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Social relation and social categorization

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Social relation and social categorization

A social relation is frequently understood to be an emotional normative relation (or attitude) of “this person” (I, the self) to “other persons” and to material or intellectual objects pertaining to the person in some way (V. N. Myasishchev [20,21]). This conception is quite satisfactory within the framework of ‘subject-object” interaction, but adds nothing to its psychological conceptualization (although this is sometimes claimed). On the contrary, an emotional normative attitude receives a scientific explanation (not simply a phenomenological description) only in the theory of activity, which conceptualizes ‘subject-object” interaction in psychological terms (see Leont’ev’s theory of personal sense).

Our understanding of a social relation, as we have pointed out above, is based not on ‘subject-object interaction,” but on a ‘subject-predicate” relation. The relation is that of some predicate to some subject (or a subject to a predicate).

This definition does not mean, as may appear at first glance, that a relation is derivative from a logical operation in which the act of relating takes place. The act of relating a predicate to a subject or a subject to a predicate can take place not only in logical propositions (for example, “Ivan is subordinate to Andrei,” etc.) but in any active or passive expression of the subject (e.g., in the fact that Ivan behaves as if he is subordinate to Andrei, and also in the fact that people treat Ivan as if he were subordinate to Andrei). At first glance it may appear that if we have the concepts “Ivan’s behavior” and “dealing with Ivan,” we come, in a roundabout way, to that activity (in which Ivan then figures either as a subject or an object) we rejected as an all-embracing principle. Actually, this is not so. The fact of being subordinate to someone is not a psychological, but a sociological, fact. This sociological relation may be expressed in an activity that, in terms of its psychological determinants, is independent of that relation. The relation itself acquires psychological significance only if it is subjected to a special psychological process called social categorization.

The prehistory of the concept of “social categorization” goes back, strictly speaking, to gestalt psychology, i.e., to the discovery that in some cases perception distorts a shape presented to our contemplation in such a way that we disregard it-for example, certain aberrations in some typical shape.

Later, Tajfel & Wilkes [52] found that perceptual distortion that disregards nuances takes place not just in the field of attraction of typical shapes: it can also be produced artificially when shapes differing in nuances are divided into two groups and each of these groups is marked by some symbol. If, for example, line segments increasing geometrically in length (i.e., uniformly for perception) are divided into two groups and the shorter are marked, say, by the letter A and the longer by the letter B, perception distorts the length of the segments so arranged, minimizing the differences between the length of lines belonging to the same group and exaggerating considerably the small difference between the longest of the short segments and the shortest of the long segments. This distortion of a perceptual image is, of course, not a conscious process, but takes place spontaneously if different symbols are applied to environ­mental factors to separate them into categories and hence combine them into different groups.

Social categorization takes place in this process in a spontaneous way, not by means of some conscious act of thought. It is a special case of the above-described act in which small differences, receptivity to which a person either minimizes or exaggerates, exist not between factors in the environment, but between factors constituting a system of which the person doing the active categorization is himself a part (see Garai [41]). Tajfel argues:

The substantial difference between judgments applied to physical and social stimuli lies in the fact that in the latter case, categorizations are often related to differences in values...This interaction between socially derivative value differentials, on the one hand, and the cognitive “mechanics” of categorization, on the other, becomes especially notable in all social divisions between “us” and “them,” i.e., in all social categorizations in which distinctions are made between a person’s own group and external groups that are compared with it. [49. P. 62]

Moreover, in social categorization specific symbols are used to allocate factors to different categories. In an original experiment [51], symbols with regard to which categorization of two groups was carried out were constructed by the subjects’ arranging abstract pictures in order of their preference. They had initially been told that some pictures had been painted by Klee and others by Kandinsky. After this arranging, the experimenter described some of the randomly chosen subjects as “people preferring Klee” and others as “people preferring Kandinsky.” Under the influence of such labels, which had no preliminary value for the subjects, the tendency to minimize the differences within the categories and to exaggerate differences between categories showed up both in perception and in the subjects’ behavior.

Thus, by social category we mean a real similarity among socially important factors to which a mental aspect is attributed by application of some symbol of social categorization. At the same time, the difference between these factors and those to which other symbols are applied is accentuated.

Categorization of social situations in time

As we have seen, “socially important factors” may be different people participating in the same social situation. At the psychological level, the act of social categorization then stresses the real similarity or differences among these people in terms of the particular social situation.

But these factors are organized also in time: diverse social situations alternate in the biography of the same person.

If roles are ascribed in a specific scene to actors each of whom then performs his role in achieving his goals, these factors, taken together, characterize the specific social situation.

