Academic Psychology

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • Human Groups and Social Categories: Studies in Social Psychology by Henri Tajfel
    Cambridge, 369 pp, £25.00, April 1981, ISBN 0 521 22839 5

It is said that when the electors to a vacant chair of psychology met recently in a small but by no means undistinguished university, a university with some past distinction in psychology itself, their first inclination was to agree that the subject had ceased to exist and that the chair should not be filled. The philosopher argued that mental events just were indeterminate. A cumulative and convergent science of the mental was absurd. The biologist argued that physiological reductions were unfounded. Such misunderstanding and misuse of biology should be stopped. The sociologist argued that extracting the social from the individual, and often extracting the human too, pre-empted all realism. What was the point of artificial precision? This was, of course, a game that could have been played with any of the human sciences. It is a game, often unsporting in its moves and vicious in its outcomes, that is played with them all the time. In this case, there was a draw and the chair was filled.

It is a game which Henri Tajfel has known for thirty years. Sometimes player, he has also been ball, for he professes social psychology, the human science which perhaps more than any other is claimed by some to be everything and by others to be nothing at all. In this collection of essays, he explains his choice. He got off a train at the Gare d’Orsay in May 1945, with others from the German camps, to discover that virtually no one he had known in 1939, including his family, was still alive. He wanted to come to terms with that experience and with what had led to it. He worked for a while to rehabilitate refugees, wrote an essay on ‘Prejudice’, found himself in possession of a British state scholarship, and began a new career. ‘The “academic” psychology,’ he recalls, ‘took hold of me.’

He also at once took hold of it. His first published piece was on Hull. It raged at that old behaviourist’s ‘bland indifference to all that one knows about human society while ... weaving his web of “hypotheticodeductive” oversimplifications’. His most recent book, still in the press, is on Social Identity and Intergroup Relations. In between, he has built up the most productive department of social psychology in the country and been the driving force behind a purportedly European (rather than imitatively American) approach to the subject. And yet, with compassion for his motives and admiration for his intent, one wonders whether in the end he, too, hasn’t succumbed to blandness and woven another web of pointless oversimplification.

This is not to say that he doesn’t have a moderately sharp eye for idiocy. ‘There is not much excitement,’ he says, ‘in knowing that subjects who expressed opinions contrary to their own for a reward of one dollar subsequently changed their original opinions more than those who did so for ten.’ But one might suggest that there is even less excitement in the ponderous tautology (which he quotes with approval) that ‘the social group is seen to function as a provider of social identity for its members through comparing itself and distinguishing itself, from other comparison groups, along salient dimensions which have a clear value differential,’ Why should Tajfel, once the critic of spurious scientism and the sillier sort of simplification, have come to give such remarks the time of day?

The first answer lies in a tendency within the ‘academic psychology’ which took his attention in the 1950s and which he has devoted almost all of his energy to disputing. This is to explain what individuals do in individualistic terms. ‘An “individualistic” theory contains the (most often) unstated assumption that individuals live and behave in a homogeneous social medium. This medium consists of a collection of undifferentiated individual particles which are assumed to relate to each other inter-individually following the laws of basic psychological processes. There is no room in this vision of randomly associating particles for the cognitive and socially-shared organisation of the system within which the particles float.’ If the truly social is recognised at all, Tajfel adds, it is so only as a set of ‘independent variables’ contingently connected to something more enduring and supposedly more fundamental. A simple experiment made the point. British students overestimated the difference in size between florins and half-crowns. American students did not. British students knew that one was more valuable than the other. American students did not. The extension to perceptions of people is almost self-evident. If members of one group think of themselves as a group and believe that members of another are more aggressive or sexy or lazy or cunning or whatever, they will assess them accordingly. Their own sense of themselves as a group is intrinsic to their perception of others. Strictly psychological – that is to say, strictly individualistic – explanations of ‘perceptual overestimation’ are inadequate.

