Challenging Basic Assumptions: The (Potential) Value of Social Science Education

Challenging Basic Assumptions: The (Potential) Value of Social Science Education

by Dennis Fox, Ph.D.


I wrote this paper for a 1982 interdisciplinary conference on Values, Teaching, and Social Science at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, just after returning to Michigan State University to complete my doctorate in social psychology following a decade out of academia. The paper was my first attempt to merge my political interest in anarchist theory and utopian thought with topics in psychology such as the Tragedy of the Commons and the appropriate balance between individualism and community (or agency and communion).

Much of the paper's middle portion was expanded and incorporated in "Psychology, Ideology, Utopia, and the Commons" (American Psychologist, 1985). It's consistent with arguments I've continued to make as I criticize mainstream psychology and advocate radical social change.

In his presidential address to the American Psychological Association William Bevan urged psychologists to demonstrate a moral commitment to help resolve relevant issues of national importance.  He expressed the view that these "human problems, if taken seriously, will surely require humankind to change its behavior, both individually and collectively, and, more likely than not, its social institutions as well" (Bevan, 1982, p. 5).

The notion that modern society's institutions need to be transformed, either through modest improvements or by more wide-ranging structural alteration, has been popular among social scientists for some time.  It is a notion that many, if not most, social scientists agree with in one form or another, and it is something we try to teach our students as well.  For many of us, in fact, the primary value of social science education is exactly this potential to encourage our students to analyze and advocate social change.  Unfortunately, I believe we are fooling our students and ourselves by our widespread failure to challenge the basic assumptions  of our science and of our society.  It does not seem to me that social science education is living up to its potential.

While most social scientists agrees that at least some social change is desirable, there is little agreement concerning the direction or, especially, the extent of that change.  This question is essentially an ideological one, and we react to it in different ways, depending to a great extent on our own ideological leanings.  We all do, of course, have such “ideological leaning” (see Nelson & Olin, 1979, for a discussion of the ways the ideological biases of historians affect the variety of theories purporting to account for the occurrence of war, and Sampson, 1977, 1981, and Hogan & Emler, 1978, for a discussion of bias in social psychology).  On the question of the proper approach of social scientists toward social change, I believe most of us fall into three categories:  the “pure scientist,” the “tinkerer,” and the self-styled radical.”  I’d like to briefly discuss these three types and then suggest an alternative.  I’d also like to demonstrate how our ideological assumptions stand in the way of potentially valuable solutions to many of today's problems, particularly by focusing on the literature related to Hardin's (1969) Tragedy of the Commons.

Social Scientists and Their Ideologies

The pure scientists hold the ideological position that science, in striving for objectivity, should not advocate change at all; advocacy, in this view, is not the scientist’s job, and the scientist is not responsible for society's use of scientific data.  Such a position often masks an ideological preference for the maintenance of the status quo and serves the purposes of elite groupings within society. (See, for example, Sandler's, 1974, article on “approaches to job design" and Shore’s, 1975, response, and Zuckerman's, 1982, comment on Sampson, 1981, and Sampson's, 1982, response.) We do our students (and our society) a disservice when we avoid encouraging them to apply social science findings to pressing social issues.

Currently, the tinkerer seems to be somewhat more prevalent among social scientists than the pure scientist.  Tinkerers hold the moderate-to-liberal ideology of advocating a wide range of reforms in order to alleviate the problems individuals face in confronting social institutions and one another.  This generally well-meaning approach often focuses on using social science findings to help institutions do their jobs better at less personal cost to individuals, and to help individuals adjust better to the complexities of an increasingly bureaucratized society (see as an example Fairweather, 1972).  This “education and therapy" ideology, while showing an admirable concern for the wellbeing of individuals, usually fails to question the basics of the society it is trying to reform, and as a result does not threaten the status quo.  Tinkerers generally encourage students of social science to believe that social change is “practical” only within a narrow “realistic” range of options.

