Rob Sellers on recent social psychology

Scientific fields are shaped by many apparently contingent and capricious facts. This is one of the key insights of science and technology studies. And yet eventually it seems that scientific communities succeed in going beyond the limitations of these somewhat arbitrary starting points. The human sciences are especially vulnerable to this kind of arbitrariness, and facts about race, gender, and sexuality have been seen to have created arbitrary starting points in various fields of the social and human sciences.

A case in point is the discipline of social psychology. Social psychology studies how individual human beings are shaped in their behavior by the social arrangements in which they mature and live. And yet all too often it has emerged that researchers in this discipline have brought with them a lot of baggage in the form of their own social assumptions which have distorted the theories and methods they have developed.

Rob Sellers is an accomplished social psychologist at the University of Michigan who has thought deeply about the intersections of race and academic life. He also has an unusual and deep appreciation of the history of his discipline. In this recent interview he discusses the legacies of four important African American social psychologists and their impact on the discipline. His subjects are Claude Steele, James Jackson, James Jones, and Jim Sidanius. He argues that these men, all of the same generation and born in the late 1940s, brought about a crucial reorientation in the ways that social psychologists thought about and studied the lives of black people. They have each had distinguished careers and have overseen large numbers of PhD students. Their influence on social psychology has been very substantial.

The interview is worth watching in its entirety — I hope there will also be a second interview that pressures some of these issues more fully — but here are some highlights.

There was an assumption among earlier generations of social psychology that white behavior and experience was normal, and that other identities were abnormal. James Jackson provided a fundamental reset to this presupposition by demonstrating how normal black lives were. This represented something like a paradigm change for the discipline, in that it brought about a fundamental reorientation of the perspectives social psychologists brought to their research.

A parallel assumption in earlier research in social psychology, according to Sellers, was that black lives were somehow “damaged” — low self-esteem, low ability to cope. Jackson demonstrated that this assumption too was fundamentally wrong. Black individuals performed similarly to whites in accepted tests of self-esteem. And the premise of damage underestimates the dignity and persistent success of African American communities.

Claude Steele contributed to an understanding of differences in performance across major social categories through his theory of stereotype threat (link). As Rob Sellers observes, Steele’s experimental research on the effects of stereotypes and presuppositions about differences in capacity between groups has made a very large contribution to both social psychology and the field of education. At the same time, Sellers signals in the interview that he has some hesitations about the magnitude of the effect of stereotype threat (19:45).

Sellers credits James Jones’s research on prejudice with making a large difference in which we understand contemporary racism and the experience of being black within a racially divided society. He also made highly original contributions to the study of African-American culture, finding linkages back to West African cultural meanings and practices. Sellers accepts the idea that cultural assumptions and practices can persist for many generations beyond their original setting.

Another common assumption in social psychology was that intergroup conflict (for example, racism) was cultural and historically contingent. Jim Sidanius advanced a general theory, social dominance theory (along with Felicia Pratto), which undertook to explain racism and other forms of intergroup oppression as an evolutionary consequence of competition for resources, including access to reproduction.

Another important observation Sellers makes in the interview is that the men described here, for all their heterodoxy, were pretty mainstream in their scientific behavior. They established their reputations and careers through research that found acceptance in the main journals and institutions of the time. By contrast, another group of black psychologists rejected the mainstream more directly. Sellers described the revolt in 1969 of the Association of Black Psychologists and the competition this engendered between the mainstream APA and the more activist ABP.

One interesting point that comes out of this interview is the depth of Rob Sellers’ own knowledge of the social psychology of high-level athletes. His comments about Jackie Robinson are particularly interesting.

The question I hope to pursue in my next conversation with Rob is whether the particular experiences of race that these men had in America in the 1950s as children (in the Midwest) and the 1960s as young adults shaped their scientific ideas in any direct ways. It seems intuitively likely that this was the case. But it isn’t possible to easily read off of their work the imprint of the experience of racism in earlier stages of their lives. And yet when we look closely at the biographies of a range of black intellectuals we find a clear imprint of the early experiences on contemporary consciousness. (For illustrations see posts on Ahmad Rahman and Phil Richards; link, link).

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