Social psychology (sociology)

In sociology, social psychology, also known as sociological social psychology or microsociology, is an area of sociology that focuses on social actions and on interrelations of personality, values, and mind with social structure and culture. Some of the major topics in this field are social status, structural power, sociocultural change, social inequality and prejudice, leadership and intra-group behavior, social exchange, group conflict, impression formation and management, conversation structures, socialization, social constructionism, social norms and deviance, identity and roles, and emotional labor. The primary methods of data collection are sample surveys, field observations, vignette studies, field experiments, and controlled experiments.


Sociological social psychology was born in 1902 with the landmark study by sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, which presented Cooley's concept of the looking glass self. The first textbook in social psychology by a sociologist appeared in 1908—Social Psychology by Edward Alsworth Ross. The area's main journal was founded as Sociometry by Jacob L. Moreno in 1937. The journal's name changed to Social Psychology in 1978, and to Social Psychology Quarterly in 1979.

In the 1920s W. I. Thomas contributed the notion of the definition of the situation, with the proposition that became a basic tenet of sociology and sociological social psychology: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."

One of the major currents of theory in this area sprang from work by philosopher and sociologist George Herbert Mead at the University of Chicago from 1894 forward. Mead generally is credited as the founder of symbolic interactionism. Mead's colleague and disciple at Chicago, sociologist Herbert Blumer, coined the name of the framework in 1937.

Sociologist Talcott Parsons, at Harvard University from 1927 forward, developed a cybernetic theory of action which was adapted to small group research by Parsons' student and colleague, Robert Freed Bales, resulting in a body of observational studies of social interaction in groups using Bales' behavior coding scheme, Interaction Process Analysis.[1] During his 41-year tenure at Harvard, Bales mentored a distinguished group of sociological social psychologists concerned with group processes and other topics in sociological social psychology.[2]

Major frameworks

Symbolic interactionism

Contemporary symbolic interactionism originated out of ideas of George Herbert Mead and Max Weber. In this framework meanings are constructed during social interaction, and constructed meanings influence the process of social interaction. Many symbolic interactionists see the self as a core meaning constructed through social relations, and influencing social relations.

The structural school of symbolic interactionism uses shared social knowledge from a macro-level culture, natural language, social institution, or organization to explain relatively enduring patterns of social interaction and psychology at the micro-level, typically investigating these matters with quantitative methods. Identity theory,[3] affect control theory,[4] and the Iowa School[5] are major programs of research in this tradition. Identity Theory and Affect Control Theory both focus on how actions control mental states, thereby manifesting the underlying cybernetic nature of the approach, evident in Mead's writings[6] Affect Control Theory provides a mathematical model of role theory and of labeling theory.

Process symbolic interactionism stems from the Chicago School and considers the meanings underlying social interactions to be situated, creative, fluid, and often contested. Researchers in this tradition frequently use qualitative and ethnographic methods. A journal, Symbolic Interaction, was founded in 1977 by the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction as a central outlet for the empirical research and conceptual studies produced by scholars in this area.

Postmodern symbolic interactionists understand the notions of self and identity to be increasingly fragmented and illusory, and consider attempts at theorizing to be meta-narratives with no more authority than other conversations. The approach is presented in detail by The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research.[7]

Social exchange

Social exchange theory emphasizes the idea that social action is the result of personal choices made in order to maximize benefits and minimize costs. 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 net benefits or lowest net costs).

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 behaviour 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).

Theory of Status Characteristics and Expectation States

Expectation states theory and its popular "sub-theory", status characteristics theory, proposes that individuals use available social information to form expectations for themselves and others. Group members use stereotypes about competence to attempt to determine who will be comparatively more skilled in any given task, indicating to whom the group should listen and accord status. Group members use known ability on the task at hand, membership in social categories (race, gender, age, education, etc.), and observed dominance behaviors (glares, rate of speech, interruptions, etc.) to determine everyone's relative ability and assign rank accordingly. While exhibiting dominant behavior or being of a certain race, for instance, has no direct connection to actual ability, implicit cultural beliefs about who is relatively more or less socially valued drive group members to "act as if" they believe some people have more useful contributions than others. As such, the theory has been used to explain the rise, persistence, and enactment of status hierarchies.[8]

Social structure and personality

This research perspective deals with relationships between large-scale social systems and individual behaviors and mental states including feelings, attitudes and values, and mental faculties.[9] Some researchers focus on issues of health and how social networks bring useful social support to the ill. Another line of research deals with how education, occupation, and other components of social class impact values. Some studies assess emotional variations, especially in happiness versus alienation and anger, among individuals in different structural positions.

