Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


A subdiscipline of both sociology and psychology, yet much of the two major disciplines is actually social psychology. If sociology deals with social categories or groups and if psychology deals with individuals, social psychology involves the intersection of the social and the individual where the individual is influenced by the social and, in turn, interacts with the social and influences it as well.

Another way of looking at the turf of social psychology is that it is the study of how micro- and macrosocial phenomena—the individual and society—interact. Social psychology tries to answer such questions as the following: How does an individual develop his or her self-concept or personality? Or, how do social situations influence the way an individual thinks or acts?

Two of the many perspectives in social psychological thought are symbolic interaction and social exchange. Symbolic interaction began with early, twentieth-century social theorists Charles Horton Cooley and George Herbert Mead. Social psychology later was developed by theorists such as Herbert Blumer, and it continues to develop and grow popular today through such social psychologists as Norman Denzin, Sheldon Stryker, and Victor Gecas.

Symbolic interaction explains how individuals are socialized through social interactions with others. In the process of developing a self, language and other symbols and values become meaningful through social interaction with significant others, primary groups, reference groups, and generalized others. Through this process of interactions, individuals also learn roles that they play as they act in their social groups and in the larger society.

Social psychology's social exchange perspective complements symbolic interaction but emphasizes the exchanges that link individuals with each other and with groups. The social exchange perspective has been influenced by many including B. F. Skinner, George Homans, Peter Blau, John Thibaut, and Harold Kelly. Social exchange concepts include value, punishment, sanctions, cost, profit, reward, and behavior.

From social scientific theory and research, George Homans developed several propositions on success, stimuli, value, satiation, and aggression that explain how social exchange works at the individual level. Peter Blau describes how individual exchanges emerge from social attractions into personal exchanges and power, and into more general, macroexchanges involving group authority and opposition.

To meet needs and fulfill desires, individuals—especially in a society with many, highly specialized, social roles—must interact with others in a process of social exchanges. For example, very few people produce the food they eat, but obtain it in exchange for goods, services, and money they provide through a network of others in roles and organizations that specialize in one or another aspect of food production and distribution. Without these complex, interdependent social exchanges, most of us would starve. From the symbolic interaction and social exchange perspectives in social psychology, one might say that individuals are able to interact—and indeed must interact with each other as individuals and as members of social groups—through shared meanings and values that they learn. They also play various social roles in a process of social exchanges with others to meet their basic needs and to fulfill many of their desires.

Other important social psychological concepts include attitudes, beliefs, and other types of dispositions as well as norms, leadership, collective behavior, and commitment. Religion is one set of symbolic meanings that individuals more or less derive from their experiences with their social groups. Religion provides cultural values that underlie many exchanges that are rewarding to individuals in a society, and these shared, personal meanings and values give rise to both order and change in societies.

Ronald C. Wimberley


P. Blau, Exchange and Power in Social Life (New York: Wiley, 1964)

K. S. Cook et al. (eds.), Sociological Perspectives on Social Psychology (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1995)

N. K. Denzin (ed.), Studies in Symbolic Interaction 19 (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1995)

G. C. Homans, Social Behavior , rev. ed. (New York: Harcourt, 1974)

J. A. Wiggins et al., Social Psychology , 5th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1994).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500