The Social Approach

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Key Assumptions

1. People interact with eachother and affect one anothers behaviour.

2. People live within a culture and their behaviour is affected by their experience with that culture.

3. The social situation in which we are in can affect our behaviour, making it situational rather than dispositional.

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Key Feature

1. The Social Approach assumes that our behaviour is affected by other people even when we are alone. Agency theory suggests we are agents for a society so we act in a way which benefits society. The culture we live in determines our social norms. This suggests that most of our behaviour is situational rather than dispositional.

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  • Reliable because bias from researcher can be avoided  by having a set procedure and set questions.
  • Valid data can be obtained if questions and procedure are set and thus bias is avoided.


  • Potential to be unreliable if administered differently by different people. Which could affect responses.
  • Fixed questions may mean important data is missed as respondents are not free to say what they want to, even if open questions are used - this would reduce validity. (people could be in a rush/can't be bothered)
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Structured Interview


  • Questions can be explained
  • Allows interviewee to expand upon their answers


  • Interviewer may bias the answers by tone, dress, gender (researcher bias)
  • Analysis of answers may be subjective (researcher bias)
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Semi-structured Interview


  • Allows further exploration of a question if the initial answer merits this


  • Hard to analyse data collected as different question may be explored with different people
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Unstructured Interview


  • Lots of qualitative data collected as participants asked questions relevant to them.


  • Very difficult to analyse and make comparisons so works best for case studies.
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Closed-ended questions


  • Generate standard responses that are easy to compare and analyse so usually provide quantitative data.
  • Reliable as everyone gets asked the same clearly expressed questions with the same level of detail.


  • Lack validity as they force a choice of answer so respondent may not be able to say what they want to.
  • Answers can be incomparable eg 'unsure' may mean don't know to some people but sometimes yes and sometimes no to others.



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Open-ended questions


  • Provides rich in-depth data as respondent is not constrained but can answer as they wish (qualitative data)
  • Produces more valid (real life) data as questions can be interpreted and answered as the respondent wishes


  • Qualitative data can be hard to compare an analyse
  • Takes more time than ticking a box so may not be answered in full. Also may be harder to tell the truth if you are with the researcher as you are not completley anonymous.
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Quantitative Data

Numerical data which can be put into charts and graphs


  • Data can be represented in charts, graphs etc and is easy to analyse and compare
  • Collected with good controls so replicable and reliable (if respondents tell the truth)


  • No scope for expansion of response so may not be valid.
  • Respondents may not be truthful due to social desirability and demand characteristics
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Qualitative Data

Rich, in-depth, detailed data which tells the interviewer about the respondents thoughts, feelings and emotions.


  • Involves greater detail so may be more valid.
  • Respondents say what they want so more valid (if they tell the truth).


  • Difficult to analyse and compare because data is so different and can be hard to summarise.
  • Can take longer for both respondents and interviewers.
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Random Sampling

Everyone in the target population has an equal chance of being selected but to make it more manageable if the target popultion is large, a sampling frame is initially selected (eg 1 regiment from the army rather than the whole army). The names of those in the sampling frame are then put into a box and picked out. (could use a random generator).


  • Low bias as everyone has an equal chance of being chosen
  • Sample can be checked mathematically for bias


  • Could be gender/age biased so may not be representative of all group types
  • Those picked may not want to take part or may not be available to take part
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Stratified Sampling

Within the target population there may be several groups of strata (e.g. Male/Female/Young/Old) so it is essential that the number of people in the sample proportionally represents the number of people in each strata of the target population.


  • All relevant groups will have some representation
  • Limits the number of participants needed


  • It can be difficult to know how many of each group is needed to truly represent the target population accurately
  • Can give bias as it forces the choice of participants to some extent so some are excluded.
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Volunteer/Self-selected Sampling

Participants volunteer themselves usually in response to an advertisement, poster, letter, raadio/TV broadcast.


  • Ethically good because people are willing to participate
  • Participants are more likely to co-operate so possibly less social desirability bias and less likely to drop out etc.


  • May give a biased sample as only certain types of people will volunteer (those with time or an interest in that topic)
  • May take a long time to get enough participants
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Oppurtunity Sample

Using whoever is available at the time.


  • Quick and efficient
  • More ethical as researcher can judge if the participant is likely to have time or get upset


  • Prone to bias as only those who are available at the time are used - so could be too many males/females for example.
  • Not usually representative of the target population.
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Informed Consent

Consent must be gained from participant.

Informed consent would mean that you have fully told the participant what is going to happen in the experiment.

Must be obtaineed from from parents/carers for children or vulnerable adults.

Doesn't need to be gained if observing people in a public place.

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Should be avoided where possible.

Not telling the truth or full story.

Asking 'off the subject' questions.

Hiding the real reason of the study.

Not telling the truth about confederates/stooges.

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Right to Withdraw

Participants must be told before, during and after the study that they can withdraw at any time and their data will not be used.