These four characteristics rarely vary all at the same time in a person’s life activity, but neither remain they all collectively constant for a long time. A person deals with variations in some characteristics while other characteristics of a social situation persist unchanged through social categorization. Here, too, categorization takes place by some social situations’ being combined through symbols, often themselves insignificant, into one category, diminishing or even eliminating for the mind the actual differences perceived among them and, at the same time, exaggerating to the categorical level their actual differences relative to other life situations.

In our opinion, personality, as part of the subject matter of psychology, is, in the mentally processed biography of the individual, manifested as a system of successive alterations in social situations. By dint of this processing, the personality is able to preserve its self-identity psychologically despite factual changes in some characteristics of these social situations. The same categorical process enables the personality to become psychologically different even when some characteristics of the social situation are in fact retained.

In his current life circumstances, a person finds all the characteristics of a situation objectively determined. For scenes and actors (when a situation has already been created), this is evidently more or less easily understood. But in terms of the goals of activity and role ascription, we are more inclined to consider them not as objectively given, since our everyday experience shows that each person voluntarily poses for himself his own goal (in the worst of cases, he fails to fulfill it); but actors can “negotiate” over role ascription (some may even refuse a role, foreseeing the hopelessness of any “transaction”).

Despite the evidence of everyday experience, Freud [24,25] considered both the goal of activity and the distribution of roles in a social situation to be objectively determined. He believed that a person’s sexual instinct (the libido) and, later, death instinct were objective (i.e., independent of consciousness) determinants of goals. Freud also thought that the distribution of roles in the Oedipus triangle was an objective determinant inasmuch as in this role ascription there could be no “negotiations” about who played the role of the father, the role of the mother, and the role of the son, respectively (this was rigorously controlled by the objective system of cultural prohibitions).

In our opinion, the discovery that the goal of activity and the distribution of roles in a social situation are objectively determined can be divorced from Freud’s formulation of this discovery. An indication that this separation does not touch the essence of the discovery is that Freud himself made this distinction when he included the death instinct among his determinants of goals and transferred the level determining role distribution from the father to the superego. But this did not modify his position that the goal of activity and role distribution in a current situation are objectively determined by something. Freud’s successors, from Adler [27] to Lacan [45], have at various times endeavored to redetermine this “something,” leaving the assumption that it was an objective determinant untouched.

We should also point out that the notion that the “forces of production from without, and the instincts within,” to use the words of the Hungarian poet and philosopher Attila Jozsef, must also be ranked among the objective determinants of the goals of ractivity. Some of the latest programs stress that it is necessary to rank both “production relations” and the Oedipus triangle among the objective determinants of role distribution in a social situation (see [37]).

Thus, Freud thought that all the characteristic features of a social situation were objectively determined. Situations differ in nuances from one another with regard to these objectively determined characteristics. The subsequent mental processing of this de facto difference, given in nuances, raises its status to that of a categorical difference or reduces it to categorical similarity. This makes symbols applied to different situations different, and symbols applied to similar situations similar.

A psychological mechanism of the first is, for example, repression, which prevents the person from reproducing the content of consciousness or performing a behavioral act that is necessary for him in the current situation, but is part of a situation different from it: in this case, the inhibited manifestation designates a categorical difference among situations. Similar situations are, on the contrary, symbolized by a content of consciousness or an act of behavior elicited from the requisites of a similar situation by a mechanism of compulsive repetition, despite the goals of the current situation. Freud [24] described people for whom all human affairs always ended in the same way: do-gooders who always managed to offend the recipients of their bounty, however much they might differ from one another; others who many times throughout their lives extolled someone to themselves, and perhaps even publicly, as an authority, but soon rejected that authority themselves and replaced it with another; those in love, for whom all tender relations passed through the same phases, and always wound up the same way; etc.

Freud’s discovery in this regard is ultimately that all of a person’s physical displays and phenomena of consciousness should be interpreted as special symbols, and that the key to this interpretation is given in the similarities and differences between the present social situation and past social situations of the same person, who makes these similarities and differences categorical by means of such symbols. The social categorization of different people relative to the same social situation also takes place by means of such symbols.

In our view, the flaw in Freud’s theory derives from his making this [symbolic] aspect an absolute. If this is disregarded, another aspect is also raised to the status of an absolute, namely, one in which physical manifestations function merely as activity, and the phenomena of consciousness are only the guiding substrate of this activity. Yet both display the already present properties of subject and object and do not create new ones by relating a predicate to the subject. To clarify the ontogeny of psychological structures, the significance of the first aspect must be taken into account (see Kocski & Garai [44] and, especially, Kocski’s dissertation [7]), just as the role of the aspect of activity must be taken into account to explain the continued production of mental phenomena.

