“With Reference to the self, critically discuss the notion of social psychology as history.” Essay

“With Reference to the self, critically discuss the notion of social psychology as history.” Essay

The question is asking us to consider the idea that social psychology can be considered a history. The essay requires us to look at both sides of this debate, the traditional psychologists and social constructionists. The question is also asking us to consider this question in relation to the ‘self’ and current culture and historical era.

The idea that social psychology should be seen as a history has arisen from the failure of traditional psychology to account for cultural and historical differences within psychology and sole concern with scientific fact and knowledge. Gergen (1973) a suggested that social psychology deals with facts that cannot usually be easily replicated as they constantly change over time. So this would suggest that we can only apply theories to the historical and cultural context in which they exist which traditional psychology fails to acknowledge. Firstly we need to define these concepts.

Social constructionism is considered to be a radical way of thinking. The traditional approaches tend to see the self as being innate, fixed and stable, which are things of scientific fact. Social constructionists do not. They believe that we are constructed through our interactions with individuals and society. They also believe that we cannot ignore historical and cultural factors in our life, which they suggest, the traditional psychologists do.  Social constructionists would argue that the person we are today, the factors that make us are only relevant to the historical time and culture we reside in and cannot be used to generalise to other cultures. This will be discussed during this essay.

The question asks us to refer to the self when writing this essay; therefore we need to define the self.  Traditional psychology suggests that the self is a series of internal psychological properties that reside within the individual and are constant and affects their behaviour and then their actions. These properties are believed to be measurable. It can include many things such as personality, identity, and religiosity, whatever makes us who we are. Social constructionists believe that that essentialist approach is wrong, that we can’t measure the self and that, like many things in social constructionism, is a function of language. They suggest that the self is constructed through our interactions with individuals and society, and that the self changes with society through time.

One aspect of the self that has been debated is that of personality. When we discuss the self in terms of personality we see that the two sides have different views.

The traditional view of personality believe that our personality is an essential part of being human and they see it as being largely innate and see it as being a unitary and stable phenomenon, made up of traits or characteristics that affect how we act and behave. This suggests that once personality is formed it remains constant and unchangeable for the duration of life. For example Eysenck’s personality inventory (1952), in which we are either introvert-extravert and either stable or neurotic. Whilst it allows for easy categorisation it doesn’t allow for anything in between, we cannot move between the two. It also fails to give us any in-depth analysis as to why we fit into the categories. One of the main problems is that traditional approaches ignore societal factors that may help to form the individual, role theory is one example.

Social constructionists would argue that there isn’t a personality at all. They suggest that we are told we have a personality in an attempt to be able to explain our behaviour.  The idea that personality is stable over time is also disputed by social constructionist. If this assumption is proved to be true then it implies than in all situations we act the same. This is clearly not the case, for example, if we get angry we react differently depending upon whether we are at home or at work, or whether we are with a friend or strangers. They concept of situation specificity found to be a better way to explain the discrepancies. Mischel (1968), a social learning theorist, suggest that they way we react and behave is all dependant on the situation we find ourselves in. He suggests that we react from cues in the situations and adjust our behaviours accordingly.  If it is true then we must have a fragmented self that changes with the situation as opposed to a unitary,

Also, if as traditionalists suggest, personality is essential to being human beings then why are we able to find example of societies through history and also in other cultures that do not prescribe to this? Hundreds of years ago, and still in some cultures today, personality did not exist in the way we think of it. Many believed that our behaviour and subsequent actions were a result of spirits or demons being trapped in our bodies. Lutz (1982) found that certain tribes didn’t have a concept of personality on the inside but discussed them in terms of the relationships with others as oppose to how they feel inside.

The traditional view doesn’t allow for change within the person. So if we are nervous as a child then we will be nervous as an adult. The use of twin studies can be used to support both sides of the personality debate.

In modern society the general public who have access to only popular psychology also understand personality in terms of traits and characteristics. This is because traditional psychology has been the dominant viewpoint for many years. It is also used within the study of psychology as it is readily available and easy to measure and understand. With a topic such as personality anything that we find out about personality can be useful but at the same time has only been looked at on a very superficial level.

If we look at the self in terms of the culture we live in we find further discrepancies. With regards to cultural change and society we need to look at the type of society we live in now, which in the west is considered a capitalist society. Capitalist societies places primary concern on the individual and its needs as, as well as the creation and pursuit of success and profit. However if we go back 150 years when we were in a pre-capitalist agricultural society we find that the emphasis is not oh the individual but rather on the group. It was about ensuring that the needs of the group were met. Therefore, explanations we use to day particularly with regards to cultural differences are not applicable outside of the historical time in which they were created.

The capitalist society may also infuse its members with certain traits, such as those of selfishness and self-survival, which affects the development of our ‘self’.

As already discussed traditional psychologists ignore cultural factors when explain the self. Smith and Bond (1993) suggested that western and eastern societies promote different things. The west promotes self-expression and self-interest whereas the east promotes the need of the family or the organisation they are in above those of the individuals. This means that studies and theories carried out and developed in the western world cannot be applied outside of the western world. This highlights the suggestion that social psychology is historical and culturally specific.

