A Problem of Cosmic Proportions: Floyd Henry Allport and the Concept of Collectivity in American Social Psychology
Faye, Cathy Lee
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Floyd Henry Allport (1890-1978) is widely regarded as a significant figure in the establishment of experimental social psychology in the United States in the early twentieth century. His famous 1924 textbook and his early experimental work helped set the stage for a social psychology characterized by individualism, behaviorism, and experiment. Allport is particularly well-known for his banishment of the group concept from social psychology and his argument that the individual is the only viable, scientific object of study for the serious social psychologist. This early part of Allport’s career and the role it played in establishing American social psychology is relatively well documented. However, there is little scholarship regarding Allport’s work after the 1920s. An examination of this time period demonstrates that Allport’s earliest individualism was in fact rather short-lived, as he subjected it to serious revision in the early decades of the twentieth century. The increasing complexity of the bureaucratic structure of American society in the early 1900s, the economic collapse of the 1930s, and the onset of the Second World War were significant events in the development of Allport’s ideas regarding the individual. While his early work is marked by a concerted effort to create an ideal science for understanding the individual and the social, his later work was much more concerned with the social implications of individualism and collectivism. As the social world around him grew more complex, so too did his own social psychology, culminating in a significant change in Allport’s philosophy of science. These findings contribute to our understanding of social psychology and its history by: providing a novel view of one of social psychology’s central historical figures; demonstrating the difficult, persistent, and context-dependent nature of the individualism-collectivism divide in American social psychology; and providing a platform for thinking about the ways in which historians remember and write the stories of important figures in the field.