Social Identity, Scientific Practice, and the Production of Social Knowledge: An Ethnographic Investigation of American Social Psychology Laboratories
Date of Degree
History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Philosophy of Science | Science and Technology Studies | Social Psychology
social identity, science studies, laboratory ethnography, experimental social psychology, American psychology, research methods
Social identity has the ability to permeate a multitude of domains in everyday life. Therefore, the science of social psychology—influential due to its impact in education, social and public policy, and the law—rightfully foregrounds the presence of social identity categories in the theorizing and empirical work of the discipline. Many researchers consider social identities such as race and gender to be socially constructed categories. This allows researchers to understand these identities in light of their history, complexity, and relationships to each other. However, the practical application and use of social identities as socially constructed “objects of study” is uncommon in social psychology. Despite some criticism, many social psychologists treat social identity categories as fixed, discrete objects in order to study them experimentally. This dissertation examined the research practices of experimental social psychologists as these researchers typically study the impact of the social environment on human behavior in a laboratory or online setting, which impacts the way social identity categories can be used in the execution of their work. This dissertation explored how social psychologists characterize and use social identity categories in light of the requirements and restrictions of experimental psychology.
Through ethnographic observation and text network analysis I examined the reciprocal relationship between social psychology, social psychologists, and the broader society in which they conduct their work as a way of better understanding the theoretical and practical underpinnings of their scientific choices with social identity categories. One on one discussions with social psychologists revealed that disciplinary actors do not maintain a shared scientific language to discuss social identity categories, which is reflected in both their theoretical and practical moves. Themes from the interviews indicated that social psychologists locate themselves in the science they produce, undergo disciplining practices to socialize them into the field and structure how they approach scientific production with social identity, and engage in the process of social psychology as they have been taught to do so through their training. All these dynamics impact the way these scientists deal with social identity in terms of theoretical influences, social identity practices, and the degree to which they can acknowledge limitations in the way social identity is instrumentalized in their investigative procedures. Further observation of research groups showed that while the lab space serves many functions for researchers (e.g., a safe space or learning environment), it further disciplines social psychologists into restricted and unstandardized ways of variable treatment with relation to social identity in the research setting.
Text network analysis revealed that once these social identity dynamics are cemented into the scientific products of social psychologists, they can be influential in how scientific publications are cited and utilized in the public domain. Three case studies of journalists and lawyers citing social psychological research showed that social psychological research is instrumentalized to support existing narratives and assumptions about social identity categories in society. Through processes of omission, distortion, or direct representation of the findings in scientific papers, lay interpreters engage a process of psychological translation (making psychological scientific findings digestible to their audience) that complements the way researchers themselves translate the social world of their live experience(s) into their scientific work in the laboratory setting. This dissertation proposes ways to reconsider the use and function of social identity categories in science in addition to thinking critically about how scientific findings on social identity can be distributed, or made legible, to broader society.
Brown, Donald V. Jr, "Social Identity, Scientific Practice, and the Production of Social Knowledge: An Ethnographic Investigation of American Social Psychology Laboratories" (2023). CUNY Academic Works.
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