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Sociological social psychology, also known as psychological sociology, is a specialist area of sociology that focuses on micro-scale social actions, closely aligned with symbolic interactionism. Theory in this area may be described as adhering to "sociological miniaturism", examining whole societies through the study of individual thought processes and emotional behaviours.[1] Of special concern to psychological sociologists is how to explain a variety of demographic, social, and cultural facts in terms of human social interaction. Some of the major topics in this field are social inequality, group dynamics, social change, socialization, and social identity. Social psychology may be taught with psychological emphasis.



The discipline of social psychology began at the start of the twentieth century. A list of landmark moments would have to include the publication of Charles Horton Cooley's "Human Nature and Social Order" in 1902. Cooley's effort sought to explain the social order by use of the concept of a looking glass self, and to explain the notion of the self as essentially the same as the notion of "society".[2]

The first textbooks in social psychology would be published six years later by E. A. Ross and William McDougall.[3] The former approached the topic from a sociological standpoint, and the latter from a psychological one. The first major journal in social psychology would be the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1922 (later Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).[2]

McDougall himself did not have a grand vision for social psychology, and by default regarded it as a subfield of psychology (albeit an eminently useful one).[4] For a period during the early- to mid-twentieth century, social psychology was conceived as an interdisciplinary effort, capable of addressing those issues which psychologists and sociologists had in common. However, the tide turned sharply against these interdisciplinarians, as many of those research bodies which had attempted to find common intellectual ground broke down under the strain of various academic pressures. As a result, social psychology was bifurcated into two traditions: those allied with psychology who sought to explain how the minds of individuals are influenced by social factors, and those allied with sociology who understood human action as being embedded in (and determined largely by) a rich network of human relationships.

Today, for better or worse, the sociological and psychological traditions of social psychology maintain relatively little contact with one another. Sociological social psychologists tend to publish in Social Psychology Quarterly (formerly Sociometry), while psychological social psychologists publish elsewhere. Also, sociological social psychologists usually are members of the social psychology section of the American Sociological Association (ASA), while psychological social psychologists belong to other organizations.

A fair body of fruitful research exists in sociological social psychology. The great emphasis many American psychological social psychologists have placed on intraindividual processes has distinguished them from many non-U.S. social psychologists. In many areas, sociological social psychologists have demonstrated greater collaboration and complementary theoretical interests with psychological social psychologists in other English speaking countries.

In subject matter, sociological social psychology continues to draw upon neighboring social sciences like psychological social psychology and micro-economics, as well as upon social philosophy, while maintaining its own approaches to investigation.

Traditional schools

There are three major traditions in sociological social psychology: symbolic interactionism, social cognition, and social exchange theory.[5] Although they are not mutually exclusive, these traditions have tended to provide the main theoretical orientations by which scientists have treated social research.


Symbolic interactionism

Symbolic interactionism (or SI) is a sociological tradition originating out of the ideas of George Herbert Mead and Max Weber. The symbolic interactionists emphasize that human life is governed by meaningful interactions between persons. There are two major schools of SI: Structural SI and Process SI. Structural SI uses shared social knowledge from a macro-level (i.e., at the level of the organization and institution) to explain relatively static patterns of social interaction and psychology at the micro-level. Structural SI researchers tend to use quantitative methods. Identity Theory[6] and Affect Control Theory[7] grew out of this tradition. By contrast, Process SI stems from the Second Chicago School and views social interactions to be constant flux, studying it without reference to a larger social structure. Process SI researchers tend to use qualitative and ethnographic methods.

Social exchange

Social exchange theory emphasizes the idea that social action is the result of personal choices made by considering relative benefits and costs. The theory of social exchange predicts that people will make choices with the intention of maximizing benefits. A key component of this theory is the postulation of the "comparison level of alternatives", which is the actor's sense of the best possible alternative (i.e., the choice with the highest benefits relative to costs).[2]

In this sense, theories of social exchange share many essential features with classical economic theories like rational choice theory. However, social exchange theories differ from economic theories by making predictions about the relationships between persons, and not just the evaluation of goods. For example, social exchange theories have been used to predict human behavior in romantic relationships by taking into account each actor's subjective sense of costs (i.e., volatility, economic dependence), benefits (i.e., attraction, chemistry, attachment), and comparison level of alternatives (i.e., if any viable alternative mates are available).[2]

Major theories and concepts

Expectation states theory

The expectation states family of theories was developed by Joseph Berger and colleagues to explain differences in power and prestige in task groups. The theory argues that individuals make use of any information available to them to create performance expectations for other actors. The theory argues that status characteristics (race, sex, age, etc.) become imbued with status value in social interaction, which inform performance expectations as follows: Perceived higher valued states of salient characteristics are more valued in task groups. As a result of these expectation states, actors behave 'as if' the characteristics used in making the performance expectations have a direct bearing on a collective task.

