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To what extent do you think that psychology should be useful to society?

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Introduction

To what extent do you think that social psychology should be useful to society? When first confronted with the phrase 'useful to society' what first comes to mind are inventions, institutions, agreements and public policies that benefit an undefined, large-scale 'macro' group. Further reflection reveals this as an assumption which must be questioned. What is society? Is it an abstract group that transcends international borders, a demographic stratum of 'civilized' people, the groups that make up a nation, or all individuals that may be influenced in some way? What does it mean to be useful to these people? Must they all benefit and understand, agree with and accept what they are told is good for them? Or perhaps an action is useful if more people are positively affected than detrimentally affected. These questions become more complex when attempting to assess the potential applications that a branch of knowledge such as social psychology may offer. Are social psychologists obligated to act, to assert what they think and know, or merely to maintain their epistemology like a zoo of ideas? It could be that in an over-complicated world the most good is done by remaining quiet observers. The multiple perspectives of social psychology mean that there is no single, obvious pathway through the mire of these sub-problems that constitute the title question. It will be the position of this paper that to focus on prevailing topics of concern in an attempt to influence social policy is a flawed ideology. ...read more.

Middle

Gergen (1991, cited in Stevens and Wetherell 1996) describes this: "With the spread of postmodern consciousness, we see the demise of personal definition, reason, authority, commitment, trust, the sense of authenticity, sincerity, belief in leadership, depth of feeling, and faith in progress" (p347). The task of problem recognition is undoubtedly easier than deciding whether help is required or what form that help might take. However, the reinterpretation of the intractable existential problems brings with it a reinterpretation of how to deal with them. Giddens (1991, cited in Stevens and Wetherell 1996, p350) points to a movement away from emancipatory politics towards 'life politics' and the corresponding questions of 'how we should live'. Thus, social psychology may be useful to society by the consideration of appropriate evidence (with a wide definition), and by providing normative prescription of how to live. If we accept this, we are posed the problem of identifying areas of social psychology that have the potential for normative prescription at the personal/interpersonal level. The experiential perspective is the most obvious provider of guidance to individuals on how to live. The existential focus on 'authentic' awareness and the humanistic drive towards autonomy and self-development seem to offer a valid template for tackling the problems of postmodern consciousness. However, it is recognised that this prima facie validity arises because the problems are construed here within an existential framework, and that the utility of social psychology is not served by ignoring other perspectives. This said, the first major prescription must be for individuals to become more aware of themselves and of the existential realities at the root of today's 'intractable problems'. ...read more.

Conclusion

Having established that we need good relationships, Argyle identifies the kinds of skills that people need in order to establish and maintain them: "Those who are socially isolated and have no friends are found to be very unrewarding, have poor non-verbal communication, and little conversational power. Some of the social skills of marriage are being rewarding, being good at negotiating and being prepared to compromise", (ibid. p352). What has been attempted by this essay is to make the case that in order to be 'useful to society' social psychology needs to embrace its moral aspect. The three major, related reasons for this have been set out. First, that even in past, more collective social eras, social psychology has failed to influence society at the 'macro' level through social policy. It follows from this that, given the trend towards a secular individualism, the success of social psychology as a political science is not likely to improve. Finally, it has been asserted that social psychology has not had an appropriate depth of focus, it has dealt with progressive manifestations of 'intractable problems' rather than address the root existential issues. This is of course polemical. It can be argued that this position takes a unduly negative view of social policy and an over-optimistic view of social psychology's ability to influence individual awareness. Further, that what is proposed is just a 'new religion' for the postmodern era which relenquishes its social science credibility when it offers normative prescription. The reader must decide between an optimistic but impure philosophy, and a discipline that may become marginalised with time. ...read more.

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