Resisting Social Psycholgy:

Sapsford, R. & Dallos, R.


Chapter 11 in Sapsford, R., Still, A., Wetherell, M., Miell, D., Stevens, R. (Eds.) (1998) Theory and Social Psychology, London, Sage in association with the Open University Press. ps. 191-208.

1.  Introduction

The essential ideological function of   social psychology ... is to depoliticise ... and to present [itself] as a neutral domain of technical expertise ... applied to the benefit of the whole of society.

(Gross, 1974, pp. 42-3)


It is probably fair to say that social and clinical psychology have become well entangled in modern life. For example, it is commonplace to hear elements of behaviourism/learning theory, psychological theories about groups and developmental psychology reflected in ordinary conversations. The language and concepts of psychoanalysis had become common cultural currency by the 1970s. (For the purpose of this chapter, psychodynamic ideas will be accredited to social rather than clinical psychology despite their therapeutic applications; clinical psychology tends to be more behaviourally-oriented.) As Jonathan Potter (1996) says:

'...our common sense is indeed a sediment from past theorising about psychology and the self'. There is evident interest in popular psychology - chat shows, countless articles on personality, sexuality and relationship problems in magazines, and so on - and academic psychology courses are also very popular. (At the time of writing, the Open University has more than 2,600 students a year studying the Introduction to Psychology course, and over 8,000 each year on the psychology programme as a whole.) At one time it could have been argued, with some justice, that the 'customers' of social psychology were not workers, children and delinquents, but industries, schools and control agencies. Now, in contrast, one might want to claim that this extensive popularity and popularisation has the effect of 'giving away' social psychological knowledge to the public at large, rather than making it available 'on prescription only' to controlling groups such as managers, psychiatrists, senior educationalists and the government. It is available in book form, for 'self-medication', to parents bringing up children, to those who want to improve their work and social skills and to those who see themselves as having problems with relationships. 'Professional advice' is very freely available in magazines and on television and radio.


Nonetheless, the element of control remains. In this chapter we shall argue that social psychology still has a control function, exercised in five different ways.

1.     At the level of applied work, social and clinical psychology are used in the 'people trades' - for example, in social work, education and nursing care - as a set of techniques for 'piecemeal social engineering'. They are used to change people, for their own good and that of others, so that they conform to the behaviour and performance expected of them and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Psychology's use in industry, commerce and education to sel­ect the 'right' people for positions and opportunities, to train them to perform at their best and to motivate them to optimum production is an equally clear example of psychology 'exercising control'. Further, social psychology still acts as the informing or validating 'corpus of knowledge' for a range of institutions and agencies whose function is, explicitly or implicitly, the maintenance of social order.


2.     In taking on and exercising these functions, social psychology has fought for and acquired two kinds of authority: the authority of science and a 'professional' authority akin to that exercised by medical practitioners. Both in their different ways lend 'expert power' and influence to academic and applied psychologists (see Chapter 8, earlier in this volume.)


3.     Particularly in the 'people trades' (but sometimes less so in industry and commerce) the practical effect of using psychological techniques is to 'de-politicise' and to 'individuate' - to pose problems and seek solutions at the level of individuals and groups and to propose 'technical' solutions to what might otherwise be seen as moral or political issues - and it teaches this approach to the professionals whom it helps to train and to legitimate.


4.     At the level of social order the 'project' of academic social psychology has often been utopian social engineering - working for a better world by the application of (psychological) science. Such a project is 'obviously' to be applauded, but the world can be reshaped only if you have power; making its improvement a matter of the application of the 'correct technique' tends to mask underlying power transactions.


5.     We shall also argue that social psychology constitutes the basis for an effective mode of social control by inculcating certain ways of thinking about the social world, setting out what is to count as evidence about it and shaping the language of personal and interpersonal relations.


Thus we think it fair to argue that social psychology has a function in social control at two levels. At one level it is directly applied to solve problems and optimise performance, or to train others to do so; at the other level it helps to create and maintain a set of 'models' of the nature of the person and the social world which shape and constrain our actions and our very understanding of ourselves and our needs, potentialities and obligations. However the title of the chapter 'Resisting social psychology' was intended to point in two directions. On the one hand, the controlling force of social psychological thinking and practice may be worthy of being resisted. On the other hand, very often social psychology itself has pointed to the need for resistance and provided the tools with which to resist itself and its applications - in a straightforward way in the 1960s and 1970s, and through increasingly sophisticated and reflexive analysis of ideology and discourse in the 1980s and 1990s. A tradition of resistance forms part of the history of social psychology itself and we shall be looking briefly in this chapter at some episodes in this history.


2. Clinical psychology and 'anti-psychiatry'


...taking what is an essentially political problem, removing it from the realm of political discourse and recasting it in the neutral language of science. Once this is accomplished the problems have become technical ones.

