Biosociology is an umbrella term for the contributing research areas (including but not limited to neurosociology, evolutionary sociology, and social science genomics) that studies the role of evolved biological factors (genetic, neural, hormonal, etc.) in different dimensions of social behavior, as well as being concerned with the biosocial mechanisms of social phenomena and processes at both micro and macro levels.
Biosociology began to develop during the 1990s, growing out of findings from initiatives such as the Decade of the Brain and the Human Genome Project. Its development was significantly influenced by other disciplines (e.g., social and cultural neurosciences, evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, and other related science subjects), whose findings – intentionally or not – fell within the domain of traditional sociology. Partly as a response to that, social scientists have tried to incorporate biological variables into sociological conceptions combining data generated in the aforementioned research areas with those generated in sociology, while maintaining disciplinary boundaries.
Evolutionary Sociology: Applying Evolutionary Theory to Sociology
Some sociologists consider observed behavioral and other human traits as evolutionarily acquired adaptations with historic utility, but which may be of lesser value in a modern social context. Typical aspects of interest to evolutionary sociology are social phenomena and processes at the macro level, where they considered as institutionalized forms of certain behavioral adaptations. Thus, patrilineal inheritance of property as a norm in certain countries, restrictions on female social mobility, gender differences in earning potential, and other aspects of patriarchal regimes are treated as social mechanisms that facilitate maintenance of male social dominance and, from an evolutionary perspective, that allow males control over the behavior of reproductive-age females to maximize confidence in paternity (Hopcroft 2015). Among other themes, sociologists are also interested in the development of human emotionality (including its contribution to formation and maintenance of the strong social ties that allowed human ancestors to cooperate for protection against predators (Turner 2014)), systems of representation of high or low status within social groups (essentially a recapitulation of those observed in nonhuman primate society), and underlying neurohormonal mechanisms (Mazur 2015). The major recent findings of evolutionary sociology are reflected in The Oxford Handbook of Evolution, Biology, and Society (Hopcroft 2018) and in The New Evolutionary Sociology: Recent and Revitalized Theoretical and Methodological Approaches (Turner and Machalek 2018).
In Search of Neurobiological Mechanisms of Sociality
Neurosociology centers on the association between human brain activity and micro and macro level social phenomena and processes, its role in their formation, and a reciprocal effect. The main subject of interest to neurosociology is the neurobiological mechanisms underlying social behavior in members of different social groups, taking into account variation in their position within the social structure, cultural values, political ideologies, etc. Sociologists working in this area attempt to incorporate experimental findings from neuroscience into traditional sociological concepts, as well as (albeit much less frequently) conducting their own research using neuroscientific methods and meta-analysis. Among others, current research interests focus on issues of social identity and interactions, instrumental rationality, social solidarity, mechanisms of social learning, and the neural correlates of persistent inequality. Publications such as the Handbook on Neurosociology (Franks and Turner 2013) and Neurosociology: The Nexus between Neuroscience and Social Psychology (Franks 2010) have significantly supported formal acceptance of this research area.
Genetic Factors in Social Behavior and Development of Social Science Genomics
In accordance with recent scientific findings, some social scientists estimate the weight of genetic factors – along with the social conditions under which their influence is manifested – in contributing to sexual behavior, gender and racial differences, academic success, cognitive abilities, socioeconomic status, levels of well-being and happiness, deviant behavior, sex, and gender role behavior, etc. Such studies commonly use genetic information available in selected preexisting databases, including those maintained by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the National Survey of Midlife Development in the USA, and the Middle-Aged Danish Twin Survey. Polygenetic score analysis is now considered a promising methodology facilitating estimation of genetic predisposition to human traits of interest to sociologists. Thus, attempts to take into account genetic factors in the consideration of social behavior contribute to the development of social science genomics potentially within sociology (Freese 2018).
Fluid and Nascent Emerging Boundaries Between Biosociological Approaches
Boundaries between different biosociological approaches are not fixed. Thus, sociologists working within evolutionary sociology and neurosociology may investigate overlapping subject areas. For example, they may study features of neural activity associated with or affecting social behavior (primarily a focus of neurosociology) as a result of adaptive behavioral processes arising from evolutionary development (primarily a focus of evolutionary sociology). In such a case, some sociologists employ the term “evolutionary neurosociology” (e.g., when studying the role of emotions in the formation and representation of social rank differences (TenHouten 2017)).
There are also biosociological works which did not fit into any of those research areas. For example, some sociologists emphasize neurophysiological measures of social inequality (stress, health, etc.), while others emphasize the concept of transformation of social identity under the influence of the information obtained via DNA testing. However, all sociologists aim to construct more balanced (i.e., incorporating more equal weighting of biological and social factors) and up-to-date sociological concepts and theories.
Formally, social scientists, whose researches falling under the rubrics of biosociology, are consolidated into Evolution, Biology, and Society Section of the American Sociological Association (section was founded in 2007). Since 2016, the specialized Frontiers journal Evolutionary Sociology and Biosociology has also been published.
Results deriving from biosociology research demonstrate that the social behavior of modern humans is at least partly determined by stable forms of behavioral adaptations (evolutionary sociology), explained by human brain structure (neurosociology), and probabilistically determined by genetic factors (social science genomics). Despite this progress, however, the development of biosociology remains in its infancy. Perspective depends on social scientists’ level of knowledge regarding biological sciences, as well as on the willingness to adapt current sociological methodology and theory. Many sociologists attempting to develop current biosociological approaches have faced prejudice from colleagues who fear that sociology will be reduced to other disciplines, or that new approaches may encourage racism, sexism, or other forms of social discrimination. Such biophobia is partially rooted in the history of sociology, connected with Е. Durkheim’s concept regarding the sufficiency of social factors to explain social phenomena, as well as with false ideological connotations accompanying the development of Social Darwinism. Given current knowledge regarding the determinants of human nature, equating the sociological with the nonbiological is a significant obstacle to development of sociology as a reputable scientific discipline.
This text is a result of work as part of the research project “Evolutionary Neurosociology: Applying the Theory of Evolution and the Ideas of Neuroscience to Sociological Study of Social Inequality,” funded by Russian Foundation for Basic Research and the government of Ulyanovsk region of the Russian Federation, grant No 18-411-730014р_а.
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