Social transformation invigorates Chinese social psychology

By Yu Guoliang, Wei Qingwang / 05-26-2014 / Chinese Social Sciences Today
Volenteers from China Gezhouba Group No. 5 Engineering Co., LTD and China Three Gorges University are
helping the “left-behind” children from Wangzhougang community of Yichang, Sichuan Province of China.
Asian psychology has been breaking into international psychology circles, a trend Chinese social psychology should strive to emulate by specializing in cultural study and developing its own style. Ultimately Chinese social psychology has two objectives: sorting out and reincorporating traditional Chinese culture, and addressing the issues Chinese society faces today.
Development of social psychology
Research in social psychology has proliferated since reform and opening up, but gains in quantity have not been matched with increases in quality. First, the research context of social psychology is informed by developments in psychology. More and more, social psychologists have studied topics or employed methodologies related to social cognition. Second, the vast majority of this research is commentary or personal insights on theory. Often these studies are a “one-off”, and do not have any follow-up research. Third, because its research base is weak, Chinese social psychology needs to fully comprehend Western social psychology before it tries to conduct its own independent research. This poses steep requirements for Chinese social psychology, and explains why examples of genuine “native psychology” remain sparse.
Social psychology was not always such a placid field in China. The 1980s were a time of heated debate on the fundamental problems of the discipline, while in the early 1990s, Chinese social psychologists fervently discussed how to make their field wholly Chinese. These debates have gradually trailed off since the late 1990s. Additionally, what began as one large field has now splintered off into three groups: the first study Western social psychology and pay little attention to Chinese social issues; the second use sociological methods to focus on macro issues in Chinese society, but ignore the social psychological factors; the third study pragmatic topics like management and business psychology, emphasizing applied value rather than theory.
Should these developments make us lose hope? The answer is no. It is true that from its inception to the present, social psychology in the mainland has not produced a body of research or theoretical framework others can look to, nor has it spawned a spirited localization movement like those in Hongkong and Taiwan. Nevertheless, we should not write off what it has done or what it can do in the future. Where Chinese psychology and sociology have made substantial progress today, Chinese social psychologists have built a strong cultural consciousness that could very well blossom into tremendous achievements tomorrow.
Localization movement
The strength of China’s economy and its increase in national power have lifted its citizens’ confidence. Now, they have more time and energy to promote their own culture and to study the spiritual and psychological issues, transcending basic questions of material subsistence. Current Chinese psychological has every reason to leap ahead, though, because the 30 years’ history since reform and opening up offer a tremendous repository of research material and a sturdy intellectual support base for progress in social psychology.
Localization efforts among Chinese mainland social psychologists differ from both those in broader international society (eg. Europe) and in Chinese Hong Kong and Taiwan. When its revival began in the 1980s, mainland social psychology practically started from scratch, so in a strictly temporal sense, it trails global social psychology by over 70 years. In 30 years’ development, it has not grown into a complete mature discipline—a process that begins with transplantation, moves through a period of critical reflection, and coalesces into a localized practice and understanding. For Taiwan, the first two stages took about 23 and 10 years respectively. Mainland China’s social psychology still lacks deep and spirited reflection on how to mould the discipline to suit local demands and concepts.
Given the numerous changes in mainstream international social psychology, it would be foolhardy to disengage from Western social psychology to the extent Chinese Honk Kong and Taiwan have. Instead, we should consider the splash Asian social psychology has made within global circles.
Social transformation
Observing social phenomena is an incremental and gradual process. Over the past century, Chinese society has undergone radical social and cultural transformation, but social psychology has not been able to keep pace with these changes. Because psychological change—and issues—usually follows social transformation, Chinese social psychologists need to view their mission as one of national construction.
This trend outlines the general mechanics of the discipline: a particular social phenomenon will enter into the vision of social psychology and become a topic of study only some time after it arises. For instance, American social psychology reached its first heyday when psychologists turned their attention to the “social conflicts” that emerged in post-World War II American society. European social psychologists reframed the whole field in the 1960s by examining the coexistence of diverse ethnic groups. In the 1980s and 1990s, Asian social psychologists stressed cultural exchange and conflict to develop a native but cross-cultural practice and understanding of psychology. Today, Chinese social psychologists should follow these examples by staying attuned to the social phenomena within Chinese society.
Group identity and theory building
Fang Wen, professor of Sociology, points out that Chinese social psychology is calling for restructuring psychology by facing social transitions based on group theory. Fang explains that Chinese psychology tends to adopt one of two perspectives—culturally specific (applicable in native and cross-cultural psychology) or culturally stable (applicable in Western psychology).
Social psychology in Hongkong and Taiwan is something of an archetypical example of the culturally specific approach, with its emphasis on the cultural fibers and profundity of Chinese tradition. Western psychologists have latched onto this with enthusiasm in recent years, with a deluge of research on cultural psychology (research that takes culture as the variable). Quite inspirational, this trend may invigorate current Chinese social psychology.
In China’s current transformative period, Chinese social psychologists generally focus on empirical issues, but need to be more concerned with developing theory. For instance, in a study on personality structures of Chinese people, Wang Dengfeng examined how the unique attributes of the Chinese character influenced the competence of cadres. Based on her belief that the traditional philosophy of mellowness still has value for contemporary Chinese lifestyles, famous scholar Yang Zhongfang developed a theoretical framework for the psychology of mellowness. Lastly, research teams have made fruitful discoveries in empirical studies based on the theory of cognitive and emotive neural mechanisms to the theory of psychological adjustment.
Yu Guoliang and Wei Qingwang are from the Institute of Social Psychology at Renmin Unversity.
Translated by Bai Le 
Revised by Charles Horne