Comparing Mainstream and Critical Psychology

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One of the main divisions between mainstream and critical psychology is that of the methods adopted. Discuss with reference to the cognitive social and at least one other social psychological perspective.

The theoretical perspective of any approach in social psychology governs the methods adopted, which in turn have an affect on the knowledge produced. Using examples from the cognitive social and the discursive psychological perspectives, this essay examines how far it can be said that the methods adopted is one of the main divisions between mainstream and critical approaches. It will conclude that, whilst there are divisions between mainstream and critical social psychology, they are not clear-cut. It goes on to examine further subtleties of aspects of method may create such division.

Cognitive social psychology evolved from a history of behaviourism in the mid twentieth century. It is underpinned by the ontology that people are information-processing individuals, albeit operating in a social context. Cognitive social psychology aims to investigate the thoughts processes (cognitions) of individuals, the main methods of doing this are experimentation and social psychometric testing.

Experiments involve controlled scenarios in which the researcher manipulates the variables they want to test. Social psychometric testing involves questionnaires that are filled in by participants to test their responses to specific questions. Both these provide results that are quantitative, and this is one of the reasons cognitive social approach is valued, as it enables results to be interpreted and communicated to others easily.

They are thus useful to generalise from and validate arguments. Because of this the cognitive social approach has become a benchmark for social psychology research and knowledge, which is why it is considered mainstream.

In this approach it should also be possible to replicate the results under the same or similar conditions, but this is where it runs into difficulties; it is not always the case, and for reasons that are relevant to the discussion about divisions between mainstream and critical psychology.

An example of this is Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority (Milgram, 1977), from which he obtained data about the number of individuals who continued to obey instructions from the researcher to administer (or at least thought they were doing so) electric shocks to others, even when they clearly protested.

This was seen as a valid research premise at the time, and the results are now accepted as valid in terms of percentage of people who would obey orders from authority, even when doing so is cruel and possibly harmful to others. It is assumed that, should this experiment ever be conducted again, that the results would be replicated. However, because of the ethical criticisms that were later made about it, it is unlikely that this experiment would ever be repeated in this way.

In addition, Milgram conducted the experiment in different conditions, and obtained different results in his university setting compared to other locations: 65% of participants continued administering electric shock in the university setting, compared to 48% outside of this location, because the university may have seemed a more authoritative setting. Milgram made little of this difference, but it could be considered significant in that it reduced the number of participants who obeyed to less than half. Had Milgram made that statement, his overall results may have been interpreted in a different way.

It was because of criticisms like these of Milgram’s experiment, i.e. that context can make a difference, that the critical approach to social psychology developed. This contrasts with the cognitive social approach, in that it deliberately avoids the use of results obtained from contrived circumstances like experiments; preferring to use naturalistic research material. These are important distinctions in...
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