The flawed logic common to both nativism and environmentalism can be overcome only by a synthesis of the principle of activity and the principle of social relation. We must restore this synthesis as it exists in the works of Vygotsky. For this, it is important for investigation of the psychological problems of social relations to overcome their lag relative to investigation of the psychological problems of activity.


1. Jerome Bruner [32], citing this calculation, ironically notes that this figure may seem a little inflated, in which case one could choose a rate ten times less: 102 reinforcements per second.

2. N. Chomsky’s theory of the innate basis of language was first clearly formulated in 1957 [33]. See also [35,36].

3. For the elaboration of the conceptual apparatus of social behaviorism, see G. H. Mead [46] and [8]. Especially interesting is his teaching that between the self and significant others there occurs symbolic interaction, that is, interpersonal communication. In this mutual flow of beliefs, the self is constituted, a conception that is often encountered in modern thinking about communication.

4. It is well known that early environmentalism (for example, early behaviorism), in its turn, stemmed from the inability of nativistic theories to explain the plasticity of animal behavior.

5. See the chapter “Relations of the personality-Self-evident or a problem?” in Garay [40. Pp. 142-59]. See also [4,5,22,38,42].


1. Vygotsky, L. S. [Thought and language]. Moscow and Leningrad, 1934. 324 pp.

2. Gal’perin, P. Ya. [Development of research in the formation of mental acts]. In [Psychological science in the USSR]. Moscow: APN RSFSR, 1959. Vol. 1, pp. 441-69.


3. Gal’perin, P. Ya. [Introduction to psychology]. Moscow: MGU, 1976. 150 pp.

4. Garai, L. [A historical materialist approach to the problem of specifically human needs]. Yop. Psikhol., 1966, No. 3, pp. 61-73.

5. Garai, L. [Historical materialism and the personality]. Yop. Filosof., 1969, No. 8, pp. 19-30.

6. Gvozdev, A. N. [Problems in the study of children’s speech]. Moscow, 1961. 472 pp.

7. Kocski, M. [Position in a social situation and child mental development (A longitudinal study)]. Candidate’s dissertation. Moscow: MGU, 1981. 200 pp.

8. Kon, I. S., & Shalin, D. I. [The world and the problem of the human self]. Yop. Filosof., 1969, No. 12, pp. 85-96.

9. Leont’ev, A. A. [The psychology of communication]. Tartu, 1974. 220 pp.

10. Leont’ev, A. N. [Communication as a topic of psychological study]. In [Methodological problems of social psychology]. Moscow: “Nauka” Publishers, 1975: Pp. 106-124.

11. Leont’ev, A. N. [Problems of mental development]. Moscow: “Mysl”‘ Publishers, 1965. 573 pp.

12. Leont’ev, A. N. [The problems of activity in psychology]. Yop. Filosof., 1972, No. 9, pp. 95-109.

13. Leont’ev, A. N. [Activity and consciousness]. Yop. Filosof., 1972, No. 12, pp. 129-40.

14. Leont’ev, A. N. [Activity. Consciousness. Personality]. Moscow: Politizdat, 1975. 304 pp.

15. Lisina, M. I. [Communication of children with adults in the first seven years of life]. In [Problems of general, developmental, and educational psychology]. Moscow, 1978. Pp. 237-53.

16. Lomov, B. F. [The present state and long-term prospects of development of psychology in the USSR in light of the decisions of the 24th Congress of the CPSU]. Yop. Psikhol., 1971, No. 5, pp. 3-19.

17. Lomov, B. F. [Communication as a problem of general psychology]. In [Methodological problems of social psychology]. Moscow, 1975. Pp. 124-36.

18. Lomov, B. F. [The relationship between the social and the biological as a methodological problem of psychology]. Yop. Filosof., 1976, No. 4, pp. 83-95.

19. Luria, A. R. [The place of psychology among the social and biological sciences]. Yop. Filosof., 1977, No. 9, pp. 68-76.

20. Myasishchev, V. M. [The personality and neuroses]. Moscow, 1960. 426 pp.

21. Myasishchev, V. M. [Fundamental problems in and current status of the psychology of human relations]. In [Psychological science in the USSR]. Moscow, 1960. Vol. 2, pp. 110-26.

22. Peteri, V. [Studies of the problems of the personality]. Yop. Filosof., 1971, No. 3, pp. 183-86.

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