Social psychology around the world: Origins and subsequent development

This article is reprinted  from Wedding, D., & Stevens, M. J. (Eds). (2009). Psychology: IUPsyS Global Resource (Edition 2009) [CD-ROM]. International Journal of Psychology, 44 (Suppl. 1), Origins Section.
An introduction to the Special Issue
Social psychology around the world: Origins and subsequent development

John G. Adair
University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada

This Special Issue on Social psychology around the world: Origins and subsequent development originated out of a symposium by that title planned for the International Congress of Applied Psychology held in Singapore in 2002. Not everyone who was invited could participate due to travel restrictions and other personal constraints, so only half of the papers were presented. Nonetheless, it was apparent from the session that further elaboration of these papers and their publication, together with articles written by the authors who could not present, would make a valuable contribution.

Plans for the symposium had originated out of research on indigenous psychologies, i.e., psychologies culturally adapted to better fit the national context to which the discipline had been imported. Because indigenous psychologies in majority-world countries1 generally focus on social psychological research topics and issues, it was thought that a look at the origins and development of the discipline of social psychology in a number of countries might reveal insights about the indigenization process, development of the discipline, and its unique character in countries around the world. The three majority-world countries/regions selected for review—India, Taiwan, and Latin America—vary substantially in their approaches to indigenous social psychology.

It was decided to broaden the symposium and this Special Issue to also examine the origins and development of social psychology in three developed-world countries/regions (Australia, Canada, and Europe). Because the contemporary discipline of social psychology imported into countries around the world largely had its beginnings in the United States, there is a need in every country outside the US to adapt the imported discipline to its new context and culture (Adair, 1999). Whether arising from a focal indigenization process or simply adapting and shaping the discipline to address the special issues arising within each country, insights might be gained from considering the special form and process the discipline had taken within countries geographically distributed around the world.

Discipline development is generally assumed to progress through a series of stages. Adair (in press) proposed a model of four stages of discipline development: importation, implantation, indigenization, and autochthonization. Within majority-world countries attention has been devoted primarily to the third stage, indigenization, whereas in developed-world countries, especially those with cultural similarity to the Western or American culture, this stage would receive much less—maybe even limited—attention. Greater concern in these countries would be devoted to autochthonization—ensuring that an independent, self-sustaining academic discipline has been established.


In each of the articles that follow, authors examine the origins and unique development of the discipline within their country or region. The articles reveal both commonalities and unique elements in the discipline around the world. In addition, this uniqueness is supplemented by the writing style adopted for each paper. Although papers are focused on the roots and evolution of the social psychology discipline, its unique character within their country, plus the author’s individual perspective on the topic has led each author to adopt a distinctive approach.

The articles will give the reader an appreciation of common influences shaping the discipline in most countries. Most commonly, the discipline of psychology emerged out of university departments of philosophy, with social psychology being a later development out of the new psychology. Within each country a single person or a few key individuals emerged to chart the discipline’s course and lead its development. The realization of many of the developments that followed, however, required or awaited the development of a critical mass of scholars, only some of whom were locally trained. Research training for the next generation of scholars is currently available locally; quite a change from the early years, when many students had to be trained abroad. Discipline associations were then formed to bring together and focus the energies of the individuals who were identified as social psychologists. In most countries or regions a journal was developed as the scholarly outlet for research contributions. In some instances, granting agencies or other organizational structures helped to shape the discipline by providing funding for nationally important research topics or by other forms of infrastructure support. These developments in turn promoted the realization of the discipline’s research potential and sharpened its contributions to mainstream social psychology and to its indigenous achievements.

The basic structure of social psychology does seem to be common across all countries. Variations that appear are primarily due to variations in culture, society, and national issues. Although psychology within all countries has roots dating back to the early 1900s or even earlier (Pandey suggests these are as early as 1500 BC in India), the emergence of modern social psychology seems to have occurred much later. Even in developed-world countries the definition and boundaries of social psychology were still being worked out through the 1940s and 1950s; whereas in some majority-world countries, such as Taiwan, major discipline-shaping events were still occurring as recently as the 1980s.