The third popular ideology is that of the self-styled radicals who assert that only widespread, relatively extreme, even “revolutionary,” change in society can save us all from personal distress, economic disaster, and environmental degradation.  While such calls often come from the Marxist left and advocate the abolition or total transformation of the capitalist State, similar calls come as well from the right and advocate the necessity of abandoning the values of equality and individual freedom in order to prevent us from destroying ourselves; many of the Hobbesian Tragedy of the Commons conclusions are in this tradition.

The point I want to make here is that most of these self-styled radical approaches to social change make no effort to reverse the societal trends that have brought us to where we are today.  Roberts and Kloss (1979), for example, in their textbook on social movements, explicitly state that the trends of bureaucratization, industrialization, and cultural-economic imperialism cannot be reversed, and that radical movements must settle for humanizing rather than reversing these trends.  Such a position may or may not be correct; it should certainly be open for debate.  Speculation about what is or is not possible should be encouraged, not closed off by curt dismissals (such as Roberts & Kloss’s comment that social movements seeking to reverse societal trends are “doomed to failure"--p. 16).

My own position is that all three of these ideological tendencies fail to live up to the potential that social science has to offer.  The pure scientist “objective” approach, the reformist tinkerer view, and the self-styled radical advocacy of a stronger centralized State all fail to challenge many of the underpinnings of modern society; they seek either to defend the status quo or to rearrange some of its elements.  As Elms pointed out a decade ago to those interested in improving or replacing our prevailing social systems, many of the most important questions are not systematically pursued:

Social psychologists...have too seldom questioned the basic assumptions of the society that has nurtured them.... But who except scientific researchers can answer questions like these with some degree of impartiality?  And if they are not answered, how can society be properly changed?... Whether this nation finally turns to political radicalism for major social solutions or not, we are bound to repeat our historical errors endlessly if we continue to ignore the knowledge that empirical research can make available to us. (1972, p. 4)

Ideological blinders often prevent us from challenging our own basic values and assumptions; if we don't challenge ourselves, we cannot honestly challenge our students.

  A Need for Utopian Thinking

Edney (1981a) has pointed out the necessity of including both social values and social structures in any analysis of social problems.  He believes that the most effective solutions must come through a two-part process: first, "basic investigations of the nature and behavior" of individuals within their social settings, and, only as a second step, "technical questions of how to effect changes and what parameters to employ” (1980, p. 148).   Unfortunately, social science solutions all too often fail to adequately take into account the first step, and answers to the "technical questions" are often affected by preconceived notions of what “human nature” is "really" like.  Our views of human nature could all do with a bit more exposure to alternate assumptions in the varying social science disciplines.  Our tendencies to overspecialize do us and our students no good.

Most prescriptions for social change take the Roberts and Kloss (1979) view discussed above as a starting point: that the current nature of society is largely unchangeable and that movements for change must seek only to modify and humanize the inevitable trends.  My own suggestion would be to temporarily reverse the usual approach.  Instead of beginning with the status quo and our attempts to tinker with it, why don't we take a step back from the realm of the immediately “practical” and indulge ourselves in the kind of thinking that is often criticized for being "utopian”?  What kind of society, we might ask ourselves occasionally, would be the most likely to meet basic human needs?  What kind of society would be most in keeping with our conception of human nature?  What kind of society would we want to create if we didn't have to take anything for granted?

Only after we indulge in our utopian speculation does it make sense to turn to the question of whether it's possible to get there from here.  Many will assume we can't, and will return to the status-quo-oriented strategies of the present.  But some of us, I hope, will take the question seriously and will direct our efforts toward developing methods of bringing about long-range, significant change.  We will have a goal--far in the future, perhaps not fully realizable, but a goal nevertheless.  We will evaluate currently proposed solutions to social problems at least partly on the basis of whether they enhance or hinder our long-term objectives.  And even as we also work toward much-needed reforms, we will be aware that they are only reforms.  We should not delude ourselves into losing sight of our “utopia.”

