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Social Psychology as History

Article  in  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology · May 1973


DOI: 10.1037/h0034436

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Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
1973, Vol. 26, No. 2, 309-320

SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY AS HISTORY


KENNETH J. GERGEN *
Swarthmore College

An analysis of theory and research in social psychology reveals that while


methods of research are scientific in character, theories of social behavior are
primarily reflections of contemporary history. The dissemination of psycho-
logical knowledge modifies the patterns of behavior upon which the knowledge
is based. It does so because of the prescriptive bias of psychological theorizing,
the liberating effects of knowledge, and the resistance based on common values
of freedom and individuality. In addition, theoretical premises are based
primarily on acquired dispositions. As the culture changes, such dispositions
are altered, and the premises are often invalidated. Several modifications in
the scope and methods of social psychology are derived from this analysis.

The field of psychology is typically defined plain the phenomena of social psychology
as the science of human behavior, and social [p. 412]."
psychology as that branch of the science This view of social psychology is, of course,
dealing with human interaction. A para- a direct descendent from eighteenth century
mount aim of science is held to be the estab- thought. At that time the physical sciences
lishment of general laws through systematic had produced marked increments in knowl-
observation. For the social psychologist, such edge, and one could view with great opti-
general laws are developed in order to de- mism the possibility of applying the scien-
scribe and explain social interaction. This tific method to human behavior (Carr, 1963).
traditional view of scientific law is repeated If general principles of human behavior could
in one form or another in almost all funda- be established, it might be possible to reduce
mental treatments of the field. In his discus- social conflict, to do away with problems of
sion of explanation in the behavioral sciences, mental illness, and to create social conditions
DiRenzo (1966) pointed out that a "com- of maximal benefit to members of society.
plete explanation" in the behavioral sciences As others later hoped, it might even be pos-
"is one that has assumed the invariable status sible to transform such principles into mathe-
of law [p. 111." Krech, Crutchfield, and matical form, to develop "a mathematics of
Ballachey (1962) stated that "whether we human behavior as precise as the mathematics
are interested in social psychology as a basic of machines [Russell, 19S6, p. 142]."
science or as an applied science, a set of The marked success of the natural sciences
scientific principles is essential fp. 3]." in establishing general principles can impor-
Jones and Gerard (1967) echoed this view in tantly be attributed to the general stability
their statement, "Science seeks to under- of events in the world of nature. The velocity
stand the factors responsible for stable rela- of falling bodies or the compounding of
tionships between events [p. 42]." As Mills chemical elements, for example, are highly
(1969) put it, "social psychologists want to stable events across time. They are events
discover causal relationships so that they that can be recreated in any laboratory, SO
can establish basic principles that will ex- years ago, today, or 100 years from now.
1
1 am much indebted to the following persons for Because they are so stable, broad generaliza-
their thoughtful appraisal .of various phases of this tions can be established with a high degree
analysis: Shel Feldman, Mary Gergen, Kenneth of confidence, explanations can be empirically
Hammond, Louise Kidder, George Levinger, Paul
Rosenblatt, Ralph Rosnow, M. Brewster Smith, tested, and mathematical transformations can
Siegfried Streufert, Lloyd Strickland, Karl Weick, and be fruitfully developed. If events were un-
Lawrence Wrightsman. stable, if the velocity of falling bodies or the
Requests for reprints should be sent to the author,
Department of Psychology, Swarthmore College, compounding of chemicals were in continuous
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania 19080. flux, the development of the natural sciences
309
310 KENNETH J. GERGEN

