1. Description of the obstacle
Although psychology is a very heterogeneous science that contains
such diverse specialties as psychophysics, radical behaviorism,
psychoanalysis, biopsychology, and many others, there is a common
set of methodological and ontological assumptions that comprise
what we may call the psychological worldview. Similarly, the
diverse sociological schools share a common sociological worldview.
Because these two worldviews are incompatible, any attempt at
forcing the sociological worldview into psychology can be regarded
as a disruptive foreign interference. Therefore, sociologism
should be seen as an epistemological obstacle to the advancement
of psychology (and consequently of physiological psychology).
Before we move to actual examples that will more properly define
sociologism and show its obstructive character, the notion of
worldview must be elaborated upon. Few people would question
that psychology and sociology are distinct sciences. The traditional
view is that psychology studies the individual, whereas sociology
studies group phenomena. This implies a complementarity between
the two sciences, in the sense that knowledge about individual
factors can be complemented by knowledge of group factors, or
vice versa. Complementarity between psychology and sociology
was probably real in the distant past. As the two sciences developed,
however, they moved apart and ended up creating not only their
own research methods but their own objects of study. Consequently,
even when the same word is used to refer to a phenomenon, psychology
and sociology may deal with distinct objects. These objects
are distinct not because they are two parts of a single entity
(as the old conception would want them to be) but because they
are totally unrelated objects. Psychology and sociology no longer
share the common set of objects and methodologies that they shared
in the past. To say it in precise philosophical words, psychology
and sociology have distinct onto-gnosiologic grounds.
2. Examples of the obstacle
The incompatibility between psychology and sociology is evident
in standard psychological writings. For instance, Jean Piaget
wrote a conciliatory paper where he tried to recall productive
relationships between psychology and other sciences. Despite
his good will, he admited that he was unable to indicate productive
relationships between psychology and sociology (Piaget 1979).
Another example is the book review wrote by two psychologists
about a sociology book: the core of the review is a radical criticism
of the fundamentals of sociological analysis of behavior rather
than an actual discussion of the specific arguments presented
by the author (Lachman & Lachman 1980).
What exactly is the sociological worldview? Let's ask the sociologists.
Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx were three of the
greatest sociologists of all times. Comte, the father of sociology,
argued that the study of social phenomena cannot be treated as
a process of deduction based on what is learned from the study
of the individual. The reason for this commandment is that social
conditions can change the action of psychological laws (Comte
1877). On his turn, Durkheim repeated tirelessly that social
phenomena transcend individual consciousness to the same extent
that life transcends the inanimate substances which it is made
of (Durkheim 1907). Marx was even more explicit and claimed
that the causes of human behavior lie on the relations of economic
production. Consequently, it is not human consciousness that
determines what a person will be; rather, it is this person's
social being that determines his/her consciousness (Marx 1911).
To say it boldly: in the sociological worldview, the social
is a basic phenomenon within which individual behavior can be
found only as an abstraction.
Individual behavior has quite a different status in the psychological
worldview, as Sigmund Freud and B. F. Skinner will tell us.
For Freud, human civilization is possible only by coercing the
individuals and repressing their natural impulses (Freud 1928).
The social is, therefore, explained by the individual. Society
is simply a gathering of individuals. The social is nothing
but a by-product of the individual. And Skinner is even more
explicit about it. According to him, the great social problems
of our times can only be solved by a behavioral technology, that
is, a strategy designed to modify the behavior of individuals
(Skinner 1975). A non-tautological analysis of behavior must
deal with individual organisms rather than groups of organisms
even when studying social behavior (Skinner 1972). To say it
boldly again: in the psychological worldview, the individual
is a basic phenomenon with which the abstract entity called the
social can be understood.
The conflict between psychology and sociology is not new, and
many people have tried to solve it in one way or another. Four
groups of people can be identified. People in the first group
believe the opposition exists because psychology has an erroneous
perspective. The solution would be to reject psychology in favor
of sociology. People in the second group hold the opposite opinion:
they believe sociology is wrong and should be rejected in favor
of psychology. For people in the third group psychology and
sociology constitute two different levels of analysis of the
same object. Thus, if there is disagreement, one of the two
must be mistaken. The solution would be to reexamine both sides.