While many social scientists consider any examination of utopia to be wasted effort, it is important to remember that widespread social change constantly occurs whether we want it to or not.  Karl Mannheim expressed the view that utopia “seems unrealizable only from the point of view of a given social order which is already in existence" (1960, p. 190).  Such social orders will continue to come and go.

The value of utopian thinking has apparently not always been looked on with disfavor.  Morawski (1982) describes four utopian novels written by leading psychologists between 1915 and 1930, and he shows the relationship of those utopias to the scientists' “real" work.   Imagining utopia can be motivating as well as rewarding in itself.  Morawaki quotes an earlier work by Plattel: “The utopia without science is empty, but science without utopia is blind" (Plattel, 1972, p. 97).

Autonomy, Community, and Autonomous Communities

It is not just social scientists and utopians, of course, who advocate one kind of change or another.  The search for solutions to society’s problems has been at the heart of many of the value-oriented social movements of the past two decades.  Thus, in the Sixties the concern for "doing your own thing” was often expressed in the context of an urban or rural commune; the Seventies small-is-beautiful movement advocated the decentralization of technology during the Me Generation; and now, in the Eighties, we already have the Moral Majority, a neighborhood revitalization movement, a renewed focus on individual careerism, the New Federalism, and even a smattering of talk of “secession" that is only sometimes in jest (Cummings, 1981).

One thing these overlapping but often antagonistic movements and social tendencies have in common is a longstanding dissatisfaction with what is often seen as the modern age's disruption of the more “natural” balance of values found in earlier forms of social life.  As individuals we must each strive to meet simultaneous needs both for individual autonomy and for acceptance by a supportive community.  Such a task is often difficult, and of course has been a primary focus of philosophical thought and political struggle throughout history.  Aristotle described the "social animal” we all are, and Hobbes, Rousseau, and many others have debated the “proper” limits of individual freedom and the “appropriated” power of the community.  Within the American culture there have long been simultaneous emphases on the rugged individualism of Horatio Alger and the pioneer and on the demanded conformity of the Team Player, emphases that have had their effects on the nature of American radicalism (DeLeon, 1978). Opposing notions of the “legitimacy" of authority continue to this day, with little consensus among philosophers, politicians, the general public--or social scientists.

Variations of the autonomy-community balance find their way into psychology in many ways.  Within social psychology--the study of how individuals affect one another--the individual-group distinction is so common as to often dictate a two-part structure to introductory textbooks.   The “tension between values associated with individuality and values associated with conformity” pointed out by Aronson (1980, P. 13) comes into the discussion of obedience by Milgram (who assumes that a “potential obedience is the prerequisite of ... hierarchical social organization”--1974, P. 125); into Rokeach’s (1973, 1979) model of political ideology based upon the relative importance of “freedom" and “equality” in an individual’s value system; and into much of the Tragedy of the Commons literature that relates the “necessity” of inducing people to cooperate for the common good (see reviews by Orbell & Dawes, 1981, and Stroebe & Frey, 1982).  A wide variety of other topics such as equity, psychological reactance, group size and satisfaction, leadership styles, and worker control of their jobs relates in one way or another to conceptions of the most satisfying (or most legitimate, or most productive, or most moral) balance between autonomy and community.

In recent years, psychology has been criticized for over-emphasizing the autonomy side of the balance.  Sampson (1977, 1981), Kanfer (1979), Yankelovich (1982) and others have deplored the focus on “self-contained individualism” and the neglect of community and interdependence, a neglect they see as shared by the academic community and the society at large.  Similarly, Hogan (1973, 1975) has insisted, in contrast to Kohlberg’s (1973) analysis of moral development, that the “ethic of social responsibility” is no less moral than is the “ethic of personal conscience.”  While some of these criticisms of psychology's liberal biases come from an essentially conservative direction, I think they must be taken into account by those of us advocating a truly radical restructuring of society that seeks to arrive at an optimal balance between our opposing needs.  Waterman (1981), among others, is of the opinion that destructive narcissism does not necessarily follow from a concern for individuality, and he calls for a blending of individualism and interdependence.  Such a blending is where I think our utopian speculation should lead us.