would be drastically impeded. General laws million students are annually confronted by
would fail to emerge, and the recording of course offerings in the field of psychology,
natural events would lend itself primarily to and within recent years, such offerings have
historical analysis. If natural events were become unexcelled in popularity. The liberal
capricious, natural science would largely be education of today entails familiarity with
replaced by natural history. central ideas in psychology. The mass media
It is the purpose of this paper to argue have also come to realize the vast public
that social psychology is primarily an his- interest in psychology. The news media care-
torical inquiry. Unlike the natural sciences, fully monitor professional meetings as well
it deals with facts that are largely nonrepeat- as journals of the profession. Magazine pub-
able and which fluctuate markedly over time. lishers have found it profitable to feature the
Principles of human interaction cannot read- views of psychologists on contemporary be-
ily be developed over time because the facts havior patterns, and specialty magazines de-
on which they are based do not generally voted almost exclusively to psychology now
remain stable. Knowledge cannot accumulate boast readerships totaling over 600,000.
in the usual scientific sense because such When we add to these trends the broad
knowledge does not generally transcend its expansion of the soft-cover book market, the
historical boundaries. In the following dis- increasing governmental demand for knowl-
cussion two central lines of argument will be edge justifying the public underwriting of
developed in support of this thesis, the first psychological research, the proliferation of
centering on the impact of the science on encounter techniques, the establishment of
social behavior and the second on historical business enterprises huckstering psychology
change. After examining these arguments, we through games and posters, and the increasing
can focus on alterations in the scope and aims reliance placed by major institutions (in-
of the field suggested by this analysis. cluding business, government, military, and
social) on the knowledge of in-house behav-
IMPACT OF SCIENCE ON SOCIAL ioral scientists, one begins to sense the pro-
INTERACTION found degree to which the psychologist is
As Back (1963) has shown, social science linked in mutual communication with the
can fruitfully be viewed as a protracted com- surrounding culture.
munications system. In the execution of re- Most psychologists harbor the desire that
search, the scientist receives messages trans- psychological knowledge will have an impact
mitted by the subject. In raw form, such on the society. Most of us are gratified when
messages generate only "noise" for the scien- such knowledge can be utilized in beneficial
tist. Scientific theories serve as decoding de- ways. Indeed, for many social psychologists,
vices which convert noise to usable informa- commitment to the field importantly depends
tion. Although Back has used this model in on the belief in the social utility of psycho-
a number of provocative ways, his analysis logical knowledge. However, it is not gen-
is terminated at the point of decoding. This erally assumed that such utilization will alter
model must be extended beyond the process the character of causal relations in social
of gathering and decoding messages. The interaction. We do expect knowledge of func-
scientist's task is also that of communicator. tion forms to be utilized in altering behavior,
If his theories prove to be useful decoding but we do not expect the utilization to affect
devices, they are communicated to the popu- the subsequent character of the function forms
lace in order that they might also benefit themselves. Our expectations in this case may
from their utility. Science and society be quite unfounded. Not only may the appli-
constitute a feedback loop. cation of our principles alter the data on which
This type of feedback from scientist to they are based, but the very development of
society has become increasingly widespread the principles may invalidate them. Three
during the past decade. Channels of com- lines of argument are pertinent, the first
munication have developed at a rapid rate. stemming from the evaluative bias of psycho-
On the level of higher education, over eight logical research, the second from the liber-
SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY AS HISTORY 311

ating effects of knowledge, and the third from by respected scholars as authoritarian,
prevalent values in the culture. Machiavellian, and so on. The communica-
tion of knowledge may thus create homogene-
Prescriptive Bias of Psychological Theory ity with respect to behavioral indicators of
underlying dispositions. On a more complex
As scientists of human interaction, we are level, knowledge of personality correlates may
engaged in a peculiar duality. On the one induce behavior to insubstantiate the cor-
hand, we value dispassionate comportment in relates. Not so strangely, much individual
scientific matters. We are well aware of the difference research places the professional
biasing effects of strong value commitments. psychologist in a highly positive light. Thus,
On the other hand, as socialized human the more similar the subject is to the profes-
beings, we harbor numerous values about the sional in terms of education, socioeconomic
nature of social relations. It is the rare social background, religion, race, sex, and personal
psychologist whose values do not influence values, the more advantageous his position on
the subject of his research, his methods of psychological tests. Increased education, for
observation, or the terms of description. In example, favors cognitive differentiation
generating knowledge about social interaction, (Witkin, Dyk, Faterson, Goodenough, &
we also communicate our personal values. Karp, 1962), low scores in authoritarianism
The recipient of knowledge is thus provided (Christie & Jahoda, 1954), open-mindedness
with dual messages: Messages that dispas- (Rokeach, 1960), etc. Armed with this infor-
sionately describe what appears to be, and mation, those persons unflattered by the re-
those which subtly prescribe what is desirable. search might overcompensate in order to
This argument is most clearly evident in dispel the injurious stereotype. For example,
research on personal dispositions. Most of us women who learn they are more persuasible
would feel insulted if characterized as low in than men (cf. Janis & Field, 1959) may
self-esteem, high in approval seeking, cogni- retaliate, and over time the correlation is
tively undifferentiated, authoritarian, anal invalidated or reversed.
compulsive, field dependent, or close-minded. While evaluative biases are easily identified
In part, our reactions reflect our accultura- in personality research, they are by no means
tion ; one need not be a psychologist to resent limited to this area. Most general models of
such labels. But in part, such reactions are social interaction also contain implicit value
created by the concepts utilized in describing judgments. For example, treatises on con-
and explaining phenomena. For example, in formity often treat the conformer as a
the preface of The Authoritarian Personality second-class citizen, a social sheep who fore-
(Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & goes personal conviction to agree with the
Sanford, 1950), readers are informed that erroneous opinions of others. Thus, models
"In contrast to the bigot of the older style, of social conformity sensitize one to factors
(the authoritarian) seems to combine the that might lead him into socially deplorable
ideas and skills of a highly industrialized actions. In effect, knowledge insulates against
society with irrational or anti-rational beliefs the future efficacy of these same factors. Re-
[p. 3]." In discussing the Machiavellian search on attitude change often carries with
personality, Christie and Gels (1970) noted it these same overtones. Knowing about atti-
Initially our image of the high Mach was a negative tude change flatters one into believing that
one, associated with shadowy and unsavory ma- he has the power to change others; by impli-
nipulations. However . . . we found ourselves having cation, others are relegated to the status
a perverse admiration for the high Machs' ability
to outdo others in experimental situations [p. 339].
of manipulanda. Thus, theories of attitude
change may sensitize one into guarding
In their prescriptive capacity such com- against factors that could potentially influ-
munications become agents of social change. ence him, In the same way, theories of aggres-
On an elementary level, the student of sion typically condemn the aggressor, models
psychology might well wish to exclude of interpersonal bargaining are disparaging of
from public observation behaviors labeled exploitation, and models of moral develop-
312 KENNETH J. GERGEN