Just as there are commonalities, there are differences between the social psychologies of majority-world and developed-world countries. Indigenization is a central concern in majority-world countries, whereas the concept applied to developed-world countries is largely unknown or widely thought to be irrelevant. Majority-world countries more often intentionally research in pursuit of such differences, whereas developed-world countries generally pursue what they believe to be universal laws of human behaviour. Both social psychologies are each in their own way in pursuit of contributions to the universal understanding of human thought and behaviour. In every country/region, local research topics or theories have been pursued and unique findings have been identified.


In spite of the foregoing characterizations of social psychology around the world, there are just as many differences as there are similarities across the majority-world countries represented in this Special Issue. The concept of indigenous psychologies implies differences, and even the manner and extent to which indigenous psychologies are pursued may reflect cultural differences. It has been suggested (Adair, 2004) that the need for indigenization should vary according to the degree to which cultural differences are found between the society of the newly imported discipline and that represented by US culture. This would explain, for example, why there is such a focus on indigenization in Taiwan, to a somewhat lesser extent in India, where hundreds of years of British domination and imposition of the English language has reduced the extent of differences found in the modern culture of urban Indian society, and least in Latin American psychology, which has a culture shaped by the language, religion, and culture of southwestern Europe. Although English, as the language of science, is a handicap for all, its impact on social psychology in each majority-world country is differentially experienced. The foregoing differences are apparent in the articles that follow.

Although the first article that follows could have been written exclusively from within the ethnopsychology of the Mexican people using the indigenous approach originated by Rogelio Diaz-Guerrero, Rolando Diaz-Loving has resisted this temptation and provided a broad view of Latin American social psychology. He carefully details how three versions of social psychology—psychological, sociological, and cultural have historically emerged and are still pursued by psychologists within Latin America. Diaz-Loving identifies specific scholars associated with each, and provides examples of their research. The topics researched, for example, within psychological social psychology—the self-concept, social cognition, impression formation and attitudes, sexual behaviour, interpersonal attraction and couples, personality and locus of control—are similar to those researched within US psychology; however, Diaz-Loving provides examples of their unique culture-specific findings as evidence of the indigenous contributions emanating from Latin American social psychology.

K. K. Hwang reviews the origins of social psychology in Taiwan and its reformulation in the 1980s into an indigenous psychology of the Chinese people. The very strong commitment of K. S. Yang and his well-articulated programmatic agenda for an indigenous psychology is outlined and the brief history of support by regular conferences and the development of a journal devoted to indigenous psychology give the impression of the reformulated discipline as a social movement. Some social psychological research in Taiwan has focused on North American topics, whereas the more recent indigenous psychology has produced findings unique to the cultures of Taiwan and mainland China. In spite of these accomplishments, Hwang identifies the assumptions and underlying foundations of this indigenous movement and examines the challenges to this approach. Hwang devotes the remainder of his article to the philosophical positions it is necessary for social psychologists in Taiwan to adopt if they are to maintain their distinctive social psychology.

By contrast, social psychology in India is different in its greater attention to research relevant to India’s social problems than to research emerging out of or related to its cultural traditions. Although critical thinking on social psychological topics has deep roots in India’s ancient past, contemporary social psychology in India has focused on topics relevant to the modern Indian context. In part this is due to the focus of Indian social psychologists on issues of national development and social change in modern, urban Indian society, with relatively lesser attention devoted to its more traditional and larger rural population. As a result, the topics researched in India are different from those researched in Taiwan or Mexico: prejudice and intergroup relations, poverty and deprivation, health beliefs and behaviour, social values/motivation and development. Pandey and Singh regard this focus on relevance as a continuing concern for Indian social psychology.


Just as striking as the differences in the nature of social psychology across majority-world countries are the similarities among developed-world countries. Into each country there has been a substantial addition of psychologists trained abroad: in the UK, these were Jewish scholars fleeing from Nazi Germany just prior to World War II; in Canada, in the 1970s a large number of US social psychologists took up newly created academic positions; in Australia, the influx from the US and UK was evident, although gradual and less tied to a particular time. There were also classic figures in the discipline who left each country to make major contributions to social psychology elsewhere: Elton Mayo from Australia; Otto Klineberg from Canada; and William McDougall from the UK. In each country/region, the distinctive character of social psychology may be slight, yet made visible by careful scrutiny in the articles that follow. Part of the reason for this is that social psychologists in each country aspire to participate in the US brand of mainstream social psychology and are given local rewards, reinforcement, and even encouragement to publish in prestigious US and international journals. As a result, most national/regional disciplines have increasingly become major contributors to world psychology. Contrary to this is the fact that each national/regional discipline has had its distinct evolution and influences.

