What are the key differences between the work done by Social Psychologists and Sociologists? Both examine specific factors that contribute to behavioral and group phenomena.
It could be argued that sociology is largely a qualitative field of study (observation, focus groups, interviews), while social psych is mostly quantitative (applied experiments with statistical analysis). But the real difference may much more subtle yet highly significant. We can attempt to draw distinction on the nature of the theoretical questions posed, but we would just be splitting hairs. In fact, there’s sharing theoretically; Sociologists cite Social Psychology theories and vise versa.
The major difference is to be found in “go to” research methods. Experiments continued to be the “gold standard” for Social Psychologists. According to psychologist Gordon Allport, social psychology is a discipline that uses scientific methods (experiments) "to understand and explain how the thought, feeling and behavior of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of other human beings" (1985).
Most sociologists employ non-experimental methods to look at social behavior and influences at a very broad-based level. Sociologists are interested in the institutions and cultures that influence how people behave. Psychologists instead focus on situational variables that affect social behavior. Hence, while social psychology and sociology both study similar topics, they are looking at these topics from different perspectives and using different methods.
What About Cross-Cultural Psychology? • Cross-Cultural psychology can be the link, not just with sociology but with social science generally. • My own contention is that cross-cultural psychology can act as a culture broker to help bring social psychology in contact with social science and the psychologies of other societies.
North American social psychology and Michael Doonesbury have much in common: they are white, middle class, educated, idealistic (but practical), likable, interesting. They are also naive, culturally pristine, politically ineffectual, and out of touch with social processes that are bigger than themselves. They seem to inhabit a charmed world that only occasionally intersects with the many other worlds on this planet. Their responses to these intersections, rare as they may be, are predictably disconcerting.
Research Demonstrations My own early work support the need for cross-cultural studies with ethnic subgroups as an effective way of challenging the assumed universality of social psychology theories. In a study published in 1977 we demonstrated that generally accepted casual attributions theories are valid only for mainstream American populations, but fall apart when applied to ethnic minority populations. But this study was not a true experiment and published in the J Cross-Cultural Psychology, not a top tier journal at the time.
In Search of the Right Study What we needed was a study that addressed cultural concerns while employing traditional experimental methodology. The brainchild was reactions to praise and criticism as a function of ethnic background (culture) and locus of control (personality). Previous research had examined nonverbal feedback such as the illumination of the words “right” or “wrong”. We wanted to employ verbal feedback in an experimental setting.
Previous research dealing with reactions to positive versus negative feedback had virtually ignored socio-cultural factors and not fully considered the interactive effects of personality constructs such as locus of control. Our study was designed to investigate reactions to praise and criticism among members of two ethnic groups who were either “internal” or “externa” in their perceptions of locus of control.
Method Subjects were recruited to take part in a “Problem Solving” experiment. Subjects first completed the locus of control scale (Rotter, 1966), “ a short personality test that may be related to performance on the problem solving task”, On a large table located on the other side of the experimental room were various games, dice, and playing cards creating the distinct impression that we were investigating different forms of problem solving.
Method (cont.) Once the subjects completed the locus of control scale, the experimenter consulted his notes and informed all subjects that they had been assigned to work on “the wooden block puzzle”. Tested individually, subjects were shown a completed puzzle along with one that was apart. They were told that all the pieces were there to put together the puzzle. Subjects were given exactly two minutes to work on the puzzle. Pilot-testing had shown that the puzzle could not be completed within the allotted time.
Method (cont.) • Subjects were stopped after two minutes and told that our study was not about completing the puzzle, but about the problem solving strategies that were being used. • After pausing and looking at notes he had been taking while the subject was working on the puzzle, the Experimenter said, “I’ve been taking notes and can let you know how you did, if you like”. • All subjects wanted the feedback. • Based on random assignment, subjects were given one of the following two feedback conditions.
Praise “ You did very well. You demonstrated a great deal of insight. Your problem-solving strategies reflect a great deal of complexity in your thinking. You did very well.”
Criticism “ You didn’t do very well. You demonstrated very little insight. Your problem-solving strategies reflect very little complexity in your thinking. You didn’t do very well.”
Dependent Measure From the subjects’ perspective, the Study ended with the feedback, but we needed to collect data on their reactions. Using the “Oh, by the way” method, the Experimenter handed the subjects a copy of a “Psychology Experiment Evaluation Form” just as they attempted to get up from the chair. Subjects were asked to complete the form in an adjacent room and to turn it to the Psychology Department office.
Upon turning the completed form, subjects were given an envelope containing a letter explaining the true purpose of the experiment. The debriefing materials made it absolutely clear to the subjects that the feedback they received was completely arbitrary and not reflective of their true performance and capabilities.