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History of social psychology: development phases and main authors

History of social psychology: development phases and main authors

July 19, 2024

Roughly social psychology is responsible for studying the relationships between the individual and society . That is, he is interested in explaining and understanding the interaction between people and groups, produced in social life.

In turn, social life is understood as a system of interaction, with mechanisms and processes of particular communication, where the needs of one and the other create explicit and implicit norms, as well as meanings and structuring of relationships, behaviors and conflicts (Baró, 1990).

These objects of study could be traced from the most classical philosophical traditions, because the interest in understanding group dynamics in relation to the individual has been present even before the modern era.


However, the history of social psychology is usually told from the first empirical works , since these are what allow us to consider it as a discipline with sufficient "scientific validity", in contrast to the "speculative" character of philosophical traditions.

Having said this, we will now see a journey through the history of social psychology, beginning with the first works of the late nineteenth century, until the crisis and contemporary traditions.

  • Related article: "What is Social Psychology?"

First stage: society as a whole

Social psychology began its development in the course of the nineteenth century and is permeated by a fundamental question, which had also impregnated the production of knowledge in other social sciences. This question is the following: What is it that holds us together within a certain social order? (Baró, 1990).


Under the influence of the dominant currents in psychology and sociology, fundamentally settled in Europe, the answers to this question were found around the idea of ​​a "group mind" that keeps us with each other beyond the individual interests and our differences .

This occurs in parallel with the development of the same disciplines, where the works of different authors are representative. In the psychological field, Wilhelm Wundt studied the mental products generated in community and the links they produced. For his part, Sigmund Freud argued that the bond is sustained by affective ties and collective identification processes, especially in relation to the same leader.

From sociology, Émile Durkheim spoke about the existence of a collective conscience (a normative knowledge) that can not be understood as an individual conscience but as a social fact and a coercive force. On the other hand, Max Weber suggested that what holds us together is ideology , since from this the interests become values ​​and specific objectives.


These approaches started from considering society as a whole, from where it is possible to analyze how individual needs are linked to needs of the same whole.

  • Maybe you're interested: "Wilhelm Wundt: biography of the father of scientific psychology"

Second stage: social psychology at the turn of the century

Baró (1990) calls this period, which corresponds to the early twentieth century, "the Americanization of social psychology", while the center of their studies ends moving from Europe to the United States. In this context, the question is no longer so much what it is that holds us together in a social order (in the "whole"), but what is what leads us at the beginning to integrate ourselves into it. In other words, the question is how is it that an individual integrates harmoniously to this social order .

The latter corresponds to two problems of the American context of the moment: on the one hand the growing immigration and the need to integrate people in a determined scheme of values ​​and interactions; and on the other, the demands of the rise of industrial capitalism .

At the methodological level, the production of data backed by the criteria of modern science, beyond theoretical production, takes on special relevance here, with which the experimental approach that was already developing begins its peak.

  • Related article: "History of Psychology: authors and main theories"

Social influence and individual focus

It is in the year of 1908 when the first works in social psychology arise. Its authors were two North American scholars called William McDougall (who put special emphasis on the psychological) and Edmund A. Ross (whose emphasis was more focused on the social). The first of them argued that the human being has a series of innate or instinctive tendencies that psychology can analyze from a social approach . That is, he argued that psychology could account for how society "moralizes" or "socializes" people.

On the other hand, Ross considered that beyond studying the influence of society on the individual, social psychology should address the interaction between individuals. That is, suggested to study the processes by which we influence each other, as well as differentiate between the different types of influences we exert.

An important connection between psychology and sociology arises at this time. In fact, during the development of symbolic interactionism and the works of George Mead, a tradition frequently emerges called "Sociological Social Psychology", which theorized about the use of language in the interaction and meanings of social behavior.

But, perhaps the most remembered of the founders of social psychology is the German Kurt Lewin . The latter gave a definitive identity to the study of the groups, which was decisive for the consolidation of social psychology as a discipline for the purpose of self-study.

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Development of the experimental approach

As social psychology became consolidated, it was necessary to develop a method of study that, under the positivist canons of modern science, would definitively legitimize this discipline. In this sense, and the pair of the "Social Sociological Psychology", a "Psychological Social Psychology" was developed, more linked to behaviorism, experimentalism and logical positivism .

Hence, one of the most influential works of this moment is that of John B. Watson, who considered that for psychology to be scientific, it had to separate definitively from metaphysics and philosophy, as well as adopt the approach and methods of "Hard sciences" (the physicochemical).

From this the behavior begins to be studied in terms of what is possible to observe. And it is the psychologist Floyd Allport who in the decade of the 20's ends up moving the Watsonian approach towards the exercise of social psychology.

