what has to be true about humans for sociology to work?

Because we start at the level of the social, sociologists tend to think questions of human universals are either irrelevant or wrong-headed. It’s empirically obvious that what appears to be universal usually is not and what might well be fundamental to all humans is generally pretty banal.

Often, but not always. And even if the first few steps in a proof are crushingly obvious, they’re still necessary for the later, more interesting stuff. So what do we need? And why does it matter? I’d suggest four starting points. First, to what degree can we understand humans as fundamentally self-interested? Second, to what degree can we understand them as tribal? Third, to what degree can we understand humans as fundamentally habituating? And beneath all of these, do we have a right to assume human life is fundamentally social?

 I don’t have space here to get into all of these, but I hope it’s clear that these arguments have real stakes. For example, much of the hubbub over  Jerolmack and Khan’s provocative article, “Talk is Cheap” came from their situationalist assumption about human nature (and, to be clear, even though I disagree with the article, I appreciate the conversations it encouraged, and I’m a big fan of both authors’ projects). The problem with situationalism is that it’s a nuclear bomb to sociology’s structuralist assumptions, including, ironically enough, Khan’s own argument in Privilege. If it’s true that human behaviors are basically situationally contingent (to which ethnographers, fairly enough, have the best access), then we have no idea what St. Paul’s is like the year after Khan left his fieldsite, nor do we have any reason to believe that the students he profiles will maintain the formation they have received. The Bourdieusian architecture his book depends upon would be blown to smithereens.  Jerolmack and Khan might respond that their argument is not against habituation so much as that talk is poor evidence of habituation, and it’s a fair enough point that there’s a difference between behaviors and verbal self-descriptions. Yet that difference is not nearly as clean as it appears (what is a verbal self-description but a kind of behavior?) and much of their evidence for their argument is a series of situationalist critiques that are pretty devastating to any form of habituation, however it’s revealed (not to mention that much of the evidence in ethnography is, well, talk, albeit talk within situations in which the ethnographer has an interpretive understanding).

To be clear, social psychologists have been thinking about these questions for a long time, and the “Talk is Cheap” conversation originated in Steve Vaisey borrowing an argument about human universals from Jonathan Haidt. That’s a welcome development (even if I’m not at all convinced by those particular human universals), and it would be helpful to see more sociologists interested in larger (socially contingent) structures thinking about our social psychological assumptions of human action. You could easily think of similar assumptions about humanity that undergirds all sorts of sociological arguments, including boundary-work (tribalism), field position (self-interest, whatever that means), and sociology itself (sociality). Chris Smith has already started thinking about these things in Moral Believing Animals and the much longer What is a Person? (for my money the former is a sharper, cleaner argument). More importantly, the often criminally under-read subfield of social psychology has been asking these questions all the way back to Mead. So it’s not as though these conversations aren’t happening. But I think we would benefit from having more of them.

Written by jeffguhin

May 10, 2016 at 4:50 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this post. Certainly there is no need to start from scratch on this question. In fact why not start with the work being done within evolutionary sociology and neurosociology (esp. Jonathan Turner, Marion Blute, David Franks, Doug Massey’s ASA Presidential Address, among others). Regardless of what you think about Haidt and the quality of Haidt’s scholarship, he is right that the moral emotions offer a useful line of approach in thinking about human universals. Related psychologists of emotion refer to the four A’s of human nature or instinct: (1) Attachment, (2) Assertion, (3) Affiliation, (4) Aversion. This pre-existing scheme may hook up with the four tendencies you’ve outlined here if not one up it: status-conscious group-oriented Assertion I think is a better way of talking about our egocentric nature than being ‘fundamentally self-interested,’ and would avoid thinking about self-interest in asocial terms. Personally I prefer in-group/out-group oriented behavior over the word ‘tribal’ that I know a lot of contemporary philosophers are starting to speak of our tribal instincts (I’m sure almost every anthropologist cringes when they hear that word). In sociology, the long literature on ‘reference groups’ may offer a better ‘in’ for us (as in Theodore Kemper’s work).

    I’m under the impression that mainstream sociology will never be OK with direct talk of human universals so we may need to think of other ways of describing and presenting, say, bio-psyche-social-cultural models of human nature. Maybe ‘species-typical’ would be better received, so instead of human universals we could talk about species-typical baseline averages or dispositional tendencies. ‘Instincts’ will probably never work either given the tortured history of sociology, when the early American pioneers explicitly defined sociology in contrast to instinct-theories of human behavior (along with the behavioralists, Norbert Wiley goes into this in his Semiotic Self book and some of his articles). Perhaps a moral-emotions or human-emotions framework can sidestep some of these landmines without raising the usual red flags.

    Lastly, I think we need to be more clear about what human universals are not and thus how they may be able to enter into a social explanation (when they count as a ‘proximate’ cause of human behavior and when their influence in negated by higher levels). Human universals can be universal even if they are not actually present and realized in concrete human behavior. That is because they are (1) a statistical baseline of average, and (2) dispositional or tendential, such that they may go unexpressed or be counter-acted by other forces, including social and cultural structures. Even if ‘tribal’ in-group/out-group aversions exist, they can be counter-acted by any number of institutions, cultures, social groups, etc. To mean this doesn’t make the human universals any less real, it just means we need critical realism to talk about different scales and domains of reality and how they interact to create actual and empirical social orders of existence. It’s like Freud thought: instincts can be repressed, doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

    Liked by 1 person

    Ben Lamb-Books

    May 10, 2016 at 10:20 pm

  2. Hi Ben,

    This is really helpful, especially the references to evolutionary sociology and neurosociology. I’m certainly interested in all of this stuff (especially the work on emotions and the four A’s).

    However, while I’m interested in these questions as substantive ends in their own right, I also think disambiguating our priors through this kind of retroduction is a necessary means to resolve the basis of sociology’s many disagreements: I have a hunch that a lot of these are actually rooted in really basic stuff.



    May 10, 2016 at 11:55 pm

  3. In psychology I think Kahneman and Tversky’s work has proven to be the most replicable and durable. It is also compatible with empirically oriented sociology.

    Liked by 1 person

    Eric Schwartz

    May 11, 2016 at 5:39 pm

  4. Hi Eric,

    Agreed. I especially like Kahneman’s stuff, and I think it does dovetail well with the Haidt work in Vaisey (and, for that matter, the ability of the situational and habitual to coexist).



    May 11, 2016 at 7:12 pm

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