ment demean those at less than the optimal doubtedly be meagre. In addition to capturing
stage (Kohlberg, 1970). Cognitive dissonance the interest of the public and the profession,
theory (Brehm & Cohen, 1966; Festinger, value-loaded concepts also provide an expres-
1957) might appear to be value free, but sive outlet for the psychologist. I have talked
most studies in this area have painted the with countless graduate students drawn into
dissonance reducer in most unflattering terms. psychology out of deep humanistic concern.
"How witless" we say, "that people should Within many lies a frustrated poet, philoso-
cheat, make lower scores on tests, change pher, or humanitarian who finds the scien-
their opinions of others or eat undesirable tific method at once a means to expressive
foods just to maintain consistency." ends and an encumbrance to free expression.
The critical note underlying these remarks Resented is the apparent fact that the ticket
is not inadvertent. It does seem unfortunate to open expression through the professional
that a profession dedicated to the objective media is a near lifetime in the laboratory.
and nonpartisan development of knowledge Many wish to share their values directly, un-
should use this position to propagandize the fettered by constant demands for systematic
unwitting recipients of this knowledge. The evidence. For them, value-laden concepts
concepts of the field are seldom value free, compensate for the conservatism usually im-
and most could be replaced with other con- parted by these demands. The more estab-
cepts carrying far different valuational bag- lished psychologist may indulge himself
gage. Brown (1965) has pointed to the inter- more directly. Normally, however, we are not
esting fact that the classic authoritarian per- inclined to view our personal biases as propa-
sonality, so roundly scourged in our own gandistic so much as reflecting "basic truths."
literature, was quite similar to the "J-type While the communication of values through
personality" (Jaensch, 1938), viewed by the knowledge is to some degree intentional, it is
Germans in a highly positive light. That not entirely so. Value commitments are al-
which our literature termed rigidity was most inevitable by-products of social exis-
viewed as stability in theirs; flexibility and tence, and as participants in society we can
individualism in our literature were seen as scarcely dissociate ourselves from these values
flaccidity and eccentricity. Such labeling in pursuing professional ends. In addition, if
biases pervade our literature. For example, we rely on the language of the culture for
high self-esteem could be termed egotism; scientific communication, it is difficult to find
need for social approval could be translated terms regarding social interaction that are
as need for social integration; cognitive dif- without prescriptive value. We might reduce
ferentiation as hair-splitting; creativity as the implicit prescriptions embedded in our
deviance; and internal control as egocentric- communications if we adopted a wholly tech-
ity. Similarly, if our values were otherwise, nical language. However, even technical lan-
social conformity could be viewed as pro- guage becomes evaluative whenever the sci-
solidarity behavior; attitude change as cog- ence is used as a lever for social change.
nitive adaptation; and the risky shift as the Perhaps our best option is to maintain as
courageous conversion. much sensitivity as possible to our biases and
Yet, while the propagandizing effects of to communicate them as openly as possible.
psychological terminology must be lamented, Value commitments may be unavoidable, but
it is also important to trace their sources. we can avoid masquerading them as objective
In part the evaluative loading of theoretical reflections of truth.
terms seems quite intentional. The act of
publishing implies the desire to be heard. Knowledge and Behavioral Liberation
However, value-free terms have low-interest It is common research practice in psychol-
value for the potential reader, and value-free ogy to avoid communicating one's theoretical
research rapidly becomes obscure. If obedi- premises to the subject either before or during
ence were relabeled alpha behavior and not the research. Rosenthal's (1966) research
rendered deplorable through associations with indicated that even the most subtle cues of
Adolph Eichman, public concern would un- experimenter expectation may alter the be-
SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY AS HISTORY 313

