or not an interaction will occur as well as the quality of the interaction once it does occur, the physiological approach explores the ways that specific biological and chemical processes affect individuals’ ability to create adequate and useful schemas, use their memory, perceive things accurately, and then make relevant decisions. The physiological approach in the cognitive and intrapersonal perspective is not normally included in discussions about social psychology, as at first glance its theoretical focus does not directly relate to social interactions. However, recent developments in this approach link it much more closely with the cognitive approach, thereby warranting its inclusion in this discussion. Cognitive and behavioral psychologists, along with neuroscientists, have conducted what are called ‘‘animal studies’’ for over 100 years. The goal of such research is to more accurately explain how particular chemical and biological processes directly impact on cognitive function ing. Technology is now allowing physiologically based researchers in psychology, neuroscience, and sociology to measure and examine the relationship between these chemical and biological processes and associated actions and interactions in humans. Early research in this area focused on non human species due to the ethical issues associated with human experimentation. Newer technologies, such as the portable electroence phalogram (EEG) and the functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI), allow researchers to study neural and chemical responses to individuals’ actions and interactions. The implication is that such technologies will allow social psychologists to more accurately and directly measure social interaction.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism originated from the work of George Herbert Mead and his students at the University of Chicago as well as the work of pragmatic philosophers. While Mead was formally associated with the psychology and philosophy departments at the University of Chicago, his classes on social psychology and social philosophy attracted a large number of students from the fledgling sociology department. One of the sociology students, Herbert Blumer, coined the term symbolic interactionism and other sociology students were instrumental in publishing Mead’s ideas, after his death, concerning the individual. These ideas center on his discussions of the mind (what makes humans uniquely social creatures), self (how we become uniquely social creatures), and society (how our interactions are affected by social institutions). Mead wrote extensively about issues concerning more macro level social phenomena such as the role of government in funding education and the role of education for socialization, but he is mainly recognized for his contributions to symbolic interactionism. Generally, the symbolic interactionist perspective in social psychology focuses on studying the meanings that underlie social interactions in terms of how they are created, how they are maintained, and how we learn to understand such meanings. Additionally, theorists writing within this perspective argue that individual interactions lead to the creation of formal social organizations and social institutions. Therefore, to understand society, it is necessary to understand the interactions that shape it and maintain it. There are three main theoretical approaches in the symbolic interactionist perspective, symbolic interactionism, phenomenological, and life course, each of which examines different aspects of these meanings and the self on which they are derived.

The symbolic interactionism approach is most closely related to Mead’s original ideas concerning social psychology and focuses on exploring how meanings are created and maintained within social interactions with the self as the basis for such interactions. The underlying theme of this approach is that individuals create and manage meanings through the roles and identities they hold. It is important to note that each individual holds any number of roles and identities, depending on the people with whom they interact as well as the environment in which they find themselves. Classical symbolic interactionist studies include the work of Herbert Blumer, Charles Horton Cooley, and Manford Kuhn. Blumer elaborated on Mead’s discussion of the social self examining itself as an object outside the individual, while Cooley focused on explaining the process in which the self recognizes itself as an object. Kuhn’s discussions explored different dimensions of the self as a way of explaining individuals’ ability to take on a variety of identities, depending on the situation and the other actors involved. Contemporary developments of these ideas are found in the work of Erving Goffman, Peter Burke, Sheldon Stryker, and their associates and students. Goffman’s discussion of dramaturgy and the presentation of self, among other ideas, examined the ways in which individuals identified the role held in any particular interaction and the expectations associated with that role. Stryker and others explored how roles are linked to individuals’ identity and how meaningful these identities are to people. Burke and associates proposed a more formal theore tical explanation of how different parts of the self are associated with specific identities people hold.

The phenomenological approach originated from European sociology and philosophy, emphasizing the meanings themselves and how such meanings reflect unstated normative expectations for interactions. The underlying theme of this approach is that language, verbal and non verbal, represents the informal and formal rules and norms that guide social interactions and structure society. The early work in phenomenology, as represented by the ideas of Alfred Schutz and Harold Garfinkel, differen tiated between different aspects of how people create social reality as well as operate within already existing social reality. Schutz examined how language and communication represented an intersubjective process of reality creation and maintainance, while Garfinkel explored how people managed reality through the development of ethnomethodology. Contemporary developments of phenomenology are found in the work of theorists such as Howard Becker, Peter Berger, and Douglas Maynard. Through a series of studies, Becker explored the way individuals’ interpretations of social interactions and social experiences reflect their own experiences and unspoken norms for behavior. Berger, along with Thomas Luckmann, is considered the American introduction to Schutz’s ideas and phenomenology. Equally important, Berger and Luckmann also clearly demonstrated how everyday interactions and language create seemingly formidable social institutions and organizations. Finally, Maynard further developed ethnomethodology by focusing on conversation analysis as a way of understanding how social talk creates and represents reality.