Social inequality

Power-dependence theory, as it was first formulated by Richard Emerson, is one offshoot of the social exchange perspective. It postulated that the power-relationships between individuals could be measured according to the differing needs and goods of the actors involved: if one actor (A) needed the goods of another actor (B) more than B needed those of A, then B would have comparably more social power. However, later developments have allowed dependency theory to address topics in social cognition, social exchange, and symbolic interaction by examining dependency based on the threat of punishment. [8] Power dependence theory explains dyadic relations. Other sociological theories, such as Barry Markovsky and David Willer's Network Exchange Theory, explain power differentials for an entire network of relations.

Social structure

The term social structure refers to entities or groups in definite relation to each other, to relatively enduring patterns of behaviour and relationships within social systems, or to social institutions and norms becoming embedded into social systems in such a way that they shape the behaviour of actors within those social systems.

Social structure underlies many social systems including family, religion, race, gender, and social class. Social structures supply roles and norms that influence human interactions. One example is role theory, which examines as the distinct, functional positions of persons within a group.

Self and identity

The study of personal and social identity is another topic which has piqued the interest of sociological social psychologists.

Much of the research on identity has been influenced by the theoretical work of psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Erikson is credited with the distinction between ego identity, personal identity, and social identity, as well as for creating a model of the development of the individual. One example of Erikson's influence can be found in the work of the neo-Eriksonian research of James Marcia, who elaborated on theoretical issues concerning the identity crisis.

Another major strain of research has fallen from the work of the Chicago School symbolic interactionists, such as George Herbert Mead. As the literature grew, methods and theoretical frameworks diverged from the traditional views. For example, the Iowa School of symbolic interactionism emphasized the use of quantitative methods and made use of the language of "structures", in contrast with the more qualitatively-oriented Chicago School. The Iowa school inspired a number of outgrowths, such as the work of McCall and Simmons on social roles, and subsequently, Stryker's structural theory of social identity.

More radical perspectives have arisen from postmodern thinkers like Kenneth Gergen, who understand the notions of self and identity to be increasingly fragmented and illusory.


There have been a number of different theories which have tried to explain how people learn things from others. Reinforcement theory, growing out of the tradition of behaviorism, sought to explain human social learning as the product of conditioning. Social learning theory (SLT) stands in contrast to reinforcement theory. Social learning theory attempts to explain human socialization as a product of observation and mimicry.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Stolte, John F; Fine, Gary Alan; Cook, Karen S. (2001). "Sociological miniaturism: seeing the big through the small in social psychology". Annual Review of Sociology vol. 27: pp. 387–413. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.27.1.387.  
  2. ^ a b c d Michener, H. Andrew, John D. DeLamater, and Daniel J. Myers (2004). Social Psychology (Fifth edition ed.). Canada: Wadsworth. pp. 22; 10–11.  
  3. ^ Ross, Edward Alsworth (1908). Social psychology: an outline and source book,MacMillan, 1908.
  4. ^ William McDougall (2001). Introduction to Social Psychology (Fourteenth Edition ed.). Kitchener, ON: Batoche Books. p. 5.  
  5. ^ Hollander, Jocelyn A; Howard, Judith A. (Dec 2000). "Social psychological theories on social inequalities". Social Psychology Quarterly vol. 63 (no. 4): pp. 338–51. doi:10.2307/2695844.  
  6. ^ Stryker, S., & Burke, P. J. (2000). "The past, present, and future of an identity theory". Social Psychology Quarterly (63): 284–297.  
  7. ^ Heise, D. R. (1979). Understanding Events: Affect and the Construction of Social Action. New York: Cambridge University Press.  
  8. ^ Linda Molm (1988). "The structure and use of power: a comparison of reward and punishment power". Social Psychology Quarterly.  
  9. ^ Bandura, Albert (1977). Social Learning Theory, Prentice Hall, 1977. ISBN:0138167443.

Further reading


External links

Study guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

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