My own utopian speculation leads me in the direction of investigating small autonomous communities as the social structure most likely to enable people to be autonomous individuals while still being rooted in an interdependent community.  Such a "solution" in not new, of course; small, face-to-face, democratic communities within a decentralized society have been considered ideal (and not utopian by many political and religious movements of the past.  While many people in the United States don’t like "Washington bureaucrats” telling them what to do (and never have, throughout American history--DeLeon, 1978), there often remains even today a residual loyalty to, and affection for, the local community.

The small-scale autonomous community actually has a long history, both ancient (see Fried, 1967, for a review of anthropological thought on the variety of "egalitarian bands” that human beings lived in for the earliest, and longest, part of our history) and relatively modern (European and American history is filled with attempts to establish communities of “believers" in one philosophy or another; the successful Israeli kibbutz system is also within this tradition, and in fact was originally envisioned as a federation of autonomous communities within a land that would contain few noncollective alternatives).  With the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellsohaft, however, "Community" has given way to "Society" and the State, and people are for the most part no longer rooted in small groups.  Modern States often try to foster a feeling among the people that the State is the Community, but such an approach, which seems to be failing in the East as well as in the West, ignores the needs of people to relate primarily to a small community.  Attempts to foster a feeling of membership in the "World Community” similarly have their problems.

Most social scientists seem to have given up on small groups and on autonomous communities as too impractical a solution to the massive problems of modern life.  These analysts, whether tinkerers or self-styled radicals, consider themselves realists, and typically ignore suggestions for even studying the feasibility of creating  society of federated autonomous communities.  The question to be answered is whether or not such an attitude is based on "realism" or, rather, on preconceived ideological assumptions.   The debate over the Tragedy of the Commons is instructive in this regard.

The Tragedy of the Tragedy

         Garrett Hardin's classic 1968 article in Science described a situation in which "rational" individuals looking out only for their own self-interest (note the assumptions behind this definition of “rationality") will inevitably destroy what they use in common, so long as they each get the full benefit of their individual use of the commons and only have to pay a small percentage of the costs.  Hardin, a biologist, used this logic to advocate a “lifeboat ethics” toward problems of scarcity and human survival in an overpopulated world.   He urged stringent controls on the right to have children and to consume resources, in the belief that people will not voluntarily cooperate for the good of society in a large commons (1968, 1972; Hardin & Baden, 1977).

Hardin's thesis has been echoed by a large number of social scientists who have accepted without question both his assumptions of scarcity and his view of human nature.   Calls for a stronger centralized State seem to appeal to many.  Hardin’s proposals have the appearance of simplicity, though in many ways they confuse the way people often behave at present in large, competitive, alienating societies with the way they might behave in different kinds of societies.  State-oriented coercive “solutions” may be "efficient" and might allow society to deal with the symptoms of a deteriorating society, but these same “solutions” go exactly in the wrong direction; they treat only the symptoms and ignore the disease and, thus, only serve to hide the underlying problems.

There have been occasional dissenting voices to the conclusions that have been coming out of the voluminous research on the prisoners dilemma, market simulations, and other aspects of the Tragedy problem.  It is interesting that these dissenters have usually been either relegated to footnotes or ignored totally.  They have only rarely been directly disputed.  I'd like to turn to three such dissenters.


