Although social and community psychology share theoretical frameworks and research methods, each of these disciplines is characterized by particular aspects that are important to know. In this article we will analyze the main differences between social and community psychology , one of its most relevant and demanding branches.

What is social psychology?

Social psychology can be defined as the scientific study of the influence that the presence of other people has on observable behaviour and on the mental contents of specific individuals or groups. The others do not have to be physically present, but also act in an imaginary or symbolic way through social norms and other factors.

Thus, from this aspect of psychology, behaviour is understood as an interaction between the social variables that are present at a given time and the state of the individual. In general, particular attention has been paid to the relevance of cognitive constructs such as feelings, attitudes or intentions.

Among the phenomena and processes most commonly studied by social psychology we find social cognition, the attribution of causality to behaviour and events or self-concept (referring to a person’s beliefs about him or herself), self-image (mental representation of oneself) and self-esteem (emotional component of self-concept).

Most experts believe that social psychology as we know it today emerged in the early 20th century, with the United States at its core. Norman Triplett’s experiments in social facilitation were a key milestone; the Gestalt School followed, and after World War II interest in the discipline increased.

It is considered that social psychology constitutes the point of union between psychology and sociology , centred to a greater extent on the collectives. Although these two social sciences have been acquiring their own identities over the last few decades, the knowledge of both is equally useful for research and the theory of social psychology.

Defining Community Psychology

Community psychology is considered to have emerged around the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. During this period the consequences of World War II favoured the introduction of social policies with the aim of increasing the well-being of the population, particularly in groups at risk such as ethnic minorities and veterans.

The work of community psychologists generally consists of analysing the characteristics, problems and needs of a given population in order to plan and implement intervention programmes with a corrective or empowering purpose. Often the interest of community psychology lies in the less favoured groups.

Although we can encompass community psychology within the framework of social psychology, which is broader, its emergence was also influenced in a very significant way by movements demanding higher quality in public mental health services. These political demands carried great weight in the Anglo-Saxon world of the time.

In this sense, it is difficult to separate the community psychology from its political and vindictive aspect , which is closely linked to the movements for the defense of social rights. Thus, community psychology has traditionally worked for the empowerment of marginalized communities, public services and citizen participation in political life.

Community psychology is closely related to other psychological disciplines, including environmental, cross-cultural and ecological psychology. Likewise, its area of application is intertwined with that of social work, public health, political science, community development and applied anthropology.

Main differences between the two

Since community psychology can be understood as a sub-discipline within social psychology, there are many similarities between the two, especially in relation to the theoretical foundations of both branches.

Thus, community psychology drinks from the knowledge obtained by social psychology and uses it in concrete human contexts.

1. Theory and practice

Social psychology has a mainly theoretical character . The contributions of professionals in this field are used by other psychologists and social scientists in multiple applied disciplines; community psychology, which focuses almost exclusively on practical aspects of reality, is a very good example of this fact.

2. Main objective

Community psychologists usually work towards improving living conditions or social functioning in specific geographical areas. In contrast, social psychology focuses on understanding and predicting the behaviour of human beings in terms of their interactions , thus having a much broader character.

3. Analysis focus

Community psychology acts, by definition, on more or less large human groups; specific individuals are relevant insofar as they influence the functioning of the group in question. Social psychology has a group aspect but also another, perhaps more important, aspect with the individual focus typical of psychology in general.

4. Political ideology

In general , community psychologists have a clear vocation to make demands , identifying themselves with socialist ideas and proposals (although obviously in every field there are exceptions and contradictory tendencies). On the other hand, social psychologists may prefer to stay away from politics, which has earned them criticism from community psychology.

5. Relationship with other disciplines

While social psychology tends to be more self-contained, community psychology is more interdisciplinary: professionals in this discipline usually work together with other social actors and with experts in different fields in order to solve the specific problems of a group.