Many researchers consider social identities such as race and gender to be socially constructed categories. This allows researchers to understand these identities in light of their history, complexity, and relationships to each other. However, the practical application and use of social identities as socially constructed “objects of study” is uncommon in some fields of social science research. This project examines the research practices of experimental social psychologists. These researchers typically study the impact of the social environment on human behavior in a controlled laboratory setting. Despite some criticism, many social psychologists treat social identity categories as fixed, discrete objects to study them experimentally. These same types of studies are also criticized for other reasons, including lack of replicability and ease of fabrication. This project will investigate how social psychologists characterize and use social identity categories in their work, which may provide useful insights to address these critiques. Further, this research is important because the results of social psychology studies exert influence over decision-making in education, social and public policy, and the law.

The primary objectives are to: 1) investigate the theories informing how social identity groups are understood and utilized in experiments, 2) analyze the methods research teams in social psychology use to select their focus of study; 3) offer first-hand accounts of how researchers’ identities affect their research products; and 4) analyze the impact and reach of social psychological experimental data. To meet these objectives, I will conduct ethnographic observations, interviews, and content analyses. Observations will allow documentation and analysis of social psychology researchers’ processes and practices in the laboratory. It will also illuminate how disciplinary culture and training affect the use of social identity. Interviews will lead to deeper understanding of the connection between researchers and their objects of study, and of how researchers view theories of social identity. Tracking and analysis of highly cited studies and the public presence of research findings (e.g., a lab’s social media postings) will form proxies of the societal impact of the research being studied. Ultimately, this project aims to improve the science of social identity and illuminate the ways information about certain social groups, which gets produced through scientific practice, shapes how those groups are characterized in public domains.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
SBE Office of Multidisciplinary Activities (SMA)
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Joshua Trapani
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CUNY Graduate School University Center
New York
United States
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