The second answer, though, to the question of why Tajfel gives the time of day to statements of the kind he approvingly quotes from others and too often makes himself lies in a tendency within ‘the academic psychology’ which he never questions. This is to believe that explanations consist in generalisations (he even talks at times of ‘laws’) tested by prediction. Disregarding the purely tautologous (‘Attributes which have high rank in terms of frequency and priority tend to be judged as “more important in a person” than the low-ranking attributes,’ ‘Acting in terms of a group rather than in terms of self cannot be expected to play a predominant part in an individual’s behaviour unless there is present a clear cognitive structure of “us” and “them” ’), concentrating instead on those which are neither true by definition nor tautologous (dominators despise the dominated and the dominated despise themselves), one might nevertheless ask whether such propositions are at all worth having. It is a notorious truth, the one truly general generalisation in social science, that generalisations in social science, if they are to be made to stand up, have to be propped by so many specific conditions as more often than not to remain general only in name. The self-contempt of those who are or who believe themselves to be dominated does indeed seem to be widespread. Tajfel noticed it, as others did, in the concentration camps. But the reverse is almost equally widespread. Workers did find their pride, blacks did find their beauty and women did discover their personhood. As he himself says of the other end of the scale, a completely secure identity for those generally agreed to be superior is not something that they can take for granted. They have to maintain it by persistent exclusion.

It will not do to shrug off the difficulties posed by such complexity, as Tajfel does, by saying that it’s for historians to explain the ‘origin and development’ of social categories, for psychologists to explain how they are ‘transmitted’ to individuals. It surely cannot do to believe that one is saying anything inteesting at all with the claim that ‘ethnic stereotypes are relatively constant over time assuming no incident develops to change them.’ A more truly social psychology may be an advance on the reductive pseudo-explanations offered by Freudians, ethologists, games theorists and diverse Americans, but the substitution of bland vacuity is not. And it seems oddly self-denying wholly to dissociate thought from action. The original intention, after all, was to explain why one group did such terrible things to another.

Indeed prediction, at least in this sort of science, seems a pointless ambition. Understanding, of course, is not. And yet I wonder whether at the end of the experimental day and a set of almost unreadable papers, there is very much of that either. It’s not just that the external validity of experimental work in such a subject, its generalisability, is open to doubt. Tajfel does dimly see that, even if, as I have said, he shrugs it off. It’s also that the internal validity is in doubt too. For what is striking in these essays is that Tajfel never once asks whether the discriminations he describes are rational. When he got off the train at the Gare d’Orsay, of course, in the spring of 1945, that would have been the very last question to have asked of what had just happened across the border. That seemed to be the limiting case of unreason. Yet when a discrimination is made, whether or not it is then used to justify a decimation, reasons are given. Jews were, in fact, believed to be causing the collapse of capitalism and the Communist advance. Half-crowns were, in fact, believed to be more valuable than florins. Black men were, in fact, believed to have larger penises than white men. Protestants were, in fact, believed to have disadvantaged Catholics in Belfast. Some of these facts were true, others false. Others, like the belief that Untouchables pollute, are true in one sense and false in another. We all have some such beliefs and we all act on them. Hume exposed the rationalists’ mistake in supposing that reasons alone can drive men to act. But psychologists in general and this social psychologist in particular, whatever their other merits, seem to have gone far too far in the other direction. It is a peculiar and perhaps peculiarly liberal error, an error which Tajfel shares, simply to suppose that whatever we happen to think is nasty is ipso facto irrational and to be explained accordingly. It is indeed a high-minded and blinkered arrogance.

Tajfel’s own tone, it is true, is far from arrogant. But the generalisations are empty, the predictions do not predict. ‘The academic psychology’ has taken too strong a hold. Tajfel has played the disciplinary game with too much skill. With so many other human scientists, his focused energy has got him to the Moon. But now there, drawing breath in his artificial air, he can tell us little more than that the Earth is round.