Social Psychology: Experimental and Critical Approaches

Social Psychology: Experimental and Critical Approaches

Social Psychology: Experimental and Critical Approaches

Social Psychology: Experimental and Critical Approaches


This introductory social psychology textbook is unique. It acknowledges the two very different approaches being taken to social psychology – experimental and critical – and presents them together in a single, coherent text. No attempt is made to find a cosy 'integration' between them; rather, students explore the benefits and drawbacks of each.

The book encourages students to develop their skills of critical analysis by addressing such questions as:

· What is social psychology: a natural science, a social science, a human science or something else?
· How should social psychology be studied: by doing experiments or by analysing discourse?

The book has a number of features that provide a broad context for addressing these questions:

· An introduction to the experimental approach, including the study of social influence, attitudes, attribution, groups, language and communication
· An introduction to the critical approach, including semiotics, social constructionist and grounded theories, and discourse and narrative analyses
· An exploration of the historical origins and development of the two approaches, their philosophical bases and the contrasting 'logics of enquiry' they use to pursue empirical research

By studying experimental and critical approaches presented together rather than separately, students gain a richer and deeper understanding of what social psychology in the 21st century is about, where it is going and the issues it must address.


This book is an unusual one. As far as I know it is the only social psychology introductory textbook that seeks to bring together the mainstream approach – largely based upon experimental methods – and the emerging approach that I have called 'critical', but is also referred to as 'discursive' and 'social constructionist' social psychology. My purpose in bringing the two together was originally directed towards those introductory courses that are being taught by critical social psychologists. What they said they needed was a text that covered both, since students needed to learn about the mainstream before they could begin to get to grips with the critical. But, with encouragement from Justin Vaughan at Open University Press, it became gradually clearer that there was also a need being expressed by mainstream social psychologists to include coverage of critical work in their introductory courses.

What I have tried to do, therefore, is to construct a book that steers a rather difficult path – one that aims to do justice to each approach, that relates them to each other, but, crucially, does not pretend they can be integrated. The terminology I have used throughout the book is to say there is no 'fluffy bunny' solution to the conflict between them. By this I mean that it is not possible to achieve a comfortable compromise position that makes everybody feel all warm and cuddly – one where the 'best of both' can be brought together into some 'new, improved' social psychology. They are, fundamentally, incommensurable with and opposed to each other. As I set out in Chapter 2, they are based on two conflicting epistemologies (theories of the nature of knowledge and how it can be obtained) and two conflicting ontologies (theories of what things 'are' in the world, here, particularly, of the nature of the social world and people's relationship to it) that cannot be reconciled.

This has been, as they say, 'challenging' – or, to put it bluntly, incredibly difficult and at times frustrating. I have changed the structure of the book to accommodate this tension more times than I can bear to recall. The eventual design I have arrived at is as follows.

In the first part of the book, the first three chapters – I have called them 'Starting points' – set out the two approaches and clarify the main differences between them. Chapter 1 starts by reviewing the main 'bones of contention' between them – about whether or not social psychology should be a Science, about the ideological foundations of and issues raised by contemporary social psychology as it is taught and practised, and its aims to 'make the world a better place'. Next the chapter examines the two overarching paradigms within each approach is set – experimental social psychology in Modernism, and . . .

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