Social influence

Social influence is a factor in every individual's life. Social influence takes place when one's thoughts, actions and feelings are affected by other people. It is a way of interaction that affects individual behavior and can occur within groups and between groups. It is a fundamental process that affects ways of socialization, conformity, leadership and social change.[10]


Another aspect of microsociology aims to focus on individual behavior in social settings. One specific researcher in the field, Erving Goffman, claims that humans tend to believe that they are actors on a stage. He explains his theories in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. He argues that as a result, individuals will further proceed with their actions based on the response of that individual's 'audience' or in other words, the people to whom he is speaking. Much like a play, Goffman believes that rules of conversing and communication exist: to display confidence, display sincerity, and avoid infractions which are otherwise known as embarrassing situations. Breaches of such rules are what make social situations awkward.[11]

Group processes

From the sociological perspective, group processes scholars study how power, status, justice, and legitimacy impact the structure and interactions that take place within groups. Group processes scholars study how group size affects the type and quality of interactions that take place between group members, an area of study initiated by the work of the German social theorist, Georg Simmel. Dyads consist of two people and triads consist of three people, and the fundamental difference is that one person who leaves a dyad dissolves that group whereas the same is not true of a triad. The difference between these two types of groups also indicates the fundamental nature of group size, which is that every additional member of a group increases the group's stability but also decreases the possible amount of intimacy or interactions between any two members. Groups are also distinguished in terms of how and why the members know each other, and this stems from whether they are members of primary groups consisting of close friends and family held together by expressive ties; secondary groups consisting of coworkers, colleagues, classmates, etc. held together by instrumental ties; or reference groups consisting of people who do not necessarily know or interact with each other but who use each other for standards of comparison for appropriate behaviors. Group processes researchers also study interactions between groups, such as in the case of Muzafer Sherif's Robbers Cave Experiment.[12]

See also


  1. Bales, Robert Freed (1950), Interaction Process Analysis, New York: Addison-Wesley. Some studies using the method are included in Hare, A. Paul, Edgar F. Borgatta, & R. F. Bales (1955), Small Groups: Studies in Social Interaction, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  2. See the list of Bales' students at pages 332-3 of R. F. Bales (1999), Social Interaction Systems: Theory and Measurement, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
  3. Stryker, Sheldon, & Burke, Peter J. (2000). "The past, present, and future of an identity theory". Social Psychology Quarterly 63: 284–297. Burke, P. J., and Jan E. Stets (2009). Identity Theory, New York, Oxford University Press.
  4. Heise, David R. (1979). Understanding Events: Affect and the Construction of Social Action, New York: Cambridge University Press. MacKinnon, N. J. (1994). Symbolic Interactionism as Affect Control, Albany, NY, State University of New York Press. Heise, D. R. (2007). Expressive Orider: Confirming Sentiments in Social Actions, New York, Springer.
  5. Miller, Dan E. (2011). "Toward a Theory of Interaction: The Iowa School," Symbolic Interaction 34: 340-348.
  6. MacKinnon, Neil J. (1994). Symbolic Interactionism as Affect Control, Albany, NY, State University of New York Press. Pp. 3-5.
  7. Denzin, Norman K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln, Eds. (2005). The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications.
  8. Ridgeway, Cecilia L. (2014). "Why Status Matters for Inequality". American Sociological Review. 79 (1): 1–16. doi:10.1177/0003122413515997.
  9. McLeod, Jane D. and Kathryn J. Lively (2003). “Social Structure and Personality.” Pp. 77-102 in Handbook of Social Psychology edited by J. DeLamater. New York: Kluwer/Plenum.
  10. Smith, J. R., Louis, W. R., & Schultz, P. W. (2011). Introduction: Social influence in action. Group Processes & GP Intergroup Relations, 14(5), 599–603.
  11. Your Name Here. "Goffman: PSEL". Retrieved 2012-11-27.
  12. Rohall, D.E., Milkie, M.A., Lucas, J.W. 2014. Social Psychology: Sociological Perspectives. Pearson
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