Sociological research and theories

This essay will discuss sociological research and theories that offer the potential for advising people on aspects of creating and sustaining satisfying relationships across a number of perspectives and evaluate the evidence provided. The essay will then focus on the question of whether the role of giving advice is valid for social psychologists and the potential problems in offering relationship advice.

Social psychology can be used in different contexts for different purposes. While many reasons for starting and maintaining the great variety of relationships in which people are involved have been scrutinised, the functions of relationships identified by researchers are dependant to a very great extent on what any particular theoretical perspective identifies as the ‘goal of relating'(Miell and Croghan 2002 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002). To tell us anything of functional value as individuals about creating and sustaining relationships, the different perspectives of social psychology must stand up to robust investigation around issues of personal relevance. To do this we must assess how well evidence and theory from social psychology relate directly to our personal lives, our interpersonal relationships and our social roles. We must ask how we can draw upon these to help in the process of living our lives.

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The humanistic perspective places emphasis on particular ways of relating to others such as openness, acceptance of the uniqueness of others and willingness to accept responsibility for our contributions to relationships. It has at its core the assumption that change is possible in individuals, relationships and society. It relates directly to our personal lives since it provides us with insights into ourselves and others and suggests goals towards which we may strive. It offers us a way to get in touch with our own feelings and enhance the quality of our personal and intimate relationships.

The experience of existential isolation generates profound anxiety from which all of us seek to escape (Fromm 1957 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002) and relationships offer us a means of doing this by connecting with other people. For relationships, with their intersubjectivity, to work good communication is vital. People must be able to share what they feel and think about what is going on and humanistic psychology, taking as its ‘reality’ the feelings of participants in relationships, provides useful methodologies and guidelines (Rogers 1951 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002). Humanistic approaches acknowledge that distortions are produced by hierarchical structures hindering effective communication. They claim that open, democratic structures allow more open relating to take place and the potentials and feelings of individuals have more scope for productive expression (Maslow 1965 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002).

Aside from stimulating productive thought about the human condition, the humanistic approach invites us to think about our own potential and about ways ‘we might be’ and the high quality relationships we could have. It directs us towards thinking about aspects of being and relationships that we may be unaware of or have not reflected upon. It increases our awareness of possible techniques for changing ourselves and our relationships and how they work.

The biological perspective emphasises that we are biological beings and events within our physical bodies limit our agency. It suggests a number of areas where we can clarify the content of our personal worlds. Using an evolutionary framework it suggests that contexts and stimuli can profoundly affect and trigger emotional responses. It explains the complex interdependence between the external environment, internal events and subjective feelings and reminds us that what we are is a result of dynamic interactions between ourselves and the social and physical environment.

Biological research provides a great deal of evidence that the organisation of the brain is slightly different in men and women. (Wada et al 1975; McGlone 1980 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002). Such differences occur early in development caused by genetic and hormonal attributes. It suggests that individuals process incoming information in accordance with cognitive schemata involving sex linked associations (Bem 1981; Spence and Helmreich 1981 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002). It is argues that natural selection operates to produce behaviours, including those connected to relating, that will maximize reproductive success and leads to the evolution of different sexual strategies used by the sexes (Hinde and Stevenson-Hinde 1973 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002). Natural selection operates to produce predispositions to acquire particular styles or types of behaviour (Seligman and Hager 1972 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002). Sex role differentiation tends to be stronger in fishing/hunting communities than in those based on agriculture and weaker in nuclear family groupings which are relatively independent of each other (Barry et al 1957 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002)

Knowledge from the biological perspective helps us to develop an increased awareness of the possible influence of biological factors on our behaviour and relationships such as patterns of behaviour, sexual jealousy, and partner selection. Essentially it shows us that if we can better understand our biology then we will be better placed to free ourselves from its negative influence and develop its positive influence.

Social constructionism suggests a way of connecting our personal, individual life-stories with the wider social context in which we find ourselves. It offers away of relating personal and social change. It emphasises that change does not become possible from a simply rational process of rethinking our lives but from working on our social relationships and social contexts. It attempts to move individuals beyond thinking only in terms of personal inadequacy to questioning socially prescribed roles that constrain relationships and hinder personal growth. It alerts us as to how we actively construct our understanding through our interactions with others. Self understanding, it asserts, is about finding the personal significance of external social events.

Clinical psychologists and researchers have been slow to appreciate the links between social inequalities and psychological distress (Williams and Watson 1994 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002). The gender positions available to men are both difficult and limited where they are even required to qualify what they say to other men when it involves speaking about their emotional experiences (Hunter 1992 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002). Researchers have suggested that a man’s violence towards a known woman may be based on his perception of powerlessness in their interpersonal relationship and his attempt to maintain control and exert influence (Goldner et al 1990; Minuchin 1984 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002). Research has also challenged the highly prevalent ‘nuclear family’ and middle class conception of the family life cycle theory asserting that there is need to broaden thinking to include other choices available to men and women such as marrying and choosing not to have children as well as choosing to be a single parent or cohabiting. (Wheeler et al 1989 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002).

