Social psychology was born from empirical research of both psychological and sociological studies therefore many contexts in social psychology are combined with psychology and sociology. The boundary between psychology, social psychology, and sociology was vague until 1930s when “the content and methods of social psychology are well established and the competing disciplinary claims by psychology and sociology are essentially resolved” (Minton, 2008, p. 364). Even today, social psychology sometimes may be confused with psychology and sociology when social psychology addresses interdisciplinary topics. Because social psychology has grown to an independent discipline, it is important to differ it from other related disciplines.
Before we distinguish between social psychology and sociology, let's first investigate how social psychology is different from general psychology and other branches of psychology. Psychology is a very broad scientific discipline that studies human behavior. During the long history in the development of psychology, many branches emerged and grew from it. Psychology today covers many specified disciplines such as clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, personality psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, etc., and social psychology is also one branch of psychology.
As a branch of psychology, social psychology has many things in common with general psychology. The most common ground is that both social psychology and general psychology employ scientific methods and the empirical research to study social phenomena. Many social psychologists are scholars “who were trained or employed within psychology departments” (Lubek, 2000, p. 324) thus they intend to apply scientific methods in psychology to social psychological phenomenon. Social psychology and psychology are highly co-related. As stated by Kenneth (1973), "the field of psychology is typically defined as the science of human behavior, and social psychology as that branch of the science dealing with human interaction" (p. 309).
Social psychology is also different from other branches of psychology. For instance, in personality psychology, scientists emphasize on individual traits such as thoughts and characteristics. On the contrary, social psychologists focus on situations. Social psychologists conduct empirical research to study the impacts of social environment and social interactions on individual’s behaviors and attitudes.
Social Psychology vs. Sociology
The development of social psychology was influenced by sociology, which explains why these two disciplines share many similar interests in social studies. Although social psychology and sociology share similar interests and topics of research, they can be distinguished from each other by the focuses and perspectives of the studies. Sociologists desire to discover how cultures and groups influence people’s behavior but social psychologists may look at these topics from different perspectives.
Unlike sociology, social psychology emphasizes scientific studies on how the individual responds and interacts within the group. Social psychology studies social influence of the groups on people with focus on the individual as the studied subject. In contrast, sociology focuses on the group rather than the individual. Sociology places a broad view at social behavior and social influences. On the other side, social psychologists want to study situational variables and how these variables relate to social behavior on personal level.
In summary, Social psychology is closely related to general psychology. While psychology answers questions in the science of human behavior, social psychology as discipline of psychology addresses questions of human interaction. Social psychology shares common grounds in research with sociology but has different emphasis. Social psychology focuses on the individual and sociology focuses on the group.
Kenneth, J. G. (1973). Social psychology as history. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26(2), 309-320.
Lubek, I. (2000). Understanding and using the history of social psychology. Journal Of The History Of The Behavioral Sciences, 36(4), 319-328. doi:10.1002/1520-6696(200023)36:4<319::AID-JHBS2>3.0.CO;2-B
Minton, H. L. (2008). Book review of A history of social psychology: From the eighteenth-century enlightenment to the second world war. Journal Of The History Of The Behavioral Sciences, 44(4), 364-365. doi:10.1002/jhbs.20330