Outline the main features of experimental social psychology and consider the influences that led to its emergence. What do you think are its strengths and weaknesses?
Social psychology has many different theoretical perspectives. The focus of this essay will be the cognitive social perspective and its central method of research; experiments. I will therefore refer to this approach as experimental social psychology (ESP). My aim is to argue that despite some downfalls, ESP provides an indispensible contribution to understanding how the mind is structured by society (Haslam, 2007, DVD 1, DD307). To argue this I will outline the key characteristics of the approach which will involve looking at its historical development. This will give us an insight into how the discipline became grounded within scientific principles and was the dominant approach for much of its 100 year history (Holloway, 2007). I will then draw out what features undermined the perspective and will place the favourable and questionable aspects of the approach within four analytical themes called power relations; situated knowledge; individual-social dualism and agency-structure dualism (Holloway, 2007). These will also be used to critically evaluate ESP. Other perspectives will be incorporated to illustrate strengths and weaknesses but I will not go into detail about them. The intent is to finish the essay with a resonating thought that ESP has its main downfalls routed in its historical negligence but is nevertheless an invaluable source of knowledge that can be seen as complimentary to other perspectives. ESP aims to research the “science of social behaviour” (DVD 1, DD307, 2007) by using quantitative methods of investigation such as the laboratory experiment. Although not confined to the laboratory, this setting facilitates achieving two of the main features within the discipline: control and measurement. It would be impractical to attempt to record physiological responses though observational methods. Experiments are used as a tool in which researchers aim to isolate variables and show that by manipulating them they can cause a particular outcomes (DVD 1, DD307, 2007). The main feature that sets this perspective in opposition with the others is that it carries out quantitative rather than qualitative research. It is therefore worth looking at why statistical methodologies are employed. Perspectives are governed by particular ontological and methodological assumptions and ESP believes that individuals are social thinkers. This ontology gives rise to a statistical methodology which adheres to scientific principles. The outcome of these assumptions is the methods. Thus in the case of ESP, experiments are utilised to extract internal causal mechanisms. ESP emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century when science had “an almost religious status” (Holloway, 2007, p.4). At a time when it was believed that science was the key to all knowledge it seems obvious why psychologists attempted to apply this undefeatable knowledge to understanding people in their social world. Historical influences such as the First World War had significant impact on research subjects at the time. Allport (1924) for instance, carried out investigations into social facilitation, a subject relevant to warfare tactics (cited in Holloway, 2007). Another heavy influence that lent support to ESP was psychometrics. The practical implication of having the means to measure psychological characteristics was considered a big leap forward. For example, an article in the New York Times predicted that with the use of psychometrics they could match people up to their best suited jobs and therefore produce an enormous growth of national wealth (cited in Holloway, 2007). In analysing how the ESP became dominant within social psychology the concept of power relation is a useful tool. Without the backing of universities, publishers and funding bodies’ ESP could not...
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