Finally, people in the fourth group believe that psychology
and sociology are antithetical, transitory approaches to human
behavior. Some sort of synthesis should resolve the conflict.
Although some psychologists may disagree with me, I think Kurt
Lewin is a member of the first group. His concept of social
field does not solve the opposition between psychology and sociology;
rather, it abandons psychology. Thus, Lewin tell us that the
organization of a group is quite different from the organization
of the individuals who form the group and that the idea of individual
behaviors as individual phenomena is an outdated inheritance
from Aristotelian philosophy (Lewin 1935). Other authors share
this opinion that sociology is better than psychology. For instance,
H. Tajfel refutes Taylor and Brown's (1979) statement that theories
in social psychology should seek explanations at the level of
individual behaviors and even criticizes them for placing an
individualist bias in social psychology (Tajfel 1979). The idea
that individualist studies cannot fully explain the complexity
of psychological phenomena was put forward by Willems (1977).
Now, if the question we are dealing with is the disagreement
between psychology and sociology, then sociological arguments
cannot answer the question. If we trusted sociology this much,
we would have already thrown psychology away and would not be
dealing with this issue. Therefore, this first group gives us
no real solution to the problem.
McDougall was certainly a member of the second group. For him,
sociology can obtain scientific results only if psychology can
provide it with valid knowledge about human nature and solid
principles for the interpretation of human conduct (McDougall
1950). John Watson taught that psychology is essential for the
understanding of society and that sociology should adopt the
principles used in psychology (Watson 1925). Gordon Allport
remarked that sociologists take the easy approach of building
an artificial person with laws of social behavior rather than
the hard approach of studying the individual person scientifically
(Allport 1937). Now, if the question we are dealing with is
the disagreement between psychology and sociology, then psychological
arguments cannot answer the question. This second group is as
unsatisfactory as the first one.
The members of the third group believe that psychology and sociology
are two different ways of looking at the same problem. Taylor
and Brown (1979) stated that the use of the individual as the
unit of analysis does not imply the denial of social processes
but only the acceptance of the principle that psychologists are
not concerned with social phenomena. I am sure they would also
say that the study of social processes does not imply the denial
of individual processes. Newcomb (1978) acknowledged that what
distinguishes social psychology from sociology is psychology's
constant interest in person-to-person interaction rather than
in social phenomena. Chinoy (1961) emphasized that neither psychology
nor sociology alone can explain human behavior and that each
science provides explanations for some aspects of behavior.
However, we face again the problem of legitimacy. If psychology
and sociology are the sciences of human behavior, and if they
disagree about it, how can a scientific statement be made about
the real nature of human behavior? There is no legitimacy in
the statement that the two sciences deal with the same object.
If we see the same object there, it is because in our common-sense
worldview those two objects are really only one. But our common-sense
worldview has no authority in science. Scientifically, we do
not know whether there are two objects or only one.
Finally, the members of the fourth group think that both psychology
and sociology are wrong. They propose the dissolution of the
two sciences into a third one. This third science might be a
true social psychology (Boutilier et al 1980), a messianic ultimate
synthesis of behavioral sciences (Wilson 1977), or a pretense
conceptual totalization in the marxist style (Sartre 1976).
But, once again, no real solution can be obtained. Any proposal
of synthesis that comes from outside of science lacks scientific
After rejecting four proposals for solving the opposition between
psychology and sociology, we may wish the opposition did not
exist. Does it really exist? Well, if the two sciences have
different methods and deal with different objects; if they only
appear to share an object (viz., human behavior) because they
keep using an old phrase to refer to something totally new; then
psychology and sociology are not really in opposition. If psychology
and sociology have distinct onto-gnosiologic grounds, then there
is no opposition. There is also no real foreseeable gain resulting
from an interaction between the two sciences. Consequently,
an intrusion of sociological principles into psychology would
constitute an undeniable epistemological obstacle to psychology.