havior of the subject. Naive subjects are inherits from society a burden of tendencies
thus required by common standards of rigor. which shapes us willy-nilly; but our capacity
The implications of this simple methodologi- to be conscious of this fact saves us from
cal safeguard are of considerable significance. being strictly determined [p. 100]." In this
If subjects possess preliminary knowledge as way, knowledge about nonverbal signals of
to theoretical premises, we can no longer stress or relief (Eckman, 1965) enables us to
adequately test our hypotheses. In the same avoid giving off these signals whenever it is
way, if the society is psychologically in- useful to do so; knowing that persons in
formed, theories about which it is informed trouble are less likely to be helped when
become difficult to test in an uncontaminated there are large numbers of bystanders
way. Herein lies a fundamental difference (Latane & Barley, 1970) may increase one's
between the natural and the social sciences. desire to offer his services under such condi-
In the former, the scientist cannot typically tions; knowing that motivational arousal can
communicate his knowledge to the subjects influence one's interpretation of events (cf.
of his study such that their behavioral dis- Jones & Gerard, 1967) may engender caution
positions are modified. In the social sciences when arousal is high. In each instance,
such communication can have a vital impact knowledge increases alternatives to action, and
on behavior. previous patterns of behavior are modified
A single example may suffice here. It ap- or dissolved.
pears that over a wide variety of conditions,
decision-making groups come to make riskier Escape to Freedom
decisions through group discussion (cf. Dion, The historical invalidation of psychological
Baron, & Miller, 1970; Wallach, Kogan, & theory can be further traced to commonly
Bern, 1964). Investigators in this area are observed sentiments within western culture.
quite careful that experimental subjects are Of major importance is the general distress
not privy to their thinking on this matter. If people seem to feel at the diminution of their
knowledgeable, subjects might insulate them- response alternatives. As Fromm (1941) saw
selves from the effects of group discussion or it, normal development includes the acquisi-
respond appropriately in order to gain the tion of strong motives toward autonomy.
experimenter's favor. However, should the Weinstein and Platt (1969) discussed much
risky shift become common knowledge, naive the same sentiment in terms of "man's wish
subjects would become unobtainable. Mem- to be free," and linked this disposition to
bers of the culture might consistently com- the developing social structure. Brehm (1966)
pensate for risky tendencies produced by used this same disposition as the cornerstone
group discussion until such behavior became of his theory of psychological reactance. The
normative. prevalence of this learned value has important
As a general surmise, sophistication as to implications for the long-term validity of
psychological principles liberates one from social psychological theory.
their behavioral implications. Established Valid theories about social behavior con-
principles of behavior become inputs into stitute significant implements of social con-
one's decision making. As Winch (1958) has trol. To the extent that an individual's be-
pointed out, "Since understanding something havior is predictable, he places himself in a
involves understanding its contradiction, position of vulnerability. Others can alter
someone who, with understanding, performs environmental conditions or their behavior
X must be capable of envisioning the pos- toward him to obtain maximal rewards at
sibility of doing not X [p. 891." Psycho- minimal costs to themselves. In the same
logical principles also sensitize one to influ- way that a military strategist lays himself
ences acting on him and draw attention to open to defeat when his actions become pre-
certain aspects of the environment and him- dictable, an organizational official can be
self. In doing so, one's patterns of behavior taken advantage of by his inferiors and wives
may be strongly influenced. As May (1971) manipulated by errant husbands when their
has stated more passionately, "Each of us behavior patterns are reliable. Knowledge
314 KENNETH J. GERGEN