(Foucault, 1982, p. 196)


The most obvious form of control and manipulation occurs in clinical psychology and the psychotherapies, where changing people is the explicit purpose of the enterprise. Clinical psychology has traditionally been considered a separate field of endeavour from social psychology, and both have maintained a separation from psychiatry and psychoanalysis. However, there are important points of connection between all of them. Each has informed the 'body of knowledge' which is social psychology, and each has drawn on it. For example, the psychology of group dynamics has informed group therapy. Likewise, the notion of a dynamic unconscious and the relationship of 'symptoms' to interpersonal processes has informed theory and research in social psychology.


When clinical psychologists discuss clinical work they tend to do so as 'scientists' or 'professionals'. That is, they talk mainly about techniques and their outcomes, and seldom about the location of clinical work within a cultural and moral order. Within this world-view (shared by the therapists and their 'customers') patients or clients can be seen as being defined by others as deviants who need the help of social psychology to bring them into line and help them to conform and, not surprisingly, social psychology has quite a bit to say about the circumstances under which people do conform and the causes of 'deviation'. As an applied branch of a science it is concerned with mechanisms and manipulations, with doing a sound professional job based on sound scientific reasoning. Social psychology has rather less to say about how to encourage people not to conform, to resist pressure, to adopt creatively different lifestyles or modes of thought, etc. There is, indeed, a flourishing tradition within social psychology of research into group pressures and individual resistance to persuasion, but to the best of our knowledge this has had no influence on any form of therapy. Similarly, research and theory on prejudice and stereotyping has had little impact on therapeutic intervention, except to the extent that it may alert therapists to their own precon­ceptions. Indeed, the very presence of 'creative alternatism' has itself often been regarded as symptomatic of a mental illness or moral deviation and in need of cure or reshaping.


During the 1960s and 1970s there was a substantial reaction against 'scientific' approaches to social and clinical psychology and against contemporary applications of psychodynamics to therapy. (The psychodynamics of the time tended very strongly towards individualism and a medical model of 'mental illness', particularly in psychiatric hospital practice. For a more social interpretation see Thomas, 1996a, 1996b.) This reaction originated largely outside social psychology - from a group of radically critical psychiatrists and under the influence of the humanistic movement, which embraced ideas from Eastern philosophies and from existentialism - but it had a considerable impact on social psychologists. Four major objections to the 'scientific' approach emerged, to a greater or lesser extent in different people's work.


1. The experiences of individuals were 'dis-authenticated' - the views and experiences of people labelled as mentally ill, for example, were regarded as unimportant and as not reflecting 'what was really going on’.


2. The reductionism inherent in the scientific approach led to the investigation of behaviours and traits rather than people, so there was no way of understanding people as people within social psychology.


3. The stress on the characteristics and behaviour of individuals (or at best of ahistorical and context-free groups) favoured individualistic explanations over collectivist ones - in itself a political stance - and could be described all too often as 'blaming the victim'.


4. While people's actions and decisions belong essentially to the moral sphere, psychology was doing what is described in the Foucault quote above and reducing these actions to technical problems to be sorted out by experts.


These criticisms reach out further than social psychology, into the professional system of medicine and its focus on internal, organic causes of disorders. However, social psychology played its part in drawing attention to the narrow focus of the psychotherapies on the individual as the primary level of analysis. Talking of 'social causes', clinical psychology and the psychotherapies generally implied that problems were due to faulty learning and poor experiences. In other words, the individual was mis-programmed and needed a good 'systems analyst' to get the programming fixed, and/or to go 'off-line' for a while (perhaps with the help of medication) and then be plugged back 'on-line' again. The psychologist or psychotherapist as 'service engineer' carries out his or her professional function (see Sapsford, 1997, for a discussion of the 'service model' of therapy).


Some of the 'anti-psychiatry movement' made a radical attack on the whole concept of mental illness as something treatable by 'quasi-medicine'. Szasz (1962) for example, in The Myth of Mental Illness, attempts to present 'mental illness' as something more akin to a disarrangement of communication than to a bodily malaise. Others who accepted mental illness as a disorder tended to frame it as a disorder located in a different domain from that of personal or intrapersonal psychology - arguing, for instance, that relational processes within the family and the social order were key to an understanding of disorders. Laing, a psychiatrist and analyst, suggested in his book The Divided Self (1960) that forms of mental illness were linked to destructive interpersonal processes and formed 'in­telligible responses to difficult social circumstances'. These included disorders of relationship in families in which people (especially women and children) would find themselves trapped. So the trouble was not inside individuals but in the transactions between members of the family. This still left therapy focused on failures of relationship in the family. Laing and others did attempt to extend this focus by looking at how these family processes were, in turn, a product of the contradictions, inequalities and abuses inherent in society and internalised into family life. (This was an early signalling of the feminist critiques and analysis of for example, how women suffer in families because of the material and ideological oppression of patriarchy.) Interestingly, Hollingshead and Redlitch (1958) had offered a similar analysis of the correlation between serious mental illness and poverty/class inequality - that the poorest and most deprived have the worst mental as well as physical health.


