The Sociological Imagination Today: The Need for Biology

C.W. Mills’ (1959) call for a ‘Sociological Imagination’, the suggestion that social, historical and biographical dimensions be considered as integral in the analysis of social life, is important. By highlighting the interplay between individual and society, between private ‘troubles’ and public ‘issues’, Mill forces the reader to examine the contextual and situated nature of their existence. This consciousness-raising manoeuvre is important as a greater contextual awareness of the numerous forces which shape and constrain social actors provides the potential to better inform policy and reconceptualise practice. Explanations as to how and why various institutions, discourses, norms and values have emerged become possible and the imagining of alternatives feasible. As such, the Sociological Imagination offers tremendous emancipatory potential. For you can’t escape the quicksand if you don’t know you’re in it. Or, if you can, it will be more by luck than judgement. But Mill’s conception of the Sociological Imagination is arguably insufficient. It does not go far enough and is missing an essential piece of the puzzle: biology. To offer a fuller, more complete picture, it is important to consider the role of biology and remove the anthropocentric bias still so prevalent in social research.

The attempt to apply biological explanations to understanding social phenomena is not a new enterprise but in recent times has been popularised by E.O. Wilson (1975). The ideas he suggested have been fiercely debated, with objections often raised to the notion that genetic traits have a significant role in the explanation of human social phenomena. This is particularly controversial when suggesting that various anti-social or criminal behaviours have a genetic origin or influence, as; 1) such theories can potentially be misappropriated by certain groups or individuals in order to discriminate against others and, 2) it arguably either completely or partially removes moral culpability from an actor regarding said act. After all, it might be said, to what extent can it be considered ‘fair’ to punish someone for behaviour(s) not entirely of their choosing? This is a point that shall be returned to shortly. Such objections, however, arguably have at their root a form of anthropocentric bias and thought that elevates humans above the natural world – separate, special and distinct from all other creatures. But such an approach ironically serves to obscure our own self-understandings. By elevating humans in such a manner, we neglect our own biological roots and thus fail to appreciate an essential feature of our existence. Let us take, for example, a man who is depressed as a result of a recent divorce, and who is now sitting alone in his bedroom, intermittently letting out exacerbated sighs and crying. For his actions to be fully intelligible, it is necessary to understand concepts and social institutions such as love, marriage and divorce, as well as the potential physiological responses to, and interactions with, said concepts. Tears and sighs, in this instance, are, at least in part, physiological responses to emotional stimuli, responses which have emerged and are only possible as a result of the evolutionary process.

Appreciating the finite plasticity of the human body and the external physical environments humans inhabit has practical implications for our understanding of forms of social behaviours. As Guang (2006) suggests, ‘Taking genetic heritage or other biological factors into account promises a fuller understanding of social outcomes and a more precise understanding of the roles of social context’ (Guang: 2006: p. 148). There have been recent studies, for example, which suggest that, ‘…genes with social effects have now been identified…’ (Foster et al: 2007: p. 79). Much of this research has been concerned with the possibility of discovering genes that influence the ability of individuals to recognize the differences between cheating and cooperative behaviors. The ability to recognize and distinguish such behaviors would seem an integral and practical prerequisite for social existence. It would also seem, however, as Rosenberg (2008) suggests, to necessitate some manner of, ‘… free-rider detection device…’ (Rosenberg: 2008: p. 183 – italics in original). And, indeed, studies suggest that, ‘…mutations that affect cheating and recognition behaviors have been discovered’ (Foster et al: 2007: p. 74). Brembs (2010) drawing upon developments in Neurobiology, has argued that there is a genetic basis for ‘free will’ and suggests that, in this regard, humans are not unlike other animals in that we are constrained by our biology regarding the perception of choices open to us. Additional research also suggests that fears and phobias can be genetically transmitted across generations, potentially providing an explanation for seemingly phobic attitudes and behaviours as a response to innately perceived threats (Dias and Ressler: 2013). If the biochemistry of the body and the brain influence the ability of humans to receive, store, process and transmit information, then an understanding of culture and its impact on human behaviours is incomplete without a greater appreciation of corporeality. There appears to be growing evidence, then, to support the idea that our biology plays a significant role in influencing social behaviors.

