The Difficult Way of Social Psychology in Russia

By Andreeva, Galina M. | Psychology in Russia, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Difficult Way of Social Psychology in Russia


Andreeva, Galina M., Psychology in Russia


This paper is dedicated to the characteristics of the complicated destiny of social psychology in Russia, something that Western colleagues may be aware of to some degree, but also may be subject to misapprehensions or myths. One of these myths is connected with the belief that there exists a special "Russian" (earlier "Soviet"). When psychology is discussed in regional terms specific countries appear in the scientific literature quite seldom, usually referring only to the "American" social psychology in the case of juxtaposition with "European". Meanwhile the attributions "German", "English" or "Swedish" seem not to be used in any cases (an exception concerns only "French" social psychology because of the fact that many researchers are engaged in some particular theoretical position). So first of all one has to explain the real specificity of social psychology in Russia. For these reasons (and not only because of national mentality) the narration will be rather long, in order to include some historical facts as well as a brief observations of the theoretical and methodological backgrounds. It would be quite difficult to explain the contemporary status of the discipline without that.

The main "landmarks" of the rise and development of social psychology in Russia

In fact it is rather impossible to speak about a "unique" history of social psychology as an academic discipline in Russia before the revolution of 1917. The problems included later in the subject-matter of social psychology were primarily elaborated within sociology (Solovjev, 1874; Sorokin, 1914) or were included into ideological conceptions of social movements and accepted by different social forces. This is the reason that traditionally social psychology was "angagiert" (affected) by ideology.

As to the academic status, one of the first systematic uses of the term "collective (social) psychology" was suggested by the sociologist M. Kovalevsky in the lectures read by V. Bekhterev's proposition in the Psychoneurologic Institute in Petersburg (Kovalevsky, 1910). Other references to social psychology were also to be found in sociological or public literature (Petrashicky, 1908; Michailovsky, et al. 1906-1914), and then in psychological works. In this case the connection with social-political movements was expressed less strongly. The most prominent contribution within this tradition was made by V.M. Bechterev (Bechterev, 1903). He defined for the first time the subject-matter of social psychology ("collective reflexology") and described one of the most important mechanism of influence - suggestion - studied both at the individual and collective level. Bechterev also organized the first university course in sociology where the relationships between sociology and social psychology were embraced.

In summary, the development of the social-psychological ideas in pre-revolutional Russia occurred predominantly not within the psychology but within the wider spectrum of social sciences. And here one has to look for the roots of the transformation in the history of social psychology which took place after the revolution of 1917.

Social Psychology in the USSR

The history of Soviet social psychology witnessed two stages of discussion concerning the subject-matter of the discipline: the 1920s and the late 1950-early 1960s. Both of these stages are interesting both from a historical point of view and because they help better understand the place social psychology occupies in the system of scientific knowledge and provide for a more precise definition of its content.

In the 1920s, that is in the first years of Soviet power, the discussion was stimulated by two circumstances. On the one hand, life in the new- ly-formed social structures required a solution to the problems relevant to social psychology. On the other hand, socio-psychological knowledge came to the orbit of the acute ideological struggle of those years. The content of this struggle was connected with a demand of reconstructing of the whole system of social sciences on the philosophical base of Marxism. …

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