thus becomes power in the hands of others. reserved for a selected elite. This elite would,
It follows that psychological principles pose of course, be co-opted by the state, as no
a potential threat to all those for whom they government could risk the existence of a pri-
are germane. Investments in freedom may vate establishment developing tools of public
thus potentiate behavior designed to invali- control. For most of us, such a prospect is
date the theory. We are satisfied with prin- repugnant, and our inclination instead is to
ciples of attitude change until we find them seek a scientific solution to the problem of
being used in information campaigns dedi- historical dependency. Such an answer is sug-
cated to changing our behavior. At this point, gested by much that has been said. If people
we may feel resentful and react recalci- who are psychologically enlightened react to
trantly. The more potent the theory is in general principles by contradicting them,
predicting behavior, the broader its public conforming to them, ignoring them, and so
dissemination and the more prevalent and on, then it should be possible to establish
resounding the reaction. Thus, strong theo- the conditions under which these various re-
ries may be subject to more rapid invalidation actions will occur. Based on notions of psy-
than weak ones. chological reactance (Brehm, 1966), self-
The common value of personal freedom is fulfilling prophecies (Merton, 1948), and
not the only pervasive sentiment affecting expectancy effects (Gergen & Taylor, 1969),
the mortality of social psychological theory. we might construct a general theory of re-
In western culture there seems to be heavy actions to theory. A psychology of enlighten-
value placed on uniqueness or individuality. ment effects should enable us to predict and
The broad popularity of both Erikson control the effects of knowledge.
(1968) and Allport (1965) can be traced in Although a psychology of enlightenment
part to their strong support of this value, and effects seems a promising adjunct to general
recent laboratory research (Fromkin, 1970, theories, its utility is seriously limited. Such
1972) has demonstrated the strength of this a psychology can itself be invested with
value in altering social behavior. Psycho- value, increase our behavioral alternatives,
logical theory, in its nomothetic structure, is and may be resented because of its threats to
insensitive to unique occurrences. Individuals feelings of autonomy. Thus, a theory that
are treated as exemplars of larger classes. A predicts reactions to theory is also susceptible
common reaction is that psychological theory to violation or vindication. A frequent occur-
is dehumanizing, and as Maslow (1968) has rence in parent-child relations illustrates the
noted, patients harbor a strong resentment at point. Parents are accustomed to using
being rubricated or labeled with conventional direct rewards in order to influence the be-
clinical terms. Similarly, blacks, women, ac- havior of their children. Over time, children
tivists, suburbanites, educators, and the become aware of the adult's premise that the
elderly have all reacted bitterly to explana- reward will achieve the desired results and
tions of their behavior. Thus, we may strive become obstinate. The adult may then react
to invalidate theories that ensnare us in their with a naive psychology of enlightenment
impersonal way. effects and express disinterest in the child's
carrying out the activity, again with the
Psychology of Enlightenment Effects intent of achieving the desired ends. The
Thus far we have discussed three ways in child may respond appropriately but often
which social psychology alters the behavior it enough will blurt out some variation of, "you
seeks to study. Before moving to a second are just saying you don't care because you
set of arguments for the historical depen- really want me to do it." In Loevinger's
dency of psychological theory, we must deal (1959) terms, " . . . a shift in parentman-
with an important means of combatting the ship is countered by a shift in childmanship
effects thus far described. To preserve the [p. 149]." In the popular idiom, this is
transhistorical validity of psychological prin- termed reverse psychology and is often re-
ciples, the science could be removed from the sented. Of course, one could counter with
public domain and scientific understanding research on reactions to the psychology of
SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY AS HISTORY 315

