Constructing the “Social”

What do we mean by “social”? I will confess to having never given this important issue much thought, which I now realize is a serious mistake. I should have known better, given that half my research is in evolutionary biology and cognitive science (where “social” is used one way) while the other half is in the social sciences (where “social” is used another way). These disjunctive uses of “social” have a history or genealogy. We’ve all heard about the “social construction” of one thing or another, but have we stopped to closely consider how the “social” has itself been constructed? How the concept of “social” has changed over time and what the consequences of such change might be?

I was just made aware of this issue, or oversight, while reading Gregory Hollin’s superb Somatosphere post on “Autism, Sociality, and Human Nature.” In the past, “social” was constructed in Durkheimian ways which were later popularized by Peter Berger in The Social Construction of Reality (1966). Over the past few decades, there has been a substantial shift away from this construction. This alternate construction has been formulated by cognitive scientists and biological anthropologists, and has eventually seeped over into psychiatric medicine. In any event, I encourage you to read Hollin’s piece, which contains this money paragraph:

Within the experimental human sciences this is a really significant shift in understandings of the social.  Under this new regime the social is individualised, essentialised, and biologised, becoming a property of individual persons outside of context, individual or institutional history.  I have an innate, biological capacity to feel empathy and this capacity lies at the heart of my social being.  In other words, ‘the social’ is not something that shapes us throughout one’s lifetime, it is something that we are inherently and naturally.

These different constructions and uses of “social” have profound impacts, not just in our trans-disciplinary debates (which often seem to be at cross-purposes, probably due to differing definitions), but also in a world where “autism” is the diagnosis or pandemic affliction du jour.


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5 thoughts on “Constructing the “Social”

  1. Sabio Lantz

    I am not sure I follow you there — but I am sure academic readers do.

    I know that in Japan I felt a very different sense of “social” and after 7 years it actually seeped into my sensibilities in some sense.

    And as I play with the idea of moving cities again (but now having children), I am contemplating “social” again. I can tell I don’t feel the tie to others as strong some folks do. But since having kids, it has grown on me.

    You probably meant nothing like this, but that is what you inspired me to think about.

  2. Greg Hollin

    Hi Cris, really pleased you enjoyed the piece! That article is based quite closely on a piece I’ve written for History of the Human Sciences and i’ve covered the existing literature on the topic in my thesis. Both are available OA from Hope to be able to continue the conversation in the future,


  3. franscouwenbergh

    Dear Cris,
    Imo, you have to think over collectivism. Our early ancestors lived in small collectives, millions of years long. This way of living together is our human nature. This lifestyle changed since our last species variant, the AMHs, became too successful.
    Permit me a nice development story.
    Some former MSA (Middle Stone Age) groups started (as a result of a mentality change that I have to let here aside) to make bone hooked fishing spears. With those new tools they expanded their food area with the water world, with shellfish and other aquatic food which is a more nutritious and reliable source than the one-side hunting large prey of their MSA forbears. The AMHs could feed much larger groups. In a large group, a new idea finds easier following and imitation than in a small group. For the first time in human history, change and progress could emerge. Large groups divide faster. The AMH groups outnumbered the conservative MSA-groups and began to displace those in Africa. The first AMH groups also migrated Out of Africa, into the Middle East, and on to the Far East. The Toba disaster brought a mass extinction and a ten years volcanic winter. The AMHs recovered the fastest and with more new inventions and techniques. A new population explosion populated the empty Africa, followed by a new Out of Africa, to the Middle and the Far East, and this time also to the area of the Neanderthals.
    There was no question of overpopulation stress, not yet. But the AMH population growth was unstoppable, and the Neanderthals were forced into ever more inhospitable areas and extinct. The last glacial maximum forced the European AMHs into southern refugia, and there the first signs of overpopulation stress became visible. Female foragers could no longer free roam in their territories without unpleasant encounters with strange and thus food competitive female foragers. They pushed their men to destroy those strangers. Now this disturbed the ancient balance in the division of labor between women and men. The ancient balance was, that the women took care of the food and the kids and the fire and shelter and all, and that the men took care of the safety against predators and later for bush meat. The females were high in status and the initiation of the girls in the menstruation huts were the main festivities, also for the men. But in this new situation the men felt that their gender became more important for surviving than the female gender, and they started with own masculine initiation rituals, in deep and inaccessible caves (with wall paintings). The women took more care of some food plants in their narrowed territory, and began the adoration of Mother Earth and to spawn het with little statues, such as the Willendorf Venus.
    The real mentality change started with the agriculture that forced people to say farewell to their free nomadic lifestyle and to settle in villages. Humans think conform their economy. If this changes, their mentality changes. Their accepting and thankful attitude towards their ancestral plant an animal environment and towards changed into a controlling one. An anxious one, trying to exercise control through magic and spiritual performances by shamans. From free foragers (HGs) they became AGRs (agriculturers, farmers, including a transition phase of horticulturalism). We are still AGRs, experiencing a history of 5000 years of serious oppression and all forms of slavery, including monotheism and other forms on collectivism, until the break-through of the free market economy since the sixties freed us end ended this history.
    Sorry for this long introduction to collectivism.
    In essence, collectivism is part of human nature. It is the experiencing of the world as part of a strong and solid but small collective, without any exercise of power, not between the genders, not by adults over children. We still recognize this equality and sameness in pure HG-communities such as the Hadza, the Pygmies and the San Bushmen: collectivism in the beneficial form.
    Rousseau, in his dissatisfaction with the human relationships of his time, devised a restoration of this collectivism through exercise of power by a Great Leader. After him this utopia is unsuccessfully tried by fascists and communists. We cannot regain our ancestral collectivism by force. But we still think conform our economy (“It’s the economy, stupid!”). The break-through of the free market economy changed the mentality of people in the ‘Free West’. It brought the end of the 5000 years of slavery and other forms of oppression. The free market economy is now been discredited by neo-liberalism, but its freeing force is as a warm wind, defrosting old forms and thoughts all over humanity. We may hope that, with a new, science-based ‘creation story’, humanity gets a new foundation of beneficial collectivism, a democratic collectivism, without force and oppression. You and me and other commentators can help, by thinking and studying about it.

  4. Cris Post author

    You are welcome Greg. When thinking about your article and cataloging the ideas for future use, it seems a useful shorthand might be that the older Durkheimian sense of “social” is epistemic: that everything we perceive, think, say, and do is a priori conditioned (and in many ways determined) by our enmeshment in society. The social, in this more inclusive and older sense, structures what Kant called the “manifold” (i.e., our perceiving and cogitating apparatus); and indeed, Durkheim presents the “social” in just this kind of neo-Kantian way. As you note in your article, Mary Douglas is very much in this Durkheimian tradition, as are all “social constructivists.”

    The more recent and restricted sense of “social” is direct and interactive: if people are doing or saying things with one another, then it’s “social.” This view, I suspect, owes a great deal to primatology, in which the “social” is all about interaction with others in the immediate group. This is of course observable, recordable, and thus amenable to data collection and statistical analysis. This view of the “social” seems much closer to Kant’s original idea of the manifold as the innate structure of our minds and that which filters perception and thus structures experience.

    I realize this isn’t exactly your point, but it sure highlights the different histories, constructions, and use of “social.”

  5. Greg Hollin

    Excellent points I think. In his book length treatment on the topic (called The Disappearance of the Social in American Social Psychology) Greenwood notes that the Allports (Floyd in particular, but also Gordon) are explicitly attempting to distance themselves from sociological understandings of the social. It’s a really interesting, largely neglected, field so I’m pleased that blog seems to have prompted a bit of discussion about it.


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