This is not meant to suggest, however, that we should all uncritically ascribe to the tenets of Sociobiology but, rather, that an honest appreciation of the influence of biology on behavior and culture is necessary for more fully understanding social life. Even if we are influenced by our biology, this is by no means the end of the story. Studies on other species have suggested that the issue is far from clear-cut and that, ‘…the trait a gene codes for will have to be understood as specified only relative to an environment’ (Rosenberg: 2008: p. 192). From this perspective, it is essential to consider environmental factors that can influence the degree to which particular genes may exert themselves. We need to recognize though, that the potential varieties of genetic expressions within any particular environment are finite. There is not an infinite amount of plasticity and thus potential social features and behaviours are limited. The potential for a tree or a human to grow, to feed, or to mate is, for examples, limited by the combination of inherent genetic potential and specific environmental factors present at any particular time. An appreciation of the delicate interplay between biology and culture is necessary, then, in order to more fully comprehend social life.

True freedom, empowerment and emancipation will only come when humans come to understand and appreciate the biological constraints on their existence. So, whilst Mill states,

‘Seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history, ordinary men do not usually know what this connection means for the kinds of men they are becoming and for the kinds of history-making in which they might take part. They do not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of individuals and society, of biography and history, of self and world.’ (Mill: 1959: p. 2),

the use of biology in the buttressing of Mill’s Sociological Imagination arguably provides the missing piece of the puzzle through which to examine afresh human behaviour. When mainstream sociology comes to appreciate this, greater insights and impact are likely to be achieved. If Mill’s cry for a sociological imagination is to be realised, if it is to reach its logical conclusion and genuinely offer explanatory and potentially emancipatory potential, then its adherents must begin to take corporeality and its ramifications more seriously. Until then, the Sociological Imagination remains incomplete.

John-Paul Smiley is a PhD Candidate at Loughborough University

Copyright remains with the author, John-Paul Smiley, who reserves the right to use/reuse this work, in part or whole, in the future

Bibliography

Brembs, B. (2010) ‘Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous action and decision-making in invertebrates’, Proc. R. Soc. B, Available online at: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2010/12/14/rspb.2010.2325 [Accessed on 26th November 2013].

Dias, B. G. and Ressler, K. J. (2013) ‘Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations’, Nature Neuroscience, published online 01 December 2013, available at: doi:10.1038/nn.3594 [accessed on 3rd December 2013].

Foster, K. R., Parkinson, K. and Thompson, C. R. L. (2007) ‘What can Microbial Genetics Teach Sociobiology?’, TRENDS in Genetics, 23:2, pp. 74-80.

Guang, G. (2006) ‘The Linking of Sociology and Biology’, Social Forces, 85:1, pp. 145-149.

Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rosenberg, A. (2008) Philosophy of Social Science – Third Edition, Oxford: Westview Press.

Wilson, E.O. (1975) Sociobiology – The New Synthesis, London: Belknap Press.


Categories: C. Wright Mills, Rethinking The World

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3 replies »

  1. Good article. I’m generally sympathetic. Ted Benton made the case well in an old article in Sociology called ‘Beyond BioPhobia’, I forget the year. Vital to tread carefully though as there is a lot of terribly reductionist and ideologically suspect stuff out there in the name of biological explanations of social phenomena. Also, isn’t the real point to question the conceptual separation of the ‘biological’ and ‘social’, which is different from viewing them as interrelated? The question is also interestingly related to how the human/animal divide is inscribed and policed. A last point – important to be critical of how ‘biology’ is constructed and mobilised in knowledge-practices, as it’s not simply a real domain; worth considering for example that biology is not reducible to genetics, which is only the current dominant paradigm – equally viable to prioritise the level of the organism, group, or even eco-system, in visions of ‘the biological’.

  2. Thank you.

    Absolutely, you’re right. There is a lot of quite crude, reductionist and ideologically driven work out there appropriating biology for suspect reasons that we need to be careful of. I just feel we need to address what I believe to be the anthropocentric bias still so prevalent in social research and the artificial divide between the ‘biological’ and the ‘social’. I think you’re right that the conceptual separation needs questioning and much more detailed scrutiny if we are to more fully comprehend social life.

    I’ve come across so many sociologists that downplay the role of biology and dismiss it as of little influence, I just feel that as a community we’ve gone too far in that direction. We need to strike a balance and this brief piece was intended to contribute to that rebalancing.

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