enlightenment effects, but it is quickly seen are critical of the common tendency to search
that this exchange of actions and reactions out others' opinions in denning self and they
could be extended indefinitely. A psychology attempt to change society through their criti-
of enlightenment effects is subject to the cism. In effect, the entire line of research
same historical limitations as other theories appears to depend on a set of learned pro-
of social psychology. pensities, propensities that could be altered
by time and circumstance.
PSYCHOLOGICAL THEORY AND In the same way, cognitive dissonance
CULTURAL CHANGE theory depends on the assumption that people
The argument against transhistorical laws cannot tolerate contradictory cognitions. The
in social psychology does not solely rest on a basis of such intolerance does not seem
consideration of the impact of science on so- genetically given. There are certainly indi-
ciety. A second major line of thought deserves viduals who feel quite otherwise about such
consideration. If we scan the most promi- contradictions. Early existentialist writers, for
nent lines of research during the past decade, example, celebrated the inconsistent act.
we soon realize that the observed regulari- Again, we must conclude that the theory is
ties, and thus the major theoretical prin- predictive because of the state of learned dis-
ciples, are firmly wedded to historical cir- positions existing at the time. Likewise,
cumstances. The historical dependency of Schachter's (19S9) work on affiliation is sub-
psychological principles is most notable in ject to the arguments made in the case of
areas of focal concern to the public. Social social comparison theory. Milgram's (1965)
psychologists have been much concerned, for obedience phenomenon is certainly dependent
example, with isolating predictors of political on contemporary attitudes toward authority.
activism during the past decade (cf. Mankoff In attitude change research, communicator
& Flacks, 1971; Soloman & Fishman, 1964). credibility is a potent factor because we
However, as one scans this literature over have learned to rely on authorities in our
time, numerous inconsistencies are found. culture, and the communicated message be-
Variables that successfully predicted political comes dissociated from its source over time
activism during the early stages of the (Kelman & Hovland, 1953) because it does
Vietnam war are dissimilar to those which not prove useful to us at present to retain the
successfully predicted activism during later association. In conformity research, people
periods. The conclusion seems clear that the conform more to friends than nonfriends
factors motivating activism changed over (Back, 1951) partly because they have
time. Thus, any theory of political activism learned that friends punish deviance in con-
built from early findings would be invalidated temporary society. Research on causal attri-
by later findings. Future research on political bution (cf. Jones, Davis, & Gergen, 1961;
activism will undoubtedly find still other Kelley, 1971) depends on the culturally de-
predictors more useful. pendent tendency to perceive man as the
Such alterations in functional relationship source of his actions. This tendency can
are not in principle limited to areas of be modified (Hallowell, 1958) and some
immediate public concern. For example, (Skinner, 1971) have indeed argued that it
Festinger's (1957) theory of social compari- should be.
son and the extensive line of deductive re- Perhaps the primary guarantee that social
search (cf. Latan6, 1966) are based on the psychology will never disappear via reduction
dual assumption that (a) people desire to to physiology is that physiology cannot ac-
evaluate themselves accurately, and (b) in count for the variations in human behavior
order to do so they compare themselves with over time. People may prefer bright shades
others. There is scant reason to suspect that of clothing today and grim shades tomorrow;
such dispositions are genetically determined, they may value autonomy during this era
and we can easily imagine persons, and indeed and dependency during the next. To be sure,
societies, for which these assumptions would varying responses to the environment rely
not hold. Many of our social commentators on variations in physiological function. How-
316 KENNETH J. GERGEN

