Critique of Mainstream Social Psychology

Social constructionism (see Burr, 2015) critiques mainstream social psychology, focusing on the latter’s commitment to an inappropriate model of the person and commitment to a model of social science which arguably asks the wrong questions and is blind to key features of human life. It also raises the important issue of who sets the agenda behind the questions that are asked by the discipline, and therefore about the role of psychology in the perpetuation of social inequalities.

Social psychology has inherited the assumptions of its parent discipline, which has in turn modelled itself upon the natural sciences. The natural sciences, which study the nature of the physical world through disciplines such as biology, chemistry and physics, have developed within a positivist theoretical framework; the properties of the natural world have been explored principally through key techniques such as experimentation and observation, with an emphasis upon objectivity. As psychology emerged as a new discipline, academic respect appeared achievable through developing its own credentials as a science, and psychology therefore adopted the methods and theoretical framework of the natural sciences. A great deal of mainstream work has consequently been concerned with isolating and measuring psychological ‘variables’, and this is no less true of mainstream social psychology.

Social constructionism continues the critique of this mainstream work that began with the ‘crisis’ in social psychology in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g. Armistead, 1974). Social psychology emerged as psychologists during the Second World War in the USA and Britain were asked by their respective governments to provide knowledge about people that could help the war effort. For example, psychologists suggested ways of keeping up the morale of troops and of encouraging people to eat unpopular foods (Guthe & Mead, 1943; Hovland, Lumsdane, & Sheffield, 1949); social psychology was therefore funded by and served those in positions of power, and over the following decades it became a matter of concern to some within the discipline of social psychology that it implicitly promoted the values of dominant groups. As we discussed in the previous section, this concern with power relations is a key feature of critical social psychology and social constructionism today.

Another concern raised at this time was that the ‘voice’ of ordinary people was missing from social psychological research; mainstream, experimental researchers gathered typically quantitative data from their ‘subjects’ which they then interpreted. The participants in such research had little or no opportunity to account for their behaviour, which was typically decontextualised by the laboratory setting thus ignoring the social contexts which give behaviour its meaning. For example, Solomon Asch’s classic social psychological studies on conformity in the 1950s are often reported as demonstrating that a surprising number of people are prepared to deny the evidence of their own eyes in order not to appear to disagree with their peers. This prompted much theoretical speculation as to what kind of social influence might be operating in such a situation, and which experimental variables might be the most important factors in producing conformity.

But later attempts to replicate Asch’s studies in different populations reported very varied levels of conformity. Of particular note is a study by Perrin and Spencer (1981) in which they introduced interesting variations on the conformity research paradigm. In some of these studies, they drew their sample of experimenters, confederates and naive subjects from West Indians, Whites, probationers and probation officers. Although they had previously found very low levels of conformity in a student sample, in these variants they found similar levels of conformity to those reported by Asch when the experimenter was White and the naive subject West Indian, and when the experimenter and confederates were probation officers and the naive subject was on probation. The responses of the naive subjects in these studies seems best understood as a response to the meaning of the situation they found themselves in, a meaning grounded in the social context of their lives outside of the social psychology laboratory and one suffused with power relations.

Cherry (1995) provides an insightful and thoughtful re-consideration of the ‘bystander intervention’ research paradigm in social psychology, in her discussion of the murder of Kitty Genovese, the incident which arguably prompted research interest in this topic in the 1960s and 1970s. Second-wave feminism had begun to have an impact on psychology, and there was concern about the way that women’s experience was often distorted by research and theory. Furthermore, critical writers were keen to point out that psychology, while dressing itself as apolitical and value-free, often subtly reinforced and legitimated oppressive attitudes and practices (see later in this section).

Cherry argues that incidents such as the murder of Kitty Genovese cannot be properly understood outside of the material conditions and power relations existing in the society in which they take place. Whereas bystander research has typically presented its findings as illustrating general principles of social behaviour, Cherry locates the murder of Kitty Genovese within its cultural, racial and gendered context, re-framing it within the social problem of violence towards women. In the 1960s, when the attack took place, the widespread abuse of and violence towards women was not recognised as a social problem, and Cherry points out that many of the witnesses to the murder were reluctant to intervene in what they perceived as a ‘lovers’ quarrel’. She argues that the fact that Kitty Genovese was a White woman, and that she was killed in a middle-class area of New York, is what made the incident shocking to people. If Kitty had been Black or killed in a poor neighbourhood, her murder would not have been nearly so ‘newsworthy’.