It doesn't matter if they have given informed consent or have been paid, they can still withdraw.

If someone did not know they were part of an exeriment you do not need to tell them.

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Participants must be debriefed at the end of the experiment.

It should take place immediately after the study.

They should also be told the aim, expected results, actual results (but not by breaching confidentiality).

Participants should be asked if they have any questions.

Researcher must ensure that the participants are not distressed.

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Researchers must be competent to carry out the study - if in doubt they should ask someone qualified or a collegue.

Competence includes:

  • Understanding the implications of the study,
  • Knowing ethical guidelines,
  • Being suitably qualified,
  • Adhering to safe practice,
  • Adhering to the Data Protection Act,
  • Knowing how to store data confidentially,
  • Seeking advice if they are in doubt.
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Other Ethical Guidelines

  • Confidentiality - keeping participants details confidential perhaps by allocating numbers not names.


  • Privacy - not asking participants about things that may be personal or cause distress


  • Distress - no physical or psychological distress can be caused


  • Children -  particular care must be taken and informed consent gained from parents/carers
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Evaluating Milgram's Study


  • Good controls which avoid bias and mean the situation was the same for all so cause and effect conclusions could be drawn.
  • Good control meant that the study is replicable and can be tested for reliability.


  • Unethical because participants were decieved, did not give informed consent, were distressed and did not have the full Right to Withdraw (the experiment requires you to carry on)
  • Lacks validity because it is in an artificial situation and uses artificial procedures.

Practical application:

If we can understand why people blindly obey authority figures, we may be able to stop them from doing so and therefore avoid events such as the holocaust, Mai Lau and Abu Ghraib.

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One Variation to Milgram's Study

Changing the prestigous location to a run-down office block reduced obedience.

Shocking to 450 Volts:

Original - 65% obeyed

Changed to - 47.5% obeyed

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Milgram's Agency Theory

Milgram said participants were just doing what they were told despite showing Moral Strain.

They agreed to take part (and to be paid) so they felt they were agents of the experimenter and were in an Agentic State as opposed to being autonomous.

Milgram suggests this complies with his Agency Theory.  Agency Theory suggests that our social system leads to obedience because we are socialised into a hierachy of obedience (e.g. in school or at work). If we see ourselves as individuals we can be autonomous but as part of a society we are in an agentic state.

Milgram says that being part of a society or group fits with the Evolution Theory in that it aids survival. Therefore we are pre-programmed to behave in this way by a gene or genes which are inherited.

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Evaluation of Milgram's Agency Theory


  • Provides a good explanation for different levels of obedience between Milgram's original study and the variations.
  • Provides a good explanation for the holocaust or atrocties such as Mai Lai - behaviour becomes situational rather than dispositional.


  • Is a description of how society works rather than an explanation of why it works in that way.
  • Other explanations for obedience may be more likely: French and Raven suggested five types of power, some of which Milgram held. Reward Power; he paid them, the participants felt obliged to do someting for the money. Expert Power; he was seen as more knowledgeable than them, Prestigous location, White lab coat.

Practical Application: It explains why when we are driving along an empty road, we speed (being autonomous) but when there are other cars, especially police cars, or speed cameras around, we stick to the speed limit (we are in an agentic state).

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Evaluation of Meeus and Rajmakers Study


  • The study was deliberately planned so that comparisons could be made with Milgram's studies so the results were useful.
  • Good controls meant that the study is replicable and can be tested for reliability - also cause and effect can be shown.


  • The experiment lacked ecological validity as it ws not a real life situation - applicants do not take tests for a job in a laboratory.
  • There are differences in the studies other than the planned ones e.g. the studies are in different cultures and over 20 years apart. (American and Dutch).

Practical Application:

It explains why some people verbally bully other people but woulod not commit physical violence in order to get their own way.

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Comparisons and contrsts between Milgram and M&R


  • Higher levels of obedience in all conditions in M&R rather than Milgram
  • Different type of violence used
  • Studies took part in different eras
  • Milgram used all males, M&R used both males and females.


  • Ethical problems such as deception and distress in both
  • Both support Agency Theory
  • Both were Western Societies (collectivist cultures such as China might be very different)
  • Both used prestigous locations (universities) and authority figures so may have had expert power.
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Evaluation of Hofling at al's study


  • High ecological validity as it was in a natural setting - natural environment (hospital), Natural everyday task (nurses administer drugs)
  • Clear controls so the study is replicable and can be tested for reliability. - scripted call between 7 and 9pm.


  • Ethical issues of distress - anger, guilt. Deception - nurses were decieved with 'fake' phone call. Lack of informed consent.
  • The study was carried out in 1966 so the results may not apply now as doctor/nurse relationships are different. - Nurses these days are taught to question orders if they don't think they are right. - Historical validity: might have been valid then but not nowadays.

Practical Application: If we understand that people will blindly obey authority figures, even when asked to do something wrong, we can try to teach people to stand up for what is right and therefore avoid situations like the holocaust.

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