ever, physiology can never specify the nature However, it is also apparent that reinforc-
of the stimulus inputs or the response con- ers do not remain stable across time. For ex-
text to which the individual is exposed. It ample, Reisman (1952) has cogently argued
can never account for the continuously shift- that social approval has far more reward
ing patterns of what is considered the good value in contemporary society than it did a
or desirable in society, and thus a range of century ago. And while national pride might
primary motivational sources for the indi- have been a potent reinforcer of late ado-
vidual. However, while social psychology is lescent behavior in the 1940's, for contempo-
thus insulated from physiological reduction- rary youth such an appeal would probably be
ism, its theories are not insulated from aversive. In effect, the essential circularity in
historical change. reinforcement theory may at any time be re-
It is possible to infer from this latter set instigated. As reinforcement value changes,
of arguments a commitment to at least one so does the predictive validity of the basic
theory of transhistorical validity. It has been assumption.
argued that the stability in interaction pat- Reinforcement theory faces additional his-
terns upon which most of our theories rest torical limitations when we consider its more
is dependent on learned dispositions of limited precise specification. Similar to most other
duration. This implicitly suggests the pos- theories of human interaction, the theory is
sibility of a social learning theory transcend- subject to ideological investment. The notion
ing historical circumstance. However, such a that behavior is wholly governed by external
conclusion is unwarranted. Let us consider, contingency is seen by many as vulgarly de-
for example, an elementary theory of rein- meaning. Knowledge of the theory also en-
forcement. Few would doubt that most people ables one to avoid being ensnared by its pre-
are responsive to the reward and punishment dictions. As behavior modification therapists
contingencies in their environment, and it is are aware, people who are conversant with its
difficult to envision a time in which this would theoretical premises can subvert its intended
not be true. Such premises thus seem trans- effects with facility. Finally, because the the-
historically valid, and a primary task of the ory has proved so effective in altering the
psychologist might be that of isolating the behavior of lower organisms, it becomes
precise function forms relating patterns of particularly threatening to one's investment
reward and punishment to behavior. in autonomy. In fact, most of us would resent
This conclusion suffers on two important another's attempt to shape our behavior
counts. Many critics of reinforcement theory through reinforcement techniques and would
have charged that the definition of reward bend ourselves to confounding the offender's
(and punishment) is circular. Reward is typi- expectations. In sum, the elaboration of rein-
cally defined as that which increases the fre- forcement theory is no less vulnerable to en-
quency of responding; response increment is lightenment effects than other theories of
defined as that which follows reward. Thus, human interaction.
the theory seems limited to post hoc interpre-
tation. Only when behavior change has oc- IMPLICATIONS FOR AN HISTORICAL SCIENCE
curred can one specify the reinforcer. The OF SOCIAL BEHAVIOR
most significant rejoinder to this criticism lies In light of the present arguments, the con-
in the fact that once rewards and punishments tinued attempt to build general laws of social
have been inductively established, they gain behavior seems misdirected, and the associ-
predictive value. Thus, isolating social ap- ated belief that knowledge of social interac-
proval as a positive reinforcer for human tion can be accumulated in a manner similar
behavior was initially dependent on post hoc to the natural sciences appears unjustified. In
observation. However, once established as a essence, the study of social psychology is pri-
reinforcer, social approval proved a successful marily an historical undertaking. We are es-
means of modifying behavior on a predictive sentially engaged in a systematic account of
basis (cf. Barron, Heckenmueller, & Schultz, contemporary affairs. We utilize scientific
1971; Gewirtz & Baer, 1958). methodology, but the results are not scien-
SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY AS HISTORY 317
tific principles in the traditional sense. In the intensive focus on contemporary social issues,
future, historians may look back to such ac- based on the application of scientific methods
counts to achieve a better understanding of and conceptual tools of broad generality.
life in the present era. However, the psycholo-
gists of the future are likely to find little of From Prediction to Sensitization
value in contemporary knowledge. These ar- The central aim of psychology is tradi-
guments are not purely academic and are not tionally viewed as the prediction and control
limited to a simple redefinition of the science. of behavior. From the present standpoint, this
Implied here are significant alterations in the aim is misleading and provides little justifica-
activity of the field. Five such alterations tion for research. Principles of human be-
deserve attention. havior may have limited predictive value
across time, and their very acknowledgment
Toward an Integration of the Pure and can render them impotent as tools of social
Applied control. However, prediction and control need
A pervasive prejudice against applied re- not serve as the cornerstones of the field.
search exists among academic psychologists, Psychological theory can play an exceedingly
a prejudice that is evident in the pure re- important role as a sensitizing device. It can
search focus of prestige journals and in the enlighten one as to the range of factors po-
dependency of promotion and tenure on con- tentially influencing behavior under various
tributions to pure as opposed to applied re- conditions. Research may also provide some
search. In part, this prejudice is based on the estimate of the importance of these factors at
assumption that applied research is of tran- a given time. Whether it be in the domain of
sient value. While it is limited to solving im- public policy or personal relationships, social
mediate problems, pure research is viewed as psychology can sharpen one's sensitivity to
contributing to basic and enduring knowledge. subtle influences and pinpoint assumptions
From the present standpoint, such grounds about behavior that have not proved useful in
for prejudice are not merited. The knowledge the past.
that pure research bends itself to establish is When counsel is sought from the social
also transient; generalizations in the pure psychologist regarding likely behavior in any
research area do not generally endure. To the concrete situation, the typical reaction is
extent that generalizations from pure research apology. It must be explained that the field
have greater transhistorical validity, they is not sufficiently well developed at present so
may be reflecting processes of peripheral in- that reliable predictions can be made. From
terest or importance to the functioning of so- the present standpoint, such apologies are
ciety. inappropriate. The field can seldom yield
Social psychologists are trained in using principles from which reliable predictions can
tools of conceptual analysis and scientific be made. Behavior patterns are under con-
methodology in explaining human interac- stant modification. However, what the field
tion. However, given the sterility of perfect- can and should provide is research informing
ing general principles across time, these tools the inquirer of a number of possible occur-
would seem more productively used in solving rences, thus expanding his sensitivities and
problems of immediate importance to the so- readying him for more rapid accommodation
ciety. This is not to imply that such research to environmental change. It can provide con-
must be parochial in scope. One major short- ceptual and methodological tools with which
coming of much applied research is that the more discerning judgments can be made.
terms used to describe and explain are often
relatively concrete and specific to the case Developing Indicators of Psycho-Social
at hand. While the concrete behavioral acts Dispositions
studied by academic psychologists are often Social psychologists evidence a continuous
more trivial, the explanatory language is concern with basic psychological processes,
highly general and thus more broadly heur- that is, processes influencing a wide and varied
istic. Thus, the present arguments suggest an range of social behavior. Modeling the experi-
318 KENNETH J. GERGEN