By failing to take account of differences in status and power between men and women in society, gender is allowed to remain a ‘hidden dimension’ in relationships and family life. It asserts that research can assist us in developing an increased awareness of the ways which society can help to structure our sense of identity and the patterns of our relationships. This new awareness may make it possible for individuals to ‘vaccinate’ themselves against such influences or take steps to counteract them.

The psychodynamic perspective offers a way of making sense of much that seems mysterious or contradictory about our inner worlds, our social relationships and our group experiences. Our sense of agency and being in control of our lives is seen as being largely an illusion and self knowledge beyond our grasp because much of what we are is hidden deep within our unconscious which is the major driving force in our lives. Group behaviour is deemed to be driven by unconscious as well as conscious factors. It asserts that consciousness is biased and only the ‘tip of the iceberg’. A great deal of what we assume about ourselves may be false. Everyday relationships are dependant upon what been carried over from the past. It asserts that simply having an understanding of the concepts and principles of psychodynamic methodology cannot produce change in a person. However, the perspective contends that genuine change is possible but that in order to initiate change, to understand relationships or an experience of relating, an individual requires the assistance of another person.

Extensive research has been conducted in understanding adult relationships in terms of attachment, affectional bonds, dependency, separation and loss and the transfer of patterns of attachment experienced in childhood to adult relating (Bowlby1971; Rutter 1995 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002). The essential functions of relating and relationships are seen as the satisfaction of biological ‘need states’ described in instinct theories (Freud 1915; Klein 1952 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002). Research contends that infants thrive only when they have experiences of intense relatedness and have to pass through a critical phase of adequate attunement where there needs are met by their carers in appropriate ways in order to learn ways of relating to others and develop socially (Balint 1968 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002).

From the psychodynamic perspective we can raise our awareness of the different kinds of influences our past development and experience may have on our present relationships. This awareness may make it possible for us to examine even the hidden influence of our unconscious minds, albeit with the help of a professional. It is also clear that many destructive, difficult relational behaviours might be illuminated and eradicated by psychodynamic processes allowing us to relate better to our own needs and the needs of others.

Clearly, each of the above perspectives theorises and offers research evidence providing valuable individual contributions to our understanding of how to create and sustain satisfying relationships based on particular assumptions and methodological approaches. Collectively they make available a broad body of knowledge which might be accessed by any individual in an effort to improve their relationships and enhance the quality of their lives. It might justly be argued that the role of giving such advice is a valid one for social psychologists. However, there are problematic issues to be considered when individuals take advice from social psychologists.

The most significant potential problem for the acceptance of the advice offered on relationships by social psychology is that of trust. Only in relatively recent times has social psychology turned its attention to the concerns of individuals quality of personal and intimate relationships and helping people to live better, more fulfilling lives. Much of the early practice of social psychological research is characterised by a general neglect of developmental, evolving and ecological contexts of relationships. Coupled with a predilection for contrived laboratory investigation, this led to a scarcity of genuine knowledge and understanding about the complexity, intricacy and diversity of human interactions in everyday relationships to such an extent that in 1981 Jay Haley, a founder of the family therapy movement, highlighted the problem saying ‘… we know less about the courtship behaviour of American adolescents than we do about … the courtship behaviour of the Greylag goose’ (Haley 1982 cited in Miell and Dallos 2002).

While it has been observed that we constitute ourselves as autonomous and connected through relationships and are thus capable of reflecting and acting on the social world in an effective and meaningful way, early social psychology was preoccupied not with children, workers and disaffected youth but rather schools, industry and control agencies (Sapsford and Dallos 2002 cited in Sapsford 2002). Social psychology readily sold itself on request to controlling groups such as managers, psychiatrists, senior educationalists and governments.

This association with control has never entirely departed from applications of social psychology. At the level of applied work social psychology is used heavily in ‘people trades’, such as social work, nursing care and education, as a set of social engineering ‘techniques’. Conformity to behaviour expectations of those in control of our circumstances is not entirely congruent with freedom, autonomy and self expression. Social psychology remains a tool for exercising control in industry and commerce where its efficacy is measured by its success in selecting the people for positions and opportunities, training them to perform at the optimum levels for production purposes. Social psychology acts as the informing or validating body of expertise for a range of institutions and agencies whose central function is maintaining social order defined by their own interest.

Having secured its authority and expert status, social psychology proposes ‘technical’ solutions to problems at individual and group levels that otherwise might be considered moral, ethical or political. It is sanitizes social control issues as it teaches its methodologies to those professionals it trains and lends legitimacy to their goals for and shaping of the world making ‘social improvements’ a matter of applying the correct technique and camouflaging underlying power transactions. It might be argued that social psychology forms the basis for effective modes of social control by promoting particular ways of thinking about the social world, determining what is regarded as evidence about it and influencing the language of social, personal and interpersonal relations.

Given the historical reality of whom social psychology offers its services to, how they in turn feel validated in using it and how this may adversely affect the quality of life of those to whom its tenets are applied, offering relationship advice with the expectation of its purpose being judged supportive, life-enhancing and empowering to individuals might by some be considered as paradoxical and by others positively Machiavellian.