Introduction - Social psychology

Psychology: an introduction (Oxford Southern Africa) - Leslie Swartz 2011

Social psychology

Garth Stevens

Given that humans are social beings, and that psychology is the study of human behaviour, it is safe to say that psychology is always social. However, social psychology is the sub-discipline of psychology that deals with the way in which individuals and groups interact as social beings within various contexts. Most contemporary definitions of social psychology present it as the field that examines how people affect one another’s behaviours, thoughts and feelings, but it also examines how human behaviour is shaped by social contexts, and how humans interpret these social contexts and shape them in turn.

This part of the book does not favour a particular approach to social psychology, but engages specifically with some of the most pertinent social phenomena that influence, and are influenced by, human behaviour in the South African and global contexts. Rather than attempting to comprehensively review every facet of social psychology, it draws on significant findings and debates from experimental social psychology, political psychology, critical psychology, gender studies, peace psychology and public health. In so doing, it attempts to highlight the most salient forms of social organisation within contemporary social contexts and how they interface with human behaviour. It furthermore provides students with a useful introduction to the diverse areas of study and practice that can potentially constitute the field of social psychology.

Chapter 16 describes the concept of interpersonal attraction. It is a key component of social psychology. This chapter explains the differences between internal and external determinants of attraction and explains the different attachment styles in intimate relationships.

Chapter 17 focuses on groups. One of the primary ways in which humans’ social nature is expressed, demonstrated and influenced is through group behaviour. This chapter concentrates on some of the basic concepts associated with the study of groups, and outlines properties that are applicable to groups in general. It reviews small-group dynamics and processes, and discusses various theories applicable to social groups.

Chapter 18 discusses poverty as a social-psychological phenomenon. Despite the fact that this area has not traditionally been covered in social psychology sections, the chapter reveals that the pervasive impact of poverty on the lives and behaviours of ordinary people warrants such a focus. It reviews local and global statistics on poverty and shows how poverty is related to physical ill health. It discusses the dangers of attributing mental ill health to poverty, and details how poor people deal with the challenges of poverty, individually and collectively. Finally, it discusses how both rich and poor people are affected by the psychological effects of consumer culture, the depletion of social capital and cultural imperialism.

Chapter 18 also discusses ethnicity, introducing it as a fluid, dynamic and unfixed social construct. It highlights the integral connectedness between the social and the psychological when examining the particular forms and expressions of ethnicity within different socio-historical contexts. This part of the chapter explores some of the key social-psychological mechanisms involved in the process of defining the Self through the creation of an Other. In addition, it examines the relationship between the acquisition of attitudes and stereotypes, and their frequent expressions through social prejudice, discrimination and violence. The chapter also notes that ethnicity frequently intersects with dominant ideologies that promote a range of social asymmetries — most notably the ideologies of racism, nationalism, anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism.

Chapter 19 examines the relevance of gender and sex within social organisation. This chapter reviews the main psychological theories that account for gender/sex differences, and explores key concepts in the study of gender, such as the differences between ’sex’ and ’gender’, gender roles, stereotypes, socialisation, gender constancy and androgyny. The chapter highlights some of the challenges to gender equity and the ways in which the sources of gender inequality have been theorised.

Chapter 20 introduces the interrelated but distinct areas of violence and traumatic stress. It looks at the social-psychological theory on violence before proposing a systemic model of violence and violence prevention over four levels: the individual, the small group, the community and the society. This chapter goes on to discuss integrated violence-prevention strategies and interventions for survivors of violence. In so doing, the chapter not only identifies a practical response to this endemic, psychosocial priority in South Africa, but also highlights the potential role of psychology in bridging theory and practice as it attempts to contribute to improved health, equity and social well-being among populations.

The final part of Chapter 20 focuses on the active role that psychology can play in the context of peacemaking and peacebuilding. Unlike the preceding chapters, in which the focus is on forms of social organisation that impact on human behaviour, this chapter argues for a more critical conception of the role of psychology in building peace. It reviews the major assumptions underpinning the theory and practice of peace processes, and highlights the conceptual contours that differentiate the concepts of peacemaking and peacebuilding. The chapter concludes with illustrative examples derived from the global context to support and contextualise the theoretical discussion on peacemaking and peacebuilding.