mental psychologist's concern with basic closely tied to physiological givens. Schach-
processes of color vision, language acquisition, ter's (1970) research on emotional states ap-
memory, and the like, social psychologists pears to have a strong physiological basis, as
have focused on such processes as cognitive does Hess's (1965) work on affect and pupil-
dissonance, aspiration level, and causal attri- lary constriction. Although learned disposi-
bution. However, there is a profound differ- tions can overcome the strength of some
ence between the processes typically studied physiological tendencies, such tendencies
in the general experimental and social do- should tend to reassert themselves over time.
mains. In the former instance, the processes Still other physiological propensities may be
are often locked into the organism biologi- irreversible. There may also be acquired dis-
cally; they are not subject to enlightenment positions that are sufficiently powerful that
effects and are not dependent on cultural neither enlightenment nor historical change is
circumstance. In contrast, most of the proc- likely to have a major impact. People will
esses falling in the social domain are de- generally avoid physically painful stimuli,
pendent on acquired dispositions subject to regardless of their sophistication or the cur-
gross modification over time. rent norms. We must think, then, in terms of
In this light, it is a mistake to consider a continuum of historical durability, with
the processes in social psychology as basic in phenomena highly susceptible to historical in-
the natural science sense. Rather, they may fluence at one extreme and the more stable
largely be considered the psychological coun- processes at the other.
terpart of cultural norms. In the same way a In this light, much needed are research
sociologist is concerned with measuring party methods enabling us to discern the relative
preferences or patterns of mobility over time, durability of social phenomena. Cross-cultural
the social psychologist might attend to the methods could be employed in this capacity.
changing patterns of psychological disposi- Although cross-cultural replication is frought
tions and their relationship to social behavior. with difficulty, similarity in a given function
If dissonance reduction is an important form across widely divergent cultures would
process, then we should be in a position to strongly attest to its durability across time.
measure the prevalence and strength of such Content analytic techniques might also be
a disposition within the society over time and employed in examining accounts of earlier his-
the preferred modes of dissonance reduction torical periods. Until now, such accounts have
existing at any given time. If esteem en- provided little except quotations indicating
hancement appears to influence social inter- that some great thinker presaged a pet hy-
action, then broad studies of the culture pothesis. We have yet to tap the vast quan-
should reveal the extent of the disposition, tities of information regarding interaction
its strength in various subcultures, and the patterns in earlier periods. Although enhanced
forms of social behavior with which it is most sophistication about behavior patterns across
likely associated at any given time. Although space and time would furnish valuable in-
laboratory experiments are well suited to the sights regarding durability, difficult problems
isolation of particular dispositions, they are present themselves. Some behavior patterns
poor indicators of the range and significance may remain stable until closely scrutinized;
of the processes in contemporary social life. others may simply become dysfunctional over
Much needed are methodologies tapping the time. Man's reliance on a concept of deity has
prevalence, strength, and form of psycho- a long history and is found in numerous cul-
social dispositions over time. In effect, a tech- tures; however, many are skeptical about the
nology of psychologically sensitive social in- future of this reliance. Assessments of dura-
dicators (Bauer, 1969) is required. bility would thus have to account for poten-
tial as well as actual stability in phenomena.
Research on Behavioral Stability While research into more durable disposi-
Social phenomena may vary considerably tions is highly valuable, we should not there-
in the extent to which they are subject to fore conclude that it is either more useful or
historical change. Certain phenomena may be desirable than studying passing behavior pat-
SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY AS HISTORY 319

terns. The major share of the variance in BAUER, R. (Ed.) Social indicators. Cambridge, Mass.:
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BREHM, J. W. A theory of psychological reactance.
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CARR, E. H. What is history? New York: Knopf,
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