Some of the radical offshoots of this movement, such as the cross-fertilisation of therapy by humanistic psychology, showed interesting but perhaps predictable developments. Initially much concerned with political and social processes, humanistic therapy has tended to become more concerned with fitting individuals into an unchallenged social order in the same way that Russell Jacoby (1975) accuses American developments of Freudian theory of backsliding from the political importance of Freud's insights. There is, of course, nothing wrong with, and much to be said for helping people to achieve the most that they can in the way of contentment and attainment from the circumstances in which they find themselves, but doing so tends to mean that 'the way things are' is taken for granted as natural or inevitable. You can then finish up with a style of 'self-improvement' whose main aim may appear to be returning tired, stressed executives to their desks on a Monday morning bright, confident, competitive and ready to do business.


Activity 11.1

Therapy and self-improvement are 'obviously good things', so why would we want to criticise them? Spend a couple of minutes  thinking what criticisms could be made while still holding on to the essentially beneficial purpose of these activities.


It would be a great error to suggest that therapy is not needed, or to deny that what it delivers is for the good of its clients. People do have confused experiences, they do suffer real and great distress and become trapped in untenable ways of experiencing and dealing with the social world. However it may be an equal and opposite error to fail to acknowledge that these 'deviant states' may be, in part, a function of social processes - well understood processes of labelling and deviance amplification whereby normal but extreme behaviours and experiences can become marginalised, stigmatised and eventually pathologised in the service of social control (Boyle, 1990). It is also a valid criticism of the therapeutic endeavour to point out, while not denying its value, that its desired end-product is a human being fit for social circumstances, not social circumstances fit for human beings. In its practices, therefore, it tends to support the existing social order and to obscure its problems and inconsistencies. It is this, the social embeddedness of the therapeutic endeavour and its function as part of the network of social control, to which the 'anti-psychiatry movement' drew attention.



3. Social institutions and 'anti-psychology'

The fallacy involved in representing social norms as laws of nature is, of course, that the former can be altered if we so wish, but the latter cannot and if this fallacy becomes incorporated into scientific orthodoxy, the latter becomes . an obvious instrument for maintaining the status quo.

(Ingleby, 1974, p. 318)


Over the years, psychology has staked out a claim to expert knowledge in a range of fields and contributed to the shape of many public-sphere social institutions. Professions grounded in branches of social and individual psychology and regarding themselves as part of the discipline have acquired authority and been accepted as expert in a number of applied fields. In education it was tests of 'intelligence' - dividing the ineducable from the badly schooled - which first gave psychology a stake in the area and legitimated its claims to expertise in it at the beginning of the twentieth century. These tests quickly moved from a way of identifying 'the feeble-minded' (as children with special educational needs were then labelled) to a way of classifying the ability of all children. Even in periods when the actual tests became less fashionable, the overall notion of a school population being normally distributed with respect to an identifiable and, in principle, measurable level of ability remained, and our notions of schooling are fundamentally imbued with the idea of the innate ability of children needing to be brought out.


In the 1920s psychology captured the role of adviser to juvenile courts on the treatment and disposal of delinquents and children 'in need of control' (for example Burt, 1925) and as 'child guidance' advisers to schools and parents. Psychologists have since established a routine expert status in the assessment of criminals for sentencing by the courts, in the training of social workers and probation officers to handle criminals in the community and in their rehabilitative treatment within prison.


The period from the end of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth also saw the growth of industrial psychology to advise on, select and regulate workers and working conditions: the 'aptitude test' in­dustry; attempts to modify the physical and organizational environment of factory work to maximise output and minimise labour turnover; psychological management training in 'human relations'; 'job enrichment'; and 'human resource management'.


Within the private sphere, the role of psychological knowledge is so well entrenched that it seems natural and inevitable, but it is, in fact, of fairly recent origin. The private sphere as something separate from the more prestigious and financially rewarding 'world of work' is, itself an invention of the nineteenth century (see Watson, 1996) and psychology's power to determine how mothers should bring up their children (and to rule on other 'related' issues such as whether mothers have the right to take full-time paid employment) is more recent still. These powers were increasingly conferred on medicine by the growth of home visiting - later health visiting - during the early years of the twentieth century and the role of doctors as experts advising on it and determining its form. While health visiting remains under medical/nursing control, soon after the Second World War much of the expert status passed to psychology and it is now psychologists who advise on the mental and intellectual welfare of children and devise tests of the normality of their development. In taking this role over from the medical professions, psychologists have acquired some of the authority of medicine - some of the same respect and right to intervene in people's everyday lives. (See also Miell and Croghan, 1996, for a discussion of the 'professional strangers' in health, psychology and social work whom we now take for granted as available to fulfil some of people's needs for care and support.)


Those who advise mothers would not see themselves as manipulative in any malign sense but as 'benevolent experts' doing their best for both mothers and children. Their expertise has sometimes been characterised, however, as using the mantle of 'neutral' science to give objective validity to essentially moral positions - that it is natural for women to want to mother - that mothers should give their undivided attention to their children and put them before every other consideration, that certain forms of mothering are superior to others, and so on.


