Reductionism means that complex principles can be reduced to simpler or more fundamental principles. Social psychologists often oppose reductionism and emphasize instead the social context that surrounds the individual. There are two basic types of reductionism: psychological and methodological.
One can often identify reductionism with the mind-body problem, which is the question about the relationship between mental and physiological processes. Psychological reductionism is the idea that one can completely explain the human psyche by breaking it down into several general principles. Social reductionism explains social events in terms of the qualities of the individuals who are involved. For example, a social reductionist would explain the aggression of a football crowd by saying that it is made up of aggressive individuals, whereas another explanation might be that when you take ordinary, non-aggressive people and place in them in a certain social context, they act as an aggressive group.
Proponents of the neuronal reductionism argue that thoughts and feelings consist simply of electrical or chemical changes in the brain, whereas proponents of genetic reductionism argue that genes alone determine human behavior. Reductionism in social psychology also tries to explain social psychological group processes by looking at individual differences (e.g., type A personality) rather than at contextual factors (e.g., frustrations).
Sociobiology embraces several reductionistic approaches to explain human behavior. Some social psychologists, however, argue that breaking psychological processes to individual, neuronal, or genetic levels disregards meaningful information about the social context and history of an individual. The constant tension between those who emphasize basic principles and those who emphasize social context has led to divergent streams of investigation throughout history.
Methodological reductionism deals with the selection of one theory among other competing theories. All other things being equal, the best theory is the most parsimonious one. Methodological reduction-ism is often identified with Ockham’s razor (named after William of Ockham), which proposes that if competing theories have equal predictive powers, you should choose the one that makes the fewest assumptions, shaving off those theories that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis.
In the recent past, there has been a movement within social psychology toward an interactionist approach, which acknowledges the interaction of individual factors (e.g., brain activity, genetics) with the social factors. For instance, social neuroscience proposes the multilevel analysis of psychological factors, trying to combine psychobiological knowledge with social psychological knowledge. This idea is different from the traditional reductionism, in which lower-level processes replace upper-level social processes.
In general, one can also see the current tendency toward using multiple methods in social psychology as an effort to bring together sociobiological knowledge with the knowledge gained through the traditional experiments or surveys.
- Ariew, R. (1976). Ockham’s razor: A historical and philosophical analysis of Ockham s principle of parsimony. Urbana: University of Illinois.
- Berntson, G. G., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2004). Multilevel analyses and reductionism: Why social psychologists should care about neuroscience and vice versa. In J. T. Cacioppo & G. G. Berntson (Eds.), Essays in social neuroscience (pp. 107-120). Cambridge: MIT Press.