According to the sociocultural level of analysis, much importance is placed on how the individual’s thinking and behavior is influenced by social factors, involving culture, social norms, values and even stereotypes. Human beings can be seen as social animals that have an innate need to belong to a social group and to have a social identify, besides the individual one. This field entails the study of phenomena such as conformity, compliance, attributions, and cultural norms.
As with the other levels of analysis, this level makes use of several research methods. In recent years, the majority of research is qualitative in nature, because more emphasis is placed on the participants behaving as realistically as possible. Research is done in the “natural environment” of the various behaviors, so it is referred to as naturalistic. Modern sociocultural researchers tend to use interviews -many of which are focus groups- and observations (both overt and covert). Correlational studies are also used and a great deal of research involves triangulation. Although methods that lack ecological validity are often avoided, many studies have addressed causal hypotheses and so the experimental method has often been employed. There is a considerable number of field experiments.
Social psychologists often want to “see the world through the eyes of those being studied” and so participant observation is a common method. The aim of observations is to gather first-hand information in a naturally-occurring situation and in participant observations the researcher becomes part of the group he/she studies. This allows them to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given area of interest, through personal involvement with people in their natural environment. The researcher observer, listens, participates and produces field notes, so such method is very demanding. The aim is to develop a scientific understanding of the universe of participants. Participant observations have proved very useful for gaining insight into the lives and beliefs of subcultures. Although one advantage is that the researcher does not impose their own reality on the phenomenon, it is also true that objectivity can be lost. Thus, reflexivity should always be part of the interpretation of the data.
Participant observation was used in the well-known study of Festinger et al. (1956) and it was covert, so participants were not aware of being studied. The researchers wanted to see how members of a cult would cope with the situation when their prophecies failed. They joined a cult that believed the world would end on a specific date and investigated how their beliefs changed. The members had publicized their prophecies and believed that flying saucers would rescue them. The theory of cognitive dissonance predicted that they would either modify their beliefs to restore balance in their cognitions, or change their behavior so that it would fit their beliefs. When the date arrived, some of the cult members coped with situation by saying their prayers had saved the world. In this way, they created meaning. Others simply left the cult. This indicated that they had changed their beliefs and thus the study confirmed the predictions of the cognitive dissonance theory.
This covert participant observation was the only possible method to access and investigate a religious cult. It would be extremely difficult to make use of other research methods for an exclusive group like this one. The researchers had the chance to view the world of its members without preconceived ideas. In a covert observation, however, participants have not given consent to being studied and thus ethical issues arise. Festinger et al. employed deception, because otherwise their presence would most likely be unjustifiable. Another important ethical issue is that of confidentiality. Disclosure of the identity of participants would probably affect them negatively, considering the mainstream view of sects. Overall, the study was high on ecological validity, but since the cult members were all from Chicago, generalization to other populations and cultures is questionable.
Social psychologists have often used field experiments to test hypotheses. The goal of an experiment is to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between two variables (the IV & the DV). Contrary to laboratory experiments, where there is strict regulation of the IV and control of confounding variables, field experiments are less artificial because they take place in the participants’ natural environment (street, school, workplace). This indicates less internal validity, but researchers still manipulate variables. They are operationalized and the results are most likely quantitative.
Freedman and Fraser conducted a field experiment in 1966 to test the factor of consistency in compliance employed in the “foot-in-the-door” technique. This compliance technique is entailed in the area of social influence. These researchers arranged a researcher, posing as a volunteer worker, to ask a number of householders in California to allow a big ugly public-service sign reading “Drive Carefully” to be placed in their front yard. Only 17% of the householders complied with this request. A different group of homeowners was asked whether they would display a small “Be a Safe Driver” sign. Nearly all agreed. 2 weeks later these same homeowners were asked, by a “volunteer worker”, whether they would display the much bigger “Drive Carefully” sign in their front yards. 76% complied with this second request, a far higher percentage than the 17% of the homeowners in the other condition. In a second study, Freedman and Fraser (1966) first asked a number of householders to sign a petition in favor of keeping California beautiful, something nearly everybody agreed to do. After 2 weeks, they sent a new “volunteer worker” who asked them whether they would allow the big “Drive Carefully” sign to be displayed in their gardens. Interestingly, the two requests relate to completely different topics. One is about road safety and the other about keeping it cool down in Cali. However, nearly half of them agreed to the second request. Again, this is significantly higher than the first condition of the first field experiment.
Signing the petition changed the view the homeowners had about themselves. They saw themselves as concerned citizens with a well-developed sense of civic responsibility. Agreeing to the big sign two weeks later reflected their need to comply with their newly-formed self-image. The field experiment was suitable in order to test a compliance technique in naturally-occuring situations, as part of everyday life. It would not be possible for participants to form this new self-image under laboratory conditions. Furthermore, the control of variables and the existence of different experimental conditions was also necessary to identify a cause-and-effect relationship. It would not be easy to test the foot-in-the-door technique through an interview, for example. It can be argued that there was ecological validity, but one limitation could be that personality factors were not taken into account.
To conclude, it appears that the sociocultural researchers make use of a variety of methods, both quantitative and qualitative. An important advantage is that triangulation is common at this level, increasing the credibility of findings.