So social, clinical and developmental psychologists hold positions of expert power in the current world. They are employed and are influential in education, in industry, in therapy and in the health services in gen­eral. They are called as witnesses in courts, assess the mental state of prisoners on remand, assess convicted prisoners for allocation and run rehabilitative treatment programmes in prison. In addition they train other professionals who have a 'care and control' or managerial role; psychology is an important part of the training of doctors, nurses and other health workers, prison officers, teachers, social workers and business managers, among many others. Three propositions underlie the formal content of this training, even if they are never articulated or even apprehended.


1. Problems may be detected and solutions attempted at the level of in­dividuals - an obviously true proposition, but one which can serve to distract attention from wider and more politically sensitive areas.


2. People can and, under certain safeguards, should be manipulated for their own good - indeed, social psychology in its applied guise tends to avoid altogether any inspection of the notion that 'working on people' could have moral and political aspects.


3. More subtly, there is a range of ways of being, understanding the world and behaving in it that are functional, acceptable, average (or acceptably deviant from the average) and that achieving these is a proper goal of intervention and counselling.


The expert role would mostly be seen, by those who employ psychologists and by the psychologists themselves, as something used for good. Therapists, for example, are in the business not of controlling people but of helping them to be happy or at least to cope with the social world as it is. The same could rightly be said of other sorts of applied psychologists employed in education, industry or the criminal justice system. No kind of psychology is, in itself, 'radical' or 'progressive', and all branches of social psychology have been at odds with current social norms at one time or another. 'Scientific' social psychology has been much exercised, at many stages of its history, by how we should deal with major social problems. The experience of the Second World War, for example, spawned a number of now famous studies into the conditions under which ordinary people will torture others 'in obedience to orders' (Milgram, 1974) and the kinds of people most likely to do so (Adorno et al., 1950). Experimental psychologists such as Philip Zimbardo spent much of the 1960s and 1970s exploring violent behaviour and particu­larly the situations under which people will oppress and persecute others, stimulated by the phenomenon of lynch mobs on the one hand and the oppressive behaviour of American prison guards on the other (Zimbardo, 1969, 1976; Haney et al., 1973).


Activity 11.2

Can you think of other examples of this?


Examples include the study of 'bystander apathy' stimulated by a real-life murder which bystanders ignored (see Brown, 1996), and Margaret Wetherell's 1996a discussion of the motivation of some psychologists in studying 'race' and stereotypes. Social psychological research on preju­dice and stereotyping is indeed one of the clearest examples of a line of work motivated to study a social problem because it is a social problem. (On the other hand, one should perhaps not over-emphasize or over-idealise the applied nature of this work, or Zimbardo's. Though it tackles social problems, it builds 'scientific' understanding more than it seeks immediate solutions and seeks to expand psychology's knowledge base more than it seeks to overcome prejudice or deindividuation. Most psychological researchers are academic psychologists first and concerned with practical applications only afterwards.)


Beyond this kind of study, however, social psychology has also been responsible for breeding resistance to its own social powers. The 'anti-psychiatry' movement had therapy as its main focus, but it was followed by a broader 'anti-psychology' movement. Social psychologists of the 1970s reacted very strongly against the implications of the scientific model of social and clinical work. They were not sure what social psychology should be - indeed, this is something we are still debating - but they were quite clear about what it should not be. Nigel Armistead's introduction to his Reconstructing Social Psychology (1974), a key work of the period, is a spirited attack on positivism and determinism. This develops into a 'radical humanism' in the writings of psychologists such as John Shotter, which opposes attempts to understand humanity through the metaphor of the 'generalised machine' (Gauld and Shotter, 1977) and tries to reassert social psychology as a moral science whose purpose is 'to increase not people's mastery over other people but their mastery over their own possible ways of life' (Shotter 1974, p. 68). See also Shotter (1975) and Fransella (1975) for similar arguments.


A related attack on the 'human as machine' metaphor has been the attack in developmental psychology on the notion that the human infant is a passive recipient of learning and the popularisation of the idea of 'the active child' (see Dallos, 1996). Inspired by the work of Bruner (1977), Trevarthen (1977), Brazelton and Main (1974) and others, this line of thought argues that what is missing from accounts of socialization is the realisation that babies are active in seeking what they want and in initiating relationships; from the very beginning of their development they are biologically prepared to enter into social relation­ships. Thus socialization is not only a process in which the mother teaches her baby but is, rather a two-sided interaction, with children teaching their mothers how to mother at the same time as they are learning from them; both parties to the interaction initiate as well as re­spond. In effect this turns social psychology upside down and questions its inherently individualistic stance; the question becomes not how chil­dren learn to engage in relationships (they do this, to some extent, from birth) but how they learn to become individual, isolated selves. It is then also apparent that this development of isolated individuality occurs in different ways and to different degrees in different countries, different subcultures or even different families.

