Comparing and Contrasting Essentialist Approaches to Social Psychology with Social Constructionist Approaches to Social Psychology.

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A widely recognised definition of social psychology is “an effort to understand and explain how the thought, feeling, and behaviour of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others” (Allport, 1985). However, how to measure this, the research methods to be used and what constitutes useful evidence has caused much debate in the history of social psychology. This essay will compare and contrast the two epistemologies of essentialist and social constructionist approaches to social psychology and the research methods of quantitative and qualitative used in each approach. Essentialists’ view of the world is that the properties possessed by a group are universal in that group and do not depend on context. However, a member of a group may possess other characteristics that are not required to include it as a group member but, it must not have characteristics that preclude it from being a member of the group (Burr, 1995). For example, essentialists believe that personality consists of a number of traits and personality of an individual is established by the level of each of these traits. Essentialists also believe that these traits remain more or less stable over time and it is our personality that influences behaviour (Maltby, 2010). As essentialists are able to classify groups as such, they use quantitative research methods of controlling one or more variables to measure the effects or resulting behaviour of another variable and they posit this can be applied to the whole group. However, some psychologists have posited that this natural and individual approach to psychology is not sufficient and a more moral collective approach is required in the form of social constructionism (Hosking & Morley, 2004). Social constructionist approach to psychology holds that reality is socially constructed and knowledge is historically and culturally specific. For this reason, social constructionists believe that research should be extended into the social, political and economic environments that the individual exists in, for a proper understanding of behaviour and social life as a whole. Comparing essentialist views on personality social constructionists argue personality traits do not exist as inner essences but our understanding of the world is built, or constructed from our every day social interactions and these vary depending on the circumstances (Gergen, 1973). Due to these complex interactions of the mind with the world, social constructionists argue these cannot be described by generalised laws and therefore controlled experiments cannot adequately investigate the complex, multilayered facets of social behaviours. This led to the approach of data gathering using qualitative methods to provide an understanding to the more subjective feelings and meanings of social behaviour. These two epistemologies use two research methods to look at different ways to try and explain the same social behaviours and still satisfy their respective theoretical position. One such research question that essentialists and social constructionist social psychology strive to explain is that of “self”. In quantitative methods the empirical psychologist will provide evidence in numerical form to either support or refute their hypothesis. For example when investigating the “embodied self” Toates, (1996) explored biological aspects looking for functional explanations to support his ideas. Whereas, in qualitative methods researchers such as Neimeyer, (2000) describes the “self” in narrative terms of our experiences and he argues that we attempt not only to impart continuity to the story of our lives, but also to position ourselves with reference to others. Social constructionists argue that the empirical data in quantitative analysis does not lend itself to exploring why we exhibit particular social behaviours because they suggest the influences of time and environment are not taken into consideration, which qualitative...
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