Shortly after Hardin’s original article, Crowe wrote a response which also appeared in Science (1969).  Crowe pointed out that several crucial assumptions at the heart of Hardin's argument were unsupportable.   He argued that in large, modern nation-states there can realistically be no general agreement on which values to fulfill, which interests to pursue; that, consequently, coercive force will always be inadequate and in fact can never ensure full compliance with policies; and that any probable centralized administrative system is likely to be subject to interest-group pressures that would open the commons to differential exploitation.  Crowe went on to suggest that "emerging forms of tribal behavior" may be "the last hope of reducing political and social institutions to a level” where the problems might be resolved:

We might well assume that the departure from the tribal experience is a short-run deviant experiment that failed.  As we stand “on the eve of destruction,” it may well be that the return to the face-to-face life in the small community unmediated by the electronic media is a very functional response in terms of the perpetuation of the species. (p. 1106)

Small communities, according to Crowe, would not only be more capable of preserving the commons, but would reverse the trend toward overspecialization that the modern State requires.  Our evolutionary position on earth:

Hinges, not on specialization, but rather on generalized adaptability .... Life in the nation-state will continue to require a              singleness of purpose for success but in a very critical sense this singleness of purpose becomes a strait-jacket that              makes generalized adaptation impossible.  Nowhere is this conflict more evident than in our urban centers where there              has been a decline in the livability of the total environment that is almost directly proportionate to the rise of special              purpose districts. (pp. 1106-1107)

Hardin and Baden (1977) do reprint Crowe's article and they include a response to it by Ostrom (1977). who questions some of Crowe's own assumptions.  But for the most part, the sporadic response to Crowe's arguments has been limited to passing reference to his pessimistic attitude toward modern society (Hardin, 1972; Smith, 1972). Interestingly enough, Edney, 1980, finds both Crowe and Hardin to be “saturnine"--p. 133)  There seems to have been little, if any, discussion of Crowe's suggestion that "the. return to the face-to-face life in the small community... is a very functional response," a suggestion I myself find to be neither pessimistic nor saturnine.

Much the same fate seems to have befallen Taylor’s(1976) Anarchy and Cooperation, a mathematically-oriented book that examined many of the assumptions behind Prisoner’s Dilemma games.  Taylor pointed out that the lowered level of voluntary cooperation typically found in large groups and nations does not necessarily mean that the State must be strengthened in order to save the commons; just as logical a conclusion is that society should be reorganized as a network of smaller groups that would encourage a sense of belonging and enhance voluntary cooperation.  Taylor goes into some detail in presenting the argument that people who come to rely on the State to control their affairs lose the ability to function autonomously, and that in the absence of a centralized State people would once again, eventually, regain those abilities as well as their motivation to protect the commons.  Taylor's book, of course, has typically been cited in footnotes or in lists of citations that do not even raise, let alone respond to, the issues he raises (see, for example, Orbell & Dawes, 1981, p. 45, and Orbell & Wilson, 19789 p. 412, footnote 3. and p. 413, footnote 5).

Edney (1980, 1981a) also argues that the long-term solution to problems of the commons will require breaking down the commons into smaller segments; he emphasizes the potential importance of small groups (among other possibilities) and the necessity of increasing mutual trust.  He also points out (following Calabresi & Bobbitt, 1978) that much scarcity in the commons comes from production and distribution priorities established by people, though he avoids any political discussion of the role of capitalism and of the political State; he also ignores the obvious links between his own conclusions and those of the avowedly “anarchist” Taylor, who he does not cite.

Edney (1981a) does discuss experimental data showing that cooperative behavior is indeed more common in smaller groups.  After noting that “the upper limit for a simple, self-contained, sustaining, well-functioning commons may be as low as 150 people” (p. 27), he lists the following “functional benefits” of reducing group size:  improved communication helps sustain necessary feedback; greater visibility of member distress during scarcity enhances the probability of remedial action; individual responsibilities are harder to avoid; alienation is reduced; and the role of intermediary economics (money) is reduced.  Also, with many small commons instead of one large one, shortages in one cannot endanger the whole, and "free-riders” have limited impact. “The improved focus on the group itself, the greater ease of monitoring exploitative power, and the opportunities for trust to develop among individuals with face-to-face contact are also enhanced" (p. 28).   To Edney's list I would also add that in a smaller, less alienating community the members' materialistic values themselves might change; cooperation, joint consumption, and less individual accumulation would go a long way toward reducing the current “scarcities" that may be vastly inflated by demands for unneeded and often superfluous goods.