4 Critical psychologies

Scientists firmly believe that as long as they are not conscious of any bias or political agenda, they are neutral and objective, when in fact they are only unconscious.

(Nameswirth, 1989, p. 29)


This kind of psychology, which stresses relatedness and interaction as more fundamental than individuation, might be seen as to some extent 'subversive'. Capitalism flourishes where the population (or at least the working-class population) takes for granted the value of individual advancement, competitiveness, self-sufficiency and self-discipline. (This was firmly believed by the Victorians, who promulgated these values in their tracts and in their schools.) To the extent that the 'individualistic lobby' is strong in social psychology, it is consonant with fundamental cultural themes and works to support and reproduce them. To the extent that psychology's attention turns to relationships, joint action and intersubjectivity, it may tend to undermine them.


Beyond this, and beyond the 'radical humanism' of writers such as Shotter and Fransella, the 1970s reached the realisation among some authors that the same psychology which they were attacking as support­ive of the existing unequal order could also be turned to subvert or change it. Thus the final chapter of Nick Heather's Radical Perspectives in Psychology (1976) is 'Psychology and the oppressed', suggesting that psychologists should actively be furthering the interests of women, black people and gay people and finishing with 'the idea that everybody is oppressed in our kind of society, even those we usually call the oppressors' (p. 126), advocating a Marxist psychology as one element in correcting the situation. Phil Brown (1974) calls even more strongly for psychology to take on board Marx's insights and work towards emancipation:


Psychology, like the ruling-class forms of production/distribution it sup-ports, believes in a pessimistic humanity for which 'original sin', 'instinct' or 'inappropriate response' dictate the need for social control. Marxism counters such an attitude with its own view of humanity

transcending the past in the creation of newness ... Instead of passive pawns, we become active creators.

(Brown, 1974, pp. 165-6)


To a large extent the politics is external to the psychology in this kind of work: social psychology is to do much what it has always done, but in different interests. Apart from specifically technical matters - e.g. harnessing techniques of persuasion - the goal is the development of human potential for collective sentiment and action beyond what a capitalist society regards as safe or convenient, and the emancipation of those in whose interests society is not currently organised. A recognition of the power of ideology - the presentation as natural, normal, right and in our own interest of ways of thinking and organising the social world which, in fact, further the interests of one class or group over another - is present in the work of people like Heather and Brown. For the most part, however, they conceptualise it in a rather 'externalised' way, either as a deliberate conspiracy of the powerful to mislead or, more subtly, as 'false consciousness', a set of mistakenly accepted beliefs about the world which act to conceal real inequalities of power and privilege.


This tradition is still very live in social psychology, as witness a paper by Jost and Banaji (1994) on the concept of 'justification' - defined as 'an idea being used to provide legitimacy or support for another idea or for some form of behaviour'. They list social events, thoughts and feelings, aggressive or discriminatory behaviours, our own or other people's social status, in-group aggression or discrimination and the prevailing social conditions in general as matters which we find the need to justify. They distinguish ego-justification, group justification (in which stereotyping plays a major role) and what they call 'system justification':


System justification is the psychological process by which existing social arrangements are legitimised, even at the expense of personal and group interest ... Central to this discussion is the concept of false consciousness, defined here as the holding of beliefs that are contrary to one's personal or group interest and which thereby contribute to the maintenance of the disadvantaged position of the self or the group . . . Examples might include 'accommodation to material insecurity or deprivation' ... 'needs which perpetuate toil, misery and injustice’ ... ‘a kind of comfort in believing that one's sufferings are unavoidable or deserved' ... and thinking that 'whatever rank is held by individuals in the social order represents their intrinsic worth'.


(Jost and Banaji 1994, pp. 1-2)

Activity 11.3

Do you see any weakness in the way the concept 'ideology' is used by Jost and Banaji? Spend a couple of minutes thinking about this.



This way of looking at things entails a tendency to regard ideology and the social/societal world in general as some kind of constant environ­ment, passively experienced, and to locate action at the level of individuals or groups. This separates the study of ideology from the empowerment of individuals. Ideology becomes a set of beliefs inherent in a society, experienced probably as self-evident truths, which come to regulate people's action and shape or constrain their choices. Most importantly, it is argued that these beliefs or 'self-evident truths' are supported by the evidence of existing inequalities - for example, the poor accepting that they must be less able or they would not be poor. This model can lead to a view of society as fragmented in terms of interests, with the capitalist class in a conscious and clever conspiracy to misrepresent the world in order to favour their own interests. Though such a conspiracy might exist in some instances, however, the force of what Jost and Banaji suggest is that the privileged groups may themselves be maintaining beliefs they have absorbed - in other words, that they too are 'cogs in the social machine'. Certainly one would not expect privileged groups to challenge the dominant ideologies which favour them, and there is substantial evidence that they rarely do so; the women's movement arises from women who have experienced oppression, for example, and challenges to racism come from under-privileged minority groups. However, in this view it is difficult to see how anyone ever manages to challenge the dominant ideology; it presents an 'over-determined' view of social relations.


