three frontiers of science that sociologists should really care about


If a really brilliant graduate student asked me where the most important work in sociology lies, I wouldn’t direct them to any core sociological area, like culture or organizations. I would strongly urge them to think about linking work on sociology to areas of science that are reshaping how we think about human beings. Here are the three major topics they should think about:

  1. Neuroscience: Basically, social psychology and culture is just the study of interacting human brains. Sadly, sociological studies simply don’t consider how the hard wiring of the human brain might lead to varied social behaviors or perceptions. For example, there is now strong evidence from imaging studies that political attitudes are the result of people, literally, using different parts of their minds. Professional sociology should seriously think about how hard wiring limits, frames, and limits how people vote, look for jobs, and join religions. We can also think about how social behaviors affect human biology. For ex, how does poverty affect nutrition, which affects cognitive ability, which in turn affects status attainment? It’s a whole world out there and few sociologists have even begun to think about this.
  2. Evolution: If folks like Steven Pinker or Noam Chomsky are right, humans have some basic behavioral vocabulary they are born with that is the outcome of natural selection. On this account, sociology is a little better. I know our colleague Jeremy is seriously concerned about this issue, and other folks like Satoshi Kanazawa have tested some ideas. I’d say that evolutionary thinking should be a basic tool for any sociologists, not just for a few specialists, and any student who can successfully explain how the structure of states and markets is built on the behavior of a bunch of monkeys would earn a well earned place in the history of the profession.
  3. Complexity: This is the study of complex things emerge from piles of simple things (e.g., how do a bunch of people form a nation state). Here, sociologists are doing well, areas like network studies and urban studies being traditions that do this. However, there’s much more to be done. For example, we are now really good at describing networks, but not terribly good at having a really comprehensive theory of how networks are built from piles of interacting people, or how one massive network turns into another. The recent Padgett papers are good examples of work in this direction (also check out this one), but the core of sociology hasn’t absorbed this as a major research area, or even as an interesting question.

So the next time you are tempted to tell a student to write another paper on educational achievement, or social capital, or another beat topic, think about the huge, unexplored territories described above, and you might make your impact on science by pushing this student in a new direction.


Written by fabiorojas

September 13, 2007 at 3:23 am

Posted in academia, fabio, sociology

6 Responses

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  1. I think there is a broader issue here – a broader issue that certainly relates to Fabio’s points (particularly 1 and 2, though 3 I believe as well).

    That is, what appears to provide an opportunity for future research is that sociology, large chunks of it anyway (even its origin) builds on a model of human nature that is increasingly hard to defend. That is, the Durkheimian ‘blank slate’-approach – “individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms” – seems impossible to defend given persuasive theoretical and empirical evidence from philosophy and psychology about human nature. But, despite clear evidence, the above Durkheimian ‘first principle’ nonetheless still undergirds (often quite implicitly) much of the correlational work that is done.

    So, significantly more careful consideration needs to be given to the micro-macro links. That is, rather than assuming the existence and causal primacy of various higher-level macro variables – collectives, culture, norms, networks – and thus in the process “rounding out” the micro – the origins and emergence of the various macro constructs and variables need to be theoretically explicated by understanding their micro origins and emergence (via nature, interests, propensities, abilities, interaction etc). Or, at least hold these latter micro matters constant. Controlling for the micro often is impossible – i.e. our beautiful collective-level, correlational data cannot control (perhaps conveniently so) for various micro-level initial conditions (or put differently, confounds) – nonetheless this matter needs to be dealt with.

    Now, now – we’ll of course end up with various multi-level, interactional, structurational, co-evolutionary, decomposition-type models and theories; but, even here we need to go far beyond simply using words (e.g., “structuration”) to black-box what are key, underlying processes and mechanisms that theories should get at.



    September 13, 2007 at 5:29 am

  2. Speaking of complex systems, it seems like studying the interaction between human populations and global climate seems to be an area where sociologists and demographers could also find fruitful work. Even if everyone adopted the Kyoto Protocols, they call for a per capita increase – but if the population of the world continues to expand and it is concentrated in certain areas, then this could affect weather and climate patterns.



    September 13, 2007 at 1:00 pm

  3. fabio,
    i agree that all three of the areas you outline are a lot more important for the future of our discipline than continuing to harp on issues like [list of subfields deleted to protect my career]. however, it’s worth noting that while #3 doesn’t exactly negate, it does severely complicate, the first two points. if as you scale up there are emergent properties, then it becomes much more difficult to, for instance, predict large-scale phenomena based on data from MRI and PET scans.
    also, you’re more optimistic about the open-mindedness of our profession than i am if you think fame and fortune await the young scholar who integrates EP and sociology.



    September 13, 2007 at 1:40 pm

  4. See, I was studying each of these on my own and terribly interested in them all.

    Then I wondered, what field can I be in where I can study all these things and how they interact?


    And that’s where I am now.



    September 13, 2007 at 3:38 pm

  5. Doug Massey in Categorically Unequal (2007 Russel Sage) seems to be hitting on #1. His book is an attempt to create a narrative of inequality that emphasizes connections between levels of analysis including, for example, the formation of schemas (from neurological to microsocial) and adaptation (from micro to macro). Much of his analysis is mostly mainline sociology and, of course, draws heavily on his past work. But I thought he did a good job in the first chapter, “How Stratification Works,” of making the conceptual connections between processes at different levels.



    September 14, 2007 at 5:08 pm

  6. I know one of the reasons I got interested in Network research was because it offered a way to discuss complexity and emergence in ways I could conceptually grasp.

    If management and org studies scholars could develop sociological complexity as a paradigm, maybe they could help renew mainline sociology?



    October 2, 2007 at 5:54 pm

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