I’ve finally finished making notes on the first chapter of Social Psychology Matters (in between removing all kinds of interesting malware from my daughter’s laptop). It was certainly an interesting read and laid out the starting positions for the critiques of ‘traditional’ social psychology that the course covers.
One area that was emphasised was the use of unrepresentative samples of participants in many social psychological experiments of past decades. For example, Erikson’s work on lifespan development only considered males and many North American social psychology studies confined themselves (and probably still do) to using only undergraduates as participants. Through the magic of and misuse of statistics, such findings are then argued to be generalisable across whole populations.
This and other criticisms of (experimental) social psychology are used as a way of justifying different methods of enquiry and for challenging the whole notion of what knowledge is. It’s all very compelling stuff and I have a great deal of sympathy with the stance of the author.
However, there’s one nagging doubt in the back of my mind that won’t go away: surely bad science (which is what many of the criticised studies are) is simply bad science? If a group of researchers can’t be bothered or aren’t able to conduct research on population samples other than US undergraduates, then their claims of generalisability ought to be dismissed for what they are – highly questionable.
For example, a parallel in the physical sciences would be chemists only conducting experiments on (say) metals and then assuming that the properties of inert gasses were identical. If social psychologists only ever conduct experiments on undergraduates, then you’re bound to end up with an incomplete picture at best and a completely misleading one at worst.
As the chapter points out, research into social psychology can have a huge effect on public policy depending on what findings are presented. It will be interesting as the course progresses to see if there are any answers to be had as to how the consequences of poor research might be effectively addressed.