Social psychology's reading of ideology became more sophisticated in the 1980s, as the theorisation of the concept has developed outside the discipline. For example, Althusser's notion of ideology is not of a 'thing', a feature of the environment, but as the basis of any kind of social interaction; Althusser's ideology is not an aspect of environment - it is the environment.


[Ideology is] not false consciousness or distorted perception [but] the organisation of material signifying practices that constitute subjectivities and produce the lived relations by which subjects are connected ... to the dominant relations of production and distribution of power  in a specific social formation at a given historical moment

(Ebert 1988, p.23)


In other words, ideology creates both individuals and their social worlds: it is a framework of meanings within which we locate ourselves, discover what it means to be 'a person' and understand our (unequal) relationships with other such people and with social institutions. (See Wetherell, 1996a for a discussion of racism as part of the shifting construction of identity out of available ideological resources.) The force of talking about 'material signifying practices' is to point out that we do not just learn from being told, but from living in a world ordered in a particular way. I learn how to be a factory worker or an academic or a student, for example, not by being told how to behave - or not only from being told - and not just by imitation, but by being cast in these roles, experiencing them and learning by living them.


Althusser's notion is that we are not socialised as such, but rather 'always/already social' - we are born into a world which consists of a framework of roles, meanings and expectations, concretised in social institutions, which pre-dates the birth of any given individual and into which the individual must fit if he or she is to have any social reality at all. (We are talking here not just of verbal statements about the social world, but also about the patterns inherent in how people act. See, for example, discussion of how boundaries are maintained and crossed on the factory floor and work discipline maintained or subverted in Collinson, 1992.) Children discover themselves as children, as sons or daughters, as school pupils and so on, by being recognised in these roles by other people (usually adults, who are significant and powerful other people, often charged as agents with the responsibility of socialization and behaving accordingly); in the process they are, quite unconsciously, adopting a social identity and defining themselves to themselves as persons. In other words, the roles exist before any given child comes to fill them; who the child shall be, and in what place within the network of social powers there, is a 'place' that was there before the child arrived to fill it.


A major impact of this kind of thinking on social psychology has been the realisation that even the nature of 'the self' cannot be taken for granted as given but must be seen as something produced by continuing historical and structural processes, and as being constantly reproduced by them. In other words, the self is not fixed, any more than ideologies are fixed or, indeed, than social relations are fixed. Everything is subject to change; it is actively recreated by our acceptance of ideologies and therefore identity positions, and in the process of recreation it may subtly change (see also Wetherell, 1996b, particularly sections 1.3 and 1.4.) This line of thought was taken up by the editorial collective of the journal Ideology and Consciousness and used as the centre of a project to build an adequate theory of subjective experience in a socially deter­mined world (Adlam et al., 1977).


Activity 11.4


This is an improvement over the use of ideology earlier in the text, but it still has problems; spend a couple of minutes thinking what they might be.



This kind of analysis gives insight into why we are as we are, what we believe and in whose interests we believe it; it makes a genuine link between the personal and experiential and the structural and political. It still does not give a 'handle' for personal action, however - it is con­cerned with the production of selves by the socio-economic system. With the further development of Althusser's work on ideology by Michel Foucault, the notion of a 'grand theoretical explanation' in terms of generalised underlying causes began to dissolve into a more complex and fluid understanding of the importance of particular histories in the genesis of ways of mapping the social world ('discourses'). Previously Althusserian psychologists gratefully accepted this less deterministic and more fluid way of theorising the insertion of the personal into the social (e.g. Henriques et al., 1984). One thing the language of discourses cer­tainly does is to help with the 'conspiracy' problem associated with the concept of 'false consciousness . We can replace it with a notion more akin to 'complicity', which is more plausible. We do not have to say that the middle classes conspire to present a false picture of the world, whether consciously and explicitly (for which there is little or no evidence) or unwittingly but somehow in concert (which seems too large a set of coincidences to be believable). Instead we can posit a whole range of situations in which an idea or practice arises which is in the interests of middle-class people or groups who happen to be present and who, unremarkably, pick it up and use it or encourage it - to the detriment, say, of working-class people or black people whose interests are not served by it. Thus in place of a monolithic conspiracy to impose a single ideology we have a whole series of incidents, unrelated except that they involve people and groups of the same social standing. Thus we may see people as constituted by discourses in several important senses, but at the same time we can sensibly talk about them using discourses (and, of course, adapting them and changing them).