Research has been able to show that language we use to describe our own and others behaviours; as well our actions, vary from culture to culture. In the west we may say that she is generous but in Asian cultures they may describe this by talking about an act of generosity she carried out; she brought my family bread. The language used doesn’t generalise the person as always being generous, they may be spiteful at other times.

Another example of cultural differences is with intelligence and testing. A standard use of intelligence measurement is I.Q. testing. I.Q. tests are both culturally and historically based, although the later we cannot really prove but it’s understood. I.Q. tests are written in western societies and are very culturally specific in terms of both the knowledge they assume we know and the language they use. This is why individuals with English as a second language or people from other cultures have low scores.

Religion is also part of culture. Over the last 100 years our society has become more secular. Religion no longer has the same impact on society and therefore on the construction of the self. Therefore, it alters our attitudes and behaviours. We no longer need to use the rhetoric or doctrine supplied by religion to form opinions on people or behaviours. This however is not the case for all cultures or individuals within a secular society. In the east religion still plays a large part in their society. We are also able to see another shift in the west with regards to religion. The Unites States was primarily thought of as a secular country however religion is enjoying a second life there with individuals becoming more religious. It has been suggested that individuals who are religious are less selfish and have a less individually centred social attitude (D’onofrio et al 1999). Mcullough and Worthington (1999) suggested that religious followers also have a better-developed sense of forgiveness.

We are able to show that current cultural and societal climates play a part in shaping the self as different cultures promote different things. If they are not the same cultures we find it difficult to take something we learn from one and compare it to the other. So western society and all relating facets are specific to prescribing cultures and within this historical epoch.

We can look at the concepts of gender and sex differences in relation to the self. Traditional psychologists see sex in terms of biology and have done for a long time. They link sex with chemicals in the body and traits we may have; for example; women are discussed in relation to being emotional and link it to levels of oestrogen. The danger is that this can and has had a direct influence on how women are treated. The suggestions made above have been partially responsible for the oppression of women. In the history of western culture it is found, for example; women were not allowed to vote until the early 20th century and they were unable to take certain jobs. Although these prejudices have begun to break down, we still find them in western society. They are also found in many cultures, particularly those based on religions. These cultures use scripture to keep control over the women. Feminists have highlighted the fact that social psychology is guilty of this too.

Gender is a modern concept that is the preferred term in social psychology as it takes into account the socialisation of the individual.

A current example of change in gender position in society is that of ‘girl power’, made popular by the Spice girls. It attempted to inspire females to become more than they can think the can be. Whilst it was successful, women are still subject to male dominance and oppression.

Sexuality is another factor that can be linked to the self. Traditional theorists have suggested that sexuality in a predetermined factor that is influenced by hormonal activity. Hutt (1972) suggests that our sexuality is influenced at birth by levels of certain hormones in our system, for males the hormone is testosterone, the level of this that will determine how masculine we are.

Foucault (1978) suggested that sexuality is not innate or biological but rather created by the legislator, religion, and through the medical in an attempt to keep power.  Foucault discusses how heterosexuality has been made to be the norm and desirable. Rich (1980), like Foucault believes that heterosexuality is a socially created concept that is used in an attempt to control both actions and behaviours of the individuals in society. This is found when we look at homosexuality through time, although it was never defined as this. Some ancient societies, who did not distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual, prized same sex relationship. It was never considered to be abnormal as it is today.

Sexuality, like all other aspects from social constructionist perspective is seen in terms of social, cultural and historical discourses. Naus (1987) believed that sexualities are constructed through social, personal and economic factors.

The political climate also shapes our identity. The society we live in not a perfect example of liberalism, but it is better than the some societies in the world. It allows us, for the most part to be who we want to be. The society in which we live in allows us the freedom to be able to express our identity, which individuals in some other societies and historical time do not have.  Traditional approaches to gender roles seem only concerned with ticking boxes and widely ignore the political, cultural and historical climate.

In conclusion, it is hard not to study social psychology as a history due to the very nature of the research. However both sides make convincing arguments.

Perhaps we do have certain predispositions but it is the social environment in which we exist that helps to further shape them and allow us to change.


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D’Onofrio, B.M., Eaves, L.J., Murelle, L., Meas, H.H., & Spika, B. (1999).

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Gough, B., & McFadden, M. (2001) Critical Social Psychology: An Introduction. New York: Palgrave.

Hutt, C. (1972) Males and Females, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Lutz, C. (1982) The domain if emotion words of the Ifaluk American Ethnologist, 9, 113-128.

McCullough, M.E., & Worthington, E.L.Jr. (1999). Religion and the forgiving Personality. Journal of Personality, 67(6), 1141- 1164.

Mischel, W. (1968). Personality and assessment. New York: Wiley.

Naus, P. (1987) cited in Daniluk, J. (1991) Female Sexuality: an enigma, Canadian Journal of Counselling 25(4), 433-446.

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Smith, P.B. & Bond, M.H. (1993) Social psychology across Cultures: Analysis and Perspectives, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

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