The idea of human behaviour as intelligible only when isolated from the ‘contaminating variables’ of social life is enshrined in Floyd Allport’s (1924, p. 12) definition of social psychology: ‘The science which studies the behaviour of the individual in so far as his [sic] behaviour stimulates other individuals, or is itself a reaction to this behaviour’. Allport’s definition invites us to see people as self-contained individuals who exist prior to social life and who impact upon each other with particular effects. But for social constructionism the social context in which we live is not just a set of important variables to be taken into consideration when trying to understand behaviour. Without the social realm, people as we know them would not exist at all; we become human by virtue of taking part in social life. This view of the person as socially constituted stands in critical contrast to the individualism of the mainstream discipline. Allport’s definition may be seen as embodying an assumption about people that has been entrenched within western thinking since before psychology began and which is arguably becoming even more so. The model of human beings intrinsic to mainstream psychology and social psychology is a particularly individualistic one; it celebrates and privileges the unique, self-contained person. And the content of this individual is the stuff of psychological and social psychological research—traits, drives and motivations, attitudes and beliefs.

This individualism became part of the discipline of psychology as it developed and flourished in the early twentieth century in North America, where the individual is arguably especially celebrated (see Farr, 1996). Such individualism has resulted in, and continues to feed, a reductionist, ‘intrapsychic’ account of a number of psychological and social phenomena. We are invited to consider problems such as eating disorders and dyslexia as syndromes or illnesses contained within the individual. But social constructionism is critical of this approach, arguing that such phenomena can be best understood at the level of the social realm. Our interactions and relations with others, especially power relations, provide us with an understanding of such phenomena that is ultimately more facilitative, since the ‘psychologisation’ of such problems (see Burr & Butt, 1999) ultimately places the origin of, and therefore blame for, problems within the individual’s psyche. As in the cases of personality and health that we examined in the previous section, this ‘psychologisation’ can be seen as an example of how discourses can affect how we account for our experience and behaviour, especially when these are promoted by powerful groups such as medical professionals.

It is worth noting that this individualism is not present in the sub-discipline of social psychology that emerged from sociology, sometimes referred to as ‘sociological social psychology’ (see Farr, 1996), a body of work that has been influential in the development of social constructionism within psychology. The origins of this can, paradoxically, be traced back to the work of Wundt who set up the first psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig in 1879. Despite now being lauded as the founder of experimental psychology, Wundt believed that only some psychological phenomena were suitable for laboratory study and saw myth, religion and culture as key social factors in understanding human conduct. This focus on the social and cultural realm was taken up by George Mead at the University of Chicago. Mead had studied with Wundt and his work later became developed by Herbert Blumer as Symbolic Interactionism. The psychologist John Watson began his career as a PhD student under Mead’s supervision, but later diverged from him in his focus on behaviourism. Arguably, the split between Mead and Watson was influential in producing the parallel careers of psychological and sociological social psychology, with the psychological variety maintaining a focus on the self-contained individual and a vision of the person as analytically separable from its social context.

Psychological social psychology is committed to a vision of science that is positivist and reductionist, and it holds up the experimental paradigm as the epitome of ‘good science’. This approach brings with it a view of knowledge whereby what we come to ‘know’ through our research is assumed to build a more and more complete, a more and more accurate, picture of the world as it really is. The unwritten assumption is that psychological and social psychological research will eventually provide accurate answers to the question of how human beings function psychologically and socially. The mainstream discipline therefore makes the assumption that its knowledge is (at least ideally) good for all time and for people in all cultures.

Social constructionism challenges this assumption and argues that the individualistic model of the person that psychology assumes is in fact a very local one, both historically and culturally. It is born out of specifically western ideologies that are rooted in styles of thinking that have emerged in Europe over the last few hundred years. Increased geographical mobility in modern times has highlighted the diversity of alternative conceptualisations of per- sonhood that exist throughout the world. For example, it has been suggested that social life in some non-western cultures is much more rooted in ‘community’ and that, as a consequence, people who are part of such cultures do not conceive of or experience themselves in individualistic terms but as being in an interdependent relationship with others (see Markus & Kitayama, 1991). However, psychology has assumed a narrative of progress towards a single, accurate understanding of human functioning. For example, in Greco- Roman medicine (around 350-450 BC) people were thought to have one of four types of temperament, called the ‘four humours’. These were sanguine (optimistic, leader-like), choleric (bad-tempered or irritable), melancholic (analytical and quiet) and phlegmatic (relaxed and peaceful). The Greek physician Hippocrates believed human moods, emotions and behaviours were caused by an excess or lack of four body fluids (the humours): blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Today, such a theory is regarded as inaccurate and personality is seen in terms of traits that have a genetic basis. Our contemporary understanding is seen as more enlightened and as a product of scientific progress, although evidence for the existence of personality traits as concrete entities or structures (rather than theoretical constructs) could be said to be no greater than that for the four humours.

