• Open Access

Self and Society: Social Change and Individual Development

By NevittSanford . Published by Aldine Transaction , New Jersey , 2006 . Paperback , 381 pages with index . RRP $69 . ISBN 0 202 30889 8 .

Reviewed by Charmine Härtel, Department of Management, Monash University, Melbourne

“Can social institutions be shaped and moulded profoundly enough to afford each member of a society his maximum potential for happiness, effective functioning, and complete development?” (Back cover)

This is the primary concern and mission of Nevitt Sanford in his book, Self and Society: Social Change and Individual Development. At the core of Sanford's argument is the divide between issues viewed as important by individuals in society and those viewed as important by science. This problem is receiving increasing media and public attention as illustrated by the example given next.

Not long ago, I caught a segment of ABC Radio National's Health Report, which at the time was featuring a two-part series called ‘Facing the Evidence’ (see footnote 1). Featured in this discussion was Sir Iain Chambers, co-founder of the Cochrane Collaboration in the United Kingdom. Among other points, Chambers convincingly highlighted the alarming mismatch between what is considered critical from a medical research perspective and what really matters to patients. His opinion on this state of difference was that randomised clinical trials, as used in medical and psychological research, too often address “utterly trivial issues, issues that are not of prime importance to patients and the people trying to look after them”. To illustrate this point, he described a study on rheumatoid arthritis that asked real-life sufferers of the disease what the most troubling aspect of their condition was. In contrast to the import researchers prescribed to pain and the effects of pain-relieving pharmaceuticals, the sufferers identified fatigue as their major issue. Chambers’ conclusion was that “left to themselves researchers didn’ t even know it (fatigue) was important”.

It is this issue of real-world versus scientific import that Sanford addresses, albeit in the area of psychosocial issues rather than medical practice as in the example just provided. His aim throughout the book is simple: to “attack human problems” (xiv). In pursuit of this goal, he forwards a personality-social theory with the hope of guiding the work of institutions responsible for individual welfare, growth and development.

Self and Society is drawn from a collection of papers Sanford authored over a distinguished career spanning several decades. His professional experiences enabled him to fill a variety of roles. These included professor of psychology and education at Stanford University, director of the Institute for the Study of Human Problems, practising psychiatrist at the Tavistock Institute in London, and president of the Division of Personality and Social Psychology of the American Psychological Society.

Taken from these various perspectives, Sanford's book targets psychology and social science students, as well as professionals “working directly with people in trouble, people in psychologically dangerous situations or people in need of further development” (ix). Sanford makes significant gains towards enlightening these core people, with writing that is straightforward, lucid, and refreshingly jargon-free (with the exception of chapters 6 and 7, which are aimed at psychologists).

In part one and two of this six-part book, Sanford suggests an approach to inquiry and action, whereby research is framed by real-world problems rather than just industry or academic interest. His purported framework is one of holism, with the belief that “particular phenomena, such as ‘a perception’ or ‘a conditioned response’, are almost always in part determined by – indeed their very nature depends upon – the larger organismic patterns and purposes within which they have a place” (p. 12).

Sanford urges us to view the concept of personality within context, that is, within the society within which one lives. In part three, Sanford puts forth his thoughts on personality with his contention being that positive changes can be achieved by the fusion of personality and social theories. The rationale here is that, through personality theory, we may understand “how different environmental stimuli may induce developmental changes in different parts of the person” (p. x), while through social psychology we can understand “how arrangements can be made – either in an institutional setting or in the larger society – so that appropriate stimuli may be brought effectively to bear and inappropriate stimuli withheld” (p. x). “Ideally.” He says, “we should have personality-social theory – that is, theory adequate to deal with the articulation of personality systems and social systems. Such theory would promote both more searching analysis of social systems in psychologically relevant terms and also an understanding of how relatively autonomous personality structures are constantly sustained by processes in the social system and tend to change as that system changes” (p. x).

Part four extends Sanford's view, highlighting the personality and social factors evident in problems of criminality, neurosis, anti-Semitism and authoritarianism, masculinity-femininity, the acting out of impulses in adolescence and the inhibition of creativity. Various case studies further emphasise and illustrate Sanford's research paradigm whereby theory can be generated from actual human problems.

Part five elaborates on this idea, looking at the influence societal context has on personality development. Again, Sanford is reiterating the point that “in order to understand the person and how he might change, it is necessary to understand the social structures in which he lives” (p. xiv). Here, one starts to get a sense of Sanford's frustration as he comments on academics’ preference to view human problems in isolation rather than within a system.

Sanford's voice is most evident throughout the introduction to his book, where he allows himself to become somewhat retrospective. One senses, however, that this retrospection extends not just to the collection of his works but to his long and fruitful career. The tone of his words hints that through the publication of this book, he hopes to pass on something bigger than himself. This is shown in the comment: “Probably it is up to those of us who have the least to lose, by virtue of age and academic tenure, to try to achieve a broad outlook. Perhaps we may hope to become specialists in breadth” (p. xiv). In the subtext here, he implies that perhaps it is academic ego or institutional bureaucracy that prevents researchers from investigating what it really is that ails society – constraints that Sanford subtly urges be eradicated.

An additional point that must be praised about this book is Sanford's focus on building strengths rather than correcting weaknesses. This belief frames his thoughtfully posed arguments with somewhat of a positive psychology flavour. It is on this note that he reminds his audience of his foremost aim, that is, “to develop each individual's potentialities as fully as possible. Goals must be stated not only in terms of what is to be modified, corrected or prevented but also what is to be built up” (p. x). A noble point that we, as health scientists, may all like to be reminded of.