The life course approach in symbolic interactionism focuses on how humans learn the meanings associated with interactions through out their lifetime and the stages that reflect such learning processes. The underlying theme of this approach is that the norms, rules, and values that guide interactions and shape society change throughout individuals’ lives, especially as they move into different social positions and environments. As a relatively newer approach in the symbolic interactionist perspective in terms of identifying as a unique approach, the key ideas can be traced to Mead’s discussion about socialization and Georg Simmel’s ideas about interactions within and between groups. Mead explained how humans become uniquely social creatures in his lectures about the self, where he describes a three stage process (preparatory, play, and game) for humans to learn the norms, rules, and values of the group into which they are born. He argued that by the end of this process, people will have a fully developed self. Simmel’s discussions concerning interactions and groups examined how individuals’ interactions with one another changed as group size, group composition, and social environment changed. Contemporary theorists such as Glenn Elder, Roberta Simmons, and Dale Dannefer, and their students and colleagues, build on these ideas in similar ways. First, the contemporary approaches assume that socialization is a lifelong process that changes as individuals change. Second, theorists in the approach examine both individual level factors and societal factors that contribute to the socialization process. Elder has focused on how socialization is consistent across cohorts of people, varying only in qualitative aspects related to differences in environments and resources. Simmons has examined how the socialization process itself varies depending on individuals’ stage in life, and Dannefer has explored the ways in which groups with which people are associated play an important role in their continuing socialization throughout life.

Structural Social Psychology

Structural social psychology originated with the work of economists, psychologists, and sociologists interested in explaining social interactions more formally and mathematically with the goal of creating testable hypotheses. Structural social psychology assumes that social actors are driven by rational concerns centered on maximizing rewards and minimizing punishments. Another related assumption is that interactions based on rational calculations result in formally structured individual, group, and institutional interactions. This approach is related to cognitive and intrapersonal social psychology in the focus on developing formal theories to explain interactions and creating specific hypotheses for testing in experimental situations. More contemporary work in structural social psychology uses more diverse methods such as survey research and participant observation techniques. There are three main theoretical programs that represent this approach: power, exchange, and bargaining studies; social influence and authority studies; and status characteristics, expectation states theory, and social network studies. Each set of studies focuses on different aspects of describing and explaining the underlying structure of social interactions.

Power, exchange, and bargaining studies explore how social interactions can be described as exchanges between social actors with the assumption that individuals rationally calculate the costs and benefits associated with any particular interaction. Exchange studies began with the work of George Homans, Richard Emerson, and Peter Blau. Homans argued that interactions can be better understood as exchanges whereby actors engaged in interactions that brought specific benefits. His work also explored how the need for such exchanges leads to equilibrium between actor and the idea of distributive justice. Blau further specified this work by focusing on the social aspects of such exchanges in terms of how they rely on trust between actors that each person will fulfill his or her unspecified obligations. While Homans, Blau, and others discussed that power arises out of exchanges and that power is not necessarily equally distributed among actors, Emerson and his colleagues specifically explored the development of power, how it is managed by actors, and how power differentiation affects the possibility of future exchanges. More contemporary work building on these ideas is bargain ing studies, which specifies how different types of power differentiation affect the bargaining that then leads to actual exchanges. Lawler and colleagues explored the type of bargaining that occurs prior to exchanges, as well as how differing levels of power among participants affect such bargaining. Molm and her colleagues examined how exchanges varied based on inequality of participants and the availability of other sources and actors.

The second set of studies that can be categorized under the structural social psychology perspective focuses on social influence and authority. The underlying theme of these studies is that there are several factors that encourage people to be influenced by others, including the status or position others hold in comparison to themselves and group encouragement of conformity. The classic studies in social influence include Stanley Milgram’s research that examined the effect an authority figure in a position of power has on individual compliance. Milgram found that individuals overwhelmingly obeyed requests to complete a task that ostensibly required hurting another person. Seymour Asch’s studies of group conformity demonstrated that individuals willingly change their answer or opinion when a majority in the group indicates a different answer or opinion. Contemporary ideas build on this base by examining the varying conditions under which compliance to authority occurs, and to what degree others can influence attitude change.

Status characteristics, expectation states, and social network studies examine how social interactions are based on socially and culturally derived expectations for behavior that people have of one another. These socially and culturally derived expectations are associated with assumed predictions concerning how success fully any individual will contribute to an exchange, or interaction, process. These predictions then determine which individuals are likely to be given the most opportunities for interaction and influence in a group. Originating with the work of Berger, Zelditch, and associates, status characteristics theory explicitly identifies two main types of social characteristics that have expectations for behavior associated with them – diffuse (such as race, gender, class, and ableness) and specific status characteristics (such as job experience, education, and relevant skills) – and it is usually associated with groups working toward achieving specific goals. Expectation states theory argues that those people who hold diffuse and specific status characteristics evaluated as more likely to successfully contribute to achieving group goals will be given a greater number of opportunities for interaction as well as greater social influence among other group members. More to the point, theorists argue, and have successfully demonstrated, that specific and stable hierarchical group structures develop based on these expectations. Contemporary work in this area includes specifying the degree to which different status characteristics affect expectations as well as how such expectations develop and whether actors perceive that such expectations are just. Social network theory and elementary theory build on the ideas of these different approaches in structural social psychology by specifically examining how an actor’s position, relative to another, affects social influence processes as well as the stability of group structure. The underlying assumption of social network theory is that social influence, power, and bargaining are all affected by the way in which actors are networked to one another. Markovsky, Willer, Cook, and their students and associates examine different aspects of how actors are connected to one another and how that affects other social processes.

As the above discussion indicates, the three theoretical approaches in social psychology all examine different aspects of individuals, their interactions, and how their interactions affect groups. Cognitive and intrapersonal social psychology focuses on internal processes that impact whether, and how successfully, interactions occur among people. The insights provided by this perspective help to explain how actors create meanings concerning interactions that then lead to the creation and maintenance of specific social institutions and organizations, as discussed by symbolic interactionists. Finally, structural social psychologists examine how the fluid interactions of symbolic life create formal group structures that then impact on people’s interactions.


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