Although a standard definition of social psychology is not likely to emerge soon, understanding the history and the different philosophies that provide the foundation for contemporary social psychology clarifies understanding of the field while offering insight into how individuals and others dynamically influence one another in the context. This section provides a brief overview of critical historical phases and events that contributed to contemporary social psychology and explores vital research that contributes to understanding human interaction through a social psychology perspective.
Officially born in the early 20th century, when two textbooks titled “Social Psychology” presented distinctly different perspectives, the new science started similarly to any philosophy or religion. In short, the definition of truth was in the eyes of the beholder.
From the perspective of a sociologist, Edward Ross (1919) saw social psychology as a study of the “psychic planes and currents that come into existence among men in consequence of their association.” To Ross, the purpose of social psychology was to explain “uniformities in feeling, belief, or volition… which are due to the interaction of human beings” (p. 1). Ross focused on the collective mind, exploring how mob mentality, fads, and other collective behaviors influence individuals.
From the perspective of a biologist, William McDougall (1919) saw social psychology as the expression of the generalized individual. To McDougall, social behavior was a product of instinct rooted in the individual's biological nature and universal to all. Social psychology shows the combination of inherent nature and external influence that shapes the “complex mental life” of society (p. 24).
Albert Pepitone (1981) would argue that neither approach provided a foundation for supporting theory and research; neither instinct nor collective mind offers an adequate basis for social psychology research. Ross and McDougall pioneered a science for understanding human behavior. However, Durkheim, Weber, and Marx's sociological perspectives influenced modern social psychology practice more than its founders' views.