Resistance to the Dissent

Many of the points raised by Crowe, Taylor, and Edney have been supported by experimental data: People in groups tend to cooperate more when the groups are small; when the group members have interacted repeatedly over time and expect to interact again in the future; and when the members can communicate with one another about their decisions.  Cooperation tends to enhance continued cooperation as trust increases, So why do most researchers ignore the conclusions drawn by those dissenting from the centralization-coercion tradition?

For the most part, it appears as if researchers ignore the decentralist approach because they find it either unappealing or impossible.  The impossibility aspect of it returns us to the ideological approaches discussed above.  Dismissing decentralization as utopian may have more to do with a preference for the status quo or for other self-styled radical ideologies, based on a particular negative view of human nature, than with an unbiased exploration of the issues--see Shippee’s (1981) response to Edney and Edney's (1981b) rejoinder.  Hardin (1977, P. 71), Baden (1977, P. 138). and others do of course acknowledge the enhanced cooperation within small groups but don't consider their use to be a real solution, despite the article by Bullock and Baden (1977) in Hardin and Baden (1977) that clearly demonstrates the ability of over 200 small collective Hutterite communities in the United States and Canada to resolve commons dilemmas.  Whether decentralization provides hope of real change remains an empirical question.

The perception that a society of small, autonomous communities would actually be rather unappealing to many is also of some importance in the failure to take such a solution seriously.  Significant decentralization of society and an increased interdependence within cooperative groups would probably mean a decline in many of the individualistic career and other pursuits now a staple of American culture, and it is reasonable to expect some resistance to such a far-reaching solution.  Society would be very different, and there are many who like things the way they are. 

Since some critics often point in horror to the "mindless conformity of the "small town mentality," it is important to note that advocates of autonomous communities are usually not thinking in terms of small towns as they currently exist.  Small towns in modern society are hardly autonomous, and they provide few opportunities for the face-to-face intimacy possible in the kibbutz, the commune, and occasionally even in the old ethnic neighborhood.  While there is always a pressure toward conformity, small groups in which the members feel accepted and equally in control are less likely to result in total conformity than are hierarchical groups committed to previously established patterns, groups where the individual’s acceptance is open to question.  Thus, Aronson (1980, commenting on a study by Dittes and Kelley, 1956) points out that “it’s easier for an Individual who is securely ensconced in a group to deviate from that group” (p. 24); he also speculates that people are more likely to help others when there is a feeling of “common fate," when there is mutuality and not merely common residence in the same area.  Much of the “mindless conformity” ascribed to small towns--and of course present in similar forms in the large corporations, universities, and other bureaucracies in the big cities as well--may be a reflection of the fact that many people do not feel "securely ensconced” in any group; the value structure of modern American society (see Williams, 1970) and the disruptions caused by long-term trends hardly encourage a sense of security.

  Anarchism and the Commons

Aronson's point about the possibility of increased independence within the context of an accepting group is echoed, interestingly enough, by Murray Bookchin (1982), who, in the long line of anarchist left-libertarian advocates, points out that individual freedom is only possible within the interdependence of a "free community.” While the word “anarchist” brings to the public mind bomb-throwing psychopaths who reject all coordination and mutuality, the truth is apparently somewhat different.   Kropotkin's (1902) Mutual Aid is still frequently cited in the psychological literature as evidence of "natural” tendencies toward cooperation that have great survival value among both humans and other species (see, for example, Aronson, 1980 p. 167).  Noam Chomsky (1981), Paul Goodman (see Stoehr, 1979), and others have systematically presented anarchist visions of ways to work toward alternative societies, and they have carefully linked anarchist political thought to the psychological damage done to individuals by forces that have removed human beings from our natural base within small communities.  Richard Falk (1978) specifically addressed the "practicality” problem and did not find it to be insurmountable; he proposed anarchist reform on a global scale as the most likely way to avoid international war.

