Social psychology is characterised by a variety of perspectives, with different theoretical underpinnings. These multiple perspectives have been born from the influence of social psychologists from different traditions and subsequently, have diverse views surrounding the scope and aims of the discipline. This paper will concisely define three influential schools of thought; experimental social psychology, critical social psychology and experiential social psychology. These theoretical frameworks will be investigated by considering the case study of Leonard.
In evaluating these perspectives, marked differences between them will become evident; their attitudes to scientific methods; whether the individual can be considered as autonomous or determined and what is the core purpose of social psychology. Their ideologies will be contrasted and inter-related to show us that no one perspective presents us with an ‘ideal’ but by combining the different epistemologies we are presented with a more enhanced understanding of the self. Firstly, a brief insight into each of these perspectives.
The experimental approach comes from a scientific angle and concerns itself with cause and effect relationships and functional analysis. This vision concerns itself with the “most scientifically efficient and intellectually rigorous methods for understanding human social behaviour” (McGhee, 1996, p. 7). The foundation stone of this perspective is essentially based on; measurement, reliability and objectivity: and carefully controlled empirical investigations such as experiments are favoured.
It adopts a nomothetic approach, which primarily concerns itself with identifying patterns of human behaviour and making predictions, in order to generate laws that can be applied to populations of people. It has a deterministic view of the self and views our behaviours, as a product of certain forces i. e. the factors that we encounter will determine our behaviour. The critical approach concerns itself with the study of people as intrinsically part of the social environment and favours methods such as observation, interviews and records of naturally occurring events.
Its foundation stone is the ever-present influence of the ‘social’ and the belief that humans, gregarious by nature, are hugely influenced by the social pervasiveness of our existence. Social relationships, as described by Wetherell (1996, p. 11), are “complex and multi-layered” and therefore it is argued that most aspects of ones life can only be understood in terms of the social practices and ways of thinking and being, which constitute ones particular society. In studying the self, careful consideration must be given to relationships, gender, ethnicity, race, class, and organisation in society.
Therefore, viewing social psychology as a political science with the influence of power being of paramount importance. The person is seen as distributed rather than fixed where ones development is continual and dependent largely upon the nature of ones complex interactions. However, unlike the experiential perspective, personal agency is constrained in the sense that ones development is governed by the social norms and the discourses available to them. The experiential approach is more closely related to philosophy, literature and counselling than to natural sciences like the experimental approach.
Adopting an idiosyncratic approach, it regards people’s experiences and understanding of their own behaviour and the behaviour of others as the core of psychology. The capacity for agency and choice is much greater than the other two perspectives. It takes a more autonomous view of the person where one strives to reach self-actualisation. Thus, highlighting the experiential approach as a moral science. Experiential methods are holistic and adopt a qualitative consideration of meanings to what people experience, rather than that of the experimental, which considers what can be observed.
Thus, unlike critical psychology, the focus is on the personal aspects of an individual rather than on the social. Leonard’s experience, and the way in which changes in his experiences impact upon his life and psychological state is described by Dr. Oliver Sacks in a person-centred manner. Introspection methods whereby Leonard communicates through the medium of a language board allows Dr. Sacks to cite eloquent quotations and stark descriptions of Leonard’s personal feelings, experiences, thoughts and beliefs.
Moreover, Sacks holistic account depicts a unique individual’s learned experience, which enables one to elicit what Leonard’s experience means to him and therefore enabling us, to a certain degree, to gain insight into Leonard’s sense of self. Phrases such as “awful presence”, “being held back, constrained and stopped”, living in “isolation, coldness and shrinking” and inhabiting “a bottomless darkness and unreality” suggest a bleak existence and sense of desolation on behalf of Leonard. Likewise, one can get a deep insight into other moments of exhilaration, disillusionment and frustration in Leonard’s life.
In this regard, because the central focus is aimed at understanding Leonard, the experiential approach is appropriate and successful in effectively communicating a relatively unique situation and in capturing the richness and complexity of Leonard’s mind. Thereby, highlighting one of the merits of the experiential approach. One of the flagstones of the experiential approach is the assumption that one has the freedom to choose and to create ones own actions and experiences and hence, initiate change in ones life.
