Since social psychology emerged as a discipline in the late nineteenth century, thousands of excellent studies have been conducted, but which of these are worthy of being identified as true ‘classics’?
As it turns out, this is both an easy and a difficult question to answer: easy, because there is a reasonable amount of consensus among social psychologists as to what the classic studies are, but difficult, because in creating this volume we wanted to be extremely choosy. Indeed, we sought to restrict entry to just 12 studies.
In the chapters that follow, quite a few more studies are discussed – either as elaborations or as extensions of the focal studies – but nevertheless those that are included constitute a highly selective sample.
Unsurprisingly, then, the studies that are examined in the chapters that follow are very well-known within social psychology. They are described in almost every introductory textbook (and in many advanced texts as well) and they serve as common points of reference for researchers, teachers and students alike.
As Christian Jarrett, author of The Rough Guide to Psychology, has noted, ‘while other sciences have their cardinal theories … psychology’s foundations are built not of theory, but with the rock of classic experiments’ (2008: 756). A key reason for this is that the studies speak powerfully to the goals of social psychology as a discipline that is concerned with providing a scientific analysis of the relationship between mind and society (Asch, 1952; McDougall, 1910; Turner and Oakes, 1997).
As a result, they have played an important role in setting the research agenda for the field as it has progressed over time.
However, one quality that makes these studies genuine classics is that their details are well-known not just inside but also outside social psychology – not only by researchers in other academic disciplines (e.g., sociology, politics, economics, history), but also by journalists, social commentators, policy makers and other interested members of the general public.
In this respect, a central feature of the studies is their capacity to captivate those who read about them. Indeed, this has meant that as well as arousing intellectual curiosity they have also impacted upon our culture in a diverse array of forms – including music, art, theatre and film. These studies, then, do not just belong to social psychology.
Rather, they have widespread currency in society (or, at least, western society) and have played an important role in shaping everyday understandings of the behavior within it In Serge Moscovici’s (1984) terms, they have become central to people’s social representations of social psychology in the sense that they both anchor and objectify understanding – serving as concrete reference points for ongoing dialogue and debate.
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