Anarchist thought could be easily dismissed were it not for the fact that its conclusions mesh surprisingly well with the social science data at hand.  While most people seem to assume the commune is impossible, the neighborhood dead, and the alienating existence of mass society here to stay, anarchists can reasonably suggest a society of federated autonomous communities as one most likely to deal with serious problems at their source.  Failing to question our own basic ideological assumptions--and taking the Tragedy of the Commons for granted--may be the real tragedy before us.

  Approaching the Future

        Is utopia possible? Perhaps in its entirety, no.  Can society move significantly in a utopian direction?  I believe it can.  I also believe that the primary factor preventing such a development is the widespread belief that it is not possible.  Social scientists help ensure the fulfillment of the self-fulfilling prophecy by dismissing speculation about the shape of the future.

Even among many who are sympathetic toward long-range ideal goals, there is often a feeling that widespread public apathy prevents any real change.  This might be true, but “apathy” may be too easy an answer.  Hochschild (1981), interviewing a small sample of Americans about their attitudes toward the possibility of redistributing income on a national scale, found that “some people enthusiastically support the status quo; some passively acquiesce in it; some strongly oppose it; and some are simply indifferent to it" (pp. 262-263).  It was the acquiescent group that contained a variety of ambivalent individuals who for the most part reject important aspects of the status quo but don't know what to do about it, or even whether anything can be done about it.  It would be interesting to explore the extent of this kind of dissatisfaction among a representative national sample; typical public opinion polls of course do not deal with questions of this type.

Dissatisfied people do not always--do not usually, in fact--work for significant change.  If we asked them why not, we'd get a variety of responses.  Some might say that “people are too evil to live in my utopia”--this brings in conceptions of human nature and the Hobbesian tradition.  Some might argue “you can’t fight City Hall—let’s be practical”--which relates both to psychological notions of political efficacy and locus of control of reinforcement and to more or less accurate perceptions of the powers behind the status quo.  And some others might say “I'd like things to be different but most people are satisfied with things the way they are--so it's not worth trying to change things.”  There are other possible responses, of course, but I'd like to briefly turn to this last one--that the individual is only an insignificant force for change in the face of overwhelming support for the status quo.

While the "false consensus" of the “intuitive psychologist” (Ross, 1977) might lead dissatisfied people to assume that most others share their dissatisfactions, the somewhat reverse process of “pluralistic ignorance” may be more significant here.  Allport (1924) noted that when the "impression of universality” is in error an “illusion of universality” results in which the individual misinterprets the behavior of others.  Discussing people in institutions, Katz and Schenck (1938) note: Newcomb (1950) pointed out that under conditions of pluralistic ignorance nonconformists not only do not challenge  group norms but their silence "is usually interpreted as consent” (p. 608) and actually strengthens the status quo.  Once nonconforming individuals begin to communicate with one another and form new subgroups, pluralistic ignorance may be reduced and the subgroups may attempt to influence the larger society. “In such ways social movements of all kinds are born,” movements that, if successful, “introduce new sets of norms--sometimes in direct opposition to pre-existing ones” (Newcomb, 1950,p. 609).

Because of the large number of members and because the members are not brought into personal relationships with many of their fellows, a condition of pluralistic ignorance often obtains.  People will stay in line because their fellows do, yet, if they only knew that their comrades wanted to kick over the traces too, the institutional conformity of the group would quickly vanish. (P. 174)

Newcomb (1950) pointed out that under conditions of pluralistic ignorance nonconformists not only do not challenge   group norms but their silence "is usually interpreted as consent” (p. 608) and actually strengthens the status quo.  Once nonconforming individuals begin to communicate with one another and form new subgroups, pluralistic ignorance may be reduced and the subgroups may attempt to influence the larger society. “In such ways social movements of all kinds are born,” movements that, if successful, “introduce new sets of norms--sometimes in direct opposition to pre-existing ones” (Newcomb, 1950,p. 609).

