Configuring the Individual in Social Psychology

The individual-centred model of social psychology often is paired with internalism. Loosely speaking, internalism is the presumption that people’s thoughts, actions, and feelings are based in or caused by factors that are internal to the person. Following from that premise, it is possible to theorize human behaviour without reference to anything outside the boundary of the individual (Wilson, 2004). Differences between people, then, are attributed to putative internal characteristics, without reference to the social or cultural surround.

In psychology, internalism often leads researchers to search for and posit inner characteristics of people who inhabit a particular social category. In some instances, such an individualist bias has led researchers to take the stance that Crawford and Marecek (1989) called “Women As Problem”. For example, when women first gained entry into prestigious positions in the workforce, they were said to suffer from the Impostor Phenomenon, to subconsciously “fear success”, and to be ignorant of the “secrets” of career success. Such claims belaboured the presumed internal deficiencies of women; in doing so, they distracted attention from disadvantageous conditions of work, such as patterns of exclusion, sexual harassment, or demeaning treatment. Moreover, claims of deficiencies in women often rest on a false homogeneity: they assert that all women share the same personality traits.

An individualist frame of reference often leads to holding individuals responsible for social inequities. If people are seen as self-determining, they are presumed to have freely chosen the circumstances they are in. A good example is the landmark lawsuit brought by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against a large retailer, Sears, Roebuck and Co., in 1986 (Jellison, 1987; Riger, 1988). Sears admitted to funnelling women into low-paid sales jobs, reserving the better-paying jobs for men. In the courtroom, Sears offered expert testimony that women were not interested in well-paying jobs: they supposedly preferred jobs that did not interfere with their family responsibilities, disliked the pressure of working on a commission basis, and were uninterested in selling “traditionally male” products (like plumbing, furniture, furnaces, and automotive supplies). The expert for the EEOC disputed these claims. She drew on the historical record to show that what are mistakenly regarded as women’s “choices” are in fact determined by the opportunities available to them.

Another example is the question that seems never to die: Why do women stay in (or return to) intimate relationships that are physically abusive? Some psychologists have suggested that such women have developed “learned helplessness” or “Battered Women’s Syndrome” (a putative mental disorder). Explanations like these are surely an improvement over earlier allusions to female masochism and Masochistic Personality Disorder. However, a critical feminist approach shifts the focus from inner deficits in women to features of the larger social and cultural context in which the woman and her violent partner live. These include material circumstances and lack of resources; family, religious, and community pressures on women to remain married, especially if they have children; and fears of violent retaliation by the abuser and members of his family. An even broader social analysis might examine structural features—related to class, ethnicity, and migration status, for example—such as lack of affordable housing; limited access to legal resources; inadequate police protection; stigma; and social isolation (Melbin, Sullivan, & Cain, 2003; Radtke, 2009).

On a more general level, feminists have taken issue with the individualist notion of untrammelled free choice. All choices, they argue, are constrained by the context in which they are presented. That context limits the range of options available and it governs the costs and consequences associated with those options. The options for people in privileged social positions likely differ from the options for less privileged people. Further, the meanings associated with various choices reflect the norms and values of the community of which an individual is part.

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