Peter Smith reviews the sources of influence and roots that have given a distinctive character to European social psychology, with most attention given to developments in the UK. Smith explores differences through the distinctive theories that have guided social psychology in the UK and on the continent—social identity theory, and the theories of social representation and of minority influence. In common with majority-world countries he finds that there has been European discontent with the experimental social psychology of the US, resulting in a greater tendency in European research to take into account the context for behaviour. Nonetheless, Smith identifies the practice in some European countries of encouraging publication in North American journals as leading many European psychologists to conduct US-type social psychological research. Smith also notes the interface and interaction between US and European psychologists that has occurred almost continuously over the past 50 years and which has resulted in reciprocal influences.

Having lived through many of the formative years of modern Australian social psychology and participated in many of its key events, Feather has written a personalized account of the personalities, institutions, events, and influences that have shaped Australian social psychology. Among those he identifies, the physical isolation of Australia is one of the more unique, both as an obstacle and as a blessing. As a blessing it has encouraged the development of strong measures to travel and promote visits by social psychologists from around the world. The success of these activities has resulted in Australian social psychology, in spite of its geographical isolation, having developed in a more eclectic way than psychology in Europe or US, and not a distinctive Australian social psychology. The fact that collaboration among Australian social psychologists tends to be with psychologists from abroad or with department colleagues, rather than across universities in Australia, has helped to make social psychology the Australian specialty with a claim to the strongest international reputation.

Adair provides an historical account of the roots of psychology in Canada, with emphasis on the gradual evolution of social psychology within a multicultural society suddenly impacted by a huge importation of US social psychologists in the 1970s. This influx gave Canadian social psychology a critical mass of active researchers and an almost instant mature discipline. Rather than becoming a miniature copy of the US discipline, social psychology in Canada has continued to develop a strong cross-cultural social psychology as well. Through early research on bilingualism, accompanied by extensive research on immigrant adaptation and an official government policy of multiculturalism, Canadian social psychology has developed into a strong centre for cross-cultural research. Nonetheless, experimental social psychology in Canada has continued to evolve into one of the strongest non-US contributors to APA journals. Adair documents this claim with empirical data showing the extent of development and contribution of social psychology in Canada. Although there is less formal inducement to publish in APA journals, personal pride and enhancement of one’s scholarly record for tenure and promotion is sufficient incentive.

In this Special Issue we consider the development of social psychology in six different countries. In each we are looking at how social psychology has evolved from an imported discipline just introduced to a country into a mature, autochthonous science regularly contributing to the world’s research literature. As the discipline continues to make strides within countries and regions, psychologists from developed-world countries will increasingly be visible as authors within APA and other premier North American and international journals. This will ultimately result in the emergence of a growing international discipline of social psychology less constrained or defined by national or regional boundaries (Adair, 2003). Indigenous accomplishments will continue to enrich the discipline by exploring the application and limits of its concepts, but with the same goals as developed-world disciplines: an understanding and documentation of human thought and behaviour across the world.


The author’s work on this article and on the special issue was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

The term “majority world,” to my knowledge first used by Cigdem Kagitcibasi, is regarded as a less pejorative label for the subset of countries often referred to as developing or low-income countries. It seems to be an appropriate label both in terms of numerosity (population and numbers of countries) and sensitivity, and it is used here to promote its general adoption as preferred terminology. I will continue to use the term “developed-world” to refer to the remaining countries. This terminology seems preferable to other labels that have been proposed, such as “economically advanced,” “economically advantaged,” or “industrialized” countries, each of which seems to be inappropriate in the age of information technology and where wealth does not necessarily lead to development.


Adair, J. G. (2004). On the indigenization and autochthonization of psychology. In B. N. Setiadi, A. Supratiknya, W. J. Lonner, & Y. H. Poortinga (Eds.), Ongoing themes in psychology and culture, Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Kanisius.

Adair, J. G. (2003, May). The internationalization of psychology, Invited address to the Western Psychological Association, Vancouver, Canada.

Adair, J. G. (1999). Indigenization of psychology: The concept and its practical implementation. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 48, 403–418.

© 2005 International Union of Psychological Science
DOI: 10.1080/00207590444000159

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