Psychology has responded to the historical and cultural diversity of ways of conceptualising people by incorporating them into its own narrative: other ways of thinking are mis-informed because they are not founded on the scientific evidence that we have painstakingly built. The spread of western psychology across the world and into other cultures has been regarded by critical psychologists as a form of colonisation, replacing their indigenous psychologies. Social constructionism takes a pluralist, or relativist, view which regards all other approaches to understanding people as alternative constructions. As we outlined in the previous section, from such a viewpoint there can be no accurate or ‘truthful’ account of the person; different constructions must instead be explored for how they potentially restrict or facilitate human life.

One of the key critiques of mainstream psychology and social psychology that social constructionism shares with other critical psychologists is that it engages in a kind of hypocrisy. Like the natural sciences, psychology regards itself as free from vested interests and power relations, and as apolitical; it views its research activity as producing objective ‘facts’, and its objectivity is taken to mean that such facts therefore cannot, in themselves, advantage some groups of people over others. The claim that psychology is value-free becomes questionable when one examines the assumptions lying behind its research activities. For example, the case of IQ is now well rehearsed in this respect; the measurement of the ‘trait’ of intelligence was assumed to be value-free, but we now regard the content of traditional IQ tests as reflecting the concerns and world view of White, middle-class males and it should therefore be no surprise that people lying outside of this privileged social group have often performed less well on such tests. And it need hardly be pointed out that the lower IQ performance of Black and working-class people has served to reinforce rather than challenge their relatively powerless position in society. It can therefore be claimed that psychology has routinely operated in a way that has political effects while claiming that it is apolitical and value-free.

This concern with power relations, together with the desire to include the ‘voice’ of research participants referred to earlier, has led social constructionism to radically challenge the conception of language implicit in the mainstream discipline. The ‘turn to language’ that is a key feature of social constructionism has brought a preference for qualitative research methods such as semi-structured and narrative interviews, diaries and other forms of discourse. Despite the greater use of qualitative methods within the mainstream discipline today, the mainstream retains a value system whereby quantitative methods are seen as more likely to produce ‘hard facts’, data that can objectively, reliably and accurately inform us about the nature of the social world. But since social constructionism challenges these values and rejects the notion of a single, objective truth, qualitative methods are championed as highly effective ways of gaining access to individual and socially shared constructions.

Furthermore, in its assertion that all the phenomena of social and psychological life are constructed in the course of human interaction, social constructionism radically transforms the role and status of language in social psychological research. Within the mainstream discipline, language is implicitly taken for granted rather than interrogated; our talk is assumed to unproblematically constitute a vehicle which carries our interior life, such as our thoughts, attitudes and emotions, into the social realm. When we say ‘I remember’, ‘I feel’ or ‘in my view’ it is assumed that the content of pre-existing psychological states and structures are being communicated to others via our language. Social constructionism argues that, rather than simply describing the (interior and exterior) world, language is a key site where these worlds are constructed. Social constructionist writing has therefore re-framed psychological and social psychological topics that have formed the mainstay of the research agenda for decades, such as attitudes and memory. Classic works such as Potter and Wetherell (1987) and Edwards (1997) have challenged the mainstream conception of attitudes, memories and other cognitive events, emphasising instead the constructive and performative powers of language; within this view, people are highly skilled social actors who employ language to build accounts and to perform identities that are useful for them. Other social constructionists have focused on the power of prominent discourses and texts circulating in society to create identities and subject positions which may be problematic for those individuals who are implicated in them. For example, there is a now a large stream of literature that has examined the problems women experience as leaders and managers in organisations because of how these roles are constructed through particular discourses of masculinity which valourise certain behaviours and attitudes, such as work centrality, upward mobility and presenteeism (see e.g. Mills, 1992). Not only do some women (and men) find it difficult to conform to such discourses of the ‘ideal manager’ in general (Haynes, 2012) but they also may find they are seen by others to be less professional and committed once they have a family and decide to devote more time to their non-working life (Dick, 2015).

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