The study of people's perceptions of the ideal and the possible, of what people think other people think, and of what keeps people from working for significant change, fits in with a view of social science that advocates the use of its resources to bring about change rather than to maintain the status quo.  Such a position is clearly an ideological one, but I have already expressed the view that all views toward the status quo are ideological.  Our methods can strive for objectivity, but our goals need not (and can not) be value free. Newcomb (1950) pointed out that under conditions of pluralistic ignorance nonconformists not only do not challenge   group norms but their silence "is usually interpreted as consent” (p. 608) and actually strengthens the status quo.  Once nonconforming individuals begin to communicate with one another and form new subgroups, pluralistic ignorance may be reduced and the subgroups may attempt to influence the larger society. “In such ways social movements of all kinds are born,” movements that, if successful, “introduce new sets of norms--sometimes in direct opposition to pre-existing ones” (Newcomb, 1950,p. 609).

Instead of avoiding controversial issues in our teaching of social science, we should be encouraging our students to seek out the roots of society's problems.   We do owe it to them to clearly point out our own ideological assumptions--something we do far too infrequently--but we should be willing to have our own ideologies questioned while we attempt to help our students question their own.

I hope we do not heed the warning by Senator Orrin Hatch, who wrote that organized groups of psychologists should avoid taking controversial political stands on value-laden issues.  Hatch indicated his concern that psychologists were being increasingly perceived “as a group on the fringe of social normality who are promoting social deviance" such as sexual liberation, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, open marriage, and, worst of all, humanism (Hatch, 1982, p. 1035).  While we do have to do a better job at explaining our views to the public, warnings such as Hatch's should primarily spur us on to come up with better ways to deal with people like the Senator.

We are fortunate that there have always been social scientists who have not avoided controversy.  Within psychology, controversy abounds.  A recent relevant example is Albee’s (1982) arguing for a turning away from one-to-one therapy and chemical treatment of “pathology” in favor of the "primary prevention" of mental and emotional disturbance by reducing the stress and powerlessness caused by oppression, failure, meaningless work, racism, sexism, and so on, and by the enhancement of social competence, self-esteem, and support networks.  Albee points out that:

If we were to acknowledge that much of the emotional distress and mental disturbance in our society is due to dehumanizing social influences, such a position would call for widespread and expensive social reform. (p. 1044)

I would add to this that the “reform" Albee advocates would eventually have to expand to the kind of far-reaching radical change discussed here in order to fully reverse society's “dehumanizing social influences."

Yankelovioh (1982) has also recently called for what he terms “New Rules” combining personal freedom with an ethic of commitment.  The specific proposals he advocates are debatable, but his final words offer some encouragement:

A genuine revolution does open a new human story, a story that seeks in each age to find again the treasure of a truly human freedom and autonomy.  We are not passive TV viewers watching this story unfold.   We are living it.  And we have a fair chance to bring the story to successful resolution. (p. 262)

We may not achieve a society that fully encompasses our utopian dreams.  But we can try to set off in the right direction.  In the trying itself we can reclaim the power to create, and the ability to choose.



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Dennis Fox received his B.A. in Psychology at Brooklyn College and his Ph.D. in Social Psychology at Michigan State University.  After postdoctoral study in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Law/Psychology Program, he joined the faculty at what is now called the University of Illinois at Springfield, where he is Associate Professor of Legal Studies and Psychology.  Fox's primary work considers psychology's role in maintaining the legal, political, and socioeconomic status quo.  With Isaac Prilleltensky, Fox co-founded the international Radical Psychology Network ( and co-edited "Critical Psychology:  An Introduction" (1997, Sage).  Currently on leave and living in Massachusetts, Fox also writes an opinion column on local political issues.  Much of his work can be found at   He can be reached at