One consequence of the growth of critical theory into a concern with discourses and their historical provenance has been a renewed examination of the discipline of psychology itself. Perhaps the most influential work has been the detailed study of psychology's history and influence on particular institutions carried out by people such as Nikolas Rose (1985, 1989, 1990). One force of this kind of critique is to abolish absolutely the notion of the societal and the ideological as 'background' or 'constant environment' and expose it as something constantly changing - sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes with great rapidity - and as a part of individuals, not as something set over them. Attitudes and ways of seeing the world, this kind of thinking would argue, are not something fixed which we receive, but something we take up and reinforce or change by the way in which we use them. Thus it draws attention to the (witting or unwitting) active role of social psychologists in maintaining and shaping our collective creation, 'the world as we know it':


Psychology is not merely a space in which outside forces have been played out, a tool to be used by pre-given classes or interest groups. To the extent that various of its theories have been more or less successful in enrolling allies ... in producing calculable transformations in the social world, in linking themselves into stable social networks, they have established new possibilities for action and control. In establishing and consolidating such networks, in forcing others to move along particular channels of thinking and acting, psychologists have participated in the fabrication of contemporary reality.

(Rose. 1990, p. 112)


The effect of this tendency to analyse social psychology as a product and a producer of social histories and power-laden interactions between peoples and groups has been to raise a substantial problem for which there is as yet no consensus solution. What is to become of the discipline, if it can no longer see itself as the neutral and unbiased producer of truths about people but must recognise that it has been - like other disciplines -in the business of producing techniques for management? Some have argued that the realisation of the discipline's role in answering political needs spells the end of social psychology: 'Social psychology - all of it - is a branch of the police; psychodynamic and humanistic psychologies are the secret police' (Richer 1992, p. 118). Others have claimed that it should at least give up claims to overarching theory and concentrate on the insights that can be given by exploration of particular cases and applied psychological practice (Polkinghorne, 1992; Shotter 1992).


Our feeling is that to announce the end of social psychology would be premature. Undoubtedly its insights and techniques will continue to be used for the purposes of social control in schools, hospitals, therapy, policing, industry and elsewhere, but to say this is not necessarily to attack the discipline's integrity: no society can exist without some form of social control, so the question is not whether social control but what forms of social control. Undoubtedly the theories of social psychology will continue to shape our way of seeing ourselves as selves and to inform 'common sense' about what it means to be human and to be social; it would be extraordinary if all the efforts of social psychologists did not have some impact on the world. Undoubtedly social psychologists will continue to think they could build a better world and, some of them, to act on this belief - and so they should, provided that other people monitor what they are doing. Social psychology itself has a good record of acting as its own critic and watchdog, as this chapter has demonstrated.


Perhaps most important, however, is that social psychology should continue to act as a body of empowering knowledge which can be used to resist social control - including the control which the discipline itself colludes in exerting:


Psychology should seek the task of developing forms of inquiry by means of which people might arrive at a greater understanding of and a greater degree of control over their own behaviour and experience, their own relationships with others and their own place in the social order

(Heather; 1976, p.59)


...the species-character of man, the human creativity which should be the end of existence, has become a mere means of survival. Man works to live rather than lives to work As Marx said, 'The problem is to organise the empirical world in such a manner that man experiences in it the truly human, becomes accustomed to experience himself as man, to assert his true individuality'.



The techniques of social psychology have always been available to those who wish to rethink their lives and their relationships. Now, with the growth of social critique within social psychology, a more powerful tool of resistance is made available. Susan Gregory's 1996 article on 'disability' illustrates how this tool can be used: it unpicks an area of 'taken for granted' knowledge and shows that it is not necessarily true, that there are other ways of thinking about people who carry the label of 'handicap'. This kind of analysis of prevailing discourses, which social psychology shares with critical sociology, is probably the most emancipatory of all its techniques, and we hope that this volume has shown you how it may be used within your own lives.


We should note, however, that to emancipate people is still to manipulate them; we should be critical even of the critics when they recommend beliefs or courses of action as 'being in your best interest'. No branch of social psychology is emancipatory in all its applications, just as no branch is devoted solely to social control. To the extent that critical approaches become a new orthodoxy, a new resistance will doubtless be needed.



Adlam, D., Henriques, J., Rose, N., Salfield, A., Venn, C. and Walkerdine, V. (1977) 'Psychology, ideology and the human subject', Ideology and Consciousness, 1, pp. 5-56.

Adorno, T.W., Frankel-Brunswick, E., Levinson, DJ. and Sanford, R.N. (1950) The Authoritarian Personality, New York, Harper

Armistead,  N.  (ed.)  (1974)  Reconstructing  Social  Psychology Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Boyle, M. (1990) Schizophrenia: A Societal Delusion London, Routledge.

Brazelton, T.B. and Main, M. (1974) 'The origins of reciprocity: the early

mother-infant interaction' in Lewis, M. and Rosenblum, L.A. (eds) The Effect of the Infant on its Care-Giver; New York, Wiley.

Brown, H. (1996) 'Themes in experimental research on groups from the 1930s to the 1990's' in Wetherell, M. (ed.).

Brown, P. (1974) Towards a Marxist Psychology New York, Harper.

Bruner, J. (1977) 'Early social interaction and language acquisition' in Schaffer, H.R. (ed.) Studies in Mother/Infant Interaction, London, Academic Press.

Burt, C. (1925) The Young Delinquent; London, University of London Press.

