A Critique of Mainstream Approaches (1): The Unexamined Pre-Assumptions of Cognitive Social Psychology

Psychology has long operated on the basis that people are self-contained (Sampson, 1989). This is the assumption of individualism. The implication is that an individual person can be considered personally and psychologically complete, and hence their essential qualities can only be revealed and understood, when they are isolated from the influence of other people and social groups. This unusual image, which effectively casts relationships as a contaminating influence, is very apparent throughout the history of social psychology, from Le Bon’s (1895) work on crowd psychology, to Asch’s (1952, 1956) seminal studies about conformity, and onto Milgram’s (1963) infamous treatment of obedience.

This same assumption has led social psychology to prioritise approaches and methods which study people in isolation, typically using experimental designs and employing a laboratory setting. It has also led personal and social relationships to be characterised as a secondary subject matter of peripheral importance and interest. It is symptomatic, for example, that the British Psychological Society only added relationships to its core curriculum around the turn of the millennium. The assumption of individualism has also wielded considerable influence outside the discipline. As Burkitt (1993, p. 1) confirms:

The view of human beings as unitary individuals who carry their uniqueness deep inside themselves...is one that is ingrained in the Western tradition of thought. It is the vision of the person as a monad., .a self-contained being whose social bonds are not primary in its existence.

At this point, it is very tempting to conclude that individualism and its associated monadic or atomistic view of the person would never have become so widespread and ingrained if they were incorrect. That’s a good point. Social psychology’s adoption of individualism as a grounding assumption was indeed strongly supported by the scientific evidence of the time and by a related disciplinary and cultural commitment to scientism. Scientism assumes the universal applicability of the scientific method and a belief that science, and only science and its findings, can ultimately deliver an authoritative, reliable, and correct view of the world. As Danziger (1990) reports, psychology’s attempts to style itself as a ‘natural science of the mental’ were heavily influenced by the triumphal progress of the science disciplines and everything revealed by this progress, at the moment social psychology committed to the assumption of individualism, had suggested that the atomistic world view was correct.

David Bohm (1998, p. 98), an eminent theoretical physicist, describes this world view and its primary implications for psychology below. It begins with the assertion that

...the world is constituted out of a tremendous number of separately existent things. Some of these things are inanimate objects, some are alive, [and] some are human beings. And to each person there is a certain special one of these things, which is himself [sic]. This ‘self’ is viewed, in the first instance, as a physical body, sharply bounded by the surface of the skin, and then as a ‘mental entity’.which is ‘within’ this physical body and which is taken to be the very essence of the individual human being. The notion of a separately existent ‘self’ thus follows as an aspect of the generally accepted metaphysics, which implies that everything is of this nature.

Once this atomistic vision was accepted across psychology, which the prevailing scientism quickly ensured, the idea of a self-contained and psychologically separate individual simply followed as an aspect of the generally accepted metaphysics. Individualism and scientism duly came to the discipline hand in hand. As Harre (1989, p. 34) describes below, these twinned assumptions have subsequently had a tremendous influence on the practice of social psychology and the explanations it has sought:

Everything relevant to the actions of a person must, it seems, [be]...found a place ‘within’.the envelope of the individual.The idea of ‘within’ is dominated by a certain model of explanation. So instead of describing human customs and practices, psychologists have looked for (or imagined) mechanisms. Instead of ascribing to people the skills necessary for performing correctly, they have assigned hidden states.

This short extract provides an excellent critical depiction of the psychological- centred approach to social psychology. Where this approach has wielded its influence, the importance of the socio-cultural context, human customs and practices have been all but ignored as a potential means of explaining human behaviour and action. To put it bluntly, the social context has been rendered meaningless. This has occurred because, as we described earlier, the psychologically centred approach necessarily considers such social or interpersonal processes to be secondary effects. They are derivative phenomena which have been created or caused by a series of intrapersonal and psychological mechanisms (entities, representations, or hidden states) hypothesised to exist ‘within the envelope’ of the individual person. Attitudes, traits, schema, personalities, emotions, and so on are all examples of the psychological mechanisms that cognitive psychologists have imagined and/or reified into being to serve this explanatory function and to account for people’s actions (Stainton Rogers et al., 1995).

The above arguments demonstrate why mainstream social psychology is now also known by the names cognitive social psychology and/or social cognition. It is because the psychological-centred approach is characterised by a self-confessed and ‘unabashed mentalism’ (Fiske & Taylor, 2013, p. 16). This mentalism has led cognitive social psychologists to prioritise the domain of mental representations and structures it has imagined—through which individual people are assumed to ‘make sense of other people and themselves in order to coordinate with their social world’ (Fiske & Taylor, 2013, p. 16)—and to see this cognitive domain, rather than the coordination itself, as the primary focus of social-psychological study. As Fiske and Taylor (2013, p. 18) confirm, in the eyes of social cognition, ‘social psychology has always been cognitive’.

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