An introduction for Human Scientists

I know Human Scientists have to choose between Sociology and Anthropology in your second year. To help your choice, here are a few remarks on how Sociological Theory fits with the degree as a whole.

Consider life on all scales, from replicating molecules through bacteria to animals and plants. We can see modern human society as the most recent “transition in evolution” (following John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry). Like earlier transitions, this involves a new level of cooperation and division of labour.

Think of the global economy: you use a computer designed in California, made in China; if there’s a problem, you call technical support in Bangalore. Or think of vast political systems like China or the USA that exercise the power of life or death over hundreds of millions of people. Even a modest organization like the University of Oxford depends on the cooperation of thousands of people.

It’s tempting to think of human societies as a kind of ‘superorganism’: where the individual humans are like cells within an organism. One of the founders of sociology, Emile Durkheim, made this analogy in his book the Division of Labour, at the end of the 19th century. But this analogy is misleading, because the individuals who compose a society or organization have their own interests and their own goals. These often don’t coincide with the survival of the larger social entity.

This is very different from “societies” of bees or ants, where the hive or colony is composed of organisms which are very closely related genetically. Modern societies couldn’t exist without extensive cooperation among unrelated individuals. In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes drew a nice contrast between these animal societies and human societies. He had lived through the Civil Wars that had torn apart the monarchy, and so he was painfully aware of the fragility of cooperation—much more so than we are today in the UK.

Hobbes asks: why do men not ‘live sociably one with another’ like bees and ants? He gives two answers: one is that men compete amongst each other for honour and glory; this is individual self-interest. The other answer is that language enables men to define the same reality in different and indeed contradictory ways: what some see as Good, others see as Evil. He had in mind the religious disputes which helped to tear apart the Kingdom.

Hobbes’ question remains one of the fundamental questions for social theory: how is society possible when it’s composed of individuals with conflicting interests and divergent world-views? One of the things you’ll learn in the paper are the various theoretical solutions provided by sociologists.

So sociological theory tackles the problem of cooperation which is parallel to problems studied in biological sciences.

There’s a second way in which sociology fits into the spectrum of human sciences. The process of natural selection unifies the biology; ‘nothing makes sense except in the light of evolution’. Human society is predicated upon a new kind of evolution: the replication and selection of ideas encoded in language. (Hence Hobbes’ point about the uniquely human capacity to disagree about definitions of reality.)

You’ll probably have heard of the concept of “memes”, units of cultural information analogous to genes. Memetic—or cultural—evolution is why human societies have progressed on some dimensions, most notably technologies for extracting natural resources. Nothing like this progress has occurred in other primate societies.

An enduring question for sociological theory is to explain large-scale historical changes and in particular the genesis of modern societies. A famous example comes from another founding father of Sociology as a discipline, Max Weber—contemporary with Durkheim. In the Protestant Ethic, he suggests that Protestant “memes” created the scaffolding for modern capitalism.

The really intriguing aspect of memes is the suggestion that they might proliferate even at the expense of their (human) hosts; in Dawkins’ phrase, they’re “viruses of the mind”. Possible examples: martyrs or suicide bombers, whose death helps to spread their religious beliefs or political ideologies.

So there are two ways in which sociological theory tackles questions that you’ll consider throughout your studies: fundamental questions of evolution and cooperation.

My lectures in Michaelmas Term provide eight theoretical perspectives:

  1. Rational choice 
  2. Evolutionary psychology
  3. Values and meaning
  4. Interpersonal interaction
  5. Social integration
  6. Social networks 
  7. Structural logics 
  8. Functionalism and cultural evolution

As you can see there are overlaps with your other studies. You bring expertise on perspectives like evolutionary psychology (lecture 2); sociologists have usually thought of individuals as emancipated from biological nature; in the caricature, “blank slates”. But many sociologists now realize that we have to recognize and incorporate some notion of human nature; concretely, seen in a greater appreciation for emotions.

Other perspectives will prove useful beyond Sociology: for example social networks (lecture 6), now ubiquitous in many areas of study, from primatology (e.g. alliances created by grooming) to medicine (e.g. the diffusion of obesity).

If you have any questions, you’re most welcome to email me or to have a chat after the first lecture.

Michael Biggs, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford