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As a preface to any review of this text, it must be noted that this book is intended for an extremely narrow audience. Social psychologists will be challenged by Greenwood's strong claim that "contemporary American social psychology has virtually abandoned the study of the social dimensions of psychological states and behavior" (2004, 1). Philosophers and historians of science will find that this book offers a comprehensive, and most importantly, a critical history of social psychology and how the discipline has developed its conception of "the social."
On that note, and as a way of spelling out the purpose of the book, I would like to elaborate on precisely what Greenwood means by the term "social" and what he sees as the domain of social psychological investigation. Greenwood does not equate sociality with publicity (as opposed to the privacy of individual psychological states) (22), nor does he equate the social with the interpersonal (126), an equivocation which Gordon Allport would famously establish for social psychologists (1954). Greenwood's notion of the social is summed up best:
Social cognition, emotion, and behavior are forms of cognition, emotion, and behavior engaged by individual persons because and on condition that they represent other members of a social group as engaging these forms of cognition, emotion, and behavior in similar circumstances. (2004, 18)
Unlike other conceptions of the social, it should be noted that Greenwood's definition means that what is social is inherently normative: social behaviors are social insofar as the individual is under some influence to engage in them because of their group membership.
The early chapters of Greenwood's book are devoted to showing that this conception of the social was central to social psychology (and sociology) for nearly a half century, until American theorists would propose different conceptions of the social. Beginning with Wundt's Völkerpsychologie (Ch. 3) and Durkheim's conception of social facts (Ch. 4), social science took an early interest in the ways in which group membership and culture determined individual psychology. Greenwood advances an important argument that Durkheim, like Wundt and Weber, is interested in explaining social facts at the level of the individual (instead of in terms of large-scale group mentality or institutional explanations).
I will spare the details of the historical account, which Greenwood establishes with both clarity and style for the majority of the book. The important lesson Greenwood tries to draw from the history following Wundt and Durkheim is simply that this original conception of the social no longer has any place in social psychology (244). As a reader, however, I am left with a question that Greenwood does not answer: why is this important?
Greenwood clearly establishes that there was some conception of the social and that American social psychology stopped being concerned with it, but why is this a loss? Greenwood offers no substantive argument for the claim that we should prefer the original conception of the social from Wundt and Durkheim, stating explicitly that the task of the book is not to condemn social psychology for this change in focus (9). Greenwood does make moves to show that experimental social psychology, in changing focus to interpersonal and experimental group psychology, could no longer study the social, as Wundt and Durkheim conceived it (183). Assembling random individuals to study social normativity will inevitably miss the importance of the historical process of developing as a member of certain groups, being socialized in certain values, and acting on them socially (a la the Wundt/Durkheim paradigm). But clearly there is still something social about experimental groups (as per the Allport paradigm, which sees the social as interpersonal). The influence of the other members of the group will affect a member and this is still a kind of social influence.
Perhaps then the best way to take Greenwood's project is merely as a suggestion that there are some phenomena, which are distinctly social, that social psychology cannot study with its current methodologies. I take it that this fairly controversial thesis is what Greenwood intends by his critical history, and not the stronger claim that his conception of the social is to be preferred. However as a final note: cultural psychology is doing explicitly what Greenwood denies social psychology is doing by specifically engaging in a Wundtian project (257).
Greenwood's comments on cultural psychology are disparaging: e.g. "[N]one of Cole's work demonstrates culturally or historically local forms of psychological functioning" (258), but I think these criticisms lack any serious support. The criticisms Greenwood levels against cultural psychology turn on the distinction between the social and the cultural. Cultural psychology, as Greenwood sees it, is committed to the claim that "the psychologies of different social groups in different times and places are themselves different," which he claims social psychology is not committed to (256). I don't think either cultural psychology nor social psychology need to deny or affirm this claim, especially given that empirical research can investigate the socio-cultural contingencies of individual psychology without the assumption of universal or transcendental psychological facts. As Greenwood notes, this may be an empirical matter (257) or it may simply be a theoretical dispute outside of either discipline.
To conclude, it is worth noting that Greenwood's book is an extremely strong critical history of social psychology. Greenwood demonstrates without a doubt that there is something clearly social which most contemporary social psychology (excepting cultural psychology) cannot or will not study. I disagree with Greenwood's further claim that this paradigm shift means that contemporary social psychology has lost something central, though I agree it is incomplete. The same could be said, of course, for a purely Wundtian paradigm that had nothing to say about interpersonal psychology, and so contra Greenwood I think the important lesson here is that we need to engage in the study of the social at several levels.
Allport, G. W. (1954). The historical background of modern social psychology. In G. Lindzey (Ed.), Handbook of social psychology. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
© 2009 Lucas Keefer
Lucas Keefer is currently a graduate student studying philosophy and psychology at Georgia State University. His primary interests include social psychology, phenomenology, and philosophy of mind. He can be reached at email@example.com