Collinson, D.L. (1992) Managing the Shop floor: Subjectivity, Masculinity and Workplace Culture, Berlin, de Gruyter

Dallos, R. (1996) 'Creating relationships' in Miell, D. and Dallos, R. (eds).

Ebert, T. (1988) 'The romance of patriarchy: ideology, subjectivity and postmodern feminist cultural theory', Cultural Critique, vol. 10, pp. 19-57.

Foucault, M. (1982) 'The subject and power' in Dreyfus, H. and Rabinow, P. (eds) Michel Foucault Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Brighton, Harvester

Fransella, R (1975) Need to Change London, Methuen.

Gauld, A. and Shotter, J. (1977) Human Action and its Psychological Investigation, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Gregory, S. (1996) 'The disabled self ‘in Wetherell, M. (ed.).

Gross, G. (1974) 'Unnatural selection' in Armistead, N. (ed.).

Haney, C., Banks, C. and Zimbardo, PG. (1973) 'Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison', International Journal of Criminology and Penology, vol. 1, pp. 69-97.

Heather, N. (1976) Radical Perspectives in Psychology, London, Methuen.

Henriques, J., Hollway, W., Urwin, C., Venn, C. and Walkerdine, V. (1984) Changing the Subject Psychology Social Regulation and Subjectivity, London, Methuen.

Hollingshead, A.B. and Redlitch, F.C. (1958) Social Class and Mental Ill­ness: A Community Study New York, Wiley.

Ingleby, D. (1974) 'The job psychologists do' in Armistead, N. (ed.)

Jacoby, R. (1975) Social Amnesia: A Critique of Conformist Psychology from Adler to Laing, Boston, Beacon Press.

Jost, J.T. and Banaji, M.R. (1994) 'The role of stereotyping in system-justification and the production of false consciousness', British Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 33, pp. 1-27.

Kvale, S. (ed.) (1992) Psychology and Postmodernism, London, Sage.

Laing, R.D. (1960) The Divided Self London, Tavistock.

Miell, D. and Croghan, R. (1996) 'Examining the wider context of social relationships' in Miell, D. and Dallos, R. (eds).

Miell, D. and Dallos, R. (eds) (1996) Social Interaction and Personal Re­lationships, London, Sage.

Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to Authority, New York, Harper and Row.

Nameswirth, M. (1989) 'Science through a feminist prism' in Bleir, R. (ed.) Feminist Approaches to Science, New York, Pergamon.

Polkinghorne, D.E. (1992) 'Postmodern epistemology of practice' in Kvale, S. (ed.).

Potter, J. (1996) 'Attitudes, social representations and discursive psy­chology' in Wetherell, M. (ed.).

Richer, P (1992) 'An introduction to deconstructionist psychology' in Kvale, S. (ed.).

Rose, N. (1985) The Psychological Complex: Psychology, Politics and Society

in England 1869-1930, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Rose, N. (1989) Governing the Soul: Technologies of Human Subjectivity, London, Routledge.

Rose, N. (1990) 'Psychology as a "social" science' in Parker, I. and Shotter, J. (eds.) Deconstructing Social Psychology, London, Routledge.

Sapsford, R.J. (1997) 'The ethics of therapy in prison' in Cullen, E., Jones, I. and Woodward, R. (eds) Therapeutic Communities in Prison, Chichester, Wiley.

Shotter, J. (1974) 'What is it to be human?' in Armistead N. (ed.)

Shotter, J. (1975) Images of Man in Psychological Research, London, Methuen.

Shotter, J. (1992) "'Getting in touch": the meta-methodology of a postmodern science of mental life' in Kvale, S. (ed.)

Stevens, R. (ed.) (1996) Understanding the Self London, Sage.

Szasz, T.S. (1962) The Myth of Mental Illness, London, Secker and Warburg.

Thomas, K. (1996a) 'The defensive self: a psychodynamic perspective' in Stevens, R. (ed.).

Thomas, K. (1996b) 'The psychodynamics of relating' in Miell, D. and Dallos, R. (eds).

Trevarthen, J. (1977) 'Descriptive analyses of infant communicative behaviour' in Shaffer, H.R. (ed.) Studies in Mother/Infant Interaction, London, Academic Press.

Watson, D. (1996) 'Individuals and institutions: the case of work and em­ployment' in Wetherell, M. (ed.).

Wetherell, M. (ed.) (1996) Identities, Groups and Social Issues, London, Sage.

Wetherell, M. (1996a) 'Group conflict and the social psychology of racism' in Wetherell, M. (ed.).

Wetherell, M. (1996b) 'Life histories/social histories' in Wetherell, M. (ed.).

Zimbardo, P.G. (1969) 'The human choice: individuation, reason and order versus deindividuation, impulse and chaos', Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, vol. 17, pp. 237-307.

Zimbardo, R.G. (1976) 'A social-psychological analysis of vandalism: mak­ing sense of senseless violence' in Hollander, E.P. and Hunt, R.G. (eds) Current Perspectives on Social Psychology (4th edn), New York, Oxford University Press.