Friday 28 February 2014

Attitudes: Ontology, Methodology, Impact

By Mark Elliot

In the special section on attitudes, published in the February 2014 issue of Sociological Research Online, we offer some reflections on the attitude and its role within the social sciences and sociology in particular. Our central point is that the concept is pervasive in social science, and yet for a disciplinary environment where reflective criticism is the norm and where constructs are constantly questioned, the attitude has had a remarkably easy ride. Part of the issue here is that the attitude was largely developed within psychology and in a sense that discipline has done its work. It is time that the concept was subjected to sociological scrutiny: for sociology to claim it, critique it, develop it.

The attitude as a social construct emerged out of mentalistic psychology in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Spencer (1862) was amongst the first to use the term in his work First Principles where he refers to “attitude of mind”. An early distinction, probably attributable to the sociologist Ellsworth Faris (1925), was between the perceptual and behavioural conceptualisations (or perhaps aspects) of the attitude. Although most scholars did not see this distinction as functional, it was an early pointer to an ontological and methodological issue that still remains: the apparent disjunction between attitudes (as we measure them) and behaviour (as we observe it). Notwithstanding this conundrum, it is fair to summarise this early theorising as the view of the attitude as an encapsulation of the intentional relationship between a (human) agent and its environment.

The blossoming of cognitive social psychology between the 1940s and the 1970s, brought the attitude to the forefront of psychology as a social science. In parallel with this manifestation was the explosion of the social survey as mechanism for social measurement. Early surveys did not focus greatly on attitudes. Indeed, Roger Jowell, in his introduction to the first British Social Attitudes survey (carried out in 1983) remarked “Public attitudes are as much a part of social reality as are behaviour patterns, social conditions or demographic characteristics, but their measurement has never been accorded the same priority” (Jowell and Airey 1984). Thirty years on, many modern day social surveys do include a significant tranche of questions canvassing the respondent’s attitudes.

During the 1980s an intellectual shift began within psychology. It had always sat between the sciences and humanities, but around this time its relationship with the sciences, most notably neurology and computer science, strengthened markedly. Consequently, the pure social psychological scholarship which had driven much of the early work on attitudes became less prevalent and for the past thirty years we have seen a large scale increase in the application of the concept of the attitude within the social sciences with very little work on the corresponding theory and methodology. So we (the social sciences outside of psychology) are in an uncomfortable position. We are using a construct - the attitude - which we have essentially imported from psychology, arguably somewhat uncritically. Given the raging debates that can often occur within our disciplines around key theoretical and methodological constructs, this is an odd state of affairs indeed.

Hence, the major driver for us in producing this special section is our view that sociology should now claim this construct as its own. We should develop theory as to its ontological status and the methodology with which to capture and analyse it, and assess the impact that it has (at both micro and macro levels).  The central scholarly enquiry here is: what is the role of the attitude in social science?  This enquiry has numerous more specific spin-offs: How important is the attitude for policy and decision making? How central is it to the social science collective and to our individual disciplines and fields?  What type of entity is it? Is an attitude an expression of agency or merely a third party description of (self)-observed consistencies?

One might observe that these types of enquiry are inherently sociological and perhaps the flip side of this is that many sociological enquiries are inherently attitudinal. Core fields of sociological enquiry - stratification, gender, social class, social movements and culture - all seem to contain attitudinal elements. Several of the papers in the special section consider this relationship explicitly. Voas calls for a more sociological perspective on attitudes, moving beyond “the individual likes and dislikes described by psychologists”. Watt and Elliot tackle this relationship from the other direction, speculating on the notion that social theories might be representable as attitudinal types.

A key discussion in the attitudes literature is the relationship between attitudes and other constructs.  Several of the papers reflect on this issue. Voas tries to make clear the distinction between attitudes and other social psychological constructs (values, beliefs, feelings and behaviour). Watt and Elliot make an essentially methodological case for disconnecting the attitude from actual behaviour, preferring the term imagined behaviour. Kulnin and Seymer provide evidence on how what is articulated by the political elite moderates the relationship between values and attitudes. Paterson views social attitudes as mediating constructs between education and social participation.

Methodologically, all of the papers use, at least in part, social survey data. However for Chattoe-Brown these data are simply a way of improving the performance of agent based models of attitude dynamics, whilst for Devine and Robinson as well as Voas they are primarily the objects of study rather than analytical media.

To conclude, the attitude has de facto a long history within the social sciences, but as Voas states in his article “The sociology of attitudes is both well established and surprisingly underdeveloped.” This state of affairs seems undesirable both for the study of attitudes and for the social science disciplines that engage with the concept. The articles here provide a selection of perspectives on how a new social science of attitudes might be taken forward.

FARIS, E. (1925) ‘The Concept of Social Attitudes’ Journal of Applied Sociology, 9 p. 404-409.
JOWELL, R.  and AIREY, C. (Eds) (1984). British Social Attitudes: the 1984 Report. Gower: Aldershot.
SPENCER (1862) First Principles Appleton cited in Allport (1954)