The main feature that sets this perspective in opposition with the others is that it carries out quantitative rather than qualitative research. It is therefore worth looking at why statistical methodologies are employed.
Perspectives are governed by particular ontological and methodological assumptions and ESP believes that individuals are social thinkers. This ontology gives rise to a statistical methodology which adheres to scientific principles. The outcome of these assumptions is the methods. Thus in the case of ESP, experiments are utilised to extract internal causal mechanisms.
ESP emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century when science had “an almost religious status” (Holloway, 2007, p.4). At a time when it was believed that science was the key to all knowledge it seems obvious why psychologists attempted to apply this undefeatable knowledge to understanding people in their social world.
Historical influences such as the First World War had significant impact on research subjects at the time. Allport (1924) for instance, carried out investigations into social facilitation, a subject relevant to warfare tactics (cited in Holloway, 2007).
Another heavy influence that lent support to ESP was psychometrics. The practical implication of having the means to measure psychological characteristics was considered a big leap forward. For example, an article in the New York Times predicted that with the use of psychometrics they could match people up to their best suited jobs and therefore produce an enormous growth of national wealth (cited in Holloway, 2007).
In analysing how the ESP became dominant within social psychology the concept of power relation is a useful tool. Without the backing of universities, publishers and funding bodies’ ESP could not have risen to be as powerful as it was. Institutional power and science were extremely influential in how knowledge was produced and interpreted. Experiments therefore had the power to give scientific authority to the knowledge they produced (Holloway, 2007).
Experimental methods produce results with forceful impacts. Presenting numerical figures that can represent cause and effect such as ‘students will improve their grades by 45% if they attend tutorials’ is a quality that lends power to the discipline as this type of knowledge is heavily sought after by commercial companies and even governments. Oppositionists claim that experimental methods often fell victim to reductionism and dehumanisation. Standing against the power of numerical presentation is the necessity to make complex human behaviours fit into predetermined numerical scales. How can the number ‘1’ do any justice to the complex feeling of ‘hate’?
Holloway, (2007) citing Potter and Wetherell (1987), demonstrates another downfall of measuring psychological characteristics from a discursive approach. Attitude measurements make a fundamental assumption that all respondents have the same object of thought, suggesting that attitudes are a fixed phenomenon rather than conflictual and dynamic. The latter would flaw the concept of generalisation.
Experimenters have been accused of not paying enough attention to their own power and influence on participants and findings. Although often unintentional, this bias has still been isolated as a shortfall (Rosenthal, 1966, cited in Holloway, 2007). Holloway (2007) citing Harré (1979) argues that a confounding variable that was overlooked in Milgram’s experiments (1963, 1965) was that the people urging the participants to inflict pain were the experimenters themselves. Therefore the findings may not reflect obedience but rather the trust that the participants had in the researchers. However experimenter effects can also manifest during interviews and observational studies which are strongly associated with qualitative approaches.
Deception and ethics are another aspect that also questions the theme of power during experiments. At what cost can participants be deceived? For example, the power that was invested in the researchers of Milgram’s study (1965, cited in Holloway, 2007), not only lent authority to the instructions that were given out but also falsely led participants to believe that they were inflicting harmful electric shocks. Was deceiving and allowing participants to believe that they may have delivered lethal waves of electrical current into another human being morally right? Most people would have strong reservations about the deception and ethical principles employed in this study. However, it is worth considering one aspect that may salvage some of its dignity, that of situated knowledge. The beliefs and values of the time were that, “scientific knowledge was a greater priority than protecting participants from harm” (Holloway, 2007, p55). Similarly the ethical stance was that “research ethics were subordinated to what was regarded as a wider good: scientific knowledge” (Holloway, 2007, p55). Thus by situating the knowledge within its historical context, deception and ethics can be better understood. Today’s experiments adhere to strict ethical guidelines (BPS). Issues such as deception are dealt with during debriefing sessions and are only deemed acceptable if there is a strong scientific case for it and that participants are highly unlikely to endure any harm (DVD 1, DD307, 2007).
When evaluating ESP, a concept that needs to be attention is that the knowledge produced needs to be situated “at the level of each and every piece of research” (Holloway, 2007, p.24). This is especially relevant when looking at generalisation. Failure to do this result in accusations such as experiments can’t offer knowledge that remains relevant over time (Gergen, 1973, cited in Holloway, 2007). Replications of studies such as Zimbardo’s study (1971) replicated by Haslam and Reicher (2001, cited in DVD 1, DD307, 2007) lead a risk of distorting the original research findings if not situated correctly at every level (Holloway, 2007).
A weakness often aimed at the experimental approach is that it holds low ecological validity. However, in response to this, humans unlike objects do constantly negotiate meaning from their surroundings including laboratories thus they too should be considered part of the ‘real world’ (Haslam, 2007, DVD 1, DD307). When people negotiate meaning from their surroundings it poses another challenge research: demand characteristics. Nevertheless this is a weakness that faces all the perspectives and highlights the importance of reflexivity.
The last two themes somewhat mirror one another and are at the heart of the qualitative / quantitative debate. ESP has been criticised for using the individual as their unit of analysis rather than social factors. However a common thought which I believe overrules the value of these dichotomies between individual or social and agency or structure, is that social psychology cannot be fully understood without both social and individual explanations. Rather than cornering perspectives into particular camps, a more productive way of employing these binary themes would be to acknowledge that perspectives would loose their value if they attempted to approach the subject in all its complexities. Approaching it from different angles will produce wealthier knowledge about how humans interact with society.
This essay concludes by reiterating that many of the challenges that face experimental social psychology can be overturned by looking deeper into the social and cultural contexts of the time. Over the years the approach has made many adaptations in response to valid criticism and its scientific features which once gave it its domineering status still remains a vastly desirable aspect into understanding humans in their social context.
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Allport, F.H (1924) cited in W. Holloway, H. Lucey and A. Phoenix (2007) p. 4
DVD 1, DD307, (2007), The Open University
Gergen, K. (1973) cited in W. Holloway, H. Lucey and A. Phoenix (2007) p. 51
Harré, R. (1979) cited in W. Holloway, H. Lucey and A. Phoenix (2007) p. 55
Haslam, A. (2007) in DVD 1, DD307, The Open University
Haslam, A. and Reicher. S (2001) cited in DVD 1, DD307, (2007), The Open University
Holloway, W. (2007) ‘Social psychology: past and present’, in W. Holloway, H. Lucey and A. Phoenix (eds) Social Psychology Matters, Milton Keynes, Open University Press.
Holloway, W. (2007) ‘Methods and knowledge in social psychology’, in W. Holloway, H. Lucey and A. Phoenix, (eds) Social Psychology Matters, Milton Keynes, Open University Press.
Milgram, S. (1963, 1965) cited in W. Holloway, H. Lucey and A. Phoenix (2007) p. 22, 35, 51-57
Milgram, S. (1965) ‘Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority’, Human Relations, vol. 18 pp. 45-75
Potter, J. and Wetherell, M. (1987) cited in W. Holloway, H. Lucey and A.
Phoenix (2007) p. 59-60
Rosenthal, R. (1966) cited in W. Holloway, H. Lucey and A. Phoenix (2007) p. 51
The British Psychological Society, ED209, The Open University
Zimbardo, P. (1971) cited in DVD 1, DD307, (2007), The Open University