In this line, social activity is considered as the result of the sum of the states and individual reactions; issue that ends up moving the focus of study towards the psychology of individuals, especially under the laboratory space and controls .

This model, of empirical cut, was concentrated mainly in the production of data, as well as in obtaining general laws under a model of "the social thing" in terms of pure interaction between organisms studied within a laboratory; which ended up distancing social psychology from the reality it was supposed to study (Íñiguez-Rueda, 2003).

The latter will be criticized later by other approaches to social psychology and other disciplines, which, coupled with the following political conflicts, will lead the social sciences to an important theoretical and methodological crisis .

After the Second World War

The Second World War and its consequences at the individual, social, political and economic level brought with it new issues that, among other things, resituated the task of social psychology.

The areas of interest at this time were mainly the study of group phenomena (especially in small groups, as a reflection of large groups), the processes of training and change of attitudes, as well as the development of personality as a reflex and the engine of society (Baró, 1990).

There was also a major concern to understand what was under the apparent unity of the groups and social cohesion. And on the other hand, there was growing interest in the study of social norms, attitudes, conflict resolution; Y the explanation of phenomena such as altruism, obedience and conformism .

For example, the works of Muzafer and Carolyn Sheriff in conflict and social norms are representative of this time. In the area of ​​attitudes, the studies of Carl Hovland are representative, and the experiments of Solomon Asch are classic. In obedience, Stanley Milgram's experiments are classic .

On the other hand, there was a group of psychologists and social theorists concerned about understand what elements the Nazi regime had unleashed and the Second World War. Among others here arises the Frankfurt School and critical theory , whose maximum exponent is Theodore W. Adorno. This opens the way to the next stage in the history of social psychology, marked by a disenchantment and skepticism towards the same discipline.

Third stage: the crisis of social psychology

Not without the previous approaches having disappeared, the decade of the 60's opens up new reflections and debates about the what, the how and why of social psychology (Íñiguez-Rueda, 2003).

This is the framework of the military and political defeat of the American vision, which among other things showed that the social sciences were not alien to historical conflicts and to the structures of power, but on the contrary (Baró, 1990). As a result, different ways of validating social psychology emerged, which developed in constant tension and negotiation with traditional approaches more positivist and experimentalist.

Some characteristics of the crisis

The crisis was not only caused by external factors, among which were also the protest movements, the "crisis of values", the changes in the global productive structure and the questions about the models that dominated the social sciences (Iñiguez-Rueda , 2003).

Internally, the principles that sustained and legitimized traditional social psychology (and the social sciences in general) were strongly questioned. They emerge like this new ways of seeing and doing science and of producing knowledge . Among these elements were mainly the vague nature of social psychology and the tendency to experimental research, which began to be considered as very far from the social realities that studied.

In the European context the works of psychologists such as Serge Moscovici and Henry Tajfel were key , and later the sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, among many others.

From here, reality begins to be seen as a construction. In addition, there is growing interest in a conflictive approach to the social order, and finally, a concern for the political role of social psychology and its transformative potential (Baró, 1990). Faced with sociological social psychology and psychological social psychology, a critical social psychology emerges in this context.

To give an example and following Iñiguez-Rueda (2003), we will see two approaches that were detached from the contemporary paradigms of social psychology.

The professional approach

In this approach, social psychology is also called applied social psychology and even can include community social psychology . Broadly speaking, it is the professional inclination towards intervention.

It is not so much about "applying the theory" in the social context, but about valuing the theoretical and knowledge production that was carried out during the intervention itself. Acts especially under the premise of looking for solutions to social problems outside the academic and / or experimental context, and the technology that had gone through much of social psychology.

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Transdisciplinary approach

It is one of the paradigms of critical social psychology, where beyond being an interdisciplinary approach, which would imply the connection or collaboration between different disciplines, it is about maintain this collaboration without the strict division between one and another .

Among these disciplines are, for example, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, sociology. In this context, it is particularly interesting to develop reflexive practices and research with a sense of social relevance.

Bibliographic references:

  • Baró, M. (1990). Action and ideology. Social Psychology from Central America. UCA Editors: El Salvador.
  • Íñiguez-Rueda, L. (2003). Social Psychology as Critical: Continuity, Stability and Effervescence. Three Decades after the "Crisis". Inter-American Journal of Psychology, 37 (2): 221-238.
  • Seidmann, S. (S / A). History of Social Psychology Retrieved September 28, 2018. Available at //www.psi.uba.ar/academica/carrerasdegrado/psicologia/sitios_catedras/obligatorias/035_psicologia_social1/material/descargas/historia_psico_social.pdf.

The Growth of Knowledge: Crash Course Psychology #18 (July 2024).


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