In Leonard’s case, we can see some degree of agency. After he deteriorates while on L-Dopa, Leonard actively decides to take action and to fuel his “charged” behaviour into writing an autobiography. In doing this he found himself “free from his tics and distractions” (Stevens, 1996, p. 8). It could also be argued that Leonard might have actively chosen his selected existence from an early age. Did Leonard, as Sacks describes, “achieve a dreadful fulfilment of his childhood wish” (Stevens, 1996 p. 0)? From Sack’s description we become aware of Leonard’s lack of trust in people, his desire at an early age “to be buried in books” (Stevens, 1996, p. 6) and to have a minimal social existence. Is this not what he became in his later life? However, the change of embodiment, which facilitated exhilarating peak experiences in Leonard’s life, occurred primarily by an experimental external factor, i. e. by the introduction of medicine, rather than internally by Leonard.
Furthermore, even during this time Leonard is still a patient governed by an institution, and social attitudes of those around him. Evidently, Leonard can scarcely unleash himself socially within the boundaries of the asylum and therefore, contrary to the humanistic perspective, he does not possess the capacity to initiate radical change in his life. These last two points demonstrate the limitations of the experiential approach in considering the influence of external factors, a feature considered by the critical social constructionists.
The critical social psychologists share the humanist view that agency and active construction are vital components to psychological lives but would argue that such construction occurs in social interaction, and is negotiated and grounded in the society, which it occurs. They argue that individuals cannot solely be described from an isolated perspective but must be interpreted in terms of the social context. The people we encounter and their social attitudes are crucial in the unfolding of our personal lives. In Leonard’s case; the medical profession, his family and societal factors i. . parental styles and religious beliefs were determining factors in his way of thinking. For example, during Leonard’s youth, masturbating was regarded as a despicable act that warranted punishment rather than as a natural part of development. It would also be argued that Leonard’s existence in an institution severely diminished his agency and shifted power to those in control of the institution. As Leonard was under the power and control of others, critical social psychologists would validly argue that the social situation had a role in the continuing construction of Leonard.
Therefore, critical social psychology places emphasis on the discourses involved in interactions and how these serve to construct our identity. Consequently, the critical social psychology approach is based on the premise that social and cultural practices determine identity construction and this in turn reflects the exercise of power. Experimental psychologists argue that a scientific method would provide us with an understanding of Leonard that encompasses reliability and objectivity.
The experimental approach uses science as its bulwark, is pragmatic and concerned with larger scale studies, which bring about clear theories and testable hypothesis. This scientific approach would allow us to investigate Leonard’s behaviour in relation to other patients on L-Dopa, for example, how far his biological abilities have progressed and make informed predictions as to how much more they could improve? However, the use of such methods in isolation would limit psychological investigations to only certain kinds of problems i. e. those that can be isolated, controlled and measured.
The experimentalists criticise the subjective approach adopted by the experientialists in that it is ambiguous, unreliable and untestable. The experimental approach, in aiming to establish psychological laws, would only focus on dimensions of Leonard’s behaviour relevant to its research. By ignoring the subjective approach of the experientialists, it would be ignoring fundamental features of being human. If we were to focus solely on the similarities between L-Dopa patients, the richness and individuality of Leonard’s mind would be lost.
This pragmatic experimental approach criticises the critical social perspective for being too vague and abstract. Alternatively, the latter approach would discredit the experimental approach for neglecting the complex interactions of people in groups over time, and thus cannot capture the social context in its entirety. Approaches and domains occupy areas in which they are relevant and effective. The aforementioned visions, by use of their different assumptions, can provide us with a more indepth analysis evident in Leonard’s case. The different perspectives considered provide a range of intellectual frameworks for speculating on the self.
The experiential approach considers people’s subjective experience, the social constructionist understands people in terms of their social context, whereas, the experimental focuses on behaviours that can be investigated scientifically. By considering these perspectives, it is apparent that not one but several valid and quite different epistemologies exist. Whilst no single perspective can conquer a complete understanding of Leonard, by adopting a multi-perspective approach, together they could contribute on a different level of analysis to offer a more wholesome understanding of Leonard.