Configuring the Social in Social Psychology

Many contemporary strains of social psychology rest on narrow definitions of the “social”. Gordon Allport, one of the founding fathers of social psychology in North America, offered perhaps the narrowest definition. In the opening chapter of the first Handbook of Social Psychology, Allport wrote that “social psychology understand(s) and explain(s) how the thought, feeling and behaviour of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of other human beings” (Allport, 1954, p. 5). Allport’s chapter, with this definition, was reprinted in the 1969 and 1985 editions of the Handbook. Today, many social psychologists construe the “social” as nothing more than collections of individuals, each acting independently in accord with his or her inner capacities and interests. For example, social psychologists who study group processes often use laboratory simulations that bring together a small set of strangers who take part in a brief interaction contrived by the experimenter, and then disband with no chance of further interaction.

Configuring the “social” so narrowly ignores at least three elements important to feminists. The first is the myriad of enduring and intertwining social ties that exist in real-life groups, such as families, couples, and friendships. Such groups are bound by affinity, they share a history and a future, and their members have mutual obligations towards one another. In those ways, these groups are quite different than a group of strangers in a brief laboratory encounter. The second aspect is the need to study group processes and relationships in everyday settings. For example, feminists have studied negotiations between members of heterosexual couples about sharing household work and childcare (e.g., Magnusson, 2005); they have studied the interactions that lead to coercive heterosexual encounters (e.g., Gavey, 1992), and they have studied how young women and men portray themselves on social media (e.g., Dobson, 2014). These social relations are a far cry from the scripted, highly artificial situations contrived by experimenters. Third, feminists insist on expanding the definition of the “social” to include the “societal”. That is, feminists insist that the proper study of social life needs to take into account the social institutions that structure public and private life, the political economy, the structures of power and privilege, and cultural ideologies and norms.

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