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A Political Framework for
the Introductory Social Psychology Course

Dennis R. Fox


Contemporary Social Psychology, 16, 37-39

Brief paper on how an anarchist might look at a traditional social psychology course.

Contemporary Social Psychology was published by the Society for the Advancement of Social Psychology.

More recently I wrote a related paper, Five Social Psychology Essentials.

Note: This version may not exactly match the published version!


Many of the seemingly disconnected topics discussed in introductory social psychology textooks can be integrated within an anarchist political framework. Anarchist theory emphasizes the importance for social and psychological well-being of creating a decentralized stateless society in which communal individuality--the balancing of personal autonomy and a psychological sense of community--can be achieved. Such a perspective integrates data from a number of areas in social psychology and encourages psychologists to consider the political implications of their theory, their research, and their teaching.


The process of becoming a social psychologist often stems from a desire to help solve social problems, a desire that is partly responsible for social psychology's increasingly applied focus in recent years. As a field of study focused on the interaction between the individual and others--on attitudes, values, altruism, aggression, conformity, attraction, friendship, group dynamics and so on--social psychology promises better understanding of prejudice and racism, violence, inequality, conformity, and many other negative facets of social life. Unfortunately, although a desire to combat such phenomena may impel a student to major in psychology, all too often any original interest in working for social change is swamped by the typical manner in which the subject matter is portrayed in the traditional introductory social psychology course.

Students often complain that social psychology, instead of presenting a coherent framework for understanding and improving social life, typically confronts students with a hodge-podge of seemingly unrelated, contradictory, and overly detailed research findings. Topic follows disconnected topic. Multiple choice tests rarely ask students to consider the interrelationships among subject areas, partly because such questions are difficult to put into machine-gradable format, but also because most social psychologists have themselves learned to view the field in the same disconnected way. The common belief that increments in factual knowledge will lead to slow but steady theoretical and social progress stands in the way of perceiving connections between topics, connections that, if examined more holistically, might make the isolated segments of the field more understandable.

The purpose of this paper is to suggest an alternative framework for the introductory social psychology course, one that does account for many of the seemingly disparate areas of concern: the framework of anarchist political theory. Advocating a particular political perspective is clearly not an "objective" way to approach college teaching. Given the political nature of all teaching, however, the political bent of textbook authors and instructors should be made explicit. I am arguing, first, that labeling the political components of our psychological theory would be more honest, and second, that anarchist theory in particular is likely to be found especially useful. Social psychologists interested in the interactions between the individual and the wider society need to consider the political implications not only of their theory and research but of their teaching as well.

Anarchist Theory

A strong case has been made in a number of disciplines for taking anarchist political theory seriously (see Fox, 1985, 1986, 1993a). The different arguments for anarchism overlap. Some philosophers claim that only a stateless anarchist political society is morally justifiable (Wolff, 1970). Anthropologists have pointed out that anarchism is the "natural" and longest form of human society (Barclay, 1982). Social ecologists warn that a decentralized anarchist society is necessary to avoid environmental collapse (Bookchin, 1971, 1982). Sociologists have warned of the societal dangers of our overdependence on legal solutions to social problems (Black, 1989). And some peace advocates argue that anarchism is more likely to bring about a world of peace than are any alternative political arrangements (Falk, 1983). All these concerns are directly relevant to standard social psychological topics: values and morality, cultural change, environmental psychology, psychology and law, and war and aggression. Bringing anarchist perspectives into the classroom would encourage students to consider the ways in which these topics might be related.

Perhaps the anarchist argument most relevant for psychology, however, is the view that anarchism is psychologically healthy--that an anarchist society would be more conducive than any of its alternatives to fulfilling the often conflicting individual needs for both autonomy and a psychological sense of community (Fox, 1985; see Chomsky, 1973; Fromm, 1955; Goodman, 1966/1979; Maslow, 1971; Sarason, 1976/1982). Ritter's (1980) analysis of classical anarchist thought makes it clear that the ultimate anarchist goal is not simply unlimited freedom but, instead, a form of "communal individuality" in which individuality flourishes in a supportive communal environment. Such a view of anarchism, which is consistent with the anarchist underpinnings of the Israeli kibbutz, the Catholic Workers, and other forms of "organized anarchy," is a far cry from the popular image of anarchy as a state of chaos and violence or of "do-your-own-thing" individualism.

The concept of communal individuality parallels Bakan's (1966) call for psychologists to place more emphasis on the importance of balancing the contradictory "agentic" and "communion" aspects of individual life. Sarason (1976/1982) noted the importance of the central "anarchist insight": As the centralized state becomes increasingly powerful, people find it more difficult to fulfill their needs for both personal autonomy and a psychological sense of community (see also Fox, 1985, 1993a, 1993b). Modern anarchists have argued that only in a decentralized society of independent communities, each of which is geared toward the small-scale, face-to-face interaction that makes communal individuality possible, can the contradictory needs be met, with corresponding benefits for the individual as well as for the society as a whole.

Anarchism and the Social Psychology Course

When considered through an anarchist lens, many of the separate topics covered in introductory social psychology textbooks fall into place. The subject matter of social psychology does support the view that a decentralized society of small, autonomous communities organized along the lines suggested by anarchist theorists would in fact be beneficial for its members. Such a conclusion integrates theory and data from a number of areas. The concept of androgyny, for example, is directly related to the anarchist notion of communal individuality, particularly when attention is turned away from the degree to which any one person is androgynous and toward the degree to which any particular society encourages the widespread blurring of sex-stereotyped traits (Bakan, 1966). Similarly, the distinction between communal and exchange relationships lies at the heart of anarchist analyses of interpersonal relations and helps explain the anarchist emphasis on decentralizing society in order to increase communal bonds. The literature on equity and equality is relevant here; when viewed in anarchist context, the capitalist underpinnings of common notions of equity are clear.

In a similar fashion, anarchist theory is related to work on trust and cooperation, the tragedy of the commons, personal values and belief systems, false consensus and attribution theory, the self-fulfilling prophecy, interpersonal relationships, group dynamics, environmental effects on behavior, hierarchy and conformity, and many other topics. Reading between the lines, there is support within the standard social psychology textbook for the view that a society organized along decentralist anarchist lines, where communal mutuality is emphasized, would be one in which trust, friendship, equality, autonomy, and empathy would be increased, and competition, materialism, overconsumption, energy waste, hierarchy, and exploitation would be decreased.

Whether an anarchist society is actually possible is an important question--one that is itself clearly relevant to the psychology of social change and to treatments of social movements now more likely to be found in sociology than in psychology. For the present discussion, however, the ultimate success of anarchism is less important than the degree to which the theory provides a framework for many of the areas of social psychology generally seen in separate contexts. In addition, rather than being impractical, speculation about the form a utopian society might take is useful in order to help establish priorities, and to help prevent us from settling for short-term solutions not in keeping with psychological knowledge (Fox, 1985; Maslow, 1971; Moos & Brownstein, 1977).

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Bakan, D. (1966). The duality of human existence: An essay on psychology and religion. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Barclay, H. (1982). People without government: An anthropology of anarchism. London: Kahn & Averill.

Black, D. (1989). Sociological justice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bookchin, M. (1971). Post-scarcity anarchism. Palo Alto, CA: Ramparts.

Bookchin, M. (1982). The ecology of freedom. Palo Alto, CA: Ramparts.

Chomsky, N. (1973). For reasons of state. New York: Vintage Books.

Falk, R. (1983). The end of world order: Essays on normative international relations. New York: Holmes & Meier.

Fox, D. R. (1985). Psychology, ideology, utopia, and the commons. American Psychologist, 40, 48-58.

Fox, D. R. (1986). Four reasons for humanistic psychologists to advocate anarchism. Transformations, 2(1), 17-23.

Fox, D. R. (1993a). The autonomy-community balance and the equity-law distinction. Behavioral Sciences and the Law.

Fox,D. R. (1993b). Psychological jurisprudence and radical social change. American Psychologist.

Fromm, E. (1955). The sane society. New York: Holt, Rinehart.

Goodman, P. (1979). Reflections on the anarchist principle. In T. Stoehr (Ed.), Drawing the line: The political essays of Paul Goodman (pp. 176-187). New York: Dutton.

Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Penguin.

Moos, R., & Brownstein, R. (1977). Environment and utopia: A synthesis. New York: Plenum.

Ritter, A. (1980). Anarchism: A theoretical analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Sarason, S. B. (1982). Community psychology and the anarchist insight. In S. B. Sarason, Psychology and social action: Selected papers (pp. 135-149). New York: Praeger. (Original work published 1976)

Stoehr, T. (Ed.). (1979). Drawing the line: The political essays of Paul Goodman. New York: Dutton.

Wolff, R. P. (1970). In defense of anarchism. New York: Harper.

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